Making the Poor Visible

“Obamacare replacement hits Trump voters hard. Some of the biggest losers in Republican plan are in counties that supported him”

Headline in the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, March 12, 2017.

In the late 1990’s someone published a business motivational book called, “Who Stole My Cheese?” It remained on the NY Times best-seller list for almost five years.

My take away was that the difference between rats and people is this. There are five tunnels; only one of them has cheese. Both rats and people will, soon, after discovering the tunnel with cheese, return to it repeatedly. However, if the cheese is moved from, say tunnel two to tunnel five, the rats will return to tunnel two a few times until they realize there is no longer any cheese down that tunnel. Then, the rats will begin to explore the other four tunnels until they find cheese. Human beings, on the other hand will go down tunnel two until they starve because it is the right tunnel.

I was reminded of this business fable several times as I read the NY Times best-seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture and Crisis by J. D. Vance. The book, which many critics have hailed as a key to understanding the “Trump voter,” follows Vance’s life through a harrowing boyhood and adolescence amongst his hillbilly relatives to his enlistment in the United States Marine Corps to his undergraduate studies at the University of Ohio until, finally, his graduation from the Yale University School of Law. His story is more than a little bit Dickensian.

The book is well-written, reportorial and compelling. It more than likely fulfills the criteria of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” I recommend it highly; like James Baldwin’s books it, too, is a guide for pilgrims who are willing to make the journey to an unfamiliar world. I underlined so many passages that it might be easier to pick out the passages that weren’t underlined.

In the introduction Vance writes this:

“This book is about  . . . what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way.* It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

*The italics are mine.


The mythology of hillbillies has been with me since memory.

My parents frequently traveled to business conventions in Chicago, San Francisco and New York (not as glamorous as you may imagine: my father was a manufacturer’s representative for janitorial supplies—wax, mops, brooms, chamois, waste baskets and the like.) These hotels—The  Palmer House in Chicago, The Top of the Mark in San Francisco, and the Waldorf Astoria  in New York all boasted supper-clubs featuring the most sophisticated entertainers of the era, chanteuses like Hildegarde, Patachou, and Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly. All of these women wore strapless gowns and black opera gloves that came up to their shoulders; think Rita Hayworth in Gilda.

When I was a child, no older than seven years old, my parents returned from one of these conventions with an album of 78-rpm recordings, called Dorothy Shay, Park Avenue Hillbilly. I loved Dorothy Shay’s voice and the songs she sang even though I had no idea what they were about. (My parents record collection also included 78 rpm albums of the Broadway show “Oklahoma” which they had seen together in New York before my father was shipped to New Guinea in World War Two. These albums, along with Bing Crosby’s Christmas Album and a Fats Waller album that included Honeysuckle Rose, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Your Feet’s Too Big were treasures in our home. My sisters and I were taught to handle these 78-rpm discs with the same care we’d handle fine china.)

Ms. Shay’s repertoire included songs about blood feuds, (“Feudin’ Fussin’ and a Fightin”), spousal abuse (“Say That We’re Sweethearts Again), and possible incest and a confusing family assortment of half-brothers and step-sisters (“Uncle Fud”), all delivered in a deadpan comic style. They’re all accessible on YouTube if you care to listen.

It would be hard to over-estimate the uproar these recordings would cause if they were released today.

Nonetheless all of these topics are touched upon in Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance tells about the time a truck driver named Big Red called his Uncle Pet a son of a bitch. Uncle Pet took that to be an insult of his “dear old mother”, pulled the driver out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Big Red was rushed to the hospital and survived. “Uncle Pet never went to jail, though. Apparently, Big Red was also an Appalachian man and he refused to speak to the police about the incident or press charges. He knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.”

The author also recalls the time that his grandfather came home drunk, passed out on the couch and his grandmother poured kerosene over his body and set fire to him. (He survived with minor burns.)

Vance recalls hating to be asked whether he had any brothers or sisters. “I had a biological half-brother and half-sister whom I never saw because my father had given me up for adoption. I had many step-brothers and step-sisters by one measure, but only two if you limited the tally of offspring of Mom’s husband of the moment. . . . By some metrics I had about a dozen step-siblings.”


The characters of Ma and Pa Kettle were introduced in a 1945 memoir called The Egg and I, based on a best-selling memoir by Betty MacDonald, one of my mother’s favorite books, which was turned into a hit movie in 1947 starring one of her favorite actresses, Claudette Colbert. (Watch it on TCM: it’s still funny.) The characters of Ma and Pa, the quintessential hillbilly matriarch and her feckless husband, were featured in a total of eight films between 1947 and 1957.

Al Capp’s satirical comic strip L’il Abner was introduced in 1943 and ran until 1974. The strip had 60 million readers in 900 U. S. newspapers and 100 foreign newspapers in 68 countries. It provided the source material for a hit Broadway musical and was later adapted into a film ( It had a lasting impression on the world’s perception of the American south.

My father traveled for a living and often had to drive through rural areas where the only radio signals he could pick up featured evangelical preachers or hard-core country music. He’d return and entertain us with song titles he heard in his travels. Two titles I’ve never forgotten are “Don’t Come Home Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind” and, my favorite, “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too.”

Dorothy Shay, Ma and Pa Kettle, L’il Abner and those song titles formed my childhood notion of what hillbillies and hillbilly culture were.

During my adolescence I discovered Erskine Caldwell’s novel God’s Little Acre, and Tennessee William’s film Baby Doll, which were considered so salacious that both they were banned in several places.

Deliverance, a 1972 film based on a critically acclaimed, best-selling novel by one-time U. S. poet-laureate, James Dickey, presented a far darker, in fact terrifying, view of the hillbilly culture.

More recently the hit FX television show Justified (2010-2015) set in Harlan County, KY and Winter’s Bone (2010), which introduced Jennifer Lawrence, also present violent, lawless and bleak pictures of hillbilly culture.

The great surprise in reading Hillbilly Elegy and its description of what Dr. Shannon Monnat, University of Pennsylvania professor of rural sociology, described as “communities of despair”  was to discover that these portrayals of hillbilly life and its archetypal characters were not as exaggerated or far-fetched as I had assumed them to be.

The Matriarchs

Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle, Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett in Justified and Mammy Yokum from Li’l Abner

Matriarchs play an essential role in hillbilly culture and Vance’s maternal grandmother, Mamaw, is the heart and soul of his memoir. In Chapter Two, Vance describes Mamaw and her husband Papaw as “without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me.”  This is after introducing Mamaw in Chapter One as “a pistol-packing lunatic” and later in Chapter Two commenting that Mamaw came “from a family that would shoot at you rather than argue with you.” And “Mamaw was so terrifying that . . . a Marine recruiter would tell me that I’d find boot camp easier than living at home. ‘Those drill instructors are mean’ he said, but not like that grandma of yours.’” Every chapter of the book includes at least one passage that justifies these descriptions.

Actor John Ritter’s father Tex Ritter had a huge recording hit in the 1940’s with a song called “Pistol Packing Mama.”

Lunacy notwithstanding, Mamaw had clear guiding principles. “There is nothing lower than the poor stealing from the poor. It’s hard enough as it is. We sure as hell don’t have to make it harder on each other.” And “Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.” And, my favorite: “I’m sorry I’m so damned mean. You know I love you but I’m just a crazy bitch.”

I would love to have known Mamaw—from a safe distance.

Papaw, although he had trouble with alcohol and what might amount to cage fights with Mamaw, was a good provider, reliable as sunrise,  and a mentor to his Grandson, J. D.

According to Vance this was not necessarily the norm. He describes the patriarch of a large Appalachian family introducing himself in an HBO documentary:

“By drawing clear lines between work acceptable for men and work acceptable for women. While it’s obvious what he considers “women’s work,” it’s not at all clear what work, if any, is acceptable to him. Apparently not paid employment, since the man has never worked a paying job in his life.”

Pa Kettle and Pappy Yokum are not then drawn entirely from the imagination of the so-called elites.

There’s not space in this blog to go into the heart-breaking, horrifying, and recurring addiction problems of Vance’s much-married mother and its cost, emotionally and financially to Vance, his sister and Mamaw and Papaw.

Toward the end of her life Mamaw, whose numerous medical and health issues bear witness to the tough, unforgiving life she had lived, receives a letter from the factory which had employed her late husband for nearly the whole of his working life. The letter announces that the premiums for her health insurance have increased by $300 per month and she simply doesn’t have the money to pay them. Her grandson, J. D. (the author of this memoir) insists on paying the premiums from his Marine Corps salary. Mamaw, who has never accepted help from anyone, accepts her grandson’s help. Shortly before her death, in what was apparently their last phone call, Mamaw says to J. D., “Thank you for helping me. I’m very proud of you, and I love you.”

Last week, Roger Marshall, a congressman from Kansas’s first district, said this, “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”

One of the recurring characters in Lil Abner was Senator Jack S. Phogbound, an utterly corrupt and craven politician.

“We sympathize with the poor but we don’t want to associate with them.”

In one strip, a newspaper reporter asks Mammy Yokum, the comic strip’s matriarch, “Why do you keep re-electing Senator Phogbound and sending him back to Washington?” Her perfectly reasonable answer: “We don’t want him livin’ round here.”

This hillbilly wisdom goes a long way toward explaining the make-up of the current congress. I mean, can you think of a better explanation for the good people of Kentucky to continue to re-elect Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul?

In March 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared war on poverty. Shortly after that Pulitzer-prize winning Chicago sun Times editorial cartoonist Bill Maudlin published the following cartoon:

This cartoon is burned in my memory because my father (whose eclectic tastes in art you’re just beginning to admire) kept a framed, autographed copy of this cartoon in our family room. As I look at the children on the porch and peeking out the doorway, I see a group who has most likely grown up to be diehard Trump supporters.

As J. D. Vance says in the introduction, “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way.”

Writing about his transformative experience in the Marine Corps boot camp, Vance refers to a psychological term, “learned helplessness”—when a person believes that the choices he makes have no effect on the outcomes of his life. “From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control . . . If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.”


The way the game is being rigged against the poor– by the very people they vote for—it won’t be long before there is no cheese in any of the tunnels. The rats will have taken it all.

If the poor want to know who’s stealing all their cheese, they can begin by taking a good look at the people they are trusting with their votes. A good many of them, like Congressman Marshall, make Senator Jack S. Phogbound look like Mother Teresa.

“We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.”

— Mother Teresa

Further reading: In a place of need, an unhealthy contradiction  Washington Post March 11, 2017


2 thoughts on “Making the Poor Visible

  1. Pingback: Turner Classic Movies – My Pharmacy of Choice | Jim Curtan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s