From Opioids to Hill Billy Culture, J.D. Vance’s White, Working Class Memoir Captivates D.C. Audiences

By Emily Simonsen, Sept. 4, 2016, 11:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON – At 12 years old, James David Vance broke free from his mom’s speeding car. He ran to the nearest house, hollering for help. Moments later, police arrived, placing his belligerent and violent mother in handcuffs, a scene Vance says he’ll never forget.

“I was terrified. I thought we [my sister and I] were gonna die, and our mom was gonna kill us,” Vance said to an audience of over 2,000 people packed within the main stage of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the venue for the Library of Congress’s 2017 National Book Festival.

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Vance, left, with commentator and translator, right, on the main stage for the Library of Congress’s 2017 National Book Festival

Vance’s mom was an opioid addict. According to Vance, her addiction plunged their family into financial difficulty and emotional volatility, while faceless father figures shifted in and out of their lives like a revolving door.

In the 1990s, Vance considered his mom’s opioid addiction an atypical dependence on pain killers; yet today, opioid addiction remains the leading cause of death for drug overdoses, with 20,101 overdose deaths from pain killers and 12,990 overdose deaths from heroin in 2015 alone, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

“If there’s a lot of instability within community homes, people find outlets through addiction,” said Vance, a self-embraced, white, working class “hillbilly” who hails from Ohio, a state whose opioid deaths have increased each year since 2007, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Indubitably, the opioid crisis remains a central issue for white, working class Americans: in the Brookings Institute’s 2015 study, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” the report found mortality rates were 30 percent higher for whites with a high school degree or lower, compared to 1999 mortality rates for the same group.

Furthermore, the report found the increase in mortality rates for white, working class Americans is linked to increases in suicide and drug abuse; as the report speculated, this increase in suicide and drug abuse is likely from social and economic deterioration among the white, working class, who face the widest income inequality gap in history, according to Inequality.org.

This deterioration in economic and social wellbeing among working whites explains why Vance’s memoir, “Hill Bill Elegy”, shot to the top of the New York Times best-sellers list during the 2016 campaign cycle: as some media outlets like Time Magazine have noted, his Appalachian family’s encounters with opioids, broken relationships, unemployment and economic struggles, speak to what a large portion of white, working voters face daily.

“Vance is an incredible storyteller,” said Kitty Thuermer, a middle-aged D.C. resident attending the festival. “I wouldn’t be able to write about my family as he did. He must have thought he had a higher purpose writing to help others,” said Thuermer.

Vance’s memoir has even led some publications, such as The New Yorker, to dub him the unofficial spokesperson for white, working class Americans responsible for Trump’s Presidential victory: according to national polling data collected by Edison Research, at 66 percent, whites without a college degree were the largest demographic to vote Donald Trump into the Presidency.

As political commentators like Vance Jones have speculated, the white, working class’s election of Trump reflects a “whitelash,” a statement that politicians cannot ignore the issues of blue-collar Americans, who can leverage their majority to sway polling outcomes.

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The author, center, while festival attendees swarm the National Book Festival’s information booth for free, recyclable bags.

Nevertheless, Vance remains reluctant to accept the unofficial label as the speaker for the white, working class, out of fear of generalizing their experiences; yet for some D.C. residents, like Earle Timberlake, Vance’s reflections may be an indicator of what’s coming down the pipeline.

“Vance is very articulate on a very important subject,” said Timberlake, an older festival attendee. “Philosophically, his experiences growing up in the economically challenged town of Middleton, Ohio, act as a precursor to what’s coming to our world, given the way technology is advancing,” Timberlake said, implying the gradual loss of American jobs to outsourcing and machines.

This point, in respect to white, working class jobs lost to outsourcing and machines, is something Vance is particularly cognizant of when criticizing the shortcomings of his fellow “hillbillies” within his memoir. According to Vance’s “Hill Billy Elegy,” the white, working class has learned to embody a culture of “learned helplessness,” where they believe no one – not even themselves – can find ways to alter their circumstances, such as jobs lost to technology.

In turn, Vance believes working class whites do little to encourage themselves or others to embrace opportunities that will alleviate their social and economic deterioration, leading America’s youth down a binary path where they must choose between college or disappearing, minimum wage jobs.

“I found Vance’s point about post-graduation options particularly poignant,” said student Phoebe Cos, a festival attendee who listened to Vance’s discussion. “In respect to his point, I personally relate to some of his observations… I’m eager to read Vance’s book once I’m off the waitlist at my local library,” said Cos.

“I’m shocked by how many came to see J.D. Vance,” said Noioi Obasi, a festival volunteer who watched the 2,000-person line pour into the Walter E. White Convention Center’s main stage to catch a glimpse of Vance. “Though, it’s inspiring to see how many people showed up today, especially the young people,” said Obasi, smiling.

As Vance delivered the closing remarks of his speech, once more, he highlighted this importance of using America’s youth to improve conditions for the white, working class of the future.

“Success in our lives is giving our kids and youth the stability and security we [white, working class Americans] didn’t have growing up,” said Vance.

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