It’s a New Year and it’s time to get yourself a copy of the January and February books for Ruth Group so that you have plenty of time to read them.
January 21: Read either: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance OR Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. We’ll discuss both. Plus you can choose to read an optional Harvard Business Review article: What So Many People Don’t Get About the Working Class by Joan C. Williams.
February 25: We’ll be discussing Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class through the author’s own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.
The Vance family story began with hope in postwar America. 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. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
In Strangers in Their Own Land, the renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild embarks on a thought-provoking journey from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California, deep into Louisiana bayou country—a stronghold of the conservative right. As she gets to know people who strongly oppose many of the ideas she famously champions, Hochschild never
theless finds common ground and quickly warms to the people she meets—among them a Tea Party activist whose town has been swallowed by a sinkhole caused by a drilling accident—people whose concerns are actually ones that all Americans share: the desire for community, the embrace of family, and hopes for their children.
Strangers in Their Own Land goes beyond the commonplace liberal idea that these are people who have been duped into voting against their own interests. Instead, Hochschild finds lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream—and political choices and views that make sense in the context of their lives. Hochschild draws on her expert knowledge of the sociology of emotion to help us understand what it feels like to live in “red” America. Along the way she finds answers to one of the crucial questions of contemporary American politics: why do the people who would seem to benefit most from “liberal” government intervention abhor the very idea?
Scientology presents itself as a scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment, but its practices have long been shrouded in mystery. Lawrence Wright—armed with his investigative talents, years of archival research, and more than two hundred personal interviews with current and former Scientologists—uncovers the inner workings of the church. We meet founder L. Ron Hubbard, the highly imaginative but mentally troubled science-fiction writer, and his tough, driven successor, David Miscavige. We go inside their specialized cosmology and language. We learn about the church’s legal attacks on the IRS, its vindictive treatment of critics, and its phenomenal wealth. We see the church court celebrities such as Tom Cruise while consigning its clergy to hard labor under billion-year contracts. Through it all, Wright asks what fundamentally comprises a religion, and if Scientology in fact merits this Constitutionally-protected label. Brilliantly researched, compellingly written, Going Clear pulls back the curtain on one of the most secretive organizations at work today.
In efficient, unemotional prose, Wright begins with the biography of founder L. Ron Hubbard: his days as a prodigiously prolific writer of pulp fiction, his odd military career, the publication of his breakthrough self-help book Dianetics (1950), and the influence, riches, and controversy that have followed since he founded the Church of Scientology in 1954. For those aware of Scientology through its celebrity adherents (Tom Cruise and John Travolta are the best known) rather than its works, the sheer scope of the church’s influence and activities will prove jaw-dropping. Wright paints a picture of organizational chaos and a leader, David Miscavige, who rules by violence and intimidation; of file-gathering paranoia and vengefulness toward apostates and critics; of victories over perceived enemies, including the U.S. government, won through persuasion, ruthless litigation, and dirty tricks. Even more shocking may be the portrayal of the Sea Org, a cadre of true believers whose members sign contracts for a billion years of service, and toil in conditions of indentured servitude, punished mercilessly for inadvertent psychic offenses. Their treatment is a far cry from the coddling afforded to the much-courted celebrities. (Wright does point out that, for whatever reason, most Sea Org members remain in service voluntarily.) Page after page of damaging testimony, often from formerly high-ranking officers, is footnoted with blanket denials from the church and other parties (e.g., “The church categorically denies all charges of Miscavige’s abuse” and “Cruise, through his attorney, denies that he ever retreated from his commitment to Scientology”). Readers will have to decide whether to believe the Pulitzer-winning author’s carefully sourced reporting, or the church’s rebuttals. But, quoting Paul Haggis, the Academy Award–winning film director and former Scientologist whom Wright first profiled in the New Yorker: “if only a fraction of these accusations are true, we are talking about serious, indefensible human and civil rights violations.” Going Clear offers a fascinating look behind the curtain of an organization whose ambition and influence are often at odds with its secretive ways.