Are we Doomed? The Risks of Writing about Family

“When a writer is born into a family, the family is doomed,” -Czesław Miłosz

 
I write a lot about family, my father in particular. You might say I’m obsessed with him. Not in the way I was obsessed with him as a child, when I was a daddy’s girl. Then he was simply larger than life: a man who could magically drive a car with his elbows while lighting a pipe. A well-to-do psychiatrist in New York’s Westchester county who could cure any ill, who would pause from his busy patient schedule to play puppets with me. A man I believed to be fearless and invincible and perfect, as many children do.

This one-dimensional view lasted for about 28 years. Then, in 1997, inspired by a paper I wrote in a counseling psychology Master’s program (trust me – counseling programs will break you every time), I finally saw the flaws in my little girl perspective. There was more to my father…much more. And so I interviewed him.

Over the course of several days, he told me his stories. He told me about his childhood in Danzig, now Gdansk in the northwest corner of Poland, shortly before World War II. He told me about watching the Nazis march—how he loved the thud of their boots as they hit the pavement, and the songs they sang about the blood of Jews dripping from knives, how he liked the tunes. He told me stories of escape, about starting over in Palestine with his parents and fighting in the war of 1948 with his high school buddy Ariel Sharon, and of his sister Luba, an aunt I never knew about who died at Auschwitz.

Since then, I’ve written about my father incessantly, an exercise I fear has morphed him into a character in my eyes. This is slippery territory, as I must be careful to remember that how I portray him may very often not be how he sees himself.

He is aware I write about him. In fact, he wants me to write about him. At least this is what I tell myself. But I’m almost certain there is some truth to it. When I’m questioning the purity of my motives, I have a convincing body of evidence that makes me feel better, including the first memory I have of my dad, in which I’m sick in bed with a stomach virus and he comes home from work and gifts me a giant pen. First memories are filled with meaning, right? Why else would I remember this?

Or when my mother was dying in 2002 and he told me to “write it all down.” Or when he began mailing me his life in old black and white images several years ago. Or the way he often asks, “So what are you writing?” when we are on the phone together.

I must pause before answering. I am afraid of upsetting him, yet at the same time, I feel guilty when I don’t tell him, repeating the family theme of secrets all over again. Over the years I’ve selected what my father could see, mostly poems about my mother written soon after she died, and the childhood stories about his life in Danzig and early Palestine that I mailed to him.

The one time I shared a personal essay with him several years ago, it didn’t go well. The piece was called “Is it Worth the Schlep,” and it was about the challenges of taking my young children on vacation. I thought he’d find it funny, however when he called me after reading it, he was defensive and upset. For one, I’d made the statement that my family didn’t travel much when I was a child.

“What are you talking about? We traveled a lot.”

“I only remember two trips, dad. Both to Florida.”

“What about Puerto Rico?” He said. “Remember that?”

“I wasn’t born yet, “ I reminded him.

And this was the more benign of the complaints.

For years, I felt certain my father would never accidentally fall upon an essay of mine, as most were published in obscure print literary journals – and by “obscure,” I mean as far as my non-writer friends and family might be concerned. For instance, The Baltimore Review—while a fine magazine and one who I am eternally grateful to for publishing an essay of mine—is no O or AARP magazine (one that my father might pick up).

Then this past November I had an essay about my father and I accepted by The Manifest-Station. It’s an online pub with a large following and so that, and the fact that I’d used my father’s full name in the piece, made me worried someone might bring the essay to his attention.

Honestly, I’d also grown somewhat tired of keeping secrets. So after members of my writing group and my mother-in-law read the piece and assured me he’d be OK with it, possibly even touched, I decided I would share it with him before publication.

On our next phone call I asked him if he’d like to read the essay.

“I think you’ll like it, dad. Although there might be some parts that could be upsetting.”

He sounded happy when he responded that yes he’d like to read it and also quite levelheaded when he added, “If there’s anything I don’t like, we can talk about it.”

And so I emailed the essay to him.

Days went by. I didn’t hear from him. Then a week went by. I worried. He was angry. He didn’t like how I’d portrayed him. I’d hurt his feelings.

So I finally called him.

“I couldn’t download it.” My 86-year-old father confessed. “But it’s OK…too much is going on here right now (something he often says, although I’m not sure what he means). Maybe I’ll try again later.”

I was relieved, yet also disappointed. I said I’d mail it to him, the old fashioned way.

But I have yet to do so.

Maybe one day I still will.

 


3 Responses to “Are we Doomed? The Risks of Writing about Family”

  1. Lee Hope

    So much in such a short space. How do you manage to combine the irony (sometimes in parentheses) with the hard reality of writing about those who still live?

  2. Amy Yelin

    Thanks for sharing Jose- I’ll check out the link! Amy