Category Archives: Personal Essay

How to Say You Maybe Don’t Want to Be Married Anymore

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Sarah Bregel | Longreads | November 2017 | 11 minutes (2,671 words)

I am peering out the screen door at the front entrance of my house. Anxious, I glance up and down the tree-lined street and then move to the back door to do the same. The dog follows my every move. I stop and stare at him, circle the dining room table twice, and start over. I’m practically panting, the same as he does when he chases his tail then flops on the carpet from exhaustion.

I’m listening for footsteps, to hear the gate click. I’m waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of my husband jogging up the road, dripping with sweat. For a brief moment I wonder if he has thrown himself into oncoming traffic.

I cannot stop pacing, cannot stop bobbing my head. It is heavy, a block of cement, weighing me down. I cannot eat, but I can drink wine. I have had the better part of a bottle already. I finish my glass, then fill it with water and chug it down three times, preparing for the worst come morning.

Our two small kids are downstairs watching TV. They’ve been planted there like eyes growing on the skins of potatoes for hours, and I have no plans to call to them and demand they shut it off. I can’t look at their faces for fear they might see through me. Later, I will dry my swollen eyes long enough to read bedtime stories and lay with them a while. I will say “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I’ll close the door almost all the way then whisper through the crack, “There’s no bugs,” and slip out.

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Parenting Class Dropout

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Paulette Kamenecka | Longreads | November 2017 | 13 minutes (3,271 words)

 

In the early months of my pregnancy, when practical concerns still floated out on a distant horizon, Matt and I talked endlessly about our first official parental duty: Selecting baby names. We understood that whatever name we chose would plant a flag in the soil of our daughter’s life, binding her to a set of associations that would follow her around for the rest of her days. Matt, Matt, the big fat rat, and Paulette Portolette would strive to choose a name that would be nearly impervious to ridicule and would guarantee our child was well liked by her friends.

We tried family names, like Royal, after Matt’s beloved grandfather and Sophie, after my grandmother. We toyed with Summer or Alabama because they seemed cool. Walking around our apartment, we repeated our favorite names, one after the other, to hear what they sounded like coming out of our mouths. Part of what I enjoyed about this game was that it allowed us to jump past the pregnancy to some point in the future when we were already a family of three.

But just after the six-month mark, things went south. We learned the baby girl I was carrying had a rare, life-threatening heart condition, and suddenly our attention jerked sharply from issues of social ease to survival.

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Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

380887 34: A young African American woman listens during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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The Memoirist’s Dilemma

(Schiffer-Fuchs/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason, I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.

I say finally because it has taken years — decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself, my friends, and my family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.

At The New York Review of Books — in an essay about the lingering effects of having written a memoir about the political hanging of her father in Sierra Leone — novelist Aminatta Forna writes about dealing with some of these fears herself.

The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.

In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.

For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.

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Finally Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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Maura Kelly | Longreads | November 2017 | 15 minutes (3,727 words)

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I never got the whole nature thing. In my middle-class town, surrounded by neatly engineered housing developments, the little “nature” I knew was unnatural. The grass of the boxy lawns, stripped of dandelions, shined a uniform pesticide green. The most memorable tree of my youth lived like a caged beast in an indoor shopping mall; Shel Silverstein would’ve wept to see it, imprisoned between the food court escalator and a fake waterfall with wishful pennies glittering on its floor. In my state, even the ocean was tainted; the beaches of the Jersey Shore were a riot of oversized umbrellas and slick men in banana hammocks blasting their boomboxes. One summer, so much trash washed up on the sand that it made headlines, hypodermic needles and all. The Garden State, so-called, but it wasn’t exactly Eden. Since I never went to summer camp, since my parents had no country hideaway, I was a kid who thought the Great Outdoors wasn’t all that great. A tree by any other name was just as boring as every other tree.

All that began to change slowly during my undergraduate years in a postcard-perfect New England town. There I began to understand how beautiful nature could be. I still didn’t want to commune with it or anything. (Camping seemed like a fantastically bad idea; why anyone would want to sleep on the cold hard ground in a place without a proper toilet was beyond me.) But the trees surrounding my campus and the mountains around my college town pleased my eye in a way that was new to me. There, in New Hampshire, I also went on the first hikes of my life. But despite my burgeoning Romantic sensibility, I saw those excursions up the mountain as little more than a chance to exercise while hanging out with friends. As for opportunities to stop and smell the pine needles, I was determined to avoid them. All I wanted was to rush to the top of Mount Cube and race back down again — fast enough to burn some calories — and I got annoyed when anyone tried to slow me down to ooh-and-ah over some dumb mushroom.

After college, I eventually arrived in that city of all cities, New York. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get there — to the center of the world, so it seemed, with all the great art museums, the great jazz places, the great movie theaters, the great performances of Shakespeare. The city helped me to notice an aspect of myself, the intellectual epicure, that I’d barely noticed before. It was a thrilling discovery. In New York, my brain was fed the richest of foods, my ambitions were fueled, my expectations for myself raised. By then, I’d lived in four other U.S. cities, and I felt sure I’d found the place that beat them all, where I’d stay forever.

The years passed and I had what I half-jokingly call “my nervous breakdown.” Half-jokingly, though it was no joke. A perfect storm of events — a break-up, a career disappointment, a professional trauma — knocked me down. I couldn’t eat or work, I could barely read or write, and I especially couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. I couldn’t go out in public without disintegrating into tears — on the subway, in restaurants, at the gym, during a friend’s book party — triggered by the least little thing, like a long wait or a sad song. I was frequently overwhelmed by vertigo that felt as much physical as metaphysical. It felt at times as if I was slipping down some vast mountain into the abyss, unable to stop my steady descent, like a character out of some Edgar Allan Poe horror story. This went on for months and threatened never to end.

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Bootlegging Jane’s Addiction

Joe Hughes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | November 2017 | 26 minutes (6,465 words)

On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.

I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.

The album was recorded at a club called The Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. As a concert recording, some fans called it “the live album.” We called it “Triple X,” after the indie label that released it. Unlike other live records where applause fades in before the music starts, Triple X launched right in with no introduction: fast drums, soloing guitar, and a high-pitched banshee singer howling cryptic lyrics that went way over my 14-year-old head: “Oh, mama lick on me / I’m as tasty as a red plum / Baby thumb / Wanna make you love.” The song was called “Trip Away.” I had no idea what tripping was, but the music slayed me.

After a blazing crescendo, the audience clapped, seconds passed, and a slow bass line played a new rumbling melody. The drummer pounded a single beat over it: boom. Then two more ─ boom boom ─ building tension. The guitarist slid his pick down the guitar strings, smearing a wicked echo across the rhythm, then the banshee yelled “Goddamn!” and broke into “Whores.” “I don’t want much man, give a little / I’m gonna take my chances if I get ’em. Yeah!”

To a middle class kid in Phoenix, Arizona, this music had a primal abandon that I hadn’t yet encountered, but whose wildness attracted me.

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The Problem of Pain

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad, with code forked from Munchen He.

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | November 2017 | 10 minutes (2,770 words)

The onset of a southern California rainstorm, as seen from the back seat of my mother’s Toyota Corolla: A single raindrop lands with the sound of a bullet against an armored car. A splash across the windshield — heart stopping. As the sky shifts from pearl gray to dense slate, the fusillade comes faster, staccato, rapid fire. The car is engulfed in water, great pooling streams slide across the windshield; the wipers can barely keep up. The rainwater mixes with oil drops on the road — a hazardous blend: The tires struggle to gain traction and the car swerves on the suddenly slick pavement.

I awake tonight to a first bullet in such a cascade, but it is not rain.

It is pain.

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Parsing Her Identity With A Long-Lost Folder, Plus the Internet

In time for National Adoption Awareness Month, Granta has a personal essay by novelist A.M. Homes, who ten years ago published The Mistress’s Daughter, a memoir about meeting her birth parents at 31, in 1992.

Now 55, Homes reports on the experience of recently being given her long-lost adoption file from 1961, and the effects of the information within it — plus what she can now find on the internet using clues from the file — on her understanding of herself and her origins.

She has mixed feelings about opening the file once she has it.

The envelope takes several days to arrive and when it does I put it in my office and let it rest. I leave the envelope for weeks, having already once had the terra firma of identity slip out from under me like sand followed by a long, slow climb back to safety – I am aware that once I expose whatever is inside I will have to deal with it. I am not in a hurry.

There is the fear that there might be something in the file, a surprise that changes the narrative as I know it.

She acknowledges, though, that many other adoptees don’t have that luxury.

Even now, in most states and countries, an adoptee doesn’t have the right to know who they are and how they came into the world. The laws vary from place to place, and were mostly designed to protect the privacy of the often-unwed mother, and the often-infertile adopting couple, rather than the needs of the child.

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When Life Imitates Country Music

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Gary Stewart Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Ramsey‘s essay in the fall issue of Oxford American is partly about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart; partly about the loss of his wife’s father, Mr. Chuck; and entirely about the power of music to bridge cultural divides, to console, to memorialize, to provoke. As an essay, it’s thoroughly lovely, and thoroughly satisfying.

If you’re not familiar with Gary Stewart, it’s probably because he’s been dead since 2003, and had a patchy career for almost 20 years before that. He sang about hard living, and his life imitated his art:

Then, like a country song, all manner of things went wrong. Stewart had designs on a more anarchic Southern rock sound, and stodgy RCA didn’t quite know what to do with him (the head honchos kept complaining that he wasn’t enunciating). His consumption of uppers, Quaaludes, and prescription painkillers became even more prodigious, and bleaker. He was hospitalized for overdoses at least three times. After a few ill-conceived duds in the early 1980s, RCA dropped him in 1983.

By 1987, according to the writer Jimmy McDonough, who tracked him down and wrote the definitive profile of Stewart for the Village Voice, the singer was holed up in a small trailer with the windows painted black, rarely leaving unless it was to score drugs. “When not comatose, Stewart was living on 19-cent two-liter bottles of Dr. Chek Cola, ‘Ree-see’ Peanut Butter Cups, and amphetamine,” McDonough later recounted. Stewart agreed to be interviewed only if McDonough brought him an obscure 45 by Wild Bill Emerson. The demand was intended to be a wild goose chase, but McDonough managed to find it, earning an audience.

“I stay away when I can’t do anybody any good,” Stewart told McDonough. Then he threw a knife into the wall.

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Cast by Chronic Illness Into a Limiting Role

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Maris Kreizman | Longreads | November 2017 | 10 minutes (2,462 words)

 

In junior high, I had my heart set on attending a famous performing arts sleep-away camp in upstate New York. All I’d ever wanted from the time I was 4 and saw a local production of Oliver! was to be a Broadway star. I could barely contain my jealousy of all the child actors who were making it big in musical theater that year, 1990: the orphans of Les Miz, the orphans of The Secret Garden, the orphans of Annie. I had the talent to be an orphan too! I just needed a chance to go away from home, I reasoned, because very few successful orphan characters are discovered living with their parents.

If only I could attend French Woods, the place where Natasha Lyonne and Zooey Deschanel had spent their summers — a destination for suburban preteens on the East Coast who had Broadway ambitions, kids who perhaps idolized Bernadette Peters (me) and had strong opinions about Andrew Lloyd Weber’s early work (also me). I had always fit in just fine in my New Jersey town, but I knew I would find my people at French Woods.

Instead, I found myself at the Clara Barton Camp for girls with diabetes. I wrote my parents a “please come pick me up or I will die” letter after my first night.

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