Hillbilly Elegy – Confronting Abuse

Based on the memoir by J.D. Vance, the film Hillbilly Elegy tells the personal, heart-wrenching story of J.D., a young boy from backwoods Appalachian country, growing up in a very dysfunctional family. Released in 2020, Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the 2016 memoir has received a lot of backlash from film critics for its overdramatized caricatures and its lack of politically riling themes (which are very much present in the book). Yet, the story is a complex, first-hand account of the realities of abuse, addiction, and dysfunction amongst families, with a surprising theme of gentleness and compassion for an abuser.


The story begins with J.D. as an adult, trying to make his way as a Yale graduate into a prestigious law firm in the city. Just days before his pivotal job interview, his phone buzzes with a call from his sister, Lindsay, begging him to come home; his mom has overdosed on drugs—again. The rest of the film is structured on a series of flashbacks as J.D. drives to Ohio to care for his mom, bombarded with vividly painful memories of his tumultuous childhood.

J.D. and Lindsay spent their adolescent years being raised by their tough-as-nails grandmother, Mamaw, and their mentally and emotionally unstable mother, Bev. For the greater part of her life, Bev is the conduit for her childrens’ residual trauma, as she vacillates between drug addiction, multiple romantic partners, and abusive patterns. Her mental and emotional instability give way to violent behavior, manipulation, lying, stealing drugs, and the verbal and physical abuse of her children. J.D. is dragged along through Bev’s instability, subjected to dysfunction and drug exposure under her neglectful parentage.

Eventually, Mamaw steps in, unwilling to let her grandson suffer the same fate as her daughter, bringing J.D. to live with her instead. Her heavy-handed discipline, protection, and drilling are ultimately what drive J.D. towards success as he begins to work hard to get good grades and stay out of trouble. Mamaw’s demanding efforts are well rewarded when J.D. pursues a successful college career at both Harvard and Yale. Glad to be rid of the stereotype of being a poor, backwoods hillbilly, J.D. leaves almost all memory and connection with his difficult upbringing behind, determined to completely cut himself off from his painful relationship with his mother.

Mercy for the Abuser
As often happens in our lives, the demands of family come clamoring back for our attention when we least expect them—and when we least desire them. Dragging himself across the country to care for Bev, floundering in her destructive drug habits, is the last thing that J.D. wishes to do. Yet he is compelled, mostly out of obligation, to return home. Once back in Ohio, J.D. tries to put aside his anger and contempt for his mother, going to great lengths to check Bev into a local rehab facility. He implores the staff to take pity on her situation and produces multiple credit cards to pay for her to stay. When the rehab staff finally give in, J.D. is dismayed to find Bev walking out the door of rehab, flatly refusing to be admitted. Exasperated beyond words, J.D. finally explodes to his sister, pouring out all of the pent-up anger he’s harbored towards Bev over the years.

He is floored by his sister’s quiet, compassionate response toward their mother:

“I can’t defend her,” Lindsay admits, “but I’m trying to forgive her. If you don’t, you’re never gonna get out of what you’re trying to get out of.”

Lindsay’s response is a singular kind of forgiveness offered to her mother: one which confronts and does not excuse sin, but also releases and gives grace for the offense. In the book, Safe People, psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write about the necessity for confrontation in relationships which, in turn, gives way to forgiveness. “People who forgive can—and should—also be people who confront. What is not confessed can’t be forgiven. God himself confronts our sins and shows us how we wound him: ‘I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts, which turned away from me, and by their eyes, which played the harlot after their idols’ (Ezek. 6:9 NASB).”1

Where J.D. has struggled for years to forgive or confront his mother, Lindsay offers a Christ-like love which both confronts and forgives, not excusing or defending the many abuses and sins which have been committed, but forgiving them. Forgiving an abuser requires a love which sees sin as it truly is: a rebellious act against God, in desperate need of the grace and cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. Forgiving an abuser does not erase or excuse the sin but releases the abuser to the arms of Christ, allowing the abused to hold no bitterness or contempt toward them. It is only when J.D. really faces his own heart head on, confronting the horrific pain and lingering trauma which Bev has caused him, that he begins to finally experience real healing.

Hillbilly Elegy is no great redemptive story or fairytale; the film leaves many questions unresolved in the mind of the viewer. Yet the story is profoundly moving in its three-dimensional perspective of human nature; one which is insufferably selfish, deeply flawed, and obstinate, yet worthy of grace, compassion, and gratuitous kindness. We gain an understanding of the dark, gritty reality of addiction and abuse, and the unalterable effects it can leave upon the lives of others. But we also discover that abuse does not have the final word. When confronted honestly by both the abuser and the abused, abuse may be redeemed, forgiven, and healed, for as the Lord promises, He will “tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)

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Article by Elizabeth Clayton