The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

“Hillbilly Elegy” meets Bowen Theory

authored by Jim Edd Jones, Ph. D.

J.D. Vance, author of the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is, by any measure, functionally successful:  a marine who served in Iraq, graduate of Ohio State, graduate of Yale Law School, and an editor on the Yale Law Journal.  Yet, his nuclear family of origin and extended family are low in level of differentiation.  Not the lowest, but low.  Individually, he’s probably somewhat higher than the system as a whole.

My guess, for a long time, has been that level of differentiation and functional success have a low but significant correlation with each other.  But the exceptions to that association are so numerous as to make that correlation useless by itself.  J.D. Vance is a glaring exception.

He and his half-sister Lindsay are functionally successful so far; yet they have no siblings that are lower than the family average, as you would expect to see in multigenerational transmission process.

And what exactly is the family in this case?  His mother, Bev or Mom, had five marriages and multiple ‘relationships’, chronic addictions, many moves and family disruptions, with a shifting cast of characters.  So it’s hard to apply Bowen’s insights about multigenerational transmission process to Vance’s nuclear family of origin; hard to define what his nuclear family of origin is.

Bowen’s transmission of level of differentiation across generations is still true, from what I see, but you have to be flexible about how you apply the emotional truth of the concept.  Part of the problem is what gets defined as the nuclear family of origin, when level of differentiation of the family is low.  At low levels of differentiation, there is little or no solid self in the system, fluid porous boundaries, shifting definitions of family.

What we see in Vance’s family is often seen in low differentiation families.  If there is an emotionally stable part of the family, it may reside in the person of a grandparent, aunt, or uncle, not in the technically defined nuclear family of origin.

The emotional truths of Bowen theory remain solid, but they have to be applied to something other than the conventionally defined family.  Low differentiation families sometimes have recognizable nuclear families, but often not.

How does all this apply to J.D. Vance and his family?  His mother Bev was the focused-on patient in her family of origin (Paul Olsen, a Denver participant in the Postgraduate Program at the Bowen Center for the Study of Family, pointed this out to me before I saw it).She has had severe addictions, multiple marital and other relationships, only episodic effective functioning.  Her two siblings, Jimmy and Lori, seem to have had moderately effective functioning.  Her family of origin with the parents, Mamaw and Papaw, was stable over many years, though turbulent and symptomatic at times.  The Bowen patterns can easily apply to that nuclear family.  Family projection process and multigenerational transmission process apply well to the Mamaw-Papaw nuclear family.

Vance and his sister were more like Bev’s siblings than her children.  Functionally, Mamaw and Papaw were the emotional parents of J.D. and Lindsay.  In an intense family projection process, the siblings of the focused on child often have a higher level of functioning than their focused on sibling.

The functioning of J.D. and Lindsay was supported by the emotional reliability of Mamaw and Papaw: protection, sanctuary, encouragement, clear values, a stable home, and positive projections from Mamaw and Papaw.


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: J. Aronson.

Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory. New York: Norton.

Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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