Everyone Says…

This book will help you understand what’s happening in America


It’s a quick read, less than the flight time between DC and London, but can be hugely impactful, I think.

Almost everything I’ve heard or read about it told me it would help me understand what’s happening in our country right now.

It would help me understand the 2016 election cycle and why, apparently, so many Americans believe in conspiracy theories, that climate change is a hoax, that science itself — and the media, especially — are not to be trusted.

The book is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.

At first, the author, a self-proclaimed hillbilly, is describing a world most of us cannot imagine, but as I neared the end, I realized that I recognized parts of my own life in his narrative.

I arrived for my freshman year at Vanderbilt University at the age of 17, having graduated from Singapore American High School.

My parents were missionaries in Malaysia and while I never thought of us as poor, we were most certainly not part of any elite class. 

Vanderbilt was only possible for me because I was offered a full scholarship, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, that covered every expense, including books and food.

And, I was given a student job at Vanderbilt Hospital, which provided a little bit of spending money.

I’d shown up in Nashville, having never even visited it, with a suitcase full of new clothes because of the generosity and love of my cousin, David.

I had not even realized that I didn’t have appropriate clothing.

I can’t imagine the teasing I would have endured without his largesse because the student world I walked into at Vandy was as foreign to me as it would’ve been for any of my classmates stepping off a plane in Calcutta.

One of my friends freshman year flew in on a private plane. He arrived on campus in a limousine and had a butler (for want of a better description) who carried up trunks and garment bags full of clothes and unpacked them in his room.

I was surrounded by wealthy, privileged, mostly Southern students whose lives were as different from mine as the hillbilly’s in the book was from his classmates at Yale Law school.

Vanderbilt was great to me. I will always feel grateful for their kindnesses and my education.

But this book, Hillbilly Elegy, reminded me that there’s a world just as different from mine now as that one I first encountered in Nashville and it’s been within our own country all this time.

It’s a world without success stories, without Whole Foods and 401K’s and college degrees, much less Ivy League educations.

It’s a world of teen pregnancies, broken marriages, domestic violence and addictions.

The only times we see it are in news videos of parents passed out in a heroin stupor in their car while their child remains strapped in his car seat, or if we watch any two COPS episodes, or took the time to listen to some of the people who waited for hours to hear Donald Trump speak in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Kentucky.

If you can’t figure out why opiod overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death (more than 52,400 victims in 2015) in our nation, you need to read this book.

These people are not to be pitied, nor stared at like exotic animals in the zoo. But we, as a nation, need to understand the social and economic factors that have trapped many of them in a cycle of poverty from which they can’t escape.

There’s a huge number of people in our country who are damaged and hurting, hopeless and despairing, angry and lost, and they aren’t going away, even if we continue to ignore them.

I don’t have answers for their problems, and neither does this book, at least not fully, but it did help me understand the challenges these people — we, amongst them — face with a bit more clarity.

It’s worth your time.

It’s something we need to talk about and try to understand and work to solve.

This book is a good place to start.