From the minute a galley of Jessica Berger Gross’s excellent memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home, landed in my mailbox, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.
I couldn’t put the book down. There was so much recognizable to me: the middle class, Jewish, suburban Long Island upbringing; the intense family drama; the eventual need to separate from toxic family members.
It’s a wonder the author and I had never met before. We’re fairly close in age, from towns just a few miles apart. It turns out that as adults, we lived on the same corner in the East Village at the same time, but never crossed paths.
There are big differences in our experiences, too, though:
Berger Gross endured physical violence at home, at the hands of her father, on a regular basis; while I witnessed and experienced some violence at the hands of my first stepfather, a man my mother was married to for six years, my own father was never physically abusive towards me. There was a lot of emotional blackmail, but never hitting.
Berger Gross made the decision, when she was twenty-eight, to cut her parents out of her life permanently; I, on the other hand, have maintained something of a mitigated—I like to think compassionate—estrangement from my father for the past four and a half years, something I’ve chronicled throughout this column.
And she has overcome her fears to publish a memoir, while I’m still conflicted about writing about this aspect of my life.
When I met with Berger Gross in the East Village to talk about all this—and about her first having published a much shorter version of her story four years ago, as an Amazon Kindle Single—I felt as if I were talking to a true soul sister.
The Rumpus: Your book was riveting and so familiar for me. Of course, as I was reading it, I couldn’t help wonder if you were worried about your parents and your brothers reading it.
Jessica Berger Gross: Do I worry about them ever reading it? I feel like if anything, I bent over backwards to be nice to them and kind to them.
I had a fabulous, really smart editor. Any time I had a question about whether to say something, she said, “If you have any worries about it in the manuscript, take it out because it’s going to seem a hundred times times worse when it comes out in printed book.” So there’s a lot that’s not in there. There’s nothing in there that I’m like, “Oh, maybe that didn’t really happen that way, or maybe I can’t stand behind that.” This is absolutely not. Quite the opposite. This is what I’d say to you for writing your books: When you’re writing the truth and you’re doing it in a compassionate way, you have nothing to worry about because you haven’t done anything wrong.
Rumpus: Do you know if your parents read it when it was just the much shorter Kindle Single?
Berger Gross: I don’t know.
Rumpus: How clear a boundary do you have with them?
Berger Gross: It’s super clear. I recently did an essay for The Cut about being estranged from my father for seventeen years, and the editor had asked me, “Does your father know that you’re writing this essay?” And I was like, “No. Really, I haven’t spoken to my parents in seventeen years. I don’t have any communication with them. I don’t even know if they’re alive.”
Rumpus: Really? You don’t think you would have found out?
Berger Gross: I would imagine I would find out if they weren’t alive. I can only imagine that they would’ve heard about the Kindle Single, so I don’t know if they would have decided to read it or not. Around the time of the Single, I had a Lives piece come out in the New York Times Magazine. At the end it said, “Jessica Berger Gross is author of the Kindle Single, Estranged. It’s coming out on…” whatever day. There’s no way they wouldn’t see that, or that someone they knew wouldn’t say, “Jessie has the Lives piece this week.” I don’t know if they decided to read it. I don’t know what they think about it. I can’t say that they Google me, but if you Google me, you’d know about the book. I don’t Google anyone in my family. I’m very strict with myself about that. I don’t want to see an image. I don’t want to know what’s going on.
My therapist has always said to me, and I write about this in the book, that in a way, I continue to have a relationship with my family, even without engaging with them. There’s enough to process from what happened from age twenty-eight backwards. I don’t need to keep it going. I was very conscious in writing the book to be exceedingly fair to them and to show them as full people. I didn’t want them to be one-dimensional characters. I wanted to show all the different parts of them and the times when they were really good parents, and the things that they were struggling with.
I had a luxury of being so much older, in my thirties, when I had a child and having just had the time and the resources to get it together. They didn’t have that. I walked away from my parents when I was twenty-eight. By the time my mother was twenty-nine, she had three kids and a house on Long Island. It’s so different. So there was no time for her to do lots of yoga, and meditate, and go on walks, journal, and have therapy.
Rumpus: Yes, I was struck by how generous you are with them.
Berger Gross: I didn’t want to write a book about how horrible my parents were. I wanted to write a book of what happened, and what happened from my perspective. I do have some good memories. I can’t say I hope that they’ll read it. I don’t have a hope one way or the other about them reading it, but I do hope that if they do read it, they will feel that it’s a fair depiction. And they might not. They might say, “She is crazy. She’s making all this up.” I know that’s often what happens.
I was at a wedding recently, and someone said, “Are you worried that they’re going to show up at your events?” I was like, “Whoa, I hadn’t even thought about that one.” My parents, I am very grateful to them for not in any way, shape, or form, stopping me. Quite the opposite. They’ve really left me alone. In the beginning, there was a lot of communication back and forth. Then there wasn’t. Then other than sending me my stuff a few years into it, nothing.
Rumpus: Do you think they know you have a son?
Berger Gross: If they can Google, they would know. I had a column for years on yogajournal.com about being a mother. If they read anything I’ve written, they would know that I have a son.
Rumpus: My parents don’t really know how to Google, which is amazing to me. They really don’t know how find shit.
Berger Gross: What? But all you do is like put in words and names and stuff.
Rumpus: It’s crazy. I know. It’s like a blessing. Fingers crossed it stays that way.
Berger Gross: Maybe my parents are like me and they don’t want to know. So maybe they won’t read it, or maybe they’ll read it and understand more. Maybe they’ll read it and be really angry. Maybe they’ll read it and be really sad. Maybe they’ll read it and be really ashamed. I couldn’t let that get in the way of what I was going to say.
Rumpus: That’s what I’m trying to go for—not letting anticipating their reaction keep me from doing the writing I need to do. Is it hard thinking about keeping your son from your parents?
Berger Gross: Not everyone gets to see their grandchildren. The last people I’d want my son to hang out with are my parents.
Rumpus: I get that. I think that part of the reason I don’t have children, aside from the fact that I don’t have uterus, is that I wouldn’t have been able to have any kind of way of keeping my father at bay. Any boundary would have been impossible. I also think I didn’t have a great experience of being in a family, as a kid.
Berger Gross: Me either.
Rumpus: I thought families, boo. I’m happy I don’t have children. I’m not made for it. And I just feel like I’m still so lost in my own childhood wounds, and maybe that sounds self-indulgent.
Berger Gross: No.
Rumpus: But it just is what it is. I can’t figure it out, and I don’t know that I could figure it out for somebody else, some child of mine. Anyway, I’m glad that you’re able to have that boundary with them, for your son, and for you.
Berger Gross: It also wasn’t something where I thought about it a lot. It was very visceral. Like, I can’t see them. I can’t talk to them. I’m going to die if I talk to them, if I see them. So, I’m not seeing them. I’m not talking to them. I feel so much better.
Rumpus: Yeah, I’m at that place where I’ve been feeling pretty good for almost five years. In December it’ll be five years. But I recently saw my dad for the second time in that period, at a family event. I was kind, and engaged with him. And he wants to be in touch more, and I’m a little freaked out. Now there’s this whole rethinking of the boundary I had established, which gave me some breathing space. I don’t know how to proceed going forward.
Berger Gross: Well, I did what I did it because I very clearly didn’t want to see my father. You know what I mean? So maybe that’s what you have to think about: Do you want to see him or speak to him? You’re in charge of your own person and your own body. You have to decide if you want to see someone or not.
Rumpus: I’m not sure. I’ve never been as sure as you are, to begin with. I’ve never been clear enough in myself where I was able to say, “I’m never speaking to you again.” I’m still not sure that’s what I want.
One a completely different note, I’m curious about your going from an Amazon Kindle Single to the actual book. How did that come about? Why did you choose to do the Kindle Single first, and then how did that get picked up?
Berger Gross: I started trying to write about my family years ago, right after the estrangement. So I was twenty-nine—or thirty. It wasn’t a book about being estranged. It was a book about what had happened. I got an agent, and it went to marketing committees. But then it would be like one editor would say, “It’s too emotional.” The other editor would say, “It’s not emotional enough.” Something was wrong, and something was off, and it I think it was because I was still in the throes of it. I can’t believe I was writing and sending out a book then, just given where I was at, in my growing up as a writer.
Then I think I kind of had it in my head this is not a story people want to read about. I’m not going to write about it, I thought. But then every once in a while, I’d meet someone who would say, “Why aren’t you writing?” Then the editor for my first book, a dear friend of mine, sent some pages of mine to this guy who was the head of Kindle Singles.
When my son started preschool, I thought, I’m going to try one more time, and I started doing it as an essay collection. It wasn’t mostly about my parents, but there were some things about them. I parted ways with my agent. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and my friend had read some of that manuscript and said, “Why don’t you start chopping things up?” The Lives essay came out of that and then this other piece that ended up getting me to this meeting with this editor who said, “Why aren’t you writing about this?”
Anyway, eventually I had these pieces, this writing and these pieces that I sent to this person at Kindle Single. He was the first person who said, “Yes, I want to do this.” He was very, very supportive.
Rumpus: What year did that come out?
Berger Gross: December 2013. The editor and I had a really good meeting, and we connected over the issue of estrangement.
He gave me this opportunity. I really had no expectation that a lot of people were going to read it because I kind of felt like, “Oh, it’s an e-book.” I wasn’t a book reader of e-books. I didn’t know what a Kindle Single was. But I remember a friend of mine said, “Don’t say no.” It was an opportunity, and I’d been trying to get an opportunity. So I took it.
Rumpus: Did it do well?
Berger Gross: It did really well! It went to number five on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.
Rumpus: Oh my God!
Berger Gross: It’s that hitting-a-nerve thing. People wanted to read it because they also wanted to be estranged, or they were estranged, or they were abused.
After the e-book was out, an editor contacted my old agent about me. She and I had lunch, and then I got a new agent who I love. My agent and I worked really, really hard on a proposal for a full memoir. I spent months on it. The proposal was double the size of the Single.
Rumpus: Did you decide, “Okay, this needs to be not just a Kindle Single?”
Berger Gross: Yes. The Single was 16,000 words and forty-page document that I’d spent a long time on and cared about. I thought, “Okay, it’s kind of too bad that I’m not going to do this as a book, but…” Then the editor contacted me, and said, “I loved your Single so much I missed my subway stop. I loved your Lives piece, and I wanted to talk to you about what it would be for you to write a book.”
I asked, “What kind of book do you think I’ll do?” And she said a literary memoir. That’s the book I’d wanted to do since I was twenty-nine.
Until that moment I didn’t even realize that I could write it as I had originally wanted to write it, not just the short, abbreviated outline, forty pages, but the full story, and give it the time and the space that I felt it needed or could have.
Rumpus: I have to admit, I’m envious. I want to tell my whole story. But I’m still pulled apart by this tug-of-war inside me, parting of me wanting to make it all right, and the other part wanting to be free of all those concerns.
Berger Gross: Do you think that if you had your book, you would feel a sense of closure about it all? Or do you think what will give you a sense of closure is to have a good relationship with him, as good as possible? Or is it neither?
Rumpus: I think that if and when I publish a book about this relationship, I’m going to catch a lot of shit. And I think that if I spend time with him, it’s going to be harder for me to write.
Berger Gross: I’m afraid that if you have more contact with him, it’s going to be harder to go back to where you were with him. And harder for you to write.
Rumpus: Yeah, definitely. I’m not sure what to do.
Berger Gross: One thing I want to say is you can be a good person and never talk to your father again.
Rumpus: That’s what I needed to hear. Regardless of what I choose to do.
Berger Gross: Believe me, I’m not a very rebellious person. I guess I do have a ‘fuck you’ kind of attitude about some things. But I was just really sensitive. I could only take so much. I have very strong boundaries but I definitely fall into the “good girl” category. I try my best. I don’t drink, and I go to sleep early, and I eat my vegetables. I am a good girl. I just don’t think those two have to be in opposition. Actually, let’s say not “good girl.” Let’s just say be a “good person.” I know what’s in my heart day to day. I guess at least with everyone else, I’m a good person, or I want to be good and do good.
Rumpus: What’s really inspiring for me is that you don’t seem tortured at all. Here you are on the precipice of having your book come out, the book you’ve wanted to write forever.
Berger Gross: Like my whole life, since I was little.
Rumpus: And you don’t have any anxiety about your parents reading this book. That’s my biggest anxiety, and so I am inspired by that.
Berger Gross: If I was in touch with them, I would be a mess. It’s because I’m not that I can do this.
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Author photograph © David Zaugh.