What My Parents Really Think About My Memoir of Alcoholism
Sarah Hepola Interviews Her Mother and Father
People often say to me, “I’d love to write a memoir, but I could never do it while my parents are alive.” I don’t blame them. It’s one thing to open up to strangers about your bad decisions and your drunken sexual encounters, but it is quite another to do so while your parents are sitting in the front row, wearing their Land’s End casual knits and looking up at you with those big, innocent eyes. On more than one occasion, I called my folks right after a revealing radio interview. “Did I say anything that embarrassed you?” I asked, feeling like a frantic mother who has swiveled around in the car to check on her kids in the back seat. Is everyone all right in here?
I was being paranoid, but those of us who write memoirs should never underestimate the damage they can cause. I’ve seen close relationships rocked by a memoir. I’ve seen parents stop speaking to their children for years. Memoirs pose a natural threat to the family mythology, those portraits framed on the mantel piece that say everyone is happy and nothing is wrong. A good memoir dares to admit that things are wrong, and often are. Not because people didn’t try. Often the most moving stories are when people tried their best, and messed up anyway.
My own memoir, Blackout, is about a long and twisted love affair I had with alcohol, which ended six years ago. By the time the book came out last June, my parents had read the material, so nothing came as a shock. Still I couldn’t escape the queasy feeling that every time I took the spotlight, I was dragging them along with me. Questions I have been asked: How come your parents didn’t know about your drinking? What could your parents have done differently to keep you from having a drinking problem? And that old stand-by: What do your parents think of your memoir?
I sometimes admitted that I didn’t know what my parents thought, and probably never would, which is the gift of being raised by supportive parents who are not memoir writers, and therefore disinclined to turn emotional turmoil into reading material. I can tell you what my parents say to me. They say: We’re proud of you. They say: You did a good job. But what did they really think? What did they cringe over, and worry about, and secretly fear?
It was time to gather my parents in the family room, and ask them.
* * * *
My parents live in Dallas, about a ten-minute drive from where I live now. That’s a lot of togetherness for a kid who spent her twenties in Austin and her early thirties in New York, but I get along with my parents. They are sweet, good people. (My older brother Josh was out of town when we got together, but he’d already shared his one critique: He wasn’t in the book enough.) The childhood chapter of my book includes a scene of my parents fighting, a common friction back then, but they have long since passed into a quaint companionship marked by classical music, walks around the lake, and period dramas. The afternoon we spoke was the day before their 47th wedding anniversary.
“Did it bother you guys that the book shows the two of you arguing?” I ask them, curled up on the dark blue couch across from where they sit, side by side in arm chairs.
They both shake their heads no. That’s normal, they tell me. That’s marriage.
Less normal are the other stories I tell about my childhood: From the age of 7 or 8, I was stealing sips of beer from my mother’s half-empty cans left in the refrigerator. I had my first blackout after getting drunk at 11, and had an early traumatic sexual experience at 13. Growing up, I kept these details from my parents, in part because I didn’t want to get caught, and in part because my parents were sweet, good people back then, too. I didn’t want to worry them. As I write in the book, “Kids lie to their parents for the same reason their parents lie to them. We’re all trying to protect each other.”
What a sneaky child might perceive as success, however—look at me, getting away with this stuff—her mother might one day perceive as a failure.
“When I first read the book, it was like tripping over roadside bombs,” my mom says to me. “I had to read that book three times before I could enjoy your writing. I was shocked at what you had gone through, and that I wasn’t there.”
My mother is a therapist. She is the one who taught me, at an early age, that it was all right to talk about my feelings, so if we want to blame her for anything, that would be the place to start.
“But a lot of this stuff happened in my adulthood,” I say to her.
“But your adulthood might have been different if your childhood had been different,” she says. “I’m still the mother. I can’t get over how totally unaware I was that you were drinking.”
Parental reactions to a memoir of my stripe probably fall into two categories: “How could you do this to us?” and “What have we done?” My mother’s reaction was firmly in the latter camp. She felt enormous responsibility for choices she had made, in particular her decision to go to graduate school when I was a little girl, leaving my brother and me in my father’s charge. She admits that during the long waiting period before the book came out, she worried what her colleagues and patients would think. Not what they would think of ME. What they would think of her.
That story about the beer, for instance. She always brings an open palm to her forehead when she hears it. How did she miss that? “I remember that beer being gone,” she says. “I remember thinking, I thought I left more in here.” The culprit never occurred to her, though. “I didn’t drink at that age, so I assumed you wouldn’t,” she says, with sadness in her voice. “I just thought you were like me.”
And I am like my mother, but on the drinking beat, I am much more like her dad, an Irish fireman who loved his Scotch, or her brothers, two noisy adventurers who used to stay up late draining a bottle. For that matter, I am also like my father’s mother, a Finn who loved her beer, or her sisters, strong Scandinavian ladies who enjoyed knocking back a few. When you are Irish and Finnish, a lot of empty bottles lie around your family tree. My mother, it turns out, may have been the outlier there. But parents often make the mistake of assuming that their child, especially their same-sex child, is their carbon copy. Life usually teaches you otherwise.
A few months ago, I sat on a panel where the moderator singled out my mother as a character of grace and courage in my book, someone who stayed strong for me even in my most thrashing times. Afterward, I told my mother about this, and she had such a non-reaction that I wondered if she’d even heard me. It reminded me of times she has complimented pictures I didn’t like. “Look, Sarah, your hair looks beautiful,” she might say, and I simply flicked away the words. “No, mom, I look hideous.” The same dynamic was happening in this conversation. Every time I suggested to my mother that she had not failed me, she would say, “I’m the mother. I should have known.”
I don’t have children. Perhaps when I do, I will understand the deep roots of that sentence. But I do know my mother and I both share a tendency to beat ourselves up and languish in our own shortcomings. Alcohol soothed this in me; it quieted my punishing voices down to a warm and loving hum. Alcoholism may be a family disease, but self-recrimination is often a female one.
It says something about my family, and our society, that my father doesn’t have much guilt over the beer-stealing stories. He was never tempted to blame himself.
“I don’t know how we could have controlled it,” he says. “It wasn’t like you were asking for the beer. If you had been stealing money from our wallets, and we didn’t know about it, that wouldn’t be our fault either.”
I look over at my mom, and she shrugs. “I’m the responsibility carrier in this family,” she says, laughing.
My father and mother have always had contrasting perspectives. Where she is emotional and open, he is stoic and introverted. Finns are prone to pessimism. His biggest worry in the weeks leading up to publication was that nobody would show up to my book events. “I thought it might just be your mother and me,” he says. He’s being totally serious. I know, because I worried about the same thing.
“What would that mean?” I ask him. “If no one came to the events?”
“You would be disappointed in your first effort of writing a book and it would discourage you and you’d go back to waiting tables,” he says. I’ve never waited tables in my life, but you get the point.
For many years, I took my father’s worst-case scenarios personally: You don’t believe in me! You think I’m a failure! But I have learned that my father’s mind is simply a radio station tuned in to a 24-hour channel of doom. I suspect he doesn’t feel guilt over the beer, because why worry about the past? Everyone survived. We’re all thriving. His brain space is too preoccupied with everything that could go wrong now. I know exactly what this feels like. I suffer a similar problem myself. (Catastrophizing was another problem alcohol fixed—until alcohol introduced new catastrophes.)
As much as my dad and I have in common, though, I have long struggled with an acute melancholy that I did not know him. He has always felt farther than my fingertips could reach. One of the toughest parts of the memoir process, for me, was the day I sat across from him on the couch to read him the section of the book about him. I had written things like: As much as my father was there in my childhood, he was also not there. And, I learned that fathers were very loyal and dependable people who existed behind glass. When I read that last sentence, a tear dripped off my chin, and I couldn’t tell if my father didn’t notice, or didn’t want to call attention to it. That’s a question I’ve been asking for much of my life.
“I’m having a little trouble remembering what you wrote,” he says now. It makes me laugh: All the energy I expended worrying my words would hurt him, and they didn’t even make a dent.
“It talks about how you’re emotionally detached,” I remind him, and he nods. That sounds about right.
“I seem to recall the passage was pretty short,” he says.
“Does that bother you?” I ask. “Do you wish I’d written more?”
“No no, I was relieved!” he says.
My father’s concern in reading my pages was that I would share secrets from his childhood he still found shameful. He grew up in a housing project, as I mention in the book, and apparently one of the reasons he has remained so vague about the details is that he’d rather people not know them.
“So even though this was a book about my secrets,” I say, “you were worried I’d tell yours.”
“Absolutely,” he says (nearly guaranteeing that I will hunt for this in the future). The threat of someone else’s memoir is ultimately that we will be exposed: As a “bad” mother, or as a “bad” kid. We all have parts of our story we want to hide. And because we keep these secret selves hidden, wrapped in fear and shame, nobody can predict what will leave a loved one feeling thus exposed. That’s one reason I decided, many years ago, to show pages to people in my work before they publish. I have given up guessing what will hurt them.
Not every memoir writer does this, although both Mary Karr and Beth Kephart (who each wrote excellent books on memoir, The Art of Memoir and Handling the Truth, respectively) endorse the practice. For me, showing pages is a way of fact-checking, and a barricade against my own tendency to exaggerate. “Memory is by nature untrustworthy: contaminated not merely by gaps, but by distortions and fabrications that inevitably and blamelessly creep into it,” writes Ben Yagoda, in his book on the genre, Memoir. Showing pages also helps assuage the anxiety that I have gotten something wrong, mis-remembered an argument, slanted some anecdote toward my own precious account. It offers the “graces of enriched perspective,” as Beth Kephart writes.
I don’t think showing pages works for everyone. I’ve sat on panels with writers whose parents never read their book, and a few writers who probably wish they’d never consulted theirs. I suspect with parents and memoirs—as in life—you get what you give. My parents have respected me, and listened to me, all my life. When people are reasonable, then including them in your writing process is a reasonable decision.
I ask my dad what he would have done if I had told some of his secrets.
He shrugs. He says as long as they were explained in context, he wouldn’t mind.
I will always wonder what my book would have looked like if I did not have the female disease of worrying what other people thought of me, and if I did not catastrophize like my father about what might happen, and why, and when. Some flinty part of my soul wants to be a bomb thrower. What a thrill to read a story where the author lights the past on fire. But in order to write one of those memoirs, I would’ve had to be raised by different parents.
“Part of what I love about your book is how honest you are, how transparent how you are, and yet you really do remain respectful and kind,” my mother says. “You’re not pinning this on anyone else.”
A memoir can be a delicious act of revenge. But my favorite memoirs are the ones that seek to understand. That’s what I set out to do: Not to expose anyone, but to expose what alcohol had done for me, and why I clung to it for so long. These are questions for memoir writers, and sober people, and parents, and humans in general: What was my part, and what was predestined? What were the gifts I was given, and which the curses? The answers continue to beguile me, because they shift each time I tilt the frame. This is a game I could play for a lifetime, though I worry what that means for the people close to me.
“Do you think I could have written a book that would have embarrassed you guys?” I ask.
My mother shakes her head. “I can’t imagine you doing anything that would embarrass me,” she says, and pauses for a moment. “Then again, I couldn’t imagine you drinking beer at 7.”
I guess we’ll find out.