Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

hillbillyaudiobook

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By: JD Vance (Author/Narrator)
Publisher: HarperAudio
ISBN13: 9780062477521
Unabridged 6 hr and 49 min
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir

Synopsis:

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.


(New) Thoughts

As someone who spent her childhood raised in the Appalachian region, I approached Hillbilly Elegy as a personal read. The majority of my life was spent living between Ohio and Kentucky before finally relocating across the states to Oregon. I knew that I would find some possibly comforting and perhaps discomforting familiarity within the pages of this memoir. However, what you are about to read is brief and a bit defensive I am admitting, because that is how this title made me feel for the majority of my time with it.

I want to be forthcoming before I delve too far into my experience with this book. I have reshelved this title several times for a variety of reasons. I have read countless reviews and debates comparing this memoir to the very reason Trump succeeded in the presidential election and have encountered multiple labels and “assumptions” spread throughout those comments in regards to individuals from the Appalachian region that paint a picture of an uneducated and decaying society that has little to offer. And while, I cannot deny there are faults within every community and that the economic hardships within this society have certainly created a series of challenges that feel stagnating at the best of times, reading these remarks are difficult to swallow when you know the reality of what lies beneath the surface.

I have also must admit that I found myself associating with and struggling with JD’s story. While my family did not exactly adhere to the same ideals and practices, I was a friend to many who did. I grew up in an area that was small and everyone knew everyone. This was life for many years. A declining economy and failing welfare system certainly attributed to fewer resources in terms of education, declining work ethic/morale and increased drug abuse in many areas. I think the same can be said for any  area or society as this is a common theme when individuals begin to struggle. But it is not the only theme. Amidst the turmoil and challenges there are those who arise with a fierce loyalty and desire to overcome. Much as JD has done. I did enjoy his narration and felt that it added a nice personal touch. All memoirs should be self narrated when possible. And I feel that some personal truth for the author was exposed, which is always admirable.

My problem lies within the fact that Hillbilly Elegy feels too blanketed. Listening to JD describe his history of family violence and the constant references to the lack of education and failure to thrive was not only depressing but somewhat unfair. I cannot deny the truths in this book as I have witnessed them first hand, but I have also been fortunate enough to personally witness the other side of the coin and found myself unable to fully appreciate the “tunnel vision” I experienced during my time listening the his tale. I will not attempt to discredit and disagree with the information provided and will respect the author’s raw approach to this. I encountered some of the mentioned directly throughout my own childhood. But I was saddened with the end result and that read a bit like misplaced blame and solicited unnecessary labels and assumptions within the reading community. I am very aware of the stigma associated with this region as I have experienced it and continue to do so at time when asked where I grew up. This felt like a missed opportunity to lift the veil and clear some of the negative air. It feels that too often literature chooses to focus on the stereotypes and downfalls of this culture while failing to acknowledge the strengths and positives. I choose to believe there have to be better explorations and representations of the Appalachian region in existence.

Untitled designEnjoyed with a cup of Earl Grey and a splash of milk.

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

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Girl, Interrupted
By Susanna Kaysen
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN13: 9780679746041
Pages: 169
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir

Synopsis:

In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele — Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles — as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.


my-thought

*I understand just how important mental health awareness is. This review is simply my own experience and not intended to provide anything more than my thoughts on this specific book.

In my efforts to expand my reading, I am rediscovering some of the older titles on my TBR. It is somewhat interesting to look through them and reflect on how my tastes have changed. I try to keep an open mind though and remind myself that all titles made the list for one reason or another. Girl, Interrupted is no exception. While memoirs and autobiographies are a rarity in my collection, every now and then one will surface. Being that I hold a particular fondness for the study of mental health, it is no surprise to discover that this book made the cut (even if it has taken years to pick it up). It is a subject that I expanded on during my nursing career and has greatly touched my life.

Let’s clear the air on the film vs book debate that often pops up; I have nothing to contribute. I watched the film years ago and it did not leave a memorable impression. For the sake of possible future discussion, I may revisit. For now, I am solely reviewing my time with this brief but memorable book.

“Did the hospital specialize in poets and singers, or was it that poets and singers specialized in madness?”
-Ray Charles

Girl, Interrupted was surprising lighter than I expected but not exactly an easy read. I think I was anticipating a fact laden and much darker story, but it simply was not. That is not to discredit the journey and importance contained within. There are surely some triggers and difficult topics. We are taken behind the scenes into a what it is to question ones own mental state and life as Susanna is admitted to a psychiatric ward during the late 60s after an extremely short and questionable visit with a psychiatrist. Eventually grouped into character disorder, she finds herself a patient for nearly 2 years. This is her story and an eye-opening look at the system during that time

Susanna holds a certain amount of familiarity when reflecting on my younger years. I was immediately drawn to her and questioning how her time in a mental health facility came to existence so abruptly. Her “irrational” behavior just did not feel as extreme at times. She is very self-aware and conscious of her own actions. This self-awareness can however, lead to isolation as one becomes increasingly alert to their own nuances.

“Emptiness and boredom: what an understatement. What I felt was complete desolation. Desolation, despair, and depression.”

Haven’t we all questioned our personal short comings or sanity at least to some degree though? Doesn’t the ability to do so actually contribute to our sanity? Based on her own personal account, the author would most likely be treated as an outpatient now if seen by a psychiatrist and would certainly not have been institutionalized after a mere few minutes. Therein is where I discovered the heart of the issue in Girl, Interrupted for myself. How was she admitted so easily? How has the system evolved, has it?

There is defensive prose throughout her narration that is undeniably understandable and justified but also perhaps a bit less relatable during present day where I like to believe the medical and mental health fields while not without flaw, have advanced and improved greatly. It is beneficial to keep the time period in mind when approaching this title and maybe absorb it as more of a comparison and opportunity to reflect on the process of diagnosis and treatment. I had entered expecting to gain more insight into the individual and personal struggles when facing mental health disorders but instead walked away with a stronger sense of the system’s shortcomings during the late 60s. With that I still found great value and significance. I cannot fault any book that challenges us to look further and notice issues or possible cracks.

“This time I read the title of the painting: Girl Interrupted at Her Music. Interrupted at her music: as my life had been, interrupted in the music of being seventeen, as her life had been, snatched and fixed on canvas: one moment made to stand still and to stand for all the other moments, whatever they would be or might have been. What life can recover from that? I had something to tell her now. “I see you,” I said.”

Character and personality disorders cover an expansive range of symptoms and behavioral patterns that greatly impact the lives of those affected. While treatment has advanced and many new options in terms of medication and therapy are available, it is important to continue exploring new possibilities. I respect Girl, Interrupted for giving me pause and shedding light on issues that might not be the primary center of focus for some. It is thought-provoking and touching, but not so heavy that you find yourself drowning in facts and losing sight of the real relevance. It is a pragmatic approach that provides a realistic view and gives credence to a significant issue. It will be appreciated easily by many.

Have you read Girl, Interrupted? Let’s chat about it!

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Lost Boy by Brent W. Jeffs

lostboybook

Lost Boy
By Brent W. Jeffs, Maia Szalavitz
Publisher: Broadway
ISBN13: 9780767931779
Pages: 241
Genre: Nonfiction/Autobiography

Synopsis:

In the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), girls can become valuable property as plural wives, but boys are expendable, even a liability. In this powerful and heartbreaking account, former FLDS member Brent Jeffs reveals both the terror and the love he experienced growing up on his prophet’s compound—and the harsh exile existence that so many boys face once they have been expelled by the sect.

Brent Jeffs is the nephew of Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the FLDS. The son of a prominent family in the church, Brent could have grown up to have multiple wives of his own and significant power in the 10,000-strong community. But he knew that behind the group’s pious public image—women in chaste dresses carrying babies on their hips—lay a much darker reality. So he walked away, and was the first to file a sexual-abuse lawsuit against his uncle. Now Brent shares his courageous story and that of many other young men who have become “lost boys” when they leave the FLDS, either by choice or by expulsion.

Brent experienced firsthand the absolute power that church leaders wield—the kind of power that corrupts and perverts those who will do anything to maintain it. Once young men no longer belong to the church, they are cast out into a world for which they are utterly unprepared. More often than not, they succumb to the temptations of alcohol and other drugs.

Tragically, Brent lost two of his brothers in this struggle, one to suicide, the other to overdose. In this book he shows that lost boys can triumph and that abuse and trauma can be overcome, and he hopes that readers will be inspired to help former FLDS members find their way in the world.


thoughts

This is my first review of a nonfiction title. I am attempting to provide you with nothing more than a few thoughts and my experience during my time with this book. Please be warned that this book does include sensitive material such as sexual abuse.

Until recently, it was a very rare occasion that any autobiography or memoir would capture my attention, let alone make an appearance on the blog. But I am a mood reader, and my mood has been changing. I find myself desiring to know more. Often my chosen topics are those that many might not understand. Although I do know that you are out there. It just doesn’t always go over as well to discuss darker subjects during a lunch date or at your kid’s ball practice.

I openly admit to harboring a strong fascination with cults and religious based followings of unhealthy nature. FLDS and polygamy have been a subject of intrigue for many years, largely due in part to my continuing interest in the human psych. The unyielding followers and devotion found within FLDS arguably and easily fall within the classifications and realm of cult behavior.  Also as a woman and mother, I find myself personally challenging to the concept of polygamy with many unanswered “why’s” and “how’s”. So after a recent documentary that shared a portion of Brent’s story and a look at the FLDS leader and so-called “Prophet” Warren Jeffs, picking this book up made complete sense. I feel no need to provide a recap, as the synopsis is sufficient and thorough.

I do want to specify at this point that I am not comparing FLDS (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) to LDS who have since disowned many of the practices that are still found within FLDS, such as polygamy. I understand that there is a difference and do not pretend to be an expert in either, nor is this review an attempt to pass judgement on anyone’s religion. With that said, here are my thoughts on the book itself:

Lost Boy is an autobiography of one young man’s life inside and outside of FLDS. It lifts the veil, revealing insight into a world that is hard to grasp and understand. It is a story of manipulation, fear, abuse, loss and survival. It is not an easy read at the best of times, but it is a worthy read.

I found myself in deep appreciation of how much history and back story is actually contained within this book. It was not what I expected, but a welcomed surprise. We are presented with more than a sad and harrowing tale. We are given the working knowledge to understand why our author’s life was so hard and how it came to be for him and so many others. Instead of simply explaining that there was abuse and mistreatment, he shows the reader how it was all possible. We are provided a glimpse into the life of FLDS members that enables us to piece together the true manipulation that is occurring and how such a following began. We learn how fear and religion have been twisted and used against those who were so devoted. We learn how one man, Warren Jeffs, still manages a tenacious and detrimental hold on so many lives even now from prison.

The are many triggers in this book, as Brent makes a conscious effort to be open and forthright. As I mentioned, this not a gentle read. It is every bit candid as it is personal. A childhood of abuse is brought forth, but not without also honestly mentioning the times that there was still happiness. He acknowledges that amidst the chaos there was love and a sense of belonging. There is a simple and raw honesty that enables the reader to not only see but understand. My heart mourned as he described how difficult it was to separate from something so harmful because he knew nothing else. He was so integrated that the prospect of life outside the Church had become terrifying and isolating. He bravely exposes his own harsh reality and struggles that include drug use and bad decisions. There is no saving face. Simply what was and is. This is a story of real life within the FLDS and the ramifications.

I admire Brent’s decision to not only share his personal experience, but the reality of what it was/is to be raised FLDS. The choice to expose and address the years of brainwashing and abuse could not have come easily nor without cost. Lost Boy challenges us to look beyond our own comfort and see from the other side of the curtain. I recommend this to anyone who desires to learn and gain more knowledge of cults within a religious settings and the effects of them on youth, families and the society that those who manage to escape must reenter.

*I had a lot of issues with formatting and corrections while writing this and have honestly given up. So I apologize if it is a bit of a mess.

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