Chapters 14 & 15 & Conclusion

Summary: Chapter 14

At the start of his second year of law school, Vance was feeling good about himself and his situation. He had risen beyond his family origins. His relationship with Usha suffered, however, from his inability to navigate conflict. He did not want to scream at her, but the only alternative he knew was to withdraw. Usha and her family, he could see, dealt with conflict rationally and empathetically. At the library, Vance found studies about the long-term effects of “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, such as being physically or verbally abused, or being the child of substance abusers or separated or divorced parents. Frequent ACEs in childhood produce a hyperreactive fight-or-flight response in adulthood. Vance realized that he had not left his origins behind at all. He was acting like his mother and others in his family, in ways that are normal in hillbilly culture. It was no accident, he thought, that the happy marriages in his family all involved husbands from outside the culture. 

Vance began to see his mother more sympathetically, as a victim of a complicated mix of her upbringing and her own bad choices. When he learned that she was in rehab for heroin addiction and would miss his graduation, he was grateful that at least she was, for now, sober.

Summary: Chapter 15

After Vance graduated, and shortly after he got married, Bev relapsed. When she stole from her fifth husband to pay for drugs, he kicked her out. Vance had to drive back to Middleton and put her up in a motel. Her nursing career was a thing of the past. He has come to terms with his relationship with his mother. He helps her as time and money allow, but no more. He does not believe that “solutions” to the problems of people like his mother exist. He does believe there is room to put a “thumb on the scale” to tip the odds more in people’s favor, especially during childhood. Thumbs on the scale take many forms, starting with stable families, and mentors and role models to show children what is possible in life. Vance believes that government can help by being more tolerant of informal, multigenerational family arrangements, and less quick to place children in foster homes—and that housing subsidies should avoid concentrating families together in poverty enclaves. But some problems are beyond the reach of government. Vance had to learn for himself that academic achievement is not just for girls, that money will not disappear if one puts it away as savings, and that the proper adult response to an insult is to walk away.

Summary: Conclusion

When Vance was a boy, Christmas was a time for parents to spend more than they could afford. Only the nicest gifts would do, often paid for with borrowed money. Strangely, he later noticed, better-off families were content with more modest gifts. The value of Christmas was not measured in dollars. Not long ago, Vance took a kid named Brian to lunch, a fifteen-year-old from Appalachia who clearly was not getting enough to eat. His relationship with his father was complicated. His mother was a drug user who died soon after. If Brian is to have a chance at a normal life, Vance writes, his community must rally to give him that chance, instead of blaming their problems on the government or faceless corporations.

Analysis: Chapters 14 & 15 & Conclusion

As Vance continues to experience personal growth, he observes that hillbilly culture has had a lasting impact on his relationships. His first instinct in his relationship with Usha is to behave in the unhealthy way he saw his family behave. Dysfunctional treatment runs deep within his family and is hard to shake. One way that a hillbilly family prepares a child for the world is by indoctrinating them into the “hillbilly school of hard knocks.” Vance explores this concept within the framework of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Vance says that ACEs are much more common in working-class families, where children receive the constant message that life is a struggle. One reason for this is the instability of poor families, where caregivers and living situations may change often. Instability becomes a cycle for families, and when children grow up to have their own families, they repeat the often-damaging lessons they learned when they were young. Even when they know better, as Vance does, these engrained ways of treating each other are hard to change. Vance’s social mobility has allowed him to see healthy interactions, which has given him a better understanding of how to treat his own family.

Vance describes some of the public policy changes he believes would help poor Americans, but he makes a point not to align his ideas with a specific political party. One problem that Vance focuses on is how state laws define the family. He thinks that extended family should be considered as the first choice when a child needs placement with someone other than their parents. Vance also suggests that there should be less of a focus on college for children who are economically and socially disadvantaged. This is ironic considering Vance arrived in the upper class through a college education. Another issue Vance addresses is what he calls “housing segregation.” Although most sociologists describe housing segregation as a race issue, Vance sees it as an economic issue. (Critics have argued that Hillbilly Elegy makes broad generalizations about poverty and the working poor while ignoring the role of racism in society.) Section 8 housing should be integrated with middle-class housing so that people of different classes can interact with and learn from each other. The policies that Vance recommends in this section are not firmly conservative or liberal but seem to be a product of both his political leanings and his life experience.

Although Vance finds himself firmly planted in the upper class, he points out that social mobility is not a clean break from one class to another. Although his level of success is rare, Vance attributes much of it to the hard-working values of hillbilly culture. He still values the importance of the hillbilly social network, as evidenced by his examples of hillbilly success stories. He also emphasizes that certain lessons and traits that were ingrained in him as a child persist today, such as the way he deals with conflict and the way he views money. Vance contrasts himself with another hillbilly youth named Brian. Like Vance, Brian’s mother used drugs, and he was not close to his father. Both Brian and Vance experienced childhood trauma. But unlike Vance, Brian’s mother ultimately died from her addiction, and he had no grandparents to raise him. Vance uses this contrast to emphasize his belief that despite its faults, hillbilly culture deserves much of the credit for his success.