Jessica Berger Gross | Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home | Scribner | July 2017 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)
For a good 20 years now, I’ve been working on various versions of a memoir. Some of what’s been taking me so long is that I’m conflicted about sharing certain parts of my family’s story, and my own.
Last year I managed to write and perform a fairly vague monologue about my home life in my teen years, during six of which my mother was married to her second husband, an angry, miserable human being. In the monologue, I rattled off some behavior of his that would easily be categorized as domestic violence, but which we, in our suburban middle class Jewish home, filed under under the more tidy, less shameful euphemism, “He has a temper.”
That’s what we called it when he threw a glass serving bowl filled with spaghetti at his son’s head, leaving him with a concussion; when he threw a wine glass at my mother and it shattered on the floor after bouncing off the side of her face. That’s what we called it when he dragged my thirteen-year-old sister down the stairs by her hair, when he gripped his hands around her throat and violently shook her, leaving marks. That’s what we called it when we sought refuge at my mother’s friend’s house; when my mother went back, begging his forgiveness for having left; when someone — probably my mother’s friend — anonymously called Child Protective Services, and a social worker showed up at our house.
“He has a temper.” That’s what we called it when he threw my ceramic piggy bank at me one evening while I was sitting on my bed, doing my homework. He burst into my room waving a legal pad with numbers scratched in pencil, fuming that I wasn’t willing to call my father and ask him to pay more in child support. I ducked just in time. The piggy bank hit the wall, smashing to pieces.
I told the story aloud at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month event, in the context of a 2014 TMI Project writing workshop I had co-led for women living in a domestic violence shelter in Poughkeepsie. Hearing the women share their stories struck a nerve in me. It unearthed truths and shame I’d forgotten I’d long ago buried — my shame, my mother’s, my family’s. It was almost unbearable, and I nearly quit the workshop. Somehow, though, I found the fortitude to not only stick with it, but to also tell my story to the participants. And not just the story about my step-father, but also the one about the occasionally violent boyfriend I once had a bad habit of going back to, again and again.
Letting them know that I had witnessed and experienced some degree of what they had was an instant ground-leveler. I stopped being the nice, middle-class-writing-instructor-lady with no problems coming to help them, and became one of them. They comforted me as I had been comforting them, and I was reminded of why it’s so important to overcome shame and tell the hard truth — how telling the hard truth is an important antidote to our own shame, and more broadly to the stigma associated with the things we attach shame to. It occurred to me that it’s unfair to tuck these kinds of secrets behind facades of exceptionalism and superiority, and that maybe we have an obligation to others to be more forthcoming. It starts with the painful task of being honest with ourselves, when no one around us really wants us to be.
In certain communities, we’re raised to believe we’re immune to particular experiences and behaviors, that we’re above them. That domestic violence, for instance, is low-class. That it’s just not something us middle class suburban Jews on Long Island engage in. That he’s not an abuser — he has a temper.
But it’s not true, and author Jessica Berger Gross is here to back me up on that. In her moving, fearless memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, she tells the story of growing up in a middle class suburban Jewish home on Long Island just about a 10-minute drive from my own — one where her father was violent, and her mother was his silent enabler. And she tells the story of bravely deciding, at 28, to preserve her wellbeing and sanity by cutting her parents and her brothers out of her life.
I so admire her courage in revealing all the ugly truth of her upbringing, while being fair, and not casting her parents as monsters. And I appreciate her standing up and dispelling the insidious myth that domestic violence doesn’t occur in the nice houses in the nice neighborhoods.
What follows is an excerpt. — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor
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