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.
Religion was just a powerful force in just about every one of these stories and gave people guidance of all sorts. What I was most impressed with was how each person came to be a seeker. There's a story about a woman named Mary Naomi Garrett - who rose out of a tarpaper shack and had eight children kids in 11 years. Everyone told her she should go on welfare. But she worked in the post office at night, and managed to send seven of her eight kids to the best Ivy League schools in the country. I consider her one of the greatest mothers in the whole world. She defied every expectation you have about great mothers. But to get to religion, she was raised Catholic, and at a certain point she said, "I'm really having trouble confessing to a white man about my life." The notion that you have individual communion with God is what led her to the Baptist faith.
How did this book help you in your own personal life with your own family?
Around the time I began the book my mother's 65th birthday was coming up. My sister-in-law said, "You boys each need to write your mother a wonderful letter about how great a mom she's been. And we'll give her those letter on her 65th birthday." We all kind of gulped and dragged our feet. and sort of said, "how about a toaster?" It was incredibly awkward for us. I love my mom, but my feelings about her were very complicated. My parents had split up when I was very young. My parents were both involved in my life, but they fought endlessly for the next 20 years. And they both [tried to] turn us against each other, even as they expressed their love for us and fought for us. I never questioned that my mother loved me, but I felt like it wasn't the healthiest environment.
In the intervening months, I spent a lot of time inside some of the families chronicled in the book. Hearing these stories, I became cured of my need to judge my parents-in this case, my mother-against some standard of perfection. I came to understand that it is my mission and my mother's mission and everybody's mission to heal from what we had to deal with, to build on what we've been given, and learn to love other people better. I came to understand, particularly by sitting in the lives of other single working mothers and seeing the stress and the pain they go through, what my own mother had been going through in those years. I understood how hard it was for her to give me the things she had given me and how amazing it was that she had managed to do even that.
And in that spirit I was able to write her a letter in which I spoke about the values she taught me, how important it was that she taught me about cooking, and how big a role cooking and food were in my life today. How she forced me to talk at the dinner table about my relationship with girls, which I didn't want to talk to my mom about. But I grew into a man who could talk to women about my feelings about these most intimate things. And about how school was a real mixed bag, but my mom really emphasized reading. I was not a good writer when I was young, but she worked with me and here I am a writer today. The things that she taught me when I was young are the things that really formed my identity today. Seeing my mom around her family-as a kid growing up in a chaotic house with two brothers just always fighting-I think she was saying, "Is anyone listening to me?" I wanted to tell her that I always was listening, and the things that she taught me I'd heard and I'd built my life around. I sent [the letter] to her. And she wrote me back that "I feel like my life's work is complete." It was a beautiful moment for me .it really put us past something.
For people who are alienated from their families, you wrote that you need to "create a spine" on which to build. What did you mean?
You don't have to accept all those people, or get along with all those people, or like all of this-you need to find one person [in the family] to say, "I'm committed to sticking together in some form. I'm going to be there for you and you're going to be there for me, and that's going to make us stronger as we approach life." And to build on that strength rather than think you have to repair all those faults and all those weaknesses. We're all in search of a sense of family where we belong, and half of that is in the family experiences that we create, not just the one that we're given.