I’m turning 28 in about an hour, and while every birthday prompts reflection on the past year, this year feels particularly important. Ten years ago, when I was almost 18, I made some decisions that changed the entire course of my life. Without exaggerating, they were the kind of decisions which hurl even the most competent of adults into existential crisis: Losing my faith, confronting my unconventional sexual orientation, testifying against my mother and her parents in a years-long custody battle. The life I had planned for myself when I was 17, standing on the threshold of adulthood, looked nothing like the life I’m actually living, and it’s strange to look back at where I was then and connect the dots to where I am today.
All this in mind, I found the perfect book today. Because I had the pleasure of waiting about four hours for a delayed flight, I finished my current book (Hero, by S.J. Vollman) and wandered into the airport bookstore in search of fresh material.
I picked out two: Hillbilly Elegy, and The Orphan Master’s Son. I’ll write in more detail sometime about my book-picking process, but I specifically picked Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance because I had heard that it was a fantastic way of getting to know a difficult-to-understand demographic: working-class and poor whites. I thought it was a social study of some kind (which I guess it is), and was pleased to discover it was actually a memoir.
I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire time I waited for my flight, and then finished the book on the plane just as we landed. There are a lot of wonderful, powerful things about the book, which deserve a review of their own, but I want to write about something a little more personal.
Hillbilly Elegy resonated deeply for a number of reasons. I imagine it’s probably a compelling story to anyone who has a heart or is interested in a peculiar group of people, but it felt especially familiar to some aspects of my younger life. I don’t think much about these parts anymore, partly because (I’ll be the first to admit) my memory isn’t fantastic, and partly because thinking about them is so painful. It’s hard to know where to even begin writing about it all.
A few months ago in class, we took the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), a survey on childhood trauma. It asks you to score yourself on a scale of 1-10, based on a series of questions. The class average was 1 or 2. I got a 7. Only one other guy – who I’ve since become good friends with, because we share the same dark sense of humor – scored higher than me with an 8.
Our scores, thankfully, remained anonymous. I wasn’t interested in explaining my background in detail to my class. But I’ve since been frustrated, both in school and in other situations, when my opinion is discounted because I’m white, educated, well-spoken, and well-dressed. The assumption is that I come from a privileged background. And while the last ten years of my life have been substantially better than the first 18, and while it’s true that now both of my parents make what still seems to me like ungodly amounts of money, and while I can gratefully say that education and reading was prized in our home, the truth is that my childhood was really, really rough, and in many ways I’m still figuring out how to reshape my adulthood in a way that allows me not to repeat those patterns I’ve already lived.
I’ve seen first-hand the kind of emotional destruction that stress and lack of money has on a family. I’ve been hit, slapped, spanked, shaken, screamed at by both of my parents and watched even worse happen to my siblings – of which there are 7. I’ve watched my mother use the family car to run over toys as a punishment. I’ve gotten into that same car on hot summer days and gagged because the diapers, curdled baby bottles, and stale food made it smell so terrible. I’ve eaten old bread and expired milk, donated to our family from the local grocery store, for weeks on end. The first time I heard every bad word was from my parents yelling at each other. I’ve had people tell me I stink, that my whole family smells like pee, that people didn’t want to sit by us in church. I’ve walked the tightrope of emotionally volatile parents who lash out unpredictably, who, when you tell them you love them, say in all seriousness, “What do you want now?” Our family had Child Protective Services called on them more than once. I have only one memory of being lovingly touched or spoken to as a child.
Interestingly, if you showed my parents and grandparents the poor drug-addled Appalachian white welfare queens featured in Hillbilly Elegy, they’d turn their noses up and see them as true white trash. Our family never took government assistance. We certainly did not do drugs; being Mormon, we didn’t even drink coffee. We read books in our homes. Academic achievement was emphasized to the extreme. I remember one day when my brother, who was later diagnosed with dyslexia, was stammering over a reading passage and my mother yelled “Stop. Being. So. Stupid!” and hit him over the head with each word for emphasis. We were smart. We were not like other poor people. And it’s true: I’d be an idiot not to recognize how my family’s educational values have paid enormous dividends in my success.
And yet if you visit my grandparents’ house, you’d find the same carpet that’s been there my whole life, now thin and threadbare. My grandfather has been wearing the same ratty clothes for as long as I’ve known him. He has about 10 VCRs in his bedroom alone, and a basement full of nightly recordings of the stock market report from the last umpteen years. Next to the video tapes, a giant pile of ancient walnuts rots away on the floor. When we were younger, Grandpa had an old brown pill bottle full of dead spiders that had bitten him over the years. He’d dump them out onto his bedspread and tell us what they were before scooping them back up and putting the lid on tight. As a kid, Grandma and Grandpa’s house was fascinating and a little scary. As an adult, other words come to mind. Hoarder. White trash. The point is not that I think my grandparents are white trash – I actually find that an insulting racial and socioeconomic term that has no room as an adjective in the vocabulary of a decent person. The point is that that, despite having such a high priority placed on education, my family lived and lives in ways strangely similar to Vance’s hillbillies, ways that most Americans would find unacceptable.
It’s hard to write these things, because even though they’re absolutely true, the intense sense of family loyalty that Hillbilly Elegy describes exists in my family and is just as often completely misguided. When I left the Mormon Church, it was seen as a hideous betrayal of family history and values. When I encouraged my father to live closer to us, instead of in another state as my mother insisted he do, it was as if I had committed an act of high treason against my mother and her parents. Mom was so angry when she kicked me out that she couldn’t even speak to me to tell my why; I had to find out from other people that she had been recording our conversations with my dad and heard me imploring him to move closer.
Of course, this behavior didn’t start with my parents. Just as Vance describes generations of hillbillies, the roots of my family’s turmoil can be found in my parents’ parents, and in their parents, too. I have an aunt who believes that when my polygamist great-great-grandfather died and left his second family impoverished and ashamed after the Mormon Church officially ended the practice of polygamy, the scrimping and meanness and guilt were passed down and thickened through the generations, draping like a suffocating blanket over each new round of children.
Mom used to tell stories of how Grandpa took pleasure in telling her horrible “jokes” – like once, her brother got battery acid on his hands, and my grandfather told all the kids that he was going to die. My mother stayed up all night pleading with God to let him live. After my parents divorced, we lived with my grandparents, and I remember Grandpa being so mean to Mom that she took us kids and left the house, sobbing. He knew, and still knows, just what to say so you hurt the most. Grandma doesn’t always like it, but she stands by his side. It seems like a paradox that people can be so cruel to each other, and yet so incredibly loyal, but that’s how they are. When it comes to my father, or the Mormon Church, my grandparents circle the wagons around my mother and attack outsiders mercilessly. I’m lucky enough to have the guts to disregard that sense of loyalty in pursuit of something better, but it comes with the price of a lifetime of guilt and self-doubt and naive attempts at reconciliation.
Of course, I’m not entirely innocent myself. Within my nuclear family, my brothers’ wives and girlfriends have said how clannish and difficult to break into we are. We talk shit on each other, but other people are not allowed to – even hearing close friends point out my siblings’ shortcomings raises my hackles. Fights amongst my siblings as young adults were (and sometimes still are) full of phrases like “You should just fucking kill yourself, you worthless piece of shit,” or, “Fuck you, you fucking bitch,” or, the worst of all, “You’re just like Mom.” Once, one of my brothers punched another in the face so hard that he had to get the side of his nose stitched back on. I think we always knew this wasn’t “normal,” but when you’re raised around it and nobody is there to mediate, that’s what life looks like, so you do it too.
It’s not all bad, though. For my brothers and I, underneath all the fighting is a fierce love that was forged over years of having nobody to depend on but each other. I imagine the same is true of my grandparents and mother; it’s just that their particular brand of toxicity is so extreme that the ends do not justify the means, so I and most of my brothers have chosen to keep our distance. Over the years, as we’ve begun building our own lives away from the dysfunction of our family, we’ve gotten much better. We may still scream at each other, but fifteen minutes later, we’re laughing again. We text and call each other on phone all the time, over the good and the bad. We loan each other money and have sleepovers and go camping together. We say “I love you.”
When we get together for holidays, Dad and I make massive amounts of food for everybody, we pour around a dozen glasses of wine (if everybody is present), and the stories come forth. Holy shit, the stories. My brothers are so good at remembering the details and are constantly reminding me of things that I’ve forgotten. What we talk about is often, on the surface, very funny – we’ve all developed a magnificent sense of humor to cope with everything – but the content of the stories is always the same – dark, abusive, sad. Remember that time Matt got busted sneaking out to the grocery store at 4 AM to buy bags of food, and Mom and I drove past him on the way home from our paper route, his fat little face flushed as he pedaled as fast as he could? He lost all the food and got grounded for a week. Ha-ha! Remember the time that she tried to spank Mike, and he rolled around, dodging the spankings, yelling, “Smit!” every time her hand landed on the bed and not his butt? Of course, he earned himself an exponentially higher number of spanks for when she caught him, but it was so funny. Remember when you guys cut off the bike lock Mom kept on the refrigerator door and buried it in the backyard, and then everybody insisted they didn’t know where it was? Joke’s on Mom! Ha-ha! When I was 18, and in the years following, these storytelling episodes were often accompanied by everybody breaking down in tears, or getting into a massive screaming match, but we don’t really do that anymore. Just as the fights have subsided, so have the tears. But there’s something deeply therapeutic in the re-hashing. I imagine that we’ll be doing it for the rest of our lives.
I’m proud to say that of my brothers who are married or partnered, the result is remarkably similar to Vance and his sister’s outcome. They treat their spouses with respect, and deeply love and are loved in return. I’ve watched them turn themselves into better men, watched them learn to be more patient, to use expressive words and accurate phrases instead of yelling and screaming and storming off. I’m still figuring out how to expect the same for myself, to feel like I deserve the respect and love that I want, but I’m getting better, too.
And just as Vance was hopeful at the end of the book, so am I. For many years, things were difficult and dark, but as I got older, a light appeared on the horizon; and today, even though it’s cheesy to say it, I feel like the sun has come up. I’m almost done with my Masters. I have a rich and fulfilling social life, and equally enjoy the time I spend alone. I like who I am. I like who my brothers are. Dad and I are very close, and we love to watch baseball together and root for the Cubbies. I still don’t have a relationship with my Mom, but every once in a while, she reaches out in a way that almost feels like there might be hope there, too.
A lot has changed in the last ten years. Sometimes I wish I could go back and visit myself at 17, 18, 19 – give myself the hug I so desperately needed, assure myself that things will get better and that life will be good in a way I can’t even imagine. I’d like to think that, while I’ve matured and changed for the better, the core of who I am is still the same – smart, stubborn, skeptical – and that my younger self would have appreciated the advice I’d give her. Hang in there. It gets better. Take those risks and do what you love. Trust your gut. Don’t date people who make you feel bad about yourself. Drink less.
Who knows what 38-year-old me will want to say to me in ten years? With any luck and a little hard work, she’ll be a widely-published author, respected for her brilliance, wit, and dashing good looks. Maybe kids will be in the picture. Maybe not. Whatever 38 holds, assuming I get there in the first place, is something I very much look forward to seeing. Although life is never easy, I feel like the worst is over and the best is yet to come.