I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “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 way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

No_One_Writes_to_the_Colonel_FilmPosterWhen I was in North Carolina recently, I saw a movie sponsored by the Modern Languages Department of Methodist University, where I taught before retiring in 2012. The film was El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel), a 1999 Spanish language film by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, based on a novella of the same name by Gabriel García Márquez. It has me thinking about what life is like for older adults in third-world countries.

The film is set in a small fishing community on what is apparently the Mexican coast. It is the 1940s, and the colonel (played by Fernando Luján), a veteran of the Cisteros war, has been waiting 27 years for the pension he was promised. Every Friday, he dresses in his best suit and waits on the dock for the mail boat, expecting to receive the letter announcing the beginning of his long-delayed pension. The lawyer who has been representing him has been ineffectual at everything except collecting additional fees. It seems that the government wants to forget about the war, so bureaucrats ignore the efforts of the war’s veterans promised benefits.

The colonel’s wife Lola (Marisa Paredes) tells him the pension will never come. Yet he keeps hoping—in the pension and in another longshot possibility, that the fighting cock that was the prized possession of their recently deceased son will win at the cockfights held each fall. The colonel and his wife are destitute, and the mortgage on their house will be due before the cockfights start, so much of the plot has to do with the couple’s efforts to prevent foreclosure.

The couple’s grief over their lost son is heartbreaking. At one point, Lola says pathetically, “It’s a sin to live longer than one’s children. A sin to wake up each morning.” The gamecock has special poignancy because it is all they have left of their son. The Colonel caresses it tenderly and carries it almost as if it were an infant in his arms. This fighting rooster is not just a potential breadwinner; he is a representative of all that was lost.

Besides impoverishment and the loss of their son, the couple are struggling with the lost integrity of their society. The injustice regarding the pension is part of a larger corruption, one that has infected most members of the village and, as it eventually turns out, underlies their son’s murder. The colonel remonstrates at one point, “The nation ended up like me—an old rag.” This is a despair that most older adults in liberal Western democracies never experience; even those of us who rant about government waste or oppression don’t have to grapple with the sort of societal rot that surrounded the colonel and his wife.

What is to be done in such a situation? The colonel does a couple admirable things in response. First, he clings to his honor. At times, this has a humorous element, as when he tries to save face with the neighborhood boys, telling his wife “They can’t find out I know nothing about cocks. I’m a full colonel, you know.” Ultimately, though, preserving honor proves costly, when he refuses blood money that would have provided financial deliverance.

The other thing he does in response to the corruption is continue to show up on the dock, even though there is no hope the letter will arrive. I see that as being his testimony to the whole town—mute testimony that says louder than any words that an injustice has been done, and no one should accept it as normal when such an injustice done to members of the community.

I know the film is a fictional account of events long past, but, still, it reminds me of real needs that exist right now in many countries. As I think ahead to my own retirement, I hope I’ll remember the plight of poor older adults who aren’t wrapped in the sort of financial security blanket that I have. Can any of us be fully at ease as long as so many people, be they young or old, have insufficient food, clothes, or shelter?