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Beauty Lessons: What I Wish My Daughter Knew by Debra Monroe

I interviewed Debra Monroe last year when her book, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, came out, and was struck by her honesty, her directness and, most of all, her love for her daughter. I am so honored that she offered us this eloquent piece which explores female beauty and how our — and other people’s — reactions to what we see in the mirror changes with age. This is a really powerful article to share and discuss with your own teenage daughters, your mothers, your sisters, your friends. I guarantee you’ll relate to so much of what she says and will be nodding your head in recognition of moments in your own life. We hope you’ll share your thoughts with us.

Photo Courtesy of Susan Reiss

My aunt was a beauty queen in a sparsely populated state in the early 1960s, when beauty pageants weren’t yet stigmatized as shallow. In a rural setting, they seemed like part of the harvest festival. Judges gave prizes for best pickles, finest cow, biggest watermelon. A prize for prettiest girl seemed natural. My aunt had a cloud of dark hair, high cheekbones. I’d watch as she practiced her “talent” on the porch at nightfall, twirling batons with canisters at each end that she lit with a kitchen match, her spangled costume shimmering. A few years later, she was an airline stewardess — a glamorous job, and sexist too, though no one said so yet. Applicants were assessed like pageant contestants: height, weight, figure. I was perhaps five years old when I sat on the floor and watched my aunt open her cosmetic case and apply eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara from a flat box with a little brush, or, for special occasions, false eyelashes. She had a lovely personality, too, and later became a hospice nurse.  Even as a child, I knew that anyone so nice to look at was more likely to coast through some of life’s rough spots.  In the world we inhabited, she had one of the rare forms of power allotted to women that didn’t raise eyebrows or hackles. I saw her at a family reunion when I was an adult, and she was still pretty. I said so, and she smiled and said, “It’s not the meaning of life, but it was fun.”  Beauty, she meant. “If you keep your weight down and stay healthy, it lasts into your fifties.”

“Then?” I asked.

“Then you’re quietly attractive to men your own age but otherwise invisible.”

Other women have confirmed this. “You get new status as a neuter,” an older colleague told me.  A friend said, “One day you’re walking down the street, and it’s like a science fiction movie — the world is familiar, but something essential and almost imperceptible has vanished, something you never knew existed because you’d had it from the dawn of adult life, and you only notice it used to exist because it’s gone.”  She meant that, if you were reasonably attractive, strangers smiled and made eye contact, and you assumed the world was an eye-contact kind of place. Unless you were extremely beautiful, or vain, or opportunistic, you didn’t know you were being perceived as one of the sights to behold — like good architecture or an esplanade of trees during a peak moment in the cycle of bloom.

When I had this conversation with my aunt, I had two reactions.  First, by her calculations, I had two decades before I’d have to acclimate myself to invisibility.  Second, neither of us had been young in an era when we felt pressure to camouflage femininity though, given when we came of age, she was pre-feminist and I was post-feminist.  For her, beauty was one of a few means to more options. For me, it was something I didn’t deemphasize. I could be the Rodgers and Hammerstein girl, attracting the gaze of someone with eyes that smolder, yet have a career that gave me the last say-so about my own life.

This wasn’t as true for women who came of age in the decade between my aunt and me.  I once met a famous person fifteen years older than me. She barely registered the details of our colleague-to-colleague introduction: my name, credentials, why I’d been selected to be on a panel discussion with her. Rather, she gave me the once-over and said, “My God, look at those pants.”  They weren’t sexy, just fashionable, russet-and-black paisley with narrow legs that were “in” that year, and I wore them with black ankle boots with three-inch stack heels, and a thigh-length black tunic. “Lipstick,” she blurted. In the middle of our panel discussion, she found herself agreeing with me, and finally started treating me like a peer. I got to know her, and we later joked about the first moments of our acquaintance.  She said, “You’re a girly girl. How was I to know there was a brain to go with that?” I countered, “That is so 1970s. How retrogressive to think you have to dress like a man to be assumed smart.”  But I couldn’t fault her because I’d been a schoolgirl when the warning to downplay femininity was part of any ambitious woman’s training: the Dress for Success advice about adapting men’s clothes to women—the low-heeled pumps, a suit with padded shoulders, a blouse with a tie-like bow.

Now that I am “quietly attractive to men my own age but otherwise invisible” and the almost imperceptible warm reaction I didn’t understand as age-exclusive has been replaced by something else — respect for my presumed leverage, perhaps — I reconsider the attention we women take for granted when we’re young. I’m not talking about a Grace Kelly level of beauty — or even my aunt’s, recognized with a ceremony and a crown — but the beauty of the average female who emerges from girlhood into adolescence, learning to flatter her best features, someone who is attractive because of youth and effort. When we had it in spades — advantages, slight favors — we didn’t know it. We could see the reception of ourselves only the way we’d so far seen it. We also might not have registered the approving glances because someone else is always more beautiful, getting even more approving glances. And in the information age, images of ideal women proliferate, and it takes wisdom to know that the better part of being attractive – confidence – isn’t achieved with beauty tips.

And the attention wasn’t just fun; it was confusing. Now we understand the primal urges that fuel it but when we were young we didn’t. A school janitor gave me too many compliments when I was in eighth grade, and I felt I must be grotesque to attract the gaze of an adult who seemed creepy yet irrelevant. Boys my own age acted friendly, then inexplicably angry. I didn’t realize then that sexual desire sometimes causes people to project extreme emotion onto its object. And whether you’re male or female, it’s startling to have incited interest before you’ve felt it yourself.

When I was barely an adult, there were catcalls from car windows or scaffoldings on high, not exactly gratifying because group attention arrives with a hint of menace. I liked the implied compliment — instincts I’d had about how to make the most of my looks were good instincts, apparently — but I was intimidated. I rode my bicycle to campus, and I’d have to go an indirect, lengthier route not to pass through the bar district, where there’d be daytime drinkers standing in doorways, assessing coeds. I didn’t think anyone would come after me on my bicycle, but I didn’t like it that my precise schedule had turned public.  I lived in a studio apartment in a chopped-up old house. Every time I locked myself out, I’d crawl back in through a window with a broken lock. One summer night, I was lying in bed, and I woke from a dream in which I heard my name being called.  When I woke all the way up, I realized my name was being called by gaggle of college boys across the street who were sitting on their porch, drunk. I’d never spoken to any of them, but the fact they knew my name meant they’d been on my front stoop and had read my mailbox, which I hadn’t thought to label with my last name and first initial only.

Around the same time, one of my professors coached me about how to move forward in the profession — almost every professor was male then — and mentioned that my lack of confidence would be an asset because, I was “bright” and, he added, “pretty.”  If I had confidence too, he said, it would be too much. I went on to earn a PhD, and, yes, the occasional store clerk might have waited on me more avidly, or a traffic cop perhaps gave me a warning instead of a citation. But I was broke and busy and didn’t spend much time shopping or in front of mirrors. I worried more about how my résumé looked.

So attracting the first gaze was flattering but scary, not fun. But it began to be. When, by my younger self’s standard, I was over the hill at thirty-five years old, and rushing for a plane while wearing a summer dress, people gawked at me.  Before I’d left home, I’d looked in the mirror at the way my lipstick matched my dress; my handbag mismatched my dress in an edgy, stylish way, I felt. What had happened since?  My dress was torn?  My lipstick, so carefully applied, had smeared? But people were making eye contact and smiling, I noted. Most were men. This was good attention, I realized, and I didn’t feel intimidated because I trusted my ability to keep myself safe. Or I was safe in an airport.  Now that I’m almost twenty years older than I was that day, I’m convinced women in their thirties look their best, the beginning of aging a natural cosmetic, deepening creases in our eyelids, turning skin taut enough to accentuate good bones. A signature sense of style emerges. Most importantly — and this enhancement lasts for the rest of our lives—we’ve accumulated experience, and so we’ve thought shrewdly, perceptively.  Our facial expressions have turned interesting and complex.

I became a mother when I was thirty-nine; I adopted a baby. I instantly loved my daughter who, even as an infant, looked wise and beautiful. We’re an interracial mother and daughter, and, when she was little, we lived in a place where interracial families were rare, so we attracted attention for that fact alone. I’m certain I would have enjoyed dressing her and doing her hair, dressing myself and doing my hair, because I’m a “girly girl,” as my friend said. Yet my daughter was almost always the only black child in every setting, and the ideals of African-American beauty and the ideals of Caucasian beauty are different, and I wanted my daughter to grow up feeling confident as her own lovely self.  So I spent time choosing clothes that accentuated her skin tone, braiding and unbraiding her lush hair. I was also going out into the world as her representative, so I wanted to be well-dressed and articulate, to help smooth her way, to model for her the poise and assurance to smooth her own way later. Attractiveness doesn’t equal success, of course, which is achieved bit by bit: with education, a sense of fair play, a work ethic, passion for your vocation.  But first impressions are a step forward, and knowing that strangers studied us and that our presence often incited controversy, I felt a more urgent impulse to groom both of us. That said, we clearly enjoyed ourselves. Even when she was a child, we loved shopping, rushing home with our bags, laying out purchases on our beds, holding them up, saying, “I love the new shoes.” “That dress is a great color for you.”

A few years later, I fell in love and got married — a June bride literally, not symbolically. I had my first hot flash days before the wedding.  Still, I wasn’t thinking about my age.  Later, as I looked at photos, I thought how wonderful my daughter looked, and my stepson too. My husband looked dear, familiar. I looked like a hostess, not a great beauty.

My friend once told me that the end of the gaze, and the loss of power the gaze confers, goes undetected at first. One day you realize it’s been gone for a while, and you wonder when it disappeared. It disappeared while I was a newlywed, having moved to a city, concentrating on my new husband and stepson, and on my daughter’s sense of self in this new context.  Until the neighborhood got used to us, we got plenty of gazes of a different sort, because the fact that we’re an interracial family continues to make us a magnet for some strangers’ lingering glances.  However, I remember the last appreciative male gaze aimed at me and me alone. I was in my car at a stop sign, waiting for a man to walk across the street. I was spoken for, deeply in love, not at all on the make. But, as he passed in front of my car, he looked good — my type, or what used to be.  I was a reverse Irwin Shaw character, enjoying the enjoyment: appreciating men in their summer attire.  I assumed I was unseen behind the windshield, appreciating male beauty as one of the sights to behold, but he was looking back. We both smiled, embarrassed. It was the last time.

Yet the shift of the gaze from myself to my daughter is, for me, an exhilarating and chaotic surge of pride, protectiveness, and patience.  As I watch her — forbidden to wear makeup except on special occasions — experience the age-old young girl’s confusion about why the gaze sometimes turns her way, I understand it’s a new confusion for her.  She wants advice, but not too much. She wants to figure out what she can by herself.  One day at a mall I was looking at anti-frizz hair serum — even dyed gray hair is wiry hair — and my daughter was nearby, admiring polka-dot toe socks, and a boy who was several years older approached her. She’s tall for her age, and she may have seemed to him old enough to have driven to the mall to shop alone since we were a few feet apart and in public situations no one ever thinks we’re together because we don’t look like mother and daughter. This boy, with his demeanor that seemed like an unintentional parody of the male overture, said, “What’s up, girl?” If he hadn’t looked so ill at ease, I might have been alarmed. I walked over and said to my daughter, “Time for us to go home, honey. You have math homework.” As we left, she asked, “What did that guy want?”  This was no time for the what-do-guys-want conversation.  I said, “He was trying to flirt, and he’s way too old for you.”  She looked flattered and scared.  Both of these emotions — pride and fear — are necessary.

She’s the age I was when that school janitor kept flagging me down to strike up odd conversation. All friendliness isn’t mere friendliness, I want to tell my daughter.  Sometimes it’s the irrational, evolutionary, sexual urge. But I don’t say exactly that.  Between my pointed, careful advice and the school health class lecture, the irrational, evolutionary, sexual urge seems like catechism to her: overdiscussed, theoretical. She looks polite yet bored. I keep finding moments to say, for instance, “It’s not okay that the man who runs the skating rink hugs girls. If he hugs you, skate away and stay close to friends. Let him know you’re not alone.” My daughter and I have been close, so she doesn’t yet find my warnings endless, paranoid.  She looked at me, as though registering a common-sense solution, and said: “Good idea.”  Meanwhile, she’s finding her own style, which has nothing to do with allure –a colorful hoodie, layers of tank tops, jeans, high-top shoes. Her pleasure is in self-definition, a girly version of tomboy I’d never have cultivated. What advice would I give her if words alone would keep her safe and happy?  Be safe. Fear is a healthy instinct. Be happy. Pride is a healthy instinct too. I want to clue her in, as my aunt did me, that it’s good to enjoy yourself. Don’t obsess about someone else’s seeming perfection, your own imagined imperfection. But beauty is just a sideline, I’d emphasize. Focus on building your future. Use your brains and determination.

That’s what we talk about most: school, grades, good ideas for a career. As for female beauty, my daughter will learn for herself exactly what it is and isn’t worth. So I hold my tongue. What imperfections does she imagine she has? She’s wearing a high-fashion, short hairdo these days, and she worries her ears are too small. “Small?” I say, incredulous. “Do you want big ears?” She wants normal ears, she says. I drop it, because she’ll have to understand this on her own — how beautiful she is, as is. She’ll discover this in her thirties. In her forties, she’ll feel sure enough she won’t think about her looks much. Sometime in her fifties, when the bloom of youth has passed away and she’s quietly attractive to men her own age, she’ll have experiences and satisfactions that make beauty beside the point. I hope she’ll feel how I feel now. I don’t have much inclination to miss my former physical self because watching my smart, savvy daughter come of age is tangible proof that my work, so far, is turning out fine.

Instead of a young woman’s beauty — which was transitory after all, not to mention ornamental, all form, little function — I have a face that is a map of a life in which I dreamed a few dreams and worked hard to make some of them come true.  I have a job I have consistently loved, a home I helped create, and most of all, a daughter, and now a stepson too, who are pleasures to behold.

Debra Monroe On Transracial Adoption and “On the Outskirts of Normal”

It’s hard enough to be a single mother. It’s even harder, as Debra Monroe discovered, to be the white single mother of an African-American baby in rural Texas. Debra shares her experiences — which include often-mortifying reactions from strangers; the struggle to balance work, illness and child-rearing; and doing right by her little girl’s hair — in the powerful On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging A Family Against the Grain. Approaching her subject matter the same way she approached motherhood — unapologetically, with intent, determined to figure it out — Debra has written a brutally, and beautifully, honest account of transracial adoption and, more importantly, the color-blind bond between parent and child. Not only was she able to create a solid and loving against-the-odds family with her daughter but, through this book, has gathered a whole new family of fans who have taken her story to heart. I am one of those fans, and I was thrilled to be able to learn more in this very personal interview with Debra — and her daughter, Marie!

I so enjoyed reading your book but kept wishing that you hadn’t had to write it, that — in the 21st century — the fact that a single white woman adopted an African-American baby wouldn’t be worthy of a dramatic story. What surprised you most about people’s reactions?

Well, many of the events took place a dozen years ago and in a setting that really put the magnifying glass on them — a small town, which wasn’t close to diverse.  On the other hand, your point is trenchant in that it’s not entirely a book about race. It’s a book about motherhood, and my race vis-à-vis my daughter’s race is a part of the story, but not the entire story.  Readers tell me that they expect the book to be about race more than it actually is, or for it to be about race in a way that’s sort of mythological and not realistic — in the way The Blind Side or The Help or even To Kill A Mockingbird are mythological, or at least not realistic for our times. Those are books in which there are clear protagonists and antagonists (enlightened crusaders vs. the clueless ones).  Real life is more complex than that. Enlightened crusaders sometimes condescend. People who are clueless are sometimes imprisoned by the values of the era in which they were raised and can be jarred out of reflexive beliefs. And it’s also true in real life you can’t tell off or avoid every insensitive person.

Race isn’t irrelevant in the book, of course — it is the sole subject of two entire chapters, and the topic of race is infused throughout the rest of the book in the form of strangers’ comments and the assumptions imbedded in their comments.  I’ll be thinking about a doctor’s diagnosis, or how to get Marie home before bedtime, or what first grade will be like for her, and someone starts talking about race. The questions were usually (not always!) kindly, if constant and disruptive. I’m not black, of course, and I can’t write from the perspective of someone who is. But I am the white mother of a black child, and I wrote about that. My daughter’s race is (or would be) irrelevant to me, but it isn’t to other people, and so I’ve had to step up and deal with other people’s attitudes. The amount of attention I give the subject of race in the book reflects the amount of attention I give it in real life. When people bring it up, I will speak forcefully but tactfully. When strangers brought it up in front of my daughter, I did resist talking about it at length — soapboxing — because I’ve always felt she deserved the privacy to ask her own questions about race, and about the sad, scary history of race in America, and to have the freedom and privacy to wonder what she wonders, discover what she discovers, without an audience of strangers. I thought she should have that experience with me, or a trusted mentor, and not in front of a stranger, with the stranger referring to my daughter in the third person. The last thing I wanted her to be was everybody else’s symbol of their own (self- congratulatory) tolerance, or a public object lesson.

If I read anonymous internet comments under reviews or interviews  — and, believe me, I’m learning not to! — some people, most of whom focus on an out-of-context line in the review or interview and haven’t read the book — say I have either made too much of race and exploited the subject, while other people think I’ve not done justice to the amount of prejudice that still exists, that I’m therefore raising my daughter too sheltered from racial realities. I couldn’t shelter her from all realities of prejudice, as the book makes clear, or the startling facts once she started to learn American history. However, I did think it was my responsibility to shelter her from racism in her own life — to get her out of that weird first grade classroom as swiftly as possible, for instance, drawing as little attention to the process as I did. I taught her to stand up to the school bus bullies. I don’t think prolonged exposure to someone’s racism is helpful or instructive. I think it’s only demoralizing.

I guess what surprises me most, but shouldn’t, is that you can’t say anything about race in America without someone from each side of the spectrum getting hackles up and telling you you’ve got it wrong. But no one can agree on exactly which way I’ve got it wrong.  Finally, it’s one story — influenced by a specific time and place and circumstance — and not everyone’s.

What was most emotional to me was that this is – at its heart — really the story of a new mother trying to care for and raise her daughter by itself. That seems much more important than the stupid comments of ignorant strangers, and I’m sure will resonate with single moms everywhere. What was the hardest part about raising a child alone?

The sheer multi-tasking and the fear I couldn’t do it all. I knew I was raising a child without a husband. Lots of women do. Even married women who have really uninvested husbands do. But if there is a father, divorced or asleep in the recliner or on a business trip, these mothers still have a little time off. A few hours here or there. Weeks or weekends off if you have split custody. And if you have even an ex-husband, you probably have two sets of relatives to call on. What I totally underestimated was the need for extended family. I remember watching “American Idol” with my daughter (she loved it when she was in grade school) and there was a finalist whose M.O. was that she was a single mother trying to win to give her child a better life. I kept thinking: how can she be in Los Angeles without her child for 8 weeks? One night she thanked her mom and grandma, with whom she lived, and her grandma provided daycare.  I remember thinking: ah, that’s the part I didn’t understand.

The four years when we were both sick seem to me, in retrospect, like one long emergency. At one point, I “interviewed” Marie about what she remembered about our life before we moved to the city. All her memories were happy and fun: Johnny Cash songs sung into the Playskool microphone, or her pink pajama pants stuffed with the wrapped presents, or gardening, sewing, cooking, swimming. I gently prodded her to see what she recalled about my surgery, or hers, or other difficult moments. And she doesn’t remember much. Those moments loomed large for me, because I was responsible for her sense of security and working hard at handling crises while also shielding her from them.

I’m now married to a man who’s a great father, and the best thing a good co-parent does is help you make big decisions. If you’re alone all the time, you doubt your judgment.  Am I overreacting, underreacting? I’d been dating him just three weeks when he helped me decide to get my daughter out of that classroom. He helped me decide what to do about the expensive hair care option. I’m not sure I would have made the same (good) decisions without his input, because I tended to self-doubt and second-guess. I am so grateful for his perspective now, every time some significant decision comes up.

You give readers a real sense of place – those small towns feel so red-neck to me, especially when the people who live there ask you questions like, “What is she?” or “Is that a crack baby?”  Do you think your story would be different if you were living in a big city when you adopted Marie?

Absolutely. But people still make race-based assumptions in the city. That she’s a shoplifter, because she seems to be alone in the store, not shopping with me, because we don’t look alike. Maybe the same clerk would think that about a white adolescent who seemed alone in a store too, but I don’t think so. Or that she’s going to be good at sports but not academics. Or that she lives in a less affluent neighborhood. They just don’t say the words “black” or “African-American” when they state these assumptions. We live in semantically cautious times, and people in the city learned that sooner than people in the country—they have a more careful vocabulary on tap.

A great thing about living in the city — again, this is a side-effect of living in a later decade — is that there are other interracial families here. I see interracial families a few times a week. There are fewer in Austin, Texas, than there were in Los Angles when I visited Los Angeles a month ago. But everywhere there are more than there were 14 years ago.

Not only were you the first one in your family to graduate from high school but you went on to earn your Ph.D. and have a successful writing career. How were you able to overcome your own childhood, which included abusive men, alcoholics and a neglectful mother? Where did you find that strength and determination?

My mother wasn’t at all neglectful when I was a child. She bailed out when I was in my early twenties. It was sad. But it didn’t destroy me. I can’t stress enough the difference between a mother who neglects her child, and a mother who can’t be there for her grown children. A mother’s inability to mother a child has life-long ramifications. A mother’s inability to be available to her adult child is sad, but, in my case, I had my essential lessons instilled already. I’d learned to give love, receive love. I might have been a little hungry for it by the time I adopted, for a return to the sense of the unconditional permanence of familial love, and perhaps overweening and cautious. But I knew how to do it.

My mother was a wonderful woman whose world came crashing down on her, and she bailed out on her entire life, including her adult children. I know from experience, and from having done research about motherless children and attachment disorder, that I’m fairly lucky. It hurt to lose my mother in my early twenties — in ways that I didn’t fully come to terms with until I was in my forties — but if she hadn’t been such a good, nurturing mother when I was a child, I wouldn’t have been good at mothering at all.  How we mother ourselves is determined by how we have been mothered, unless we consciously set out to learn to do so differently. Social workers who supervised my earliest days with Marie, and strangers too, remarked how instinctively and effortlessly maternal I was. Touch is the first language of love a child understands. Then structure and safety and routine. I learned those early, so I knew how to give them to Marie.

The biggest legacy of my mother’s life I had to unlearn was that she didn’t have a bottom line about how men treated her, a failing that was, in part, generational. She didn’t feel equal to men. I grew up feeling the same way, though I was, in theory, post-feminist. As for how I educated myself, as I say in the book: school was structure. My family structure disappeared. School was such a reliable and rewarding replacement. You work hard at school and you’re rewarded tangibly. You work hard on your dysfunctional family and you may or may not be rewarded — you might even be making more trouble for yourself.

What’s amazing, with your family background, is how unselfishly you were willing and eager to give your love to a child. It’s like you said – “Love is like spelling. You learn good spelling early. Or you never do.” How were you able to open your heart so generously when you certainly had no role models in that area?

I did learn love early. As a child, I did have a great role model. My mother did most things right. What she didn’t do right is choose men. She can be forgiven for that. You’ll notice I absorbed that from her too, along with nurturing and tenderness. So I had to keep the best of what I learned from her — love, structure, essential kindness — and reject the worst, which was her fear of being alone, her subservience toward men.

I loved the chapter about Marie’s hair and the amazing amount of time, effort and care you put into getting her hair right. It’s such a fascinating – and important – topic, and one that Chris Rock’s explored in his documentary, “Good Hair.” What other culture-related challenges have you had to face?

Well, I’m going to get slammed for saying this, but I would say geographic apartheid. I just looked up the census statistics about the little town I used to live in. African-American, 0%. (We moved away—maybe it used to be 1%.).  It’s 11% in Austin. But not in our neighborhood. This is a very liberal city — the Chamber of Commerce tourism slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.”  Yet it’s still segregated in a self-perpetuating, voluntary way — or maybe not entirely voluntary way because of median income and property values.  But people gravitate to what they know as “community.” I’m constantly wishing for more diverse social settings, but there are few. A friend who has her Ph.D. in urban planning just moved from Austin to Chicago. She loved Austin but is thrilled that in Chicago she was able to find many diverse neighborhoods. This is so not the case here.

Why did you want to write this book? Is there a specific message you want to pass along?

In the book I talk a lot about “clout,” how I got clout, what I was like before I did, how I am since I got it. My message is that each of us, at some point in life, is handed a series of painful experiences we wouldn’t choose to endure but must. Choosing to be a mother has been my great joy. But, given the chance, I would have opted out on the nearly fatal illness, my daughter’s illnesses, the shock of my mother’s disappearance, reappearance, and death, and the numbing isolation. Yet without these experiences I would be a less able mother than I am today. I’m not saying that bad things happen for a reason. I’m saying that bad things happen. And if we pay attention, we will probably be wiser and stronger afterward.

You are so open and honest in telling your personal story. Were there parts that were difficult to write? Parts you wanted to leave out?

I felt guilty for telling my mother’s story — I don’t think I could have done so if she were still alive. I also feel ashamed of my own bad decisions in the chapters in which my surgery and a series of other mishaps spiral together. But when I write the difficult moments, I always picture one sympathetic reader at a time, not a judgmental horde. I know that when I have been discouraged or sad, I’ve sometimes stayed up all night reading a book that spoke to my difficulties. I think it’s right and necessary to explore difficult times. People who have found themselves in similar straits feel saner, less lonely, generally better off for having read someone else’s account.

Was it strange to write a memoir after writing novels? And, in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, how would you have written this story differently if you were writing it as a novel?

I sort of did write it as novel, in my previous book, Shambles.  And the reviews were like: this novel is trying too hard to be politically correct. Doesn’t that say it all?  No one believed me when they thought I was making it up. Of course I changed some details in the novel, heightened certain tensions. But it covers many of the same issues.

Photo by Scott Van Osdol

Marie’s had questions of her own since she was prattling chains of syllables at age 15 months. I’ve always answered them. She’s used to me being a writer, having books out, and she’s gone to many conferences and readings with me since she was a baby, so, in some ways, this isn’t different. Except she’s on the cover of the book. Right now she thinks that’s cool, fun. Most kids her age would but I don’t think any adolescent understands what it fully means, and I know that. I talked to her a long time before I submitted the book for publication, to see what she thought. If she truly seemed uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have. And I would have insisted on a different cover photo if she’d objected. And I feel right with my decision to write this book because I don’t tell her secrets, only my own. She did say not long ago that it was “our” book.  Her friend corrected her: Your mom wrote it. Marie said, “She couldn’t have without me.” So true.  It’s a book about how, in my forties, I finally addressed a few problems in my life and got them right. I couldn’t do it for myself, to improve my life. But I was compelled to do it for her, to be a better a mother and role model.

I’d add that we were, whether we liked it not, public figures in the small town just for being so conspicuously unlike everyone else, and she’s accustomed to attention.  If she hadn’t been handling it well, I probably would have moved away from the small town long before I did. She was on the front page of the small town newspaper all the time. Every time there was a school event, she’d be in the newspaper photo because the newspaper wanted the town to look diverse. I don’t think she makes a distinction between being in the Wimberley Times and People magazine. She was quite unimpressed by People magazine. This is what she said about the People magazine photo: “Well, I don’t read that magazine.” Who knows what she’ll ultimately think? But a review recently pointed out that it is a book in which she comes off stronger and better than anyone else.  And that’s because — I’m bragging now — she pretty much is.

Marie looks like a happy, confident young woman. Can you tell us a little about the person she’s becoming?

She has a gift for working with small children.  She’s a mensch about human nature in general. She’s not underconfident or ill at ease, but she notices kids who are and helps bring them into the fold. She has zero tolerance for bullies. I don’t mean she gets mad.  They just aren’t on her radar. There was a “mean girl” at camp recently, and I said, shuddering, long-time coward that I am, “How can you stand being in a cabin for two weeks with someone like that?” Marie turned to me with a level stare and said, “Mom, sometimes you meet people you just ignore. You can’t let them ruin your day.”

How has life changed in the time since the book ends? And have people’s reactions changed since you moved and married?

Basically fewer people ask in their roundabout way if I’ve had sex with a black man, no kidding.  In part, because you don’t ask that in the city, and, in part, because I’m out in public with my husband and his son too, and it’s fairly obvious she’s not our biological child. It’s been interesting to watch my husband learn to navigate the chronic awkwardness. He was recently trying to pay for Marie’s sandwich in Subway, and the clerk told him to back off, to give the young lady space. My husband, startled, said, “Umm, I’m her father and I’m just trying to pay for her sandwich.” Marie cracked up and said to the clerk, “He’s my dad, not a stalker.” I realized when he told me about it that I’d long ago learned to make small talk with Marie in public places where we’re unknown to people, just to make it clear we’re together. I apparently started doing this unconsciously.  But of course he hasn’t.

What’s next for you professionally?

I’m not sure because promoting and traveling for a book is so time-consuming. I’m writing a lot of short magazine pieces and book reviews now. But what’s emerging is an idea for a nonfiction book with an overarching personal narrative, but also research, and interviews with other people, with the working title, The Last First Kiss: Courting and Sparking in Middle-Age. People in their forties and fifties having to begin to date again is kind of a new cultural phenomenon. More people divorce now. More long-married men and women come out gay late in a marriage and fall in love. For both gay and straight couples, this sometimes includes blending families. Some people live longer, so one spouse dies and the other has 30 more years and doesn’t want to spend them alone. The narrative arc would be my own changing ideas about what marriage is and isn’t over the course of several decades. I went from being fairly conventional on the subject; to radically disenfranchised, thinking a marriage in which a woman’s professional ideals don’t get swallowed was a pious but unrealizable ideal; to changing my mind again, learning to understand that, with the right partner, we can retain the best features of the traditional partnership and adapt it too. And I’d interview people from different demographic categories who did partner happily late in life.

Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think it’s going to make a big difference in many people’s lives.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.