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Self Portrait as a Human Interest Story

Reflecting on the adversities and victories of her youth, Emi Nietfeld interrogates how narratives of resilience minimize suffering.

Emi Nietfield | Longreads | December 2019 | 11 minutes (2,834 words)

If you’ve read a newspaper, you know me: I was the high school senior who overcame unbelievable odds to win swell prizes.

They could have shot a made-for-TV-movie: gone dad, hoarder mom, foster care, homelessness, so much adversity the Horatio Alger Association gave me $20,000. I snagged $10,000 more in a writing contest, won $3,000 to visit Europe, and landed a full ride to Harvard (valued at approximately $210,000, plus $1.6 million in expected extra lifetime earnings, and 27 free, corporate-branded water bottles).

They called me “one-in-a-million.” I was proof of the American dream. On May 24th of 2010, when I smiled in my gray cardigan in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, I carried the torch of an eternal narrative.

Until five weeks later, when I was raped.

***

What does it take to become a success story?

Start studying for standardized tests as soon as you leave home at 14 years old. After the narrow paths littered with dog shit snaking through your house, marvel at the institution’s clean floor. Shock yourself with your focus when no mice dash across the room. Decide not to feel sad when your mom can’t get her act together; the foster family lives in a good school district.

They could have shot a made-for-TV-movie: gone dad, hoarder mom, foster care, homelessness, so much adversity the Horatio Alger Association gave me $20,000.

Please a parade of adults: the guidance counselor in shiny pants who lets you take three Advanced Placement classes sophomore year, the doctor who sends you to summer camp, the camp instructors who help you get a scholarship to boarding school. Write letters to your teachers that you’ll never send. In them, vow to win all the awards. Swear that you will become the greatest student of all time so that one of them will take you home and keep you.

Play a good house guest during breaks so your friends’ parents and your mentor put you up.

When you run out places to stay the summer you’re 16, curl up in the backseat of your rusted-out ‘92 Corolla. Clutch the gray cardigan you carry everywhere.

Remember the bedtime story your mom used to tell about a stuffed animal that became real when loved. Pray that becoming a human interest story will make you human.

***

If you assumed I always knew the rules, you’d be wrong. The summer before my senior year of high school, I sat in the library and pored over stacks of advice books. They described the admissions committee as a room full of benevolent grown-ups. “Just be yourself,” they instructed, “Show the committee who you are.”

Who was I? I was sick all the time back then. Once, I stood up in Calculus and puked into a trashcan; I sat back down and no one said a word. I got sick while staying with a cousin and woke up on an air mattress 16 hours later, SAT book propped open next to my face. During a week with my mentor, I fell off a bike and went to AP Chemistry camp six days later, concussed. I never took a day off. But when I got the flu, I longed to have someone sit beside my bed and read me vocabulary words and assure me I was good enough even when I wasn’t productive.

I couldn’t imagine a better fate than revealing myself to The Committee and having them accept me. When I wanted to give up, The Committee was my conscience, urging me on. When no one in the world knew where I was, they were my guardian angels. And if it all worked out, they would be my saviors. The fat envelope they sent would lead to so many hugs, so many warm congratulations. The desire felt like an explosion causing my chest to cave in.

But when I got feedback on my essays, I learned my shot at upward mobility hinged on the correct marketing. The girl who hadn’t showered in a week and stank of anxious sweat — she wasn’t going to cut it. I had to embody overcoming.

I flattened my past into a one-page Letter of Extenuating Circumstances. I stripped my essays of potential red flags such as depression, loneliness, and poor personal hygiene. At the interviews for Harvard and Yale, I wore my gray cardigan and told the rehearsed version of my life story. I shed neat little tears at all the right times, exhibiting remarkable composure coupled with the appropriate degree of vulnerability.

By the time I applied for the awards described by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, I wasn’t just detached: I’d bought into the narrative they’d tell. I stuffed manila envelopes for writing contests, filled with each trauma and secret I’d once held sacred. In 500 words, I compared myself to Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon. I completed a checklist of challenges I’d faced. I called this “adversity bingo” and every time I described it, I laughed, giddy on the hope I could cash in on my sorrow.

***

What do you do when you get into Harvard?

Scream. Let it echo in the computer room. Run down the escalators of the Seattle Public Library, out into the drizzle. Scream, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Let the passersby stare.

Visualize your new life: a Frappuccino every day, snow boots that don’t leak, air conditioning, vacations in France, people looking at you and seeing a Harvard student instead of another greasy-haired street kid.

Pull your sweater tight around you as it gets damp from the rain. Jump up and down until it exhausts you. Jump up and down some more. Slump on the floor of the library entryway. Go back to the hostel where you’re staying alone over spring break.

The next night, sleep in the airport before your flight back to boarding school. Wrap your cardigan around your face to block out the lights of the baggage claim. Pray that no one hurts you. Let your loneliness baffle you: you won the college-admissions lottery. Shiver considering the odds. Promise yourself this joy will never fade.

***

“Stick to the awards,” my boarding school’s publicity guy instructed me before I talked to the reporters. He warned me not to mention my family or the contents of my prize-winning essays. He suggested I smile into the receiver to sound friendlier.

I did as I was told. By the end of May, I felt like a champion had replaced the old me.

That spring, even strangers gave me things. An elderly Republican bought me a Crimson sweatshirt and photographed me wearing it for her charity’s promotional pamphlet. A businessman gifted me a set of luggage for all the traveling I’d surely do. I told a banker my life story and she wrote me a check for the most money I’d ever seen.


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My life felt like a parable of the rewards of hard work. My doctor and I exchanged happy emails filled with exclamation points. My mentor bought me a green gown. The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards flew my mom and me out to New York. In our fancy hotel room, we were a family reunited. I bowed on stage at Carnegie Hall. When a judge hung a gold medal around my neck, the weight of it completed me.

At the afterparty for the donors, I gabbed while smiling effortlessly. I gushed about my summer plans backpacking Europe to a reporter from the Observer. The CEO of Scholastic Books gave me his business card. “I read your stuff,” he said, “It’s brave.”

“All I have are my secrets,” I replied. Secrets soon to be anthologized in the Best Teen Writing of 2010. We shared a laugh.

Then, I saw my mom gesturing wildly, bragging about her daughter. It seemed my coup had accomplished the impossible and turned me into a child she could love.

***

How can things fall apart so quickly?

Board your first international flight. Everything you own is in your backpack, but now that makes you a backpacker instead of a homeless minor. Marvel at Europe: the Little Walking Light Men in Berlin, the sleek red train to Munich, the Soviet-era train to Prague. Watch the Danube shimmer as it comes into view out the window of your bus to Budapest. Believe your life, from then on out, will be a parade of wonders, each more fascinating than the last.

Then, three months after getting into Harvard, sit down in the kitchen of your hostel. The 30-something-year-old man working there corners you. No one is around. No one even knows you’re in Hungary.

Fear blazes through you as he pulls his pants down. Picture all the people you’ve placated before. Search his face for any empathy. Plead, “I’m a virgin.”

Hear your voice shake as you say it. Hear your chair bang against the wall as you realize you’re trapped. Hear your whimper as he grabs you, the rapist’s groan as the pain tears into your throat. Hear the echo as he yells at you, “Bitch.”

Statistically, it should have happened sooner: someone’s boyfriend or father, anyone, could have attacked you anywhere, in any airport or guest room. But here? Now? After all of that?

Gag. Choke. Imagine your body bloated with water, floating down the Danube. Wonder if they’ll only look for you because you got into Harvard.

Struggle to breathe. Stay calm. Conserve air. As everything gets dark and blurred around the edges, tally up your winnings. Bargain them away with God, one by one, to make it stop, to breathe again, to live.

The rapist ejaculates on the cardigan you wore in the newspapers. He lights a cigarette and asks, “What’s your name again?”

If the reporters’ questions made you real, the rapist’s question erases you.

“Just kidding, Emi.” He laughs.

Spit hangs from your chin. Tears and saliva coat your cheeks. Snot dangles from your nose in strings. Realize how you look: you’re the opposite of the girl in the newspaper, dignified by her achievements. You feel worth less than a chew toy, less than the pile of trash in your mom’s bathtub, less than a stack of moldy magazines. Worry that this is who you were all along, that all the rapist did was strip you of your packaging.

***

I woke up the next morning the loneliest I’d ever been. My throat hurt so bad I worried I’d never speak again. There’d be no more smiling into the phone, no more men jotting quotes on notepads, no more beaming on the local Fox News. Maybe it was for the best: when I saw a picture of myself on TV, I felt mystified; how could anyone look that elated? Anyway, the news cycle had moved on to the octopus predicting the World Cup.

I wrote my doctor a desperate email. For the rest of the day, I staggered around Budapest, stunned.

I felt like such a failure. I thought I’d bombed the biggest test of my life by not being able to stop the rapist. I stood on a bridge over the Danube. I pressed my belly against the railing and stared down at the shimmering water. I knew that if I fell far enough, all my bones would break at once. Then, I remembered the donors and my mentor and The Committee. Obligation overwhelmed me. I stepped away.

When I checked my email, I found requests for financial aid forms and line edits of “tremendously powerful” poems and confirmation on the right address to send the five-piece set of luggage. But my doctor didn’t reply.

Two days later, still in pain, I called my mom. “I want to go home,” I cried. I felt pathetic as I said it. That was the wrong story. My life wasn’t The Wizard of Oz.

In the story my mom told, The Velveteen Rabbit, the toy gets taken away but as a consolation prize comes to life. At the end of the book, he’s frolicking with the other bunnies in the grass when he sees the boy whose love made him real. The rabbit watches but can never go home.

That’s how I felt when I read my mom’s reply to the news that I’d been assaulted. She emailed me a list of my accomplishments. She paraphrased a quote from The Incredibles: “Stop acting that way, remember who you are!” I had to cheer up.

I knew my success obligated me to respond a certain way. Back in Minnesota, when my doctor asked if I had contemplated suicide, I answered: “I owe too much to too many people.”

When my mentor asked me, “What were you expecting?” I balled my fists and stared at the floor. “It’s not safe. A girl, alone?” As if I’d never felt unsafe during those years on my own. But I couldn’t defend myself: I needed a place to stay. By then, I knew how this human-interest-story stuff worked. When I succeeded, I exemplified triumph. When someone hurt me, I was held responsible for my vulnerability all along.

***

What do you do next?

Wash your sweater. Thank your mentor for her advice. After a week on her sofa, board a bus to Chicago for one friend’s house, followed by another’s. Play a good houseguest. Smile. Say, “Thank you.” Say nothing about the attack. When people ask about your background, say, “I went to boarding school.”

Jolt awake in the night, heart pounding, suffocating. Lay awake replaying, “What’s your name again?” Try, and fail, to figure out why this question upsets you. Take Benadryl and Melatonin, as prescribed, to knock you out. Fail at sleep, too.

Confess as much as you can muster to University Health Services. Complain about your poor sleep and your bad mood and your negative attitude. In response, receive time-management coaching. After exhibiting so much resilience and self-sufficiency, experience the consequences as moral failures.

I knew how this human-interest-story stuff worked. When I succeeded, I exemplified triumph. When someone hurt me, I was held responsible for my vulnerability all along.

Berate yourself for not getting Phi Beta Kappa. Hate yourself for not becoming a Rhodes Scholar. Chastise yourself for not founding a charity.

Do the only thing you know how to do: work harder. Study computer science. Smile behind a laptop in the Harvard Gazette. Pantomime “girl brainstorming with multicultural team” on the School of Engineering website. Get a job at Google. Line up your eyebrows with your Ivy League husband for the New York Times wedding section.

See your photograph and remember how wet the spit felt smeared across your face. Remind yourself you were an archetype all along, valuable only as long as you fit the narrative.

***

After the rapist mocked me, he made me kiss him, as if I appreciated what he did or owed him for letting me go. I think about his lips on mine every time someone implies that the adversities I overcame indebted me to eternal gratitude for my good fortune.

Thank you for this place to sleep. Thank you for not slamming the door in my face. Thank you for this oxygen.

“It sounds like you’re complaining,” a lady who helped me in high school said recently, after learning about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that made me wish I could die without shirking my obligations by killing myself. The woman listed the things Harvard gave me: an address, a partner, a job. She wrote, “It WAS worth it!”

Each time I’m told I’m lucky, the message is the same: you don’t deserve this. We gave it to you, you ungrateful bitch, and we can take it away. So shut up. Stop whining. Wipe the spit off of your face and eat an oyster.

Even the prototypical success story grappled with the cost of victory. Early in his journey, the Velveteen Rabbit lay on a heap on the playroom floor while a washed-up rocking horse explained that becoming real was brutal. Most playthings could never endure it: either their sharp edges made them impossible to love or they fell apart before their transformation. The ones who made it became ragged. The rabbit asks, “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes,” the mentor admits. He adds, “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Like the toys with missing buttons and bulging eyes and matted fur, my body remembers what I went through. I used to wonder what was wrong with me that I minded. Why, when asked what I expected, did I expect more? What gave me the right to think I deserved better?

When I declare, “It was worth it,” the reader will sigh with relief. I’ll absolve you of your guilt about all those kids sleeping in cars and on sofas who can only expect to be brutalized.

Inspired by the triumph of the human spirit, perhaps you’ll declare, “If she can do it, anyone can!”

Look at me. Listen: I am one-in-a-million. I am proof of the American dream. And when I wake up in the morning, I’m startled to be safe in my own bed. I rest my head on my husband’s shoulder. I will myself to relax. I bask in the three minutes of rest I get before the things I overcame come back to haunt me.

* * *

Emi Nietfield is a writer and software engineer in New York City. She won her office’s powerlifting contest to become “The Strongest Woman at Google.” In 2020, she’ll be a Hedgebrook writer-in-residence.

Editor: Sari Botton