tl;dr? Hillbilly Elegy, read it; Born Rich, watch it. One documents hopelessness; the other documents no need for hope.
Come to your own conclusions. These are mine.
Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of growing up in poverty in the hill country of Kentucky:Ohio. J.D. Vance escapes to a different way of life via military service and a college education and I was surprised to hear me stating my visceral dislike of Mr. Vance during a book discussion. What? Viva how can you be such a harsh judge of someone with such hard experiences in his youth?
So I went home and pondered. Somewhere in the story of his childhood, a devastating personal story morphed into an anecdotal solution to hillbilly ills. From his observations and experience, he escaped through his own will, intelligence, stamina, desire. Hand me my cape, I’m outta here. Government and government policies be damned. As his story grew up and and he grew away, I didn’t like him very much and did not agree with his conclusions.
Vance has written a personally prescriptive anecdote suitable to him that would make for horrible systemic policy. Everyone in his born demographic — is hillbilly even a demographic? — would need to be as smart and as driven as he is. And to be clear, his accomplishments, his drive, his ability to put off immediate gratification for future sustaining rewards is admirable. Yes, he is a role model.
But we might not be looking for a role model. We might not be heroic. We are not all gifted with Vance’s level of intelligence, drive, stamina. We might want our own path. His way out could be fraught with as much failure as what we’re leaving. We might be looking for a highway that many could use to get away.
And highways are infrastructure, they aren’t personal.
So while I applaud Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance’s eventual escape¹ through force of will and personality, his memoir shines in his reporting of lives lived without hope — poverty, hunger, unemployment, drugs, families broken. (See also Glass Castle, Jeannette Wells.)
By way of compare and contrast, I watched the documentary Born Rich shortly after finishing Hillbilly Elegy. Born Rich is a film documentary by Jamie Johnson (heir, Johnson & Johnson).
First off, I commend Jamie Johnson for interviewing those in his demographic – lucky sperms, affluent eggs — and constructing a complete documentary, AND releasing it publicly. The über-wealthy keep a very low public profile² and Mr. Johnson stepped outside that shadow and over the line and we are all the more enlightened for it.
Although I felt like some kind of Rick Moraniss-looking-through-the restaurant-window-in-the-movie-Ghost-Busters-type of voyeur, I watched the whole thing. And I discovered that the children of wealth have no need for hope³.
They have no want.
They have no need that can’t be bought.
No project that can’t be funded.
Hope is not in their lexicon. They have no use for it.
And so my hopeless conclusion? One group has no hope because they aren’t going anywhere. One group has no hope because they can go anywhere. At opposite ends of the economic spectrum, both groups are hopeless. And Viva has a low hmmm.
¹March 16, 2017 – J.D. Vance is moving home to help combat the opioid epidemic. And to that we say “Bravo!”. Mr. Vance is young and Viva looks forward to reading his reporting on new experiences and a life lived not in pursuit of escape, but in pursuit of improving lives around him.
²Exception: Trump. Go figure.
³A publishing heir mentioned that he hoped not to be cut off from the cash flow for wearing the wrong attire. I thought it was cute.