The Unanticipated Future Reader

June 11, 2019 § 5 Comments

by Nicole Harkin

I read Dani Shapiro’s new book, Inheritance, two weeks ago. I actually devoured it. The central questions of the book propelling me along: was she Jewish or not? Who was her father? Did her parents know?

Fascinating, I thought. But this could never happen to me.

I had done 23andMe a few years ago. The information I found aligned with the stories of my life. Surprising how DNA works. I only share 49% of my DNA with my siblings. Less than I expected considering how similar we seem. My family all have this nose. It isn’t bad but it’s distinctive.

After receiving that first set of information, I mostly ignored the emails from 23andMe. But for whatever reason last week I clicked. And then clicked to see about my relationships. And then I saw it. I have a half-brother.

I knew from Inheritance the data was correct.

Deducing that my father had another child wasn’t rocket science, since he had always been the philandering parent.

I emailed my new brother through 23andMe. And then spoke to my sister, Erica. We couldn’t tell how old our new brother was, or really anything about him, save that he shared around a quarter of our genetics. Then Montana, my youngest brother, texted, “Remember that time we found out we had a brother and weren’t really surprised?”

Yes.

I texted other close friends while processing. “You’re literally the fifth person I know that this has happened to.”

Fifth? Really?

A friend living in Germany was shocked that this information just popped up without any counseling.

“You are well adjusted but what about the person out there who isn’t?”

Good point.

Once Erica was connected to him on Facebook we could see his age. 55.

My new brother is older than me. I have something like a big brother. I’m not the oldest. I’m still the oldest. I’m processing.

We exchanged family pictures over text. I sent a link to pictures I have on my website about my memoir. An entire book about my childhood exists for my half-brother and his wife to read.

I can see a new sale on the Amazon author page. I imagine he has bought the book.

It took me thirteen years to write that well-received book. The book is my honest attempt to document what happened, when, and when possible why. My book is clear: I loved my father deeply. He was a real asshole. And he was capable of huge love. He was both. We are all both.

But as my new half-brother is introduced to me and my siblings, I don’t want him to see the warts. I want him to see the love. This is an odd feeling. I reconsider the memoir and wonder if I had, indeed, been fair? He’s the unanticipated future reader I never contemplated as I wrote the book.

When you write memoir, there are all kinds of instruction: don’t let anyone read it, let your whole family read it but don’t change things, etc. I had to pick my own way: I sent the book to my siblings before it came out. Montana read it, loved it, and offered two line edits. Erica couldn’t get through it. She cried too much. John read it long after it was published. But they all had the option. My new brother didn’t have that. Looking back, I now feel I largely wrote the book for my siblings. I considered what they would think and I made editorial changes based on how I thought they would respond. I left stories out that would be embarrassing or hurtful. However, at the end of the day, honesty was my guiding principal.

We, my four siblings and I, are a lot to take. Even for our spouses. I thank the universe or whatever you want to call it that we were all able to find partners that love us. We are funny, kind, loyal, smart, and sarcastic, with huge personalities. I can’t imagine living without them. And I can’t believe another one of us is out there.

We don’t know what will happen next. Our half-brother has had a life without our chaos. I just hope that my honest appraisal of our childhood and father doesn’t put him off joining some part of our chaos before we get to meet him.

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Nicole Harkin is the author of Tilting: A Memoir and an award winning writer and natural-light photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work can be found in Thought Collection and You Are Here: The Journal of Creative Geography. She is currently working on a mystery set in Berlin.

The Family as Inattentive Audience

February 7, 2018 § 28 Comments

z KristenPaulson-NguyenAuthorPhotoBy Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

I’ve written a new essay, and I’m eager to share it. After we’ve eaten the dinner I rushed to prepare in between writing and participating in a Skype call with other writers — and thus screwed up, missing that the whole wheat orecchiette was supposed to be cooked in the chicken broth — I open up my laptop. “Want to hear the essay I wrote about me and my brother Rick today?”

My husband’s head is down; he’s looking at his phone. Our eight-year-old daughter dances next to her chair, eager for dessert. “It’s short,” I say. “Sure,” he says, not looking up. I begin to read, and for five seconds, my family pays attention. Then my daughter darts over to whisper something in her dad’s ear. He nods. I pause. “Are you guys listening?” My husband looks up from his phone.

A few years ago he bought me a copy of Poets & Writers magazine at Brookline Booksmith. As I flipped through it, ogling the far-flung retreats listed in the back matter, he shook his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, in both a resigned and fond way. “It’s all over now.” I saw then that he fears losing me. He’s afraid that a torrent of words will sweep me away from our marriage.

Maybe that’s why when I begin reading again he interrupts me with a question. I pause for the second time. I wonder: would a writer-husband be more attentive than my pharmacist-DJ husband, or less? I try an appeal to his creative side. “It’s not the same thing at all really, but think about this. What if you were DJing a song, and I shut off the music in the middle of it to ask you a question? How would you feel?” No response. “Can you please just listen for two more paragraphs? I’m getting to the point here.”

Maybe the essay should have gotten to the point sooner. This is the value of an audience, even an inattentive one — our daughter has disappeared into the living room to play. I finish reading. “What do you think?” I ask my husband. “Did you show it to your brother?” he asks. “No.” “Oh.” We sit. “Well,” I tell him. “Aren’t you glad that I didn’t write about you today?” We laugh uneasily.

I’ve been working on a book-length project about our marriage that requires me to enter and exit both the living partnership and the story about it. I do so clumsily. The transitions feel like stumbling through a revolving door. Despite my husband’s trepidation about losing me to exotic retreats, and about his presence in my memoir in progress, I recall a moment a few months ago when he indirectly showed his support of my work. He used a windfall to pay off our mortgage. His generosity is an extravagant gift. Perhaps he’s listening after all.
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Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is the 2017 Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist for her memoir-in-progress, To Have and To Hoard. Kristen completed GrubStreet’s year-long Memoir Incubator in 2017. Headspace published her personal essay “A Day With: Hoarding Disorder;” her reporting has appeared in the Boston Globe. Kristen is grateful to Louise Fitzhugh for giving her a character she relates to—Harriet the Spy (with her ever-present notebook). Follow Kristen @kpnwriter.

What Do I Tell My Teens about My Memoir?

January 20, 2016 § 14 Comments

Jennifer Lang

Jennifer Lang

by Jennifer Lang

Sitting at the table smearing hummus on oven-warmed pita last Saturday, I was caught off guard by my daughter’s question. “So, Mommy, what are you going to do after you graduate in July?” she asked. I had been home in Raanana less than twenty-four hours after my fourth residency at a MFA program in America when the subject of my creative thesis and the future came up in conversation. My body still felt cold from snowy Vermont despite the bright Israeli sun streaming in every window.

“Continue writing a book,” I said with conviction.

“About what?” she asked, testing me. Perhaps my daughter, the youngest and most innocent of my three kids, has heard enough of our marital spats to gauge the up-and-down temperature in our house. She knows I write creative nonfiction and have a tell-all tendency, fearing every teenager’s worst dream: will Mom expose us?

“Not sure yet,” I said, although I was. For the past six months, I have been traveling down memory lane, scouring old photo albums from our wedding and writing about the major crossroads in our marriage. But how could I tell my baby I’m writing about our union in order to explore what makes me—my husband, us, you, him, her, anybody—stay when things get tough? That I am on this journey thanks to my fellow writers’ probing questions about why I returned to a country that riles me, even frightens me? During my most recent workshop, I shared the first twenty pages of my manuscript with my cohorts and faculty leaders, eager to know if the material engaged them. Yes, everyone said, using words like riveting, compelling, hooked.

For years, I had been writing about my ambivalent relationship with the country of Israel, a place where I had never intended to live but visited often until, in my early twenties, I unexpectedly met and fell in love with a French immigrant and stayed. Israel, to me, has always been halfway around the world from my California-girl reference point. At the start of graduate school, I told my first mentor my intention to write a collection of linked essays about these feelings; he encouraged me to let go and write new material instead.

Then, early in my second semester, I submitted a segmented essay titled “Sealed” about running to our sealed room in Israel, as newlyweds, during the First Gulf War, and over two decades later during the Israel-Hamas War, with our kids. In the intervening years, we moved—from Israel to France to California to New York to Israel. Each move involved compromises and negotiations, deals we sealed, often with a kiss, sometimes with anger and resentment and always with great sacrifice. One of us chose country, the other religious lifestyle.

My mentor suggested I divide it into two essays: one on my marriage and one on the psychological effects of war. A list essay on the latter poured onto the page. But my marriage? Why, I wondered, would that interest anybody? I opened a Word document, introduced us and our core issues, saved it as “Saying I Do,” and closed it, blocked.

A few months later, I renamed it “Scenes from My Mixed Marriage” and approached our twenty-seven year history in bite-sized acts. I wrote about the first time we met; our linguistic flirtation in Hebrish, Franglais, and Frebrew; our intense chemistry; and my husband’s proposal to move in together after one month. I described my inner struggles about giving up graduate school, career and country—for him. I revisited heart-wrenching conversations, sometimes between the two of us and others with a therapist, about where to live and how to raise our kids Jewishly. I realized that my ambivalence about where I live is intimately tied to my complex, tri-cultural marriage.

Throughout the years, I have heard Mary Karr, William Zinsser, Kathryn Harrison, Anne Lamott and others discuss the importance of writing our emotional truth even about people who are still alive and in our lives. I received my husband’s blessing to write. But I never considered how, what or when to tell my sixteen, eighteen and twenty-two year old children that I would be writing about their father and me, which includes them too.

Even if the process of writing, revising and perhaps publishing a book takes years, they will always be my children. My drafts now include scenes about sex, escalating marital tension, our discussions on staying together or calling it quits. I don’t think kids should be privy to all that about their parents. Or am I acting prude and protective, a literary hover-mother?

I pledge to revisit the topic in six months, after I graduate, after the structure of the story becomes clearer, after I gain more confidence with the manuscript, after I unseal myself from all the places and parts I have played for so many years as wife, mom, woman and wanderer.

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An MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Jennifer Lang resides in Raanana, Israel, where she writes, runs a writers salon and teaches yoga. Her essays have been published in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, the South Loop Review, The Indian River Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on her first memoir about staying in a complex marriage.

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