The first two-thirds of Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, is a description of a kid’s struggles with his alcoholic parents. J.D.’s genetic father was long gone early on, and his mother had become a chronic addict with a seemingly endless stream of live-in boyfriends and short-term husbands. J.D.’s salvation was his grandparents, who lived nearby, providing him with an emotional sanctuary. As the book progresses we wonder why J.D. is surviving at all as he himself has dipped into drugs and alcohol and violent behavior.
I missed the significance of why his mother had become an addict until late in the book. It was when the author was discussing the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE test) that it became apparent. When his mother was growing up her “Papaw” was a horribly abusive drunk and probably did most of the usual abusive things to his daughters. J.D. gives a score of ACE=7 out of a possible 10 to his aunt based on his conversations with her about her childhood, and her sister, J.D.’s mom, probably got a similar score, but he never discussed it. He rates himself as an ACE=6. These seriously bad ACE scores are indicators of probable ugly behavioral, physical, and mental health issues later in adult life. I published a post last year on How to improve your ACE test score. It is most useful for raising children.
It was when J.D. wrote about the ACE score that it became apparent why he was succeeding in life when his mother had failed. “Papaw” one day quit drinking! I know some alcoholics back in Berkeley who did that when they realized alcohol was destroying their lives. It is nearly impossible to just stop drinking, but the ones who do, like Papaw and my friends, become exemplary human beings. The reason is because they want to become so. It’s like I wrote in yesterday’s post –
“Saying the right words might impress others with your good intentions, but it is your right actions that form your habits and your character. Thus the way to evolve into a better person and happier one too is to physically do the right actions.
So, do the right thing!“
Papaw did just that and the positive result was that his grandson J.D. had the emotional and physical support to survive and recover from the disaster that has befallen the hillbilly culture. J.D. broke out when he joined the Marines, and after that went to Ohio State University, and then, amazingly enough, got a scholarship to Yale Law School where he met an ACE=0 woman and married her. It wasn’t mentioned in the book but he was following in the footsteps of those other disadvantaged kids – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This is mostly a book of ongoing survival of tragedy and –
Hillbilly Elegy is a book that must be read to THE END to get the positive message.