Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.



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Cinema Therapy — Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.

Hillbilly Elegy

“Telling the story is important: without stories, memory becomes frozen; and without memory you cannot imagine how things can be different.” ― Van Der Kolk, M.D.

The movie Hillbilly Elegy by director Ron Howard is based on the bestselling memoir by millionaire American venture capitalist James David (“JD”) Vance, often referred to by the media as “the voice of the rust belt.” The film tells the story of one man’s personal triumph in the face of great hardship.

Born in Ohio on August 2, 1984, JD (played by Gabrial Basso) was raised in the Appalachian backwoods by a family battling drug addiction, violence, poverty and shame. The story details JD’s dysfunctional family relationships (Amy Adams plays his mother; Glenn Close his grandmother), family traumas, and its drastic impact on our hero’s life. We witness J.D.’s feelings of being caught between the role of dutiful son and scapegoat to his heroin addicted mother, his need for family belonging, and his internal drive to discover a path and a life he can call his own. His internal and external conflicts leave him in a state of confusion and humiliation, feeling invisible and without a voice. His addict mother draws him into a parenting role with her, while his mule-headed, cigarette-smoking, take-no-prisoners grandmother Mamaw, encourages JD to “be somebody,” get an education, a life, and a future. “The only thing that means anything is your life,” she states. But how does a kid get out of an abusive, enmeshed family system filled with confusing mixed messages?

Psychological Implications
Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey offers a psychological template for certain film characters, like JD, who exemplify resilience and transformation. Campbell’s work also illustrates an archetypal journey, pointing out how heroes and heroines in myths and fairytales help us identify with the change in others. They are filled with imaginary companions, allies, and guides who leave home and go into the wilderness. This symbolizes the first movement in the process of individuation, out of the comfort zone, and a step into the unknown. It is a good template that exemplifies JD Vance’s own personal journey of transformation from a state of unhealthy dependency into the unknown and change of consciousness. And JD does just that.

In the film circumstances build to a crisis and then evolve to defining moments: JD is trapped! How does he get out of this trap? He has nowhere to go and no mentor, no guide to show him the way out. He is caught in a multi-generational transmission process, a no-man land’s cycle of poverty, addiction, and a backwoods mindset (“lunar birt”) lacking in education and academic tools to claw one’s way out of “stuck.”

JD searches for his place in the world outside the chaotic life and death “comfort zone” of his family role and Appalachia. Against all odds, he leaves home. He is torn between meeting his mother’s neediness while suffering humiliation as the butt of her physical and emotional abuse, his grandmother’s advocacy, and desperately trying to belong in his enmeshed family. He is constantly being called “home,” to that traumatic emotional environment. But what is home really? The emotional environment where we grow up, a location that defines our character, or one that encourages us to manifest our best potential?

When the Help of a “Wise One” is Needed
In Hillbilly Elegy, JD’s story shows us that we need the help of mentors and wise ones who have been there before us and can show us the way. The Marine Corp is JD’s vehicle to leave “home,” to crawl out of the dysfunctional family system. It is a defining moment, emotionally and geographically. He continues to face other challenges as he moves through the stages of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey which he spells out as a process from lunar birth to rebirth: home, leaving home, searching for the treasure, finding the booty, then coming home transformed.

An archetypal journey typically pushes us to learn about the unknown, alien aspects of the self―our duality of thinking and the perpetual conflict of the splits (good and evil, the dark side, the light side, a good cause). In Hillbilly Elegy, “home” is represented by JD’s multi-generational transmission of abuse, chaos, drugs, acting out and the backwoods dualities of thinking: right, wrong, good, bad. When JD leaves home and travels this archetypal journey, it results in a stronger sense of his identity and what he can do in life. After leaving the Marine Corp, we see him thrive at the University and Yale Law School where he meets the love of his life who also serves as another mentor and guide.

Crisis and Defining Moments
However, now we have a crisis, a Sophie’s Choice moment! Crisis and crossroads converge when JD, scheduled to interview with a prominent legal firm for a summer law internship, is called by his sister with an urgent request for him to return “home.”

A decision must be made. Here lies an opportunity for a turning point―or to simply let the past get replayed. JD must choose between remaining in “lunar birth” as enabler and fix-it man for his addict mother, or moving forward into the unknown and a new stage of his life, adulthood.

We all face such defining moments, a crossroads when we must ask ourselves, do I move ahead or stay stuck in time? For many, a crisis can become an ongoing way of life, a “comfortable old shoe” of toxic emotional environments, just another “event” arising out of a perpetual state of confusion and fear. By holding on to old roles instead of moving forward, we lose those precious “teaching moments” that can transform our lives. There’s no turning back.

For JD, accepting crisis as his lot in life has been a learned reaction―but it does not need to be his way of life. At this point, through JD’s memory and experience, past and present converge through flashbacks, he reflects on three generations of family history, then makes a decision about his future. The surprise is that JD returns home to his mother―but with the shield of a changed mind-set, a transformation of consciousness.

When JD changed his thinking, he changed his life and it had a trickle-down effect on his mother who, as a result, also evolved. She became clean and sober! This familiar story, Hillbilly Elegy, is a splendid example of what Joseph Campbell called, The Hero’s Journey. In the end, our hero found his gold, his true worth, and came home transformed.

Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. (PSY22909) is a clinical psychologist who practices in Encino. She leads Women's Empowerment Groups that help women learn the tools to move beyond self-destructive relationship patterns. She may be reached at 818.501.4123 or Her office address is 16055 Ventura Blvd. #1129 Encino, CA 91436.

San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists