The Hardest Part of Writing My Memoir Was Telling My Family About It
Binging Euphoria helped prepare me for the difficult conversations I needed to have
You should watch Euphoria, a friend told me while we were on a walk during our young daughters’ dance class. I wasn’t sure why she would suggest this. Particularly in the context of our conversation: I was confiding in her about the anxiety that felt like it had been boiling inside of me for weeks, as I started to realize time was running out to tell my family about Souvenirs from Paradise, my essay collection that was being published several months later. The book is about confronting the unspoken narratives of my life, most of which stem from the grief surrounding my mother’s death when I was young. My family knew I had been writing something for a while but had stopped asking about the book years ago, until I finally mentioned it was being published by a small press. I knew they wouldn’t expect it to include the details of their lives—particularly my father, who is an important part of the book and among the most private people I know.
Although I’d heard about Euphoria before my friend brought it up, I’d been hesitant to watch the HBO series currently in its second season. I knew it was a glittery, hyper-stylized portrayal of a group of high school students, much of the time centered on the narratives of its female characters as they navigate the expected high school fare: relationships, identity, drugs, and sex. Our daughters off in dance class were only four years old, but the show’s much-warned about content—brutal portrayals of drug addiction and sexual violence—held me back, not so much for the inherent explicitness, as for the fear that I would have to endure whatever those images might surface in me, in terms of what my own daughter’s future might look like, and how honest she would be with me about it.
Several weeks after this conversation, I came down with Covid. I thought, this is it. It was time to watch Euphoria. I also still hadn’t told my family about my book, but in the interest of my health, I told myself that the added stress of sending my essays to them could complicate my recovery as my body tried to heal from the virus. So, I decided to put off telling them until I tested negative.
I didn’t know the origins of the word “euphoria” when I began watching the show. According to Merriam-Webster, it derives from euphoros, a Greek term that means “healthy.” Its first English uses were in the realm of medicine, to convey the feeling of relief a sick person experiences following a successful treatment. If someone had told me this while I was simultaneously deep in Euphoria and Covid, I would not have believed them. Watching the show for hours in my bedroom, where I spent thirteen days alone while my spouse and daughter isolated, I found myself fully immersed in the show’s jewel-toned, emotionally wrought storylines revolving around Rue Bennett (played by Zendaya), a character living with a drug addiction tied to her grief surrounding her father’s death from cancer, the same disease that had taken my mother’s life. While I hadn’t become involved with drugs during my own childhood, there were echoes of a familiar loneliness that evoked a similarly difficult period in my past; at first, I thought this was why my friend had recommended the show.
But it turned out that another character would be the one that resonated with me most: Lexi Howard, played by Maude Apatow, who is Rue’s former close friend. While Lexi was mostly a demure, secondary character in season one, her story becomes a central plot point for the culmination of season two. She creates a memoir-like play for the school, which is slowly revealed through conversations with the compassionate drug dealer Fezco (played by Angus Cloud), as Lexi worries over how her family will react. Lexi asks, “But, what if they think my intentions aren’t good, when in reality they are good?” in a conversation that felt similar to the one I had with my friend on our walk. Fezco aptly responds, “That’s what I call a quandary.”
The question of how to tell people something you’ve written about them is going to be published comes up all the time in relation to writing creative nonfiction. Since my book tackled what many would deem “difficult” subjects, such as dealing with death during childhood, and trying to understand the ways it affected many of the other relationships in my life, for a while, I maintained a false sense of comfort that I had already accomplished the largest challenge—the writing, especially after growing up in a family where we tended to avoid difficult conversations. But once the book was finished, having to initiate discussions in relation to what I’d written quickly became the most anxiety-inducing moment of all, and one I was far less confident I could accomplish. As my publication date came closer, instead of looking forward to it, there was a veil of dread shrouded over my experience. Could I really feel proud of a book about talking about difficult subjects if I was still hiding its contents? One of the reasons I had written it was to prove to myself that families can confront the hardest parts of our lives, and perhaps even come out better on the other side. And yet, I was shying away from that task.
I had tried sifting through what others had written for months, in search of advice that would make telling my family about the book feel easier. I found that the writers who had prioritized empathy over the artist’s vision sounded the most ethical. Melissa Febos discussed what she terms “the narrative truth” in the Kenyon Review (and included in her recent book Body Work) writing, “…I picture a prism, with as many facets as there are people affected. When a writer chooses to publish their version, that facet becomes the one visible beyond the scope of the people involved.” I wanted to believe that I was absolved of this concern because my book was being published by a small press and my family likely wouldn’t stumble upon it on a table at Barnes and Noble, but that perspective misses the point of Febos’s analogy; my writing is still on a printed page in a way that takes it out of the conversational realm and into a “truth,” regardless of its specific readers. Reading this made it clear that I should tell them. But I still couldn’t do it.
Neither could Lexi, whose play is performed in the final two episodes of season two, “The Theater and Its Double” and “All My Life, My Heart Has Yearned for A Thing I Cannot Name.” The drama of the play’s reveal is maximized as all of its characters unknowingly file into the high school auditorium to see it, as well as Lexi’s mom. The episode is filmed in a way that the “real” footage of Euphoria fades into scenes of actors being directed by Lexi, creating visual movements between the “facts” of the television show and Lexi’s screenplay that felt exquisitely representative of the way memory and storytelling blend together to create the potent “narrative truth” described by Febos.
Everyone in Euphoria reacts to the play’s characterizations predictably, with one notable exception. Lexi’s mother, who is often shown with a bottle of wine beside her as she engages in gossip with her daughters and their friends. In the play, she is flamboyantly performed by a boy in drag who plays up her alcoholism, which is met by much laughter by the audience. Unlike many of the other characters, who cringe and balk at the unflattering moments the play captures from their lives, Lexi’s mother laughs along at her darkest moments, her shrieks of delight overtaking the laughter that fills the room. When others respond by calling out Lexi for hiding quietly in the background, only to suddenly unleash how she truly feels about everyone in her life through the performance, it’s her mother who gets on stage to support her. As I watched this unfold from my bed, I felt a familiar tear at my chest, as I wished I could find such an ending upon the reveal of my book; I wanted to believe that my mother would have played the part of Lexi’s mom, were she alive, and protect me from the inevitable fallout I expected my book to cause, even if I didn’t do my revealing the right way, just as it was clear to me, as an onlooker, that Lexi had not.
The truth is, I don’t know if my mother would have reacted as Lexi’s mom had, or if she would have defended me, because I didn’t ever know her with that level of nuance. I can’t even say if I would respond so well, were my daughter to write about me; in many ways, that felt like an ending crafted for TV. Lexi was also in high school, and I’m an adult with my own kid. One of my intentions for writing my book was to create an avenue towards a more honest family life; wanting for an idealized savior is hardly a way to do that. But I also recalled Sari Botton’s writing on this subject, as something she also agonized about in her work—for a long time. In an essay for Catapult, she discussed her father’s upset response to an essay she published in the New York Times, and the way that experience caused her to change her approach to writing about her family; she wrote, “This shift, which greatly informed my memoir writing and revising, has been occurring in slow motion over the fifteen years since I published that essay…” She also references a similar change in Melissa Febos’s ethos that ultimately led to the insights I read in “A Big Shitty Party”. For both writers, there had been an initial approach to writing about others that changed over time into a better one.
The day I finally tested negative for Covid, I sent an email to my father that included the book, even though I knew this wasn’t a very good way to tell him. And, as expected, he responded upset and hurt, in the ways I feared he would. While I don’t have the excuse of being in high school, I’ve come to terms with the reality that this was my first book. Although I know I should have started the process of involving the people I wrote about much sooner, getting through this experience was, in some ways, necessary to my understanding it. I wouldn’t say the relief I’ve obtained is the preeminent feeling I have now, regarding my book, nor have I fully succeeded in finding an avenue to a more honest family. But I’m closer to a healthier way of being than I was before the book and everything it involved—and I’m determined to move closer to that desired euphoric state as I work on writing the next one.