A quick glance at the vibrant pink cover of Jason Diamond’s Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies might give one the impression it’s merely a light little pop culture memoir, a trifling, nostalgic entertainment.
But there’s much more weight to this book. More than it’s about Diamond’s search for the director of the popular Brat Pack films shot mostly in his own Chicago suburb so that he can become Hughes’s official biographer, the book is about Diamond’s quest to find the confidence and discipline to become a writer.
Depression is one obstacle, as is low self-esteem, resulting in no small part from his childhood with a violent father and an absent mother. It’s rare to hear stories about violence and neglect in upper middle class suburban Jewish families. I appreciated Diamond’s courage in breaking the silence so many of us keep, out of shame—his willingness to share the truth about this, regardless of what the fallout might be with his parents.
I spoke with Diamond about this, and more, by phone.
The Rumpus: Even though I’m of a different generation—I’m fifty-one, Gen X—and I’m not a guy, and not from Chicago, there was a lot in your book that resonated for me. Unfortunately, one of those things was growing up with some amount of domestic violence. One of the things bravest things you did, as far as I’m concerned, was coming clean about that. It runs counter to the narrative of the middle class, or upper middle class, Jewish family. We’re supposed to be above that.
Jason Diamond: I’m actually glad you want to talk about that. I’ve done a few interviews where people maybe haven’t really read the book, and I have to explain that to them. It’s more awkward talking about it than writing about it.
Rumpus: It’s awkward owning it in any way. In my family, my mother was married for the second time—she’s now married for the third time, for twenty-nine years, to a really good man—and her second husband “had a temper.” That’s the way we said it. “He has a temper.” But those words are really inadequate. He put his hands around my then thirteen-year-old sister’s neck and nearly strangled her. He answered the door with a gun when I was in high school and came home really late one night, and forgot my keys. He would do things like throw a glass serving bowl filled with spaghetti at his son’s head, throw my ceramic piggy bank at my head, throw a wine glass at my mother’s face. At one point, we had a social worker coming from Child Protective Services that we think was sent by my mom’s friend who took us in after the strangling incident. No one ever fessed up to making the call to CPS, and my sister was blamed for it herself. And I have my own history of staying with and go back to someone violent. On so many levels—my own shame, protecting my mom—I’m still wrestling with whether or not I can speak about any of this.
Diamond: Yeah, I get that. I mean, I’m obviously comfortable enough to write about it, but I never really talked about it to anyone. There are friends who’ve read the book who are coming up to me and like hugging me and saying, “I had no idea.” And I’m like, “Well I had no idea about your life either.” Families and childhoods are tricky things. I understand that. But also, there’s an inclination to just want to skirt around that kind of thing, and I think it’s weird. That’s the whole thing about silence around uncomfortable information. You shouldn’t be silent about those things, and I decided I wasn’t gonna be silent about what happened to me, in hopes that if somebody reads it, and they wanted to talk about things that happened to them, too, maybe this would help them a little bit.
Rumpus: It had that effect for me. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with lately to begin with. I’m the editorial director of a non-profit called TMI Project, and we do memoir and true storytelling workshops with underserved populations. A couple of years ago, I had a really intense experience that I’ve actually just written about, and read aloud about for an audience in October at a Domestic Violence Awareness event at a local college. The story was about co-leading a workshop for domestic violence survivors, and freaking out because I hadn’t expected to identify with them. They were all these low-income women living in a shelter with their kids. And their stories were triggering me in a big way. I said to my boss, “I might have to sit this one out.” She asked why, and I said, “I’m hearing some of my own story that I’ve seriously buried.” She gave me the option to skip it, but I stayed, and then I told the women my story—the story about my mother’s second husband, and also the story of being involved with someone who was violent with me, and going back to him again and again. I broke down, and the women comforted me. The tables were turned. The playing field was leveled. I was no longer the Middle Class White Lady With No Real Problems. It was a relief. I realized that in keeping it secret, I was perpetuating the stigma, and also perpetuating the myth that it’s at all limited to certain classes or cultures. Afterward, the women were so much more comfortable opening up to me. They realized I’d had experiences not entirely unlike theirs. But if my family knew that I was telling this story, they’d be so ashamed. They would deny it, or dismiss it and call it something else. They’d call it “He had a temper.”
Diamond: Which is, by the way, a very Jewish-sounding expression. Not to make a joke about it, but it is something I feel I’ve heard people say about my father. I remember hearing that about people growing up, and now I question what that actually meant. What’s really crazy to me is, and this is not to minimize anything, but for the longest time, I looked at my life and thought, It wasn’t that bad. I’m fine. I’m tough.
Rumpus: But your father beat you from the time you were pretty small, and he lost custody because of it.
Diamond: You know, I still don’t really talk to my parents. I tried to rationalize that with my wife, and one day she was like, “Listen, you were abused, and you were neglected, and you have no reason to be ashamed.” And I had never really said that to myself, or ever admitted that to myself. I’ve learned through therapy that it’s common to not want to admit it, or to look for ways to blame yourself. I don’t know if my talking about it will help others in any way, or if it will get other people to like figure out a way to talk about it, or let it out. But for me, the writing process was really helpful. Writing turned into this sort of process for, I don’t want to say healing, but, yeah, healing. It’s true. It’s kind of a healing process.
Rumpus: And do you think that some of your denial about it was class-related?
Diamond: No, absolutely not.
Rumpus: Was it a about being a guy, and not wanting to admit to having been hurt? A fear of seeming weak?
Diamond: I don’t think that was a guy thing. No. I’ve always been—I don’t know how to put it. I’m not macho. I’m very open about things. I don’t try to hide my feelings. I think it was more of a protection thing. I just didn’t want anybody thinking I was weirder than I am. It’s a fear thing, I guess.
Rumpus: Were you feeling protective of your parents at all? If you’ve had enough therapy, you eventually learn that it’s supposedly hard for us to believe our parents are capable of hurting you. If they can hurt us, then who and what can we believe is there for us?
Diamond: Well, I’ve spent the majority of my life estranged from either one or both of my parents, and I’ve really had a lot of time to break down all the reasons why. There was something buried inside of me that said, I’ve got to kind of unravel the reasons why I don’t talk to them; why not just one, but both of my parents and I have these really messed up relationships. And why I’ve been so fractured all these years. I got to the point where I thought, I was not the best kid. I openly admit that. But then I realized it doesn’t matter. I was a kid! It took me so long to get to that. Again, it’s a process, and that process is really intense, and it’s a lot of like looking inside of yourself, and forgiving yourself for things you don’t have to forgive yourself for. It’s part of the whole thing. You’ve got to forgive yourself for over thinking this stuff for so long.
Rumpus: It’s also really confusing if it’s all you know. If during your Orientation on Planet Earth, this is the way you’re treated. You don’t know any different. It’s hard to know it’s not supposed to be like that, I guess.
Diamond: I remember my parents yelling at each other and at me from an early age, and I remember a lot of things smashing. I try to look for the happy memories from the brief time my parents were married, and I can’t really recall that. From the start things were messed up, and I just kept moving through the years and trying to pick out the little bits of evidence that would help me prove to myself that it wasn’t my doing. But it took finding out somebody really does love me, who’s not my parents or a relative, to really know that I was loveable. Some people ask me about the ending of the book, where I talk about meeting my wife, and think I’m saying you have to meet somebody to be happy, and I am definitely not saying that. I would ever say to anybody. You can make yourself happy. But it helped me know what had happened to me as a kid wasn’t about me. That really meant a lot to me, and it helped me start building things.
Rumpus: Have your parents said anything to you about the book?
Diamond: My mom was actually really nice about it. I think she’s really trying to change and become a better person. She’s trying to address whatever issues she has with me. It made me feel good. I’m not expecting this to mean we’re going to be a happy family, but it was nice.
Rumpus: She got in touch with you?
Diamond: She emailed me. We haven’t seen each other in five years. I had invited her to my wedding because I thought things could be cool, and I wanted her to meet Emily. But things kind of fell apart pretty fast.
Rumpus: Did she come to the wedding?
Diamond: Yeah, she came and my grandma came. They were really standoffish and really weird, and we just kind of stopped talking for like two years after that, and on and off started emailing each other. She got the book and sent me an email saying, “You should be really proud.” I am; I’m very proud of it. But she was weirdly positive, and I that has meant a lot.
Rumpus: Had you been afraid of her reaction? Had you been afraid of hurting her or embarrassing her?
Diamond: Not so much because it’s my book, it’s my story. And I tried to be as fair about my mom as possible. I think with the stuff about my dad, maybe I had to tell everything. But with my mom, she left. I don’t know what else I could say about that. I’m not trying to cause her any grief by saying that, but I’ve told her countless times, it took me a long time to get over it, and I’m not over it.
Rumpus: How could you be?
Diamond: All the things my dad said and did, I think, scarred me far worse.
Rumpus: And have you heard from him?
Diamond: He sent me a Facebook message saying “Congratulations on the book. I ordered a copy.” Knowing him, I’m just waiting for the blow-up email or Facebook message. On Facebook he still messages me. I’ve kind of, I’ve rekindled my relationship with my stepbrother, my half brother, and half sister from his second marriage. We’re pretty close. My little brother has his issues with him also, but he’s like, “You know, he’s really trying to work out a lot of the things he did wrong, which there were many,” and I’m like, “Okay, I respect that, but I’m not gonna just say, ‘Okay cool, everything’s just fine now.’”
Rumpus: I’ve been communicating my father very little, for just over four years now. He was never, ever physically violent, but there’s a lot of emotional stuff—manipulation and emotional blackmail that interferes with my self-esteem and my ability to function. I email with him occasionally because that’s the safest way for me to engage with him without getting lost in the vortex of his drama. But I still feel very protective of him. I feel hamstrung about writing about my experiences with him. He’s not been happy about it when I have in the past. I have a proposal with my agent, and editors wanting a book from me, but I’m so afraid. I feel so protective. But I also know that when I have written about an experience, or even discussed it in this column, people write to me and they say, “I’ve experienced the same kind of manipulation and it was so good to know that I’m not alone.” They beg me to publish more about it. I keep coming really close to being able to just pull the trigger, and realizing that he’s going to be unhappy with me no matter what I do. He’s unhappy with me when I’m not publishing a book.
Diamond: It’s hard to have your parents not happy with you. There’s a part in the book that I always flash back to it, about when I was somewhere between eight and ten, and they sent a social worker to see me at both of my parents’ houses and the social worker said, “Tell me everything. I won’t tell your parents, we promise. They won’t ever find out what you tell me.” So I told the social worker everything, and a couple weeks later both my parents had all the transcripts, or whatever she typed up. I remember my dad just sitting there at the table in his house, totally stone-faced. I could read him usually, read what was gonna happen, but this was something totally different. It was the worst thing. I still get chills thinking about it. He read all the stuff in there to me. And I’m just a little kid. It took me years to process it that moment. At the time, I felt like, “Holy crap, I’ve really disappointed him.” This was only shortly before he lost visitation rights with me. Years later, when I was eighteen and I tried to rekindle our relationship, he was still like, “I can’t believe you turned me in, blah blah blah…” That’s always there.
Rumpus: Something similar happened with me. After the strangling incident, CPS made us go to family therapy. The therapist said it was okay for us to say what was happening, and so I spoke up. But then we were punished when we got home. So anyway, it was really great for me to see you revealing these things in your book, because that’s what I would like to do. I’d like to get the gag order off of me. I think the more we talk about these things, the less stigmatizing they are.
Diamond: That’s the thing about staying silent. I mean, speaking up could help you, but it also could hurt you. You don’t have to talk about it, or write about it, if you don’t want to. If you force yourself to do it, you might end up hurting yourself more. But if you do feel like you need to, and it would help, then you’ve got to do it. I didn’t want to make it the focus of my entire book. I went out of my way to be keep it from being just story about my family. But I knew I wanted it to be a part of the book, because it was an experience I had, and I think other people have this experience, and it helps me to talk about it.
Author Photograph © Elyssa Goodman.