The New York Times:
May 19, 2005
Up From the Holler: Living in Two Worlds, At Home in Neither
By TAMAR LEWIN
Della Mae Justice stands before the jury in the Pike County Courthouse, arguing that her client's land in
Greasy Creek Hollow was illegally grabbed when the neighbors expanded their cemetery behind her
With her soft Appalachian accent, Ms. Justice leaves no doubt that she is a local girl, steeped in the
culture of the old family cemeteries that dot the mountains here in East Kentucky. ''I grew up in a holler, I
surely did,'' she tells jurors as she lays out the boundary conflict.
Ms. Justice is, indeed, a product of the Appalachian coal-mining country where lush mountains flank rust-
colored creeks, the hollows rising so steeply that there is barely room for a house on either side of the
creeks. Her family was poor, living for several years in a house without indoor plumbing. Her father was
absent; her older half-brother sometimes had to hunt squirrels for the family to eat. Her mother married
again when Della was 9. But the stepfather, a truck driver, was frequently on the road, and her mother,
who was mentally ill, often needed the young Della to care for her.
Ms. Justice was always hungry for a taste of the world beyond the mountains. Right after high school, she
left Pike County, making her way through college and law school, spending time in France, Scotland and
Ireland, and beginning a high-powered legal career. In just a few years she moved up the ladder from
rural poverty to the high-achieving circles of the middle class.
Now, at 34, she is back home. But her journey has transformed her so thoroughly that she no longer fits in
easily. Her change in status has left Ms. Justice a little off balance, seeing the world from two vantage
points at the same time: the one she grew up in and the one she occupies now.
Far more than people who remain in the social class they are born to, surrounded by others of the same
background, Ms. Justice is sensitive to the cultural significance of the cars people drive, the food they
serve at parties, where they go on vacation -- all the little clues that indicate social status. By every
conventional measure, Ms. Justice is now solidly middle class, but she is still trying to learn how to feel
middle class. Almost every time she expresses an idea, or explains herself, she checks whether she is
being understood, asking, ''Does that make sense?''
''I think class is everything, I really do,'' she said recently. ''When you're poor and from a low
socioeconomic group, you don't have a lot of choices in life. To me, being from an upper class is all about
confidence. It's knowing you have choices, knowing you set the standards, knowing you have
In Pikeville, the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (Ms. Justice is a Hatfield), memories are long and family
roots mean a lot. Despite her success, Ms. Justice worries about what people might remember about her,
especially about the time when she was 15 and her life with her mother and stepfather imploded in
violence, sending her into foster care for a wretched nine months.