Patriarchy is a negotiation.
December 27, 2018 1:42 PM   Subscribe

"Life is just a shock to the system. It turns out that the man I have spent 50 years believing to be my father is not my father. My mother lied to me about who my father is." Elizabeth Wurtzel: Neither of my parents was exactly who I thought they were.
posted by everybody had matching towels (37 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
Jack Nicholson learned, at 37, that the person he believed was his sister was actually his mother. Back in the day, because of shaming and/or family pressures, folks could and did hide stuff, and this is the result.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:16 PM on December 27, 2018 [12 favorites]


Same thing happened to Eric Clapton.

But I really felt this piece because of the way things are going in my life. Sometimes lies really are easier than truths in the moment and omission is like fresh air.

But it all turns to shit eventually.
posted by klanawa at 2:30 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I hope this part in bold was also a lie, but I suspect it's true:

Donald Wurtzel got a job at IBM in Poughkeepsie after my parents got married in 1965. He never went to college, and my mother, fresh out of Cornell, took a personnel test that qualified her for a better position at IBM than he had — but, as she recalls, company policy did not allow a wife to outrank her husband. So my mother found this or that part-time thing. But besides Vassar College, what was there?
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:11 PM on December 27, 2018 [15 favorites]


Yeah a buddy of mine had this happen to him. Found out after about 20 years that he was actually not his "mother's" son, but actually his "aunt's". And also his "father" was not his "father" and his real father was an alcoholic with "shell shock" who drank himself to death.

From what I can tell it fucked him up pretty good.

So the kicker to this story is, another (now)ex-friend of mine, he got to hear all the sordid details of this story, and has seen how fucked up my buddy is, and heard first hand how it fucked with his identity, and then he decides: You know what? that kid my wife is having that isn't my biological son, which I only found out about at 7 months, I think I'm gonna raise that kid as my own son and never tell him the truth. Just... wtf man? You have first hand info on how this shit fucks people up and you're just gonna GO RIGHT AHEAD with this crazy plan? Have you no empathy? smh
posted by some loser at 3:15 PM on December 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


I liked everything about this piece, especially the almost lurching style. What still stands out for me, after reading it almost an hour ago, was her insight into her mother and her mother's experience as a woman at a particular time in a particular place. It's too bad her mother does not read what she writes about her. I hope Wurtzel survives her cancer.
posted by kemrocken at 3:19 PM on December 27, 2018 [14 favorites]


poor soul
posted by growabrain at 3:36 PM on December 27, 2018


Her 2013 piece might be useful, for those who have not read anything else by her.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:38 PM on December 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this was very good and I expect I'll be thinking about it a lot.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:39 PM on December 27, 2018


My sister outlaw (former sister-in-law) has a story like this, and isn’t sure she wants to know for certain. But she has generally figured out what happened, and all the silence and secrecy her parents maintained helped no one and improved nothing.
posted by datawrangler at 3:39 PM on December 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I finally know a little bit more about my birth father. Enough that I can stop wondering and thinking up horrible things. When we are left to wonder, our imagination can take us to dark places. In general, it is better to know. And knowing all along that the father who raised me was my adopted father helped me cope (a little) with some of his grave shortcomings as a father.

A good piece. I’m glad she can bury the tortured relationship she had with her not-father.
posted by amanda at 4:19 PM on December 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


So, the question is are you the child of your genetic parent(s) or the one(s) that raised and nurtured you? Your choice. Choose wisely...
posted by jim in austin at 4:46 PM on December 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


This was an excellent and wrenching piece. She is a good writer.

I think back to the vicious personal criticism she received from reviewers on publication of Prozac Nation, and wonder what would have been different if she had been a man.

Michiko Kakutani (NYT): its "self-pitying passages make the reader want to shake the author, and remind her that there are far worse fates than growing up during the '70s in New York and going to Harvard."

Walter Kirn (NY Magazine): "almost unbearable" and "a work of singular self-absorption."

Erica L. Werner (The Harvard Crimson): "tedious and poorly written story of Wurtzel's melodramatic life, warts and all (actually all warts)...How did this chick get a book contract in the first place? Why was she allowed to write such crap?... obscenely exhibitionistic...no purpose other than alternately to bore us and make us squirm...comes off as an irritating, solipsistic brat."

Ken Tucker in the New York Times Book Review: "It would be possible to have more sympathy for Ms. Wurtzel if she weren't so exasperatingly sympathetic to herself...The reader may well begin riffling the pages of the book in the vain hope that there will be a few complimentary Prozac capsules tucked inside for one's own relief."

Kirkus Reviews: "Either she's a brat who won't shape up or she needs the drugs. Ultimately, you don't care which."

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:53 PM on December 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


company policy did not allow a wife to outrank her husband

At an old job I had with a weirdo of a boss, I had a coworker who used to get raises by exploiting something like this. Everytime his wife (who worked elsewhere) got a raise, he would casually mention this to our boss, who would then give my coworker a raise because the boss believed that a woman shouldn't make more money than her husband.
posted by jcreigh at 5:57 PM on December 27, 2018 [18 favorites]


My mother's neighbour is now deceased more than a decade. His wife pre-deceased him by a decade; his daughter died a few months before he died; his oldest son died about a year after he had died; his younger son about 5 years ago.

My mother met the oldest son's ex-wife in the supermarket about 4 years ago. The ex-wife was in a total fluster, "We still don't know what to do with what we have found out. When we were going through all of the papers from the parents and the children, there was an envelope, 'To be opened when both mother and father have died.' It turns out that the oldest son was adopted - the parents married in the weeks before Pearl Harbour and the father went on active service. The mother was pregnant and working as a matron in the hospital, but when she gave birth, the child died shortly after and as there was a single mother giving birth at that time, the hospital staff asked if she would like to take the baby from the single mother and adopt it."

My mother lived next door to the family for 40 years - none of the children knew that the oldest son was adopted. No-one, other than the parents, knew he was adopted. They all died with that lack of knowledge intact.

Knowing this man for 40 years, there is no man that I respect more. I respected him before; my respect is even greater knowing how unwavering he was in support of his children and family.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 5:57 PM on December 27, 2018 [6 favorites]


Pretty amazing piece. I couldn’t stop reading.

And the company rules about husbands and wives are totally believable. It wasn’t jntln the 70s and 80s that a lot of schools and hospitals stopped having policies for women employees like “you have to quit if you get married”. Women couldn’t wear pants in the Senate until the 90s. The credit card thing continued into the 80s IIRC. Women (married or not) couldn’t (but men could) buy condoms in some states into the 70s (I think).
posted by R343L at 6:37 PM on December 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


I respected him before; my respect is even greater knowing how unwavering he was in support of his children and family.

I get what you're saying. And this is probably true for him. But I can't help wondering – what about that "single mother" who gave up her child? Did she give up that child willingly and with clarity? Did she really show up at a hospital, give birth, and was ready to give her baby away to the nearest wanting mother? Why couldn't the oldest son know his truth? Wurtzel was robbed of having a relationship with her true father (for better or worse) and the salt in the wound is that the man who raised her couldn't be a father. I'm ready to bury the notion that a man who raises a child not his own is some saint of a man. It's as though it is some special extra-hardship journey for the man when in the same story some throw-away mother loses her connection to her child forever due to backwards notions of propriety and secrecy. I wonder who wrote the letter in the envelope? Why burden the future generation? We are nature and nurture. And until the notion of family doesn't matter at all, then knowing one's own story will continue to be important.
posted by amanda at 6:52 PM on December 27, 2018 [30 favorites]


So, the question is are you the child of your genetic parent(s) or the one(s) that raised and nurtured you? Your choice. Choose wisely...

Would that one could choose; I’d have saved money and years of therapy. Maybe some can choose, I cannot. I am the child of the mom and stepdad who raised me, and also in many ways of the bio-dad who did not. I’ve met him a handful of times as an adult. I’m his child in some matters of genetics - medical issues, fleeting expressions, my coloring - and in matters of my mind and heart that his absence in my life shaped. His not being there shaped me as surely as my stepfather’s being there did.

It took a life-threatening illness on his part to really crystallize some feelings and thoughts for me, and get me to a place where I no longer wish for more of him than I had, and I’m more sorry for him than angry at him. But I’m still his child as much as my stepfather’s. My mother’s child more than I am either of theirs. I’m sure the precise, delicate, painful balancing of those influences shakes out a little differently in every family even when the truths are relatively straightforward. (“Relatively” being key there. My upbringing definitely included some lies about my bio-dad, but they were more or less age appropriate and shaded closer to the truth as I reached ages where I could understand it.)
posted by Stacey at 7:04 PM on December 27, 2018 [8 favorites]


as there was a single mother giving birth at that time, the hospital staff asked if she would like to take the baby from the single mother and adopt it

Ugh, there is a well-known deliberate tactic of telling single mothers that their child died at birth (or shortly after, if the mother insisted she heard it cry before it was whisked away) in order to give the newborn to a married mother that had just lost her child. I hope that isn’t what happened in that case, but most likely those parents were complicit in the kidnapping of a loved and wanted child, justified because the mother was “immoral”.
posted by saucysault at 8:21 PM on December 27, 2018 [21 favorites]


If the father was on active service after Pearl Harbour then he may not have been asked about the adoption until it was preseted as a fait accomplit. Accepting this uncomplainingly really would be praiseworthy.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:35 PM on December 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm ready to bury the notion that a man who raises a child not his own is some saint of a man. It's as though it is some special extra-hardship journey for the man when in the same story some throw-away mother loses her connection to her child forever due to backwards notions of propriety and secrecy.

Yeah, as a father "by choice" (what a term, but there are no good terms) let me suggest you're not exactly piloting a revolutionary notion.

First, "child not his own?" My sons are my sons, absolutely really mine, unless they decide otherwise--just the same as for genetically related children. In my case that'll almost certainly never happen. "Child not his own." Jesus Christ am I sick of the casual deployment of that kind of language, which is common enough it tells you everything you need to know about how parents whose kids aren't offspring get treated.

I can't really tell you what life as a mother "by choice" is like, but under patriarchy, having kids another man, or another XY type in any event, genetically contributed to is considered being some kind of sucker. A cuck. And it influences everything. We dudes are not thought of as "naturally" nurturing. Whenever I have to clarify the nature of my relationship, or especially use any of the "step"-words, I can see the idea that I am a real parent die a little in the eyes of about half the people I deal with. I also get the occasional pleasure of experiencing the term "real father" referring to the scumbags who genetically contributed to my kids. And of course, there's the tacit assumption, as relayed in various media that at minimum, I must be competing with their mother for her affection, just along for the fucking, not the kids, this being the minimum sin my fictional counterparts are typically guilty of.

In modern media, a "stepfather" is a suspicious character. (Stepmothers were their own bad thing, but at least nowadays, seem mostly reserved for fairy tales where royal inheritances make gold-digging an affront to feudal biopower. Remember Labyrinth? One message there is for Sarah to get out of the backwards fairytale and talk to woman who married her father.) Evil stepfathers are firmly contemporary. And if you didn't manage any genetic offspring of your own, you're held in even lower esteem. People are really like that.

I haven't seen any stories about some "throw-away mother" lately. I did however see the Dark Tower, where Matt McConaughey's supernaturally insightful man in black character tells stepdad he's competing with the kid-protag for mom's affections. This is foreshadowed by stepdad wanting to pack the kid away to an institution, because stepdads are always trying to get out of being stepdads, and when they have the temerity to make parenting decisions despite not being the Real Dad that must be suspicious.

(Fun aside: Because of biases like this, portrayed absolutely fucking everywhere, one of my children was half-joking, half-seriously worried about being sent to some kind of boarding school. I don't begrudge doing the extra work to gain my son's trust. Wariness is natural. But the fact that there was a shitty memetic bank ready to give shape to his fears was something else.)

It's an easy thing to write into a plot because people believe it. And the idea that being an exception to the stereotype makes me and other dads saints is just a variation on a theme. We're selfless for doing a thing that we implicitly should not, because it violates the idea of being powerful via genetic, reproductive potence. We're saints for being cucked for the kids' sakes. Contempt and adulation come from the same bad premises about what we are.

As for the piece, well, Elizabeth Wurtzel seems very relieved that a famous photographer is her real dad, as opposed to the "loser" she lost contact with in 2001. Everyone has the right to accept or reject their parents, for whatever reason. So Bob Adelman is her father, absolutely. She makes that call. But it is a very *fitting* call. It falls into the grooves of biases I see everyday. But I'm not privy to the inside of it. Sometimes facts fit biases like these. Not always, though.

But anyway, this notion that stepdads maybe suck is no revolutionary notion.
posted by mobunited at 2:28 AM on December 28, 2018 [52 favorites]


amanda: "Did she really show up at a hospital, give birth, and was ready to give her baby away to the nearest wanting mother? "

This was crazy common. There are several stories in my family of hospital staff basically just giving children of young single women to a mother/family. Though in our case everyone knew the child was adopted, I think. I've also got an uncle who just wandered over from his birth family one day when he was 8 and never went home.
posted by Mitheral at 6:03 AM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


hurdy gurdy girl, it's no different for this article. Of the nine comments currently posted, fully seven are patronizing or hostile.

What a hot chick (in 1994). Sorry about the cancer. Eat healthy, cut out the sugar, exercise, and maybe your body can beat it. So far the Big C hasn't found me (at 62).

good god. one simple reaction to this: who gives a shit?

Wow. This is really fucking self-indulgent.

Etc., etc.
posted by Weftage at 6:17 AM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


The response to Wurtzel has always made me really, really uncomfortable. It's so obviously gendered and misogynistic and really vicious, and that clearly hasn't changed.

I mean, what the actual FUCK?
posted by uberchet at 7:25 AM on December 28, 2018 [19 favorites]


She’s pretty and full of emotion? I think that’s it. Pretty women should be quiet. Nobody (men) wants to hear her real thoughts.
posted by amanda at 7:31 AM on December 28, 2018 [9 favorites]


Jesus Christ am I sick of the casual deployment of that kind of language, which is common enough it tells you everything you need to know about how parents whose kids aren't offspring get treated

This sounds hurtful and difficult, but the fact is that many, many step parents are really shitty about it. Like actively angry and resentful of the children that aren't "theirs." "Red-headed stepchild" is a saying for a reason. And while this sort of recalibration of assumptions is hurtful to you, you are, of course, an adult who presumably has the emotional regulation skills to realize that this is not actually about you. Because when people have these reactions they're not for you. They're for the kids who are stuck with step parents who don't want them. And there's more of them than there are of you, and they need to be seen more than you do. Because they're kids.

I get what it's like to have the world treat your family and your relationships like they're less than -- I'm a lesbian, both my parents were gay, I get it. But I also had a shitty step parent. Believe me when I tell you that one is way worse than the other.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:08 AM on December 28, 2018 [5 favorites]


It turned out there would only be a graveside service at the cemetery, which was in a remote location in Suffolk County, that stretch of lawn near the Estée Lauder factory where they all are, tombstones galore.

Hi, I live here. It's less than an hour from Penn Station on a train and the larger cemetery just up the street has its own train station. Remote is probably not the right word.

I always have a hard time with writing about parents. I haven't had a father, more-or-less, since before I went to kindergarten, and I don't recall having ever really missed it. People placing great meaning into the quality of their parental relationships never really resonates with me, which is certainly more an indictment of my emotional state than of theirs.

Hopefully Wurtzel will find some peace, here.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:29 AM on December 28, 2018 [5 favorites]


The truth would probably have been better for Wurtzel and her mother's relationship, but secrets like that that get out in some times and places can lose you a job or career or get you ostracized out of social circles. I've known people who were effectively shunned just for getting divorced, much less having an affair & child.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:06 AM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well. That's a lot to be dealing with on top of having advanced breast cancer. I hope she can find some sort of resolution and healing.
posted by droplet at 10:16 AM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


Found out after about 20 years that he was actually not his "mother's" son, but actually his "aunt's".

Huh. Paternal surprises happen, but I didn't realize that sort of maternal switcheroo happened outside of Graham Greene novels. Seems a lot harder a secret to keep.
posted by jackbishop at 1:00 PM on December 28, 2018


At the article's end:
© Estate of Robert Adelman, whose license does not imply any approval, endorsement or representation regarding the content of this story.
posted by doctornemo at 1:36 PM on December 28, 2018


I always have a hard time with writing about parents. I haven't had a father, more-or-less, since before I went to kindergarten, and I don't recall having ever really missed it.

The presence of a bad parent will definitely mess you up more than a neutral absence. Knowing the story while having a loving adult on your side is best.
posted by amanda at 1:41 PM on December 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


To be fair, Wurtzel has also pulled shit like this.
posted by pxe2000 at 1:54 PM on December 28, 2018 [2 favorites]


as I start seriously considering reproduction, I'm realizing how distinct my genetic material providers and real parents were and are.

I do not like language like "real father" for sperm provider because so many of them aren't. Some adoptive dads, stepdads, uncles, and so forth aren't "real fathers" either, but as a adult survivor of shitty parenting, when one claims that biological connections are genuine by default, one negates a tremendous amount of neglect and abuse by birth parents and simultaneously negates a tremendous amount of love and kindness by other caregivers.
posted by bagel at 2:15 PM on December 28, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think what really drives the piece is how she basically didn’t have any parents who were really doing her great favors because they had to protect themselves.

I sit at many intersections of nonbiological parents and grandparents. I was a stepdad before I transitioned, i guess im the queer stepparent now. I have a stepdad, my grandfather who died in June was my step grandfather...and now that I’m finally accepting my fate as a queer person I’m realizing more fully that the western biological genealogy narrative that we’ve constructed in the past say 700 or so years and woven into the dominant default fabric of what a “real and whole family” is allowed be just really breaks a lot of people in really fucked up ways and if anything I’m down for just tearing that whole notion down and replacing it with a thousand valid paths for what a family is allowed to be and how they are allowed to exist
posted by nikaspark at 4:44 PM on December 28, 2018 [12 favorites]


Huh. Paternal surprises happen, but I didn't realize that sort of maternal switcheroo happened outside of Graham Greene novels. Seems a lot harder a secret to keep.

Secrets like this are often hidden in plain sight and it's only our brain's ability to make up stories out of disparate information we're given that keeps those secrets hidden.

My husband looks nothing like his father. His mother was only married to him for three years, during which time she very quickly gave birth to my husband, and then his younger brother, and then divorced my husband's dad. His younger brother looks exactly like his dad. We're not sure how long his parents were together before the pregnancy, before the marriage. I'm trying to think of a way to tell this story without giving all the names away, because one person is a public figure and everything is uncertain. Let's say that my husband's name is Matthew and his brother's name is Mike. Let's say that before this marriage, she was dating a man named Marc. Who couldn't have children, and with whom she resumed her relationship after the divorce. We all assumed, I guess, that she wanted kids with Marc, but couldn't, so found another person to have kids with.

Five years ago, I was pregnant. We went to visit my mother-in-law, and she got out my husband's baby book. I opened it and a letter and a headshot came out. She snatched it up before we could look at it, then said it was okay, and gave it back. It was from the assistant of a democratic politician the year before my husband was born. A love letter. "I've never met a crazy Jewish woman like you." We thought it was weird, but didn't think that much of it.

Four years later, out to eat with my father-in-law. A little tipsy, all of us, and I say something to him about how we always assumed his kids were named after Marc, all those M names. Father-in-law laughs, like it's normal. Tells me: "No, Matthew is named after John Matthew, that politician mother-in-law was in love with."

Later, in the car on the way home, we laugh about how weird it is, how weird it is that my father-in-law is treating this as normal, that there was a headshot and a love letter from John Matthew in my husband's baby book. "It's almost like he's your real father," I say, and we laugh. And then my husband goes silent.

We look up John Matthew, who is dead, but who looks . . . more like my husband than his dad does. Who had a big public funeral that was broadcast on MSNBC, and so we've seen his kids, the one son who looks a lot like my husband.

We probably won't ever know the full truth, for a bunch of reasons. But little hints keep drifting toward us. The cousin who makes jokes about my mother-in-law's infidelities. My husband's political leanings, his intellectual substance, the way he always felt out of place with his family.

But we're just fitting hints to a theory, too. There could be many truths, you know? But it's funny, because I've had moments like these too, where you realize your biography is kind of like a weird twisty literary novel. You realize these implausible fictional twists come from real life, not fiction.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:12 AM on December 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


But I can't help wondering – what about that "single mother" who gave up her child? Did she give up that child willingly and with clarity?

Extremely unlikely.

As I've written elsewhere on this site, and spoken about, I'm the product of a secret relationship. Though not an extramarital affair, like Wurtzel was. It took the conspiracy of about a dozen people to keep the lie a secret for 40+ years. I found my birth family in my forties. My birth father died before I was able to meet him. I was also an activist in adoptee rights for a few decades. These stories are quite common. You don't have to look very far to find family secrets--in most families, I would bet.

There are several stories in my family of hospital staff basically just giving children of young single women to a mother/family.

Oh yes. An acquaintance who was an adoption social worker in Baltimore during the Baby Scoop Era, when unmarried white girls and women who were pregnant were coerced into forfeiting their children to "more deserving" married couples who would raise the babies without the stigma of illegitimacy. She tells of having so many white babies to place for adoption that, once a couple was approved for one baby, she would sometimes call them to ask "how about you take two instead of one?"

My heart aches for Wurtzel that she never got to call Adelman father while he was still alive. And for Wurtzel's mother, for so many reasons.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:24 PM on December 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


Not sure that people considered the dates that I gave. "Single mother" in September 1942 was a very different time. In Australia, there had been no conscription as the rate of volunteers was so high, that there was no need. But it still meant that an awful lot of men were leaving behind partners.

From the family records, the son was adopted when he was a few weeks old. And from the information that they have been able to sort out about the birth parents, the birth father had signed up but was MIA. The birth mother knew which family had adopted her son but when the son's father never returned from the war, she had enough to grieve.

My respect is intact. If I want an antidote to "toxic masculinity", I think of my mother's neighbour and his care for wife, children and neighbour.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 3:10 AM on December 30, 2018


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