The heart of “Hillbilly Elegy,” Bonnie Meibers’ Mamaw taught her family to ‘love hard’
BY DONNA BOEN ’83, MTSC ’96, MIAMIAN EDITOR
When “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” came out in June 2016, it quickly made the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there. The Wall Street Journal called it “a riveting book.” David Brooks of the New York Times said it was “essential reading.”
J.D. Vance, its author and Middletown, Ohio, native, spoke at Miami’s Oxford campus within months of the book’s release, his talk arranged by his cousin, Bonnie Meibers ’18, an undergraduate at the time majoring in journalism and marketing.
In the spring of 2017, Vance gave the Miami University Regionals’ Casper Memorial Lecture to a sold-out crowd. That summer his memoir was named Miami’s 2017 summer reading book.
“The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America,” states the book’s promo. “J.D.’s grandparents were ‘dirt poor and in love,’ and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.”
Both its fans and its critics, of which there are many, credit much of the book’s success to its timing.
In a review of the book’s new movie adaptation, Anagha Srikanth writes in thehill.com Oct. 15, 2020, that the 2016 book “rode a wave of interest in rural America after voters stumped the pollsters by electing President Trump.”
With the release of the movie in theaters Nov. 11 and on Netflix tomorrow (Nov. 24), Vance’s memoir is once again stirring up fans, who believe it shares valuable insight, and foes, who say it reinforces inaccurate stereotypes. The major motion picture, directed and co-produced by Ron Howard, was partially filmed in Middletown and stars Glenn Close as Vance’s Mamaw and Amy Adams as his mother, Bev.
Bonnie Meibers ’18 is close to Vance, saying he’s more like an older brother than a cousin. She grew up in Middletown, too, and knows his story well. In fact, she’s named after their Mamaw. Now a Dayton Daily News reporter who covers Greene County, she agreed to answer questions about J.D., his book, the new movie and what the story means to her.
Q&A with Bonnie Meibers ’18 about her family’s portrayal in “Hillbilly Elegy”
Q: For those who haven’t read the book, how would you explain it to them?
Bonnie: “Hillbilly Elegy” is a memoir about my cousin, J.D. Vance, growing up in Middletown, Ohio, and Jackson, Kentucky. In the book, he lays out his chaotic childhood with an abusive, drug-addicted mother and the way that his family helped save him from continuing that cycle of drug abuse and physical abuse. I see the story as a love story and a tribute to our Mamaw and Papaw.
Q: The characters in the book are pretty rough, don’t you think, especially your beloved Mamaw? Tell us a bit about her so we can better understand her.
Bonnie: In my eyes, the heroes of the book are my Mamaw, Papaw and my mother, Aunt Wee. They were some of the strongest forces that kept J.D. and his sister, Lindsay, safe. They didn’t always do the right thing, but they loved so much and that is what kept the family together.
Mamaw was not your typical grandmother. She carried a gun, and she cursed like a sailor. So in that sense, I guess you could characterize her as being a little rough around the edges. But she was so much more than that. Some things you might not see in the movie are that she could be vulnerable and nurturing. She was so supportive of her family. Everybody loved her. J.D. told me that once when Mamaw picked him up from school, there was a strange teenage girl with her. Someone in her family had beaten her up and she ran away. People told her to go to Mamaw’s because she would take care of her. And she did.
She was smart and witty. She was like a stand-up comedian. She was an extraordinary grandmother because she would have laid down her life to help anyone in her family. She loved us so fiercely.
Q: What’s your favorite anecdote about your Mamaw?
Bonnie: It’s hard to pick a favorite memory, but one of the ones that sticks out to me the most is that my little sister (Hannah Meibers, a 2020 Miami grad!) and I tried to make her adhere to a curse jar. As I said before, she cursed like a sailor. So basically every time we saw her, we would say, “That’s a quarter, Mamaw!” or “That’s a dollar!” Finally, she had had enough, and she wrote a blank check and said, “I’ll fill out the f****** amount later!” The jar was soon a thing of the past.
Q: More than a million people bought this book. How difficult was it for you to know that your family’s intimate details were so widely shared? Are you more prepared emotionally for the movie than you were for the book?
Bonnie: Reading it was hard, but I knew that every word in that book came from a caring place and from someone who knew the characters very well. J.D. is my cousin, but we’ve always said that we’re more like brother and sister. Even growing up, I called Lindsay, his sister, “Sissy.” (Because my Aunt Bev, J.D.’s mother, was struggling so much with her addiction, J.D. and Lindsay were raised by my Mamaw and Papaw and also my mother, Aunt Wee. When Mamaw died, J.D. had been living with her, so he came to live with our family.)
Because I feel so connected to J.D., I trusted him to tell this story. He did a great job capturing who our family members were, and his writing was obviously from the heart. I am so glad that J.D. shared our Mamaw with the world.
Having a stranger, albeit a famous one, come in and tell the same story was a different feeling. I watched the movie on Nov. 11 with my parents in Dayton, and I was not ready for how emotional it would make me.
Glenn Close is wearing Mamaw’s glasses, and I couldn’t stop looking at them and thinking about my real-life Mamaw. I think it’s a good movie, and Glenn does so well at capturing Mamaw’s essence, but she was such a complex person. Netflix would need to make a mini-series to fully capture who Mamaw was.
Q: What’s the most poignant scene for you?
Bonnie: The hardest scene for me personally to read/watch is the scene where my Papaw dies. I was about 3 years old, so I don’t have many memories of him. Seeing his death the way J.D. recalls it is always hard for me.
A little-known fact is that J.D.’s mother, my Aunt Bev, has been sober for six years, and now works in an outpatient addiction treatment center!
Q: Having grown up in Middletown, how do you feel about its portrayal as a failed steel town? Or is that the portrayal?
Bonnie: Obviously, there have been a lot of changes in Middletown over the past 50 years, and AK Steel does not play the same role in the community as Armco Steel once did. Having said that, there are many exciting things going in Middletown, including the revitalization of downtown, and we have a bright future.
J.D.’s story could have been set anywhere. I think any kid with a parent who was addicted to opioids would have told a similar story. That is why the book resonated with so many people.
Q: My own family was quite divided in our opinions about the book. Some of us loved it and recognized our similar hillbilly background. Others of us thought it was a false portrayal of Appalachian people. Why do you think J.D.’s book generates such extreme feelings?
Bonnie: I think a lot of people see their own families in his book, and that can make you emotional in both good and bad ways. The truth is, a lot of people from Appalachia came up North to work in steel mills or paper mills or some other manufacturing-type jobs. They were truly able to achieve “the American Dream” doing that. There are similarities to the way a lot of those people went about their lives and tried to better themselves, just like my grandparents. It’s not dissimilar from the way many people’s ancestors came to America from Europe looking for a better life.
Q: The word “hillbilly” seems like a red-flag word in that it evokes emotion, usually negative, or am I making a sweeping generalization? How do you feel about the word and do you consider yourself a hillbilly? What does it mean to be a hillbilly?
Bonnie: I think the word means different things to different people. I personally like the word. I fondly think of my family in Kentucky and my grandparents when I read or hear the word “hillbilly.” I would consider myself the granddaughter of hillbillies, or hill people. That was the term Mamaw would use. The title, “Hillbilly Elegy,” means that he is telling the story of his people, his hillbillies, our Mamaw and Papaw.
To me, being a hillbilly means being someone who believes in hard work and being someone who believes in family above all, no matter if it is right or wrong.
Q: What do you say to J.D.’s critics who think he’s simply feeding into a stereotype?
Bonnie: I try to be understanding of all the critics, but I think I am simply too close to the story to be unbiased. To me, J.D.’s book was a tribute to our Mamaw and Papaw and how much he loved them. He’s telling his story and their story. J.D. never set out to tell the story of an entire people.
I do think it’s really good that people are having this conversation about the struggle of the Appalachian people and the root causes of poverty and addiction. And I’m proud that J.D.’s book has been a catalyst in that conversation.
Q: What’s the one thing people don’t understand about either the book or J.D.?
Bonnie: For me, the most frustrating type of criticism to read is people who say that J.D. is a bad person because of what they assume his politics are, and they try to make J.D.’s book into some political statement. I read some comment on Twitter that J.D. should go kill himself. As a family member, I want people to know that is absolutely not OK. That’s a living, breathing human being you’re saying those words about. That’s somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s father. In a time when we are all going through this pandemic together, I think we should be kinder.
Q: If readers of the book and now viewers of the film take away only one key point, what would you like that to be?
Bonnie: The one thing I want readers and viewers to take away is that family is the most important thing. Mamaw was the matriarch of our family and the glue that held us together. She taught us all to love hard and to stand up for your family no matter what.
The love Mamaw had for her family is the reason that they all stuck together and came through the hardships they faced. There are plenty of other families out there like ours, and I’m sure they would agree with that sentiment.
To read Bonnie’s essay, “ ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is my family’s story. I’m happy it shared my Mamaw with the world,” in the Nov. 15, 2020, Dayton Daily News, go to tinyurl.com/BonnieHillbillyElegyDDNessa.