[Revised] From Opioids to Hillbilly Culture, J.D. Vance’s White, Working-Class Memoir Captivates D.C. Audiences

By Emily Simonsen, Sept. 27, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON – At 12 years old, James David Vance broke free from his mother’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 going to die, and our mother was going to 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.

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

Vance’s mother 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.

Vance said he believed his mother’s opioid addiction was an atypical dependence on pain killers in the 1990s; 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-described “hillbilly” who hails from a white, working-class town in Ohio.

Undoubtedly, 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. According to report findings, this increase in suicide and drug abuse leading to high mortality rates among white, working-class Americans is likely a result of economic deterioration among the white, working-class, who face the widest income inequality gap in history, according to Inequality.org.

After the success of Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,”  among white, working-class Americans during the 2016 campaign cycle, some publications like The New Yorker began dubbing Vance the unofficial spokesperson for the white, working-class citizens responsible for Donald 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 Trump into the Presidency.

“One of the things I have not appreciated but accepted as reality is a lot of people see me as a spokesman for the white, working-class. A lot of times I’m asked to go on TV and say what does the trump voter feel about this or that issue; that is unfair. I don’t think any person can speak for that many people or all the trump voters at large,” said Vance.

Attendees swarm the official National Book Festival information booth for free, recyclable bags.

Nevertheless, as some media outlets like Time Magazine have noted, Vance’s family’s encounters with opioids, broken relationships, unemployment and economic struggles, speak to what a large portion of white, working voters face daily.

As political commentators like Van 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.

Despite the white, working-class’s polling power, Vance has remained critical of blue-collar Americans’ powerlessness when it comes to opportunities.

“Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness,’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life,” wrote Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy.” According to Vance, this mentality leads youth down a troubling, binary path.

“We have a significant problem with the fact that you are given a choice when you graduate high school between working a fast food job or getting a four-year college education, and we should provide more pathways than that. Those are the only two pathways. You see people going in those two directions, but we also have to think more constructively about regional economic development than that,” said Vance.

“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.

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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