Bestselling Author Speaks at NCASAA about Ohio Childhood

jd-vanceBest-selling author and Ohio native J.D. Vance (left) was a speaker today at the NCASAA conference in Seattle.

Ohio CASA Executive Director Doug Stephens introduced J.D., whose book, Hillbilly Elegy, paints an intimate, poignant and sometimes-disturbing look at his childhood in Middletown.

J.D. identifies with working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia and no college degree. Many migrated north from the hills of Kentucky in search of a better life during the 1900s. J.D.’s own grandparents, Bonnie and Jim Vance, left Jackson, Kentucky, in the 1940s and landed in Middletown, where Jim went to work at ARMCO (American Rolling Mill Company).

The culture of the Middletown working class is complex and chaotic. It is a culture of overriding pessimism and low expectations marked by screaming matches and domestic violence, divorce, money struggles that lead to bankruptcy and poverty, poor academic performance, substance abuse, arrest, and willful unemployment.

Growing up in that culture, J.D. experienced many of the traumas suffered by the children CASA volunteers.

J.D. was in kinship care before it had a name. Although his physical address was his mother’s, he was raised by his beloved grandparents, who offered him guidance, encouragement, and most importantly, stability. His grandparents’ “almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream” had a profound effect on shaping J.D.’s future.

The home of J.D.’s mother, Beverly, was a world of chaos that exposed J.D. to poverty and substance abuse, either through alcohol or a string of increasingly dangerous drugs. Beverly invited a “revolving door of father figures” into their lives, forcing J.D. and his sister to repeatedly re-align themselves with new families. During one 7-year period, Beverly moved J.D. in and out of six homes as she changed relationships five times.

Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in his mother’s home had harmful effects on J.D.: fatigue, depression, anxiety, weight gain, poor school attendance and performance, and experimentation with alcohol and marijuana.

J.D. moved in full-time with Bonnie, who he called “Mamaw,” sometime after his freshman year of high school. He writes that the three years he lived with her saved him, because the stable environment she provided made him happy. He no longer dreaded going home after school or worried that someone else’s bad decisions would disrupt his life. J.D. believes the opportunities he has enjoyed in adulthood stem from that happiness and the hope for the future he was encouraged to embrace.

J.D.’s mamaw was a de facto child advocate. She had dreams of becoming a child attorney for abused and neglected children, “serving as a voice for those who lacked one.” She was one of a few people J.D. could depend on for help.

J.D.’s story is an inspiring message of hard work and self-reliance. Since leaving Middletown as a young adult, he has enjoyed a string of successes – serving in the Marine Corps, graduating summa cum laude from The Ohio State University two years ahead of schedule, and earning a law degree at Yale. He even interned at Franklin County CASA when he was in college.

J.D. is a commentator on CNN and a regular contributor to the New York Times opinion page. He recently founded Our Ohio Renewal, a nonprofit focused on the opioid epidemic and on the need for upward mobility for those living in poverty.

He lives in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus with his wife and two dogs.