If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir

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Overview


If Only You People Could Follow Directions is a spellbinding debut that reimagines the memoir in Jessica Hendry Nelson’s thoroughly original voice. In these linked essays, Nelson’s fearless writing and hypnotic storytelling centers on the story of three people: Nelson’s mother susan, her brother eric, and Jessica herself. These three characters are deeply bound to one another, not just by the usual ties of blood and family, but also by a mother’s drive to keep her children safe in the midst of chaos. The book ...
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Overview


If Only You People Could Follow Directions is a spellbinding debut that reimagines the memoir in Jessica Hendry Nelson’s thoroughly original voice. In these linked essays, Nelson’s fearless writing and hypnotic storytelling centers on the story of three people: Nelson’s mother susan, her brother eric, and Jessica herself. These three characters are deeply bound to one another, not just by the usual ties of blood and family, but also by a mother’s drive to keep her children safe in the midst of chaos. The book begins with Nelson’s childhood in the suburbs of philadelphia and chronicles her father’s addiction and death, her brother’s battle with drugs and mental illness, her own efforts to find and maintain stability, and her mother’s exquisite power, grief, and self-destruction in the face of such complicated family dynamics. each of the book’s chapters concerns a different relationship—friends, lovers, and strangers are all at play—but at its heart the book is about family, the ties that bind, enrich, and betray us, and how one young woman sought to rise above her perilous surroundings.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/23/2013
Nelson, an editor at Fiddleback literary journal, writes in stark, harrowing detail about the devastation alcohol and drugs have inflicted on her family over the years. Her alcoholic father begins an endless cycle in and out of rehab, hospitals, and jail while she and her younger brother are only in grade school. She recalls one particular night when her mother bundles them up to get their dad after he’s smashed his truck. As her father gets into the car, covered in blood and broken glass, he hands the kids candy. His legacy is a daughter who wants “to be held so badly I shake like a hooked fish” when she gets a rare hug from someone, turning to sex and drugs as a teenager; and a son who smokes pot at age 12 and is ultimately diagnosed as bipolar on his way to building a rap sheet. Their mother, no stranger to alcohol use herself, is trying to hold the household together and only has time for her son as he steadily self-destructs. Nelson is gifted student with an escape hatch—going off to college. Although her family’s struggle to break out of the pattern of addiction and enabling is not an easy one, as Nelson strives to find balance and peace, she manages to offer hope that survival is possible. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"A quirkily mesmerizing debut memoir about a dysfunctional family wracked by alcoholism and drug addiction. Bittersweet and wryly funny." —O Magazine

"Nelson’s voice is assertive and meaningful, with moments of wry wit and despair. She layers her experiences so aptly — a blackface ewe that has fallen to its death juxtaposed with her father falling down a staircase to his own demise — and her refreshing style makes the essays meld together with grace and fluidity. At the crux is unconditional love for both family and self, and underneath that, the tenacious will to prevail." —Philadelphia City Paper

“Hendry Nelson mostly uses very specific details and images to advance her story rather than just embroider the narrative with pretty language — although make no mistake; she is a skillful writer...Gradual revelation and occasional surprise make these essays fresh and startling. Nelson bravely forges her own voice in these complex essays...and in the process stakes out a place as an admirable practitioner of contemporary memoir.” —Boston Globe

“This series of autobiographical essays from debut author Jessica Hendry Nelson hopscotches through time to offer a kaleidoscopic look at the way abuse resonates down through generations like a bell. In language that often reads more like poetry than prose, Nelson details her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s attempts to hold the family together, and her brother’s eventual descent into drugs and mental illness... For much of the book, Nelson can’t seem to escape the orbit of her family's dysfunction, but by the end she is ensconced in Vermont with a boyfriend, attempting to forge a life of her own away from “the theater of my brother’s addiction.” Nelson presents this as both a betrayal and an achievement, and the way she writes is so unflinchingly honest it leaves you able to understand that perhaps both can be equally true at once.” —Elle

“It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does…Unforgettable.” —Kirkus, Starred Review

“The author’s family was stretched to its limits by addictions, mental illness, death, incarcerations and financial instability. Each episode in this carefully crafted series of essays illuminates another moment of inertia or determination in the shaky journey Nelson took toward independence and stability. The best essays unfold like scenes in an indie flick, with the bad motels and boardwalks so accurately rendered. Nelson presents clearly the frustrations of loving people who are just no good for you. The little girl who pictured her dad checking into jail as if he were checking into a hotel grew up to be a woman who could walk on all sorts of thin ice and survive to tell the stories about it. We’re fortunate she chose to share the stories.” —Library Journal, Starred Review

“Jessica Hendry Nelson knows the power of clean, sparse prose, and her keen eye for the small, most telling details of character show an insight into the human psyche well beyond her years. Her story is oftentimes a dark one, but Nelson holds strong, knowing that saving those we love may first begin, and end, with saving ourselves. A remarkable debut by a wonderfully talented writer.” —James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries

“The direction one should go is immediately to a book store and pick up a copy of If Only You People Could Follow Directions. What a great reading experience. Jessica Nelson is a genius at composing the perfect duet between autobiographical resonance and wholly inventive incident. The city of Philadelphia itself is a shady character here —but mainly this is an indispensable tale of family dysfunction and redemption. It's like being read to by an excitable, melancholy, and vivid storyteller extraordinaire.” —Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

If Only You People Could Follow Directions breaks apart the pieces of family relationships, turns the pieces around, and puts them back together in a way that shows us how love, pain, death, addiction, mental illness, beauty, rage, and compassion are all embedded within one another. Jessica Hendry Nelson has remade autobiography into an unforgettable kaleidoscope where what seems broken is really, and astonishingly, precisely the thing holding your heart together. So you can keep going. So you know what love is. You will never say "family" the same way again.” — Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

"Memory doesn’t move in a straight line. It is chaotic, digressive, and imperfect. While most memoirs force life into the restrictions of straight lines, Nelson embraces the chaos by moving back and forth in time, free associating among memories, and organizing her life into a series of essays. What could be just another memoir of a family disintegrated by substance abuse becomes a vibrant and challenging exploration of abuse, obsession, coping, family, friendship, and self-discovery."- Josh Cook, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA

"This memoir in essays brings to mind Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth. It’s a book for anyone who has ever been young and trying to find themselves - which is to say, it’s a book for everyone. Nelson’s punch-you-in-the-heart prose is incandescently beautiful.- Michele Filgate, Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY

“Writing well about addiction is a rare gift, and newcomer Jessica Hendry Nelson, in If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir, comes at the problem elliptically, in some cases deliberately pruned of strong emotion. This works in her favor, as she eschews over-the-top bravado for the facts of life. The book is, heartbreakingly, a book about family—about the power of substance abuse, self-destruction, grief, and remorse to tear away at every connection human beings share.” —Dirk Hanson, Addiction Inbox

"A stunning debut. Nelson is a writer to watch, not just for her sure-footed prose and her adept storytelling ability, but also because she survived a family defined by addiction and psychological destruction. Nelson grew up as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother who varied between best friend and neglectful parent. Her brother Eric is also an addict and suffers from bipolar disorder. It is no surprise that she and many of her closest friends had plenty of exposure to drugs, alcohol, and destructive behaviors during her formative years. Despite her background and her childhood, Nelson graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in English and earned an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her survival is a story in and of itself, but it is her writing that is the true standout in this memoir." - Terry Louchheim Gilman, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego

“Nelson writes in stark, harrowing detail about the devastation alcohol and drugs have inflicted on her family over the years… as Nelson strives to find balance and peace, she manages to offer hope that survival is possible.” —Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-21
It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does. Where most memoirs have more of a novelistic, chronological continuity, Fiddleback senior nonfiction editor Nelson structures this book as a series of autobiographical essays, most of which could stand on their own; they are the nonfiction equivalent of a series of interconnected short stories. That form perfectly suits her story of a family in which "the roles have been pre-prescribed, written into our DNA." The father will die young after long absences in jail or rehab or another relapse after a short stretch of sobriety. The mother will also self-medicate as she tries to sustain the illusion of family, one that is always falling apart. The son will inherit "the dead father's legacy, this disease," and is often missing and feared dead. The older sister will write this memoir after studying abroad, falling in love, earning her MFA in creative writing, teaching college, publishing in a number of highly regarded journals and maintaining a facade that masks her genetic code: "We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do. That sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day." Yet some days have been a whole lot tougher to make it through, to sustain a sense of "my real life, the one outside the theater of my brother's addiction." As it does in the cycles of recovery and relapse, prison and release, chronology jumbles, and verb tenses shift. The book's excellent centerpiece, "A Second of Startling Regret," unravels the family dynamic and illuminates the "self-sabotaging brain." Even the occasional misstep into writerly precocity--"There is something heroic about fishermen--all that faith in the dark"--can't compromise the author's unflinching honesty and her story's power. An unforgettable debut.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781619022331
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 337,100
  • Product dimensions: 10.30 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author


Jessica Hendry Nelson earned a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Alligator Juniper, Fringe, and PANK. A chapter from this book, "The Whitest Winter Light," is a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Currently, she is the senior nonfiction editor of The Fiddleback, a literary journal, and lives in Colchester, VT.
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Read an Excerpt


He visits us in our dreams and sometimes he has a mustache and sometimes he doesn't. We talk about it together and say remember this and remember that. It is 2002 and it will never end. We say remember the time he shaved his mustache and came down to breakfast and nobody noticed for a while and then you noticed and cried out, "Dad doesn't have a top lip!" which was true enough, and then he grew it back and never shaved it off again.

He visits us when we are so stoned and driving through the neighborhood in reverse and listening to his favorite songs and talking about the time when I was nine and you were seven and we went door to door selling off his tape collection for a dollar apiece. It is 2000. That was 1990. But of course we got caught and had to go back to each house and return the sweaty balled up dollar bills from our pockets, which we held out in our trembling palms like a peace offering.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2014

    If Only You People Could Follow directions is one of the most be

    If Only You People Could Follow directions is one of the most beautifully written, heart wrenching, and hopeful memoirs that I have read in recent years. Jessica Hendry Nelson's voice is clear and honest and amazingly hopeful. Jessica puts into words what we feel and what we think. Moving back and forth in time, Nelson captures the moment clearly, like a movie playing in your head.....love it and highly recommend it to all who have ever lived and loved...I want more from this talented young writer!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2014

    Intense, mesmerizing, unflinching, compelling - all words to des

    Intense, mesmerizing, unflinching, compelling - all words to describe this debut memoir, told in a series of essays. Filled with heartbreaking beauty, exploring the ties that often bind families together and break them apart, this book moved me greatly. I couldn't put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2014

    This is a powerful memoir of growing up in the author¿s addictio

    This is a powerful memoir of growing up in the author’s addiction riddled family. Her father died young, and her younger brother is in and out of institutions and jail due to his drinking, drugging and law-breaking. It’s beautifully written; the author’s use of language is masterful. I only have a review copy of the book, so I can’t quote from it. There is a rhythm to her writing that evokes the repetitive promises that alcoholics make and break with such regularity when she is talking about her father in a “letter” to her brother that opens the book The book is a series of vignettes of Ms. Nelson’s life, obviously times that made an impression on her. And her writing about them leaves a profound impression on her readers. She manages to convey the confusion, hurt, and hopefulness that individuals caught up in the maelstrom of alcoholism and addiction live through.
    I haven’t read such an affecting memoir since I read Mary Karr’s The Liars Club the first time. In my opinion, Ms. Nelson is every bit as good a writer as Ms. Karr, and in my world that’s high praise. I highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not interested in dysfunction families the writing alone is worth reading.
    I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2014

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