Excerpted from Family History by Dani Shapiro. Copyright © 2003 by Dani Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Dani Shapiro
Author of FAMILY HISTORY
Q: Your last book was a memoir. Was it difficult to go back to fiction with FAMILY HISTORY?
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 for me, 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 matter what.
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.
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?