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I recently listened to J.D.Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and given my recent exploration of attachment research, I found that a blessing, for I heard the story differently.  

In spite of Appalachian poverty, family violence and addiction, and his mother’s five husbands, Vance and his sister end well: he with a Yale Law degree and a beautiful wife; she with a peaceful marriage.

Amid the violence and drugs, there were two secret ingredients: one, the deep attachment of virtually all in the family of origin to each other, and to their culture and place; the other, the care of Vance’s maternal grandparents, who had overcome, somewhat, their own problems of addiction and violence. 

Both grandparents played a big role in Vance’s image of what he could be. They sternly propped him up, always with massive doses of affection and the assurance that he always had a home — their home. “Mawmaw,” his grandmother, was the deepest influence. Originally a scandal to her family when she became pregnant at the age of 14, she fled Appalachia with her young husband and settled in the booming town of Middletown, Ohio. 

The human heart is made to belong, and Vance was instinctively aware of it throughout his young, struggling childhood.  Though close to going under a few times, he continued to strive. He was bright, both intellectually (Yale Law) and socially (he could read the situations well), but he also had saviors, his sister and Mawmaw, who was anchor for them both. 

Feeling unprepared for college, he joined the Marines to toughen up. Heart, intellect and a secure base (Mawmaw and the Marines), these have given the world a great talent, who now is devoting himself to helping others have the same.

If you have not read the book, I recommend it.  Ron Howard, whose movie version comes out in 2020, has a good record in directing biopics, letting the truth of the story come out through his lens. 

I hope Howard is inspired to explore the life of Vance’s sister Lindsay, who, with a preternatural calm and prudence, repeatedly protected him before his own abilities kicked in.  She went on to marry a good man and raise a sizeable family. Women like her, hidden in the background, constantly build and renew the world.

Pat Fagan is the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative at The Catholic University of America. He is publisher and editor of Marripedia.org. Republished from the MARRI blog.

Patrick F. Fagan

Dr. Pat Fagan has been a grade school and college teacher, a therapist specializing in child, family and marital issues, executive director of a small think tank, a Senate staffer, the Deputy Assistant...