In search of insight into the country’s stark cultural divides in preparation for a week of potentially difficult conversations in Kentucky where I’d be attending family reunion and 50-year high school reunion, I dove into “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance. Throughout this mesmerizing, painful, and hilarious memoir, I kept wondering if the author might know about the ACE Study. The answer was found on page 226 when “ACEs” jumps out at me and continues for several pages. I leapt from the living room sofa and darted to the kitchen to tell my fiancé Bill about it—and practically jump for joy.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is both a memoir and a reflection on the loss of the American dream and the nature of the great social divisions in our country. I was hooked from the very beginning of the book by Vance’s personal story with its vivid cast of characters, but wanted a richer and more optimistic discussion of solutions to the many problems and challenges of the disenfranchised working class. Subsequent interviews with Vance reveal his engagement in discussing solutions, a process that will surely (and hopefully) lead to his knowing about the rapidly growing ACEs movement.
In a story in the Wall Street Journal in July, Alexandra Wolfe says Vance “hopes that his experiences and path upward with the help of religion, discipline and family will inspire communities to promote those values.” She reports that Vance sees some of the solutions in community churches where its leaders care less about politics and more about how people in their community are doing.
Vance also says in this article: “I want parents to fight and scream less, and to recognize how destructive chaos is to their children’s future.” He also thinks that school leaders could help by being more cognizant of what’s going on in students’ home lives. The priorities that Vance advances are in sync with ACEs movement advocates working for faith-based trauma-informed approaches, ACEs-informed parenting skills development, and trauma-sensitive schools.
Early in the book, there was a foreshadowing of Vance’s exposure to the ACE Study. He describes his life around the age of nine when his mother and her third husband move the family away from his beloved grandparents and the marriage soon deteriorates into violent fighting matches. He writes: “I began to do poorly in school. Many nights I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep because of the noise—the furniture rocking, heavy stomping, yelling, sometimes glass shattering. The next morning, I’d wake up tired and depressed, meandering through the school day, thinking constantly about what awaited at home. …” His slipping grades were the first indication of how terrible things had become.
He goes on to describe how be began to put on weight and “often felt sick and would complain of severe stomachaches to the school nurse. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the trauma at home was clearly affecting my health.”
On the pages near the end of the book, Vance describes the difficulties he has in his relationship with his to-be wife, Usha, who “hadn’t learned how to fight in the hillbilly school of hard knocks” and told him it “it was never acceptable to run away, that she was worried, and that I had to learn how to talk to her.” Addressing conflict by talking, apologizing, and taking a deep breath were not go-to strategies in his family.
He saw a different way to be in the world by experiencing how Usha and members of her family treated each other and he sought counseling. Therapy wasn’t for him—“Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit.” But he continues: “I did go to the library, and I learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study.”
He describes the ACE Study, comments on demographic differences in ACEs prevalence, covers the Harvard research on stress and the developing brain, and quotes Dr. Nadine Burke Harris on the difference between the body’s response to meeting the bear in the forest vs. meeting the bear at home every night after excessive drinking. He took the ACE survey himself, and gave it to his sister (both scored 6), Usha (zero), and to other family members.
At my family reunion last year, my three sisters and I took the ACE survey together and talked about why we answered the questions the way we did and why there were differences in our scores. This process unearthed a lot of buried pain and anger that led to other conversations and the beginning of some healing. Vance found that for him, understanding the past gave him hope and fortitude to deal with the demons of his youth. He concluded: “And though it’s cliché, the best medicine was talking about it with the people who understood.”
I am so excited about this book and its success for several reasons:
—J.D. Vance joins David Brooks of the New York Times as an eloquent conservative voice who understands the significance of childhood trauma. Brooks says “Hillbilly Elegy” is “essential reading for this moment in history.”
—The book has been on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for nine weeks and the author is speaking widely to audiences about the impact of childhood trauma on his life and in some of these conversations addresses the importance of the ACE Study. Thousands of people are learning about the ACE Study for the first time.
—Vance’s unvarnished storytelling reveals how difficult it is to break the intergenerational patterns that are so destructive. He presents his true self and expresses deep compassion for the flawed individuals who saved his life. In spite of caring family members and mentors, he recognizes how his life could have taken a dark turn many times along the way.
All I can say is read it!