Growing Up “Hippie Poor” vs. “Hillbilly Poor”:

Recently I finished J.D. Vance’s excellent Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a book that’s part sociological analysis about poor white Americans, and part memoir about growing up with a drug-addicted mother and all the crappy crap that goes with that. I come from the opposite corner of the socioeconomic spectrum (well, the “socio” part of the poor spectrum). Vance was Hillbilly Poor and I was Hippie Poor, but my experience was about 90% the same as his.

When media types talk about “poor whites,” they don’t usually mean the kind that we were — the kind with college educated parents and brown-bread sandwiches and an Ecology flag on the front door. But we were chronically poor — like not-enough-food-poor — starting when my mother first walked out on my dad, bought a VW bus and turned our Berkeley home into a commune. I was seven at the time.

People who weren’t in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s often have sugar-coated idea of what was happening then. When I tell new friends the commune story, their first reaction is to find it charming, projecting (I think) women gathering eggs from the yard together, or children learning woodworking by the fire.

But it was more like this: Six people moved in with my mom and her three kids, and there was a lot of partying — weed, LSD, booze (mostly booze) and a gradually accelerating destruction of order, modesty and safety.

There were some good aspects: One of the women taught us kids to macrame and to make dip candles, and she once let me sit in the light booth at an avant garde theater, where she worked. But sometimes we’d come home from school and the people who shared our home were tripping on acid, or having sex on the living room floor, or smashing dishes.

The grownups seemed to have abandoned any sense of responsibility. One day one of the women, a single mother who liked to walk around the house naked, encouraged my older brother to take 13 hits of acid (he was 15 at the time) and then physically attacked him because she felt he was “looking at her” too much.

My kid memories are choppy. The house became filthy, and people vomited a lot. My teeth ached with cavities, and I had a permanent little pillow of snarled hair (a “rats’ nest” my mother said) pushing out from the back of my head.  I experimented to see how many days in a row I could wear my favorite outfit, day and night, without ever taking it off: Seventeen!

There were parties, and  strangers came and sat cross-legged on our living room carpet. Sometimes there was a big pot of soup on the stove. Sometimes there was nothing but a few rotten vegetables, or some pot brownies hidden on the top shelf (and we kids ate ALL of them, despite the little twigs in them, because we were hungry). Sometimes all the adults would just disappear for a while, with no word of where they’d gone or when they’d come back.  I remember my older brother and me living off Easter candy for three days, and finally getting food from the neighbors up the street. My 3rd grade teacher quietly agreed to let me bring my toddler sister to school with me, all day, as needed. We instinctively knew to hide the situation from outsiders, fearing  the cops would be alerted and they’d throw us into foster care. Luckily (I guess) no one ever intervened.

Hippie poverty gets a bit of cache from the principled poverty of people who actually fight injustice and senseless materialism.  Our poverty looked like that, but wasn’t that.  Ours was unfocused and self-inflicted, caused by self-centeredness and plain old alcoholism. That’s why we were poor. There was no historic disadvantage, social oppression or racism at work, and therefore no special outreach or programs or organizations there to help. My parents were accomplished, themselves raised by loving parents, and theoretically capable of earning more than a middle class living. My grandfather had been a controller for Exxon, for heaven’s sake, but my mother was on and off of food stamps. We spoke like people with money, but my siblings and I did not fit in with that type at school.  We identified as, and with, poor kids. That’s what we knew. It became our culture.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance talks about the role his grandmother and a few other adults played in stabilizing his life and providing structure and encouragement to eventually join the Marines, then go to college, then law school, then to marry and begin a career. I too had a loving grandmother, and later, a stepfather who brought some stability to our family and pointed the way toward a path of normalcy. There were some key friends who helped me change my culture, and get back on the path of constructive living from which my mother had long before strayed.  Though our family continued to be poor, there was kindness, food to eat and daily supervision of our comings and goings. It is not an exaggeration to say that, had these supportive people not been in my life, I might not be alive today. I would certainly not be among the resilient ones.

I recently posted a video about some of the great things about growing up poor. There are a handful of advantages!

There is a hilarious Facebook group, by the way, of which I’m a member, called Your Mom Is So Berkeley. We grown-up, hippie-poor kids are starting to find each other.

At the end of his book, JD Vance (this is so awesome) talks about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, and how he became aware of the ways traumatic events of his childhood affected him as an adult, especially in his relationship with his wife. He is able to tell this difficult story honestly, humbly and without self-pity, and also to describe the steps he took to separate from the negative aspects of hillbilly culture and to honor and maintain what was good. Today he lives his life among a mix of people, including some who are wealthy and powerful. He has used recent research about childhood trauma to learn and strengthen himself, and to be an example for us all. I know it’s over a year old now, but if you haven’t yet, read the book!

The Great Thing About Growing Up Poor


Hi, I’m Anna Runkle, also known as the Crappy Childhood Fairy. As many people know, I talk a lot about growing up poor. Now my family was a certain kind of poor. We weren’t like trailer poor and we weren’t like refugee poor. We were more like addiction poor, where we started out kind of middle class and educated, but then we started sliding down the ladder. As alcoholism took over my parents’ lives, it turned them from nice people into people who weren’t very stable. Then it took away their reasonableness, and then it took away their marriage, and then it took away their incomes. Then we stopped having the kind of money you would need to have things like vacations or trips to the dentist, or even utilities or car repairs. Eventually, there wasn’t really any sense of safety at all. Continue reading “The Great Thing About Growing Up Poor”

Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD

Today I share my abridged interview with psychiatrist Susana De Leon, MD. We are mutual fans on Twitter, and this is our conversation is about the way early trauma changes our DNA by damaging telomeres, with potentially serious consequences for our health and longevity. We talk about how she helps people build lives full of love and Continue reading “Childhood Adversity, Telomeres & Love: An Interview with Susana DeLeón, MD”

The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves

When we talk about trauma, we are usually referring to the things done TO us — childhood abuse and neglect, growing up poor, violence by a partner, exposure to war…

But the more we were exposed to these traumas from an outside source, the more likely we are to adopt what I call “inside traumas” — the things we believe and do today that can actually make the effects of old traumas worse. They start as an innocent flight away Continue reading “The Traumas We Inflict On Ourselves”

Does Growing Up With Trauma in the House Make You Overweight?

Last year was the best year of my life. For one thing, I finally lost the extra weight I’d been carrying — about 40 pounds.

I was (and am) thrilled to be back in a right-sized body. I’m happy about how I look when I try on clothes, and about how I feel when I get out of bed in the morning. I even got a super-congratulations letter from my doctor when she saw my recent blood work.

Continue reading “Does Growing Up With Trauma in the House Make You Overweight?”

The Never-Ending Wreckage of Growing Up Poor

Today you’d probably lump me in with the middle class, but I carry some residue of having grown up poor. I work with people who work hard to help the poor, but have not themselves ever been poor. There are things they don’t understand.

People who grew up with money tend to think that poverty is something they can fix with things like education, “empowerment” or initiatives that almost always have the words “community,” “youth,” “program,” and “center” in them.

Continue reading “The Never-Ending Wreckage of Growing Up Poor”