J.D. Vance Told Ohio's Story In "Hillbilly Elegy." Now He's Moved Back

Mar 27, 2017

After chronicling his experience growing up in small-town Ohio, and becoming an election-year point of discussion, author J.D. Vance is moving home. Or at least to Columbus.

Vance's book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis," which revolves around his childhood in Middletown, Ohio, and his family's Appalachian ties, sheds light on the struggles of some of the poorest people in the country. During the election, the book was widely read as an insight into middle America, with Vance being called "the voice of the Rust Belt."

After attending Ohio State, Vance went to Yale Law School and spent years in Silicon Valley. Now, Vance is returning to Central Ohio.

Vance says the move is part-homesickness, part-civic responsibility.

“People leave the communities they came from and they never come back. They never come back geographically, they never come back culturally,” Vance says.

When he was considering what to do after his book's smash success, Vance says he felt called back to Ohio. Though he says Columbus has a lot of "exciting things" going on, the opioid crisis is what really stands out on the state level.

"It’s something that’s touched me very personally," Vance says. "I’ve just felt this really burning desire to do something about it."

To that end, he’s starting a non-profit with Jai Chabria, a longtime Kasich adviser, to combat the opioid epidemic.

“We should think of civic responsibility in slightly broader terms," Vance says. "Those of us who live in Columbus, we all certainly owe something to the city that we live in. I also think we owe something to the broader region, to central Ohio, to some of the areas of our state that aren’t especially fortunate.”

Vance talked to WOSU's Clare Roth about his recent move and the empathy gap he sees in the country.

Clare Roth: So in a column for The New York Times, you outline why you decided to move back to this state. You talk about brain drain and polarization and homesickness. But you eventually land on civic responsibility. So help me understand that connection between where we live and what we contribute.

J.D. Vance: Well I think that very often happens is that people leave the communities that they came from and they never come back, right? They never come back geographically, they never come back culturally, and you know, even if they sort of settle and permanently find themselves in a new community, I think we have an increasing problem of, even in that community, people aren't super engaged in new communities that they find themselves in.

But I do think that we should have some sense of responsibility when we find ourselves in the community, wherever that is. And for me that's always been attached to a sense of place, a sense of where I came from, and so that's one of the things that brought me back to Ohio. I mean, for me, you know, looking at the state, obviously there are a lot of exciting things happening, there a lot of exciting things happening in Columbus above all, but we also have this really significant opioid crisis here in the state.

And it's something that's touched me very personally, and I've just felt this really burning desire to try to do something about it, and frankly, I don't even know what that something is. But certainly, I felt compelled to try. 

Clare Roth: That type of empathy you're talking about, that type of insight, was incredibly present in your book. So for those of us who haven't had the chance to live in two worlds the way that you have, how do we foster that empathy and understanding?

J.D. Vance: I think that our empathy gap is primarily a function of the fact that we currently live in very disconnected, very isolated worlds. And like I said, the only way that I know how to fix that is to actually talk to somebody and understand where somebody is coming from. The way that this is often asked for me is, how do we, how do we promote empathy that Trump voters could have for Hillary Clinton voters or how do we do vice versa in a world that is very ideologically and politically polarized? 

And what I consistently find is that the people who actually know someone personally who voted for the other candidate are a lot more empathetic and a lot more understanding and I think consequently are much better conversation partners.

Clare Roth: It's interesting you talk about this sense of civic duty, and then you're coming back to Columbus, which is not a place I believe you've lived - I suppose you went to OSU. I wonder about people in Columbus that think, "Well, we're doing, just fine, thank you very much." Who think we're living in a very robust city that is doing fairly well for itself. How do you respond to that sort of - I don't want to say criticism, but that sort of argument?

J.D. Vance: Yeah, well, I think that it would be a mistake for people to look at this move as me trying to help or trying to fix Columbus, because, like you said, I think Columbus is doing especially well. It's a very vibrant place. It's also, of course, a very diverse place that has people from a lot of different class, racial, ethnic backgrounds and so forth. So I think that Columbus is really an opportunity center for the state. But Columbus' opportunities and the things that are going well in Columbus are not necessarily true all across the state. 

So I guess my response to that is that we should think of civic responsibility in slightly broader terms. And though I think we all certainly owe, those of us who live in Columbus, we all certainly owe something to the city that we live in, I also think that we owe something to the broader region, to central Ohio, to some of the areas in our state that aren't especially fortunate. And that's really my focus in moving back and that's who I'm trying to help.