When I was about 12 years old, I told my dad, “I don’t want to be Appalachian.”
I remember it was just the two of us. We were driving back from soccer practice in the family van, peeling past the old trailer park and onto the wooded highway that winds toward my childhood home in East Tennessee. And I remember his reply: “Well, you don’t really have a say in that.”
I don’t know for sure where my adolescent disdain for Appalachia came from. I struggled to drop my accent, squashing long “i’s” out of words like “get” and “pen.” I dreamed about moving to New York or Los Angeles, maybe Dublin if I could pick up enough speed. I decided I wouldn’t be like my classmates, the ones who seemed content to stick around in the blue hills of our home, the sleepy trailer parks, the log cabins and their horse pastures. It irked me that my dad was right; no matter how far I traveled or what accent I adopted, the fact that I was born and raised in Appalachia was never going to change, which meant I’d be linked to this place as long as I lived.
I guess outside forces taught me to be ashamed of that (because it definitely wasn’t my dad). Like many others, it took leaving and coming back for me to learn to love my hometown, and to feel ashamed I was ever ashamed in the first place.
That’s probably why J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy struck such a chord in me — both the 2016 book and the recent movie trailer prefacing its feature length Netflix release November 24. The story follows Vance growing up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio with a tough-but-loving grandmother and a mother who struggles with drug addiction. He reflects on his hometown from a distance, having left Ohio to join the Marines and eventually attend Yale Law School.
It’s through these personal anecdotes and tales of his own family’s battle with poverty that Vance draws larger parallels about Appalachian culture: Namely that poverty is an attitude and a choice. A friend complains that he quit his job because he didn’t like waking up early. A coworker blames his boss when he’s fired for consistent tardiness. A pregnant woman blows her chance at a job by not showing up to work. Vance refers to this trend as “learned helplessness.”
The memoir couldn’t have come out at a better, or worse, moment — halfway through 2016, just as Donald Trump swept in to take the presidency, leaving half of the country shocked and looking for an instruction manual on the “Trump voter.” Hillbilly Elegy fit the bill. With the book’s popularity, Vance became a spokesperson for white working class America, eventually joining CNN as a contributor in 2017.
From the looks of the trailer, Vance’s thesis of “learned helplessness” lives on in Ron Howard’s film adaptation. Glenn Close, portraying Vance’s tough-but-loving grandmother, pretty much sums it up yelling at Amy Adams, portraying Vance’s drug-addicted mother: “It’s always someone else’s fault. At some point, you’re going to have to take responsibility.”
Watching this scene, I felt as though Amy Adams could easily stand in for Appalachia, while Close represented the rest of the country.
The message we’re getting is: “Your misfortune (and your poverty) is your own fault.”
I believe another reason Hillbilly Elegy enjoyed national popularity is that this message is enticingly palatable. It invites the reader to wag a finger at impoverished communities and tell them to pick themselves up by their bootstraps the way Vance says he did, rather than address larger societal issues that keep the poor poor.
Of course, timing and easing our consciences aren’t the only reasons Vance’s memoir captured national attention. Vance has a compelling story to tell, and he tells it well. I’m always eager to read or watch a heartfelt tale about the complex region I come from (preferably with some bonafide locals at the helm — something the film sadly lacks). But the subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy outlines, to me, its largest problem: “Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.”
One family cannot stand in for an entire region. Vance isn’t an anthropologist, sociologist, or economist. He’s one person with one story. He believes that leaving Appalachia was a victory and that he won it through hard work alone. His memoir — and now, it seems, Howard’s film — imposes that same story on the rest of us.
My story was different. For me, leaving Appalachia was part of the process of coming back. I regretted losing my Appalachian twang, something I found out is common among young Southerners. I realized my whole life I’d been listening to Glenn Close yell at Amy Adams that she had no one to blame for being poor but herself, and it taught me to be ashamed of living in an impoverished region, ashamed of my neighbors and classmates, ashamed of myself for being tied to this place and having no say in the matter. I had to relearn my childhood accent and unlearn that shame. And eventually, I grew out of it. I hope our country does too.
Graham Marema lives in Norris, Tennessee, her hometown. Follow her on Twitter @GrahamMarema.