by Katie Hafner
I have been a journalist for 35 years, happily writing about the lives of others, while just as happily dodging my own story.
That changed in the summer of 2009 when, in the wake of a crisis in her life, my mother moved from San Diego to San Francisco – and in with my teenage daughter and me. My mother was 77. I was 51. We planned to live together for a year, as an experiment in multigenerational living.
I was determined to do what I could to help my mother – not just through this particularly difficult time for her, but on through the last years of her life. I held fast to a fairytale view of our relationship that made me certain everything about our experiment would work out just fine. My mother was equally starry-eyed. We both referred to our upcoming adventure as “Our Year in Provence.”
There was just one problem: My mother and I didn’t really know each other. I had been taken away from her when I was 10 (she had been an alcoholic), and she hadn’t raised me. Yet for years I had convinced myself that I had emerged from my childhood unscathed, and not the least bit angry at my mother.
As it turned out, to no one’s surprise except perhaps my own, I wasn’t over the past. Not one little bit. Soon after my mother moved in, I began acting out in small, cruel ways. When we blended households, I rejected her furniture, her artwork, even her Tupperware, in favor of my own stuff. If she needed my help with something, I did it, but grudgingly. I lay in bed at night feeling guilty, confused, sorry and tormented.
And this is how I made the unexpectedly difficult transition from journalist to memoirist: One night, while in the above-mentioned state of mental anguish and unable to sleep, I thought to myself, “Either this living arrangement is going to kill me, or I will write about it.” I got out of bed and wrote.
I usually struggle to write 500 words, but within a few hours, I had written nearly 5,000. That’s not to say that what I had written was any good; it was more stream of consciousness than anything. Every word of it had come straight from my heart. Over the next weeks I refined my late-night ramblings and turned them into a book proposal.
Of all the books I’ve written, I thought this would be the easiest. After all, I figured, it’s a memoir and would require little in the way of reporting and research. But Mother Daughter Me turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write, partly because it was so emotionally wrenching, and partly because the journalist in me stood square in the way of what I needed to do.
The first draft, a set of clinical observations, read like a book about a woman named Katie Hafner, written by a journalist who also happened to be named Katie Hafner, with no discernable link between the two. My editor at Random Houses, who frequently acted more as therapist than editor, tried to find a polite way to point out the emotional disconnect, writing questions in the margins like this one:
I’m guessing that you’re using each of these vignettes—the conversation with Zoë about your appearance, the parallel parking lesson with your mother, and the highly emotional session with Ada—to explore questions of need and dependence, autonomy and caretaking, power and control, across generations. Please make sure that all the pieces resonate in one way or another with all of these issues relating to mother love.
Easier said than done. With each new draft, I was forced to plumb my emotions in ways I had never dared. At the same time, I had to make certain I was telling a compelling story whose themes are universal. No one wants to read bland diary entries. Even celebrities have to be careful not to bore their reader, come across as self-absorbed or, worse, appear to be whining. Just look at the rolling of eyes Gwyneth Paltrow’s chronicle of first-world problems has inspired.
Then there was the honesty. In a memoir, you must strip yourself naked. You don’t want to gratuitously tell the whole truth, of course, but honesty has to be at the core of the story. I had to show my own pettiness and fear, exposing a side of me that I am by no means proud of. But that’s the pact you have to make with memoir writing. Readers aren’t dumb, and if you withhold information, or tell a slanted story, or become in any other way an unreliable narrator, the reader is bound to notice, and lose patience. So in an important way, my determination to write a balanced story – in other words, my journalistic instincts – forced me into honesty.
And the book’s raw truth-telling was something reviewers pointed to consistently. After I finished the memoir, it was a relief to start writing again about other people. And now, having turned my reporter’s lens on myself has made me a more thoughtful journalist – and, I hope, a better one.
Katie Hafner is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, where she writes on healthcare. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, The Huffington Post and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of six books of nonfiction: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (with John Markoff); The House at the Bridge: A Story of Modern Germany; Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (with Matthew Lyon);The Well: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community; and A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano. Her most recent book, a memoir titled Mother Dautghter Me, was published by Random House in 2013.