I just finished reading the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. From the amazon.com description:
. . . a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years . . . J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck . . . Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
The punch line is that for Vance, he broke the cycle. I bought the book because the story was a familiar. Vance grew up in the white working class Appalachian community of Middletown Ohio, just a few miles up the road from the white working class Appalachian community I grew up in of Norwood, Ohio. Armco Steel was to Middletown what General Motors was to Norwood. A bonus in the book was understanding the role that alcohol and violence played in our lives. Ultimately, I found somewhat of a parallel existence with Vance.
The book has taken a good bit of heat. For example, from the pages of The New Republic the reviewer concludes, and I concur, that Vance makes some rather sweeping sociological statements. I suspect too that I would hated to have Vance in my classroom, as he seemed totally goal focused on getting out of school with little time for the process – but I also say that with the hindsight of someone who has recently retired from higher education, compared to the 30-something Mr. Vance.
The New Republic piece is critical of Vance’s emphasis on personal responsibility in the socio-economic dilemma of his hometown. In fact, the New Republic piece is void of any discussion of the need for personal responsibility. In my past as a practicing alcoholic, I readily had a myriad of reasons why I “had to” drink – abusive home situation, poverty, born on the wrong side of the tracks, to name but a few. I successfully surrounded myself with a network of folks who would support my active addiction. As well, I could find folks who considered the class system as the primary reason for my alcoholism.
Here is the deal – all of those socio-economic factors were true for me and they were true for others too. However, it was not until I took personal responsibility for my actions that I was able to begin to see any possibility for recovery from my addictions.
In a recent TED talk Vance pondered how to give others the opportunities that he had to break the cycle of poverty, violence, and addiction. That is where the role of mentorship in general, or sponsorship in 12-Step groups comes in.
Until I came to take personal responsibility for my recovery from alcoholism, I needed the poverty, the violence, the familial dysfunction to continue my active addiction. In recovery, I no longer need those socio-economic factors to justify my existence. I am grateful for the opportunity to now actively work toward a solution to those inequities in our world. There is much to pick at in Vance’s book, but there is an essence of accountability and “getting sick and tired of being sick and tired” that truly resonated with me in those pages. I suspect that others in recovery will have a similar experience.