J.D. Vance (PHOTO: TIMOTHY ARCHIBALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)
J.D. Vance didn’t encounter anyone else with a personal story like his when he arrived at Yale Law School six years ago. His early family life in a poor town in eastern Ohio was tough, with a mother who became a drug addict and a partially absent father. He and his sister spent a lot of time with his grandparents, evangelical Christians who were originally from Kentucky and inspired Mr. Vance to do more with his life.
His experiences are the basis of his new memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” The book started out as a quest to answer questions about his own upbringing but developed into a broader conversation about social divisions in the U.S. and feelings of disenfranchisement among the white working class.
Now a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco, Mr. Vance, 31, decided to start writing a memoir while he was at Yale, feeling like he was “culturally foreign.” “I’m a straight, white, conservative male, and I’d never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at this weird educational institution, and I started to ask myself why,” he says. “Why is it that there aren’t many people—or any people—from a background like mine at places like Yale?”
He describes how his mother got pregnant at 18, was divorced by 19 and remarried four times. She got angry at him one time when he was 11 and threatened to crash the car they were riding in and kill them both. (When reached for comment by The Wall Street Journal, his mother confirmed the book’s account.)
In high school, he moved in with his grandmother, a caring but tough woman who once set his grandfather on fire after he came home drunk one night. Going back further in his family’s history, an ancestor was locally famous for brutally killing a Union soldier during the Civil War. Family was a priority: His grandparents taught him never to start a fistfight—unless someone insults your relatives.
He credits his grandparents, religion and his time in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007 for helping him to get his life together. Whereas many of the people around him growing up seemed to have a feeling of “learned helplessness” and didn’t think their decisions mattered, he says, he learned the opposite in the Marines: “My decisions did matter and I did have some control over my own life.”
After the military, he went to Ohio State University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy, and then Yale. There he met the woman he would eventually marry, but at first, he says, he had no idea what a normal relationship was like.
“In the family life that I grew up in, the way you handled conflict resolution with your spouse or your partner was by screaming and yelling, and if things got really bad, maybe throwing stuff or hitting and punching them,” he says. He only later realized that rather than fighting to win, he should try to solve problems in a relationship. “It sounds so obvious, but it was such a revelation to me,” he says.
After law school, Mr. Vance worked at a law firm and then became an executive at a biotech company. From there, he left to join Mithril Capital, an investment firm. He and his wife, a lawyer, live in San Francisco with their two dogs.
His book, which came out a month ago, has struck a nerve. The trials of the white working class have been much discussed this election year: disappearing manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, opioid addiction. Mr. Vance sees the appeal of Donald Trump for people who have “this sense that things are kind of apocalyptically bad,” he says.
He’s been surprised by the book’s positive reception and is grateful for it. “I think it speaks to a couple of things: First, that people are really curious about the anger and frustration of the white working class; second, that members of the white working class have been hungry to have someone tell their story,” he says.
He hopes that his experiences and path upward with the help of religion, discipline and family will inspire communities to promote those values. “Concretely, I want pastors and church leaders to think about how to build community churches, to keep people engaged, and to worry less about politics and more about how the people in their communities are doing,” he says. “I want parents to fight and scream less, and to recognize how destructive chaos is to their children’s future.”
He thinks that school leaders could help by being more cognizant of what’s going on in students’ home lives. But most of all he wants people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. “Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives,” he says.
Mr. Vance goes back to Ohio a few times a year to see his aunt, sister and father (with whom he reconnected when he was 12), and tries to go back to Kentucky regularly. “I don’t feel at all like I can’t go back home,” he says. “The weird thing about my life is that I always feel a little out of place in both Ohio and among the elites, but I’m always most comfortable when I’m around my family.”
In his new life, it feels “like my spaceship crash-landed in Oz,” he adds. “Seriously, I love my life, but I’ll always feel a little out of place among lawyers and bankers and doctors, and a part of me wishes I was back home, chasing frogs and fishing.”