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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is the essays editor for Longreads. She tweets at

When Financial Privilege is Mistakenly Assumed

At The Rumpus, Narratively deputy editor Lilly Dancyger has an essay I strongly identify with.

In her piece — excerpted from Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, a new anthology edited by Michelle Tea — Dancyger writes about dealing with people’s mistaken assumptions about the economics of her upbringing. A high-school dropout who later worked her way through college and graduate school, Dancyger grew up poor — the daughter of a single mother who was a recovering heroin addict. In New York City media circles, people tend to make comments indicating they assume she comes from financial privilege.

I’ve had similar experiences, growing up adjacent to money while not having much. I was surrounded by cousins and step-family who had much more, giving people around me the impression that I was living a much more comfortable life than I was. I felt I couldn’t speak up about their misconceptions, or the financial and power differentials within my family life. There was never a right moment to say, “No, no — I worked three jobs to put myself through college while she had the benefit of a trust fund.”

Here, Dancyger proudly sets her record straight. After attending a media industry event where people’s comments make her realize she “passes” as privileged, she reflects on her struggle to put herself through school and succeed in publishing.

Now I pass. I’ve made it. So why do I feel so queasy? Why did I have the urge to defend myself at that networking event, to tell the people around me, “I’m not one of you!”

The usual narrative about the scrappy working-class kid who pulls herself up is that she’s supposed to be embarrassed about where she comes from. She’s supposed to work hard to keep up the illusion, to convince her peers that she, too, went to sleepaway summer camps and lived in college dorms. When she passes, she has succeeded.

But I don’t want to blend in. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never treated waitstaff or security guards or bus drivers like they’re not there, that I relate to them more than I do to most of my peers. I’m proud of the fact that I dropped out of high school, and not just because I still managed to go on to get an Ivy League graduate degree, but because I knew what was best for me at the age of just fourteen, and I had the courage to do it.

I don’t feel ashamed of my history, I feel ashamed of letting it be erased.

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Looking Back On the Last Housing Bubble From the Precipice of the Next One


I could have used a trigger warning for Ryan Dezember’s recent Wall Street Journal essay commemorating the 10th anniversary of the bursting of the housing bubble.

Dezember writes about getting stuck for more than a decade with a deeply devalued house he’d bought on the Alabama Gulf Coast at a speculator’s price during the market’s peak in 2005.

My husband and I had a similar experience. Around the same time, we paid asking price for a house in Rosendale, New York, a depressed town in the Hudson Valley, after our lower offer was rejected. “Rosendale is really coming up now,” the owner argued. Two years later, the bubble burst, and Chase cut off the home equity line of credit we’d been using to renovate, saying we were now under water. In their opinion, our house was worth about 30 percent less than what we owed on it.

Due to the recession, we had less work, our incomes dropped, and the price of oil soared, making it hard for us to heat the house and pay the mortgage. We tried taking in a tenant, but for a variety of reasons, that was only workable for a month. We looked into ways to convert the house into a two-family so it would bring in income, but that would have meant borrowing money on credit cards to hopefully, maybe make some money. Eventually, we rented the whole place out and moved to an apartment in nearby Kingston.

Dezember’s experience was much more dramatic and painful than ours: His marriage fell apart, ours is intact; his renters used the place as a drug depot, while ours are actually about to buy our house (we close next Thursday!). And our home’s value has healthily rebounded to the point that we’re not losing too much of what we put into the place.

Now we find ourselves looking for a new home to buy in suddenly-chic Kingston, where we’ve been renting for four years, and where prices have quickly come to feel artificially inflated. We worry we’re about to buy into yet another housing bubble. How long before this one bursts? Dezember writes:

At a staff meeting last summer, my editors at the Journal put out a call for stories to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the housing crash. One colleague pitched a story about young Wall Street types who viewed the crisis as a historical event. Such a story would have never occurred to me. As far as I was concerned, the housing crisis had ended just a few weeks earlier.

About 2.5 million American homes are still worth less than their mortgage debt, according to estimates by CoreLogic . That is about double what it should be in an otherwise healthy market, said Frank Nothaft, CoreLogic’s chief economist.

Those of us who have emerged from underwater missed the chance to buy low. Home prices in many markets now exceed their 2006 peaks.

Investors such as Mr. Schwarzman who amassed thousands of houses to rent have bet more than $40 billion wagering that the crisis was so traumatic for people like me, and so destructive to our finances, that we’ll be renters forever. They may be right.

At a wedding I attended recently, I met a real-estate broker who touted the riches to be made by buying units in the glassy residential towers popping up along the waterfront in Brooklyn, where I live. No matter how slapdash the construction, she said, prices have only one direction to go.

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It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Consent’ Is

It’s amazing how the #MeToo movement has so quickly reframed our understanding of so many old things — books, movies, culture, news stories, scandals. I’ve been waiting for an updated interpretation of what was once problematically known as “the Lewinsky affair,” and I was so thrilled this week to see it coming to us from Monica Lewinsky herself.

In a personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the 20th anniversary of Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton, Lewinsky reconsiders her relationship with Clinton — 27 years her senior — through the lens of 2018, and realizes that given their power differential, the word “consensual” might not have perfectly applied.

Given my PTSD and my understanding of trauma, it’s very likely that my thinking would not necessarily be changing at this time had it not been for the #MeToo movement—not only because of the new lens it has provided but also because of how it has offered new avenues toward the safety that comes from solidarity. Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)

Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)

But it’s also complicated. Very, very complicated. The dictionary definition of “consent”? “To give permission for something to happen.” And yet what did the “something” mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the “something” just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy? (An intimacy I wanted—with a 22-year-old’s limited understanding of the consequences.) He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)

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The Truth About Writing Fiction From Your Life

Elisa Albert and Emily Gould talk with Longreads Essays Editor Sari Botton about the decisions involved in writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Kingston, NY on Sunday, February 11th, 2018.

Sari Botton | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4300 words)

I’ve been working on a few different book projects for years — okay, decades — without yet publishing. There are many, many reasons it’s been taking me so long, but one of them is that I keep vacillating between memoir and fiction.

In the early 90s I dabbled in MFA programs, focusing on fiction. What I began writing in those days was somewhat based on my own experiences, yet also very made-up.

Then in the mid-90s, after I dropped out of two different programs in succession, books like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club appeared and sparked a memoir boom. As a reader I became a nonfiction junkie. As a writer, I switched gears, started publishing personal essays…and then spent a lot of time freaking out about upsetting people by writing the truth — or my version of it, anyway.

These days I go back and forth, working on both memoir and somewhat autobiographical fiction, and spend a lot of time debating the merits of each with other writers.

On Sunday, February 11th, I turned to two of my favorite authors, Elisa Albert and Emily Gould, for their take on this. I sat down with them at Rough Draft Bar and Books in Kingston, New York, for a conversation ranging from the choices around writing fiction with autobiographical underpinnings, to the differences — mechanically-speaking and otherwise — between memoir and “autofiction.”

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. Below you can listen to the audio — including Albert reading a passage from After Birth, and Gould reading a passage from Friendship, plus a Q&A with the audience.

* * *

Sari Botton: Elsewhere, both of you have talked a lot about, and written about, writing fiction from your life. I’ve been intrigued, and I thought that other people would want to hear about this too. So, is there a difference in your mind, either one of you, between straight up fiction and fiction that does have autobiographical elements, and what would be the difference?

Elisa Albert: We could do like a one word answer on the count of three, yes, or no. I don’t think there’s a difference. I think it’s like a spectrum, you know? Like a continuum, if you will. We are all bound by the limits of consciousness such as it is. Unless we alter our consciousness, but even altered consciousness is consciousness. It exists, you know? I mean, I can’t get into the physics too deeply, but even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. Or the one you, the eternal you, the shared collective you.

Emily Gould: Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. No aliens are going to show up at the temp agency where Bev [a character in Friendship] is going to have her interview. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. This book is actually so made up. And it’s actually really frustrating sometimes when people are like, “Oh, so what was it like for you when …” [name of my best friend] “decided to have a baby after getting pregnant after a one night stand?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because that didn’t happen in my actual life.”

At the same time I want credit for being such an imaginative person, but then I look at any individual page of this book, and I’m like, well, yes, I did eat at that restaurant, and have basically that exact same interaction. But you know, then it became fictionalized. And we both have also written a lot of nonfiction, and think there is a shining line in my mind between the two forms.

Botton: You’ve both also written a fair amount of essay and memoir, and so people recognize certain things from your lives, which they can project on to your books, saying it’s totally just your life. But now you’re calling it a novel.

Albert: Change the names and there you go.

Botton: Right, exactly. But a lot of other novelists choose to completely invent worlds and that’s not what you’re doing, so it’s an interesting choice. Emily, I read something that you wrote about where the choice started. That you were having a hard time after writing a memoir, And the Heart Says Whatever. That after that you were having a hard time writing in the first person. Do you want to talk a little bit about that shift?

Gould: Oh sure. Yeah. In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. It just started as a sort of thought exercise, and now this is something that I tell my students.

I’m teaching fiction now, and students come to me all the time and say things like, “I’m just so sick of myself. I’m sick of my perspective. I’m sick of all of my thoughts about everything. I’m sick of my themes. All of my fellow people in this workshop have heard the same story from me a thousand times already, and they’re sick of my shtick too. What can I do to break out of the aspects of me that I’m so bored with?” And I just tell them, “You’re stuck with you. I’m sorry.” They haven’t perfected head transplants yet, so we’re all stuck with ourselves.

But what you can do is just shift your lens. Try a new form even if it’s something that you’re really bad at. Draw a comic book even if you can’t draw at all. Switch point of view, like I did. Write a song or a poem about the stuff that you usually write about instead of just doing whatever it is that you usually do. It sounds so goofy, and 101, but it really works. You can pull the wool over your own eyes. You really can lie to yourself and trick your brain.

Even if you set something on Mars, you’re still coming from what you have to bring to bear, which is your consciousness. So, is that always necessarily autobiographical? No. But it does come from you. — Elisa Albert

Botton: So once you start writing about yourself, or write your story in the third person … although, Elisa, After Birth is in the first person, right?

Albert: Yeah. Because my first novel was in the third person, and I found it was the same thing anyway. Everybody still was kind of like, Oh, well, it’s just you, obviously.

Gould: Which is so weird because you didn’t die of brain cancer.

Albert: Right, I know. The narrator of my first book dies of a brain tumor at the end of the book, so I don’t know how that could be autobiographical. I mean, I think ultimately it’s a compliment. It has to be a compliment, you know? Because what people are saying when they’re sort of assuming those things or projecting, or whatever, is that you have created a world that is so visceral and immediate and convincing that oh, of course it’s you. You know? So you’ve done what you set out to do then. I mean, I wouldn’t want to write a book where people reading it would think, like, geez, this shit’s totally invented. You know?

And the other thing is a novel, anything you write, but a novel especially, just the scope of it, it has to be an obsession. So even if you’re obsessed with 17th century Germany, that’s your obsession, and there are deep-rooted ways in which that’s very autobiographical even though obviously you weren’t there in your current form. So whatever it is, it has to be an obsession. You can’t spend years working on something if you’re not obsessed. So even if it’s not about you, it is encompassing your deep need to think about, look at, explore something.

Botton: So then once you’ve started writing, either in the third or first person — but deciding that it’s fiction — how do you then take the elements of your life and make them into something that isn’t your life? That becomes another story, more than just your life? How do you make that leap? Or does it start with, like, I have this particular story I want to tell?

Albert: Lorrie Moore said in her amazing story, “How to Become a Writer,” which is in the second person, and is very autobiographical, that “it’s like recombinant DNA.” You change one little strand of something, and then watch how that ripples out. Then it’s a very different story suddenly. I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. That’s now where my obsession lies, so I’m going to use that. I don’t give a shit.

So that’s autobiographical. I mean, this person is not like me in many, many other ways, but I know that origin story, so I can make use of it. It would be wasteful otherwise. I would be wasting my energy. I’d be reinventing the wheel. I have a pretty deep identification as somebody who was raised in a really religious household. I’m not interested in reinventing that at this point. That’s not what I’m looking at. So that’s a given. I’m going to use that. That’s there. I’m fluent in that, you know?

Botton: That frees you, then, to create the other aspects of the story.

Albert: The things I’m kind of obsessed with looking at or turning over or flipping around or inverting or whatever, that’s what I’m going to spend these years doing. And I don’t have to then waste my energy on the other elements because, you know, maybe in a different book those elements might need tweaking, but yeah. It’s like butterfly wings, right? Like, tsunami on the other side of the globe because, like, one little movement here.

The narrator of After Birth — her mother is dead. My mother’s not dead. She has an unnecessary surgical birth that was like super inhumane and traumatic. That didn’t happen to me. She’s an academic. I’m not an academic. Whatever. But, see, then we get into this weird thing where I’m like, see! Whatever.

Elisa and I obviously don’t write books that are set on Mars or in 18th century Scotland. There are no fantastical imaginative elements. But that also doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this stuff up. ‘Friendship’ is actually so made up. — Emily Gould

Gould: I’m sure this is something that you guys definitely all already thought about before, but I find myself thinking about writing fiction sometimes in terms of almost like method acting a little bit. Like, you can take an emotional experience that you’ve had and transmute it into another form. I’ve never experienced a shattering romantic betrayal, which is one of the things that I write about in Friendship. Yet. But I have experienced betrayal on a deep level in a relationship, but just not, like fucking someone else. You know?

So I was able to use that emotional experience and turn it into something else, the same way that I imagine actors do. I don’t know. I’m a terrible actress, so I actually don’t know how that works. But that’s what people talk about in “The Actor Prepares,” which I totally read in drama class.

Botton: That’s so funny. An article came up in my world today, in my social media world, with a title like “Apply acting techniques to your writing.”

Albert: People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay?

Botton: That’s a good way of putting it. When I emailed you guys and was asking like, “Are we talking about autofiction?” Emily, you were like, “Well, I don’t write autofiction.” And then Chloe Caldwell [who had to bow out of the event] was like, “I write autofiction.” It’s a really hard thing to get a handle on. What exactly is autofiction? Emily, I know that you’re a big fan of Chris Kraus, and her stuff kind of falls into that category, maybe? So I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about what it is and why it isn’t what you’re doing.

Gould:  Well, I mean, the most straightforward, I think, contemporary example of autofiction that probably the most people in this room have read, just based on the bestseller list is Knausgård. Has anyone read any of those My Struggles? All of the struggles? Yeah, there were a lot of them. But what he does, I think, is — it’s just this amazingly super detailed tracking the movements of his own consciousness thing, but filling in the gaps in his memory with imaginative detail, I assume, and that’s what makes it a novel rather than a diary. So, for example, there’s a famous scene at the end of the first My Struggle volume that’s just this virtuosic scene where he is cleaning out his disaster alcoholic, hoarder, dead father’s house for days on end. Just like, you’re there. You are in the house, smelling the smells, moving the specific objects from room to room with him, like almost in real time, for as long as it takes. That, to me, is autofiction. That form. And that’s just so, so different from what either of us have done, even though we have written about characters who are our same ages who have our same hair colors.

Botton: I was also thinking about Lisa Halliday’s new book, Asymmetry.

Gould: Ooh, yeah, that one’s good.

Botton: It’s about a relationship with a Philip Roth-like character. That’s part of it. And the author did have a relationship with Philip Roth, and she was interviewed in the Times and she talks about how she uses the basic details from her life to just kind of set up the universe, and then she makes a story and works from there.

Albert: Well, then there’s the idea that, is there such a thing as nonfiction? You know, its arguable. Even if you’re trying to write a memoir, somebody else who was there might have a very different memoir.

Gould: I think there are formal distinctions that we just have to make. It’s like the difference between painting oils or painting watercolors or something? And for some reason that’s really important to me to draw those distinctions. And I also have incredibly strong feelings about “nonfiction” that is written without faith, you know? Like A Million Little Pieces-style stuff. That bugs me.

I like to use things from my own life that I’m not interested in inventing. I’m not interested in inventing an origin story. Like, the thing I’m working on now. It’s a girl from LA. I grew up in LA. I’m not interested in inventing a different origin story. — Elisa Albert

Albert: Well that was written as a novel.

Gould: Oh, but published as a memoir.

Albert: Right.

Gould: So then we’re also talking about market forces and marketing categories informing what gets called fiction and what gets nonfiction. But we don’t have to bring commerce into this room tonight.

Albert: Let’s not bring the market into this.

Gould: We can just keep this in the lofty realm of art for now.

Albert: But you know that old line about how if you say it’s a memoir, they’ll say you made it all up, and if you say it’s fiction, they’ll say every word is true.

Botton: I was just going to say that. Yeah, so then why does somebody write autofiction as opposed to a memoir? It’s so close.

Gould: It’s not. It’s totally different!

Botton: It is? Okay.

Gould: Yeah, like a memoir has all these imaginative story elements and structures, and autofiction is really about living inside someone else’s mind, no matter how boring it gets there. It’s really trying to just transport you into someone else’s consciousness, which to me is like a super fascinating, trippy experience.

Albert: Done well, it’s, like, the best.

Gould: It’s transcendent when it’s done well. When it’s done badly, of course, it’s as boring as being someone boring is. And that’s just a world away from what we do as memoirists. Which is so much to do with eliding the boring part of the story and getting into the propulsive part of the narrative. That’s the craft of memoir. Sorry that I’m like, Duh, Sari.

Botton: That’s okay. I’m here to learn. But I have writers in my studio who talk to me all the time about what to do with what their writing. They are writing stuff that feels like memoir, but they want to explore different outcomes. I’ve been sharing Michelle Tea’s The Black Wave with people. There’s magical realism in there. I just love the way she goes from stuff that is so recognizable to, like, she’s just out there in another world. And so, I can never specifically know what is the best way for anybody to go, and this is kind of what this conversation came out of. I’m really trying to always get a handle on what are the differences. And I guess for different writers, it’s different things.

In order to trick myself into being able to write again at all after the, sort of, critical and interpersonal disaster that was the reception to my first book, I sort of just started writing in the third person as an exercise even though I was still basically writing memoiristically. And then very gradually that became something other than memoir. — Emily Gould

Once upon a time, everything was called a novel. There wasn’t the memoir category, and people wrote stories from their lives and called them novels, and so it got more confusing actually when the memoir genre got added. But I think for you, you’re very clearly writing fiction.

Albert: Well, I think I’d be out of material pretty quick. I mean, stories from our lives can be really interesting, and many of us have lived intense lives, but there’s only so much of it. Whereas, if you’re willing to sort of go off on little digressions and make up little details and see how that spins out, and bring your perspective to bear on things that are not your experience. Or try to inhabit somebody else’s perspective on something that maybe you have experienced, you have endless material. Then there’s just no end to it.

I think I would get bored. I mean, I write nonfiction sometimes, but it’s not as fun for me. It’s like a good muscle to exercise, but it’s like that playfulness, that kind of mischievous kind like, what can happen? What could I get away with? What if I push it this way?

Gould: Whereas, I feel like actually for me, nonfiction is where I started, and it’s my comfort zone, and fiction is a lot harder, and it comes a lot less easily. It is this arduous process whereas, it just is easier to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something memoiristic for me, at least. Whereas to come up with a halfway decent first draft of something fictional is just … My shitty first drafts of fiction are like so shitty. I think also there’s the hard, cold, horrible reality that just because something comes more easily to you doesn’t meant it’s good. God, that’s sad.

Botton: I mostly write nonfiction, memoir, essay. But I dabble in fiction. I started graduate school to write fiction. I published one short story on a website, which had autobiographical underpinnings, but also a lot of made up shit. But I started writing something like a year ago, and I was having so much fun doing it, but when I went back to it, I had to keep reminding myself — and it was also based on a character similar to me — but I had to keep reminding myself of the rules of this universe that this person lives in. That this person’s boyfriend is 18 years older and Italian. Having to orient myself again and again in this fictional world, I find hard. That doesn’t mean, though, that it isn’t something worth putting more time and effort toward and trying harder at, but for me it’s like a harder exercise to remember the rules of the universe I’ve created. Do you ever run into that?

Albert: Sometimes. I mean, like, plot mostly. Just to be like, okay, this happened, this happened. I can sort of hang out in a voice for a long time, but then to just keep the facts straight. But that’s administrative stuff, you know? A couple index cards.

Gould: Yeah. Those aren’t structural things, so if you’re thinking of it like a physical project? Like if you’re building something, that’s more like — the rules of the universe stuff you can always straighten out at the end in the same way that if you’re renovating a house, you can fix up the door frames and the windows. I don’t know anything about this metaphor.

Albert: It’s like curtains.

Gould: I’m going to stop. Yeah, it’s like you’re going to put in furniture and decorate and the wall paper and stuff, and that’s like the fun stuff that you do at the end. Also, copy editors will do some of it for you. And good line editors. Friendship was written a long time ago in my life, and I had never been pregnant. And now I’ve been pregnant a bunch, and I think the character who gets pregnant in Friendship was pregnant in the first draft, like the draft that sold, for like 11 months. Like an elephant. And no one caught it. A copy editor caught it. It was like, oops. And all I had to do was change some details about the weather, and it was fine, you know?

But that’s the kind of thing that — if you get bogged down in that stuff in the first draft, you’re going to prevent yourself from ever moving forward.

People come at me sometimes, like about opinions spewed by the character, and they really want to fight me about it, and it’s like, dude, you’re not going to go after Al Pacino for his mafia activities. Like, get your shit straight, okay? This is like a role, this is a performance, okay? — Elisa Albert

Botton: One of my obsessions that I’ve written a lot about, and interviewed people a lot about, and I’ve interviewed both of you about, is people getting pissed off at you for what you’ve written that has to do with them. And sometimes, when I’m working on memoir and afraid of people being mad at me, I think, All right, I’m just going to change my name. That’s one solution. The other is, All right, I’m totally going to fictionalize, and it will be more fun. But they’re still going to recognize themselves. Is this something that you run into or care about, or does fiction solve that?

Albert: I don’t think fiction solves it. People just tend to then pick out people who are not remotely related to them and be offended by stuff that they’re imagining might have something to do with them. I don’t tend to have a lot of people in my life who I need to protect that way. That’s been a long process, but I find it useful to have pretty honest relationships so that anyone I actually have in my life is a) not somebody I’m going to feel the need to fucking burn in literature, and b) not somebody who’s going to come at what I’m doing with a narcissistic vengeance. But that takes time, and not everybody has the luxury of narrowing down their intimate circle in such a way. But it’s served me pretty well so far.

Botton: I think, Emily, you’ve had a different experience, at least with memoir, yeah.

Gould: Well, yeah, there are definitely sacrifices involved in being honest always, for anyone. Not just writers, I think. And like Elisa, I think the list of people whose opinions I give a fuck about at all has been winnowed down over the course of my life from like, you know when I was in my 20s, it was like everyone. And now it’s just people I care about. So yeah, I think this has always been really hard for me, and it continues to be hard for me. I definitely don’t have all the answers about it at all, but like the tattoo on Sari’s arm says, there comes a point when it becomes harder for the flower to stay in the bud than it is to bloom. I’m paraphrasing her tattoo badly, sorry.

So, it’s like you choose between two different kinds of pain, right? It’s like the pain of keeping whatever it is inside versus the pain that you’re going contend with when you have to deal with the consequences of having written your story. And it’s a personal choice.

Botton: Incidentally, Emily was my tattoula. You know, like a doula. She went with me. She brought me gluten-free cookies so I wouldn’t faint.

Gould: It’s really important to eat before and after you get a tattoo.

Botton: And for those of you who can’t see, my tattoo, I recently learned, does not quote who I thought it did. So, yes. It’s that quote that you see on mugs and candles. “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Usually it says it’s by Anaïs Nin, and it is very much not, which is fine.

Albert: Are you going to edit it on the tattoo?

Botton: I didn’t attribute.

Albert: Oh.

Botton: It’s actually a woman [a playwright now] who was a publicist in California for an adult ed college in the 70s. She’d put that on a press release to encourage adults to go back to school. So, go back to school. That’s what we’re doing here. Yeah, so. I still like it.

Gould:  Me too. It’s great!

Botton:  It’s a good one, right?

Gould Yeah.

Botton: And then I got cherry blossoms on my other arm, so we’re all blossomed out here. I actually interviewed that woman. One of these days I’ll write about it…


* * *

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different, and the editor of the anthology Freud’s Blind Spot. She has taught at Columbia’s School of the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, and is currently Visiting Writer at Bennington College.  She lives in upstate New York with her family.

Emily Gould is the author of And The Heart Says Whatever, Friendship, and the forthcoming Perfect Tunes. With Ruth Curry, she runs Emily Books, which sells and publishes books by women as an imprint of Coffee House Press. She is a contributor to Bookforum and The Cut. She teaches writing in New York City, where she lives with her family.

Sari Botton is the Essays Editor for Longreads. She edited the anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY  and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.

Recording by Brian Macaluso of Clandestine Productions. Event sponsored by Kingston Writers’ Studio.


Brendan Fraser’s #MeToo Moment

At GQ, Zach Baron has a profile of actor Brendan Fraser, who was popular in the ’90s for movies like School Ties, and who has been making something of a comeback since he was cast in The Affair in 2016.

Fraser tells Baron that in 2003, he was touched inappropriately by Philip Berk, a former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The incident left him feeling violated and insecure. Adding insult to injury, his reporting of it seems to have gotten him blacklisted for years.

The story he wants to relay took place, he says, in the summer of 2003, in the Beverly Hills Hotel, at a luncheon held by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization that hosts the Golden Globes. On Fraser’s way out of the hotel, he was hailed by Philip Berk, a former president of the HFPA. In the midst of a crowded room, Berk reached out to shake Fraser’s hand. Much of what happened next Berk recounted in his memoir and was also reported by Sharon Waxman in The New York Times: He pinched Fraser’s ass—in jest, according to Berk. But Fraser says what Berk did was more than a pinch: “His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around.” Fraser says that in this moment he was overcome with panic and fear.

“Am I still frightened? Absolutely. Do I feel like I need to say something? Absolutely. Have I wanted to many, many times? Absolutely. Have I stopped myself? Absolutely.”

Fraser eventually was able, he says, to remove Berk’s hand. “I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I felt like there was a ball in my throat. I thought I was going to cry.” He rushed out of the room, outside, past a police officer he couldn’t quite bring himself to confess to, and then home, where he told his then wife, Afton, what had happened. “I felt like someone had thrown invisible paint on me,” he says now. (In an e-mail, Berk, who is still an HFPA member, disputed Fraser’s account: “Mr. Fraser’s version is a total fabrication.”)

In the aftermath of the encounter, Fraser thought about making it public. But ultimately, “I didn’t want to contend with how that made me feel, or it becoming part of my narrative.” But the memory of what had happened, and the way it made him feel, stuck with him. His reps asked the HFPA for a written apology. Berk acknowledges that he wrote a letter to Fraser about the incident but says, “My apology admitted no wrongdoing, the usual ‘If I’ve done anything that upset Mr. Fraser, it was not intended and I apologize.’ ”

According to Fraser, the HFPA also said it would never allow Berk in a room with Fraser again. (Berk denies this, and the HFPA declined to comment for this story.) But still, Fraser says, “I became depressed.” He started telling himself he deserved what had happened to him. “I was blaming myself and I was miserable—because I was saying, ‘This is nothing; this guy reached around and he copped a feel.’ That summer wore on—and I can’t remember what I went on to work on next.”

He knows now that people wonder what happened to Brendan Fraser, how he went from a highly visible public figure to practically disappearing in the public mind, and he’d already told me most of it. But this, he says, is the final piece. The experience, he says, “made me retreat. It made me feel reclusive.” He wondered if the HFPA had blacklisted him. “I don’t know if this curried disfavor with the group, with the HFPA. But the silence was deafening.” Fraser says he was rarely invited back to the Globes after 2003. Berk denies that the HFPA retaliated against Fraser: “His career declined through no fault of ours.”

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Cataloguing the Detritus of Relationships Past

While all happy couples might not be alike, each unhappy couple is surely unhappy in its own way. And when their relationships end, each leaves its own trail of uniquely meaningful detritus in its wake.

There’s a monument to this phenomenon — the Museum of Broken Relationships, in Zagreb, Croatia, created in 2003 after founders Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić ended their relationship. For the Virginia Quarterly Review, essayist Leslie Jamison visits the museum and considers what stories are told by the objects once shared between former loved ones. She also lauds the idea of memorializing relationships past, and not running away from the melancholy lingering from them.

I could summon my own lost loves as an infinite catalog: a pint of chocolate ice cream eaten on a futon above a falafel shop; a soggy tray of chili fries from the Tommy’s at Lincoln and Pico; a plastic vial of pink-eye medicine; twenty different T-shirt smells; beard hairs scattered like tea leaves across dingy sinks; the three-wheeled dishwasher tucked into the Iowa pantry I shared with the man I thought I would marry. But perhaps the deeper question is not about the objects themselves—what belongs in the catalog—but about why I enjoy cataloging them so much. What is it about the ache that I enjoy, that etched groove of remembering an old love, that vein of nostalgia?

After breaking up with my first boyfriend, when we were both freshmen in college on opposite sides of the country, I developed a curious attachment to the sadness of our breakup. It was easier to miss the happiness of being together when we were no longer together. It was certainly easier than muddling through what our relationship had turned into: something strained by distance, and the gap between the different people we were becoming. Rather than sitting through stilted phone conversations and the hard work of trying to speak to each other, I could smoke my cigarettes outside at night in the bitter Boston cold, alone, and miss Los Angeles, and what it had been like to fall in love there: warm nights by the ocean, kissing on lifeguard stands. I was more comfortable mourning what the relationship had been than I’d been inhabiting the relationship itself. I loved the way sadness felt pure and ascetic: smoking a lot and eating nothing and listening to sad songs on repeat. That sadness felt like a purified bond, as if I was more connected to that man in missing him than I’d ever been while we were together. But it was more than that, too: The sadness itself became a kind of anchor, something I needed more than I’d ever needed him.

Olinka believes that “melancholy has been unjustly banished from the public space,” and told me she mourns the fact that it has been driven into ghettos, replaced by the eerie optimism of Facebook status updates.

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Inadvertent Matchmaker Seeks a Love of Her Own

Once upon a time, in a gritty, rent-stabilized land called the East Village of the late ’90s and early aughts, I introduced all my smart, interesting, kind, funny straight guy friends to all my smart, interesting, kind, funny, straight girl friends, and they all got married and lived happily ever after.

This is the story of how I came to be known, far and wide, as the “East Village Yenta.” Introducing people IRL, old school, was considered to be something of a major mitzvah in those days. One of the harsher ironies of living in New York City has always been that even with the crushing multitudes of people, it can be incredibly lonely. It can seem impossible to find a mate. If you think meeting someone in New York City is hard now, I promise you, it was infinitely harder in the days before Facebook and Instagram and other social media made it standard to know pretty much everything about a person before ever meeting them.

So many single people, but so little context for knowing who was single, or maybe introducing yourself and striking up a conversation. How would you know whether the cute guy on the other side of the horseshoe bar at Vazac’s who sort of smiled at you, or the one playing pool at Sophie’s, had a girlfriend? Or a boyfriend? Or if his relationship status might fall into the category of “It’s complicated?” In those days, it was particularly helpful to have an informed human vector pointing you in the direction of that special someone.

For a handful of couples in my East Village days, I was that vector. I tried to be subtle about it, creating low-stakes alternatives to that invariably awkward, inhumane fix-up standby, the blind date. I’d throw big parties, cramming forty or more guests into my un-renovated run-down East 13th Street tenement, for the express purpose of introducing just two of them. I’d sneak a surprise guest into the exclusive weekly poker game I was part of, or into casual dinners with the group I came to think of as my East Village family, at 7A, or at one of the cheap sushi places in the neighborhood.

* * *

Mine was a full-service matchmaking enterprise. Not only would I introduce my friends, but in some cases, early in their courtships, before both parties were ready to considered themselves part of an “item,” I’d even chaperone them. Sure, I’ll be a third wheel on your road trip to a sleep-inducing community theater production of The Cherry Orchard in Bristol, Pennsylvania so that you don’t have to call it a “date.” Also included in the package was relationship advice for the unattached and lovelorn, which I’d provide for free. Ironic, considering that I myself was pretty consistently unattached and lovelorn, living, as I did, on a perpetual emotional roller coaster ride, courtesy of a coterie of ambivalent man-children, most of whom were jerks.

Occasionally my friends would try to return the favor. But while I loved introducing couples, I, myself, hated being fixed up. First of all, none of my friends were insecure or co-dependent enough to go to the ridiculous trouble I had for them, so awkward blind dates seemed to be the only option.

Second of all, in most cases, they wanted to introduce me exclusively to short dudes they had no one else to set up with. I’m a hair under five feet myself, so I’m not in any position to rule anyone out based on their height. But that’s not what this was about. I never had a problem with short guys. I dated men who were 5’2” and 5’3”. I also dated guys who were over six feet. The problem wasn’t the men’s lack of stature. The problem was, more often than not, it was the only thing we had in common. Having already logged more than my share of meals with short men who had no sense of humor, or had never read a book, I just wasn’t interested.

Third of all, in the cases where my friends did have great guys, of any height, that they wanted me to meet, I was forced to confront my aversion to…great guys of any height. No, not for me, the smart, interesting, kind, funny type! Let the other girls have them! I was in the market for a different breed of suitor: the rakishly cute, brooding, unreliable, sometimes mean, always broke, and decidedly broken species known as The Beautiful Mess, native to regions like the ’90s East Village. The anti-suitor. As if it isn’t already difficult enough in New York City to find someone to settle down with; try limiting yourself to the ones who are just not that into settling down. Or you. Or both. Stubbornly, I clung to this ridiculous preference way past the age when most women outgrow it.

If I was stuck in that groove way longer than I should have been, I hold New York City somewhat accountable. It provided me with too many compelling distractions from my misery and loneliness. New York is often anthropomorphized as a bad boyfriend who’s both hard to keep and hard to leave. But for me New York was more like my gay boyfriend, who wasn’t going to give me certain things you’d want in a relationship, but who would comfort me and cheer me up with shiny diversions when I most needed it. So much to see! Art, music, street fashion, architecture, crazy tourists. I’d walk around the lower tip of Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon after a bad date Saturday night, intrigued at every turn — interesting buildings, shops, a veritable UN of cuisines, people, people, people. The blessed profusion of variety tranquilized me. Afterward, my mind could remain occupied and my spirits high, at least until the man-child du jour would do or say something just subtly rejecting enough to throw me off balance. Where another woman might recognize this as a good stop to get off that train, I’d instead expend tremendous energy trying to decipher the mixed messages, and contorting myself into someone I imagined they’d be more interested in.

* * *

The people around me got tired of my tedious suffering before I did. The last straw was my 34th birthday dinner friends put together for me in October, 1999 at Jules on St. Marks Place. Bill, the on-again-off-again boyfriend I was, for some reason, living with at the time, had said no when I asked if he wanted to join my birthday celebration. My friends wouldn’t stand for it, though. They took matters into their own hands, calling Bill and persuading him to surprise me at the restaurant for cake.

Dinner and dessert came and went. We sat and sat. I wondered why my friends all kept looking to the door but not getting up and heading toward it. My friend Donna grabbed her Nokia cell phone and stepped outside. No one spoke. When Donna came back in, she couldn’t hide her anger.

“Bill is blowing us off,” she said. “He said he was going to surprise you and come for dessert. I’m so sorry, Sari.”

I hung in with Bill for another seven or eight months. I avoided my friends. I didn’t want to be lectured. I was crumbling inside, and I didn’t want them to see. And I wasn’t ready to walk away.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my friends might have been avoiding me, too.

“Buttons,” my friend Kevin said to me when I called him one afternoon — he was using one of his many affectionate nicknames for me — “I don’t know if you’ve noticed that I haven’t been spending so much time with you these days. It’s just that I can’t watch anymore as you put yourself through the ringer with guys like Bill. I can’t watch you as you keep staying.”

After a moment, I said, “I’m working on it, Kevin.” It came out more defensive than I wanted, but I didn’t know how to fix that, and I couldn’t say more words without crying. As soon as we hung up, the tears came rushing.

What Kevin had said hurt so much, but it was what I needed to hear. It was one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me.

It got me to dump Bill for good, and to then find myself a good New York shrink. And while I was busy getting my shit together, I made my next match, almost inadvertently.

I got a call from a guy I knew who’d moved from New York to Montréal the year before. His girlfriend, a lovely young woman I’d met at their going-away party across town at the Ear Inn, was now moving back to New York City. Without him. They’d broken up. Her name was Emily, and she was this pixie-ish, booksish dancer who also liked to write. She said she had just begun her first novel.

Emily was looking for a room to rent, and it so happened my friend Dave was looking for a roommate. I called them both and invited them to meet me for dinner at Jeoaldo, the cheap sushi place on East Fourth. When I hung up, the gears in my brain started turning. I made a third phone call, this one to Kevin.

Kevin and Emily married two years later.

As a daughter of clergy who rejects religion, I probably have no business invoking a Jewish adage about matchmakers. But it’s said that if you introduce three couples who go on to marry, a place is reserved for you at the highest level of Heaven. (Of course Jewish Heaven has different levels that you have to strive toward!) Kevin and Emily were couple number three for me.

Was it just a coincidence that after I introduced them — and, granted, after $20,000 worth of shrink sessions — that I then found my mate? That job I had to contract out; Nerve Personals served as my yenta — with the help of my gay boyfriend, New York City.

After we’d communicated intermittently on Nerve Personals for about six months but never met, I spotted Brian on East 7th Street, between Avenues C and D one morning when I was out jogging. He was standing behind his car, making sure it was outside the no-parking zone in front of a church entrance. I recognized him from his dating profile photo, and had enough context, obviously, to know he was single and in the market for a girlfriend. So, I said hello.

On February 5th, we celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary.

I’ll be forever grateful to New York City and its Alternate Side Parking Rules, and to Nerve Personals. And to Kevin, for a gift even greater than the mitzvah of matchmaking.

Lurve You? Or Loathe You?

Actor, writer and director Woody Allen as Alvy Singer and actress Diane Keaton as Annie Hall in the film 'Annie Hall', 1977. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Okay, I’m making a promise to myself to stop reading (and writing about) Woody Allen think pieces — please feel free to hold me to it.

But first let me just point you to “Unlearning Woody Allen,” a smart piece of cultural criticism by David Klion, published by Jewish Currents.

I’m at the depression stage in my grief over Allen as a source of thoughtful entertainment, having a hard time shifting toward acceptance. It’s been hard to let go of the ideas, particularly about relationships, that I picked up from Allen’s films. For example, until recently, I’d still occasionally say to my husband, “I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you,” referencing a line Allen’s Alvy Singer character says to Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall — a comment on the word “love” being insufficient to capture his feelings for her.

But Klion’s essay helps me see something I hadn’t before. He breaks down Woody Allen’s influence on the culture, romantic comedies (and Klion himself) in a way that shows the messages about love put forth in classic Allen movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan are very mixed, and carried forward by others in ways that aren’t so romantic after all.

Even if you’ve never seen Annie Hall, you’ve seen its legacy. You’ve seen Harry mansplain relationships to Sally. You’ve seen the toxic relationship of neurotic Ross and ditzy Rachel held up as a romantic ideal worth rooting for and emulating. You’ve seen Ray (Alex Karpovsky) on Girls in his 30s dating a succession of women in their 20s, passing off his insecurity over a stalled career as some kind of wisdom. You’ve seen Louis CK, who openly worships Allen, monologue about the awkwardness of being a middle-aged man, and then you’ve read about what he subjects women to behind closed doors. You’ve seen Aziz Ansari as the performatively woke smartass comedian who “gets” women in hipster Brooklyn on Master of None, and very likely you’ve read about what his actual dating life is like.

If Allen’s legacy extends through decades of popular culture, it also extends to the consumers of that culture, and to what both men and women in certain social milieus expect of each other. Not everything we’ve gleaned is harmful, and it’s easy to see why the nerdy, sensitive male archetype appeals in a culture that tends to valorize alpha males and to devalue femininity. There are plenty of scenes in Annie Hall where Alvy is kind and compassionate, where the easy intimacy Allen and Keaton presumably shared translates to the screen. Their mid-date first kiss (the subject of a blatant homage in Good Will Hunting), the first time they say they love each other in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, the lobsters – these moments and others are as charming and romantic as any ever filmed, and they’ve no doubt informed my behavior and demeanor in the most romantic moments of my own life. Separating out Alvy’s tenderness from his self-absorption, his desire to nurture Annie from his impulse to condescend to her, his genuine intelligence from his know-it-all superiority, and figuring out how to emulate what he does right and reject what he does wrong is something I’ll probably always be working on. Certainly I’ve failed at it enough times to feel a little awkward passing judgment on Allen’s characters.

But it’s not clear Allen feels as conflicted about any of this as his many disciples might.

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Decisions, Decisions

In the New York Review of Books, Russian emigre Masha Gessen has a personal essay (originally delivered as a lecture at the New York Public Library last December) that examines the idea of choice. Gessen considers choices that have impacted her life: from her parents’ decision 39 years ago to apply for an exit visa, to her preventive double mastectomy and later an oophorectomy after testing positive for the BRCA mutation that led to her mother’s early death from cancer, to her more recent decision to switch from estrogen therapy to testosterone therapy.

Gessen also ruminates on the culture’s tendency to favor those who’ve suffered for a lack of choice — whether in becoming refugees, or picking their gender.

But in speaking about immigrants we tend to privilege choicelessness much as we do when we are speaking about queer people or transgender people. We focus on the distinction between refugees and “economic migrants,” without asking why the fear of hunger and destitution qualifies as a lesser reason for migration than the fear of imprisonment or death by gunshot wound—and then only if that wound is inflicted for political or religious reasons. But even more than that, why do we assume that the more restricted a person’s choices have been, the more qualified they are to enter a country that proclaims freedom of personal choice to be one of its ideals?

Immigrants make a choice. The valor is not in remaining at risk for catching a bullet but in making the choice to avoid it. In the Soviet Union, most dissidents believed that if one were faced with the impossible choice between leaving the country and going to prison, one ought to choose exile. Less dramatically, the valor is in being able to experience your move less as an escape and more as an adventure. It is in serving as living reminders of the choicefulness of life—something that immigrants and most trans people do, whether their personal narratives are ones of choice or not.

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The Dangers of Renting While Black in Gentrifying Cities

Photo by Tom Arthur via Flickr

In another excellent piece written with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Joseph Williams investigates the increasingly deft mechanisms at work leading to the eviction of lower-income apartment dwellers in rapidly gentrifying cities. He does this while also chronicling his own descent from white-collar Politico reporter living in a luxury apartment, to jobless, homeless man.

In the essay, for Curbed, Williams considers various factors making renters at the lower end of the economic spectrum vulnerable — rampant gentrification; rents rising despite stagnating and declining incomes; the job insecurity of the gig economy — and adds that people of color, like himself, are even more vulnerable. It’s a painful truth that’s driven home for him on his court date.

When I got there, the assigned courtroom, number 303, was locked, and the hallway was crowded with my fellow scofflaws. Nearly all of them were people of color; judging by clothing and accented English, most seemed to be immigrants, blue-collar workers, or both.

That shouldn’t have been surprising: “Evictions disproportionately impact the most vulnerable members of our society,” according to the Apartment List report. Renters whose education stopped short of college, Apartment List says, are more than twice as likely to face eviction than the college educated—unless you’re black, like me.

Property managers and large real estate companies have professionalized the forced removal of residents.

Apartment List found that “black households face the highest rates of eviction, even when controlling for education and income.” African Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree are around twice as likely to face eviction as whites, and about three times more likely than Hispanics to get evicted.

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