Thursday, March 30, 2017

J.D.Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir from Trump’s America

Since Trump’s election, I have changed my radio habits.  I am back to listening to NPR.  I feel like I personally need to keep a watch on those crazy people in Washington and suddenly just listening to music feels irresponsible.  I think this is actually an empathic connection with the experience of many of the people who voted for Trump.  I think they have been feeling, perhaps for a long time, that those crazy people in Washington don’t know what they are doing and should be given the boot – why else would we hire someone for the most complex job in the world who has no experience with any of the elements that it demands?  Especially when the other applicant had all the relevant experience one could want?

J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” was recommended as a text that would explain why the country voted for Trump.  I don’t think it, or any text, can deliver on a promise that broad, but it does describe some powerful social forces in one of the key demographic groups that made the swing in rust belt states like mine that led to the election of the least qualified candidate in history.  It is a very personal story – a memoir of a kid who grew up just a few miles from where we live but who might as well have been on a different planet – or certainly in a different time zone or country.  And while he is generalizing his experience to that of other Appalachians – other Hillbillies – I think it may have relevance for other cultural groups and I am curious to learn more about other major groups that are part of the American Cultural Quilt. 

Vance’s description of the Appalachians in his family and in the US more generally squares with the very first multicultural training that I had when I was a paraprofessional at a halfway house for runaway teenagers in Columbus.  We had an in-service on various groups, including the Appalachians – who lived around us.  At least in my memory, the Appalachians (none of us called them Hillbillies including the staff member who identified himself as coming from the Appalachian culture) didn’t make as much use of our service as other groups did.  And the reason for that was intrinsic to the training and is writ large in Vance’s description of his people: a central tenet is “Don’t air family laundry in public”.  I can criticize kin – indeed I can be savage with them, but if you – an outsider - are, you have me to deal with.  And we will unite around keeping other people’s noses and eyes out of our business.  This is related to a deep mistrust of the government of a country that we, ironically, are deeply proud of and happy to defend with our lives; the county in Kentucky where Vance’s family comes from is called Bloody Breathitt county because they were the only county in the country to fill their WWII enlistment quota solely with volunteers.  The name may have stuck in part because of their willingness to defend family honor with guns and knives and whatever is handy when that honor is called into question by others.

J.D. Vance is a self-proclaimed Hillbilly – one of millions of Scots-Irish who inhabit the mountainous eastern part of the country that includes the Appalachian mountains (and other ranges) and stretches from Mississippi and Alabama northward to Pennsylvania and New York.  Though the hills in the southeast corner of Ohio are part of Appalachia, southwestern Ohio is not; specifically, Middletown, Dayton and Cincinnati where the story unfolds – is part of a larger corridor of industrialization in the upper Midwest that extends up to Detroit and has other branches that reach into Pittsburgh, Akron and Cleveland .  A lot of Appalachians were (and many still are) employed in the factories that made the upper Midwest the center of steel and automobile production.  Many of those that didn’t leave the hills worked (and work) in the Appalachian coal mines that produced (and produces) the energy to run the plants.  And all of these jobs, from Vance’s perspective, brought income, and that was the lure that brought the Appalachians out of the hills and away from the family spaces that they loved.  Vance clarifies that the income was only part of the American dream, and the rest of the dream did not get realized by the vast majority of those who migrated towards the money.

Vance is an exception to the rule that Appalachians do not transcend their culture – he made it out – way out.  He is a Yale Law School graduate married to a woman named Usha who comes from a culture that is completely different than his native one.  So he has two tasks in this book – to describe the culture as an insider – indeed to demonstrate that he really is a Hillbilly – and then to criticize that culture (and our greater culture that has not reached out to it) from the outside, as it were.  Of course, if he were truly an outsider he would be run out of town on a rail after he had been shot for speaking out against the culture - even if he is also critical of the greater culture, so he is treading a complicated course in this book.

I am writing this post from paradise and feeling very guilty about it.  The reluctant son’s High School baseball team has come south for spring training.  They came down last year as well.  They had a new coach – it was the first time the team had done it and I was unprepared for the difficulty it would cause in scheduling – the high school’s spring break is different from the spring break of the University where I teach.  So last year I entrusted the reluctant son to the parents of other players to bring him down.  The camp was a fiasco.  Housed at a former major league baseball spring training stadium, the boys rooms at the stadium were locked (from the outside) at night.  What would have happened had there been a fire?  The promised food was late or non-existent.  The staff at the camp all carried pistols.  Promised games did not take place.  On the final night, to protect the kids from being locked in the stadium again, the parents brought them to their motel, but there were no empty rooms, so they told the group of boys in their care, including the reluctant son, to walk the beach while they slept until the middle of the night, when they woke up, packed the kids in the car, and drove all day while the boys slept in the back of the car.

Well, I may not be Appalachian, but no one is doing that to my kin again.  Of course this year the spring breaks do not line up again, and so this year, knowing the team was coming to the same town, but not the same camp, I rescheduled all of my midterms to fall on this week and had a TA administer them, and I have driven the boys down, am staying around the corner from the motel (the same one that had no extra rooms) where they have conventional rooms with conventional locks, and will drive them back.  I am spending time grading papers and watching baseball games in the blazing heat.  And today I will take some time “off” to go swim in the ocean.  I will feel guilty, but refreshed. 

The new coach had coached for years at a school in a district that was more like the place Vance comes from.  He instituted the spring training week in Florida there both to prepare the boys to play ball and to introduce them to a different part of the country than they had ever seen.  The coach says that most of the kids he brought down had never seen the ocean before, much less swum in it.  The school he is now teaching in is an inner city school, but also a magnet school.  While there are some kids who have not been to the ocean, most have.  And many have flown down – some with their parents.  To his credit, the camp last year had changed hands since he last coached and, apparently, it used to be reputable.  I am pleased to report that the boys this year are having a good experience and it probably wasn’t necessary that I come along (and I would have saved the reluctant son some embarrassment by not being around the edges of his world).

A quick Google search suggests that about 20% of Americans – one in five – has never flown on a plane.  About 40% of us have flown on a plane in the past year.  This comes to mind because, listening to NPR on the weekend recently, I heard a gameshow host bemoaning the loss of Virgin Atlantic Airlines and their cool lighting.  Part of me resonated with that.  But part of me wondered about those who had voted for Trump – and came out to see him as he flew into their area in his very own airplane.  How many of them had never flown?  How many of them had flown once or twice – perhaps when they were in the military – but flight for leisure would be an unimaginable luxury and their work does not include travel.

Vance began to distance himself from his family when he began to fly.  Before that, he was very earthbound.  Not just because he didn’t get on an airplane, but because he was tied to Jackson, Kentucky, his Mamaw’s hometown – the place she and his Papaw fled from when Mamaw, at fourteen, was pregnant with Vance’s Mom.  They settled for a while in Middletown where Papaw, and everyone else from Kentucky, worked for Armco.  Mamaw and Papaw, and then Vance’s mom, when she grew up and became a nurse, made good money.  At one point, when Vance was a child in the early 1980s, his mother and her boyfriend were making over 100,000 dollars.  But they were always outsiders to the middle- American world around them, and they spent the money on trinkets – some of them little and some of them big – like new cars that they then banged up when drunk and traded in on more new cars. 

As an outsider, when I recount this story, it sounds much less sympathetic than when Vance does.  He is describing from inside the culture what the experience was like. I think this is a tremendously useful position to take – it allows me (and, I assume, other readers) to have an empathic experience with a culture that is foreign, even if I can’t mirror that as I write about it.  Suffice it to say that I was feeling sympathetic as I was reading about the things above that sound so stereotypical coming out of my mouth.  But rather than fix my writing about that, I would recommend that you read Vance.  What I think I can add to Vance’s story is a perspective on how difficult his task is.  He is not just trying to describe the culture, but to describe his experience of being raised within it – raised by a woman who spent most of his childhood cycling through men as she cycled through drugs trying to fix something inside her by looking to acquire something on the outside.  Now that is me talking.  When Vance talks, he reassures himself that his mother was trying to find a good daddy for him.  While I don’t doubt that was one of his mother’s many motivations, I differ with him in how high it was on her priority list.

Having written the last sentence, I am suddenly aware that I am posting with a pseudonym and am relieved by that.  The thought passes.  I actually think Vance and I, if we had a relationship, could talk about this stuff in a way that he would find useful.  But as an outsider, I am criticizing his Momma, and them there is fighting words.  He has sucker punched more than one person over much less targeted criticisms of members of his family - and the Momma is the one that you absolutely stay away from when criticizing his kin.  Vance is exposing his mother, indeed his whole family and his whole culture to critical eyes of people like me.  As he does this, he is fighting with both his need to protect his mother and to protect his culture, but also, I think, with an even more primal need, to protect himself and his identity as a person – the thing that is of most value to all of us. 

In graduate school I lived with two writers, a poet and an essayist who also wrote a memoir.  For them, as for Vance, I think writing served (and serves) a therapeutic purpose.  That said, I would sometimes make comments on psychological aspects of the writing that I thought were apparent and even intentional and discover that I had waded into territory that was not only foreign to the author – but spaces where they felt I was being a hostile invader (who was clueless, by the way).  I think that Vance is both showing himself and his culture and necessarily protecting them as best he is able.  I do not fault him for this.  In fact, I think this book is a great work of courage.

One thing that Vance has helped me with – and something that I think gets reflected in the personal memoir part of the writing – is the odd experience I have outside the clinic where I work.  Some of the clinicians do assessments for the Bureau of Disability.  There are people who arrive in trucks and cars for an assessment to get money from the government with bumper stickers on their cars protesting the ridiculous level of taxes they pay and encouraging voting for people who would take away entitlements.  This internal inconsistency is noted by Vance in the welfare mothers in his neighborhood who rail against people who don’t pull their weight while using their food stamps to buy groceries at the store where he worked.  He also noted that there are many who couldn’t keep a job that paid well with good benefits loading materials with him because they inconsistently showed up for work and took inordinately long breaks while they railed against lazy people.  Psychologically, I think that these individuals are reacting against parts of themselves that are “not me”.  They are denying aspects of their own psyche that they are critical of and seeing it in others. 

Vance notices this propensity in himself.  As much as he has transcended his origins, and he credits this to the constant presence of his Mamaw and Papaw (Papaw used to drill him on math facts on a regular basis) who settled down after their crazier youth and the consistent presence of his sister, as well as to having chosen to go into the Marines before going to college – where he learned basic skills like learning to balance a checkbook and to spend within his limits, he is very much aware of the hair trigger fury that he can unleash (with disastrous consequences) on a moment’s notice.  While I could distance myself from this guy by noting our differences (his great grandfather fired the opening shot in the Hatfield-McCoy feud – something he is very proud of), I quickly resonate with the flaring anger that he feels when cut off in traffic.  Even though I know which fork to use at a fancy dinner, I, too, struggle on an ongoing basis to manage the intensity of the feelings that perceived stupidity on the part of others evokes in me, even though I quickly excuse the same behavior when I do it myself.

While here in Florida, I have struck up a conversation with another Dad.  He is a graduate of the University where I teach and was a basketball player there.  He is rightly critical of our treatment of the basketball athletes.  We are increasingly coddling them – protecting them from the education they are supposedly there to receive rather than supporting their engagement in it.  I have been struck by the parallels between his (and my) concerns for those students – students whose heads are filled with dreams of playing in the NBA, but whose realistic future involves working – work that an education would make more financially and personally rewarding.

I am left with the question of how we make the American Dream truly accessible to more of our citizens.  Especially as I walk the retirement neighborhoods near here that have neat yards filled with more boats and jet skis than a family could possibly use, I think it would be possible to, like Vance, pursue law because it was the lawyers and doctors in his town who were rich (and since he didn’t like blood, law was the reasonable pursuit), and, whether that goal is realized or not, to lose track of money as a means to an end rather than the end itself.  The end is to achieve happiness – and the means to that end is much more complicated than simply accumulating wealth.  In fact, it is much more the result of what we acquire internally (including the ability to feel but not necessarily act on powerful feelings) than what accumulates externally that matters.  But what we see – and what attracts us away from what will help us actually achieve the end – are all of the shiny objects.

I think this book, because it is written from the inside, is a book that would work well in a variety of settings to help people get a handle on their own lives.  I can imagine it as required reading in High Schools – especially in Appalachia and the rust belt, but I can imagine many people from various parts of the country identifying with it.  Many of my students identified with and were inspired by Alexander Hamilton when I assigned the musical for them to listen to earlier this year – and Hamilton lived hundreds of years ago and in a very different culture. 

I also do think it can be a useful means to understand the alienation that a big chunk of our population feels – a group that feels disenfranchised and cannot see their way out of a mire that, from their perspective, they cannot escape.  Vance demonstrates that there are many doors, windows and ladders, but they require support – especially support within the family from early on and throughout development, connections, and hard work to access and exploit. He nicely asks, in a Ted talk, about how to get what he got to kids like him who desperately want to lead a better life.  

I think that a central shift that needs to take place is a psychological one - a shift from an external locus of control - believing that others hold the key to your fate and that you are but a cog in a machine - to an internal locus of control - believing that you are responsible for what will take place in your life.  The problem with this formulation, as Vance points out, is that it is a luxury that a kid who's Mom is unable to provide dinner because she has passed out from a needle she stuck in her arm is unable to experience.  He really is at the mercy of forces beyond his control.  How do we truly empower these children?   

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Hitchcock’s Psycho – Psychological Terror Hits Closest at Home

This movie stood in the pantheon of great films that I had never seen.  OK.  I recently saw the last 15 minutes and thought the psychological explanation was pretty weak.  But I was very up for watching it with the reluctant stepdaughter when we were talking about horror films (not a genre I have any interest in – part of the reason that I haven’t seen this is that I have avoided it) and we both like Hitchcock – so it was agreed.  We would watch this classic together for family movie night.

My assumption in what follows is that you have seen the film.  If you haven’t, either watch it before reading or decide that it is OK to not experience the really wonderful thrill of this film.  The stuff that I grew up fearing – the shower scene in particular – is incredibly hokey by today’s standards – and may have been even then.  Hitchcock’s emphasis on the gore and sexuality coming together is over the top – and I think may have been a way of both displaying and masking what I think were probably deeper perversions that the censors would not have tolerated – I’m actually pretty surprised that they let as much nudity through as they did – but I think the emphasis on the slasher aspect (this is considered the first slasher film) is also to throw us off the scent.  This is not about being afraid of violent death, but about being afraid of what lies within the human psyche.  And the perversions that are described are actually quite delicious – and unnerving.  This film still chills – not because of the gore, but because of the psychological intensity and because of the misdirection that leads us to be unaware of where we are heading so that we tumble, unprepared, into the messiness of human perversion.  I think it is also a caution.  What is dangerous lies, not outside ourselves, but within.

The central subterfuge of the film is that the out of towners are led to believe that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) lives with his mother.  Well, of course, he does, but in a much more intimate way than we initially imagine.  We meet him, though, when our heroine, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is running towards her lover who lives in Bates' town with stolen money.  And Marion, not Norman, is the focus of our interest.  She is a fallen woman who wants to be legit.  She has trysts with her lover who can’t afford, because of his alimony payments, to make her an honest woman, but he can somehow afford to fly to Arizona from California to see her.  Meanwhile Marion is the honest and beautiful receptionist who works for a real estate company and has to fend off the advances of a fat wealthy man whose money is entrusted to her.  To free her and her lover from the shackles that binds them, she decides to drive to California with the money that she was to have deposited in the bank.

This is, then, a morality play.  Who are the moral characters?  Who are the immoral ones?  What will be the punishment for whom?  How fairly are those punishments meted out? 

Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in Santa Fe.  My first job out of college – with my bachelor’s degree in hand - was as the mail boy for the bank.  I drove from branch to branch, delivering the mail and taking the cancelled checks back to the main office.  Occasionally, I would transport cash between the branches.  When there was a lot of it, the security guard at the main bank, the ex-chief of police who was about 90 years old, would accompany me.  He was a great guy and I loved being with him.  We would always know how much there was, and we often talked of driving to Mexico with what we had and living out our days together on the beaches.  It was a fun day dream to share, though the realities were that, even at our minimum wage jobs, we were better off where we were.

Marion ends up at the Bates motel because making a trek like the one she is making is harrowing.  She is running from everything that she is connected to in order to, what? Start a life as a desperado?  After packing up, on the way out of town, she spies her boss, who also sees her.  She feels guilty for having betrayed him.  She drives until she can’t drive anymore, pulls over and falls asleep, but sleeps too long and a highway patrol officer wakes her and notices how guiltily she acts.  So, when, at the end of another long day of driving, she gets lost and is tired by the rain and glare on the road, her arrival as the only guest of the isolated Bates motel makes her the perfect prey for Norman, the nervous Nellie who is, we believe, hen pecked by his overbearing mother who divines his unholy lust for a woman he has just met and whom he wants to feed.  We speculate (at least the analysts in the audience do) that this mother is so dependent on her son’s love that she can’t bear to think of his being attracted to anyone else, and we feel sorry for this poor cosseted soul.

Marion is a little wiser than we.  She looks around his room and sees that it is filled with stuffed birds and gets him to admit that he is a taxidermist.  She finds this creepy.  She also slips and, after having signed in with a pseudonym, tells him her real name, crane, which makes her a bird – a creature that it is OK to kill and stuff – Norman thinks that other animals have more use and thus shouldn’t be killed.  But who kills Marion?  It is, of course, Norman in his alter ego mode of being his long dead mother – the woman he killed – the woman who penned him in after his father died and then married a cruel stepfather – Norman killed them both, exhumed the body of his mother and stuffed her, keeping her in the Gothic house out back of the cheap motel that the stepfather built, and he now kills, as the mother, to keep him from defiling a woman and potentially deserting his mother (who, of course, lives only in his head) and, in the process of killing, in this case, Marion, enacts a terribly sexual and aggressive scenario.  Why doesn’t he stuff the bodies and keep the trophies?  Well, mother would not abide with that, would she?

And now we have gotten to the psychiatrist’s summary of his mental state (skipping over the killing of the detective who was sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong and the discovery of all that I have just laid out by Marion’s boyfriend and Marion’s sister who has gone looking for her).  When I saw it without having seen the film, I was embarrassed by it.  It seemed very flat footed and I was prepared to try not to judge him, just I would not like to be judged by those who follow in my shoes 50 or 100 years from now.  But watching the film, the description is actually quite satisfying.  It is a nice psychological explanation of what we have just witnessed. 

Now, could what we just witnessed have happened in that way?  I think Hitchcock is encouraging us to imagine this.  To imagine just how perverse our minds are.  To imagine how strong our early attachment to our mothers is and to wonder how that could get played out in the real world.  I think the film works not because it describes something that actually could happen, but because it describes something that we find hard to believe doesn’t happen.  Why is it that we don’t more frequently go over the edge?  And I think we need to remember that there are two edges that have people have gone over.  Marion has gone over an edge that we all stand back from - she has given up on being the nice girl.  Norman went over a much steeper edge a long time ago.  Are these edges being equated?  Perhaps.  Is it also the case that every edge is the moral equivalent of every other edge and once we go over one edge we will end up in the company of those who have gone over them all?  That would also seem to be a message.

Hitchcock, himself, went over all kinds of edges, indulging in all kinds of things.  And the issue of guilt is a very deep one for him.  When he was about five, his father caught him doing something wrong and gave him a note he was to take to the police station asking the constable to lock him up for about five minutes to pay for the crime.  This fear of police pervades this film – and is a fear that I think we all share – it is not just the fear of police – but of being caught for doing wrong and, as Freud points out, our superego has access not only to what we do wrong, but to what we think about doing wrong. 

The characters in this movie are all trapped.  Marion is trapped by her miserable job and unavailable lover.  At the Bates Motel, she decides to return to Arizona and take back the money in the morning, but her fate is already decided.  She is given the death penalty for thinking of stealing.  Her decision to leave the straight and narrow has lead her inexorably towards Norman - she, not just as the dating woman who has forbidden trysts in the daytime, but as the one who betrays her boss, is now a siren who calls perversion to her.  As mentioned before, the detective also gets his fate handed to him for sticking his nose in where it does not belong.  Norman is going to go to an institution – and his description of the institution he is heading towards when he tells Marion that he would never put his mother in such a place, is chilling.  He will be punished.  But his punishment is actually worse than that.  It is clear in the final scene that he will be punished as his mother, whom he has entirely become.  She will be put there.  And, of course, Norman is innocent.  It is the events of his life that have created him – he is a good, if nervous, boy.  He, like Marion, is the kid next door.  He has the kooky mother. She has the down and out boyfriend, but she is, in spite of herself, attached to him.  And these attachments – Norman to his mother and Marion to her boyfriend – are their downfall.

From Freud’s perspective, the superego is the internalized parental figure, one who is judgmental.  In fact, it is a lot more complex than this, but if we use this stripped down simplified version, Norman has gone a bit overboard on being the dutiful son, internalizing his mother to the nth degree.  Marion, too, is trying to be a good girl, but to do that she ultimately has to deny too much.  She overthrows her role, but she pays for it.  Hitchcock, on the other hand, gets to get away with it.  He can portray his perversions for all the world to see and what does he get?  He gets an Oscar nomination for a slasher film.  He gets fame and glory.  He gets away with it – as Norman Bates does for a while.  He metes out the punishments he deserves on the characters that he directs – and the more he flagellates them the more credit he receives.  In the same way, it is not Norman who is jailed, but his mother - the person who ought to be punished for many sins, not the least of which is the murder of her son, don't you agree?  What a funny world we live in.

To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.   For a subject based index, link here.

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