Becoming Estranged from My Family ‘Was the Best Thing for Me’

Jessica Berger Gross on what it means to sever ties with your family.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2017 | 20 minutes (5,000 words)

When Jessica Berger Gross told her parents not to call one summer day on a street corner in Manhattan, she didn’t know she’d never speak to them again. Seventeen years later, she remains estranged from the father who physically abused her throughout her childhood, the mother who stood by, and her two brothers, who minimized the abuse. In her memoir Estranged, which follows a much shorter Kindle Single of the same name, Gross—whose previous books include About What Was Lost, an anthology she edited on miscarriage, and the yoga memoir enLIGHTeneddetails these violent rages, and the bewildering way in which they were intertwined with love and affection.

Gross and I spoke by phone about the process of getting her history on the page, the intricacies of her family dynamic, Long Island (where we both grew up), being Jewish (which we both are), and, inevitably, the fact that we have the same name.

I’d love to start by talking about the title you chose for both your Kindle Single and your memoir, Estranged. It’s an interesting word, now that I’m rolling it around in my mind—it literally means you’ve become a stranger to your family. What does it mean to you?

At the very start of the Kindle Single, I had the definition of that word. And that is, becoming a stranger and becoming a foreigner and, in a sense, becoming strange.

When I made the decision to stop talking to my parents, I didn’t even have a word for it. I had done a lot of thinking about child abuse and I knew that that’s what had happened to me, but I didn’t realize when I said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” that basically I was making a choice to become estranged. I had never met anyone who had done that, that I knew of. I’d never heard anyone talk about it. It’s such a strange thing when you take an action and it’s not till years later that you can name it.

As we’re talking, it’s occurring to me that it’s an odd word in a certain way—because the truth of it is that in some ways you were estranged even when you lived with your family, right?

Yes.

You only become estranged afterward if you feel like a stranger in your own home in the first place.

That’s so true! [laughter] My brothers would always say, “Oh, you were adopted, you’re not really a part of our family,” [though I wasn’t adopted]. But their idea was that I was different—and I really was. And everyone in my family really resented that I was different, and I felt that so strongly growing up. So, absolutely. I felt strange in my family and it was in leaving them and making my own family and the family of the larger extended family of my friends that I could no longer feel strange.

In what ways, along what dimensions, did you feel like you didn’t belong?

Well, one thing is that I grew up on Long Island and my parents had grown up both without a lot of money—especially my father, but my mother too. So it was a big deal that they had a house on Long Island. It wasn’t like we were living large on Long Island, but we were living a solidly middle-class lifestyle. They’d come from such financial insecurity, and the idea was that each generation would make more money. And my parents had gotten this perch of stability of a house. And then my brothers worked from such a young age, and their way of getting out was that they would make money, and that would be their buffer against the family. But my buffer was different. Mine was reading, really.

One thing that I found remarkable, just because I don’t remember having much perspective outside my family when I was growing up, was that you seemed to have a sense of perspective that what was happening to you was wrong. Concurrent with all of the psychic pain that stems from enduring abuse seems to have been this awareness from early on that this was not normal and that you were being abused. I’m thinking, for example, of that PSA about child abuse that you saw while you were watching TV with your dad, and knowing that that was what was happening to you. So where did that perspective come from, do you think?

I have so many things to say about that. It’s so complicated because I know what happened to me was very common, so it wasn’t that I thought this is happening to me and not to anyone else. In a way, it was like, “Oh, this is what a family is like.” Whatever is normal in your family does feel normal.

But there is something about when your father is actually throwing things at you, and chasing after you, and hitting you and calling you horrible names like “cunt” that you don’t even know what they mean—you do know something is wrong. But I didn’t know what the word for it was until I saw this PSA about child abuse, with the child abuse hotline number, or reading Sybil or watching Mommie Dearest. Those things were so, so essential to me because then I felt like, “This is a real thing, and what he’s doing is not okay.”

I wanted to talk about the complexity of having cruelty and love, the terrifying times and happy times, intertwined in your house growing up. That must have been crazy-making as a kid. Maybe we can get into it this way: You chose to open the memoir on a scene of your father’s abuse, rather than entering the book on a scene of familial peace and then the shock of the switch being flipped. How did you decide to open it this way?

The opening of the book was absolutely the hardest part. I redid it countless times. At one point I was going to start from a later moment, like I did with the Single, and then go back. At one point—and this seems so strange now—I was going have an introduction that was almost journalistic, broaden it out beyond me. At one point I was going to start much later in childhood. I tried a lot of different things. My editor’s advice was really wonderful. She had said from the very beginning, “Chronology is your friend.” Every time I didn’t listen to that, I would get into trouble. When I would go back to chronology, it was all there.

But even listening to that advice, it was hard to write the very beginning, because I was so young. I really wanted to, throughout the book, be in the headspace of where I was at the time to an extent—have the perspective from now, but also have the voice of the girl I was. It’s hard to write about yourself when you were so young. It was also very difficult to write about the abuse. That was very, very difficult. I felt unsure: What if I don’t remember everything that happened in a scene? When you go through trauma, your memory gets broken up.

My editor said something to me like, “Well, say you remember you father’s hand, him holding his hand up to you. You can blow up that moment.” And so for me, having the permission to take smaller segments of a longer abuse scene, if you want to call it that, and use that, that really helped. Now I feel like it is really important to start the way I did, because my first memory is of my father hitting me.

There were various times, as you recount in the book, that you thought about telling someone outside your family what was happening to you. Can you just walk me through what went on in your mind that held you back?

It was the social worker with the clipboard, it was having my family broken up. I was scared of my father being sent to prison. I thought maybe there’d be a trial and I’d have to testify. I thought, “What if I’m sent to foster care and it’s worse? How do I know it’s not going to be worse?” In high school I really did start to think, “Well, could I tell my friend’s mom and live with them?” But there was just so much attached to that, and it was so much worse because my mother taught in our school system. I worried my parents wouldn’t have jobs anymore, that my family would be destroyed if I told. And I couldn’t be sure that anything good would happen to me anyway.

Now, of course, I wish I had told. I would counsel anyone to tell. My parents had also kind of made me believe so firmly that I would have nowhere to go—that I would sleep in the gutter, that I wouldn’t go to college. Where I grew up, going to college was a really big deal, like, you’d be screwed if you don’t go to college. That’s how I was raised to think. I felt that for my sake and for the sake of my father not going to prison and for my brothers and for my mother, I was just in a box. I couldn’t tell.

Money, or even money as a symbol, seems to have played an important role in this dynamic. It sounds like that was the way your parents communicated to you that you needed them, that you wouldn’t survive if you even thought about stepping out of the family dynamic.

Well, it’s more about how you show someone you love them. Other than books, I hardly buy my son stuff. When he outgrows his clothes, I try and get to the store and get him pants that fit. But that’s not how he gets affection from me, because we have so many other ways to express our love to each other—words and touch and doing fun things.

My mother was cold. She just didn’t know how to be affectionate, physically or verbally. So her way of loving me was like, “Let’s go to Bloomingdale’s and I’ll buy you clothes,” or “Let’s go to Filene’s.” So there it was more literal.

With my father, it was so much more complicated, because he could be really loving and affectionate. That’s why it was so confusing. He could be very loving and he could be very cruel. Most of the time he was very loving, and that’s part of why it took me so long to break with him, because it’s like, how can you reject someone who most of the time is a really good father?

With him, money was more of a threat. It was a tension in the family, and it was something he would lord over someone.

The thing that’s coming to mind is that phrase that he used when you were away at college, that he was “Jessica-sick.”

Yes.

There’s that feeling of him depending on you for emotional sustenance, which is a complicated thing for a child trying to separate to feel too, right?

Well, it sounds a lot like an abusive partner. It’s the abusive person often, I guess, who can be really loving and affectionate, and really great with an apology, and do really nice things for you the next day—and then you’re in this crazy cycle, this crazy-making cycle.

My brothers would say that I was my father’s favorite. I probably was his favorite. I was also the one who got the most physical violence. He was the most physically violent towards me, and yet maybe he also loved me the best, maybe he liked me the most. He was the one person in my family who was more encouraging of my artistic and creative side, and he did seem to like me more than my mother did. Oh, it was so confusing.

I grew up being told all the time, “You’re sensitive, you bruise really easily.” Still, to this day, I sometimes think, “Maybe the abuse wasn’t that bad. Maybe I am selfish for doing this.” I know that what I have done is the best decision for me. But it doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t feel guilty about it.

“Selfish” is a very interesting word because at the end of the day, we all do have to be concerned with our own personal interests; everyone does.

Right.

That seems to be step number one in being a bounded, whole human self. “Spoiled,” a word that also seems to have been thrown at you a lot, is also a really interesting word, I think. My therapist once brought up the analogy of spoiled milk: how does milk become spoiled? It’s left too long; it’s neglected. It’s not too much indulgence or attention that make children spoiled. It’s actually inattention and neglect.

That’s so good, that’s really great. I love that idea. It’s interesting, raising a child, because he has the family that I didn’t have, that I wish I had had. And I’m so happy he does, and it gives me such joy to give him a healthy family. That’s the number one most important thing to me.

My parents must have taken that feeling and just warped it. “Jessie doesn’t know how good she has it.” Spoiling is interesting, because it is the responsibility of the person who did the spoiling, like with the milk. But my parents were not blaming themselves—it was more like, I was born spoiled.

One thing that really hurt me was when my father would say that I was trying to ruin his marriage, because then it felt like my sticking up for myself meant that I was at fault for trying to break them apart. I felt that viscerally, because of course I did want them to break up. I wanted my mother to would be like, “Fuck this guy,” and take us and leave.

For a child to be selfish…it doesn’t even make sense. But maybe being “selfish” goes back to what you were saying about self-preservation. You know how some people talk about always doing for things for others first? For me, I can’t take care of other people well until I take care of myself. And the way that I got out of years of being depressed and drinking too much and this and that was through self-care. And I ended up ultimately making a very—if you think of it in a positive way—selfish decision to become estranged, and it was the best thing for me. So it is interesting to think about reclaiming that word, turning it on its head. I haven’t thought of that before.

From what you just said, it sounds like it would have been too threatening to your parents for you to be happier than they were. It’s so joyful that your son gets to have what you didn’t have, and that you’re not resentful but so grateful to have done better for your kid.

Right. “Thank God you’ve never experienced anything but what I can give you.” It’s such a difference.

I try to have empathy for my parents: My mother was 29 when she had me. So she had three kids by 29, which was probably very typical at that time—but it’s not like she had this period of self-discovery, or therapy, not that she would have gone at the time.

I had so much time to work through all my issues. But what if I had never worked through any issue, and just had three children? Maybe I would’ve resented them and been mean to them. I hope I wouldn’t, but I just try and see it from that side. I have had so much time to process, and my parents didn’t have that luxury.

And then to think about it a different way, when you are living consciously, in that you’re thinking about your actions, it is very, very different than just living off the cuff emotionally, reacting to things. And that’s what they did. So even though my father knew that his father had beat him and that’s why he was doing this to us, that knowledge wasn’t enough to stop his behavior, unfortunately.

I think it’s so, so deeply ingrained in human psyches to just repeat. It takes an incredible amount of effort not to repeat.

To stop the cycle.

Yeah.

And I just want to add that at the time, some people said that it is okay to hit your children. Yeah, they meant because they did something wrong, and hitting them in a kind of contained way: “I’m going to put you over my lap and hit you this many times.” But then flying into a rage and being violent towards your family, you can just stick it under that category. “Well, I believe in corporal punishment. I believe in hitting my children.” Maybe you wouldn’t tell people, but at least your own mind or in your own marriage. But every time I think that, I have to think of all the people I know whose parents did something similar, either a little bit less or a little bit more or much more, you know, and wonder like how much is going on today.

I wonder, too. Last year I interviewed Jillian Keenan, a spanking fetishist, who points out that spanking is a sexual act, and that for kids inclined that way, spanking is not only physical but also sexual abuse.

Well, anytime someone is messing with your body, coming after you when you’re naked or you are just a vulnerable person with a small body, it messes you up sexually, I think, for a time. I used to always thank God that I hadn’t been sexually abused. Like there was a worse thing. For me, it was so rare that it was like, “I am going to hit you on your butt now.” It was mostly other parts of my body. So it wasn’t near “sexual” parts of my body, necessarily. But it definitely took me a long time to feel safe around men. And I was attracted to men so I’d be involved with men.

Even with my husband, when we started dating, and he is the most gentle and peaceful person, we would be driving somewhere and we’d stop at a gas station, and I’d be like, “How do I know you’re going be here when I get back? Should I take my bag with me?” To trust him was really hard. Or, “How do I know you’re not going to drive me into a forest and chop me into bits?” To be with someone who could physically overpower me was scary. And then there’s the other side of it, that of course I sought attention from boys and was fooling around with boys I barely knew because, from a young age, I was really desperate for love in that way.

You write about lusting after and chasing after men who had elements of the relationship with your dad, and basically not being comfortable with relationships that could actually be real and mutual. What enabled you to choose someone in your husband who has the ability to love you, really?

I had had so many messed up relationships and I was so sick of it. I really wanted a healthy relationship and I really wanted to be a mother and I didn’t feel at the time like I could get it together to do on my own. I mean, I was very nervous that I would never have a healthy relationship and that would impact my ability to have a child.

I went to Israel after college for a year and I did this program for people who are considering moving there permanently. There was one woman who I’m not in touch with anymore, but we stayed friends for a while in our twenties. I must have been on the phone with her talking about another “bad” boyfriend. And she said, “Okay, look, here is what you need to do: Make a list of the qualities you want in a partner, and separate the wants from the needs.” So I did. I made a physical list of what I needed to have and what I wanted to have. And then I just wouldn’t date anyone who didn’t fit the needs.

There was maybe a semester of not dating when I was in Wisconsin because of that list. First of all, it’s nice to take a break from dating. I think that can be a good way to meet someone who is better for you, like be doing your own thing for a while. But then when I did meet Neil, he was so qualitatively different from anyone I had ever dated or really had known as a person, even. And I just really liked it. And the things about him that would’ve been concerns when I was younger, pre-list, I decided not to worry about, because the deeper qualities were there.

So I don’t know, maybe that’s also just growing up. Or I was lucky, or our personalities just meshed in the right way. But maybe it was the list.

What was on the list?

Basically, I wanted someone who was a really good person, and who was smart and kind. As opposed to, someone who was funny and a cool dresser. The thing about it was, it felt like the things on the list for the needs were the things that would be lasting.

I was ashamed of this for a long time, but I really wanted someone to take care of me. I felt really weird, as a feminist, to want that. And then to meet someone who was so wonderful to me that I felt like, “I want you to take care of me, I want to feel safe in this relationship, and like it’s not going anywhere”—and of course, taking care of someone is a two-way street. You take care of one another. But it felt really scary to want that and I realize, looking back, that being taken care of came with a lot of baggage for me from how my parents took care of me, or didn’t take care of me.

I also want to make clear that with those “bad” boyfriends, it’s not like I was so great in these relationships and they were really awful. I was awful, too. Even with my friendships, I had tumultuous relationships. And so that was a big thing, to be able to have healthy relationships—not just with Neil, my husband, but with my friends too.

When the estrangement happened, I lost other relationships too. I changed a lot, and so there were people I stopped being friends with and there were people who stopped being friends with me. That was hard, because then it was like, “Maybe it is me,” you know? But now, years later, it’s just really nice to be surrounded by positive relationships. But it takes time to build that.

Having grown up on Long Island a little bit after you did, I related so much to your depictions of suburban Jewish life. And it felt quite new—I can’t remember reading much else in that setting.

You’re the first person to say that to me, and I love hearing that so much, because so much of what I wanted to do with the book was to depict Long Island in that time—that Hebrew school experience, and drama club, all of it. I have been inspired for so long by memoirs that are so specific, so localized in a specific culture, and I felt like we were bizarrely underrepresented, the Jewish girls from Long Island. [laughter] So I did want to try and depict that, or get the feel.

How does Judaism factor into the life you’ve created now, in adulthood, with your family?

I had such a push-pull with Judaism for so long. I always had a spiritual longing. I did have a yearning for God as a child, a yearning for something deeper that would save me or help me. During the separation with my parents, I got really into practicing yoga and would meditate and study Eastern philosophy. So that filled up some of that need. But the High Holy Days would come around I’d go to synagogue and I would just cry. I’d cry the whole time, because of course everything just reminded me of my family. It felt really unfair because I didn’t want to have all of that ritual that goes back way before my parents soured, taken from me, because it reminded me of my family. So I struggled with that a lot.

My son happens to be someone who is really interested in religion and philosophy and mythology. So it would make sense that he would be interested in this religious system that is his. I realized that Judaism could be a way to give him community and family that is not the same as having grandparents or a whole set of cousins, but he could feel connected in a really positive way, and maybe I could, too. And so we ended up finding a really cool synagogue in New York, really small. And my son loved Hebrew school so much. And when my husband got this job in Maine, we met this incredible couple here, a rabbi and her wife, who moved from New York, and run this little Hebrew school. It’s my son’s favorite thing the entire week.

This couple and their family are really amazing, and the community that they have helped foster has been a really nice thing for my family. Sometimes I still cry. The prayers are so ingrained from growing up and I can be really emotional. And it’s not like I go all the time. But I feel like it can be a part of my life now and it can be a happy thing, and it doesn’t have to be a sad thing anymore.

It seems to me there are so many things to let go of when you become estranged. On top of letting go of rituals with them, letting go of contact with them, is letting go of the need to have them understand what they have done and also understand you.

Part of the break had to do with that. My parents really wanted me to meet them halfway in saying it was both of our faults. That they did things that were wrong as parents, but I was a really difficult child. And I felt like, no, I was two and a half. You can’t blame a child for being abused. And that was pretty much the irresolvable conflict, that I would not take responsibility for what they saw as my half of things.

Everyone else in my family is going to have their own way of thinking about our family history. And maybe it’s, “Wow, Jessie is really crazy.” Or “What a bitch,” or “I can’t believe she’d write a book about us,” or “How dare she, that book is full of lies.” Do they even ever talk about me anymore? Probably the pictures came off the wall a long time ago. Maybe it’s like I’m dead to them. Or maybe they feel really bad. I don’t know. I mean, that’s the thing, too: Without having contact, I don’t know if they have changed. I imagine they haven’t.

I should say, especially because it’s something that they could read, I am grateful to them for not contacting me, because they have allowed me to have my life. I don’t want to be contacted by them. It doesn’t matter if they understand. It would be nice, but it just doesn’t matter. It’s strange how much it doesn’t matter anymore. It mattered to me for a long time. Growing up and for years after, it made me feel so crazy that they didn’t understand. All I wanted was for them to understand and to see it my way. But at this point in my life, I feel understood enough by other people that I don’t really long for them to understand me. I feel very firm and very comfortable in my reality.

Before we close, I have to bring up our shared name. You could’ve just been Jessica Gross and used your married name, but you retained your parents’ surname, Berger, as your middle name, and use it in your byline. Can you talk about the decision to keep something of them a part of you?

Yeah. I never changed my name legally. So my legal name is Jessica Berger. But it was this beautiful buffer, to have my husband’s last name with my name. It was kind of like a new chapter of who I was, not taking away who I had been, but adding onto it. My son’s middle name is Berger. And maybe if I had been further along emotionally I might not have even taken my husband’s last name at all. But now, looking at it, it makes so much sense, because it’s the development of who I became.

I didn’t want to throw away any part of who I am. I don’t have to throw away ugly things that happened. They are a part of me too. My family is a part of me. It doesn’t mean I want to be in an active relationship with them. But it also doesn’t mean that I have to take my name away.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.