Taking in Secondhand Criticism

“I loved your book but my mom didn’t”

Nina Renata Aron

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Photo by ASTERISK KWON on Unsplash

A memoir is not actually an invitation for people to judge the events of your life — it’s a work of literature and memory. But readers don’t always see it that way. They often take reading one as an opportunity to evaluate the author’s life decisions, especially if that person is a woman. Double if she’s a mother.

I knew this going into the process of memoir writing and experienced grave anxiety about it, but I didn’t feel entitled to the worry. Could I really complain about mean girls on Goodreads if I’d put sordid details about my life out there for all to see? Wasn’t I, in some sense, asking for judgment?

If you’re able to sell a book about your life in the first place, it’s probably had some fairly dramatic ups and downs. In my case, these were mainly to do with addiction and love. I wrote about growing up with addiction in my family, and in particular about a long romantic relationship I had with a man addicted to drugs. I also disclosed my own excessive alcohol and drug use and, at the end, my decision to get sober. I am a middle child and have been a people-pleaser — a doormat, if we’re being honest — for much of my life, so the act of telling the truth about myself, of risking displeasing people, felt radical and scary.

Fortunately, no one has said anything truly scathing about my book to my face, but on numerous occasions, supportive friends have reported others’ judgments to me. A few have said, for example, I loved your book, but I gave it to my mother and she had some pretty serious issues with it. I notice the prickle of adrenaline such a statement prompts — some recessive but primal part of me readying myself for battle.

The person with the issues is almost always a member of my parent’s generation (a Boomer) and the issue is usually just harsh judgment of the choices I made, along the lines of “how could she do that?” How could she stay in a bad relationship, how could she put her children through that, how could she be an alcoholic. I couldn’t help it! I want to shout. It’s pathological! That’s the whole point!

I think sometimes the judgment isn’t only of my choices but of the fact that I would talk openly about these once-taboo themes in the first place. It is one…

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Nina Renata Aron

Author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love. Work in NYT, New Republic, the Guardian, Jezebel, and more.