At the first bookstore event for my new memoir, Highs in the Low Fifties, a woman in the audience raised her hand and asked, “How do your children feel about having a mom who writes about her life the way you do?”
I spied one of the parties in question lounging against a bookshelf behind the last row of seats. “In fact,” I replied, “my 12-year-old daughter is right here in the store. Jane, how do you feel about your mother publishing a book about her adventures as a hard-partying, middle-aged semi-slut?”
My lovely girl pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “Well,” she said. “It might not be my first choice.”
This incisive yet discreet observation inspired the following interview with Jane Winik Sartwell about her views on being the daughter of a memoirist:
Have you actually read your mother’s latest book?
Do you want to read it?
I don’t need to know that stuff.
What is it about?
About her trying to get a boyfriend or whatever after she got divorced. Yeah.
Is it embarrassing for you?
You’ve been accompanying your mother on her book tour. What is it like to hear her read these stories aloud?
Even more embarrassing. Especially considering she reads the part where she’s trying to date this illegal immigrant guy who was on a construction crew in our basement. ... Whatever. It’s what she loves to do. And it’s cool that people like know her name and stuff.
Are there things you feel she shouldn’t write about?
It’s too late, she’s written about it all.
And she writes about you as well?
And do you mind that?
Not really, I think it’s kind of cool to have stories written about you. And if you’re a memoirist, you have to write about your life, and your children are part of that.
Yet your mother has often been given the advice that one should never write about one’s children. Though she has ignored this wisdom, do you feel she tries to protect your privacy?
Yeah, kind of. Like when she wrote about my crush on a kid in my class, which I can’t believe she did, at least she was pretty vague. And when Poodie [Jane’s 23-year-old brother, Vince] got mad at her for describing him as like, um, not the most productive person, and told her stop writing about him, she did. My other brother [Hayes, 25] she makes look perfect all the time, so of course he doesn’t mind. But with herself, she doesn’t have, like, any boundaries.
Are her stories true or does she embellish and exaggerate?
Oh, they’re all true. She doesn’t try to cover stuff up or make stuff up. That’s her philosophy, that you should just say what really happened. And ... yeah.
Are there any of her essays you like?
I love, love, love the one she wrote about our family vacation to Atlantis [the resort in the Bahamas]. It’s hilarious. Her perspective is always so different than mine, like I’m just running around having fun and she’s always worrying about money and criticizing the food and stuff.
Isn’t it true that you first learned when reading this essay that your mother, who was acting a little odd one day at the water park, had smoked pot with your brother? Was that upsetting?
Well, I already knew something was weird. I thought she took too much of her medication or something. I mean, it’s not like the Kardashians. I heard one of them—Kourtney I think it was—found out she was adopted from reading her mother’s book. Even if that’s not true, they have it a lot worse than me. They have so much stuff that’s not even true written about them in the tabloids. People are mean to them and ridicule them. ... I think my mom’s book is probably a lot better than their mom’s, which she wrote just to get famous.
So being a Winik is a little like being a Kardashian?
Well, people don’t care about us as much and we’re not as crazy as they are.
So which Winik is which Kardashian?
I’m Kylie, because I’m the youngest and don’t have the same dad as my other siblings. Hayes is Kim, because he’s the most successful and good-looking. Vince is Khloe, the moody, opinionated one. And Mom is Kris Jenner, who has to run around taking care of everyone and making sure they’re OK.
So would you say your mother a role model for you in any way?
Yeah, of course! She doesn’t care what people think and she is fearless. She doesn’t always make the greatest choices, but she always makes jokes out of the outcomes, which is really good. Her attitude about life is crazy and awesome and she is very generous and stuff. She has a postcard over her desk that says, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning,” which I think explains it perfectly.
* A postscript from “Kris Jenner”
It is a challenge to write about your family members—probably one of the most serious ethical challenges of writing memoir. A poster child for the worst-case scenario might be Linda Gray Sexton, whose memoir Searching For Mercy Street details how devastating it was to be the subject of mother Anne Sexton’s intense confessional poetry. Unfortunately, according to Sexton’s mother (this comes from a letter Anne wrote her psychiatrist defending the poems), “The writing comes first. This is my way of mastering experience.”
Um ... no. The children come first, then the writing. But for me, leaving them out of the story is out of the question. They are my story, or a good bit of it, anyway. In fact, they made me a memoirist.
I had writer’s block, or something like it, through most of my 20s. It mysteriously disappeared during my first pregnancy, which coincided with my first personal essay, How to Get Pregnant in the Modern World. After that, I was writing about one of the most painful experiences of my life, a full-term stillbirth. Within a year, I was on to breastfeeding in public, then traveling with a baby in Mexico, then, sadly, about being the widowed single mother of two little boys. More than 25 years later, the material has not run out. Highs in the Low Fifties, though largely about dating, has one chapter called “The Boomer and the Boomerang,” about my son moving home after college, and another called “Chicken Soup for Dina Lohan,” which explains just what kind of lazy-ass mom I am at 55 to that smarty-pants Jane Sartwell, and why I think it actually might be OK.
That lady at the bookstore who posed the question about my kids was probably shocked to learn that Jane was in the store during the preceding presentation about my racy and self-incriminating book. But my willingness to confess my shortcomings and mistakes as a mom and a person has created our family culture. The kids are used to it. And of course I give them the courtesy I give everyone else I write about—they read everything I write about them before it’s published.
Usually the requested changes are minor, but as Jane mentioned, her brother Vince recently asked me to lay off him for a while. At 23, he wants a little more control over his public image, and he’s tired of being made fun of in print. I get it. So for now, if you want to know about Vince, friend him on Facebook.
I think if you treat your children with respect, you can avoid the Linda Gray Sexton scenario—but I guess we’ll find out when Jane gets her reality show, her book deal, and her swimsuit line a few years from now.