After President Trump’s unexpected victory, a consternated press corps seeking to understand the outcome repeatedly consulted Hillbilly Elegy by memoirist J.D. Vance for insight into the mind of the rural voter.
It’s funny they didn’t consider Jeannette Walls, who also wrote a memoir of growing up poor in Appalachia – the best seller The Glass Castle – and who in addition personally knew Trump in her life as a New York magazine gossip columnist.
Neither Trump’s rise nor his connection to red state voters surprised Walls.
“I hesitate to say this, but he got me. And I got him. The first time he ever gave me an item and I reported on it, he called and said, ‘That isn’t the story I gave you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the story.’ And there’s this long pause, and he said, ‘We can work together,’ ” recalled Walls, who stopped in Philadelphia recently to talk about her life and her book, adapted into a movie that opens Friday.
Walls (played in the movie by Brie Larson) spoke of her life growing up poor, raised by parents (in the film, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts) who encouraged self-reliance to a dangerous degree. Those experiences coated her with some pretty thick armor, which in some ways served her well.
As a budding journalist in New York, folks warned her that life as a gossip columnist could be tough.
“People will yell at you and treat you horribly and threaten you, and I thought, ‘So? That’s the way I was raised,’ ” she said.
Walls was not to be messed with.
Trump, she said, sensed it right away.
“He just sized me up. He knew that he couldn’t intimidate me, and I think he picked up on that. And I think he kind of liked it. He could say outrageous things to me and I wouldn’t back down. He got that I understood him. And, you know, I have a begrudging admiration for his — his instinctive brilliance, if that’s what it is. Statistically, there’s no way he should have won. But he did.”
He did especially well in places like rural West Virginia, where she spent her teen years. Walls thinks she knows why.
“I completely get it, and I’m actually shocked that more people don’t,” said Walls. “I think there are a lot of people in West Virginia who feel that despite her policies, Hillary doesn’t really understand them or really care about them. She sees them as people who need help. And they do need help and want the help, but they feel as though Trump is one of them, even though he’s not. He’s a genius about that sort of thing. The man understands the media, the power of illusion, the power of a sound bite. I don’t even know if he knows how smart he is about it.”
Walls, a self-described “scrapper,” could stand her ground with Trump (and fellow columnist Matt Drudge, in a famously personal and vicious feud). She drew strength from her hardscrabble origins but also hid them.
I asked Walls, who is naturally fearless and candid about so many things, why she had such a hard time being honest about poverty.
“When people found out how poor we were in West Virginia, they would throw things at us. I went to great lengths to hide it, even back then. I was afraid social service would take us away. That becomes formative. It gets to be really baked in and stays with you. Poverty isn’t just about being hungry or cold. The killer thing is, you think you are less than other people. You think there is something wrong with you, that’s the most devastating thing,” Walls said. “So I just carried that around with me. I felt that if people knew, they would hate me. Because they did at one point. That’s why I went into journalism. I could be in a place as an observer, not as a participant.”
In New York, Walls kept her past to herself, with one exception. She opened up one night to a colleague, a writer who turned the confidential revelation into a work of fiction.
Walls was angry, but mostly with herself.
“I thought, ‘Dang, it’s not her fault. I’m the one who needs to tell it,’ ” said Walls, who then began the grueling process of writing, which meant being honest, finally, with herself.
“I had tried to distance myself from it and pretend that it hadn’t affected me, that it wasn’t part of me. The first time I reread what I’d written, I was kind of shocked. It was cathartic.”
Still, she didn’t think folks would respond to it.
Several million book sales later, she’s happy to admit she was mistaken.
“What I really like is when I meet someone who says, ‘This is the first book I ever read that I liked. I understand now that I need to find other books that were written for people like me.’ I love having nonreaders find the book,” said Walls, who now spends a lot of time going to places like West Virginia and encouraging children and teens to value themselves, to hit the books.
“I go back there and I meet them, and they think they’re not college material. I try to change their minds,” said Walls, who talked her way into Barnard, and who says “education is the great equalizer.”
And when she meets fellow “survivors,” she uses her own story to encourage them.
“People have an instinct for survival, but how do you feel good about yourself after surviving?” Walls said. “We’ve all been knocked around so much that we know how strong we are. What we don’t know is that we deserve something better. That’s the challenge.