Tag Archives: family

My Half-Sister’s Half a Life

Jeannie Vanasco | The Glass Eye | Tin House Books | October 2017 | 2,543 words (10 minutes)

In the Memory Game you’re expected to find two matching cards. My dad’s left eye and his right didn’t perfectly match. The i and the eye don’t perfectly match, but they sound the same. Jeanne and Jeannie sound the same, but we don’t perfectly match. I could write this story chronologically and divide it into three parts titled “eye,” “i,” and “I.”

But I worry that I lose authority as a storyteller if I recall memories from age four. I could preface some of those memories with “I remember.” Or, in memoir, is such subjectivity implied? Like “I see” and “I hear,” “I remember” is almost always an unnecessary filter. Maybe I can preface the more detailed memories with “I remember” — a defense against any reader who thinks, There’s no way she remembers playing the Memory Game when she was four, or It couldn’t have been the Memory Game — its so symbolic. It feels forced.

Do I need to be more selective with direct dialogue, or introduce hindsight perspective, or lean on my mom’s memories? I’ll keep some of her in the present tense. I’ll show how I often ask her questions, such as: “Did it happen this way?” “What was his illness called?” “Did Dad accept the loss of his eye?” But if I excerpt conversations with her that concern only him, then it looks like I care less about her life stories.

I’ll write another book after this, a book for her.

Jeanne

Not once did my dad say Jeanne’s name in my eighteen years with him. My mom did when I was eight.

I was dancing in my bedroom with an unlit candle when she called me downstairs. My teacher, Sister Paulina, had asked three second-grade girls to lead our First Communion ceremony with a dance. The dance required me to hold a candle above my head, and I was terrified of setting the church on fire. I practiced at home almost every day for a month.

When I walked into the living room, my dad was in his chair, holding a small white box. As my mom explained that he had a dead daughter named Jeanne (pronounced the same as my name) “without an i,” he opened the box and looked away. Inside was a medal Jeanne had received from a church “for being a good person,” my mom said. My dad said nothing. I said nothing. I stared at the medal.

Later that day, in the basement, my mom told me Jeanne had died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I sat on the steps as my mom folded clothes and confided what she knew.

Two other girls were in the car. The car could seat three people in front. Jeanne sat between the driver and the other passenger. The driver tried to pass a car, then hesitated and tried to pull back into her lane. She lost control and the car crashed. Jeanne was the only one who died.

“Your father blames himself,” my mom said. “He can’t talk about it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He gave her permission to go out that night.”

Jeanne had asked him if she could see a movie with her friends. He asked what her mother had said. “She said to ask you.” He said it was fine, she could see the movie. He had no idea his first wife had already said no. He and his first wife weren’t speaking.

“Did you know his first wife?” I asked.

“No, he was divorced long before I met him. All this happened in New York.”

It happened near Newburgh, where he and his first family had lived. I knew only Ohio. In my mind, all of New York was made of skyscrapers, taxicabs, and car accidents.

“What did Jeanne look like?”

My mom said she’d never seen a photo.

***

I painted portraits of Jeanne in watercolor. I titled them Jeanne. My art teacher told me she was disappointed that “such a good student could misspell her name.” From then on, I included an i.

***

“I wanted to tell you about Jeanne before that,” my mom says after I ask why she told me when she did. “But your dad, he worried that you’d misinterpret his intentions. I told him, ‘She’s going to find out someday. Don’t you think it’s better she hears it from us?’”

“Did Dad have any photos of Jeanne?”

“No. He told me his ex-wife wouldn’t let him have any. But for some reason, she gave him the medal.”

***

Throughout my baby scrapbook, I’m referred to as “Barbara Jean,” “Jean,” “Jeanie,” and “Jeannie.” In one letter, my dad calls me “My Darling Daughter Barbara Jean.” In a letter to my mom, he calls me “Jeanie” and “Jeannie.” My parents had planned to name me Jeanne.

“That or Jean Marie, actually,” my mom says. “Her given name was Jean Marie. She went by Jeanne. Your father simply saw the name as a sign of respect. He even spoke with a priest about our naming you after her, and the priest encouraged him to do so, provided he never compare you. ‘I would never do that,’ your father said.”

But while my mom was asleep after having just given birth, he named me Barbara Jean, after my mom. When he told her what he’d done, she said, “That’s no name for a baby.” She thought Barbara was too old-fashioned. That, and two Barbaras in one house would be confusing.

“When I told him I wasn’t calling you Barbara, he got this sad look on his face. He meant to do something sweet,” she says. “He always had good intentions.”

Legally my name remained Barbara Jean, but my parents called me Jeannie. My dad added the i.

“Just said he was adding an i,” my mom says. “He never explained it.”

***

I remember the spring day that I stood alone in the corner of the school playground, thinking about Jeanne. Cars passed by with their windows open. I often wondered if my dad thought about Jeanne every time he drove our car. A classmate, another second-grade girl, asked what I was doing.

“My half-sister died,” I told her.

“I have a stepsister.”

I tried to explain the difference between a half-sibling and a stepsibling.

“We share the same dad,” I said.

“I didn’t know you had a half-sister.”

“Four of them,” I said, or maybe I said “three.” I didn’t know if Jeanne counted, or if she counted more because she was dead.

***

I have no clear memory of learning about Jeanne’s sisters — Carol, Arlene, and Debbie — but I know my parents told me about them before I learned about Jeanne. Arlene is the only one I knew throughout my childhood. She lived in New York. She visited us four times in Ohio — five if you count when our dad was dying.

“Arlene is beautiful,” I told my mom after Arlene’s first visit.

Arlene’s dark brown eyes matched her hair. Thick and wavy, it fell just past her shoulders. Later I’d show photographs of Arlene to boys I liked; I wanted them to think that I’d be beautiful someday, like her.

“She was a model once,” my mom said. “I think she modeled wedding dresses for a catalog.”

Arlene often called, wrote letters. She mailed me unusual presents: hangers with illustrated wooden cat heads, vials of sand from Jerusalem, a pair of earrings that looked like pale orange pearls. She even trained her cockatiel to say “Happy birthday, Jeannie.” She sent a video of it. I wrote thank-you letters; they went through several drafts. I wanted my cursive to look perfect.

Carol and Debbie I’d never seen, not even in photographs. Debbie was a hairdresser in New York, and Carol owned a candy shop in Rhode Island. Carol, the oldest, was my mom’s age. Beyond that, I knew nothing.

Once, while my dad was on the downstairs rotary, I listened through the upstairs rotary. I was in the second grade and often eavesdropped. I could hear one of his daughters — not Arlene, I’d have recognized her voice — yelling. My dad mentioned me, and she yelled more. I quietly set the phone on my bedroom carpet. I could still hear her. When no more sound came from the receiver, I looked through the grate in my bedroom floor. My dad was at the dining room table, his head in his hands.

“They were mad your father had his first marriage annulled,” my mom explains. “It was after your First Communion. You asked him why he couldn’t take Communion with you. He said it was because he was divorced. It’s a man-made rule — that you can’t take Communion if you’ve been divorced. If you annul the marriage, the church basically says the marriage never existed. His daughters took it personally. He didn’t mean anything against them. He wasn’t disowning them. He did it for you.”

***

Jeanne would come between me and almost everything I did. I studied harder. I researched the lives of the saints and how I might model their behavior. I sat before my bedroom mirror with a notebook and documented my appearance and what exactly I needed to fix. I needed to be a smart, kind, beautiful daughter.

I tried not to hear her name when he said my own.

***

I followed my parents to their graves. Rain made it difficult to find our way.

“Where do I walk?” I asked, afraid of disrespecting the dead.

My mom told me to follow her. We passed a smaller fenced-in area where fresh flowers and toys were at almost every grave.

“The children’s cemetery,” she explained.

My dad stood farther ahead of us, underneath a tree. He motioned us toward him.

I looked down at two headstones printed with my parents’ names and birth years: “Terry J Vanasco, 1922,” and “Barbara J Vanasco, 1942.”

“Where do I go?” I asked.

“You might have a husband someday,” my mom said. “You’ll want to be buried next to him.”

“But I want to be with you and Dad.”

***

I call my mom, ask if she remembers that day in the cemetery.

“We took you to see the graves?”

“That’s what I remember,” I say.

Dad

After Jeanne died, my dad bought burial plots for himself and his wife next to the plot for Jeanne. When he and his first wife divorced, she demanded that he forfeit his plot because she didn’t want him buried next to their daughter. He agreed. Soon after the divorce, he went to court again, this time for beating up “a bum” on the street.

“Why should you be alive?” my dad asked him. “You’re not working and my daughter’s dead.”

The judge remembered my dad and let him go.

My dad’s sister Anna told all this to my mom, who at some point shared it with me. I don’t know if I learned this story before or after seeing my parents’ headstones, but the two stories juxtaposed together make sense, writing-wise. Still, I call my mom, ask if she remembers when she told me about my dad losing his burial plot.

“I don’t,” she says, “but did I ever tell you: when I went with your dad to his father’s funeral — this was a couple years before you were born — the funeral director told me about your dad losing his cemetery plot. The director said, ‘In all the years I’ve worked here, I’ve never heard of anything like it — denying a man burial next to his daughter.’ Your dad’s ex-wife eventually did offer him the plot — this was when you were a little girl — but your dad refused it. He said, ‘I have a family here.’”

Mom

It was my parents’ twelfth wedding anniversary. I was ten. A snowstorm swept through Sandusky. We had plans to celebrate at home that night. We were in our car leaving the grocery parking lot when my mom abruptly told him to stop the car.

She left it, slammed her door, and opened mine.

“We’re walking home,” she told me.

My dad looked back at me.

“Come on,” she said. “I’m teaching you a lesson.”

“What did I do?” I asked.

“I’m teaching you you don’t need a man.”

I told her there was a snowstorm. It was too cold to walk home. Our house felt far away.

“Stay with him if you want,” she said and began to leave us.

I apologized to my dad and ran after her.

My dad slowly followed in the car with the front passenger window down.

“It’s a blizzard,” he said.

She ignored him.

I asked her why she was angry, and she ignored me.

He pleaded for us to get in the car. Home was at least two miles away.

She yelled at him to leave us alone. He looked at me, and I looked down at my boots. When I looked up, our car was disappearing into the falling snow.

“What if he dies in a car accident?” I asked.

“He’ll be fine.”

“But there’s ice.”

“He won’t die.”

I watched my breath chill before me and disappear.

We walked in silence along the shoulder of Milan Road. When I looked behind us, snow had already covered our tracks. Snow plows rumbled by. A few cars came and went. A man offered us a ride and my mom waved him off.

“We’re almost home,” she lied.

The man drove away.

“Your father doesn’t trust me,” she said.

The friendly man who worked in the checkout at the grocery store, my dad thought was too friendly, she explained.

My dad often told us to wait in the car while he checked out. I always thought he was being a gentleman, bringing the groceries to us.

“Your father doesn’t trust anyone,” she said.

“What about me?”

“You’re different.”

***

When we reached our house, he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

“Dad,” I said.

I yanked off my boots and ran to him.

My mom walked past us and into the basement. He followed her, and I went into the bathroom and lifted the door to the laundry chute. I heard my dad apologize.

That evening at dinner, they smiled at one another and held hands.

***

“Sometimes he drove me nuts with his possessiveness,” my mom says when I ask about the snowstorm. “His father was the same way, apparently. Your dad’s mother would go to the grocery store, and your dad’s father would time her. Your dad thought it was horrible, but then he went and did the same sort of thing to me.” She pauses. “After you left for college, your dad and I were on the back porch — and he asked if I regretted our marriage. ‘Of course not,’ I told him. ‘Why would you ask me that?’ He said he knew how unreasonable he’d been. He said he was sorry. He said he was afraid of losing me. Your dad would have been happy, just the three of us, in a cabin out in the woods. He said you and I were all he needed.”

***

From The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco. © 2017 Jeannie Vanasco. Used with permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. 

Two Brothers, Two Earthquakes

Jesus Jimenez | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,155 words)

September 19 started out as a tranquil, but eerie day in Mexico City. The sun rose at 7:24 a.m. over the Popocatépetl volcano and onto the homes and offices and workplaces of the city’s nearly 8.9 million residents.

That Tuesday morning, commemorations were being held throughout the city. It was the 32nd anniversary of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people in Mexico’s capital in 1985, causing 412 buildings to collapse and more than $3 billion in damages. Mexican law states that all schools and public institutions are required to hold earthquake safety drills every September 19. Some places choose to practice their safety drills earlier in the morning to avoid interfering with their work or school days, while others participated in the national earthquake drill scheduled for 11 a.m.

Just after 1 p.m., my uncle Ángel Jiménez was walking to the local market to buy some fresh produce. He pulled out a note on his phone to double-check his grocery list before turning it off to conserve the remainder of its low battery life. As he put his phone away, a peculiar thought popped into his head. If an earthquake ever happened again, I don’t care what happens to me. I’d be OK knowing my wife and two kids are safe.

“It was a one of those crazy thoughts,” Jiménez says. “It was one of those things you feel silly for even allowing it to pop into your head. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a premonition.”

At 1:14 p.m. the supermarket started shaking. Initially the shaking didn’t scare Ángel. Mexico City is in a subduction zone, which means the oceanic Cocos plate is slowly sinking under the continental North American plate, making Mexico prone to earthquakes. On February 5, 2012, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake shook Guerrero, Mexico, 218 miles from the nation’s capital. On May 6, 2013, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake struck Puebla, Mexico, 82 miles southeast of Mexico City. Earlier in the month, on Sept. 7, a deadly 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit offshore Chiapas, Mexico killing at least 90 people and damaging hundreds of homes and buildings.

Although earthquakes don’t happen every day, Ángel and the people of central Mexico are familiar with slight tremors. Ángel is blind, but he doesn’t use a walking stick, nor does he have a service dog. He didn’t think running out of the market would be a wise idea if he couldn’t see where he was going, so Ángel held onto one of the counters. He wanted to take cover under the counter, but his muscled, 5-foot-9-inch frame couldn’t fit. At first Ángel thought something was wrong with the counter, as if something was loose.

“It felt like a light tremor, then there was a sudden jerking pull,” Ángel says. Within a matter of seconds the shaking turned from innocent and forgettable to forceful and historic. It would be hours before Ángel would learn that the shaking came from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake about three miles northeast of Raboso, Mexico, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.

As the shaking intensified, Ángel had flashbacks to the devastation that occurred 32 years ago. He’d been here before. Read more…

On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

***

When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

Read more…

The Oldest Restaurant in Kabul: Where Tradition Trumps Rockets

Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)

 

In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”

While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.

Read more…

The Whistleblower in the Family

Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power

1

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

Read more…

Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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The Uncomfortable Discoveries That Come with Home DNA Testing Kits

In the Washington Post, Libby Copeland follows the story of Alice Collins Plebuch, a 69-year-old woman who believed she was the daughter of Irish Americans until she took a “just-for-fun DNA test” that upended everything she thought she knew about her family history.

Genetic testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have made it much easier for consumers to learn more about their genealogy and health risks. But home testing kits have also led people to unexpected discoveries:

For adoptees, many of whom can’t access information about their birthparents because of closed adoption laws, DNA testing can let them bypass years, even decades, of conventional research to find “DNA cousins” who may very well lead them to their families.

But DNA testing can also yield uncomfortable surprises. Some testers, looking for a little more information about a grandparent’s origins, or to confirm a family legend about Native American heritage, may not be prepared for results that disrupt their sense of identity. Often, that means finding out their dad is not actually their dad, or discovering a relative that they never knew existed — perhaps a baby conceived out of wedlock or given up for adoption.

In 2014, 23andMe estimated that 7,000 users of its service had discovered unexpected paternity or previously-unknown siblings — a relatively small fraction of overall users. The company no longer provides data on surprise results. However, its customer base has more than doubled since 2014, and now contains more than 2 million people — and as more people get involved with recreational genomics, bloodline surprises are certain to become a more common experience. The 2020s may turn out to be the decade that killed family secrets, for better and for worse.

Read the story

My Mongolian Spot

Jennifer Hope Choi | The American Scholar | August 2017 | 17 minutes (4,250 words)

 

First you should know: I was born with a blue butt.

So was my mother.

Thirty-two years and many thousands of miles of land, sky, and sea separated her creation from mine, yet we emerged the same: wailing, mad for first breaths, 10-fingered, 10-toed, chick-like tufts of black hair nested atop our soft skulls, and, incredibly, a wavy-bordered blue spot not unlike that of Rorschach’s inkblots, blooming across our tiny bums—blue like ice-cold lips, blue like the ocean at midnight, Picasso’s most melancholic bluest of blues.

By the time I learned about my blue butt, it was gone. Like a spy’s secret message written in vanishing ink, the spot disappeared sometime after my fourth birthday. The timing seems strange—to think that as soon as I could form my earliest memories, my blueness had already left me. In one such memory, I recall taking a shower with my mother. The water beat down on my shoulders thunderously. I’d misbehaved (perhaps, refused to wash my hair), and as I slid open the mottled glass door to escape, my mother smacked my bottom. Because this is my earliest butt-related memory, I mined it recently, hoping to uncover any clues of my former blue self. I remember wailing in the showy way children do when they’re old enough to know better, then peering behind me for proof: the fierce, fiery outline of my mother’s hand. But I can recall nothing but plain tush. I was neither red nor blue. We stood as nude as newborns, un-shy in our nakedness, water cascading across my mother’s towering body as she fumed and I wept in her shadow. Read more…

I’ve Found Her

Martha Baillie | Brick | Summer 2017 | 17 minutes (4,882 words)

This essay first appeared in Brick, the beloved biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Martha Baillie and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

* * *

1.

“I have found her,” announced the email sent to me by a close friend, H, who was working in Paris. The attached photograph showed a person I recognized—an elderly woman standing on a street corner and clutching a notepad. Her abundant white hair was gathered into a loose knot at the back of her head; she had a fine nose, an open face lost in thought, and on her feet flat shoes. Her white dress, more coat than dress, I could picture a shopkeeper wearing half a century ago or a modern lab technician. A large, unadorned purse hung from her wrist. To the right of her, the glass wall of a bus shelter exhibited a map of the immediate neighborhood, the Fifteenth District, portions of which became legible when I enlarged the image by sliding my fingertips over it. Across the street behind the woman the name of a café could now be read: Le Puit. Read more…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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