Emi Nietfeld could have made herself the unambiguous hero in her acclaimed new memoir, Acceptance. She did after all, survive a gauntlet of self-harm—eating disorders, cutting—and stultifying institutions—mental hospitals, foster homes, the college application process—but she writes with a sensitivity to the fact that even while facing harrowing adversity, she had advantages others held in the same systems did not. She’s self-aware about her identity as a quick-witted, attractive blonde white girl with a mother who loves her, even if her mother was dealing with her own debilitating mental health issues throughout her entire childhood.
“We’re really familiar as a society with the story of kid is in a bad place, kid overcomes obstacles, kid is really happy,” Nietfeld explains on the phone from her new home in Manhattan, where she’s now a 29-year-old, happily married Harvard graduate who landed a job at Google after she graduated. “And we’re less familiar with considering why do these obstacles exist and what do we expect from people who are encountering them.”
Nietfeld was inspired by two other Minnesotan memoirists, David Carr who wrote Night of the Gun in 2008, and Marya Hornbacher who wrote Wasted in 1997, to go back to Minnesota to investigate the people and the places she encountered on her way out: the social workers, psychologists that monitored her progress through Methodist Hospital and the Children’s Residential Treatment Center, her teachers and counselors at Lakeville South and her boarding school in Michigan, and the most problematic and central character to Nietfeld’s life story: her own heartbreakingly vulnerable mother.
“How do I tell the story without seeming ungrateful, while still being very honest about what stories like mine cost?”
— Emi Nietfeld
Spoiler alert: you get accepted to Harvard. Is it disturbing that I thought, man, I wish my parents would’ve locked me up in the Children’s Residential Treatment Center, forcing me to focus on my Ivy League goals. Just wanting to be in the popular group at White Bear High seems like such a low bar after reading this.
Haha. Yeah, I think it was just a cool narrative position to be in: okay, I have this life that so many people would kill for, including my younger self. So how do I tell the story without seeming ungrateful or without recognizing how lucky I am that things turned out the way they did, while still being very honest about what stories like mine cost? And what impact is this collective fantasy of going through hell and getting into Harvard, no matter what it costs? And what is the harm that this fantasy is causing for us as a culture?
Your memoir fits into this great American tradition of the insane asylum narrative, one that stretches back through Prozac Nation to Girl, Interrupted to One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest to The Bell Jar. There’s an aspect of the individual vs the institution in all of those books. But has this romanticization of the individual contributed to the underfunding of our safety net or are they just a reflection of our problems?
I live in New York City and the mayor slashed the education budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, right when it’s most important for kids to be getting back to intense learning because they lost so much time to the pandemic. And in L.A., the head of the teacher’s union said: “It’s okay that our babies didn’t learn all their times tables, they learned resilience.” This myth of resilience can be weaponized to not give children what they need to grow up into healthy adults.
Your Minnesota jokes are outstanding. The scene with the eating disorder doctor who clearly wanted to be out ice fishing was so darkly funny. But do you think Minnesota’s passive-aggressive status quo enforcement is harder on at-risk kids than the all the pathological pursuit of status happening on the coasts?
I love that you identified this really specific phenomenon which was happening for me in this specific working-class Minnesota context. Later I had a roommate who was from Silicon Valley—Jane in the book—and she had faced this pressure-cooker environment at Palo Alto High School as a teenager, which made her really miserable, and a lot of her classmates suicidal. I think neither of these extremes is good. I started to see them as kind of two sides of the same coin, right? Some children live in a world with so much inequality that there is this enormous pressure to keep moving up the social ladder so that you don’t slide down. Then for other kids, it’s basically like the odds are so low, you’re never going to make it, so why even try? Both of these really unhealthy attitudes for kids come from this world that we live in where the type of people who are at Palo Alto High School would normally never meet the type of people who are going to Patrick Henry, where I went in Minnesota. I think that you probably could have swapped some kids from my class at Patrick Henry with some kids at Palo Alto High School and they would have been happier, right?
You write about how money can alleviate problems. You wonder if money would’ve helped your mom channel the obsessive compulsion that fueled her discount sale hoarding into Pilates.
Yeah, definitely. Something that I think has put my childhood into context was seeing the aftermath of the Great Recession—how unequally different people recovered. My family definitely was not the worst off. There’s a lot of families of color who really didn’t even come out of that. But seeing how difficult it is for normal people to survive in America now—if the average person always had housing, always had healthcare, had good education, money would play a lesser role.
When you were placed in Jan and Dave’s foster home in Lakeville, they had enough money to take care of kids, and they even had access to the language of therapy, but their emotions kept getting in the way. I don’t know if you were just one of their first foster kids and they improved over time, but they kept getting angry at you for lying about wanting to commit suicide and lying about cutting, which seems like the very diagnoses that they had signed up to care for. Is this kind of reaction a problem in childcare across the board?
I’ve been listening to some other former foster youth stories, and I think that that is a super common theme: this is what you signed up for, but when the reality hits, it’s not great. I was Dave and Jan’s first non-relative foster placement. And I’ve read a bit about how foster parents are trained, and it does not seem like a lot of training, right? I’ve been mentoring a young writer who’s in high school and I have a nephew who’s a teenager and another one who’s like 21, but he’s still a teenager to me, and I learned such an incredible amount about how to deal with teenagers. And there’s stuff that drove me nuts, just being like, okay, that’s the way it is and that’s the way their brains are. So it’s really hard to imagine taking a traumatized teenager into your house, even if you had biological children that you raised, right? Like just expecting everything to go okay.
I loved your mentor, Dr. Annette. I was outraged on your behalf when Jan and Dave called Michelangelo’s David “pornography.” And Annette was withering but practical in her assessment: “Well, Emi, bohemian artists don’t take in foster kids.” And to be fair, it was Jan and Dave’s devout Christianity that drove them in their charitable work.
I think there’s just so many things in the child welfare and the mental health space that are really hard problems to solve. But in my research I found some low-hanging fruit: for example, placing kids with family members or people they already know from their community can really alleviate that kind of culture shock. Because I really didn’t have that much in common with Dave and Jan. We had no shared background. Yes, we both came from evangelical Christianity, but in a pretty different way.
Yeah. You’re from Minneapolis and they’re from Lakeville, you know? Not that far away, but a huge gulf culturally.
Yeah, exactly. And I can’t think of any other situation in our world where we say, okay, you’re just going to take a stranger into your house and try to make them part of your family for some interim period of time. Then at the end, they’re going to leave. So I think kinship placements can go a really long way into like smoothing out the process.
It’s a guideline that’s already part of the law, but your mom ignored it and the system ignored it. Your brother was willing to take you in, but it just didn’t happen for you.
Exactly. And I think when it does happen, there’s often a lack of support for the caretakers, which is kind of like you’re giving them the kid but you’re not giving them therapy or any support, or even like “here’s a person that you can call to come watch your kid when you need it.” So there’s a really general lack of resources problem that becomes really specific, right? You have a situation that could be really good, like me living with my brother, or me living with Annette, and they fail because of a really basic lack of empathy, right? Of empathy for the difficulty of taking care of a teenager in crisis.
Where is this lack of empathy coming from?
I think there’s a fundamental problem in how we imagine foster care and how we imagine the mental health system. The foster care system is usually very punitive, right? This parent did a bad thing, so the child is going to be removed from the house. If a placement doesn’t work out, it usually assumes it’s because the kid is a nightmare or the foster parents are evil. It doesn’t take into account all of the complicated dynamics. As a society, we don’t think about it as like young people have rights: a right to safety and healthcare and a place to live. And it’s the role of social services to make sure that young people get those needs met.
You’re writing about people who are still alive, people that you still love, even though they’ve hurt you. When you wrote your essay “Scrambled Eggs” at Interlochen, the boarding school you attended in Michigan, you were investigating this idea that artists are responsible to their art first. You wrote, “Only when I was writing or making art did I feel free to express myself, without someone harping on me to consider my parents’ feelings and prioritizing their perspectives over my own.” How difficult was it writing about your mom in Acceptance?
It’s so interesting that you bring up the writing in high school because, back then, I wasn’t thinking about anybody reading it. Which is why it was so shocking when it won this award, and suddenly it would have this audience that I hadn’t had time to even consider. So when I wrote Acceptance, it was very different. In some ways my mom was really easy to write about because she is such a complicated character
Yeah, a wonderfully complicated literary character.
I could just write exactly like what happened and what she would say, and her warmth and intelligence and humor radiates off of her. The challenge when you’re writing about people who’ve hurt you is how do you depict them as full humans who have good intentions and positive traits and yet still do things that are harmful? Luckily with my mom, it was really easy to show the good side.
When I was going through the research process, I started interviewing her, and I had this idea that if I just asked the right questions, I would find a version of the story that we both could agree on and that we both could live with. And it very quickly became clear that it was never going to happen. She was questioning basic facts, even when there was documentation to back it up.
Have you read David Carr’s memoir?
Night of the Gun was actually the reason that I went out and found my rapist.
Wow. Acceptance takes Carr’s investigative approach, where you’re like, I’m not a reliable narrator—I know that my own memory is a difficult thing to navigate, so I’m going to investigate this. So Carr inspired you to go in that direction?
He did, yeah. When I was in New York City working on the book, my writing teacher, Hillary Frey, who’s now the Editor-in-Chief of Slate, gave us a photocopy of the titular essay from The Night of the Gun and she gave us the assignment to investigate your life. I had actually done so much research for the book, but there were really only a few things left that I felt I had not fully investigated. That led me to sending the email to the man who assisted me at the embassy in Budapest. My essay was called “My Mom Claims I Had a Drink with My Rapist. I Investigate,” which really informed the process for some of the other stuff with my mom in the book.
So his work was really influential to me and it was also very cool to see this other side of Minneapolis.
Who were some of your other literary heroes?
The work of Marya Hornbacher really influenced me when I was a teenager.
She wrote the story that became Wasted while she was an intern at Mpls.St.Paul. Before becoming an editor with us.
I got to talk to her. She’s like “Where’s the book?” and I couldn’t believe it, she was like on my computer screen, chain-smoking in a Target parking lot in North Dakota. We went through a lot of the same institutions: Methodist Hospital, Children’s Residential Treatment Center, even Interlochen. And her book Wasted gave me the idea to go to Interlochen as a writer, a non-musician. And she was very young when she wrote it. it was written from such a specific time and mindset, even though over the years as an adult her perspective on it has changed, and she’s public about that, to me her youth made it so urgent and such an important time capsule. It made me feel like I could write a book even when people are like “You’re not ready, you’re too young,” that that youthful perspective is valid.
I think Marya has struggled with this idea of “prostituting your sorrow for a shot at joy,” as you put it in Acceptance. So much of our art has been about trauma, and you seem to be uncomfortable with that word.
I think trauma is both such a useful word and a useless word, because in its current usage it’s so broad. So, to say that art is about trauma, it’s like, I guess, if you define trauma as some really hard thing that changes you, then I guess that’s basically the plot of every book that has a plot.
I think it’s really amazing to have this word that’s kind of neutral to describe really horrific things, and I think it’s really easy for people to hide behind this word without really considering what trauma actually looks like. And when you’re talking about youth in foster care, trauma is often gruesome.
So were the bulimia and the self-mutilation about control? You could at least control how you hurt yourself.
I would say with the self-harming behaviors—eating disorder, cutting, Adderall—I think that control is a part, but I feel like that’s a pretty simple way to think about it.
The way I think about it as an adult is kind of like people turning to drinking, or where it’s just like there was so much going on that I could not handle, in part because I was so young.
And teenagers are kind of trapped in this family unit that you can’t really escape unless you run away. So, for me, luckily, I was able to get into a better situation in my life, and then gradually move to healthier coping skills. For me, what ended up being really helpful was exposure therapy. I went into it for PTSD at the end of 2018. So much of post-traumatic stress disorder is because of avoidance, and a lot of the kind of behaviors that I was doing were helping me avoid the bad feelings, the bad memories. So [exposure therapy] was this act of confronting that, which is, in a way, not dissimilar from writing. I had to be able to look at the past to even begin to make sense of it.
You obviously were well-equipped to talk about this stuff. But now you’re going to have to keep talking about it. What is the impact of this book rollout on your psyche?
Thank you for asking that. It’s interesting to be in this situation of giving interviews about my life when it’s something that I wrote about in the book, right, when I was 17 and I was talking to reporters.
Ah yes, you wrote an award-winning essay for Scholastic America about your prescription pill problem, and your horrified mom reads the Pioneer Press and is like, “What do you mean your prescription drug addiction?”
I mean, I was horrified too because I didn’t realize reporters could read, you know? Back then, I had these great things happening in my life: getting into Harvard and winning the scholarships. And I was blindsided by how destabilizing it was, by how depressed I felt after achieving my goal. I enjoyed talking to reporters, but I felt like the story I was telling was vague. So I think that that period of time was really good preparation for me publishing a book, and that the difference between being 29 and talking about your life is totally different than being 17. Also, this time I had control over the message. I really wanted to tell the story. But my life and my future do not rely on me telling it in a commercially viable way.
Of course, I want people to read this book because I think it’s important to talk about how we deal with teenagers, the things that are happening in these systems, the way that resilience is being misused, but if nobody read the book, I’d still be married, I’d still live in my home. But winning that award for my essay really showed me how difficult it is to have your sad story be your ticket out.
You swore off lit courses and committed to computer science at Harvard because you needed the stability of an income. When did you decide to get back to writing?
I actually started writing the book in earnest six months after I graduated from college. I basically started my job at Google and I went to this goal-setting workshop that was led by another Googler. And I came home and I started writing the book. For me, like, as soon as I’m safe, that’s when things come up. I had roommates, I had a job, things were more stable for me, and I feel like that was really the first possible time that I could even afford to look back. I wanted to write this book ever since high school, right? When I was like 17 and had just gone through the college application process, and it felt so gutting. Like, I hadn’t really processed my sorrows yet. But then I started writing it in earnest. And I think from reading the book, you can tell that when I have a goal, I will stop at nothing to get this goal. So I really did want to see it published. It just took a long time to become a good enough writer and to have the perspective and to do all the research to get it into the place where I was really happy with it and my editor was really happy with it.
This is the editor that convinced you that the story isn’t over when you get into Harvard?
I tried writing some stuff that ended in Harvard and is very like fairytale. Just like, “I’m walking through Harvard yard, it’s so beautiful here with the bricks and the ivy, and I’m so lucky and so grateful and will be happy every day for the rest of my life.” And I really struggled to write it because it was completely fake. Harvard yard was beautiful and I had felt very grateful and happy, but that’s not the true story.
So how did your editor convince you to change the arc of your story?
I met Mia Council, who’s my editor, in 2018. I spent like four years working on the first two-thirds of the book, and then the last four years working on this last section. I told her, “Here’s why I can’t write about Harvard. Here’s are the complications.” She heard that and she was like, “Write that for me.”
Like, go in and unpack why that’s difficult to write about.
Exactly. And I feel like in many ways, parts of the message are pretty nuanced and a little complicated, but despite that, it’s still resonating with readers.
What parts were you most worried about?
I think we’re really familiar as a society with the story of kid is in a bad place, kid overcomes obstacles, kid is really happy. My life was both that narrative of having obstacles and finding ways around them. And we’re less familiar with considering why do these obstacles exist and what do we expect from people who are encountering them.
You thank both your parents for instilling a work ethic in your afterword, but just before that, in the last section of the book, you write about how you came to a stalemate with your mom where you felt you had to say goodbye to her. Do you know if she’s read the book yet? Are you nervous that she’ll read the book?
Well, I can’t really speak for her reaction. But I hope that if and when she reads it, that she sees how much I love her and how much her faith in me, even when it wasn’t completely rational, really mattered, and made my life so different from many other youth who were in the same system.
So you haven’t talked to her in years?
The part in the book happened in 2019, and yeah, we haven’t spoken since, so.
And your father?
Pretty similar. That was like 2018 when we last texted. So, yeah. And there hasn’t been like a face-to-face or a phone conversation for 18 years.
I understand the ball is in your mom’s court—her reality and your reality have to meet up around some very specific points in order for you to invite her back into your life. Do you have any hope for reconciliation?
For years, during a lot of the period when I was writing the book, I would think, if I am the right person, if I do the right things, my parents will be healthy and we’ll be able to have a normal positive relationship. And I felt like that was the only way that my story could have a happy ending. Then I started to realize how unrealistic that was. There were all these therapists early in my life who said, “Focus on what you can control, focus on what you can control,” and they acted like being in contact with my parents, my mom at least, was the only option.
As I’ve gotten older, I realized that I really have no control over the help she gets, or if that help works. So, for me, estrangement was really the only choice that I could make. And I’ve encountered a lot of stigma around being estranged from my biological parents. But I will say, I think it’s been a really good choice for me. And it’s actually led me to closer relationships with other family members and other people who have been really supportive in my life.
So you come back to Minnesota to see your brother?
My brother, my cousin, my nieces, my nephews. It’s a great place. Annette really convinced me that Minnesota was beautiful. She was like, “I just love Minnesota.” She loves to sit on her back deck and eat breakfast out there. I was always just like, it’s where I’m from, like, whatever, it’s kind of green, kind of blue. And now I come back and I’m like, wow, this place is beautiful.
Three things about Emi Nietfeld
- While at Harvard, Nietfeld lettered as a varsity athlete in crew. “Apparently, at Harvard, if you go to the NCAA national championships, you get a letter.”
- Nietfeld married her husband, Byron, at Bauhaus Brew Labs in 2018. Their marriage was announced in The New York Times.
- Nietfeld took her nickname “Emi” from one of her parent’s friends, who got it from the video game Dance Dance Revolution.