At Home In the World
Here comes "At Home in the World". I consider that my first memoir. I actually did publish a book that has been called a memoir, it was called a memoir at the time when I was 19 years old, called "Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old "in the Sixties". And "Looking Back" came out of a somewhat well-known magazine article that I published in the New York Times magazine; It sort of launched my career. I'd actually been knocking around for a few years by that time. I was asked then to expand that article into a book and I published "Looking Back". But, in the 160 pages of my first crack at a memoir, I did not mention the fact that I grew up in an alcoholic family, that I was suffering from eating disorders at that time I was writing that book, or probably most significantly, that I had dropped, oh I, the sort of anointed youth spokesperson of America 1972, had dropped out of my Ivy League university Yale to go live with a 53 year-old man who had written me some pretty compelling let...
ters in the voice of Holden Caufield, no big surprise that they were written in the voice of Holden Caufield, they were written by J.D. Salinger. Dropped out of school, went to live with him, and wrote that book "Looking Back" while I was living with him and never mentioned it. I don't call that book a memoir. That was me walking very carefully around the uncomfortable landmines of my life and I don't do it anymore. That was me being a good girl, which I was for a long time. That book is dedicated to my parents. I also didn't mention that my mother had sold the dress that I wore to meet Salinger, that my father was having the DTs by that time, or that Salinger had taught me how to make myself throw up. I did not tell the hard stuff. And what I missed was not simply my own catharsis, my own healing, but an opportunity to connect at a very deep level with readers. Because, I know I could say right now, will all the people who do not have any shameful secrets, any embarrassing failures, things that you have a hard time talking about or even thinking about in your life, will those people please now leave the room? (audience laughs) And nobody does. We do not tell the stories of our failures very often, but I have learned from almost 50 years of publishing those stories that those are the moments that my words resonate with a reader, that I hear back, "Me too." And that's profoundly, that's at the core of what "Me too" is about. "At Home in the World", I said it was not a book about J.D. Salinger. It's also not the book, the story of my life. It's the story of one particular journey of my life. I grew up in an alcoholic family, I adored my father, but there was never a time when I was so young that he took care of me. I always took care of him. I had a brilliant, highly-educated, hugely passionate mother, a thrilling person. If she was giving a little talk in the other room, you'd be there. My mother grew up in a family of Russian immigrant Jews. First one to ever get to go to college. Although she was a lover of books and English literature, she studied math because that was the only way she could get a 100% average that she needed to get the Gold Medal Scholarship to go to college. Went to college, went to graduate school, got a PhD at Harvard, Radcliffe then, and as a woman of the fifties, could not get a job. And guess what she made her career? Me. She was going to raise two daughters who had the lives and the career that she didn't get. And, that's, we talked earlier about compassion, lack of revenge, that's how I see my way clear to understanding my mother sewing the dress that I wore to meet Salinger. Because her creation, her book, the book she had not published, her artwork, me, had attracted the attention of a very famous, very important, writer. And that was an acknowledgement of who she was, because she made me, and I forgive her. And forgiveness is hugely important. So, the story, I'll just list some of the themes that I explore in "At Home in the World". Alcoholic family, longing for a father, ambiitious mother. Some of the stories I tell in "At Home in the World" do not reflect well on my mother, but you know, when I, when somebody writes to me that they read "At Home in the World", I always ask, "What did you think about my mother?" And they often say, "Whoa, she was quite a woman." But they also liked her. I think you will succeed better in making a character that we care about when you make that character real, not when you make that character perfect. That book is ultimately a book about shame. First the shame of my father's drinking, that I didn't talk about secret-keeping, needing to be this perfect person out in the world, concealing who I really was, because nobody would like me then if they actually knew. Seeking approval from others, forming my identity from who, whether Seventeen magazine published my story, whether Yale University accepted me, whether J.D. Salinger thought I was a good writer or a cute girl, may have been the second, whether the editors of the New York Times gave me a good review or gave me a job, I always needed to have that approval, first from my parents and then from a bigger and bigger world. The journey of that book is going from that very good girl, the good girl who published "Looking Back" when she was 19 and never mentioned all the hard parts. To, and that was, this girl, actually that was, no, it was a smiling girl, it was a smiling face on the cover of "Looking Back". This is the girl I was, three weeks after this picture was taken by Richard Avedon, three weeks after Salinger had sent me away from his life, I was 19 then, and I didn't know who I was anymore, because he disapproved of me. And the woman I was at age finally was able to tell that story that I had kept silent for 25 years. Because I was a good girl, and I was never supposed to tell it. And I became in the eyes of the press, the literary press, a very bad girl. But I was me. I was real. The quote, the epigraph I use in that book is from "The Velveteen Rabbit". Not a very fluffy toy, a very beat-up toy. The theme of "The Velveteen Rabbit" is being real, and that's really the theme of "At Home in the World".