Rachel Jensen is perfectly happy: in love with her husband, devoted to their daughter Kate, gratified by her work restoring art. And finally, she’s pregnant again. But as Rachel discovers, perfection can unravel in an instant. The summer she is thirteen, Kate returns from camp sullen, angry, and withdrawn. Everyone assures Rachel it’s typical adolescent angst. But then Kate has a terrifying accident with her infant brother, and the ensuing guilt brings forth a dreadful lie—one that ruptures their family, perhaps irrevocably.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.19(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.63(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 10, 1962
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1987, M.F.A., 1989
Read an Excerpt
I lie in bed these days and watch home movies—a useless exercise, to be sure, but I can’t stop myself. Ned’s an amateur filmmaker, and ever since we got our first video camera when Kate was born, he has documented our family’s life, not just birthday parties and anniversaries but smaller, more telling moments. When I appear in these tapes, I’m usually laughing and covering my face, saying No, no, I look terrible. Ned is almost always behind the camera. Kate, Kate, Katie, his deep voice cajoles, come here, baby doll. And then, after Kate as a baby, a toddler, a blurry little blond girl, she begins to become sharper and clearer, her features morphing themselves into a face of such extraordinary beauty that sometimes I felt shocked to realize she was my daughter.
My bedroom is dark, the shades drawn against the sun. Even though no one is home, the door is closed. Outside, the occasional car. Voices rise and fall. The dull thud of heels on the street. The walls of this old house are thick, but the windows are made of ancient wavy glass. We had always planned to replace the glass, but we never got around to it. I used to like the way I could hear everything going on outside. It made me feel like part of the world. Now, all I want is to be sealed off. People come and go. They drive their cars to and from work. They take their children to one another’s houses. They go out to dinner and drive slowly, carefully home, protecting what is theirs.
The people on the screen are strangers to me: that pretty young woman, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail; that man next to her, with faint laugh lines under his eyes. Everything was so easy then. That’s what I see in Ned’s home movies. I had no idea my life was easy. We didn’t have enough money, or space, or hours in the day. The boiler had a leak; the dog needed a bath. Little things got the better of me. Now, all that seems absurd. If I could reach a hand back to that last summer, I would slap myself. Hard. Snap out of it! I would scream.
kate was thirteen. she had been a skinny little kid with long stringy hair, always coming home with scrapes and bruises. She’d broken more bones than I could count, playing field hockey, soccer, basketball, softball. Kate was single-minded about winning. She threw her whole body into the final assist, the winning goal, even if it meant a torn ligament, a sprain, a fracture. And to listen to her tell it afterward, after the casts or Ace bandages, the hot and cold compresses, it was a saga: “Jenny McCauley fouled me, but the referee—that would be her father, Mr. McCauley—didn’t call it. And then I got mad and told myself I wouldn’t miss a single other shot,” she said. Her cheeks were bright pink circles, and her blue eyes were framed by long dark lashes. Kate had a sense of competition—we called it “healthy competition” but secretly I wasn’t so sure—that amazed Ned and me. She got straight As and was captain of everything in school. Ned and I hadn’t been like that as kids, and we certainly weren’t overachievers as grown-ups. Of course, we each had our ambitions, but they had changed over time. We wanted our family to be safe and happy. We wanted to make enough money to keep our roof over our heads and have a nice dinner out every once in a while.
Over that last summer Kate had gone away to camp, and I could tell, even through the tone of her letters, that something had changed. Dear Mother, she would begin. Mother? She didn’t say she missed us or dot her i’s with hearts the way she used to. She didn’t write about archery or color war. She sounded hot and querulous when we called her on the phone. I wondered what was going on, but truthfully I put it out of my mind as much as I could and tried to enjoy the quiet, our new freedom to leave the house whenever we felt like it or to climb back into bed on a Sunday morning. For the first time in thirteen years we had nowhere to be: no car pool, no soccer practice, no Sunday school. I was almost scared, when Kate first left. I wondered how it would be, alone with my husband. So much of our time together had been spent discussing Kate and the logistics of Kate. “All Kate, all the time,” we joked. And while we were immersed in the details of parenthood, the years were rolling by and we were getting older. I worried that having Kate early in our marriage had made us prematurely middle-aged. But it turned out I had nothing to worry about: within days of Kate’s leaving, we were like newlyweds, enjoying each other, falling into long late-night talks, sleeping wrapped together for the first time in years. We blinked, and time fell away.
Our first Saturday night alone in the house, Ned cooked dinner. I had been out all afternoon, doing the usual errands—dry cleaner, butcher, grocery store, buying a wedding shower gift—and when I returned, Ned had set the picnic table in the backyard with our best crystal, china plates, linen napkins rolled into napkin rings. His grandmother’s hurricane lanterns rested in the center of the table, beeswax candles already flickering in the pale-orange early evening light.
“What’s this?” I set my bags down on the kitchen floor. The house smelled sweet, a mix of Indian spices. Ned didn’t cook often, but when he did, whatever he made was ambitious and elaborate. I saw several open cookbooks; three pots simmered on the stove.
“Never you mind. Just go outside,” said Ned. He pushed my hair away from my face and kissed my ear.
“But I need to—”
“You need to do nothing,” he said. He uncorked a chilled bottle of wine—one of our few really good chardonnays—and poured me a glass. “I’ll be out in a bit.”
I was confused. Was this a special day I had somehow missed, an obscure anniversary? Through all the years we had been together, we still celebrated the day we met and the day we got engaged, along with our wedding anniversary.
“Relax, Rach,” Ned said, reading my mind. “I just wanted to make you a nice dinner.”
The screen door slapped shut behind me as I walked out back. I particularly loved our backyard in the summer. We mowed the lawn just around the perimeter of the house, and the rest was meadow. Tall grass rustled in the breeze, blowing bits of dandelion fluff through the air. The sun was setting over the tin roof of the barn.
I kicked my shoes off, climbed into the hammock, and balanced the glass of wine on my stomach. It was an odd sensation, having this empty, quiet time. I didn’t exactly mind it, but I wasn’t sure how to do nothing.
“Here you are.” Ned crouched down next to the hammock. He popped something into my mouth.
“What is it?” I asked, chewing. It was delicious.
“A date stuffed with ground almonds and wrapped in bacon.”
“Yum. A nice low-cholesterol snack.”
“Yeah, and after this we’re having that lobster curry thing.”
“You’ve been a busy boy.”
He squinted up at me and grinned. His dirty-blond hair flopped over his forehead, and he shook it away, a gesture I had seen a thousand times in our daughter.
I grabbed Ned’s hand and turned it, palm up, then held it to my cheek. I felt a familiar stinging against the backs of my eyes, tears I was embarrassed to let him see. Some people were able to take this for granted—this beauty, this bounty. But no matter how many years we had been together, I still felt it as something amazing, thoroughly undeserved. How had I gotten so lucky?
“I love you,” Ned said. Then he stood up, with a slight middle-aged groan, and went back inside the house.
weeks drifted by before we admitted to each other how much we missed Kate. Sure, there were advantages to not having her around: sex with the bedroom door open, a clean kitchen sink, listening to Coltrane instead of ’N Sync. But by the time she was due home, we longed for her. At the end of the summer, we picked her up in the parking lot of the A&P. She got off the bus wearing a flowery little tank top I had never seen before, her hair was bleached orangey-yellow, and she had a tattoo of a leaf on her ankle.
Here she is, standing in a group of new camp friends, exchanging hugs and phone numbers. “Katie!” Ned’s voice cracks in the video as he calls her, waving with one hand and holding the camera with the other. I am standing next to our old Volvo wagon with the hatchback open and ready for her mountains of dirty laundry. Ned turns the camera on me for a second, and I grin self-consciously. I’m wearing big dark glasses and no makeup, and again I am struck by how young I look. I was thirty-eight that summer but I could have passed for thirty, especially with the dark glasses.
The camera jerks as I grab it and focus on Ned. He looks like an overgrown college boy himself, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap and a faded sweatshirt. I’d been looking forward to seeing Ned and Kate together. It was a secret pleasure of mine, quietly watching them as they played basketball or watched television or went over Kate’s math homework at the kitchen table. I start to move toward Kate, but she shakes her head, her eyes narrow in warning, and I stop. She turns her back, squaring her little shoulders resolutely away from me. The movie ends there. I turned off the camera and stood alone in a crowd of parents, my arms dangling uselessly by my sides.
downstairs, the doorbell rings. i climb out of bed, the bottoms of my socks collecting dust on the floor. The windows are covered with heavy blue curtains. I peek out, squinting in the glaring light. A Federal Express truck, with its cheery purple-and-orange logo, is parked by the curb. It can be nothing good: a legal document, a collection notice. I go back upstairs. The digital clock reads 1:57. I have to pick up Joshua at preschool at three. I should get out of my pajamas. Slap some cold water on my face, under my arms. Run a comb through my hair. Have I even eaten today?
This was once such a happy house. The sunny kitchen with its refrigerator covered with magnets and drawings; the dining room dwarfed by an enormous old pine table, a bowl of fresh fruit in a ceramic bowl at its center; flowers arranged in empty wine bottles along the windowsills and side tables. I took pride in our house, in the accumulation of objects that had character and meaning for us. Other people could buy expensive photographs, but they wouldn’t have the framed black-and-white photo Ned took of a fence curving along the dunes on Nantucket one summer, when we were visiting our old friends Tommy and Liza Mendel. Our summers with the Mendels are another thing I miss. Every August, our families used to spend a few weeks together at their house on the beach; their daughter Sophie was a year younger than Kate. Tommy and Liza had done phenomenally well over the years. Tommy had started a series of restaurant and hotel guides, then sold his company to a big German corporation. And Liza was a senior partner at a small prestigious Boston law firm. Our daily lives may have been worlds apart, but the Mendels were like family to us.
That photograph, along with a lovely one of Kate and Sophie, still hangs on the landing. And then this room, the bedroom: the bed is still soft and creaky, and the wing chair needs reupholstering. The Art Deco vanity we found in a flea market on the Cape before we were married is gathering dust. My perfume bottles, seven of them, are arranged on a china tray, next to a jumble of jewelry: African silver earrings, a pair of gold hoops, some dangling semiprecious stones. The good pillows and sheets I bought from a catalog a few years ago have served me well. Who knew how much time I would spend here, by myself?
If I let my mind wander, I can recall nearly every moment we spent in this house, in this room. I don’t need Ned’s video to see Kate at two, climbing onto the bench at the foot of our bed and flopping down on the old patchwork quilt we used to have there, giggling. Or Ned, up on one elbow, his gray-green eyes looking down at me as my belly swelled with Joshua, whispering that he was so lucky to be a new father all over again. On the mantel above the fireplace is a photograph in a hammered silver frame: Ned, Kate, and I are standing together near the base of Stratton Mountain. (There are no photographs of the four of us—not a single picture of Kate and her baby brother together.) It is early fall, and we are dressed lightly in sweatshirts, shorts, and hiking boots. I remember Kate’s confusion when I said I wasn’t hiking. I was always first one up the mountain. “Do you feel okay?” she asked, in a rare moment of concern. I wasn’t ready to tell her the reason why. Too soon. The waistband of my shorts was a bit snug around my waist, and my breasts were sore and heavy, but no one would have known. “I’m fine, honey,” I said. I sat at a picnic table and watched over my newspaper as my husband and daughter began climbing until they disappeared from sight.
Ihe phone rings all morning, but i don’t pick it up. The caller ID flashes UNAVAILABLE. I want to know who’s calling me before I answer. A thin stream of light from between the curtains plays against the wood beams, shadows of leaves from the elm tree out front flickering against the chipped white paint. Ned and I made love countless times in this bed. Sleepy too-tired-to-do-it sex. Wild, scratching, grasping sex. Makeup sex, both of us bruised and tender. All of it here, under this quilt, in this place where I now lie with so little sensation in my body it’s hard to imagine ever having given or received pleasure. I try to bring Ned into bed with me in my mind. I’ve lost his smell. It was the first thing I loved about him, breathing him in and knowing, inexplicably, that I was home. I remember his long fingers and the way he brushed my skin lightly with the back of his hand until I shivered. I can describe it, but I can no longer feel it. I still see him, though: strong, powerful chest with just the right amount of curly blond hair; the way that hair got thicker below his belly button and thicker still until it ended in a soft tangle. The phone rings again, and I reach over and unplug it. Lately, I’ve come to think about what it takes to unravel a life, not just one life, but the fabric of a family, carefully woven together with love and faith over the years. It doesn’t happen in a moment but in series of moments—insults, improbabilities, just plain bad luck—that finally begin to pile up until all hope is gone. Recently, I saw a story on the news about a man who lived somewhere out west. He went into his attic after dinner, loaded a shotgun, and killed his whole family: wife, two kids, and then himself. When they interviewed the neighbors on the news, they shook their heads and described him the way these people are always described: quiet, no trouble, never saw it coming. But it turned out that the man had been fired from his job and had no prospects and no health insurance; his wife was having an affair; the younger child had a chronic illness. It must have seemed to him, that cold and starless night, that there was nothing left to do but destroy what remained. There are things I still do, even if I walk through them like a robot. I wake up when Joshua cries and take him a bottle. I rock him to sleep with the same lullaby I sang to Kate: Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Mommy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. What a crock that lullaby is. I used to think it was good for them, to believe that no matter what went wrong I’d be able to fix it. I feed Josh his breakfast and take him to preschool. I pick him up on time. I can’t afford to be late or to miss a single day. Everyone is watching me. They think I don’t know it—that with their good manners they’re fooling me—but I know what it feels like to be judged. I must have brought my own misfortune down around myself, is what they believe. They have to believe it. If it was all just a random series of events, if it could happen to anybody, where would that leave every one of them? I glance at the clock. Time to get up. The bathroom is dirty, with strands of hair—mine—in the sink and tub and fingerprints all over the mirror. Even though the afternoon sun floods through the grimy window, the black-and-white tile floor is cold against my feet. My eyes throb as I squint into the medicine cabinet mirror. I try to look at my face only in pieces: my mouth, when I brush my teeth; my hair, when I try to arrange it into something other than bed-head. It’s too awful to take in all at once. I was never particularly vain, but now that my looks are gone, I miss them. Ned has only improved since all this began. He’s lost his middle-aged bloat, and he looks edgy and angry. He bought himself a black leather jacket and wears it around town with his oldest pair of jeans. It’s as if he’s dressing the part of the bad guy, giving the finger to all the people who have doubted him, who assumed his guilt. And I guess at the top of that list would be me.
The sweater, jeans, and boots I wore to drop Josh off this morning are where I left them, on the wing chair. My bra, panties, and socks are crumbled into a ball on the floor. I throw it all on again, smear a little lipstick on the apples of my cheeks, rubbing it in. Maybe if I look healthy, people will leave me alone. The stairs creak as I walk downstairs. Sure enough, a Federal Express envelope is lying on the faded old rug outside the front door. I pick it up without glancing at it. I head into the kitchen and pour myself a cold cup of this morning’s coffee, heating it in the microwave. The Globe is unopened on the kitchen table, where I left it this morning. I sit down and try to focus. All I have to do is drive ten blocks, pick up Joshua, and come home. Usually he goes down for a two-hour nap, exhausted from a whole day of playing. Then I can take off all my clothes again and climb back into bed.
The answering machine is blinking with five messages. I hesitate for a moment, then push the play button.
“Hi, Mrs. Jensen, this is Bill Sommers, from New England Gas and Electric. I’m calling about an outstanding bill—”
“Rachel, this is your mother. Enough is enough. I haven’t heard from you now in at least—”
delete. Whatever she’s saying, I can’t bear to hear it.
“Mrs. Jensen, this is Charlotte Meyers, from Stone Mountain. There’s a small problem with Kate. Please call us as soon as you get this.”
My heart starts to race. Small problem?
“Mrs. Jensen? Charlotte Meyers again. I’m going to call the next person on our list of contacts. I guess that would be . . . let’s see . . . Mr. Jensen.”
“Rachel? What the hell is going on?” Ned’s voice fills the kitchen. The air is as thick as molasses, and I’m having a hard time taking a breath. Ned sounds concerned and angry. “You can reach me on my cell phone. Where are you?”
I dial the number for Stone Mountain, which is posted on an index card and taped to the wall above the phone. I frantically look for the school’s brochure, which is wedged between grocery receipts and take-out menus in a drawer. I need to see where Kate is, to hold it in my hands: the bucolic campus with its Tudor buildings, old trees, tennis courts. The thick glossy pages of the brochure are designed to make parents feel better about having to send their child to such a place. Inside, there are pictures of normal-looking girls doing normal-looking things: sitting in a circle on the lawn, walking in pairs along wooded paths. The high fences, the infirmary with its antidepressants and sedatives, the outer buildings where girls are kept in isolation—those are not part of the picture.
Finally someone answers.
“Hello, this is Rachel Jensen. I’m calling about my daughter, Kate?”
I’m put on hold. I look wildly around, trying to find anything of comfort to focus on, but instead my gaze falls on the knives in the knife block; the glass cupboards full of crystal; the wall of family photos—the three of us in the snow or on the beach—looking so perfect we could be modeling for Parenting magazine. I grab a pen and start to doodle. Blocks within blocks within blocks. I check my watch. If I don’t leave home in the next five minutes I’ll be late to pick up Josh.
“Mrs. Jensen? Frank Hollis here.”
Hollis is the head of the school.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, too loudly.
“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but we’d like you and your husband to come up here,” he says.
“Did something happen?”
“Not one specific thing, but—”
“Is Kate okay? Is she hurt?”
“There’s been an incident, a fight with another girl, and—”
“Fight? That’s impossible.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jensen.” He pauses here, waiting for a reaction from me. But I have no words. I try to imagine Kate, her skinny arms punching someone, her nails scratching. I feel like we’re talking about somebody else, someone I know so slightly that I would have to call her a stranger.
“Also, a pill—the hallucinogen ecstasy—was found in her pocket during a random check.”
“Well—isn’t it possible that one of the other girls put it there?” Even as I ask the question, I know how lame it sounds.
“No,” Hollis says slowly. “She admitted it was hers.”
“How did she get it? Aren’t you supposed to make sure that kind of thing doesn’t happen?”
“We do our best, but it does happen sometimes. It’s under investigation—”
“I thought the whole point of your school is to protect her,” I blurt out. I’ve been gripping the table so hard my fingers hurt.
“Look, let’s discuss this when we meet. I’ve spoken with Dr. Esposito, and he agrees that we should all sit down and come up with a game plan.”
A game plan. I try to picture Hollis, sitting in his slightly shabby office. He’s a pale stooped-over man with bags under his eyes. The night—nearly a year ago—when we first left Kate at Stone Mountain, I kept staring at the framed degrees on the walls of his study (A.B. Harvard, Ph.D. Cornell), trying to make myself feel better about leaving my daughter in the care of someone who looked like he hadn’t taken a deep breath in a couple of years.
“In the meantime, she’s back to Level One,” he says.
Level 1 is where all the girls start when they come in, no matter why they’re there. It’s pretty much isolation, along with daily therapy. Going to classes, contact with other girls, even eating in the cafeteria are all privileges they have to earn. Kate hasn’t moved past Level 2 since she’s been at the school.
My teeth are chattering. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to stop the shaking. I agreed to put her in that school because I thought it was the only place we could keep her safe. They promised to watch her twenty-four hours a day and make sure nothing happened to her. In the meantime, she would grow, grow up and out of the terrible twisted confines of her own mind.
Stone Mountain is two hours away. If I leave now, pick up Josh, and find someone to watch him, I can be there before dark.
“I’m on my way.”
“We were thinking about tomorrow, Mrs. Jensen.”
“I need to see her now.”
“We would prefer that you wait. This is something that has to be carefully orchestrated. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
He’s talking to me in a slow, careful monotone. This is how they talk at the school. They’re used to crazy people, parents and children both. I try to take a deep breath, but my chest hurts. Fights? Drugs? The words don’t even belong in the same sentence as Kate. Her skin is so pale you can see the network of veins in her arms, close to the surface—just like the rest of her.
“How would noon tomorrow be?” Hollis asks.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll call my husband and let him know.”
I look down at the paper on which I’ve been doodling. There must be a hundred boxes there, each smaller than the next, until finally you can’t tell that they’re boxes at all.
Reading Group Guide
“Absorbing. . . . Shapiro is a gifted writer, and Family History is a bona fide page-turner.” —The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Dani Shapiro’s Family History, a ferociously paced new novel about a woman losing control of her life, her marriage, and her kids, and discovering that you can do everything right and still find the world you’ve made slipping away from you.
1. The novel is told from Rachel’s point of view. Judging from her character as she presents it, is Rachel a good person? What does she want for herself and for her family? What kind of a mother is she?
2. In Dr. Zelman’s office, Ned and Rachel are asked for information about their families’ psychiatric histories. Rachel admits that her mother has a “narcissistic personality disorder” and begins to feel panic: “It was as if an invisible hand had seized me by the throat and forced me to swallow the ugliest possible truth. . . . I came from a sick and faulty genetic line and had passed it all down to my daughter” [p. 134]. Judging from her mother’s and her daughter’s behavior, do Rachel’s worries about this possibility seem justified?
3. Why does Ned move out? Does he assume that Rachel believes Kate’s accusation that he sexually abused her? How does Ned come across as a father and as a husband?
4. Comment on the novel’s structure and on Shapiro’s decision to disrupt the narrative chronology. What is the effect of this style on revealing what has happened to the family?
5. Family History engages the questions of how we become who we are and how much control we have over our lives, considering our genetic inheritance. When pregnant with Kate, Rachel thinks, “How could anything good come out of me, when I came from this angry messed-up woman?” [p. 31]. Why does Rachel feel so preoccupied with what her children have received from her side of the family, when Ned does not? Does Rachel worry too much about things she can’t possibly control? Or is the problem that a mother can’t help but feel that she has to control everything that affects the lives of her family?
6. How have Kate’s troubles exacerbated the stressful aspects of Ned and Rachel’s marriage? Rachel says, “Even during the best of times, the subject of Ned’s work was the no-man’s-land of our marriage” [p. 70]. Was moving to a small town away from the art world the wrong decision for both of them?
7. Learning that Kate has been hurt in a fight with another girl at Stone Mountain, Rachel thinks, “We don’t know our daughter. How is it possible? I could find her if I were blindfolded in a room of a hundred girls, but I don’t know what’s going on inside her” [p. 71]. How accurately does the novel depict the confusion and bewilderment of parents whose child is going through a rocky adolescence?
8. Rachel makes it clear that her mother is impossible to deal with, a person who oversteps boundaries and doesn’t respect her daughter’s privacy. Would Rachel be justified in cutting off contact with her mother? What would be gained, and what lost, from such a decision?
9. Judging from Kate’s description of the accident on the stairs [pp. 152–64] and her emotional state during the scene at the hospital, does it seem possible that she is concealing the truth about what happened? Or, on the contrary, is it clear that what happened was purely accidental? Does this issue remain ambiguous? If so, why?
10. How accurate is Liza’s comment that Rachel and Ned shouldn’t worry so much about money? Is Liza’s philosophy of living “as if ” a useful one [p. 177]? Is it better for Ned and Rachel to have financial security or fulfilling work? Might Ned and Rachel have been happier if they had taken more risks?
11. Rachel reflects, “You can live a good life, be the best mother and wife you know how to be, and still it can explode all around you” [p. 251]. What particular insights does Family History offer about motherhood and the kind of inner strength being a mother requires?
12. Discuss the significance of the paintings Rachel finds in the barn [pp. 199–203]. What is the meaning of Ned’s new style and subject matter? What role do the paintings play in bringing Ned and Rachel back together?
13. Kate’s actions leave her parents in the unusual position of having to forgive their daughter for the extensive damage she has done to the family. In the emergency room, Rachel realizes, “I was furious with her, angry beyond comprehension . . . the truest test of unconditional maternal love was being exacted upon me” [p. 159]. How well does Rachel perform in this test?
14. What does the final chapter suggest about the future of the family? Why do Ned and Rachel change their minds and decide to leave Kate at Stone Mountain for a while longer? How hopeful an ending does the novel offer?
A Conversation with DANI SHAPIRO
Q: Your last book was a memoir. Was it difficult to go back to fiction with
A: Let’s just say I was glad the memoir was my fourth book, not my first. I spent several years writing non-fiction and delving deeply into my own history and family material–both in Slow Motion and a long piece I did for the New Yorker called “The Secret Wife”–which exposed me more publicly and intensely than I could have imagined. In order to write very personal non-fiction, one has to convince oneself that no one will ever read it. It’s sort of a trick–one tricks oneself. It’s very different to work from memory than from imagination. By the time I got back to fiction, I had forgotten how to do it–even though I had a vague notion that it could be done. Which was a good thing, I think, because writers always need to forget and remember, to learn and re-learn in order to get better.
I also had my first child about a year after Slow Motion was published and was finding my way back into fiction, I felt an enormous pressure not to waste time–not to fritter away those precious hours away from my baby. Whenever I sat down at my desk, I felt that I had to make every moment count, and I had to make the book that came out of those many hours away from my baby count. I needed to write about the deepest fears I had as a parent. What would happen if I couldn’t protect my child? What would happen if the happy family I had finally created for myself was somehow threatened or shattered? If fiction comes from obsession, as it certainly does forme, then my obsessions had changed–I had changed–and my fiction had to change along with me.
And then, when my son was six months old, he was diagnosed with a rare and deadly illness. I am someone who worries and imagines the worst, even in the best of circumstances. And now, the worst was upon me. Forget about writing. The whole idea of sitting around making up stories seemed beyond frivolous.
Q: How do you write in the face of real life tragedy?
A: How do you do anything in the face of real life tragedy? In the months that my son was desperately ill, I longed for an office job–that is, when I wasn’t wishing I could go back to school and fulfill my pre-med requirements. Instead of writing, I’d stare out the window and calculate how old I would be before I could become a doctor. Eventually, I realized that I would just be too old (not to mention having no brain for science). For close to a year, I wrote nothing. But then, finally, miraculously, my son beat the odds and got better. So when I was able to think about fiction again, there was only one thing that felt important enough to write about. I wrote a novel about a family that gets hit with a terrible thing, like a meteor falling from the sky. There is no rhyme or reason to why this family, why this meteor, but they are left quaking in the damage of its wake. It was a sad story to immerse myself in, a terrifying story, a domestic story–ultimately, the story of a mother’s loss of innocence.
Q: Family History deals with the crises of two different children in the same family. Was this family in any way based on your own?
A: Yes and no. The part of the book that relates to a mother’s fears about her infant son was very, very close to me. As an infant, my son had been dropped down the stairs of our Brooklyn brownstone by his babysitter and had to be rushed to the hospital. Two weeks later (in unrelated circumstances) he got sick. My entire understanding of the world, my place in it, and what mattered, all shifted completely in those few weeks–I doubt it will ever shift back. And even though my son was on the road to recovery by the time I started Family History, my every waking minute was filled with concern for him and that permeated the book.
Kate, the 13-year-old daughter in the Jensen family, came from another place entirely. I
imagined her largely out of who I had been as a teenager, and now, as a mother, exploring my worst fear: what if my precious, perfect child woke up one day and was a stranger? I wanted to write about the tenuous psychological state of adolescence and what happens when the grip a young girl has on her life unravels. Her parents have the best of intentions, but they make choices, and those choices have consequences. At one point in the novel, Rachel Jensen says “everything we do matters. Every single blessed thing.”
Q: Speaking of choices, you and your husband and son moved out of New York City to rural Connecticut shortly after September 11.
A: Our friends were shocked that we left. In the weeks after September 11, we put our brownstone in Brooklyn on the market, and bought a house on ten acres in a town we had never heard of. We were a very unlikely couple to leave New York–my husband is a former war correspondent and he doesn’t scare easily. But I think the accumulation of anxiety and trauma, along with the very real sense of having dodged a bullet with our son, made us long for a more peaceful life.
Q: Husbands and wives–even in good marriages–don’t always see things the same way, or even want the same things. In Family History, Rachel and Ned Jensen seem like such a great couple, and yet their marriage reaches a breaking point. Why did you write about this?
A: I really wanted to write about the strains within a “good” marriage. I suppose it came out of where much of my work originates. These “what if” type questions. What would it take to unravel something so solid? What if the worst happened? What would be unimaginable? And then I try to imagine it.
Q: Well, you certainly imagined the mother-in-law from hell.
A: Ah, Phyllis. She came to me fully-formed. It was important that Rachel have a context–that being a good mother was even more loaded for her than it might be for another woman. And in Rachel’s case, being the daughter of an extremely difficult–well, impossible–mother made her own response, when her daughter Kate becomes unwell, even more complicated.
Q: And then another layer of Family History explores sibling rivalry.
A: Well, I’m an only child myself, so in part I was interested in exploring what happens when a child raised as an only child for thirteen years is suddenly confronted with a new sibling. In Kate’s case, it’s a longed-for thing, to have a sibling, and yet she becomes intensely jealous of the new baby, spurred on, in large part, by terrible fears she has in the hospital while her mother is giving birth. She feels that the baby is literally stealing her mother from her–and, in fact, almost causes her mother’s death.
And not to over-analyze this, but I was also interested in exploring–in a personal way–the idea of hubris. You have a child; in my case, a child who has survived a trauma. And then you have the chutzpah to go ahead and try for another one? When is enough enough?
Q: Could you talk a little about why you chose the title Family History?
A: It has several different meanings beyond the obvious. In the book, there is a scene in an adolescent psychiatrist’s office in Boston, where Rachel and Ned have gone to discuss Kate, and whether Kate belongs in therapy. The psychiatrist–a humorless fellow–takes what is called a “family history” of each of them. Ned recounts his family’s rather bland psychiatric history (waspy parents who drink too much, but that’s about it) and when it’s Rachel’s turn, she talks about the depression on her side of the family, and her own mother’s very troublesome psychological state–and in recounting her own family history she begins to melt down, because she suddenly feels at fault. As if there is a rogue gene, an invisible code that has been passed down from generation to generation, and has landed squarely on her daughter’s shoulders. She blames herself. One of the main themes I wanted to explore in the novel is the way, when something goes wrong with a child, parents tend to blame themselves no
Q: In the end, Family History really is a meditation on maternal love, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely. And along with maternal love goes maternal guilt, maternal self-doubt,
maternal blame…and the feeling that your heart is living, existing independently, outside of your body in this little being who–ultimately–you cannot completely protect from harm. No one tells you this when you have a child. No one can–you’d never believe it.
Q: Since finishing this novel, what are you working on now? Another novel about a mother caught in a family tragedy?
A: Oh, God no. I’m writing a dark comedy set in an upper east side hair salon. After
Family History, I needed to laugh a little.