‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Affirms Liberating Power of Truth and Virtue

J.D. Vance’s message regarding the powerful role of culture deserves our full attention as we grapple with entrenched poverty in this country.

Back in August 2019, when J.D. Vance converted to Catholicism, the best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was asked whether his “up from poverty” tale could be interpreted through a “spiritual” lens.

It is an important question, and not only because the answer could shed light on how Vance, the emotionally traumatized child of a heroin-addicted mother, found the necessary fortitude to break out of the underclass, graduate from Yale Law School and begin a happy marriage. 

The question also provides a starting point for a richer discussion about a war on poverty that goes beyond public policy preferences to address the interplay of cultural, family and religious practices that can awaken a child’s sense of his own agency or shut it down.

But when Hillbilly Elegy climbed The New York Times’ bestseller list in 2016, the year Donald Trump upended presidential election forecasts, commentators were scrambling to make sense of the upset, and many latched onto Vance’s portrait of rural, mountain-dwelling culture as a kind of social-political document that could explain the candidate’s appeal for white working-class voters in flyover country. 

No matter that Vance’s memoir had a more modest perspective. It still managed to grab the attention of U.S. elites who had mostly ignored the hollowing out of white working-class communities. 

Now, as Trump exits the White House four years later, and the death of George Floyd in police custody shifting public attention to a national reckoning on racial discrimination, Ron Howard’s new film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy offers a window into the young Vance’s (Owen Asztalos) life and his tumultuous relationship with his violent, drug-addicted mother, Bev (Amy Adams), and his tough, profane but ultimately supportive grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close). 

Close’s and Adams’ performances are powerful, but often distract from J.D.’s story. Indeed, this uneven adaptation fails to convey the subtle spiritual undercurrent that made the author’s description of his halting struggle for both stability, and something much harder to attain — real virtue — so poignant and mysterious.

Like the book, the film touches on key chapters in the author’s childhood and adolescence in Kentucky and Ohio. His divorced mother earns a nursing license, only to be sidelined by drug addiction and increasingly instable relationships. Angry and frustrated with her lot, Bev lashes out at her children, who find refuge at their grandparents’ home.

The cascade of abusive behavior takes its toll. In his memoir, Vance recalled that “all I wanted to do was to get away from it.” And then, as an angry young teenager, he faces a horrible irony. “I started to like the drama. … My heart would still race but in an anticipatory way. … This thing that I hated had become a sort of drug.”

His grades drop, and he takes up with a bad crowd. Mamaw, who confronts the failure of her own parenting in her daughter’s chaotic life, finally gathers the strength to take her grandson in hand.

Her devotion and belief in his abilities draw J.D. back from the abyss. Broken, flawed people, grandmother and grandson forge a bond in their desperate fight for survival.

“People like … me don’t lose contact with our parents because we don’t care,” Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy, as he explained his complicated relationship with his mother. 

“We lose contact with them to survive. We never stop loving and we never lose hope that our loved ones will change. Rather we are forced either by wisdom or the law to take the path of self-preservation.”

The film presents this breakthrough with visceral power. But the story is handicapped by screenwriter Vanessa Taylor’s decision to break up the narrative flow of Vance’s memoir with a series of flashbacks. Thus, as the adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso)

 grapples with the expectations and etiquette of the 1% and strives to win a job with a top law firm, his mother’s latest crisis intrudes, yanking him back to his hillbilly roots and past family difficulties. The flashbacks are disorienting and defuse the emotive power of the performances. On the other hand, they also remind us that young men like J.D. are burdened by ongoing family disfunction as they bootstrap their way out of poverty, and this truth makes their uphill progress all the more daunting. 

Vance’s memoir did a better job of describing this predicament and stirring our compassion. More importantly, the film does not give us an appreciation for his most striking virtue: a deep humility that sustains his path to economic and emotional stability.

In the book, that hard-won virtue guides his decision to accept his grandmother’s direction and join the Marines before entering Ohio State for undergraduate studies. 

And his humility still leads him to seek his wife’s counsel, when events in his life threaten to ignite a violent tendency within that he must keep at bay.

Perhaps this humility also tempers his descriptions of his mother’s long, difficult path to sobriety. By contrast, some memoirs dealing with childhood trauma, like Angela’s Ashes, are more literary, but also much harsher and more graphic, with the author perhaps securing a measure of revenge or a kind of justice as a parent’s many transgressions are paraded before readers. 

Fortunately, the film’s superficial treatment of Vance’s own thinking and evolving values can be easily remedied by picking up a copy of his memoir.

His story will inspire those with a similar history to overcome their own demons. It will also stir the conscience of his fellow Americans, prompting some of us to offer moral and practical one-on-one support to young men and women who remain on the margins of our society and yearn for a way in.

Now, more than ever, his message regarding the powerful role of culture deserves our full attention as we grapple with entrenched poverty in this country. 

“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it?” Vance asked in his memoir, posing a question that has relevance for every American Christian and parish community. “Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.”

For Catholics, his story also affirms the liberating power of Christian virtue, and of a life grounded in the “truth that sets us free” — a subject he addressed explicitly last year after he entered the Catholic Church. 

“One of the things Hillbilly Elegy is about is a struggle to find stability in your own life, but also to become a good person when you didn’t have an easy upbringing,” Vance told Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, during a 2019 interview after he entered the Catholic Church. “That means being a good husband and a good father, and being capable enough to provide for your family.”

Vance takes none of these attainments for granted. And he was drawn to the Catholic Church, he said, precisely because its teaching on “the concept of grace is not couched in terms of epiphany. It’s not like you receive grace and suddenly you go from being a bad person to being a good person. You’re constantly being worked on. I like that.”