Hillbilly Elegy: Not a Book Review (Some Thoughts on Empathy)

With eight flight segments and plenty of downtime over spring break (last one ever!), I was able to crush through some of my reading list, and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was at the top.  It’s become very trendy for my more liberal friends (and media) to drop this into conversations as an explanation for how and why Donald Trump has somehow become President of the United States of America, and based on some brief web searching, there are plenty of opinions both ways on Mr. Vance, his book, and what it all means – but that’s not what I’m here for.

For those of you who don’t know, “Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans” – full synopsis here.

I didn’t really have a goal in reading the book, other than to see what everyone was talking about – but I quickly found myself reacting to almost every story in one of two ways; (1) unintentionally condescending (“yep that’s what I’d expect from a redneck”), or (2) viscerally empathetic (“holy shit, I think I might sort of get this”).  I’m sure people across the spectrum would react to each piece of this book differently – but I grew up neither rich, nor poor, and I increasingly have a difficult time relating to those who religiously (small “r”) regurgitate Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow’s talking points.  What struck me the most about those moments of empathy (not sympathy) were that they were orders of magnitude more intense than those things that I found disturbing about Mr. Vance’s upbringing.

Two episodes particularly struck a chord:

In his younger years, J.D. took it upon himself to sucker punch a bully, and though he feared the worst, in the aftermath he sensed a “hint of approval” from his teacher who gave him a token punishment and a seal of approval from his grandmother who told him, “sometimes, honey, you have to fight… it’s just the right thing to do”.

For three years in elementary school I was mercilessly tortured by a classmate (let’s call him Brian).  Unlike Middletown, Ohio (as I imagine it), Milton, MA does not condone playground justice in any way – but after yearof guidance counselor sessions and “friendship meetings”, nothing changed and I was miserable every day at school.  Then, on my first day of fourth grade we had a little scuffle that resulted in another parent conference, in which the guidance counselor suggested that I switch classes to fix the problem.  I was not in this meeting, but it is my understanding that my father (who was quite a large man and happened to have been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1971) called the counselor (who was rotund and whose name was Peggy) “Ms. Piggy” and told her that moving forward “my son has explicit permission to punch this kid in the face the next time he lays a finger on him”.  Well, about 15 hours later, Brian tried to physically remove me from a chair he deemed to be his, and he ended up with a bloody nose amidst a pile of overturned desks and chairs.  I ended up in the principal’s office, listening to how my parents were “promoting violence in the school system”, and much like young J.D. was pretty sure I was going to be in a lot of trouble.  Brian never picked on me again, and the only further mention of the incident in our house was that there was a difference between what I did and starting a fight – and that I was never to do the latter.

In reading his story, I could feel the helplessness of a young boy in a school system that couldn’t/wouldn’t help in the face of bullying, and I can remember the soft approval from family that I knew would have my back, regardless of what else I’d have to face out in the real world.

Fast forward to Yale Law School, and J.D. is at a recruiting event for a prestigious law firm (just think Leo at that dinner on the Titanic).  Not knowing what to say, how to say it, or what fork to eat with (even though he looked the part of a typical white dude), he was flustered and barely keeping above water.

I, weirdly, didn’t own a suit until I was a junior in college (what’s wrong with khackis and a blazer?) – and I remember throwing it on for one of my first big recruiting events at an investment bank, for which I had made it to the in person phase of the interview process (they even paid for my train to NY!).  I believe my discomfort was probably 1/100th of what J.D. felt, but I remember feeling “less than”, and I remember resenting 75% of the people in the room, with their scripted Ivy League recruiting pitches and refined demeanor.  Due to generous financial aid and family that stretched their limits, I was lucky enough to have gone to school with people like this for years – but this was different and I was in over my head.  This was a playing field that I was ill equipped for, and I could feel it (I was also not qualified for the job, which I did not get).


For some reason, both those stories really hit home for me, bringing back memories and emotions that I hadn’t honed in on in a long time.

I started this post by thinking of how to tie this into VC and startups – “you are not always the target customer”, “don’t assume you’re the smartest person in the room”, “figure out why they think this is something to dedicate their lives to”, “diversity is not only right, but it can be profitable”.

But fuck it.  My takeaway is that I am going to try to bring more empathy into my decision making processes, in general.  I could have talked about Mr. Vance’s recollections of attempted murder, abusive relationships and drug-fueled destructive behavior – but for me, in this case, it’s the similarities that I’ll focus on, when comparing my experience to those of someone whose life has been so very different from mine.

The more we can do that, the better conversations we can have, and the more productive we can be in our relationships and in/across our communities.  We normally don’t have the luxury of reading someone’s memoir to hash these things out, but with a little effort, it can be done.

8 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy: Not a Book Review (Some Thoughts on Empathy)”

  1. This was so very “right on”, John! Truly enjoyed your perspective and insight! How do I “sign on” to receive your blogs?
    Thanks for sharing….❤️

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