In 2016, my cousin, who is more like an older brother to me, released a book called “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” made the No. 1 spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list many weeks in a row. Since releasing the book, J.D. Vance has appeared on numerous radio and television talk shows. In collaboration with Netflix, Ron Howard directed and produced a film adaptation of the book to be released on Nov 24. The book is about J.D.'s life, growing up in Middletown and Jackson, Ky., with our grandparents, my namesake, Bonnie, and James Vance, or as J.D. and I called them, Mamaw and Papaw. The book sheds light on the many hardships related to addiction, as J.D. experienced them through his mom’s (my Aunt Bev’s) struggle with it.
Some of the stories he tells in the book are hard to believe — in fact there are people who don’t believe them at all. The characters, if I hadn’t known and loved most of them myself, seem like something from his imagination.
When I first read the manuscript of the book, I worried about some of the darkest times in our family’s past being brought to light. I worried what people would think about my relatives. J.D. himself had broken one of the cardinal hillbilly rules through his book: telling family secrets to outsiders. And, at first, I wasn’t happy about it. Now, however, I have come around to the idea of the world knowing our family secrets. Judging by the response many around the world have had to the book, I think it was good to shine a light on those dark times.
Now that the book has been out for a couple years, it is amazing to see how it has touched people, many of them with stories not so different from J.D.'s.
Some critics were upset the book reflected negatively on Middletown. I think this story could have been set anywhere. There are a lot of people who see their own families in the stories J.D. tells.
I think that, like good journalism, a good book is like a mirror, reflecting the reality of this world. Even if it seems ugly, it’s real and genuine.
“If our family stories weren’t out there, the book wouldn’t have been as honest, and it wouldn’t have resonated in the way that it did,” J.D. recently told me.
I think there are a lot of families like mine out there.
“I don’t blame Middletown for the dysfunction that existed in our family,” he said. “Some of the Middletown defensiveness is rooted in pride of place. I’m proud of Middletown. I don’t disagree with that instinct. But you’ve got to recognize that because of forces outside of Middletown there are families who grow up below the poverty line. There is a lot of drug abuse. I think the most positive responses have come from people who recognize both of those things.”
It was hard for our family to come to grips with the fact that when J.D.'s book became so popular, we had to give part of our hold on him away to the public.
No one knows this feeling better than my cousin Lindsay, J.D.'s older sister.
“The kid has never done wrong in my eyes. J.D. has a part of my soul that nobody will ever have and I’ll protect him until the day I die,” Lindsay told me. “Whenever things were falling apart, my first thought was always him.”
Lindsay said it is hard to read online criticism of J.D.
“You want to shout from the rooftops, ‘How dare you? Let me tell you about J.D.’”
She said some of the most irritating comments come from people criticizing J.D. for not being hillbilly enough or not caring about Appalachia.
“What makes him or makes him not a hillbilly? That’s something Mamaw used to say to describe her or her family … hill people or hillbillies. What the title of the book means is that he’s telling the story of his people. His hillbillies were Mamaw and Papaw,” she said.
It was also difficult for me to let the world have a piece of my Mamaw through J.D.'s book and now this movie. I worried that since Mamaw was gone, she couldn’t defend herself to readers the way that J.D. could.
In some ways though, I’m glad even people who didn’t get to meet her are getting the chance to see how she loved her family and what a badass woman she was.
She was not your typical grandmother.
She had a foul mouth. Because of this, my little sister and I once tried to make Mamaw adhere to a curse jar. Twenty-five cents for every bad word. It sat on the windowsill in our kitchen. One afternoon while she was babysitting the two of us, she pulled out her checkbook and wrote a blank check.
“Now I can say whatever the (expletive) I want. I’ll fill out the amount later,” she said.
The curse jar was soon a thing of the past.
She was also crass. One of my most vivid memories of Mamaw is sitting across the table from her at a nice restaurant. The whole family was there and we were all dressed up. I was upset over something and she started chomping on a piece of bread like a crazy person to get me to snap out of it.
“This is how a real woman (expletive) eats,” she said with a hearty laugh and bread in between her teeth.
That sent me into a fit of giggles and put a genuine smile on her face.
She had a quick temper and a biting wit. The first time my dad met her, she told him, “I’m from Breathitt County, where a woman ain’t fully dressed without her gun!”
She taught me to love fiercely and she would have killed for her family.
I remember getting into a fight with my mom in the car on the way to Mamaw’s house as a child. I got out of the car and ran into Mamaw’s house visibly upset. Mamaw, always my protector, scooped me up in her arms and reprimanded my mom for making me upset.
When our babysitter would come over, Mamaw would show up, too. When the babysitter would leave the room, Mamaw would whisper to my sister and me that she didn’t trust anyone with “her babies.” I remember liking that Mamaw and I had a secret, although I’m sure Mamaw made it pretty evident to the babysitter that she wasn’t trusted.
I remember riding in the car with my mom and my sister after my Mamaw died. We were listening to the CD my dad had made to play during her funeral. “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong came on right before we reached our destination. Suddenly all three of us were in tears. How could it be a wonderful world without her in it?
Seeing her love and wit in the pages of “Hillbilly Elegy” and her character depicted in Ron Howard’s film are just some ways for her to still be with us.
Aunt Wee, my mom, told me when she first saw Glenn in costume, she wanted to reach out and touch her face or give her a hug. All those years she had missed her own mother’s embrace and it was almost like she could have it one more time.
“I knew it wasn’t her, but I wanted just a moment to feel like she was back,” my mom said. “It was almost gut-wrenching. I didn’t know how to behave.”
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX
Credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX
In the movie, Glenn is wearing my Mamaw’s actual glasses.
“Parts of Mamaw are impossible to capture, but I think Glenn did as well as a person can do,” J.D. said of the movie’s portrayal of our grandmother. “It’s Glenn’s take on Mamaw, but she comes pretty close to getting her essence. For people who are curious about what she was like, this is a decent glimpse into who she was.”
I watched my mom view the movie trailer with tears in her eyes.
“(Mamaw) was probably one of the most unusual, unique individuals I ever met,” my mom said. “When I was younger, I was embarrassed because she wasn’t like the other moms. She smoked, she carried a gun, she wore big, baggy comfy clothes.”
Mamaw was a collector of people, my mom said. It wasn’t unusual to find neighborhood kids on the couch or the front porch any given day of the week. It was like she knew just what someone needed when they were down, my mom said.
J.D. said one day when Mamaw picked him up from school there was a strange teenage girl in the backseat. She ran away from home after someone beat her up. People told her to go to Mamaw’s house because she would take care of her. And Mamaw did.
“She was everything to me. Everything,” Lindsay told me. “To me, she was bigger than God, she was bigger than my mom and dad. I felt like when this woman took her last breath I wasn’t going to be able to breathe. I hope that’s something that people realize: she protected and she loved and whatever she put her hands on, she fixed it. And that’s what kept us (our family) together.”
My family has changed in a lot of ways since J.D.'s book came out.
Aside from J.D., the one person in my family who has seen the most transformation since the book was released is my Aunt Bev. As a kid, my mom would task me with watching the pill cabinet whenever Aunt Bev would come over. In January, I proudly watched her accept her 5-year sober coin, something I’m not sure she ever thought would happen.
“The movie ends and I’m in active addiction. And it has a blurb about me being sober for six years. I hope that people realize that if you want to change, you can change,” my Aunt Bev told me. “I’ve quit lots of times and always thought that was the last time and I don’t know why it really was the last time. I wish I knew what it was, because if I knew what it was I would bottle it and sell it. I don’t know what happens to you to make you finally decide that enough is enough.”
It is only now that I am able to think about the far-reaching effects of addiction in my own family.
Aunt Bev said she had to find something to replace the drugs. For her, it was 12-step meetings.
Since the book came out in 2016, Aunt Bev feels her relationship with both J.D. and Lindsay has improved.
“I’m proud of where I come from,” Aunt Bev said. “And I’m going to stand proud when this movie comes out. It is what it is and I am who I am and I’m OK. It’s helped us all grow.”
My hope, my family’s hope, is that when people watch “Hillbilly Elegy,” they recognize the characters are real people. Even with their flaws, I want people to be rooting for the characters to come out on top.
“Most people, when they watch a movie, they watch it to escape for a little while,” my mom said. “But when our family watches this movie, we’re going to be reliving some very dark times.”
A central theme in J.D.'s book and the movie is family. And in the end, I am glad J.D. took the time to put to paper all those family secrets and that Ron Howard has interpreted it into a movie. They have given the world a glimpse of what my family is like. We’ve had our ups and downs.
We are a dysfunctional bunch, but we love like Mamaw and Papaw taught us to love ⸺ with everything we’ve got.
Bonnie Meibers is a Dayton Daily News reporter who covers Greene County. She grew up in Middletown and graduated from Miami University.