Ohio native J.D. Vance's best-selling memoir recounted his painful journey to escape his Rust Belt roots. Now he's back in Ohio, hoping to make a difference in the lives of those who are left behind.
When Ami Vitori Kimener of Middletown ran into author J.D. Vance last year in her local doughnut shop, she decided to give him a piece of her mind. Kimener was steamed about the way her hometown was portrayed in the news following the runaway success of Vance's book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” She had recently watched in astonished chagrin as a television crew from Japan set up its camera near the brand-new yoga studio and restaurant she and her husband had opened in a former downtown department store. Ignoring her attractive storefront and the new wine bar across the street, the crew instead had trained its lens on a dilapidated building with paper covering its windows.
Now she watched as Vance, whose memoir depicted Middletown—his hometown too—as a faded notch in the Rust Belt, was being miked for another television appearance. Kimener didn't know the author, but she walked up and confronted him. “Downtown isn't boarded up,” she said, referencing a line in the book. “Have you even been there?”
To her surprise, Vance did not get defensive. Instead, they began to converse about a subject they both care deeply about—how to bring the small towns and cities of the Rust Belt back to health. Their conversation didn't end in the doughnut shop; it continued in the months that followed. “Now I consider him a compatriot in the fight,” says Kimener.
A Little Like Middletown
J.D. Vance has been called “the Trump Whisperer,” “the Voice of the Rust Belt” and the “anger translator” of the disaffected white voters who put Donald Trump in office. Since the election, Vance has become a paid commentator on CNN, and he writes regularly for the New York Times, The Atlantic and National Review. He receives dozens of appearance requests each week, often for what he calls “preposterous” sums of money, and travels constantly to speak to packed rooms.
Vance is not a social scientist, a journalist or a seasoned politician. He's a 33-year-old lawyer-turned-Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and the book that rocketed him to prominence is the story of his life. It's a sometimes heartbreaking account of how he escaped a chaotic childhood marred by violence, instability and his mother's struggles with addiction to reach, by way of the Marines and Ohio State University, an almost unimaginable pinnacle of success: Yale Law School. That success is pinned against the backdrop of the “hillbilly” culture in his community of Kentucky transplants that almost held him back. The book is compelling reading for Vance's story alone, but the election of a president who rode into office in part by appealing to the very people Vance wrote about made it required reading for anyone who wanted to understand the 2016 election. Sixteen months after its publication, there are more than 1 million copies of “Hillbilly Elegy” in print. Director and producer Ron Howard is planning to turn it into a Hollywood movie.
Vance, a conservative Republican, burst onto the scene at a deeply polarized moment in the American political conversation. As a result, readers and commentators are often eager to pigeonhole Vance ideologically, with some liberal reviewers responding to his book as a political manifesto and Republican political strategists salivating over the possibility that he will run for office.
But in some ways, Vance is like Middletown, which does have an impressive new row of upscale shops and amenities downtown, with more on the way, but also has a growing heroin problem and depressed incomes. It's the wine bar and the crappy building with the paper on the windows. It depends on where you focus your lens.
Vance is just as hard to categorize. He's a conservative who spends his days talking about poverty. He's an Appalachian native who's been to Yale Law School and Silicon Valley. He's a Republican who has been harshly critical of Trump and the Republican Party. He calls for more personal responsibility—but believes government programs and community-based institutions can be important vehicles to encourage it.
When Vance announced last winter that he would move home to Ohio (German Village, to be exact), it sparked a flurry of speculation that he would seek public office, and more specifically, challenge Democrat Sherrod Brown for the U.S. Senate in 2018. He ended that conversation in September, when he told The Atlantic he would not run for the Senate next year.
If it's surprising that The Atlantic's national reading audience would be interested in the will-he-run-or-won't-he discourse surrounding a 33-year-old first-time author who has never held public office, then you haven't been paying attention. For the record, Vance did not rule out a future run. But for the moment, he said, he plans to dedicate his time to his family (his first child was born in June), to a new job working to bring venture capital to the Midwest and to his new nonprofit organization, exploring possible solutions for the problems that plague Ohio working class families like his own—starting with the opiate epidemic.
With the Warriors
It's a beautiful September day, but you wouldn't know it in the windowless conference room in Chillicothe's Ross County Community Action Commission, where more than a dozen local warriors on the front lines of Ohio's opioid epidemic—the director of a treatment clinic, community agency directors, the head of a jobs training program, a police chief, a coroner, a probation officer and two judges—have gathered to share with Vance their often-grim experiences. He's brought his team, Jai Chabria, longtime adviser to Gov. John Kasich, and Yale Law School buddy Jamil Jivani. The three, along with an assistant and a couple of student interns, make up the staff of Our Ohio Renewal, Vance's new nonprofit.
Vance is seated at a corner of the table, wearing a crisp linen jacket and a fresh haircut, buzzed up the back and longer on top. He's discreetly scarfing down a boxed lunch from Subway while scribbling on a pad. Today, the man who spends so much of his time talking is, mostly, listening.
“Everyone's asking me questions—‘What do we do?'—because I wrote this book,” Vance tells the group. “Given that I have somewhat of a platform, and if I talk to policymakers they'll listen, what do you think that I should be doing? What would be helpful, if you were pulling the puppet strings?”
They tell him about a 170 percent increase in the number of children seeking free lunches during the summer school vacation; about hardened probation officers weeping at the overdose death of clients who they thought were in recovery; about courtrooms filled with addicts; about jail cells that are doubling as detox centers; and about first-grade classrooms where most of the children are living with relatives or foster families because of their parents' addictions. Some talk about members of their own families who are addicts, or who have died as a result of drug abuse.
As the painful discussion nears the two-hour mark, Vance brings things to a close with a final question. He relates it to his own life. “I've always been really mad at my mom for going back into it,” he says, referring to his mother's struggle with opiate addiction, recounted in his memoir. “It's a basic human response to get frustrated at these problems. How are you guys doing? Are you hanging in there?”
It's a personal, compassionate question, and it taps a fresh vein of emotion. “How do you not go through PTSD when you're dealing with this stuff every day?” asks the probation officer. “We're living in a battleground.”
From the Rust Belt to the Ivy League
Vance spent the better part of his childhood on that battleground. His memoir starts with his grandparents, who came to Middletown from Jackson, Kentucky, after World War II, young teenagers with a baby on the way. His grandfather, “Papaw,” found work at the Armco steel plant, Middletown's economic engine at the time, and stayed there until he retired on a pension. But their marriage was stormy, and Vance's mother, Bev, was raised in a home filled with drinking and violence. She had her first child two months after high school graduation; two years later she had J.D. by a second husband. Bev would marry three more times and bring a succession of men into and out of the lives of Vance and his older sister, Lindsay.
Working as a nurse, Vance's mother became addicted to prescription painkillers long before anyone was talking about an epidemic. Much later, she would turn to the cheaper alternative: heroin. J.D. and Lindsay took care of each other as best they could. But by the time J.D. was halfway through high school, Lindsay had left home and J.D. was living full time with his Mamaw (his grandparents were still married, but Papaw lived up the street.)
After high school, Vance joined the U.S. Marine Corps, completing a four-year stint during which he served in Iraq as a press liaison. He used his G.I. benefits to attend OSU, where, impatient with the younger students around him, he rushed through to graduate in two years, summa cum laude. Yale Law School opened its doors.
At Yale, Vance fell in love with a classmate, Usha Chilukuri. The two married and linked their careers geographically. After a yearlong clerkship near Cincinnati and a brief stint at a law firm, Vance went into business, first heading up a biomedical company and then becoming a principal at Mithril, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm run by the controversial PayPal co-founder and vocal Trump supporter Peter Thiel.
While “Hillbilly Elegy” focuses mainly on Vance's individual experiences, it also seeks to explain the cultural problems that held back his people—former Rust Belt residents who had bet their futures on manufacturing jobs and were now struggling in place after the jobs had moved on. He looks at his relatives and former neighbors and sees not just unemployment but also unwillingness to work. He sees family disarray, substance abuse and creeping isolation from mainstream culture. “Learned helplessness,” he calls it. Vance writes about his people with a combination of affection and exasperation, calling them out for laziness and self-pity even as he criticizes liberals and “elites” on both sides of the aisle for ignoring them, or worse, looking down on them, the so-called deplorables. Trump, he says, won their hearts by speaking directly to their fears and their sense of victimhood.
Vance says two things rescued him from feeling like a victim himself: Mamaw and the military.
Mamaw believed in him and encouraged him to believe in himself. She told him to never be like those “losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” he wrote. “You can do anything you want to.” The Marines taught him critical life skills and forced him to test his limits. “In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life,” he wrote. “There's something powerful about realizing that you've undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for lack of ability.”
Life Goes On
“Hillbilly Elegy” stops short of offering policy solutions to help get poor and working class whites like those he knew unstuck from the mire of joblessness and addiction. “I always thought that if the book started a conversation, and it was successful at doing that, a natural next step would be to start digging into some of the solutions,” says Vance. “I knew that if you actually want to work on the problems, you have to be on the ground, in the weeds, so to speak, not just dealing with experts but actually talking to the people who are trying to deal with this stuff. Given the platform that the book has given me, I was really anxious to get on the ground and start doing things.”
There was a second reason to move east: Vance's wife Usha had been offered a yearlong clerkship with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts—one of the most coveted jobs a young lawyer can get. They decided to split their time between Columbus and Washington, D.C., for a year, then settle in Columbus. (Usha, who began work at the Supreme Court in July, declined to be interviewed for this article, citing Supreme Court ethics rules.)
Adding to the complexity of their transition, Usha became pregnant last fall. “We both really wanted to have a kid, and we were willing to endure whatever sacrifices were necessary,” Vance says. He took a rental apartment in German Village last January, and Usha established a second home base in Washington with her mother.
Ewan Blaine Vance was born on June 2. Dad is quick to pull up a picture on his phone. “He's got my face,” he says, with a smile that broadens his already-round features. “Unfortunately for him, he's got his dad's cheeks.”
Vance is still associated with Thiel and Mithril but has taken a job as an investment partner in Revolution LLC, where he's working with AOL founder Steve Case on the Rise of the Rest initiative. The project aims to bring venture capital to the Midwest. And, with the help of Chabria and Jivani, he's also established Our Ohio Renewal.
The organization's stated mission is broad. “Our Ohio Renewal,” says the description on its website, “will pursue government policies and private partnerships that make it easier for disadvantaged children to achieve their dreams.” Vance has identified three areas of interest: workforce development, strengthening families and combating the opiate epidemic.
But it's the opiate epidemic that animates him most. Not only is it worse in Ohio than almost any other state, but it's deeply personal to Vance because of his mother's addiction.
An idea he's particularly taken with is “kinship care”—helping children of drug addicts stay with their extended families. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine reported recently that 15,000 children statewide have been removed from their homes, many because their parents overdosed or are addicted. Fewer than half that many foster placements are available. Yet when relatives of these children step up, says Vance, significant barriers exist, whether it's the problem of feeding extra mouths on a fixed income or not having the legal status to act as guardian.
Vance knows the problem firsthand. When he was 12, his mother was arrested after an incident in which she threatened to crash the car with him in it. Vance, however, refused to testify against his mother because he was told that if she went to jail, he would likely be placed in foster care instead of with his grandparents. “In the eyes of the law, my grandmother was an untrained caretaker without a foster license,” he wrote.
Yet Vance's rough-edged but loving Mamaw saved him, and Vance cites research that shows children placed with relatives have significantly better outcomes than those in foster care. “There are a ton of Mamaws out there,” he says, “and they are not getting the support they need. We are going to push policies that will make it easier for the Mamaws of the world to actually care for those kids.”
It's a family-first solution any conservative would love. But it's also a socially progressive call to government to do more to support the families of these children of addicted parents.
Changing the Debate?
For all the popularity of Vance and his book, he has many critics. He has been accused of victim-blaming, drawing overly broad conclusions from his own life, ignoring the role of corporations in creating the twin miseries of joblessness and opiate addiction and downplaying the role of government (for instance, the Marines and a public university) in his own success.
Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, himself born poor and Appalachian, found “Hillbilly Elegy” harsh and judgmental. “I would like for us to talk about the circumstances that a lot of people are facing through no fault of their own,” he says. “I'm not into blaming the victim. A lot of people are caught up in dysfunctional behaviors for very complex reasons other than their unwillingness to work hard or their lack of will or their character defects.”
Vance hopes that his work at Our Ohio Renewal can cut through partisanship. He worried that hiring political strategist Jai Chabria, who was known as Kasich's top adviser for two decades, would color the project in the eyes of the public. “My concern with Jai was, ‘Oh, Republican, John Kasich adviser, immediately you're tagged as a Republican and half the country hates you.”
But he says that hasn't been his experience. “If anything, I feel a little bit more confident that Americans are pretty insightful and pretty nuanced in how they think about these issues,” he says.
Bringing some political balance to the leadership of Our Ohio Renewal is Vance's law school friend Jamil Jivani. A biracial Canadian citizen who grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Toronto and identifies as a progressive, Jivani worked as a community organizer after law school. He founded a Toronto organization that teaches young black men strategies for interacting with police. He's written a book, due out next year, exploring the forces that cause young men to join extremist groups. On leave from a Toronto law school teaching job, Jivani currently shares Vance's German Village home.
The opiate epidemic, says Jivani, may offer a chance to change the terms of the debate about illegal drugs. The size and scope of the crisis—and the fact that its victims are often white, suburban or rural—has drawn the attention of conservatives and others who “might have had a certain insensitivity or unfamiliarity with the crack epidemic” of the '80s and '90s. “Now all of a sudden it's easier to say, ‘Hey, maybe locking people up isn't the best way to handle this. Maybe we need a more complex and nuanced response to addiction and to the economic conditions that produce both the supply and demand of illicit drugs.'”
“I think this could be a unique moment in American history,” he says, “where there is a unique cross-section of people of different political beliefs and lived experiences that are open to the kind of things that J.D. and I think are important.”
That Kid from Ohio
Readers of “Hillbilly Elegy” might wonder how Vance's unvarnished account has changed his relationship with his family and the community he portrayed. Vance shared early drafts of the book with family members, both to check facts and to prepare them. But he never foresaw how popular the book would become. “You just go into something saying I'm going to be brutally honest because it'll disappear into obscurity,” says Vance. “And then it doesn't, and that's surprising.”
“My family's done well with it, but it must have been hard,” he says. “They've told me that it's caused a lot of difficult conversations and forced people to think about things. I know it was hard.”
He worries about his mother, who was in recovery when we spoke, but keeps a protective distance. He is still close to his sister Lindsay and the aunt he calls Aunt Wee. And no matter how searing the memories of his Middletown childhood are, his attachment is still strong. Not long ago, he went to see the house where he once lived. It was vacant, with an eviction notice on the door.
He called his aunt and sister, and they drove over together, entered through an unlocked window and walked through the house and the garage. His tone in describing that visit is nostalgic. “I spent a lot of time in and around the garage,” he says. “You know, throwing basketballs at the roof and catching them as they rolled down.”
A few months later, he drove past the house again and found the garage was gone. “I was blown away that they'd torn down the frickin' garage,” he says. “For some reason, I was glad that we saw it, that we were able to go inside that one last time.”
Vance had a comfortable life in San Francisco, but the urge to return home was strong. “Survivor's guilt is probably too strong a word for it, but definitely there's a sense of, ‘You owe this community something because you got lucky.' And that's really what it was. I got lucky.”
Spending his time with people who are combating problems he left behind is hard, he says, but in some ways, it's a relief. “I don't think I'm a natural ambassador to the elites. And that's what I do spend a lot of my time doing. I'm basically going to people who don't understand where I came from and trying to get them to understand it.” It's draining.
Getting out into the field and learning from people who are fighting the epidemic, by contrast, is invigorating. “There's a battle-buddy mentality. They're a friend, because they've seen the things that you've seen.”
Most of all, “it feels good to be doing something.”
Author and Yale Law School professor Amy Chua, Vance's mentor and longtime champion, says she's not surprised at the turn his life has taken. “He wants to give back to his community at the same time that he wants to be there for his family,” she says. “I think there's a piece of J.D. that's always going to be that kid from Kentucky/Ohio.”
Vance has said as much. Writing last March in the New York Times, he outlined all the reasons he was moving to Columbus, setting his argument in the context of the “brain drain” that communities suffer when their most ambitious young people leave. Then he took a step back. “Part of me loves Ohio,” he wrote, “simply because it's home.”