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Hillbilly Elegy / (by J. D. Vance, 2016) -

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Hillbilly Elegy /   (by J. D. Vance, 2016) -

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis / : (by J. D. Vance, 2016) -

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Hillbilly Elegy / (by J. D. Vance, 2016) -
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2016
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J. D. Vance
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J. D. Vance
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upper-intermediate
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06:49:43
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

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

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

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Introduction My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that its a memoir, but Im thirty-one years old, and Ill be the first to admit that Ive accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it. The coolest thing Ive done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous. But about two hundred people do the same thing every year, and trust me, you dont want to read about most of their lives. I am not a senator, a governor, or a former cabinet secretary. I havent started a billion-dollar company or a world-changing nonprofit. I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs. So I didnt write this book because Ive accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because Ive achieved something quite ordinary, which doesnt happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim futurethat if theyre lucky, theyll manage to avoid welfare; and if theyre unlucky, theyll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year. I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that Im some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me. That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us. There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someones skinblack people, Asians, white privilege. Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family traditiontheir ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. The Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America. As one observer noted, In traveling across America, the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition thats occurred nearly everywhere else. 1 This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traitsan intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and countrybut also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart. If ethnicity is one side of the coin, then geography is the other. When the first wave of Scots-Irish immigrants landed in the New World in the eighteenth century, they were deeply attracted to the Appalachian Mountains. This region is admittedly hugestretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio to parts of New York in the Northbut the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive. My family, from the hills of eastern Kentucky, describe themselves as hillbillies, but Hank Williams, Jr.born in Louisiana and an Alabama residentalso identified himself as one in his rural white anthem A Country Boy Can Survive. It was Greater Appalachias political reorientation from Democrat to Republican that redefined American politics after Nixon. And it is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery. It is unsurprising, then, that were a pessimistic bunch. What is more surprising is that, as surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. More pessimistic than black Americans, whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites. While reality permits some degree of cynicism, the fact that hillbillies like me are more down about the future than many other groupssome of whom are clearly more destitute than we aresuggests that something else is going on. Indeed it is. Were more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children. Our religion has changedbuilt around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world. When I mention the plight of my community, I am often met with an explanation that goes something like this: Of course the prospects for working-class whites have worsened, J.D., but youre putting the chicken before the egg. Theyre divorcing more, marrying less, and experiencing less happiness because their economic opportunities have declined. If they only had better access to jobs, other parts of their lives would improve as well. I once held this opinion myself, and I very desperately wanted to believe it during my youth. It makes sense. Not having a job is stressful, and not having enough money to live on is even more so. As the manufacturing center of the industrial Midwest has hollowed out, the white working class has lost both its economic security and the stable home and family life that comes with it. But experience can be a difficult teacher, and it taught me that this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete. A few years ago, during the summer before I enrolled at Yale Law School, I was looking for full-time work in order to finance my move to New Haven, Connecticut. A family friend suggested that I work for him in a medium-sized floor tile distribution business near my hometown. Floor tile is extraordinarily heavy: Each piece weighs anywhere from three to six pounds, and its usually packaged in cartons of eight to twelve pieces. My primary duty was to lift the floor tile onto a shipping pallet and prepare that pallet for departure. It wasnt easy, but it paid thirteen dollars an hour and I needed the money, so I took the job and collected as many overtime shifts and extra hours as I could. The tile business employed about a dozen people, and most employees had worked there for many years. One guy worked two full-time jobs, but not because he had to: His second job at the tile business allowed him to pursue his dream of piloting an airplane. Thirteen dollars an hour was good money for a single guy in our hometowna decent apartment costs about five hundred dollars a monthand the tile business offered steady raises. Every employee who worked there for a few years earned at least sixteen dollars an hour in a down economy, which provided an annual income of thirty-two thousandwell above the poverty line even for a family. Despite this relatively stable situation, the managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee. By the time I left, three guys worked in the warehouse; at twenty-six, I was by far the oldest. One guy, Ill call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did. Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. It became so bad that, by the end of my tenure, another employee and I made a game of it: Wed set a timer when he went to the bathroom and shout the major milestones through the warehouseThirty-five minutes! Forty-five minutes! One hour! Eventually, Bob, too, was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: How could you do this to me? Dont you know Ive got a pregnant girlfriend? And he was not alone: At least two other people, including Bobs cousin, lost their jobs or quit during my short time at the tile warehouse. You cant ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity. Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enoughI worry about those things, too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. Its about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. Its about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it. The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to worka wife-to-be to support and a baby on the waycarelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him . There is a lack of agency herea feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America. Its worth noting that although I focus on the group of people I knowworking-class whites with ties to AppalachiaIm not arguing that we deserve more sympathy than other folks. This is not a story about why white people have more to complain about than black people or any other group. That said, I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism. To many analysts, terms like welfare queen conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white. This book is not an academic study. In the past few years, William Julius Wilson, Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and Raj Chetty have authored compelling, well-researched tracts demonstrating that upward mobility fell off in the 1970s and never really recovered, that some regions have fared much worse than others (shocker: Appalachia and the Rust Belt score poorly), and that many of the phenomena I saw in my own life exist across society. I may quibble with some of their conclusions, but they have demonstrated convincingly that America has a problem. Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck. I cannot tell that story without appealing to the cast of characters who made up my life. So this book is not just a personal memoir but a family onea history of opportunity and upward mobility viewed through the eyes of a group of hillbillies from Appalachia. Two generations ago, my grandparents were dirt-poor and in love. They got married and moved north in the hope of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (me) graduated from one of the finest educational institutions in the world. Thats the short version. The long version exists in the pages that follow. Though I sometimes change the names of people to protect their privacy, this story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world Ive witnessed. There are no composite characters and no narrative shortcuts. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentationreport cards, handwritten letters, notes on photographsbut I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory. Indeed, when I asked my sister to read an earlier draft, that draft ignited a thirty-minute conversation about whether I had misplaced an event chronologically. I left my version in, not because I suspect my sisters memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine), but because I think there is something to learn in how Ive organized the events in my own mind. Nor am I an unbiased observer. Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abused their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. Theres just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their wayboth for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine. Chapter 1 Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addresses frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Still, I always distinguished my address from my home. My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmothers house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky. Jackson is a small town of about six thousand in the heart of southeastern Kentuckys coal country. Calling it a town is a bit charitable: Theres a courthouse, a few restaurantsalmost all of them fast-food chainsand a few other shops and stores. Most of the people live in the mountains surrounding Kentucky Highway 15, in trailer parks, in government-subsidized housing, in small farmhouses, and in mountain homesteads like the one that served as the backdrop for the fondest memories of my childhood. Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a strangers car out of the snow, andwithout exceptionstop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives past. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. Why, Id ask my grandmawhom we all called Mamawdid everyone stop for the passing hearse? Because, honey, were hill people. And we respect our dead. My grandparents left Jackson in the late 1940s and raised their family in Middletown, Ohio, where I later grew up. But until I was twelve, I spent my summers and much of the rest of my time back in Jackson. Id visit along with Mamaw, who wanted to see friends and family, ever conscious that time was shortening the list of her favorite people. And as time wore on, we made our trips for one reason above all: to take care of Mamaws mother, whom we called Mamaw Blanton (to distinguish her, though somewhat confusingly, from Mamaw). We stayed with Mamaw Blanton in the house where shed lived since before her husband left to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. Mamaw Blantons house was my favorite place in the world, though it was neither large nor luxurious. The house had three bedrooms. In the front were a small porch, a porch swing, and a large yard that stretched into a mountain on one side and to the head of the holler on the other. Though Mamaw Blanton owned some property, most of it was uninhabitable foliage. There wasnt a backyard to speak of, though there was a beautiful mountainside of rock and tree. There was always the holler, and the creek that ran alongside it; those were backyard enough. The kids all slept in a single upstairs room: a squad bay of about a dozen beds where my cousins and I played late into the night until our irritated grandma would frighten us into sleep. The surrounding mountains were paradise to a child, and I spent much of my time terrorizing the Appalachian fauna: No turtle, snake, frog, fish, or squirrel was safe. Id run around with my cousins, unaware of the ever-present poverty or Mamaw Blantons deteriorating health. At a deep level, Jackson was the one place that belonged to me, my sister, and Mamaw. I loved Ohio, but it was full of painful memories. In Jackson, I was the grandson of the toughest woman anyone knew and the most skilled auto mechanic in town; in Ohio, I was the abandoned son of a man I hardly knew and a woman I wished I didnt. Mom visited Kentucky only for the annual family reunion or the occasional funeral, and when she did, Mamaw made sure she brought none of the drama. In Jackson, there would be no screaming, no fighting, no beating up on my sister, and especially no men, as Mamaw would say. Mamaw hated Moms various love interests and allowed none of them in Kentucky. In Ohio, I had grown especially skillful at navigating various father figures. With Steve, a midlife-crisis sufferer with an earring to prove it, I pretended earrings were coolso much so that he thought it appropriate to pierce my ear, too. With Chip, an alcoholic police officer who saw my earring as a sign of girlieness, I had thick skin and loved police cars. With Ken, an odd man who proposed to Mom three days into their relationship, I was a kind brother to his two children. But none of these things were really true. I hated earrings, I hated police cars, and I knew that Kens children would be out of my life by the next year. In Kentucky, I didnt have to pretend to be someone I wasnt, because the only men in my lifemy grandmothers brothers and brothers-in-lawalready knew me. Did I want to make them proud? Of course I did, but not because I pretended to like them; I genuinely loved them. The oldest and meanest of the Blanton men was Uncle Teaberry, nicknamed for his favorite flavor of chewing gum. Uncle Teaberry, like his father, served in the navy during World War II. He died when I was four, so I have only two real memories of him. In the first, Im running for my life, and Teaberry is close behind with a switchblade, assuring me that hell feed my right ear to the dogs if he catches me. I leap into Mamaw Blantons arms, and the terrifying game is over. But I know that I loved him, because my second memory is of throwing such a fit over not being allowed to visit him on his deathbed that my grandma was forced to don a hospital robe and smuggle me in. I remember clinging to her underneath that hospital robe, but I dont remember saying goodbye. Uncle Pet came next. Uncle Pet was a tall man with a biting wit and a raunchy sense of humor. The most economically successful of the Blanton crew, Uncle Pet left home early and started some timber and construction businesses that made him enough money to race horses in his spare time. He seemed the nicest of the Blanton men, with the smooth charm of a successful businessman. But that charm masked a fierce temper. Once, when a truck driver delivered supplies to one of Uncle Pets businesses, he told my old hillbilly uncle, Off-load this now, you son of a bitch. Uncle Pet took the comment literally: When you say that, youre calling my dear old mother a bitch, so Id kindly ask you speak more carefully. When the drivernicknamed Big Red because of his size and hair colorrepeated the insult, Uncle Pet did what any rational business owner would do: He pulled the man from his truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Big Red nearly bled to death but was rushed to the hospital and survived. Uncle Pet never went to jail, though. Apparently, Big Red was also an Appalachian man, and he refused to speak to the police about the incident or press charges. He knew what it meant to insult a mans mother. Uncle David may have been the only one of Mamaws brothers to care little for that honor culture. An old rebel with long, flowing hair and a longer beard, he loved everything but rules, which might explain why, when I found his giant marijuana plant in the backyard of the old homestead, he didnt try to explain it away. Shocked, I asked Uncle David what he planned to do with illegal drugs. So he got some cigarette papers and a lighter and showed me. I was twelve. I knew if Mamaw ever found out, shed kill him. I feared this because, according to family lore, Mamaw had nearly killed a man. When she was around twelve, Mamaw walked outside to see two men loading the familys cowa prized possession in a world without running waterinto the back of a truck. She ran inside, grabbed a rifle, and fired a few rounds. One of the men collapsedthe result of a shot to the legand the other jumped into the truck and squealed away. The would-be thief could barely crawl, so Mamaw approached him, raised the business end of her rifle to the mans head, and prepared to finish the job. Luckily for him, Uncle Pet intervened. Mamaws first confirmed kill would have to wait for another day. Even knowing what a pistol-packing lunatic Mamaw was, I find this story hard to believe. I polled members of my family, and about half had never heard the story. The part I believe is that she would have murdered the man if someone hadnt stopped her. She loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal. Each time someone stole a bike from our porch (three times, by my count), or broke into her car and took the loose change, or stole a delivery, shed tell me, like a general giving his troops marching orders, There is nothing lower than the poor stealing from the poor. Its hard enough as it is. We sure as hell dont need to make it even harder on each other. Youngest of all the Blanton boys was Uncle Gary. He was the baby of the family and one of the sweetest men I knew. Uncle Gary left home young and built a successful roofing business in Indiana. A good husband and a better father, hed always say to me, Were proud of you, ole Jaydot, causing me to swell with pride. He was my favorite, the only Blanton brother not to threaten me with a kick in the ass or a detached ear. My grandma also had two younger sisters, Betty and Rose, whom I loved each very much, but I was obsessed with the Blanton men. I would sit among them and beg them to tell and retell their stories. These men were the gatekeepers to the familys oral tradition, and I was their best student. Most of this tradition was far from child appropriate. Almost all of it involved the kind of violence that should land someone in jail. Much of it centered on how the county in which Jackson was situatedBreathittearned its alliterative nickname, Bloody Breathitt. There were many explanations, but they all had one theme: The people of Breathitt hated certain things, and they didnt need the law to snuff them out. One of the most common tales of Breathitts gore revolved around an older man in town who was accused of raping a young girl. Mamaw told me that, days before his trial, the man was found facedown in a local lake with sixteen bullet wounds in his back. The authorities never investigated the murder, and the only mention of the incident appeared in the local newspaper on the morning his body was discovered. In an admirable display of journalistic pith, the paper reported: Man found dead. Foul play expected. Foul play expected? my grandmother would roar. Youre goddamned right. Bloody Breathitt got to that son of a bitch. Or there was that day when Uncle Teaberry overheard a young man state a desire to eat her panties, a reference to his sisters (my Mamaws) undergarments. Uncle Teaberry drove home, retrieved a pair of Mamaws underwear, and forced the young manat knifepointto consume the clothing. Some people may conclude that I come from a clan of lunatics. But the stories made me feel like hillbilly royalty, because these were classic good-versus-evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of somethingdefending a sisters honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind. Despite their virtues, or perhaps because of them, the Blanton men were full of vice. A few of them left a trail of neglected children, cheated wives, or both. And I didnt even know them that well: I saw them only at large family reunions or during the holidays. Still, I loved and worshipped them. I once overheard Mamaw tell her mother that I loved the Blanton men because so many father figures had come and gone, but the Blanton men were always there. Theres definitely a kernel of truth to that. But more than anything, the Blanton men were the living embodiment of the hills of Kentucky. I loved them because I loved Jackson. As I grew older, my obsession with the Blanton men faded into appreciation, just as my view of Jackson as some sort of paradise matured. I will always think of Jackson as my home. It is unfathomably beautiful: When the leaves turn in October, it seems as if every mountain in town is on fire. But for all its beauty, and for all the fond memories, Jackson is a very harsh place. Jackson taught me that hill people and poor people usually meant the same thing. At Mamaw Blantons, wed eat scrambled eggs, ham, fried potatoes, and biscuits for breakfast; fried bologna sandwiches for lunch; and soup beans and cornbread for dinner. Many Jackson families couldnt say the same, and I knew this because, as I grew older, I overheard the adults speak about the pitiful children in the neighborhood who were starving and how the town could help them. Mamaw shielded me from the worst of Jackson, but you can keep reality at bay only so long. On a recent trip to Jackson, I made sure to stop at Mamaw Blantons old house, now inhabited by my second cousin Rick and his family. We talked about how things had changed. Drugs have come in, Rick told me. And nobodys interested in holding down a job. I hoped my beloved holler had escaped the worst, so I asked Ricks boys to take me on a walk. All around I saw the worst signs of Appalachian poverty. Some of it was as heartbreaking as it was clich?: decrepit shacks rotting away, stray dogs begging for food, and old furniture strewn on the lawns. Some of it was far more troubling. While passing a small two-bedroom house, I noticed a frightened set of eyes looking at me from behind the curtains of a bedroom window. My curiosity piqued, I looked closer and counted no fewer than eight pairs of eyes, all looking at me from three windows with an unsettling combination of fear and longing. On the front porch was a thin man, no older than thirty-five, appar ently the head of the household. Several ferocious, malnourished, chained-up dogs protected the furniture strewn about the barren front yard. When I asked Ricks son what the young father did for a living, he told me the man had no job and was proud of it. But, he added, theyre mean, so we just try to avoid them. That house might be extreme, but it represents much about the lives of hill people in Jackson. Nearly a third of the town lives in poverty, a figure that includes about half of Jacksons children. And that doesnt count the large majority of Jacksonians who hover around the poverty line. An epidemic of prescription drug addiction has taken root. The public schools are so bad that the state of Kentucky recently seized control. Nevertheless, parents send their children to these schools because they have little extra money, and the high school fails to send its students to college with alarming consistency. The people are physically unhealthy, and without government assistance they lack treatment for the most basic problems. Most important, theyre mean about itthey will hesitate to open their lives up to others for the simple reason that they dont wish to be judged. In 2009, ABC News ran a news report about Appalachian America, highlighting a phenomenon known locally as Mountain Dew mouth: painful dental problems in young children, generally caused by too much sugary soda. In its broadcast, ABC featured a litany of stories about Appalachian children confronting poverty and deprivation. The news report was widely watched in the region but met with utter scorn. The consistent reaction: This is none of your damn business. This has to be the most offensive thing I have ever heard and you should all be ashamed, ABC included, wrote one commenter online. Another added: You should be ashamed of yourself for reinforcing old, false stereotypes and not giving a more accurate picture of Appalachia. This is an opinion shared among many in the actual rural towns of the mountains that I have met. I knew this because my cousin took to Facebook to silence the criticsnoting that only by admitting the regions problems could people hope to change them. Amber is uniquely positioned to comment on the problems of Appalachia: Unlike me, she spent her entire childhood in Jackson. She was an academic star in high school and later earned a college degree, the first in her nuclear family to do so. She saw the worst of Jacksons poverty firsthand and overcame it. The angry reaction supports the academic literature on Appalachian Americans. In a December 2000 paper, sociologists Carol A. Markstrom, Sheila K. Marshall, and Robin J. Tryon found that avoidance and wishful-thinking forms of coping significantly predicted resiliency among Appalachian teens. Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly. We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves. This is why the folks of Appalachia reacted strongly to an honest look at some of its most impoverished people. Its why I worshipped the Blanton men, and its why I spent the first eighteen years of my life pretending that everything in the world was a problem except me. The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight chil dren but cant find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions. Things have gotten so bad that last summer, after my cousin Mike buried his mother, his thoughts turned immediately to selling her house. I cant live here, and I cant leave it untended, he said. The drug addicts will ransack it. Jackson has always been poor, but it was never a place where a man feared leaving his mothers home alone. The place I call home has taken a worrisome turn. If there is any temptation to judge these problems as the narrow concern of backwoods hollers, a glimpse at my own life reveals that Jacksons plight has gone mainstream. Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people. Indeed, Kentucky transplants and their children are so prominent in Middletown, Ohio (where I grew up), that as kids we derisively called it Middletucky. My grandparents uprooted themselves from the real Kentucky and relocated to Middletucky in search of a better life, and in some ways they found it. In other ways, they never really escaped. The drug addiction that plagues Jackson has afflicted their older daughter for her entire adult life. Mountain Dew mouth may be especially bad in Jackson, but my grandparents fought it in Middletown, too: I was nine months old the first time Mamaw saw my mother put Pepsi in my bottle. Virtuous fathers are in short supply in Jackson, but they are equally scarce in the lives of my grandparents grandchildren. People have struggled to get out of Jackson for decades; now they struggle to escape Middletown. If the problems start in Jackson, it is not entirely clear where they end. What I realized many years ago, watching that funeral procession with Mamaw, is that I am a hill person. So is much of Americas white working class. And we hill people arent doing very well. Chapter 2 Hillbillies like to add their own twist to many words. We call minnows minners and crayfish crawdads. Hollow is defined as a valley or basin, but Ive never said the word hollow unless Ive had to explain to a friend what I mean when I say holler. Other people have all kinds of names for their grandparents: grandpa, nanna, pop-pop, grannie, and so on. Yet Ive never heard anyone say Mamawpronounced maam-awor Papaw outside of our community. These names belong only to hillbilly grandparents. My grandparentsMamaw and Papawwere, without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me. They spent the last two decades of their lives showing me the value of love and stability and teaching me the life lessons that most people learn from their parents. Both did their part to ensure that I had the self-confidence and the right opportunities to get a fair shot at the American Dream. But I doubt that, as children, Jim Vance and Bonnie Blanton ever expected much out of their own lives. How could they? Appalachian hills and single-room, K12 schoolhouses dont tend to foster big dreams. We dont know much about Papaws early years, and I doubt that will ever change. We do know that he was something of hillbilly royalty. Papaws distant cousinalso Jim Vancemarried into the Hatfield family and joined a group of former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers called the Wildcats. When Cousin Jim murdered former Union soldier Asa Harmon McCoy, he kicked off one of the most famous family feuds in American history. Papaw was born James Lee Vance in 1929, his middle name a tribute to his father, Lee Vance. Lee died just a few months after Papaws birth, so Papaws overwhelmed mother, Goldie, sent him to live with her father, Pap Taulbee, a strict man with a small timber business. Though Goldie sent money occasionally, she rarely visited her young son. Papaw would live with Taulbee in Jackson, Kentucky, for the first seventeen years of his life. Pap Taulbee had a tiny two-room house just a few hundred yards from the BlantonsBlaine and Hattie and their eight children. Hattie felt sorry for the young motherless boy and became a surrogate mother to my grandfather. Jim soon became an extra member of the family: He spent most of his free time running around with the Blanton boys, and he ate most of his meals in Hatties kitchen. It was only natural that hed eventually marry her oldest daughter. Jim married into a rowdy crew. The Blantons were a famous group in Breathitt, and they had a feuding history nearly as illustrious as Papaws. Mamaws great-grandfather had been elected county judge at the beginning of the twentieth century, but only after her grandfather, Tilden (the son of the judge), killed a member of a rival family on Election Day. 2 In a New York Times story about the violent feud, two things leap out. The first is that Tilden never went to jail for the crime. 3 The second is that, as the Times reported, complications [were] expected. I would imagine so. When I first read this gruesome story in one of the countrys most circulated newspapers, I felt one emotion above all the rest: pride. Its unlikely that any other ancestor of mine has ever appeared in The New York Times . Even if they had, I doubt that any deed would make me as proud as a successful feud. And one that could have swung an election, no less! As Mamaw used to say, you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you cant take Kentucky out of the boy. I cant imagine what Papaw was thinking. Mamaw came from a family that would shoot at you rather than argue with you. Her father was a scary old hillbilly with the mouth and war medals of a sailor. Her grandfathers murderous exploits were impressive enough to make the pages of The New York Times . And as scary as her lineage was, Mamaw Bonnie herself was so terrifying that, many decades later, a Marine Corps recruiter would tell me that Id find boot camp easier than living at home. Those drill instructors are mean, he said. But not like that grandma of yours. That meanness wasnt enough to dissuade my grandfather. So Mamaw and Papaw were married as teenagers in Jackson, in 1947. At that time, as the postWorld War II euphoria wore off and people began to adjust to a world at peace, there were two types of people in Jackson: those who uprooted their lives and planted them in the industrial powerhouses of the new America, and those who didnt. At the tender ages of fourteen and seventeen, my grandparents had to decide which group to join. As Papaw once told me, the sole option for many of his friends was to work in the minesmining coal not far from Jackson. Those who stayed in Jackson spent their lives on the edge of poverty, if not submerged in it. So, soon after marrying, Papaw uprooted his young family and moved to Middletown, a small Ohio town with a rapidly growing industrialized economy. This is the story my grandparents told me, and like most family legends its largely true but plays fast and loose with the details. On a recent trip to visit family in Jackson, my great-uncle ArchMamaws brother-in-law and the last of that generation of Jacksoniansintroduced me to Bonnie South, a woman whod spent all of her eighty-four years a hundred yards from Mamaws childhood home. Until Mamaw left for Ohio, Bonnie South was her best friend. And by Bonnie Souths reckoning, Mamaw and Papaws departure involved a bit more scandal than any of us realized. In 1946, Bonnie South and Papaw were lovers. Im not sure what this meant in Jackson at the timewhether they were preparing for an engagement or just passing the time together. Bonnie had little to say of Papaw besides the fact that he was very handsome. The only other thing Bonnie South recalled was that, at some point in 1946, Papaw cheated on Bonnie with her best friendMamaw. Mamaw was thirteen and Papaw sixteen, but the affair produced a pregnancy. And that pregnancy added a number of pressures that made right now the time to leave Jackson: my intimidating, grizzled war-veteran great-grandfather; the Blanton Brothers, who had already earned a reputation for defending Mamaws honor; and an interconnected group of gun-toting hillbillies who immediately knew all about Bonnie Blantons pregnancy. Most important, Bonnie and Jim Vance would soon have another mouth to feed before theyd gotten used to feeding themselves. Mamaw and Papaw left abruptly for Dayton, Ohio, where they lived briefly before settling permanently in Middletown. In later years, Mamaw sometimes spoke of a daughter who died in infancy, and she led us all to believe that the daughter was born sometime after Uncle Jimmy, Mamaw and Papaws eldest child. Mamaw suffered eight miscarriages in the decade between Uncle Jimmys birth and my mothers. But recently my sister discovered a birth certificate for Infant Vance, the aunt I never knew, who died so young that her birth certificate also lists her date of death. The baby who brought my grandparents to Ohio didnt survive her first week. On that birth certificate, the babys brokenhearted mother lied about her age: Only fourteen at the time and with a seventeen-year-old husband, she couldnt tell the truth, lest they ship her back to Jackson or send Papaw to jail. Mamaws first foray into adulthood ended in tragedy. Today I often wonder: Without the baby, would she ever have left Jackson? Would she have run off with Jim Vance to foreign territory? Mamaws entire lifeand the trajectory of our familymay have changed for a baby who lived only six days. Whatever mix of economic opportunity and family necessity catapulted my grandparents to Ohio, they were there, and there was no going back. So Papaw found a job at Armco, a large steel company that aggressively recruited in eastern Kentucky coal country. Armco representatives would descend on towns like Jackson and promise (truthfully) a better life for those willing to move north and work in the mills. A special policy encouraged wholesale migration: Applicants with a family member working at Armco would move to the top of the employment list. Armco didnt just hire the young men of Appalachian Kentucky; they actively encouraged those men to bring their extended families. A number of industrial firms employed a similar strategy, and it appears to have worked. During that era, there were many Jacksons and many Middletowns. Researchers have documented two major waves of migration from Appalachia to the industrial powerhouse economies in the Midwest. The first happened after World War I, when returning veterans found it nearly impossible to find work in the not-yet-industrialized mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. It ended as the Great Depression hit Northern economies hard. 4 My grandparents were part of the second wave, composed of returning veterans and the rapidly rising number of young adults in 1940s and 50s Appalachia. 5 As the economies of Kentucky and West Virginia lagged behind those of their neighbors, the mountains had only two products that the industrial economies of the North needed: coal and hill people. And Appalachia exported a lot of both. Precise numbers are tough to pin down because studies typically measure net out-migrationas in the total number of people who left minus the number of people who came in. Many families constantly traveled back and forth, which skews the data. But it is certain that many millions of people traveled along the hillbilly highwaya metaphorical term that captured the opinion of Northerners who saw their cities and towns flooded with people like my grandparents. The scale of the migration was staggering. In the 1950s, thirteen of every one hundred Kentucky residents migrated out of the state. Some areas saw even greater emigration: Harlan County, for example, which was brought to fame in an Academy Awardwinning documentary about coal strikes, lost 30 percent of its population to migration. In 1960, of Ohios ten million residents, one million were born in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee. This doesnt count the large number of migrants from elsewhere in the southern Appalachian Mountains; nor does it include the children or grandchildren of migrants who were hill people to the core. There were undoubtedly many of these children and grandchildren, as hillbillies tended to have much higher birthrates than the native population. 6 In short, my grandparents experience was extremely common. Significant parts of an entire region picked up shop and moved north. Need more proof? Hop on a northbound highway in Kentucky or Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas, and virtually every license plate you see comes from Ohio, Indiana, or Michigancars full of hillbilly transplants returning home for the holidays. Mamaws family participated in the migratory flow with gusto. Of her seven siblings, Pet, Paul, and Gary moved to Indiana and worked in construction. Each owned a successful business and earned considerable wealth in the process. Rose, Betty, Teaberry, and David stayed behind. All of them struggled financially, though everyone but David managed a life of relative comfort by the standards of their community. The four who left died on a significantly higher rung of the socioeconomic ladder than the four who stayed. As Papaw knew when he was a young man, the best way up for the hillbilly was out. It was probably uncommon for my grandparents to be alone in their new city. But if Mamaw and Papaw were isolated from their family, they were hardly segregated from Middletowns broader population. Most of the citys inhabitants had moved there for work in the new industrial plants, and most of these new workers were from Appalachia. The family-based hiring practices of the major industrial firms 7 had their desired effect, and the results were predictable. All over the industrial Midwest, new communities of Appalachian transplants and their families sprang up, virtually out of nowhere. As one study noted, Migration did not so much destroy neighborhoods and families as transport them. 8 In 1950s Middletown, my grandparents found themselves in a situation both new and familiar. New because they were, for the first time, cut off from the extended Appalachian support network to which they were accustomed; familiar because they were still surrounded by hillbillies. Id like to tell you how my grandparents thrived in their new environment, how they raised a successful family, and how they retired comfortably middle-class. But that is a partial truth. The full truth is that my grandparents struggled in their new life, and they continued to do so for decades. For starters, a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrasetoo big for your britchesto describe those who think theyre better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly. This pattern was common among Appalachian migrants: More than nine in ten would make visits home during the course of their lives, and more than one in ten visited about once a month. 9 My grandparents returned to Jackson often, sometimes on consecutive weekends, despite the fact that the trip in the 1950s required about twenty hours of driving. Economic mobility came with a lot of pressures, and it came with a lot of new responsibilities. That stigma came from both directions: Many of their new neighbors viewed them suspiciously. To the established middle class of white Ohioans, these hillbillies simply didnt belong. They had too many children, and they welcomed their extended families into their homes for too long. On several occasions, Mamaws brothers and sisters lived with her and Papaw for months as they tried to find good work outside of the hills. In other words, many parts of their culture and customs met with roaring disapproval from native Middletonians. As one book, Appalachian Odyssey , notes about the influx of hill people to Detroit: It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers out of place in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites. Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved . . . the disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their racialness. Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit. 10 One of Papaws good friendsa hillbilly from Kentucky whom he met in Ohiobecame the mail carrier in their neighborhood. Not long after he moved, the mail carrier got embroiled in a battle with the Middletown government over the flock of chickens that he kept in his yard. He treated them just as Mamaw had treated her chickens back in the holler: Every morning he collected all the eggs, and when his chicken population grew too large, hed take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat right in his backyard. You can just imagine a well-bred housewife watching out the window in horror as her Kentucky-born neighbor slaughtered squawking chickens just a few feet away. My sister and I still call the old mail carrier the chicken man, and years later even a mention of how the city government ganged up on the chicken man could inspire Mamaws trademark vitriol: Fucking zoning laws. They can kiss my ruby-red asshole. The move to Middletown created other problems, as well. In the mountain homes of Jackson, privacy was more theory than practice. Family, friends, and neighbors would barge into your home without much warning. Mothers would tell their daughters how to raise their children. Fathers would tell sons how to do their jobs. Brothers would tell brothers-in-law how to treat their wives. Family life was something people learned on the fly with a lot of help from their neighbors. In Middletown, a mans home was his castle. However, that castle was empty for Mamaw and Papaw. They brought an ancient family structure from the hills and tried to make it work in a world of privacy and nuclear families. They were newlyweds, but they didnt have anyone to teach them about marriage. They were parents, but there were no grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins to help them with the workload. The only nearby close relative was Papaws mother, Goldie. She was mostly a stranger to her own son, and Mamaw couldnt have held her in lower esteem for abandoning him. After a few years, Mamaw and Papaw began to adapt. Mamaw became close friends with the neighbor lady (that was her word for the neighbors she liked) who lived in a nearby apartment; Papaw worked on cars in his spare time, and his coworkers slowly turned from colleagues to friends. In 1951 they welcomed a baby boymy uncle Jimmyand showered him with their new ma terial comforts. Jimmy, Mamaw would tell me later, could sit up at two weeks, walk at four months, speak in complete sentences just after his first birthday, and read classic novels by age three (A slight exaggeration, my uncle later admitted). They visited Mamaws brothers in Indianapolis and picnicked with their new friends. It was, Uncle Jimmy told me, a typical middle-class life. Kind of boring, by some standards, but happy in a way you appreciate only when you understand the consequences of not being boring. Which is not to say that things always proceeded smoothly. Once, they traveled to the mall to buy Christmas presents with the holiday throng and let Jimmy roam so he could locate a toy he coveted. They were advertising it on television, he told me recently. It was a plastic console that looked like the dash of a jet fighter plane. You could shine a light or shoot darts. The whole idea was to pretend that you were a fighter pilot. Jimmy wandered into a pharmacy that happened to sell the toy, so he picked it up and began to play with it. The store clerk wasnt happy. He told me to put the toy down and get out. Chastised, young Jimmy stood outside in the cold until Mamaw and Papaw strolled by and asked if hed like to go inside the pharmacy. I cant, Jimmy told his father. Why? I just cant. Tell me why right now. He pointed at the store clerk. That man got mad at me and told me to leave. Im not allowed to go back inside. Mamaw and Papaw stormed in, demanding an explanation for the clerks rudeness. The clerk explained that Jimmy had been playing with an expensive toy. This toy? Papaw asked, picking up the toy. When the clerk nodded, Papaw smashed it on the ground. Utter chaos ensued. As Uncle Jimmy explained, They went nuts. Dad threw another of the toys across the store and moved toward the clerk in a very menacing way; Mom started grabbing random shit off the shelves and throwing it all over the place. Shes screaming, Kick his fucking ass! Kick his fucking ass! And then Dad leans in to this clerk and says very clearly, If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck. This poor guy was completely terrified, and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The man apologized, and the Vances continued with their Christmas shopping as if nothing had happened. So, yes, even in their best times, Mamaw and Papaw struggled to adapt. Middletown was a different world. Papaw was supposed to go to work and complain politely to management about rude pharmacy employees. Mamaw was expected to cook dinner, do laundry, and take care of the children. But sewing circles, picnics, and door-to-door vacuum salesmen were not suited to a woman who had almost killed a man at the tender age of twelve. Mamaw had little help when the children were young and required constant supervision, and she had nothing else to do with her time. Decades later she would remember how isolated she felt in the slow suburban crawl of midcentury Middletown. Of that era, she said with characteristic bluntness: Women were just shit on all the time. Mamaw had her dreams but never the opportunity to pursue them. Her greatest love was children, in both a specific sense (her children and grandchildren were the only things in the world she seemed to enjoy in old age) and a general one (she watched shows about abused, neglected, and missing kids and used what little spare money she had to purchase shoes and school supplies for the neighborhoods poorest children). She seemed to feel the pain of neglected kids in a deeply personal way and spoke often of how she hated people who mistreated children. I never understood where this sentiment came fromwhether she herself was abused as a child, perhaps, or whether she just regretted that her childhood had ended so abruptly. There is a story there, though Ill likely never hear it. Mamaw dreamed of turning that passion into a career as a childrens attorneyserving as a voice for those who lacked one. She never pursued that dream, possibly because she didnt know what becoming an attorney took. Mamaw never spent a day in high school. Shed given birth to and buried a child before she could legally drive a car. Even if shed known what was required, her new lifestyle offered little encouragement or opportunity for an aspiring law student with three children and a husband. Despite the setbacks, both of my grandparents had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream. Neither was under any illusions that wealth or privilege didnt matter in America. On politics, for example, Mamaw had one opinionTheyre all a bunch of crooksbut Papaw became a committed Democrat. He had no problem with Armco, but he and everyone like him hated the coal companies in Kentucky thanks to a long history of labor strife. So, to Papaw and Mamaw, not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich. Papaw was a Democrat because that party protected the working people. This attitude carried over to Mamaw: All politicians might be crooks, but if there were any exceptions, they were undoubtedly members of Franklin Delano Roosevelts New Deal coalition. Still, Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didnt excuse failure. Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them, my grandma often told me. You can do anything you want to. Their community shared this faith, and in the 1950s that faith appeared well founded. Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland. They hated domesticated animals and had little use for critters that werent for eating, yet they eventually relented to the childrens demands for dogs and cats. Their children, though, were different. My moms generation was the first to grow up in the industrial Midwest, far from the deep twangs and one-room schools of the hills. They attended modern high schools with thousands of other students. To my grandparents, the goal was to get out of Kentucky and give their kids a head start. The kids, in turn, were expected to do something with that head start. It didnt quite work out that way. Before Lyndon Johnson and the Appalachian Regional Commission brought new roads to southeastern Kentucky, the primary road from Jackson to Ohio was U.S. Route 23. So important was this road in the massive hillbilly migration that Dwight Yoakam penned a song about northerners who casti gated Appalachian children for learning the wrong three Rs: Reading, Rightin, Rt. 23. Yoakams song about his own move from southeastern Kentucky could have come from Mamaws diary: They thought readin, writin, Route 23 would take them to the good life that they had never seen; They didnt know that old highway would lead them to a world of misery Mamaw and Papaw may have made it out of Kentucky, but they and their children learned the hard way that Route 23 didnt lead where they hoped. Chapter 3 Mamaw and Papaw had three kidsJimmy, Bev (my mom), and Lori. Jimmy was born in 1951, when Mamaw and Papaw were integrating into their new lives. They wanted more children, so they tried and tried, through a heartbreaking period of terrible luck and numerous miscarriages. Mamaw carried the emotional scars of nine lost children for her entire life. In college I learned that extreme stress can cause miscarriages and that this is especially true during the early part of a pregnancy. I cant help but wonder how many additional aunts and uncles Id have today were it not for my grandparents difficult early transition, no doubt intensified by Papaws years of hard drinking. Yet they persisted through a decade of failed pregnancies, and eventually it paid off: Mom was born on January 20, 1961the day of John F. Kennedys inaugurationand my aunt Lori came along less than two years later. For whatever reason, Mamaw and Papaw stopped there. Uncle Jimmy once told me about the time before his sisters were born: We were just a happy, normal middle-class family. I remember watching Leave It to Beaver on TV and thinking that looked like us. When he first told me this, I nodded attentively and left it alone. Looking back, I realize, that to most outsiders, a statement like that must come off as insane. Normal middle-class parents dont wreck pharmacies because a store clerk is mildly rude to their child. But thats probably the wrong standard to use. Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: Thats what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid. What I mean is that they were united, they were getting along with each other, Uncle Jimmy conceded when I later pressed him. But yeah, like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat. Whatever unity they possessed early in their marriage began to evaporate after their daughter Loriwhom I call Aunt Weewas born in 1962. By the mid1960s, Papaws drinking had become habitual; Mamaw began to shut herself off from the outside world. Neighborhood kids warned the mailman to avoid the evil witch of McKinley Street. When the mailman ignored their advice, he met a large woman with an extra-long menthol cigarette hanging out of her mouth who told him to stay the fuck off of her property. Hoarder hadnt entered everyday parlance, but Mamaw fit the bill, and her tendencies only worsened as she withdrew from the world. Garbage piled up in the house, with an entire bedroom devoted to trinkets and debris that had no earthly value. To hear of this period, one gets the sense that Mamaw and Papaw led two lives. There was the outward public life. It included work during the day and preparing the kids for school. This was the life that everyone else saw, and by all measures it was quite successful: My grandfather earned a wage that was almost unfathomable to friends back home; he liked his work and did it well; their children went to modern, well-funded schools; and my grandmother lived in a home that was, by Jackson standards, a mansiontwo thousand square feet, four bedrooms, and modern plumbing. Home life was different. I didnt notice it at first as a teenager, Uncle Jimmy recalled. At that age, youre just so wrapped up in your own stuff that you hardly recognize the change. But it was there. Dad stayed out more; Mom stopped keeping the housedirty dishes and junk piled up everywhere. They fought a lot more. It was all around a rough time. Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix. Before Mamaw was married, her brothers had been willing to murder boys who disrespected their sister. Now that she was married to a man whom many of them considered more a brother than an outsider, they tolerated behavior that would have gotten Papaw killed in the holler. Moms brothers would come up and want to go carousing with Dad, Uncle Jimmy explained. Theyd go drinking and chasing women. Uncle Pet was always the leader. I didnt want to hear about it, but I always did. It was that culture from back then that expected the men were going to go out and do what they wanted to do. Mamaw felt disloyalty acutely. She loathed anything that smacked of a lack of complete devotion to family. In her own home, shed say things like Im sorry Im so damned mean and You know I love you, but Im just a crazy bitch. But if she knew of anyone criticizing so much as her socks to an outsider, shed fly off the handle. I dont know those people. You never talk about family to some stranger. Never. My sister, Lindsay, and I could fight like cats and dogs in her home, and for the most part shed let us figure things out alone. But if I told a friend that my sister was hateful and Mamaw overheard, shed remember it and tell me the next time we were alone that I had committed the cardinal sin of disloyalty. How dare you speak about your sister to some little shit? In five years you wont even remember his goddamned name. But your sister is the only true friend youll ever have. Yet in her own life, with three children at home, the men who should have been most loyal to herher brothers and husbandconspired against her. Papaw seemed to resist the social expectations of a middle-class father, sometimes with hilarious results. He would announce that he was headed to the store and ask his kids if they needed anything; hed come back with a new car. A new Chevrolet convertible one month. A luxurious Oldsmobile the next. Whered you get that? theyd ask him. Its mine, I traded for it, hed reply nonchalantly. But sometimes his failure to conform brought terrible consequences. My young aunt and mother would play a little game when their father came home from work. Some days he would carefully park his car, and the game would go welltheir father would come inside, theyd have dinner together like a normal family, and theyd make one another laugh. Many days, however, he wouldnt park his car normallyhed back into a spot too quickly, or sloppily leave his car on the road, or even sideswipe a telephone pole as he maneuvered. Those days the game was already lost. Mom and Aunt Wee would run inside and tell Mamaw that Papaw had come home drunk. Sometimes theyd run out the back door and stay the night with Mamaws friends. Other times Mamaw would insist on staying, so Mom and Aunt Wee would brace for a long night. One Christmas Eve, Papaw came home drunk and demanded a fresh dinner. When that failed to materialize, he picked up the family Christmas tree and threw it out the back door. The next year he greeted a crowd at his daughters birthday party and promptly coughed up a huge wad of phlegm at everyones feet. Then he smiled and walked off to grab himself another beer. I couldnt believe that mild-mannered Papaw, whom I adored as a child, was such a violent drunk. His behavior was due at least partly to Mamaws disposition. She was a violent nondrunk. And she channeled her frustrations into the most productive activity imaginable: covert war. When Papaw passed out on the couch, shed cut his pants with scissors so theyd burst at the seam when he next sat down. Or shed steal his wallet and hide it in the oven just to piss him off. When he came home from work and demanded fresh dinner, shed carefully prepare a plate of fresh garbage. If he was in a fighting mood, shed fight back. In short, she devoted herself to making his drunken life a living hell. If Jimmys youth shielded him from the signs of their deteriorating marriage for a bit, the problem soon reached an obvious nadir. Uncle Jimmy recalled one fight: I could hear the furniture bumping and bumping, and they were really getting into it. They were both screaming. I went downstairs to beg them to stop. But they didnt stop. Mamaw grabbed a flower vase, hurled it, andshe always had a hell of an armhit Papaw right between the eyes. It split his forehead wide open, and he was bleeding really badly when he got in his car and drove off. Thats what I went to school the next day thinking about. Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, shed kill him. A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns. Because they were hill people, they had to keep their two lives separate. No outsiders could know about the familial strifewith outsiders defined very broadly. When Jimmy turned eighteen, he took a job at Armco and moved out immediately. Not long after he left, Aunt Wee found herself in the middle of one particularly bad fight, and Papaw punched her in the face. The blow, though accidental, left a nasty black eye. When Jimmyher own brotherreturned home for a visit, Aunt Wee was made to hide in the basement. Because Jimmy didnt live with the family anymore, he was not to know about the inner workings of the house. Thats just how everyone, especially Mamaw, dealt with things, Aunt Wee said. It was just too embarrassing. Its not obvious to anyone why Mamaw and Papaws marriage fell apart. Perhaps Papaws alcoholism got the best of him. Uncle Jimmy suspects that he eventually ran around on Mamaw. Or maybe Mamaw just crackedwith three living kids, one dead one, and a host of miscarriages in between, who could have blamed her? Despite their violent marriage, Mamaw and Papaw always maintained a measured optimism about their childrens futures. They reasoned that if they could go from a one-room schoolhouse in Jackson to a two-story suburban home with the comforts of the middle class, then their children (and grandchildren) should have no problem attending college and acquiring a share of the American Dream. They were unquestionably wealthier than the family members who had stayed in Kentucky. They visited the Atlantic Ocean and Niagara Falls as adults despite never traveling farther than Cincinnati as children. They believed that they had made it and that their children would go even further. There was something deeply naive about that attitude, though. All three children were profoundly affected by their tumultuous home life. Papaw wanted Jimmy to get an education instead of slogging it out in the steel mill. He warned that if Jimmy got a full-time job out of high school, the money would be like a drugit would feel good in the short term, but it would keep him from the things he ought to be doing. Papaw even prevented Jimmy from using him as a referral on his Armco application. What Papaw didnt appreciate was that Armco offered something more than money: the ability to get out of a house where your mother threw vases at your fathers forehead. Lori struggled in school, mostly because she never attended class. Mamaw used to joke that shed drive her to school and drop her off, and somehow Lori would beat her home. During her sophomore year of high school, Loris boyfriend stole some PCP, and the two of them returned to Mamaws to indulge. He told me that he should do more, since he was bigger. That was the last thing I remembered. Lori woke up when Mamaw and her friend Kathy placed Lori in a cold bathtub. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, wasnt responding. Kathy couldnt tell if the young man was breathing. Mamaw ordered her to drag him to the park across the street. I dont want him to die in my fucking house, she said. Instead she called someone to take him to the hospital, where he spent five days in intensive care. The next year, at sixteen, Lori dropped out of high school and married. She immediately found herself trapped in an abusive home just like the one shed tried to escape. Her new husband would lock her in a bedroom to keep her from seeing her family. It was almost like a prison, Aunt Wee later told me. Fortunately, both Jimmy and Lori found their way. Jimmy worked his way through night school and landed a sales job with Johnson

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