Keith Gessen on Trying (and Failing) to Be the Kind of Dad He’d Always Imagined
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks with Keith Gessen about his new memoir of fatherhood, Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, the challenges—and wonders—of being a parent and a writer, and what he thinks Raffi will think of the book when he’s older.
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Ann Hulbert, Raising America • Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City” • Emily Oster • The Kazdin Method
From the episode:
Keith Gessen: I thought I was a nice person, and when I thought about what I would be like as a dad, I very much imagined cool dad, playful dad. Which is the dad of TV commercials, right? Dad wrestling, dad on the bed. I did plenty of wrestling on the bed with Raffi. But that was my self-image as a future parent. When I thought of what I would be like as a dad, that’s what I thought.
But in practice, in my experience, that wasn’t what I was like. I found that Raffi could make me so mad. And it was scary to me, it was scary to him, scary to Emily. That was a tough year. The essay’s about that, but also I started reading this advice literature, which was not something I had ever done. That was not a section of the bookstore that I spent a lot of time in. But here I was with this situation where I was getting mad at my kid, and I didn’t like it, and he didn’t like it, and his mom didn’t like it, and I really wanted to stop.
So I read a book by this behaviorist called Kazdin that said the thing to do if your kid misbehaves is just ignore it, because every time you get mad, it just reinforces it. And I thought, that’s great. That’s a great idea. This book was written in this somewhat chiding but very scientific way. He’s like, “Animal studies have proved that timeouts work in a particular way.” So I was like, ok, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s the new dad. New Keith Dad is a behaviorist. And then I tried to do it and I found I just couldn’t hack it.
Keith Gessen is a founding editor of n+1 and a contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He is the editor of three nonfiction books and the translator or co-translator, from Russian, of a collection of short stories, a book of poems, and a work of oral history. He is also the author of two novels, “All the Sad Young Literary Men” and “A Terrible Country,” as well as a book of essays, “Raising Raffi.” Gessen was born in Moscow and grew up outside of Boston. He graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in History and Literature in 1998, and subsequently received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Syracuse University. In 2014-2015 he was a Fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library.