When you started your book, did you have a working hypothesis about families? What did you hope to find?
I was thinking-it was as simple as this-that what makes family life work and makes it meaningful to people is less about how great the good times are, but more about how well you handle the hard times together. And I wanted to be able to chronicle how a family worked through those hard times and came out better, one way or another. I wanted to do these stories in a way that hung on to their novelistic beauty, not do them as "she said to the therapist, then his wife said, and then the therapist said." I wanted to tell these stories in a way that elevated them and reminded us that they're noble and worthy journeys.
We just hear dire news about the family. So many people are scared of having a family. Family seems to them like this thing that's easily broken, really fragile. The truth is that things are more hopeful than we think.
I did get a sense of hope from the book-no matter what happened in families, people could work through it. At first I thought that everything had to work out a certain way, but then I realized that really wasn't the point.
That's what I learned too. At first I was looking for stories of people who figure it out and hang onto each other. And I was really tested by some people who didn't have, as [one woman] I interviewed put it, "that happy resolution" I thought I was looking for. I realized sometimes you have to break with people who are particularly problematic. That's part of the cycle of families too. That's part of getting to a healthy healing point.
We've heard you should not leave your marriage, you should try to keep it together, or you should forgive your parents. But these stories went deeper.
You should accept and forgive your parents-but what if your dad raped you? Or if they abandoned you? No, we need to protect ourselves too. In the first story, Jeriann Massey is trying to find what makes her life meaningful, what lives up to the promise of her life. It might mean a divorce, which gives way to a remarriage and a much more fulfilling life for her.
I was shocked when I read that after her near-death experience, a life-changing event for her, no one admitted what it meant to her. Her husband wouldn't listen to her.
Yeah, except for the kids. They listened.
In many of the stories, were there turning points where people suddenly saw things clearly? Or in a new way?
I looked for those in every story. The moment that Jen Louie, who always thought her father [a Chinese immigrant] was an ill-tempered man with no interior emotional life, suddenly hears him admit that he never knew his mother, and that it's always haunted him. She realizes that all the time he has been a thinking, feeling person. It's so easy to think, "I'm the emotional one here, and the rest of you seem kind of cardboard-y. I feel things and you don't." All along he had been feeling things, he just hadn't been able to speak of them. It was a real turning point in their relationship. Story after story has its turning points in which people come to understand something about the nature of loving another person.
It seemed to be through very hard struggles that people made it. Was there anything miraculous at all?
Actually, the original subtitle was "the miraculous journeys of 21st century families." There are some miraculous elements. I wanted to bring the miracle of ordinary life forward. Through the act of trying to lead a good life, a pretty miraculous transformation did occur.