Born to Run: a Hillbilly Elegy

I’m currently reading J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Vance is a millennial Yale Law School graduate who, being a bit young for a memoirist, tells the story of his Appalachian family as much as himself. And the family story he tells is a window into the story of a the poor and working class white people of fly-over America.  He describes the people, personalities, norms, customs, and family rituals that formed him.  He describes the personal struggle of reconciling who he is with where (and who) he comes from.  His memoir calls to mind another one I read about a month ago, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run.

Springsteen tells his life story in a manner reminiscent of his best story songs.  Each character is sparsely drawn yet deeply defined and fully formed.  The Boss, like Vance, tells the story of his family as much as his own story.  Springsteen shows us, through the anecdotes he relates, that he deeply understands who he has become is a result of where (and who) he came from.  The relationship with his father is especially formative as is the family history of mental illness.  The rock and roll history and the formation of the artist was fascinating as a fan, but the book is even more compelling as the memoir of a baby boomer coming to terms with himself, learning about himself, accepting himself, working through his emotional baggage, and becoming more healthy and whole.

Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh says something about Bruce’s songs that applies not only to The Boss’s memoir but also to Vance’s. Both  tell a personal story where  “a questing, romantic spirit is inevitably scorned and banished; he is torn between his own abandonment of the traditional values and his desire to seek them as refuge.”

What both Springsteen and Vance describe in their books is how they, each of them in their own way, not only  broke free of the traditional family in which they were raised, but stayed in touch with the bedrock values of their families, then integrated those bedrock values into who they have become and in so doing give voice to what those values look like as they grow, develop, and evolve to handle the life they lead now.

This type of integration is work all of us must do in our own lives and the work which our American civilization is struggling to do now. Our culture is seeking to grow up, to move beyond our tribal, hierarchical, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, racist family history. The family is telling us that we are rejecting them by allowing ourselves to learn, to develop, to become a better more integrated society. And the pull of that family, however wrong, or ignorant, or “backward” we may think them to be, is strong. Very strong. Powerfully strong.

The family is feeling rejected, hurt, and abandoned.  The bigoted, angry, even violent acting out we are seeing since the election is the old family of America yelling “WHO THE HELL  DO YOU THINK YOU ARE,” at the America going off to college, meeting and befriending people of different races, religions, and sexual orientations, and rethinking their world. Vance’s family would say the progressive America is getting “too big for its britches” meaning America is forgetting where it came from and thinks it’s better than the rest of the family.

I hope that the America we are trying to become finds a way to remain lovingly connected to our family of origin without accepting and continuing the prejudices that we’ve now learned are false and ignorant.

Springsteen has said recently he believes Trump has been pedaling a bunch of lies, that building a wall to keep out brown people and stop immigration of Muslim people are not going to our solve problems, BUT he understands, given where he’s from, why some people find that appealing.

For  those seeking to better understand the phenomenon of why so many of our fellow Americans find the false promises of Trump’s various walls so palatable, both of these memoirs offer much insight.

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