I did not hate it and if you hate me for that, so be it.
Yes, it absolutely depicts Appalachia in a less than ideal light. This damaging perpetuation of the idea that poverty and poorness is any one person’s fault, and the answer is to find our imaginary bootstraps, yank them up, and find ourselves at the helm of success is categorically false. It has been false for decades and will continue to be inherently false. At best, this story is a poor misrepresentation of a vast and diverse region, painted in broad strokes to highlight how one man overcame a family drug epidemic, systemic poverty, and generational trauma to fame and success.
But it is not new.
Hollywood has been over-romanticizing nearly every story since the beginning. One such story that comes to mind is the much loved The Blind Side movie that premiered in 2009. Critics and fans alike raved over it. Why? Because it was Hollywood TV with a feel-good story end. It failed to truly convey Michael Oher’s story and it failed to address the hidden racism woven among the scenes. Much like Hillbilly Elegy failed too.
The difference? Timing for one thing. In 2009, social media and the many platforms for which we could share our stories across the ether and therefore the globe only barely existed. We lacked the fingertip ability to blast out our dissenting opinions instantly and filmmakers, authors, etc did not face the backlash from the general public they can now.
Before this, I watched as the internet and my fellow Appalachianers raged against this story when it was published in 2016. I read and then, last week, watched the Hollywood interpretation unfold on the screen. And you know what? I was not surprised either time. Why? Because J.D. Vance’s memoir is his story, and he can tell that story however he wants to.
My mother was never on drugs. Yet despite all that, I still saw parts of myself and my life depicted in J.D. Vance’s memoir and I remembered watching grade school friends experience similar traumatic and drug-riddled upbringings.
I have no idea what Vance’s intentions were when he set out to pen his story. None of us can truly know that. I highly doubt his intentions align clearly with what was portrayed in the movie and more so, I highly doubt he set out to paint this huge portion of America in a negative light. What I do know as someone who has dived headfirst into writing in the last year is that no author has any control over the way in which her words are interpreted or misconstrued.
What I also know is that I have struggled significantly with my own Appalachian identity for most of my adult life. Only recently fully embracing it. I learned to codeswitch in college after one too many exaggerated attempts at mimicking my elongated vowel heavy accent. I panicked at the first formal event I accompanied my military husband to when I did not know so many eating utensils existed, let alone what to do with them. I also asked for the Chardonnay because it was the easiest to pronounce and I did not know the differences outside of white or red-colored wine.
I still don’t know how to “properly” pronounce syrup. Surrup. Sear-up. Regretfully, most of my Appalachian accent has faded. Only making an appearance when I’ve had too much wine and coming out so thick from being smothered for too long that it shocks even me.
In college, a mere twenty minutes away from where I grew up, it was like stepping foot in a completely different world. I had no idea so many subjects of study existed or that entire schools of thought were devoted to questioning everything from religion to whether trees in forests existed if no one were around to see them. I didn’t even know you could question religion, at the time. I remember what it felt like to form my own world views and my own political thoughts. I remember what it felt like when it seemed my thoughts were not the same as those in my family nor of my friends. And I remember how confused I felt when it seemed like Appalachia did not reflect me, but I was shamed for reflecting Appalachia.
I know what it feels like to move away and be introduced to a world outside the hills. Only to come back and not feel quite at home in either place. Seemingly forever stuck with one foot in the hills and one in the outside world. And I can completely identify with feeling like I had to pretend to be something and someone I was not.
I could write an entire essay here about my right to claim my Appalachian identity, but isn’t that what Vance has been crucified for? I will argue that this concept of being too much, too little, or simply not enough of an Appalachian is both hurtful and damaging. Even if I did pen a piece about how Appalachian I am, it would not be enough to sway some folks away from calling me an outsider or part of our brain drain (when young folks, specifically move away) problem. Either way, we would both still be plumb out of luck.
There are many things I do not agree with Vance on and I understand the heavy criticism. He faltered greatly when he decided to speak publicly on poverty in Appalachia. Again, with the broad strokes of a thin paintbrush. However, continually creating these polarized camps of love and hate, for and against, J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy are not useful or productive. This is the same level of division that created my own Appalachian identity crisis and the very same one we can see playing out in our political landscape today, too.
This notion that we must fit specific criteria to identify as Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, Southern, Northern, or Applachian is deeply damaging the very fabric that we are woven together in. For that reason, I do not hate J.D. Vance or Hillbilly Elegy.
I have many questions to pose for my mountain friends. Are we really angry at Vance or are we angry because both the media and our culture told us we should be? Are we angry at Vance for telling his story or are we angry because he is a tangible figure to be angry at? Are we angry at him or are we angry because he represents everything, we have been taught to be angry about?
For starters, Vance committed the Appalachian cardinal sin of airing our regional dirty laundry. He became someone who speaks about these deeply ingrained and ugly parts of some parts of our region. He’s ivy-league educated. He left the area. And he found a lot of upward mobility. I do not believe it would have mattered what came after the cardinal sin, though. Every Appalachianer knows this is not a thing we do.
The real anger should be at Hollywood for once again, exploiting a story that highlighted all these age-old tropes. The drugs and poverty. The real anger should be at the continuation of the idea that only poor white folks live, suffer, and die in an uneducated, uncultured, drug-riddled hill town. The real anger should be at the unspoken epidemic that is not exclusive to Appalachia: generational trauma.
The real anger should be that other Appalachian voices are not amplified. Still.
The real anger should be at lists like the one from Vox, that in no uncertain terms, only typed this list up to capitalize on a region's outrage for SEO tag purposes. I do not know a single person outside of my friends from Sociology classes that have ever sat down to watch the 1976 Harlan County, USA documentary for funsies. Another film they listed, Hell or Highwater (2016) takes place in Texas. Winter’s Bone (2008) and Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) both take place in the Ozarks.
My point is that 1976 documentaries and films set across regions that are not Appalachian being spun as alternatives to Hillbilly Elegy is enraging but no different than the anger I see coming at J.D. Vance and Ron Howard.
We can choose to be angry and we can choose to be defensive. Both are rightfully garnered. But I also see many things to be grateful for in the aftermath of this story and that is the conversation this memoir is allowing us to have and the trends I see following it.
The multiple social media platforms (like Tik Tok) giving a voice to everyday folks are shedding light on a changing Appalachia. The outpouring of grassroots artists and authors alike across the region in recent years. The ability to share our opinions (like this one) any time we would like. The combination of all this is, has, and will continue to shape the way the world sees Appalachia. Young Appalachianers are redefining and reclaiming the area and the stereotypes.
The passion and the anger forged from the fury against Hillbilly Elegy is what will ultimately drive us to share our stories and our culture with the world.
Appalachia is a vast and diverse region of many states, cultures, and families. Each forging its own way through different yet similar epidemics that are as vast and as diverse as the region itself. To crucify one man’s experience because we “don’t like how it portrayed us” is deeply unfair. It’s a complicated region. One long forgotten by America at large, only sort of rearing up for bad press like this film and when poverty and drugs can be blamed on these same hillbillies.
To pretend that one author, one book, or one film can speak or does speak for this entire region is absurd. It is much more complicated than Hillbilly Elegy could have ever summed up. You could not accomplish this in two or four books or films.
My upbringing in the hills has given me skills and abilities other folks I have met along my travels do not have. I can grow my own food and preserve it, a long-forgotten skill in the modern world. I still know what to look for amongst a herd of cattle, how to navigate a flood or power outage or complete a needlework pattern. The underlying theme of mucking your way through a situation has given way for me to navigate the military spouse life that has often left me on my own to do things like change out garbage disposal or repair the lawnmower, never considering that not figuring it out was an option. The grit and the fortitude of generations of women not unlike Mamaw Vance have forged the way for me to do this.
But it took me many years to be proud of these roots and if that is reason enough to revoke my Appalachian identity card too, then I reckon you can have it.
J.D. Vance and Hillbilly Elegy is not my story. But it is some other Appalachianer's story. My story is not your story and your story is not my story. That’s the important thing to remember here, at least to me.
I’ll leave you with one favor to ask: let’s keep writing our own stories and singing our own songs. There’s room for both the hillbilly elegies and the rest of all our stories of Mamaws, Papaws, farms, churches, and everything else in between at this table, in these mountains.
P.S. If you’re looking for more on Appalachia, check out this list.