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The Despair of Poor White Americans


But Vance, a self-described conservative who has contributed to National Review, is not offering another lurid saga of hillbilly exploits. He is trying to figure out how things went wrong for his people. “I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class,” he writes. “And we hill people aren’t doing very well.”

In Vance’s story, the troubles are embodied above all in one person: his mother. After graduating high school as the salutatorian, Bev became a teenage mother, as Mamaw had also been, and embarked on a string of marriages-five, at last count. She was bright-“the smartest person I knew”-and drilled the importance of reading and education into her son. She checked out library books on football strategy to get him to think more deeply about the game he loved, and revamped his third-grade science project the night before it was due, just like any suburban helicopter mom.

But her marriages were riven by fighting. She drank heavily, and became addicted to the painkillers she could pilfer in her job as a nurse, and later to heroin. Vance and his older sister were raised amid an extreme form of the instability and dysfunction that Charles Murray and Robert Putnam lament: He grew up with three stepfathers, and during one two-year stretch he lived in four houses. At one low point, when he was 12, his mother was taken away in handcuffs after he fled to a stranger’s house to escape a beating from her. At another point, she asked him to pee into a cup so she could use his urine to pass a drug test. “Chaos begets chaos,” he writes. “Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”

From Our September 2016 Issue

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Vance survives this endless turbulence, thanks in large part to the tough love he receives from Mamaw, living nearby, who sees in him a chance to redeem her parenting failures with Bev. His grades are good enough to get him into the best state colleges in Ohio. But fearing that he isn’t ready for unstructured campus life, he enlists in the Marine Corps, and gets a stint in Iraq and a large helping of maturity and perspective. After finishing his tour, he excels at Ohio State and, to his joyful amazement, is admitted to Yale Law School.

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