The above MSNBC interview features J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book that is part, starkly honest portrayal of his life as a poor “white trash” hillbilly growing up in the Rust Belt today, and part social policy analysis. In the book, Vance mentions “learned helplessness” as a looming problem in the economically depressed town in the Rust Belt, where he grew up. He chronicles, in a very personal way, the current plight of the families of those who were part of the Appalachian migration out of the Appalachian Mountain communities to northern industrial cities in the first half of the last century, often referred to as the Hillbilly Highway.
His story is meant to open discussions about government social policy, local community actions, but most of all, he is hoping that the American families in crisis, at the heart of the cultural crisis in America, take a hard look at themselves and begin the painful, difficult process of changing how their own families treat each other.
That change requires unlearning “helplessness”, but also learning to quit blaming big government, big business, big bankers, nefarious Mexicans and Chinese, Obama and Muslims, and other mythical scapegoats. Quit looking for a new big government program or an American strong man promising to make your life or your community better! You are responsible for the choices you make, but if you have managed to get your life on track, the responsibility doesn’t end there. You have to try to help guide your own families and communities, especially children at risk, to learning to be productive and American success stories too.
Vance writes honestly about his mother’s drug addiction and the impact it had on him and his sister, but it also affected his grandparents and extended family too. One addict or alcoholic in a family can create endless chaos and upheaval, both emotional and financial, in a family. These people are like ticking time bombs, ready to tear apart their family and themselves, over and over. The news clip above offers a shocking glimpse into the opioid epidemic in America today.
Change begins first in our own hearts and then within our families and communities.
In many posts I’ve highlighted Trump’s populist appeal, his skillfully latching onto patriotic themes, spanning the globe from Mexico to China for foreign scapegoats abroad, evil domestic “establishment” politicians at home and of course, The Left, as the cause of all the failures in American communities. Many Americans see Trump as hearing their pain and expressing their anger, but I want to move away from Trump and this election, to delve into the state of way too many American families, like the one Vance grew-up in.
Above is an early photo of Kunkletown, PA, the village where I grew-up. We lived on the outskirts of the village further off to the left side of where that photo ends. Behind where the photographer was positioned, is part of the Blue Mountain range, which is the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountain range. The village had a few more buildings off to the left and right, when I was growing up, but not much more. My family was a typical blue-collar, rural family in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern PA. In the late 90s, my husband, kids and I had gone to visit my family and as my husband drove around winding roads in the mountains, one of my sons, who was around 11 or 12 at the time, said, “Mom, your family is kind of like northern rednecks.” My first reaction was angry pride in my family, but when I thought about his words, I knew they were true.
I love my family, I am proud of my PA German heritage, and I am especially proud of my parents, who were very hard-workers, dedicated to family, drank alcohol only at social occasions and then sparingly, ran an organized home, lived frugally and within their means, did not tolerate drama in our home, instilled values in us, but most of all they lived their values through constant example. Sure, my family had conflicts, problems, and many flaws, because no one has a “perfect” family, but I never doubted that my parents would care for us and do their very best to provide for us. I never once doubted that they put caring for their family over their own wants and desires – they made sacrifices constantly to provide for us.
The things that bind strong families together go much deeper than blood, they are love and respect for each other, and building trust within the family.
My parents told all six of us, my three sisters and two brothers, that in America all things are possible if you work hard. Coupled with that complete faith in the American Dream was faith in God, but also the constant reminders that we needed to help other people and that America isn’t just about “rights”. My parents believed being an American imposed on all of us a “duty” to be good citizens and good neighbors. This combined message of “civic duty” and the Christian message of being “good neighbors” is what built American communities. That isn’t to say America can’t be inclusive and respectful of other religions, it’s a historical statement of how most rural communities and small town America were built.
The anger stewing among America’s poor is very real, but the scapegoating other groups, the latching onto federal government panaceas and the complete abdication of taking personal responsibility for ourselves, our families and our own communities, is destroying not only the American spirit, but also real American lives.
Vance survived a home in crisis, having a mother who had a drug addiction problem, run-ins with the criminal justice and social services systems, and whose lifestyle led to a revolving door of “father” figures moving in and out of his life. He credits his loving, albeit dysfunctional in many ways, grandparents with saving him from ending up a high-school drop out. He also credits the Marine Corps for instilling strong values that helped him become a stronger, more resilient person. His story offers many insights as to what is really ailing America and it’s not just closing factories, corrupt Washington, or bad trade practices.
My husband survived a troubled childhood, eerily similar to, but, perhaps more stark than the one Vance recounts. Interestingly enough, my husband’s alcoholic mother, grew up in West Virginia. As Vance talked about his crazy grandmother’s rants and profanity-laced language, I kept thinking, “She talks just like my late mother-in-law.”
My goody-two shoes upbringing didn’t prepare me for my mother-in-law’s flowery language, where two of her favorite phrases were, ” Shit in your hat and pull it down over your ears.” and her version of “go to hell” was, “Up your giggy hole, bitch!” I sat there dismayed and confused with many of her phrases, and after the first time she said that, when I was alone with my husband, I asked him, “What on earth is a giggy hole?” My mother considered “fart” a cuss word and we weren’t allowed to say that. I tried to teach my children to say, “pass gas” and they told me even their teachers say “fart” and refused to believe me that “fart” is a cuss word.
Besides all the “crazy” things and rough talking, Vance’s grandmother, instilled a belief in him that he could do anything and she also talked about her dream of becoming a lawyer when she was young. My mother-in-law, besides the obvious problems that hit you in the face quickly, was a very smart woman and at some point in her life, she read a lot. It always amazed me that she would rattle off the answers to Jeopardy questions on TV, before even the best contestants could open their mouths. She would have choice words for the contestants who missed questions. She also did the crossword puzzle in the newspaper every day, in very little time. Occasionally, she would ponder out loud about a word she was struggling over, but invariably within a few minutes she’d have the answer.
I once asked my mother-in-law how she knew all this stuff and she gave me this confused look and said, “Everyone knows this!” I didn’t know many of these things and I read constantly. I’ve often wondered what my mother-in-law’s dreams were when she was young, before having 7 children, with only 2 having the same father, I believe. My husband related that one sibling died young, so I am not sure about the paternity of that one. My husband’s father left when he was 5 years old and he never saw him again.
Like the Marines helping Vance escape his troubled childhood, the Army provided my husband a way to escape his life, growing up poor in downtown Baltimore. I suspect that my neck of the woods in PA was an anomaly in the 60s and 70s when I was growing up. It was the backward, west end of the county, where a small enclave of PA Dutch people, most related to each other, were clinging to their rapidly evaporating community. Drugs were prevalent when I was in high school in the 70s and the area has a lot of resorts and also an invasion of people from New York and New Jersey, who decided to move to the Poconos and commute to work in the city.
This urban invasion completely changed the culture in the area. In high school, we were disparagingly called “farmers” by our rival high school team, from a more populated area of the county. However, the dwindling family farm culture had been eroding for a large part of the last century. Most of the people, to include my parents, commuted to other areas in PA to work, with few actually working on farms in my childhood.
My paternal great-grandmother lamented selling their farm and moving to “town”, which was Kunkletown (a village with a church, a general store, a gas station, a post office, and a few local businesses) and that was before my father was born in 1929. The above photo is the post office in Kunkletown, PA, with my great-grandfather behind his horse and mail cart, He was one of two rural route mail carriers, when the rural routes were started in 1912. See, not only John Kasich has a family member with claims to being a postman… While compiling a history of Kunkletown during the American bicentennial in 1976, local historical sleuths found this record of my great-grandfather’s, January 1912 route stating he delivered 4 registered letters, 757 letters, 369 postal cards, 1802 newspapers, 538 circulars, and 442 packages. He collected 4 registered letters, 640 letters, 206 postal cards, 2 newspapers, 10 packages and 36 money orders. Guess reading newspapers was popular in the backwoods. That post office was still the post office when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s.
The problems Vance relates experiencing growing up in the Rust Belt in Ohio, now are the same ones afflicting the poor white working class in the Poconos, in small towns, in rural America, but also in inner-city poor black communities too.
What is ailing America most is too many Americans started believing they are the downtrodden victims of a system stacked against them. Much of the “learned helplessness” is the result of liberal government policies, academia and educational system indoctrination and Hollywood and media brainwashing. Celebrities and flaky TV “experts”, televangelists and assorted “experts” exert more influence over many Americans’ lives than these Americans’ own families or local civic and religious leaders do. Americans have bought into trusting the advice of total strangers over people in their own families or communities. This “learned helplessness” belief rears itself in endless strings of lies, way too many people tell themselves and their families, about why their lives are an endless, downward trajectory of personal and financial train wrecks.
As one who has lived through some personal train wrecks and even spent years making excuses for some of my bad decisions, I’m not trying to judge other people who are struggling or acting like I have all the answers. All I can say is that in my life, at 56, one thing I’ve learned to do is to try to quit making excuses when I make mistakes, admit to them quickly, then try to fix them and avoid making the same ones in the future. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but in the end, I blame myself for the outcome – not the “system is rigged or against me”. Even when I have been treated “unfairly”, I keep working at forgiveness and not letting anger rule my life. That forgiveness part is the hardest, but by focusing on looking for positive things, it helps me move past anger.
Vance penned an opinion piece in the New York Times, “The Bad Faith of the White Working Class,” June 25, 2016, where he writes about “paranoia replacing piety” in some Christian groups in America. He states, “A Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror.” Expanding on that thought, Vance writes:
“This paranoia harms the most vulnerable Christians the most of all. A few months ago I visited with a few teachers from my old high school and asked them how we might give kids in our community a better shot — at a good job, perhaps, or at least a peaceful family life. The mood grew somber. One told me that after a student, a bright young man from a “rough home,” stopped showing up to class, she drove to his house on a school day to check on him. She found him and his seven siblings home alone, her promising student too preoccupied with tending to his brothers and sisters to care much about school. A younger teacher, listening intently, sighed: “They want us to be shepherds to these kids, but so many of them are raised by wolves.”
In the white working class, there are far too many wolves: heroin, broken families, joblessness and, more often than we’d like to believe, abusive and neglectful parents. Confronted with those forces, we need, most of all, a faith that provides the things my faith gave to me: introspection, moral guidance and social support. Yet the most important institution in our lives, if it exists at all, encourages us to point a finger at faceless elites in Washington. It encourages us to further withdraw from our communities and country, even as we need to do the opposite.” (my highlight)
This post has run much longer than I intended, sorry about that. In my next few posts I want to delve into the history of faith in America, where Gladius has so generously given me permission to pull whatever I want from a sermon he gave to his Baptist church this past 4th of July, to highlight the faith of our Founding Fathers. Then I want to write a post about the things I learned about American culture working in Wal-Mart many years (leaving in 2015).
5 responses to “Looking for a Savior in all the wrong places”
Susan – I enjoyed the book review. Your personal history was very powerful.
Good post LB. Thanks.
Well “thanks” except for that itty bitty part made me spit my coffee all over my keyboard. “Flowery Language” huh?
Your Arkansas hillbillies had “nothing” on my late mother-in-law – she was quite a firecracker… any time of the day.
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