There’s two pieces out on Netflix that I’ve figured are worth writing about. The first, a post on The Social Dilemma, is here. The second is about the new movie, Hillbilly Elegy. Do note — this is NOT about the book, which I haven’t read (and don’t really want to.)
Why should I feel compelled to write about Hillbilly Elegy? I was raised in the same essential venue as the author, J.D. Vance — though separated by about 20 years. I grew up in Portsmouth, OH, and was born in 1962. Vance was born in Middletown, OH, in 1984, and grew up there. Middletown is outside Dayton, OH, and about 100 miles from Portsmouth. In many ways, we had some touchstones of parallel lives. Vance escaped life in lower-middle-class Middletown through a variety of pathways, including the Marines and Yale Law. I escaped Portsmouth via Case Western Reserve University, working in the steel mills of Cleveland, and getting my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Duke University.
First off, I want folks to know that the movie is worth watching. In fact, I think it would be great if the entire East Coast establishment would watch it, and hold discussion parties on it, with the points from this piece. Ron Howard is a masterful director of scene and set, and he does an amazing job of capturing the interiors of life in lower-middle-class America, in the midst of rapidly draining economic opportunity.
At the same time, the movie trots out the “hillbilly” trope as a primary cultural hook. Being raised in the hillbilly borderlands of the Ohio River country myself, and someone that spent a good hunk of my younger life chasing whitewater across the Appalachian province, I know about life in the darker hollers. I’ve seen both the rich and poor parts of the country. Relative wealth in Appalachia is actually indexed to two factors — one is elevation, and the other is broadness of the valleys. Higher elevation in Appalachia (in the southern Blue Ridge) consists of beautiful farms, and rich music in broad valleys. But lower elevation mostly consists of the heavily striated break lands where coal is king, sunlight is scarce, and a culture of violence and poverty dominates.
I can tell you that there is no “life in the holler” in this movie, nor is there any capturing of anything culturally specific to the Appalachian region. It’s really a picture of the collapse of much of the Midwest due to industrial flight, and it takes place in the time (late ’90s/early 2000s) when that part of our history was in full swing. No one’s listening to bluegrass, attending a fiddle festival, making a chair from green wood, brewing up corn liquor in a still in the backyard, or fixing a broken-down pickup — all things that were skills I was both exposed to, and some I mastered (I’m a decent banjo player, and a woodworker, FWIW, and have a Gibson Mastertone sitting downstairs waiting for a better teacher) as part of real hillbilly culture. No one’s saying “First you make a mash” in this movie–the first step in brewing up corn liquor, the next step which can involve throwing a dead cat in the middle of it to start the fermentation process. Doc Watson isn’t playing in the background, that’s for sure.
The closest we get is a couple of scenes of kids swimming in a creek — something that, along with catching crawdads, dominated my childhood. But that’s about it — no real connection to the collapse of Scotch-Irish culture that Arnold Toynbee documented, which led to the keeping of promiscuity and out-of-wedlock childbearing, while not leaving much else. It’s not even clear that Vance even knows about this part of mountain culture — there’s no permeation of any of that in the movie, other than his own absentee father. It is true that Appalachia was in a state of profound change after I left to move to Washington State in 1988, so I might not have gotten the memo on how the region changed. But I do remember, even as I was leaving in the late ’80s, that times did improve a bit, before the opioid crisis of the 2000s that continues even today. The Appalachia I grew up in, living on Turkey Run, had the neighborhood gas station run by the Setty clan, and had honest-to-goodness hillbillies living in school buses up on blocks, with a prone, resting Holstein cow tied to a tree in the front yard, and chickens perched on her head, back, and butt.
And what did that real Appalachia look like? Here’s a vignette. I’ll never forget visiting with Jonas down at the local gas station, who was working on fixing our small family tractor, one day. Jonas worked as a mechanic on the school bus contract, and from a hillbilly perspective, was downright prosperous. He had an obese wife, and a small, overweight daughter who wore shirts with the scalloped strain of buttons barely attached, that he went home to every night. This particular day, he was covered in grease and diesel soot from being up in the engine compartment of one of the school buses. My mom asked him how he was doing, and he responded “Why, just fine, Mrs. Pezeshki.” “And how about your wife and child?” my mother inquired. “Well, Mrs. Pezeshki, they’re just fatter and uglier than ever,” he quipped. “Why, Jonas, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” my mother retorted. “Oh, but it’s the truth, Mrs. Pezeshki!” And we all laughed.
With regards to the movie, here’s the basic story. Vance grew up as a child with occasional trips to the family place of origin, in Jackson, located in Breathitt County, Kentucky — a veritable archetype of negative hillbilly stereotypes. Vance is raised by his mother, a nurse, and her mother, Mamaw. Mamaw is indeed a hillbilly word — and Glenn Close plays it for all it’s worth. Mamaw ends up pulling 13 year old (or something) from his mother’s (Bev’s) custody after a consistent decline from his mother stealing opioids at work, and getting fired from her job. The extrication occurs after she remarries (again) an Asian-American, Ken, who doesn’t appear to be first-gen anything, but has a son J.D.’s age.
In the context of “tough love” Mamaw’s upbringing, J.D. has an epiphany that he has to get his act together and start working hard in school, as well as take a part-time job in a grocery store to help with the family income. This leads to J.D. leaving for the Marines, followed by being in Yale Law school. The relationship he has with his eventual fiancee and wife, Usha is shown as facilitative to his success. When he returns back home during one of his mother’s episodes, Usha helps him stay on track, and land a job at a prestigious law firm.
There’s more to J.D.’s actual story that he profiles in his book — but there’s enough in the movie to realize the implied circumstance. Supposedly J.D. is exhibiting “hillbilly family values” when he threatens to beat the hell out of one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends that jettisons his mother’s clothes out of the second-floor row house, which is the only spot that I felt actually got at the actual poverty level of anyone that might actually be a real hillbilly. J.D.’s sister reveals to J.D. that Mamaw once torched her husband for being a drunk, and that’s the reason the mother’s such a mess.
The problem with the movie is that the quick takes from the movie fall so easily into current Right/Left-wing political tropes. If you’re a Right-winger- and apparently J.D. Vance falls into that category (he has considered running for a Republican Senate seat in Ohio) then his story is a tale of considerable emotional and material challenge, followed by hard work and education along the path to a successful conclusion of the American Dream. If you’re a Left-Winger, you immediately start sputtering the “but, but” line about the collapsing economy and the surrounding circumstances keeping everyone else down. At some level, both these story lines are true — both the path, as well as the rebuttal, making it easy to walk away from Hillbilly Elegy with some blank dismissal of the effects of culture, or family, or whatever. And Vance was encouraged to write Hillbilly Elegy by his Yale Law professor, Amy Chua, aka the “Tiger Mom”, of parenting book fame, and so it’s just unremarkable that he would write a book like it, with his self-help narrative. And it’s not completely invalid. Mamaw is the Tiger Grandma behind the scenes to help Vance unlock his real potential and get the hell out of Dodge. And lest you, the reader, think that I’m dismissing the effect of one dynamic individual in the process of rescuing a life, that would be incorrect. Good for her and him.
The real story, even as told, is more complicated — it’s transgenerationally complicated. The basic myth is indeed an inspiring story, told in the manner of “any person, with enough hard work, can escape their path if they follow the straight and narrow.” But it’s a myth — just that — and far from a blueprint from how to rescue a society from large-scale collapse. And written in the personal authority frame, it’s no surprise that Vance has little metacognition on what perils he escaped. As I was watching the movie, I had a very different take on many the events. There’s a scene of vandalism of a warehouse that Vance and his friends perpetrated, which triggered a burglar alarm in the warehouse. He lucked out — even though they roar away in a getaway vehicle which they wreck, they didn’t get caught.
It would be easy for me to chime in on the same “self made man” story. But even though I lived much the same trajectory, I recognized the luck I had in basically getting out of the same situations Vance did, and realized that I was almost always exceptionally lucky. As I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but chuckling under my breath, reminded of the story of when one of the Duke basketball teams won the NCAA championship. At the same time they won, it turned out that all starting seniors on that team also graduated from Duke with their degrees. A sportscaster got on and said “That’s the way you do it. You CAN have a team that wins the national championship, and graduates all its seniors.” Another sportscaster chimed in “Not so sure that’s what this shows. From my take, it means that there’s just enough players – 5 — in the NCAA, who can win the national championship, and graduate on time!”
The real thing the movie is about is the effect of transgenerational trauma, and it appears that Howard, as the director, groks this, even if Vance only modestly alludes to it. It’s a hard story to write, because it’s impossible to write about in the present tense. That’s because most of the perpetrators are still alive, and might not take kindly to any tell-all effort about the family secrets. You only get to talk about those that are dead with their past problems, and Vance does not break from the mold. In the context of the movie, both Vance and his sister are all healed up with healthy families, though Vance’s sister is portrayed as being in the middle-class precariat. She works in a shoe store (like a Payless) in the movie, but is dutiful in running down her errant, opioid-addicted mother, and manages a loving marriage.
And then you’re stuck with, inherently, a mythical framework. The problem with really getting accurate data on past trauma is that, of course, both the recipients, as well as the perpetrators (and they can be one and the same) of the trauma are dead. And worse, their accounts may be, well, less than truthful. You simply can’t tell. And if you attempt to unearth these dead skeletons, I guarantee you’re going to run into trouble with the folks still alive. Not everyone wants to get to deep, potentially healing truths. And worse, maybe YOUR perspective is off as well. How can you be sure you’re not just getting triggered, or making up facts to support your own narrative?
The short version of my own story is this. My father was an Iranian immigrant, and was a communist revolutionary (Tudeg) that supported Mohammed Mossadegh, the moderate socialist who nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) back in the early 50s. For that sin, the CIA, under the direction of Kermit Roosevelt, overthrew the elected government and installed the Shah, in 1953. He in turn was ousted in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution.
My dad left Iran in 1956. He was a doctor, and that education was his ticket out. The East Coast hospitals would dredge Developing World hospitals for doctors, who they would bring to the US and keep, essentially as super-nurses/ indentured servants. I’m not up on the details of US Immigration law, but essentially, like now, if you wanted to immigrate, you had to have a job. And the jobs — in hospital parlance, staff slots — were all held in urban areas for the sons of the doctors who ran the East Coast hospitals. If you wanted to get your Green Card, you either had to a.) marry someone in the U.S. with citizenship status, or b.) find a job and sponsorship for immigration. That usually meant moving out of an urban area, where most of the physicians were raised, into a backwoods venue that needed doctors. That was something many of them, being upper-class occupants of the structure in their home countries, and plunking them down in rural America, were less-than-prepared to deal with culturally.
My father himself, though a doctor, and at some level a material success, as well as a political activist, also came from a background of trauma. His father, Logman, was in the Iranian Army, and a violent man. He was married in an arranged marriage to my grandmother, Sephoora, and she was pretty bonkers — probably from his constant alcoholism and whoring, as well as the beatings he would regularly give everyone. It was so bad that the brothers, when my father was 14, lined up together and told grandpa if he touched mom again that they would kill him.
So my own father came to the U.S., chasing that archetypal American dream, where one brother (my father was the oldest) would typically come and establish themselves economically, then bring the rest of the family over. Because some of the individuals are still alive, I, likely like Vance, am constrained from telling the whole story. Or rather, what I think the whole story was. Because I can’t really know. But suffice it to say that the family transplant operation did not work out as planned.
In the U.S., my father met my mother (both my parents are passed) a descendant of poverty-ridden, but hardscrabble Scotch-Irish and Swedish stock. My mother had been raised as a step child through a series of husbands of my own grandmother (she married and either divorced or buried five!) My mother’s own father had abandoned her when she was young, and left her with the nascent beginnings of avoidant personality disorder, which she fully manifested in her 30s. They married, and had three kids — I’m the middle child, but in an Iranian family, which we nominally were, the oldest son is called the Dadash, and is responsible for the other children. That ended up being my role, and I can’t say that I did a very good job. After my birth, we moved to Southern Ohio, ending up in Portsmouth, so my father could develop an OB-Gyn practice, where we moved when I was in second grade.
Initially, things were OK — but it wasn’t long until the economic scene started to unravel in Portsmouth. The large steel mill, Empire-Detroit Steel, started closing parts of the facility as the first wave of deindustrialization hit the region, and my father’s practice started suffering. His solution to this was to become a full-blown alcoholic, which he probably was already well on his way to becoming, considering some of the stories I was told about when he was dating my mother. Robert Earl Keen, one of my favorite country music singers, couldn’t draft a song that my father wouldn’t fit into. He also started keeping a mistress, and that’s all I’m going to say, as that person may still be alive.
My mother, on the other hand, through her own trauma, as well as trauma inflicted by my father’s grandmother (she arrived in the U.S. when my mom was pregnant with me, to take my father back home to an arranged marriage,) started to recreate her own family system. What’s amazing is that there could hardly be a better description of it than Frank McCourt’s description of his own childhood in the award-winning book, Angela’s Ashes. This quote about sums it up:
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
. . . nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
Call it what you will — destiny, kismet, whatever. My father and mother, a trained surgical nurse, found each other, from half a world away, in Galveston, Texas, in an operating room. They married soon thereafter (I think their courtship was around 3 months) and honeymooned in New Orleans. My father finally got sober, with me as the policeman, the Dadash, when I was in my mid-20s. But it took me another 20 years to realize that a big reason my father drank was, well, because he was married to my mom.
The groundwork had been laid for repetition of their own family tragedy, down through the years. I myself ended up, at the age of 13, telling my father that I would beat the hell out of him if he hit my grandmother, in an incident that was not all my father’s fault. I ended up in my own dysfunctional marriage, a story that will once again have to wait, as the actors are all still alive.
What’s amazing about my own story was not my own self-made aspect. My family did indeed have a strong educational bent, and education was, in part, how I leveraged myself out of the collapsing Appalachian milieu. I went to Case Western Reserve at 16, and graduated in three years, paying for most of my college, though truth be told, I never went hungry. My father was a doctor, after all. I took a job at the steel mill at 19, and supported myself and in part my first wife through graduate school. What was really amazing was that I managed to recreate the same hero/tragedy family dynamics my parents had created — who had previously copied, with one or two minor life tweaks, their own parents. Misery is a familiar bedfellow that any traumatized individual is knows all too well, and it’s a journey to realize that and actually change it.
The short version of why that is is that we naturally are comfortable with people who have the same problems as we do. And in the case of real transgenerational trauma, those can be doozies. What’s even wilder is that when we are younger, we can’t even see these problems. Moms naturally shriek and cry, and must be tended to. Fathers are dissolute, and have to be rescued. Even in Hillbilly Elegy, it never appears to Vance that so much of all this would be solved by just walking away from it all. Which he could. But relational patterns are deeply ingrained. It is the transgenerational trauma ethos that children raise the parents, and that’s just the way things are — and have always been. In the movie, Bev even puts out the fires on her own father’s back after Mamaw gives him the torch for coming home, violent and abusive, one more night. Why should she not deserve the same parenting from her own child? She earned it when she was an adolescent girl.
If there are divergent heroes in Hillbilly Elegy, they are, not surprisingly, Vance’s Mamaw, and his wife-to-be Usha. Mamaw is a Second-Tier thinker with a fair amount of blood on her own hands, who through the process of reflection, realizes she must elevate her own development if she is to have any chance of rescuing her grandson. She epitomizes leadership innovator Edwin Friedman’s philosophy of emotional self-separation from Vance as a teenager. Through her own elevation of consciousness, she charts a way forward not from her heart, or really her deeply programmed limbic system — but through her conscious brain. Hers is the deeper, darker trauma recovery story that all who break free of transgenerational trauma is the one that really should be told.
The second actor, and most implausible (and at some level, heroic) player in this drama is Vance’s wife, Usha. Usha comes from a healthy, hard-working family, and at some level, that narrative fits well into the Horatio Alger fable Vance is peddling. But people with Usha’s background typically run like hell from someone with as many problems as Vance. And exactly who finds people who have suffered transgenerational trauma? Like attracts like — other transgenerational trauma sufferers. Or predators to the emotional ecosystem. That’s the real rub. Even if you do the right thing, and keep your superficial gaze on the straight and narrow, it’s often not enough. Sometimes you find the job — but sometimes, the job finds you.
At some level, Vance deserves some credit for intrinsic realization that if he exposes Usha to the full-blown effects of his mother’s drug addiction, it might be lights out for his relationship. But Vance’s luck in finding Usha, through a strange confluence likely of cultural influence (South Asian Indians have the lowest rate of divorce in the world, and Usha and Vance are depicted as living together while they were in law school) and personal integrity on her part. Just like the championship Duke basketball team, there turned out to be just enough law partners at Yale for Vance to fall in love with and live happily ever after. I honestly do not begrudge him that — but life is just not so simple. Every human walks along the edge of a cliff, and for those of us with large trauma, the edge is always present. A few of us peer over the edge, instead of planting our face firmly against the wall. But the fact that most of us cannot look, or are even aware that the cliff exists, does not mean the cliff is not there.
In this blog, I’ve emphasized over and over again the notion that relational practice bleeds over into non-relational subject areas — as we relate, so we think. It’s also true that “as we relate, so we relate” is also true, with patterned responses buried in deep in our psyches. With Vance and myself, both of us got out, at least in part, because we worked hard, we adjusted at least some of our values, and we were gifted with big, capable brains. Vance had Mamaw and Usha. My own parents, as absolutely bonkers as they were, did gift me with grounding integrity and the classics of literature.
But we got lucky. Because breaking out of relational attractors in social networks is hard. And sometimes you just have to get that perfect trajectory to escape the potential wells that are all too quick to drag you back into the same cycle again. Here’s hoping that Vance explores more profoundly his own family’s transgenerational trauma, and separates it from any extant notion of hillbilly culture. Here’s hoping he digs more deeply as he advances his political career, in understanding his luck. Because, at least on the surface, he’s one lucky ducky.