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In Defense of J.D. Vance

HILLBILLY ELEGY has been a hot topic of debate with writers of the Appalachian region since its release in 2016. The animosity toward this memoir is now amplified by the release of the movie. The grumble rolls on through public social media posts and excoriating reviews by fellow writers. The biggest complaint is a resounding, “That’s not us!”

But it is. At least it was J.D. Vance’s experience.

This is his story. A different experience doesn’t invalidate his personal history. Moviegoers invested only two hours in this tragic tale, but this man lived it.

In college, I puzzled at hearing my people, who pooled in the soft, fertile foothills and hollers of Central Kentucky, referred to as Appalachians. But we were.

Still, I don’t share the same life experiences as Vance. Back in the 1970s, I grew up isolated from the world at large, but there was benefit in that innocence and a beauty to my rural life. While my family wasn’t educated either, we weren’t angry all the time like Vance’s folks. Even though the American dream seemed always out of reach, instead of the constant explosive emotions of Vance’s characters, my family simply submitted to the American caste system.

My extended family smoked, but they weren’t drinkers. I never even saw a beer in anybody’s fridge. We had cousins with drug issues who lost their farm in a marijuana seizure and ended up in jail. As an adult, I learned the Cornbread Mafia had been storing weed in buried semi-trailers down the road from my house. Fortunately, my parents ensured my young life was insulated against these dangers.

For artistic reasons, HILLBILLY ELEGY’s screenwriter decided to highlight the drug addiction angle rather than Vance’s upward path to the gainfully employed of the Ivies. Unfortunately, drug issues are a timely subject. Appalachia has been hit hard by the drug waves. First meth and now oxy. I used to drive home through Kentucky and see burned out trailers and hope nobody had perished.

Desperate people sell drugs. Beaten down people do drugs. Pride runs thick in the mountains where folks believe in self-sufficiency, but if there are no jobs, poverty sets the rules. Vance’s story of hopelessness is real and relatable for millions of Americans in disparate parts of the county. This lack-of-opportunity narrative rings true for more than just my people.

Political experts are crediting working poor whites for the rise of Trump; I hope these same researchers will recognize why. This is an angry voting block that’s never realized any of the so-called advantages they’ve always been admonished for possessing simply because of their skin color. They don’t feel seen, heard or empowered. Poor, uneducated whites remain the last group it’s acceptable, even encouraged, to mock and ridicule.

It’s no wonder hill people are sensitive about this story. It’s not the part about somebody rising above their raising that people object to; it’s that once again, our demographic is held to different standards than other subgroups. We’re not allowed to have our vices or failures without evoking contempt.

This microcosm story set in a vast geographic region has wounded our collective pride. We wonder why the focus can’t be on the modern, positive, kind, valuable and charming parts of Appalachia. There is so much good to celebrate. But that’s not the dramatic currency needed by Hollywood or New York publishers. Conflict and struggle are the bedrock of story. What do characters want and what obstacles are in the way? A story about an underdog dealing with an addicted mother while simultaneously struggling to secure a position in a swanky law firm is the perfect high-tension, high-stakes plot people love.

Except when it’s about your people. Some folks are unhappy that one of our own is making us look bad.

But he’s not. He’s just telling his story. An American story.

Art Imitates Life

Writers paint with human experience. Our ambition is to write so convincingly, so close to the bone, that readers understand our troubled characters and question what they would do in similar circumstances. Nobody wants to read about perfect people with no problems. Readers want failures, challenges, suffering, bravery and sacrifice. Story lies in the sore spots of life.

Often writers mine the depths of their own lives for inspiration—depression, addiction, horrible childhoods and lovelorn souls—personal experience has driven many a memoir and novel. I’m certainly not immune to the autobiographical nature of the creative process, something that has become ever more evident to me since I left an unhealthy twenty-five-year marriage. There wasn’t physical abuse or adultery to blame. Rather, what happened was an early erosion of desire and respect that left us both lonely.

The ill-fated course of our relationship was evident from the beginning, but I kept trying because I dreaded the trauma and stigma of divorce. But as it turned out, divorce, for me at least, wasn’t the harrowing event I’d envisioned. While our split devolved into more drama than I’d hoped for, we were both simply relieved when everything was over. Neither of us are bad people, we were just bad together.

It took twenty-nine long months to finalize our divorce and during that time I was transformed, filled with fresh optimism and possibilities. For the first time in decades, I made life choices based solely on what I wanted. What would my future look like? Where did I want to live? What would it be like to be single? I had to be brave, to believe I could make it without a safety net.

I launched into the online dating scene with enthusiasm. I wasn’t looking for a second husband, so I viewed dating as an adventure. I met lovely gentlemen who shared their passions and showed me parts of the world I’d never seen. They made me feel interesting and valued. They made me laugh. I rediscovered my sexuality and reveled in feeling desirable. It was empowering.

I look back at my writing life and realize that my fiction, particularly my novels, are often set against the backdrop of unhappy marriages. Obviously, I was trying to work out some of my own demons. In those stories, I wrote ambiguous endings where there was the possibility the couple would stick it out, find a solution and fall in love again. Isn’t that what married folks are supposed to do?

I’ve come to realize that going seperate ways can sometimes be healthier. And often, it makes for a better ending. While separated, I discovered an intriguing underbelly of people going through the same thing, a entire community invisible to me before. There were the unexpected looks in the produce aisle from men who noticed my bare ring finger and the particularly eager younger men interested in older women. I was astonished by the sexual freeness in the age of shady grey sex. I was scandalized to learn my single girlfriends’ sexual proclivities, which they’d kept from me to protect me from being even more depressed about my lackluster marriage.

Reactions to my imminent divorce were surprising, too. There were two distinct categories; the first was people, mostly women, who made frowny faces and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And then there were the folks who high-fived me with a hardy, “Congratulations!” The next question was always, “Are you going to get back out there?” While a few people gave the impression my unfettered life was a tad threatening to them, most people fell into the hyper-inquisitive category. Seemingly happily-married people asked the most questions and appeared enthralled by my adventures in dating.

Now that I’ve had experience on both sides of the fault line, I’m going to write about marriage with a wider lens. I have a lot to say. I’ll continue to set some of my stories around struggling marriages, but now I have the option to write about choices and resolutions not psychologically available to me before. I now see marriage and divorce from a more seasoned perspective, not one colored by society’s expectations and my own ill-informed fear.

At one of my recent dinner parties, I realized everyone at my table was on their second act. They looked pleased this time around, very attuned to their other half. I have gay friends (both men and women) who were in heterosexual marriages. It hurt everyone involved, but they eventually had to leave in order to be true to themselves. My current research has revealed that people in their fifties are the fastest growing demographic of those seeking divorce. Apparently, after the kids leave for college, people reassess.

Literature needs a fresh narrative when it comes to dissolving relationships. Intead of being portrayed as to be avoided by all means, wouldn’t it make more sense to tell all types of divorce stories? Instead of being so sorry, perhaps we should realize that at least half of people who get divorced are hoping for a better life, something that should be written about in an honest way. Every story can’t have a happy ending, but I prefer the satisfactory, thought-provoking ones anyway.

I’m not down on marriage, as a matter of fact, I’ve now been married to the love of my life for three years. We met on a dating site and while we each enjoyed navigating the turbulent waters of modern dating, we both knew as soon as we met that something was right about us. So, while I may be more realistic about marriage now, it appears I’m still a romantic.

The journey to happy can take some curious turns. May art imitate life.