It lives up to the hype. It’s well-written. It’s engaging. It’s thoughtful. It brings nuance and complexity to issues that need both. It helps advance the conversation even where other thoughtful writers have a different take.
The book is timely and provides an interesting, human perspective about a real-life ongoing crisis occurring across large swaths of America.
If you like to read non-fiction at all – then you should have this book on your reading list. I wish I had read it sooner.
Either way, I took away so many lessons from this book that it’s really hard to distill them down into a proper review.
Instead, I’ll simply share the notes that I took chapter by chapter. These are all ideas that I took from the material. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with these takeaways. But every single one gave me pause and a new perspective to consider.
These notes are lightly edited. The notes are not well-written or concise. But they do reflect my thinking while reading the book.
Traits that allow for psychological resilience like avoidance and wishful thinking are the same traits that actively discourage change. “None of your damn business” maintains pride & saves face but it does not fix the underlying reality.
Economic progress and cultural assimilation are two very different things. Wealth and class are two very different things – just because you have money does not mean that you have the same values, outlook or feel comfortable living among those with the same income and social status.
Hard work as an identity and hard work as reality are two different things. The former is something people believe about themselves and it’s easy to “do.” The latter is difficult since you only learn about it via example.
You don’t really know what hard work is until you watch other people perform – or have someone push you beyond your imagined limits. In an environment where you never witness hard work, it’s easy to think of success as either an in-born trait or via destiny of family.
Folk religion can serve to simply reinforce existing good and bad habits. It is more of an outward identity marker and daily coping mechanism than anything that creates growth. It reinforces existing beliefs. Organized religion aka church community is what adds personal and community growth. It provides a framework for planning and providers a greater good to be a part of.
The Bible Belt has higher reported rates of church attendance than anywhere else in US but also the lowest rates of *actual* attendance anywhere. This conflict makes it very hard to make change or discuss religion effectively.
Too often in American Christianity, morality is defined by simply not participating in this or that social / political / cultural malady – rather than any affirmative instruction on how to live in daily life. It’s an identity badge rather than a way of living. This not only poorly equips young people for daily living but it sows the seeds for outright rejection later on.
All of our public debate about children and education focuses on public institutions and their failings. But what if the institutions are totally fine – and all of problem falls on the 18 hours per day that kids are out of public institutions.
And how do you even start to discuss it – especially when the issue is often not violence or nutrition but lack of stability and constant coping with change?
Most people do not think about government policy through a lens of economics or sociology. Instead, they think about it through their lens of personal experience with a filter of deserving-ness. This filter has wisdom but also has stark and crazy contradictions.
For example, people think that the government should pay for their hardworking Mom’s addiction treatment but should absolutely not pay for the lazy neighbor’s rent. Waste is not abstract concept to be minimized – it’s a personal wrong that involves stealing from their taxes.
The saying of “God helps those who help themselves” supersedes any ideas of universal rights, equal protection, or economic principles. It becomes prescriptive rather than descriptive. It leads to a lot of resentment among those who are in the same economic class.
Social Theory has a lot of really, good, accurate explanations for what happens to a community at the population level. But what happens at an individual level is still nearly inexplicable.
And how social disease manifests in any individual can be maddening. And the question of the resilient child who makes it v.s the ones who don’t is so tough. The biggest factor always seems to be a single loving adult or just a couple years of happy stability at the right point in a child’s life.
Learned helplessness is when a person believes that their choices make no effect on life outcomes. It is a belief that is self-fulfilling. But people, Marines, etc can overcome that cycle by proving that one can overcome obstacles with the right choices and self-belief.
Resentment is toxic. But a new perspective can eliminate it for a lifetime.
Daily choices matter but everybody is terrible at them. Everybody. The ones who are “good” understand that they are terrible at daily living and seek out mentors, education, and trusted habits to lean on – see authors experience with the Marines even after his day job was done.
By 2008, America had changed in ways that so many people in Middletown simply cannot fathom. And yet – “America” is basically religion for many. America without a hero is America that is dead. Many Americans see no military heroes, no celebrity astronauts, and no America personified. They see a George W. Bush who led us to Iraq, a Bill Clinton had moral failings, a Reagan who is dead. And they see that there is no such thing as a steady wage at a steady job.
And Barack Obama personified every insecurity among Middletonians – he was emblematic of the new American meritocracy that was built for Ivy Leaguers, college graduates, children of stable families, and those with a global outlook. In many ways – he’s the same as Mitt Romney. The fact that he did work in Chicago (a big global city) and earned *two* Ivy League degrees and married a woman who also has two Ivy League degrees and has no accent at all – makes people view him as coming from another planet.
The fact that he is from another planet feeds into insecurity. This insecurity combines in a whirlwind with birther conspiracy theories, religious conspiracies and old fashioned racism to create an “America is Dead” feeling because *they* have taken over. The system only benefits *them*. It’s insecurity and pride that lashes out.
Page 191 sums up American politics well.
And yet…all this mistrust in core institutions like the press, academia, government, etc creates a self-fulfilling learned helplessness in individuals that simply doesn’t make sense.
When you blame all your problems on society or the government or whomever – you lose agency in your own personal choices…that actually matter.
There is no group as pessimistic about life than working class whites. And yet – this pessimism is the very cause of so many bad choices and in choosing detachment over engagement.
Social mobilty is not just about money. It’s about a lifestyle change. Mobility implies movement and change. When you go from working class to professional class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.
Example – Cracker Barrel is either the height of special dining or an absolute public health crisis. Figuring out why one has to have a change in culture to have physical success in America is the literal million dollar question. Page 206/7 sums it up.
Social capital matters – a lot. The networks of people and institutions have incredible economic and social value. And many people don’t know that it even exists, much less how to wield it.
Additionally, the people who know about social capital think it’s like a secret network of nepotism. In reality, it’s just people who understand how things work and can provide information and shortcuts to quickly navigate to an end goal., ie, which clubs to join or which professors to talk to.
Adverse Child Experiences mess kids up. And they don’t have to be horrific – even chronic stress from regular shouting can induce it.
Changing culture requires time and generations of incremental change. There is no single solution. But we all can – even as individuals – put our thumbs on the scales for kids at the margins – the ones who have a shot. We can increase the odds for them. For the rest, it’s about dealing with the symptoms while working to understand the very complex causes better.
But when it comes down to it – problems are only solvable when you stop blaming everybody but yourself and at least try to solve the problem yourself to the best of your ability.
Peace! Imagine others complexly.
Hillbilly Elegy is a thoughtful memoir of the trials, troubles, and roots of struggle in Greater Appalachia in America. It is deservedly one of the best books of the past couple years.