The Dream of a Perfect Family: One Woman Tries to Remake Her Troubled History
It's the most wonderful time of the year: that time when we get together with our loved ones… and sometimes grit our teeth and bear it. We all hope for happy family memories, but sometimes that's just not what life has in store for us.
This is true for longtime journalist and author Katie Hafner, whose fascinating new book Mother, Daughter, Me chronicles the good, the bad and the ugly of what happened when she invited her mother to come live with her. Trouble was, Katie and her mother had some seriously complicated history -- maybe better described as a lack of history. Due to her alcoholism and her inability to be a stable parent, Katie’s mother had been forced to give up her and her older sister when they were 10 and 12. Katie and her mother had found their way back to each other when Katie was an adult, settling into an amicable friendship. But essentially, once her mother moved in, the two women would find themselves having to face their undiscussed past—with Katie's teenage daughter in the mix. The book tells the story of what happened between mother, daughter and Katie in that year. It's a gripping read, as well as a great comfort for any of us who have had the less-than-perfect family… i.e., everyone.
BlogHer: First off, I want to congratulate you for being brave enough to write this book, because I think even the fact that you LIVED all this and are still standing is pretty remarkable. So to recap quickly, you decided to ask your mother to live with you and your teenaged daughter, despite the ways she had failed you when you were a child, because you thought of it as all behind you. And, it also needs to be noted, this was also just a few years after your husband and daughter's father had died, and after a short and doomed rebound marriage had ended. I have to admit, all I could think was, why? why? why? Why did you think this would work?
Katie: Yes, you've got it all pretty much right on the mark.
Your "why" question is a central one, isn't it? And it goes straight to the heart of the magical thinking that carried me well into middle age.
Well, first of all, I was determined to do what I could to help my mother. But also -- and I think this is true of a lot of children of alcoholic parents -- I yearned for the parent I never had, and held fast to a fairy tale view of the nuclear family I thought we could have. For the record, my mother was just as smitten with the idea. We were so certain that everything would work out just fine that we referred to our adventure as “our year in Provence.” Instead, I found myself not just sandwiched squarely between my obligation to my aging parent and my responsibility for my teenager, but I found that I had a great deal of resentment and bitterness about my childhood that I had never let in, much less processed.
And oh, yes, it's funny you say that about my still standing because it never occurred to me to do anything but survive. In that way, I am very different from my sister, who really suffered at the hands of the adults in her life.
BlogHer: It is really quite striking how matter-of-fact you are about the details of your childhood. I loved reading the sections where you describe the unusual freedom you and your sister had, because of your somewhat parentless youth: your dinners of candy, the hours tooling around on your bikes entertaining yourselves. But the sections where you write about having to get her in bed because she was so drunk are heartbreaking. And yet, for you this was normal. How did you ever get to level ground with your mother as an adult before she moved in? It was surprising to me that much of what you and she went through in the book was seriously new ground for you both.
Katie: I think the matter-of-factness comes from being a journalist. I thought it was very important just to tell the story, not with clinical detachment necessarily, but definitely without melodrama.
You are so right that what we went through when she came to live with Zoë and me was new ground for both of us. That's because although my mother and I stayed in close touch after [my sister] Sarah and I were taken away, we had never -- not once -- discussed the details of what happened. In fact, I think we had never even referred to it. Isn't that odd? It was an elephant in the room that we didn't even really know was there -- that's how much denial we were in. My fairytale view of our relationship was impressive, to say the least. So that's why the scenes in the book that take place in the Berkeley therapist's office are so wrenching -- so much was coming out for the first time. I cried like a small child would cry -- heaving, heavy sobs. I very seldom cry like that.
BlogHer: Your daughter is clearly an amazing person, and she is a very vivid and potent character in the book. I have to ask the question every blogger will want to ask: How on earth did she agree to let you share such a vulnerable year of her life with the world? What has she said to you since the book has come out?
Katie: She is indeed an amazing young woman. She has spent her life watching me work as a journalist, and I believe she appreciates the balance that informs the book. It's a balanced story much like one I would write about people or events I am simply reporting about. So she knows that no one in the book is let off the hook -- including her. I portray her in parts of the book as a bratty teenager because that's what she was at times, and 99% of the people who read the book say she comes off as simply that -- a normal teenager. They've all been there with their own teenagers. The only people who disagree have never had kids.
On the day the book came out, she texted me and said, "I want you to know how proud I am of you. I feel so lucky to be your daughter."
That's Zoë, through and through. She is a resilient, generous, wise spirit.
BlogHer: When you write about the moment in you and your daughter's life when your husband dies—well before when you asked your mother to move in—I just wanted to crawl under my covers and never come out. So unfair! I shake my fists at the heavens for all you have been through. How do you think you remained so strong?
Katie: Well, the first thing I always think is that I am not the one who died. Matt did. That is the truly unfair part. He was a huge lover of life, and one of the few people I knew who was actually looking forward to getting older. A week or so before he died he had had a bunch of painful dental work done (he chewed ice -- a habit from childhood -- and his molars were a mess) and he just took it in stride, even laughed about it. The injustice of such a sudden death leaves me without words.
Knowing I had Zoë to take care of kept me stronger than I might have been without that responsibility. Also, I had a very big circle of supportive friends around me. Coincidentally, I've been cleaning up my office, and just came upon the stack of condolence letters I received from people when he died. The outpouring of support and kindness was -- and still is -- breathtaking.
BlogHer: So was there a big difference for you in moving from the just-the-facts-ma'am of journalism after all your years at the New York Times to writing a memoir? Did you like it, not like it? What was hardest?
Katie: Well, I liked it at first, because I thought that compared to the intensive research I do for my other books [Ed. Note: Katie is author of many non-fiction books, on topics from Glenn Gould's piano to the culture of criminal computer hacking] and for many of my journalism pieces, a memoir would be a relative cinch. But it turned out to be the hardest thing I've ever done. The hardest part was in finding the right balance between objective reporting and introspection and analysis about the situation. The first drafts of the book were pretty terrible. It read like a book about some person named Katie Hafner, written by a reporter named Katie Hafner -- with no apparent link between the two. Gradually, thanks to a few very good (and gently critical) readers, I managed to insert analysis and understanding of events -- and my own actions. This is something I had never managed to do. It wasn't until I was forced to really understand why I had said or done certain things by writing about it that the book started to come together in a textured way, as something more than a series of reported events
BlogHer: Tell us how you and your daughter and mother are doing now. And, of course, I have to ask about Bob, the man you had just started dating in the beginning of the book, who is a quiet force of stability throughout.
Katie: Zoë is doing great. She is a junior in college. She's pre-med, but her major is religious studies (her minor is chemistry). I'm in awe of what she can do in the sciences. Who knew?
My mother is still living in the apartment across town and doing well.
Bob (yes, a "quiet force of stability" sums him up beautifully) is as steady a wagon as I've ever hitched myself to -- a mensch if ever there was one.
BlogHer: There are so many rich layers in your book: about family, about identity, about how we move through loss and forge ahead. But what's the end learning for you, the final takeaway?
Katie: That's such a good question. I think there are a couple things. The book is certainly about forgiveness, but it's also about much more than that. It's about learning to stop carrying so much stuff around -- about working your way through to the other side of whatever it was that screwed you up in the first place. The book is also about the question that dominates so many of our lives: What is our obligation to our elderly parents, particularly if those parents gave us a less than wonderful childhood? I believe firmly -- and this became something of a mantra for me -- that our parents do the best they can, given what they have to work with. This I firmly believe.
BlogHer: That comes across in the book, so much. It's an admirable and lovely thought, and a perfect one with which to enter the holidays. Thanks!
Katie Hafner's book Mother, Daughter, Me is available at bookstores across the country, as well as on Amazon. The paperback is due out next year.