Upon finishing my memoir after I met with this high school AP English class, one student writes:
In the book, near the end, your mother was doing very badly, and you wrote that you were waiting for her to die and you questioned how much longer your mother would hold on to her behavior. When I was reading that part, I started wondering when Gloria would die as well. Not that I wished her death, but she treated you so poorly that I was just waiting for her to die. That sounds awful, but it’s true. I know this isn’t a question, more of a reflection that I don’t think anyone else would understand.
I understand all too well what you’re saying here. We are taught in our society, as in most societies, that we must love, honor and respect our parents. Of course we should love, honor and respect our parents. But it should also be understood that parents should love, honor and respect their children. If I don’t honor and respect my child, do I deserve her love and respect? I don’t think so. I work very hard at being a good parent, and respecting my daughter’s feelings and needs. That includes setting down rules and discipline, and consistent behavior. In our society, it is considered a sin to have strong feelings of animosity toward our parents. So of course we will feel terribly guilty, we will feel ashamed, for having antagonistic feelings toward our parents. I am glad that you felt the way you did reading that part of the book. It means I got my point across. That was the extremes to which I was emotionally pushed: I was pushed to the point that I wished my mother’s death. I no longer feel any remorse or guilt about this in the least.
From the rest of the class, I received the following questions:
Would you prefer to live in Europe or the US?
I love visiting Paris, where I grew up. I love staying there for several weeks at a time. But eventually, I miss the States and want to come home. New York is home for me now. I’ve lived here since 1981, and so far, it’s the only place I’ve found where I feel totally at home. That is because you can walk down the street with bright green hair and no one will glance at you twice. That is New York.
If you could go back and change anything about your life, what would it be?
This is a terribly difficult question. Of course, I would say that I would change the fact that my father died so young, at 55. He never got to finish his last book; he never got to see his children grow up or meet his grandchildren. But then, if he had lived, I would not be who I am today. Every single thing that has happened to me in my life has led me to this very place, right now, writing answers to these unbelievably perceptive and moving questions.
If my dad had lived, I would not have become a writer. I would not have quit drinking. I would not have met my wonderful husband, nor had my daughter. And I wouldn’t trade any of those things for all the fortunes of the world. And now I’m sitting here all choked up.
When you were a child, did you realize the influence that the novelists around you would have on you?
Believe it or not, I had no idea how important they were! I knew they were “famous,” but what did that really mean? Not much to me, as a kid. When I went to college and saw most of their names on my 20th century literature reading lists, I practically fell over! I wish I hadn’t been so self-centered as a teenager, that I’d listened to their conversations more. But things like literature didn’t matter very much to me when I was 15 or 16 years old. I was much too concerned about boys and parties and how to fit in.
If you could choose to have a “normal” mother, knowing that it would change who you are today, would you?
When I stand back and think about my life, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the things I now have. Knowing what I know now, I have to say, no. I wouldn’t change a thing. But it’s impossible to say what kind of person I would have been if I’d had a different kind of mother. It’s impossible to say if I would have become a teacher and a writer. Being a teacher, a writer, but also a mom and a wife — I feel that my life is filled with joy and light.
Did knowing major writers influence your perception of their work, like when you met Capote?
This is a very perceptive and interesting question, more so than you probably know. When I teach literature now, I teach the life of the writer of the book as well as the book itself. I think the writer’s outer and inner lives are crucial components of his or her work. Many teachers and critics don’t agree with this approach. But for me, knowing that, for example, Dostoevsky was a starving student, freezing in his garret room, who seriously considered murdering a cruel old pawnbroker who lived down the street (he’d even counted the steps to her door) – well, that changes my whole perception of Crime and Punishment. Knowing that Truman Capote had strong feelings for one of those young men who murdered an entire family in cold blood, I understand the enormity of the accomplishment it was for him to write that book. I understand why he had a nervous collapse and never quite recovered from it.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I think I would still be a teacher of literature. That is the only thing I know how to do – teach.
Did you ever wish your family wasn’t famous so you wouldn’t be compared to your father?
No. I am very proud of my father and that I am his daughter. I think his work is worth fighting for, and I have never once wanted to be anyone else’s daughter.
Do you think you have an addictive personality? If so, did you simply replace alcohol with something like how you replaced the nosespray when you were a child?
Yes, I definitely have an addictive personality. And yes, nose spray was one of my first addictions as a child. Also, pastries! I loved French pastries. They made me feel comforted when I was little. And I do believe, without treatment and help, addicts replace one addiction with another: food, sex, sports, etc … I am probably addicted to my martial arts classes. But that isn’t a bad addiction, I don’t think. It seems pretty constructive to me. I’ve learned mental discipline, body strength, and courage from tae kwon do. And because my daugther is also a Black Belt, it is something we share, something we do together.
What made you do cocaine?
In the 80’s, when I was in college and just after, this was a very popular drug. No one knew how dangerous or addictive it was. During my years in college and my early years living in New York, I sometimes used it, if it was offered to me at a party. But I used it very little, and very rarely. I liked it because it allowed me to drink more without falling over or making a fool of myself! Now I realize how stupid and foolish it was, because it is a very dangerous and addictive drug. One of my friends had a heart attack from cocaine! I feel very lucky that I didn’t become addicted to cocaine or other drugs.
Did traveling with your family a lot as a child make you feel like you never had a home?
No. Traveling was great. What I felt was that I wasn’t quite one thing or the other, having American parents but growing up in France. I wasn’t quite French; but then, when we came to the States to visit, I never felt quite American either. That is no longer the case. I am 100% American! The first time I realized this was when I landed at JFK after spending 6 months back in Paris during my Junior year of college. When I saw the American policemen, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of safety and comfort. I cried out to one of them, “I’m so happy to be home!” And he said, “Well then, welcome home, honey.”
When you read to or with your daughter, are you hoping to recreate positive experiences you had with your father?
Both my father and mother read aloud to us. There is something really great about hearing a story read aloud. In fact, I didn’t read to my daughter nearly enough. She has become such a big reader herself that she doesn’t need me to read to her anymore. I did read her 5 out of the 7 Harry Potter books aloud, though. That was great fun. I don’t know that I consciously hoped to recreate my own positive childhood experiences, but I do think all parents should read to their children because the experience of sharing a story creates such a wonderful bond between people. She and I will never forget that we shared those Harry Potter books together. I just hope she doesn’t want to be a writer! It’s much too hard and unstable a life! :o)