The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: A Conversation with George Hodgman

“Memoir is a total minefield, as you know. It’s best if you write the book and leave the country.”

Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2015 | 15 minutes (3,752 words)

 

Sometimes life’s most inconvenient surprise detours ultimately yield great rewards we never could have predicted. For writer George Hodgman—who’s been whisked away indefinitely from his tidily self-contained life in New York City to care for his ailing mother—one of those rewards was a chance to better know and appreciate Betty (now 94) before she’s gone. Another benefit: the conditions he hadn’t even known he needed to finally, at 55, write and publish his first book. The New York Times Bestselling memoir, Bettyville, is the result.

A few years ago, Hodgman, a one-time Vanity Fair editor, traveled to his childhood home in Paris, Missouri to briefly care for his widowed, then 90-year-old mother, Betty, while her regular aide was recovering from surgery. When he learned Betty had had her license revoked after driving into a ditch, Hodgman realized his mother needed full-time, round-the-clock care. Her refusal to move into assisted living or a nursing home meant that he, her only son, had little choice but to stay with her for as long as was needed. More than three years later, he’s still there.

Hodgman paints an acerbically funny, loving portrait of his singular mother—quick-witted, outspoken, but vain and guarded about her own growing vulnerability. She loves her son fiercely, but is homophobic and intransigent about her disinterest in knowing about his intimate life. Hodgman unflinchingly reveals himself, too—an out-of-work, out-of-shape, middle-aged gay man in recovery, and a mama’s boy through and through, even when Betty is at her most stubborn and challenging.

It’s a beautiful book. Hodgman weaves, movingly and wittily, back and forth between the difficult, unfolding present and various pasts—his small-town Midwestern childhood; both his parents’ deep denial about his sexuality; the height of the AIDS crisis, the heights and depths of his addiction; his highs and lows in publishing. As you follow the ultimately converging threads, and the deepening of the emotional bond, it’s hard not to fall in love with both mother and son.

Recently Hodgman talked with me (in Kingston, New York) by phone (from his native Paris, Missouri). There have been some great interviews with him in other places, like one with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, which have covered a lot of bases. Here, I focused more specifically on the aspects of the book and Hodgman’s experience writing it that have to do with things I’m obsessed with: leaving New York City, after many years for a small town; caring for elderly parents after barely being able to care for just yourself for many years; and the complicated matter of writing about other people.

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Talk to me first about leaving New York, a topic that occupies my mind, to say the least. I know that you initially went down to your hometown of Paris, Missouri, not expecting to stay, and then you realized that your mother really needed full-time help—she needed you. But it also seem as if in some ways maybe you needed her, too. I know that you had lost your job. Was that a good time for you to make that move? Was it sort of good to have a place to land?

Well, this place, my parents’ house, and this town, has always been a wonderful place to have to come to. It’s great to have a home, and have a “somewhere” where you can get away. And I got a little burned out on New York, in some ways. It just seemed like publishing, particularly—well, my last job in publishing was not a particularly happy one. It seemed to me like publishing had become the domain of marketers and sales people. When I started out in publishing it seemed like such a creative thing, and there were a lot of kind of brilliant, eccentric, colorful people. And suddenly it was…I don’t know, maybe it was just the company where I ended up. Because I had a very cheerful experience with the company who published this book. But New York seemed a little to me like a place that was all about people who could pay $12 million for apartments, and also like a place where one would be less likely than ever to want to pay $12 million for an apartment.

Betty Baker Hodgman

Betty Baker Hodgman

That is a conundrum to me. I feel as if New York City just keeps getting both more expensive and more generic. It’s not the reason that people have always gone there—to be surrounded by the generic.

Yeah, except at night. I love New York at night. I love whipping through the streets at night, and the lights. Particularly in the summer, I like to have my windows up and then look out at the street and the lights, and you can hear this kind of whoosh, the sound of the City. And it makes you want to be out there. It’s definitely a different thing here. I don’t miss New York as much as I thought I would, until I come back, and then I do, I do really miss it. But then I walk down the street, and I see some woman who is carrying a purse that looks like it cost $2,000, and then you look at her hair and it looks like that cost $500, the perfect shade, and then you look at the shoes and you think, wow, that’s $1,000, whatever it is, and you know, it is a little bit obscene. And it does seem to me that New York gets more and more about the trappings. That’s not so attractive to me. I’ve always been most interested in artists and creative people.

Obviously, the place is not so hospitable for artists and creative people these days.

And I would encourage artists and creative people to leave New York. Because I know that I never could have written this book in New York. I mean, obviously I couldn’t have had the experience that I write about while in New York, but also if you’re in publishing, and I’ve been in publishing for more years than I care to admit, you hear these voices in your head, “Oh, that’s too small, it’ll never sell, it’s Midwestern, it’s gay, it’s about an old person, it’s about an old person and a fat man,” and all the commercial formulas that New York, on the one hand, pretends to eschew, but also totally lives by. If you can get out of that money head, a lot of times, you can come up with something that is much more successful than if you follow the rules and work inside the genre or according to all those people, those marketing people that say it has to be this, it has to be that, throw in a vampire.

Ha. Throw in a vampire.

So, I’m not unhappy to be away, and I sort of doubt I’ll move back there, except for the fact that I’m really drawn back because of some people who I love. I don’t know that I will stay in Paris, Missouri, but I don’t know that I need to go back to New York. Goodbye to all that. (Laughs.)

How long did you live in New York City before you left?

I moved there in 1983, and I left in 2011. I don’t want to add up how many years. You’re going to have to do that calculus on your own, because I don’t want to know.

Where was the last neighborhood you lived?

On 23rd between 7th and 8th. But my real life, my real New York life was lived on 10th Street between University and Broadway, and that’s the apartment that I had forever, and it was this studio apartment that was in an old attic, and I loved it. I wanted to stay there forever. And it was the scene of many happy times and breakdowns. But I loved that place, and even though I was happy to find the place that I moved to, and was not unhappy there, there was something about leaving that place that kind of was the start of leaving New York.

Why did you move out of it?

Because it was rent controlled. It started out as $700 and I think I was paying $1500 by the time I left, and it was an amazing deal, but they wouldn’t do anything.  And I also couldn’t buy it. And there’s also a certain point where, you know, you’re 45 years old, and you think, “If I do not make the move to a refrigerator that doesn’t live under the counter now, then I never will,” and it was a Murphy bed and a tiny kitchen. But the thing I’ve noticed is the last two times I’ve been back in New York, the conversation seems, all over the City, to turn to the notion of  “Can we afford this? Do we need to leave?”

I find that New York City kind of infantilizes you, because you can’t afford to leave the apartment that really doesn’t make sense for a grown up. In order to leave that apartment, you have to make some grown up choices. And it seems like you had to make a really big grown up choice, ultimately: you had to pull up stakes and go take care of your mother. Do you think you’d ever go back, later on?

You know, I sort of feel like I’ve done a lot of time in New York, and I would rather explore some place new. I don’t necessarily want to stay here, though there’s a little college town called Columbia, about 50 miles from here. I love the look of St. Louis. They have some really great old residential neighborhoods and beautiful, beautiful old houses and architecture. I really have gotten so I love to drive around this area where I live, and the Missouri River is really close. Well, the Mississippi is too. But I love to drive around these roads where the Missouri River runs and there are these really funky little towns. They’re so gorgeous, with these old houses. In the summer there’s this one drive I take, and it looks so completely untouched. The greenery is so thick and ancient, and you know, Missouri is a nice mix of rural and college and urban. Unfortunately, the politics are not…yeah. That’s a problem.

A young George Hodgman.

A young George Hodgman.

Were you surprised by the sort of appreciation you’re expressing for Missouri? Was it something that you felt before, or was it something you kind of discovered by way of being down there taking care of your mother?

It was something that I have gradually discovered through the years. Because when I came back, when I started coming back after being in New York, I suddenly thought, hey, this is kind of pretty. Hey, there are two really big rivers here I didn’t notice when I lived here. It’s just been really gradual. I always loved the architecture of St. Louis. When I was a little kid I used to go there to visit my grandmother, and there are so many houses that I Just love. The notion of thinking about this place as an interesting place has kind of evolved through the years. And also, gradually, I have met people here during this stay who are interesting and wonderful in various ways to me. Kind of small town characters who are totally unlike…I mean, we don’t talk about the news, we don’t talk about books. But I like to listen to them, and they’re great.

So, it’s a different culture, but you’ve found a place in it. Even though it’s not New York.

Kansas City is a very hip, friendly place. Some place just named it the Hippest City in the United States. And so I think that I might like to have a small apartment in one of those places, and keep my parents’ house as a kind of summer house. I also think because of global warming you should probably buy property in the Midwest, because, I mean, New York and Florida and California—those people are going to have to move somewhere.

Note to self. So how is it going down there for you right now? How is your mother doing? As you discuss in the book, she has cancer and dementia.

Well right now she just let out a scream and I guess broke something or dropped something, and I’m kind of wondering what’s going on in there.

Do you need to go check on her?

No, it’s all right. Sometimes she just wants my presence. And you know, it’s not a great time for us, health-wise, but we’ve gotten through some of the challenges of cancer, and radiation, etc. etc., and I hope that we have that, at least temporarily, at bay. The winter is the hardest time. She can’t get out. It’s a hard time right now.

What’s it like for you to suddenly have to show up as an adult, for a parent? After living for so many years in New York, not having kids? That’s an aspect of the book that intrigued me particularly, on a personal level. I had an experience a few years ago with my mom. She had to have emergency gastric surgery, and wound up with a colostomy bag. I don’t have children. I don’t have pets. I’m squeamish. I went down to Florida for a few days to help out, and she needed help with everything from sponge bathing to quieting her mind late at night, and I realized how inexperienced I am at caring for someone in that way. And how freaked out I am by it.

Well, I am an anxious, nervous, worried person. I began to worry about this, like, when she was in menopause. Is this the end? I’d wonder. And so I’ve been really kind of obsessed with it in my head, like, what are we going to do? How am I going to handle this? What’s going to come? And before my mother lost her driver’s license, which is what really led to my being here long-term at the beginning, she had a ball. And it’s somehow easier for me to be here than to worry about it from afar. But I also just didn’t know whether I could do it. I didn’t know whether I had it in me. I didn’t know how it was that I was going to get her out of this house and into assisted living or something. I didn’t have anybody to help me with those battles. It was just me, and I also really dreaded all kinds of paperwork, like insurance and figuring out the money, and all that jazz, because I mean, I haven’t balanced a checkbook since the Civil War. It was just this mountain of dread. I think you learn that you have to put a whole lot of your fear up on the shelf, and just take it one situation at a time. That’s all that I’ve been able to come up with. I try not to think very much about what’s going to happen.

No “future tripping,” as they say?

Right. As they say in Hollywood, I like to live in the moment. I try to live in the moment.

I’d like to ask you about your mom and the book.  This is the thing I’m most obsessed with—memoirists writing about people in their life, or writing things that will upset people in their life. I’ve been asking writers about this for a long while now at The Rumpus. How is your mom handling this? Did she know about the book? Did she know you were writing it? Does she know she’s in it? That’s it’s named after her.

She knew I was writing it. I told her about it when I sold it. It was hard to get her to take in a lot of what I was trying to do, and she didn’t want to take it in. She didn’t want to really hear about gay stuff, and she really sort of tuned out of most conversations when I tried to tell her about it. And so one thing that I have tried to stress with her is that I have always had this thing in my life that I’ve wanted to do more than anything; that I’ve always, always, always wanted to write a book, and that being here made that possible, that she made it possible for me to do what I’ve always wanted to do. Although she doesn’t ever say it—she keeps it in denial—I know she has guilt about me giving up my life to be here. So I tried to position the book with her as this gift that she has given me that is something that has been a really good thing that came out of my being here. She really needs to feel that I’m happy here. Now, given my mother’s specific condition, there’s also the problem that you have to kind of explain things again and again. And there’s also my mother’s personality, and my personality, which is that if there’s a problem, if there’s something that’s confusing that we have our ambivalent feelings about, we’re just not going to talk about it and hope that it will go away before we have to deal with it very much. I think the book has been that for her.

Does she know it’s called Bettyville?

Yes. Sometimes, when she deigns to acknowledge it, she calls it “Betty Land.”

Betty

Betty

One of my favorite conversations about this was with Vivian Gornick, about how her mother dealt with the publication of Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s memoir about her relationship with her mother. Her mother was really, really upset about it, and they didn’t talk for a while. Then, like a year later, when the book was clearly a success, her mother was autographing copies.

As an editor, I’ve seen people go through this so many times. You have to wait for the world to tell the people around you that it’s okay. As Elizabeth Taylor said, “There’s no deodorant like success.”

The whole business of writing about other people has been a real dilemma for me, and for so many writers. Especially when you haven’t given those people the courtesy of letting them die before you write about them.

I think everybody’s situation with memoir is different, but there’s always so much to deal with. I thought my mother would be dead. Or I thought my mother would not be mentally with us. I started this book as a gift to myself to compensate for the fact that she was not going be here, in a way. So I really didn’t think this was a problem that I was going to have. I’m happy to have it, you know, I’m happy she’s here, but I mean we may have to get some sort of union negotiator in here. It opens so many boxes and it’s not just her, it’s my family.

Are there family members who are upset about what’s in the book?

I mean, my aunt and my cousins. And you kind of have to face the fact if you write a memoir that you are a somewhat aggressive person, that you are appropriating lives, in a way, that aren’t yours. And you put yourself out there and you try to be really generous, and you do what you can to get permission, but a lot of times the permission is meaningless because they have no idea to the extent that you’re going to examine, or what you’re going to say. My mother was like, “Oh you’re writing a book.” And she didn’t say, don’t write it. But she had no way of knowing the places I was going to go with it. So memoir is a total minefield, as you know. It’s best if you write the book and leave the country.

Has anybody in your family come forward and said, “How dare you?” or anything like that?

The last few months have been very, very worrisome because of this. My cousins were very shocked by it. I mean, there is the mention of sex in the book, of my actually being a sexual being, so that went over like a lead balloon. It’s like all of these things that people take for granted when they read books every day about other people—the fact that other people might be presented as complex, as not completely angelic, all these things that people are—they don’t have a problem in their daily reading when it’s about other people, but when it’s about someone they want to protect, then it’s a whole different thing. And they really are not able to see it in a balanced way. But now they seem to have come to the point where they’re glad that I have done something, and they’ve come to see it as something that I needed to do as therapy. They think, “You’ve done this as therapy.”

As if you’ve published your journal.

Yes, and it’s better than if I were upstairs with a loom.

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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, New York. She is the editor of the award-winning anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and the New York Times Bestselling follow-up Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, and she is Editorial Director of the TMI Project.