There are a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt without the prospect of a job or an optimistic feeling about the state of their future and the future of their children. But they have a vote and with that a voice. You may not agree with how they used those things in the 2016 election — specifically with regard to the way those decisions square up with trying to remedy the distressing economic conditions that plague them — but you have to respect its power. Or, at least, understand the media’s fascination with it.
Writer J.D. Vance grew up in that world, bouncing between Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky while alternating between living with a mother who struggled with drugs, a father who once gave him up for adoption, and a stern but loving grandmother. Through his connection to them and his extended family, Vance’s life has been touched by the plagues of addiction, poor mental health, and low economic opportunity. Yet somehow he broke free of the cycle of poverty, first, by enlisting in the Marines, then by attending Ohio State and Yale Law before moving into the corporate world and joining CNN as an occasional commentator.
Vance’s story is one of unlikely personal triumph and survival, so it makes sense that he would pour it into Hillbilly Elegy, an acclaimed memoir that rode the wave of that fascination to become a #1 New York Times bestseller. And it makes sense that that book is, as of Monday, on the way to becoming a Ron Howard movie from Imagine Entertainment. But while this has all been positive for Vance and while Hillbilly Elegy shines a needed light on a poorly understood part of the United States that too many dismiss as a bastion for toothless rednecks, the book’s rise in prominence also comes with some negatives.
Intimate “up by your bootstraps” stories like Vance’s can inspire and inform, but they can also cloud outsiders’ views, allowing them to assume that everyone in the grip of those same circumstances should be able to find the same kind of salvation as the storyteller. This assumption is helped along by Vance’s own views. As Sarah Jones explains in a New Republic essay before taking a deep look at the various systemic failings that have turned life into an unwinnable gauntlet for many (failings that Vance somewhat undersells), Vance’s perspective seems to be that “all hillbillies need to do is work hard, maybe do a stint in the military, and they can end up at Yale Law School like I did.”
But while the responsibility for those simplifications belongs to Vance, there’s an equally concerning byproduct of Hillbilly Elegy‘s popularity that falls squarely on the reader: the ease with which some people can develop a falsely complete understanding when it comes to big issues like rural poverty, addiction, and class warfare. We read a book, see a movie, TV show, or documentary, and feel so flush and empowered by the gift of newfound knowledge that we feel as though we can forgo further research and speak with authority instead of humble curiosity. It’s a problem that continues to grow thanks to the widespread need to offer an opinion on all things that toddle past our faces and our outright fear of the term “I don’t know.”
We’ll see even more of that if Vance’s story gains the kind of cultural relevance that comes from being the inspiration for a film from a major director. But hopefully, we’ll also see readers and viewers that treat Hillbilly Elegy (and other true stories like it) as a jumping off point rather than the final word on the topic. We owe it to these issues to channel our passions into gaining more than a surface understanding before going out into the world (and onto the internet) to contribute to and shape the conversation. We owe it to ourselves to never subconsciously shirk from the challenge of truly understanding a complex issue. “I don’t know” isn’t a shameful term so long as the word “yet” is tied to the end of it.