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.

This post was published by

4 Comments on "“Hillbilly Elegy” meets Bowen Theory"

  • Leslie Ann Fox says

    Thank you, Jim Edd for this thought-provoking blog post. J.D. Vance’s biography is a compelling book and the questions of variation and differentiation across the family and the community he grew up in were constantly on my mind when I read it a few years ago. I am really intrigued with how you reframed J.D.’s family of origin as the grandparents really being in the parental role and his mother more like a dysfunctional sibling. I never thought of that, but it makes sense to me. When you expand your view of the family to all three generations, J.D.’s mother really stands out as the individual absorbing the most anxiety in the multigenerational family system. This is a great example of the value of looking beyond the individual, and even beyond the family of origin to the prior generations. It also speaks to the impact that even one high functioning adult in the system can have on younger and future generations.

  • Jim Edd Jones says

    I like your sentence about the mother being the absorber of anxiety in that multigenerational family. Phrased that way, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to assess in every person I see.

  • Sydney Reed says

    I have been thinking about Jim Edd’s blog for a few weeks while I entertain my grandchildren. Initially, I was questioning Dr. Jones’ assumption that Vance was “successful”. Do we have enough years to make that statement? What came to mind was the Harvard Study of Adult Development begun during the second world war and still continuing to this day, The 720 Harvard sophomores were all successful and accomplished or they would not have been admitted to Harvard. This population as been studied over the last 75 years. The researchers were particularly interested in how the subject of the study would deal with midlife, which the researchers felt was a particularly stressful time. Robert Waldinger, current director of the study, suggests on a Ted Talk that the primary lesson about adult development is that men who were happy and satisfied with their lives at age 50 were the most healthy at age 80. Good relationships improve our health, protect our brains and insure that we don’t descend to the terrible stage of loneliness. Waldinger acknowledges that it’s hard work to attend to relationships. People have to be willing to “lean into relationships.” It’s not the quantity of the relationships that is important but the quality of close relationships that matter.

    Vance is not yet in midlife. However, his declaration in the beginning of the book that although there may be scenes in the book that upset the reader, he wants people to know that this is his family and that he loves all these people. I got the impression that he wasn’t the sort of person to cut off. One might predict that his “success” will continue.

    The ability to adapt and relate to a Socioeconomic class different from one’s own can be viewed as a marker of higher flexibility and solid identity. The functioning position of staying in contact with one’s own family whatever SES they may be provides that flexibility and solid identity foundational to differentiation of self.

    • Jim Edd Jones says

      I said he was “functionally successful”. Like some of the functionally successful people in Meg Jay’s book >Supernormal<, I suspect that J.D. Vance is at risk for later emotional difficulties, which I believe is partly being buffered with protection from his marriage, so far. I love the Harvard Study, going all the way back to George Vaillant's work. I agree about the strength in Vance's attitude toward his multigenerational family. Thanks for the tip on the TedTalk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *