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Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #14: Marco Roth

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Sometimes I fantasize about expanding these conversations beyond the one-on-one – getting a few particular writers into a room together to discuss the risky business of writing the sort of memoir or autobiographical fiction that might upset family, or others close to you.

Actually, this column was born out of a burning desire to get Stephen Elliott and Shalom Auslander together so they could indulge me in some kind of Talmudic debate over just how much editorial discretion and compassion to extend to parents with whom you have difficult relationships. (I remain determined to make this happen some day!)

Now there’s a competing desire: to gather a panel of three members of the hyper-literary Roiphe/Roth clan, and have them hash out before me the imperatives – and perils – of writing about family.

I’m referring specifically to: 1) Marco Roth, an N+1 founder and editor, and author of the excellent recently published memoir, The Scientists: A Family Romance; 2) Anne Roiphe, Roth’s aunt, and the author many books including the compelling family saga memoir 1185 Park Avenue; and 3) Emily Carter, Roiphe’s eldest daughter (one of Carter’s sisters is cultural critic Katie Roiphe), and the author of the wonderful, largely autobiographical story collection, Glory Goes and Gets Some.

Over the course of the past year, I confess, I’ve become utterly fascinated with this family and the way they handle writing about blood relatives, including one another. Disagreements naturally arise over conflicting accounts of events. Feelings inevitably get hurt. In the past, at least one person got disowned. But in the present, for the most part, despite the assorted conflicts and bruises, they all seem supportive of each other’s right to their version of the truth. And they still gather for holidays, public readings and other occasions.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of the ways in which their stories have intersected: When Anne Roiphe was disowned in the 1960s or 1970s for writing autobiographical novels that upset her father and other relatives, she probably didn’t anticipate her own child later writing autobiographical fiction that would upset her. Then, in 2000, Emily Carter’s Glory Goes and Gets Some – initially labeled a memoir by its first publisher – portrayed a very Roiphe-like character as a bourgeois, controlling Jewish mother, and caused a short-lived rift between Roiphe and Carter. Soon, though, mother forgave daughter, and said she respected her right to write whatever, and however, she wanted.

That same year, Roiphe revealed in her memoir, 1185 Park Avenue that there was evidence to suggest her brother Eugene – Marco Roth’s father – may have been secretly gay or bisexual, and contracted the AIDS that eventually killed him not in the way he insisted – via an accident with a contaminated needle in the blood lab where he worked as a hematologist – but “in the more usual way.” This revelation, never otherwise communicated to Roth before a galley of his aunt’s memoir landed on his Brooklyn doorstep, blindsided him, and ultimately led him to try and set the record straight with a memoir of his own.

The Scientists, Roth’s resulting smart, sometimes poignantly funny memoir, turned out quite different from the revenge screed he’d initially imagined. The book recounts the many years he spent trying to make sense of his father’s motivations, and to determine whether he led a secret other life. He grills his mother. He speaks to his father’s closest colleagues. After those efforts turn up little conclusive evidence, Roth, while pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature, turns to books – the ones his scholarly esthete father introduced him to – for clues. In the end, (spoiler alert) Roth’s mother – who’d objected to her son writing the memoir, but has made peace with it – comes clean about having known her husband had been sexually involved with men.

Whew.

I recently got to chat with Roth about all this at a café in Chelsea. (Incidentally, he is the second member of my dream panel with whom I’ve spoken. Last year, I sat down with his cousin, Carter, for this column.)

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The Rumpus: I feel like I really want to get you, Emily and Anne in a room and just talk about writing about family, because it’s something I’m forever struggling with, and it’s also something you all have dealt with from different angles. I mean, first you have Anne getting disowned by her father and various other family members. That’s compelling to me because I have this father who has been sort of silently, obliquely threatening to disown me my entire life. He has a history of disowning family members, like his father and his sister. Bear in mind, though, that disownership in my family doesn’t mean what it does in yours, because we really don’t have any money. It’s more like…

Marco Roth: Like people not talking to you?

Rumpus: Yes, it’s like a torn lapel—“I have no daughter…”

Roth: “You’re dead to me…”

Rumpus: Exactly. Perpetual shiva. The underlying threat is: Do the wrong thing and you can get cut off. You also nearly got disowned by your father at one point, for initially choosing to attend Oberlin instead of Columbia. Which was kind of ironic, in light of your parents giving you Free To Be…You and Me. I had that record, too, and got the same mixed message of “Be whatever you want! No! Do what I want you to do, or you’ll get disowned!”

Roth: Aha, so you also lived with that paradox.

Rumpus: Yes! I have a feeling a lot of other kids did, too. Then Emily wrote a not entirely flattering character very much like her mother in Glory Goes and Gets Some, but then Anne forgave her, acknowledging that this is what writers do. Next, you have an issue with Anne writing about your father in the way that she did – and not warning you. But then you go and write about a lot of stuff about Anne.

Roth: Right.

Rumpus: How did you reconcile that?

Roth: I think by the moment that I was writing, there was a record of family writing about family. I understood that nobody could really have the expectation of remaining hidden on that side, on the writers’ side of my family. For my mother it was a different story.

For writing about Anne, I felt that the only thing that I could do as a writer was try to be as fair as I knew how, to her and what she was going through, or what I thought she was going through. I had real ambivalence in that I loved her a lot, I still do. She’s been important as an influence in my development as a writer, and my development as a person. Her late husband was great to me in lots of ways. In the book, I wanted to conjure as much of that ambivalence as possible. I had the sense that it’s not always the case that two betrayals make a right. But I didn’t feel that I was betraying anything in her case. She knew what I thought about her memoir. I had said to her, “I wished you had written something more like Henry James.” I think her response to my book has been very heartening for me, because in some ways she feels vindicated. I guess I would have preferred for her first memoir that she had at least talked to me first. Or, not written the book.

Rumpus: Well, that wasn’t going to happen.

Roth: My wife said this funny thing: “Now I understand that in your family you have to write a book in order to be taken seriously as a human being.” And that is sad, and true. And we probably could do a better job as a family not having to write books in order to consider each other as human beings.

Rumpus: Everyone seems to need to publicly tell their version of things. It’s not enough to talk to each other. Although it’s probably because it wasn’t easy to talk to each other. I relate to that – I sometimes feel like I need to tell my story to the world because I’m not really being heard by the other people in the story.

Roth: Yeah, there was such a weight of oppression and such a code of what you could and couldn’t talk about, especially between my father and Anne. There were so many taboo topics that could lead to explosions and you just didn’t know what they were going to be. They would have a period of détente, but then my father would read one of her books that she was working on and correct a factual error – she would get some science term wrong – and this would bring up every instance of their sibling rivalry where she was feeling that he had lorded over her, even though he was the younger brother. And he would feel that she was always luring him in and then trapping him into doing something that would betray himself. It became clear to me only after I finished the book that they really suffered a lot together, and they had an alliance that was flawed from the beginning because there just wasn’t enough love in the family to go around, and they were fighting over the little scraps that were thrown from the table. But they also got each other through it. And to listen to Anne talk about my father after I published my book, I understood a side of their relationship – that she still has these conversations with him even though he’s dead. So for her that loss is really extreme and she had to deal with it in some way. And the way that she knows how to deal with that is by writing. And writing books is one of the ways that human beings deal with loss, especially when you don’t have religious consolation available. Therapy will only take you so far.

Rumpus: So after writing and publishing your book, do you have a different feeling about Anne having written 1185 Park Avenue?

Roth: What bothered me about 1185 Park Avenue was the way that it functioned as an event in my life and my family life—and I write about this. It wasn’t just a book. I felt that I was somehow required to act. I felt that I was this mediating figure between my aunt’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family. I kind of romantically cast myself as the go-between at a certain point.  And my mom somehow completely internalized my father’s will to privacy, but also his off-the-cuff critiques of Anne’s writing. So I felt like my mother was just kind of becoming my father when Anne’s book came out. I was like, Somebody has to take a more reasoned approach to this. Also, I was like, Well actually nobody in this situation is really thinking about me. And I wondered, Do they even know who I am? Do they imagine that I couldn’t handle the news that my father might have been bisexual?  That I somehow needed to find out about in this indirect way?  Did they think I was gay?

There was so much tiptoeing around me at the same time that all this stuff was happening very publicly, that I just thought, Do I exist here? and I kind of carried that, thinking, Maybe this book was written to kind of write me out of existence. I had a fantasy of myself as a ruthless person who’d be like, Okay, this whole family drama is dead to me. But ultimately, that wasn’t me. There are people who are very good at disconnecting themselves and becoming other people, and separating from their family lives and going on. They change their names, they become someone else entirely, maybe out west. But I wasn’t ruthless enough, probably to my benefit.

And I wanted to write about the fantasies that were running around in our family.

Rumpus: So you initially felt vengeful, but then something shifted?

Roth: I really wanted to get out of that cycle in our family where somebody’s taking revenge on somebody for some slight that happened thirty years ago, and the only way to assert one’s existence is by climbing over the body of an unfortunate sibling, or with a fellow family member, and you end up even unconsciously rejoicing in the other person’s unhappiness and being like, I am happy because I can see how unhappy these other people are.

There really needed to be some way to break this unprecedented situation where several generations of writers were writing against each other and with each other.

Rumpus: I met you last year at an Emily Books event at Word in Brooklyn, where your cousin, Emily Carter read, and then you interviewed her onstage. You were there, she was there, your aunt was there – you were all there in that small room, despite the various disagreements and hurts. In one scene in The Scientists, you go to Anne’s apartment to discuss with her your misgivings about her book, like a civilized human being. Then you write your book, and maybe Anne had some issue with it, but everybody is still in the family.  There’s no “You are dead to me.”

Roth: I guess that’s the promise of a kind of psychoanalytic liberal culture where we’re supposed to be like, We know that we all treat each other horribly but at least we can talk about it to some extent. When we couldn’t talk about things directly, the writing space always existed. But it’s not like everybody should grow up to write books about their family, and everything that’s wrong with their family, and this is the way of dealing with it. There is something to be said for the openness to form, and literary form because it forces you to actually think about the other person, and their motivations, and to try to see them from all sides and to really write about them not as caricature.

Rumpus: Right, consider them as whole human beings with feelings.

Roth: Yeah, and that’s the ethical dilemma for the writer of memoirs. I know in her interview with you, Emily talked about how you can tell that certain memoirs are written as revenge pieces, and there is a kind of sadistic glee that the reader can get from this. But then there are also the memoirs that are really acts of conversation — thwarted conversation.

Rumpus: Did you strongly consider not writing a memoir? Incidentally, your aunt sort of subtly tried to discourage you from all this, from being a writer.

Roth: She’d say things now and then like, “Oh, the men in our family—we used to have men in our family who made money. What happened to those people? Why don’t you become one of those people?” And also, why didn’t I go do good in the world like my father did. These are things that I’m still in conversation with myself about.

Rumpus: No, no, no, I feel like writing a memoir is doing good in the world. Memoir gets such a bad rap and I think part of it is because there are such trashy memoirs—celebrity memoirs. But I get so much out of reading them. I find so much identification and comfort in them. I think they’re worth writing and reading. So I guess I’m saying you have done something good in the world. It was a worthwhile pursuit! Are you still having ambivalence about that? About whether publishing a memoir is a worthwhile, or honorable?

Roth: I think I’ll always have that. That said, I think you’re right, that the contemporary memoir is playing an important role in at least just bringing certain relationships out into the open in American society, and also it’s a place where the novel of development, the novel of consciousness, has gone. I wanted to write this as an education memoir.

Rumpus: It really is. I’m an embarrassingly poorly read English major, and I found myself making lots of notes.

Roth: Thomas Mann used to write education novels and now you can write an education memoir, and there are all these memoirs coming out now about people’s relationships with books. Like anything else, these can be good or bad. The genre doesn’t make it good or bad, it’s the execution. I think what we’re now seeing is that there is this also the investigative memoir that is developing and being pursued more, and it’s an interesting genre to be working in.

Rumpus: So, when you were finished writing, did you show the book to Anne before publishing? Or your mom?

Roth: I showed the submitted draft to my mom.

Rumpus: Did you give her any kind of permission to nix any of it if it made her uncomfortable?

Roth: No, I didn’t. I asked her to read it and tell me what she thought, but that was it. I mean, she was uncomfortable with the whole thing, but she allowed it to go ahead. I didn’t really didn’t want her to have control over the creative process or be like, “Could you find some way to write this without narrating our conversation when you threw the wineglass at the wall again?” I just couldn’t do that, because the story requires that, and I didn’t want to open her up to that game of disappointment which is something that Anne actually used to do, where I think she’d send books to my father and say, “Is there anything you want taken out?” and he’d be like, “Yeah, this part,” and she’d be like, “What?! I’m not taking that one out.” At that point it seems to become unnecessarily sadistic.  So, I did ask my mom to read it. She had some factual corrections. Like, the ceilings were actually twelve feet not fourteen feet, you know. She also told me useful information like how much they paid for the apartment in 1969, this kind of stuff. But then I also realize there are things that we remember very differently.

Rumpus: How did you handle those?

Roth: Some things weren’t so divergent. What was interesting to me was how much consensus there was; there were things where she was like, “Oh I remember this exactly the way that you remember this.” But there were other moments where she said—particularly with my father’s death, she was like, “It’s exactly the way you describe it, but it wasn’t a seizure,” and I was like, “What was it? What would you call it if you agree that it was exactly the way I described it?” So she clearly had some other narrative that she needed to have, and yet she could agree that the description was accurate. Fortunately there wasn’t anything where we parted ways about what actually happened, or the order of events.

Rumpus: There’s a writer in Woodstock, Martha Frankel. She has a memoir called Hats and Eyeglasses about her family history of gambling, and gambling addiction. When she was done with it she sent it to her sister and said, “Please read this and make sure I didn’t get anything wrong, and let me know if there’s anything you object to.” And her sister called her and said, “It’s all bullshit. But I don’t have a problem with any of it.” It really is amazing how we can all remember things so differently. By the way, yours is one of the few memoirs I’ve read recently where there wasn’t a disclaimer in the beginning that “this is as close to the truth as I remember, and I’ve blurred people’s identities.”

Roth: Well certain identities were blurred, in fact, largely for a combination of editorial and legal reasons, but I don’t think I was ever asked to put a disclaimer on it, and I think it goes without saying that this is the way that I remember it. When memories are fuzzy or uncertain, I am very careful in the book to say that I’m not exactly sure what the mechanism is by which I remember this. Like the story about my father, how he told me he had AIDS. I mean, there are four versions of this because I’m not one hundred percent certain.

Rumpus: And there are different versions of how he gave you different books and what gift wrapping they were in.

Roth: Right, like, I keep thinking my father gave me Turgenev, and then I realize at some point, Oh, this is a false memory. I mean, that’s one of the things that interests me about memoir. It should be as much about how we remember, and that includes false memories, and the realization that one is having a false memory. That’s the kind of an interesting way of layering the whole experience of recollection.

Rumpus: So, back to your mom. Are you estranged from her? It seemed that way toward the end.

Roth: No. I mean, we’re estranged from each other in the sense that we have a very difficult time talking about the things that are really important, and that was true during my childhood and that was true when I was writing the book. We’re actually getting better at it. I have had trouble calling her, she didn’t have trouble calling me.

Rumpus: The portrayal of your mother is not entirely flattering. I mean, it’s just very real. And I appreciated that you put your difficulty with her out there. That’s the biggest challenge for me – putting some of my difficulties with my father out there. But writing about that is the only way I know how to make sense of it for myself, and apparently for other people, because on the occasions when I have put that stuff out there, I’ve gotten a tremendous response from people who could identify. I just think these things are important to write about, because they’re not just about us, the people writing. Like, in my case, there are so many daugthers of my generation who are having the same difficulties with fathers of my dad’s generation. It feels so worthwhile exploring but, it’s hard to get them to see it that way.

Roth: But you published a couple of essays with him in them.

Rumpus: I wrote them before I realized what his reaction would be.

Roth: How did he respond?

Rumpus: Oh, he’s still freaking out, five years later. What happened was, I’d been afraid to write about this stuff, I’d sensed that he would have a hard time with it. And then one day he said to me, “What are you waiting for?  Why don’t you just write already?”  And he didn’t know what I was thinking of writing but he said, “Why don’t you write something about your crazy old man?”

Roth: Oh…

Rumpus: Yeah. And I thought, Wow, he’s giving me permission.

Roth: He was really asking for it. He has no right to complain.

Rumpus: When I told him I was going to have one piece in particular published, in the New York Times, and I told him what it was about, he didn’t really hear me say what it was about. All he heard was, “My daughter’s going to have a piece in ‘Modern Love!’”

Roth: That’s this weird, great irony of Jewish families. It’s like, “She’s gonna be in the New York Times!” My mother, who’d objected to my book, would call me up and be like, “So-and-so called me to say that they saw your, the review in the Times!” There’s this kind of combination of kvelling and separation from content.

What I liked about the pieces you wrote about your father, is you fit them in the comic register.  And in some ways, until something terrible happens, it is a comedy, especially because comedy has traditionally been about fear of embarrassment. Now my family’s story would have been comic but it actually is a very classic tragedy, in that my father did not really come to terms with himself as a bisexual. Who knows whether he might have gotten AIDS anyway if he were out about it? But because of the levels of secrecy, who knows the kinds of people he was sleeping with? Who knows whether there was a regular lover? We haven’t found one. Sometimes I would fantasize that there was one, and I could find that person, and learn more. But my story follows a very classic tragic paradigm in which you learn things too late for them to be of any use, and by keeping silent about the thing that you’re terrified of, you bring it about – and even worse. It misses more my mother’s tragedy, which is that if my mother didn’t want me to write this book, she had a really easy way, when I was 24, to prevent me from ever writing this book.

Rumpus: Which was…

Roth: …to just tell me. The book exists because she couldn’t do that. I think she honestly felt that what happened was not my business, and the tragedy is that by taking that approach she made it impossible for us to have a certain kind of relationship that she wanted. She never somehow put together like, “Oh, like, I can be friends with my adult son, but only if I’m honest with him about the choices that I’ve made in my life, because otherwise how is he going to trust me and talk about the choices that he’s making in his life.” And so, we had these kinds of conversations where we’d talk about everything but ourselves. But I could stand this for only about half an hour, and then it would drive me crazy.

Rumpus: So, ultimately, you needed to write the book not only despite her fears and apprehension, but because of them.

Roth: You know, I would gladly protect my mother from some evil man on the street if there was somebody who wanted to do her any kind of injustice. I would be there as much as I could. But there are certain things that I can’t protect her against. I can’t protect her against the past, and I can’t protect her against her own feeling of vulnerability over these things.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →