When "Go the F to Sleep" become a sensation, I got a crash course in parenting, celebrity and Kathie Lee Gifford
It’s been a year since “Go the Fuck to Sleep” was published, and a year and a half since I read the manuscript at a museum in Philadelphia, taking the stage after a 94-year-old tap dancer. (You never want to follow a 94-year-old — not on the freeway, not onstage.) But I woke up the next morning to find the book among Amazon’s top 100, despite the fact that it had not yet been published.
A lot of crazy shit has happened since then. Samuel L. Jackson, Werner Herzog, Thandie Newton and an adorable Filipina grandma all did readings that went viral. Corporate publishers tried to buy the book away from tiny, independent Akashic Books for a lot of money, and we said no. Jenna Elfman randomly made a music video, and in return for our not suing her, met up with us in Miami with a plastic baby doll to speak to fans of literature. Time magazine named “Go the Fuck to Sleep” its “Thing of the Year,” presumably in a squeaker win over that bacon-flavored mayonnaise. Sam Jackson and I teamed back up for “Wake the Fuck Up,” a pro-Obama video that reminded America of the importance of voting and vulgarity.
But none of those crack the top four craziest things. To wit:
1. The Ferberizing
Some very nice people from Boston’s Children’s Hospital asked me to be a “celebrity guest” at a fundraiser they were doing at a hotel in Los Angeles. They offered to put me and my family up for the weekend at a hotel in which John Wayne once kept a cow, and they wanted to purchase a bunch of books from Akashic to give away. Between that and my belief that children should get medical care, I said sure. Why a Boston hospital would hold a fundraiser in L.A. wasn’t immediately clear, but I guess people in L.A. have money.
The other celebrity guest was Dr. Richard Ferber, author of “The Ferber Method.” In case you don’t have kids, this is a wildly popular and polarizing book that advocates letting your kid “cry it out” at bedtime, rather than spending untold hours lying in your kid’s room and becoming increasingly furious and hate-filled. Or so I’m told. I haven’t read it.
Ferber’s a hero to some and a monster to others. One of those others is my partner, Victoria – so much so that I spent the weeks leading up to the event calculating the likelihood that she would throw a drink in his face, or spray-paint “Attachment Parenting” on his Rolls Royce.
I, on the other hand, was inclined to like Ferber, because he’d gone on National Public Radio and expressed admiration for “GTFTS.” He’d also contacted Akashic and asked for a couple of PDFs from the book for the presentation he’d be giving. And sure enough, he was a pleasant, avuncular guy in his 60s, and we had a nice chat as the guests filed toward the open bar. Victoria was busy talking to Jeff Astrof, my co-writer on “Balls in the Air,” a sitcom I’d just sold CBS. (Our pilot episode would turn out to be a version of this very evening, with a me-esque jackass played by Jerry O’Connell trying to keep his midwife wife from ruining his big moment as a totally unqualified “parenting guru” by picking a fight with a Ferber-like expert. It didn’t get picked up.)
So far, so good.
My only responsibility at this party was to get loaded and shake hands, but Ferber had to give a whole presentation. I use “had to” loosely; it’s hard to imagine anything this crowd of rich, decadent L.A. donors would have enjoyed less than a lengthy, barely audible speech, complete with graphs and charts, about putting your kids to bed. These people had never put their kids to bed. Their nannies did that.
Astrof and I were busy making sotto voce cracks from the back of the room when the first slide from the book appeared on the pull-down screen. “You should never do this,” Ferber admonished the millionaires. “This is totally wrong.”
To add insult to injury, the page he’d chosen was an illustration of me, sneaking out of a kid’s bedroom.
Dr. Ferber had thrown me under the sleep training bus.
That’s not where the story ends. The next morning, I got an email from the doctor. “Why didn’t you tell me that I know you?” it read.
Turns out, Dr. Ferber’s son, the unforgettably named Thad Ferber, had been a friend of mine at Camp Alton, until I got thrown out. He lived a few towns over, which is an insurmountable distance when you’re 13, so I only hung out with him once during the school year. We went to Tower Records, the big flagship store on Newbury Street in Boston, and there was a life-size cardboard cutout of MC Hammer guarding the rap section. I was an MC and a hip-hop purist, and these were heady, stratified days: Hammer was dominating the pop charts, and we all thought he was an unskilled chump. Naturally, I ripped the head off the cutout, stuffed it in my jacket, and attempted to leave the store. It was not an act of theft so much as decapitation.
Security apprehended me in classic fashion, stopping the revolving door as I made my escape. I was taken down into the sub-basement of the building, and Thad Ferber, guilty by association, was too. There, I was informed that the cutout cost $5,000, and told I had two choices: to give them my parents’ phone number, or be taken into police custody.
This was not my first rodeo. I gave them a fake phone number – one I had memorized for occasions such as this, one I knew just rang and rang.
Thad Ferber had never before visited the rodeo. He gave them his parents’ real number, and Dr. Richard Ferber appeared in short order to drive us both home.
I hadn’t thought about this, or about Thad, in 20 years, and Ferber’s email blew my mind. It also made me feel much better about the previous evening. Clearly, even the esteemed Dr. Ferber is a far from perfect parent, in that he had let his son hang out with me.
2. Stay classy, Germany
In the initial whirlwind of “Go the Fuck to Sleep’s” freak success – when we were No. 1 on Amazon and frantically trying to move our publication date from October to Father’s Day – I was doing about eight hours of interviews a day. I couldn’t keep track of who or what, and it didn’t matter: My phone would ring, I’d pick it up, my interlocutors would ask the same questions, and I’d give the same answers. I didn’t have to feign enthusiasm; I was through the roof. My visiting professorship was ending, and I was headed back to California, where my mortgage waited.
I was in midtown Manhattan when I took a call from a German newspaper, or maybe a magazine. The reporter ran down the usual questions, in a thick Teutonic accent, and I responded obligingly and wondered how much she was going to mangle my words.
Just when I thought we were done, the reporter informed me that she needed a “local angle.” Had I ever read my daughter Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she asked hopefully. It seemed like a pretty spurious local angle to me – and I hadn’t, because my daughter was 3 and those stories are terrifying, so I said something to that effect.
The reporter was stumped. Apparently, she’d put all her local-context eggs in the Grimm’s basket. “You must have some connection to Germany,” she said, desperation creeping into her voice. Or maybe it was disbelief. It is a pretty well-known country.
“Well,” I said, gruffly and foolishly, “I’m German-Jewish on my father’s side.”
I expected her to drop it, instantly. Nope. Her voice brightened. “Ah, so your family has lived in Germany!” she said, sounding like she’d hit the jackpot.
“Actually,” I said, the phone shaking in my hand from the stress of the distant quasi-confrontation I seemed determined to provoke, “my family died in Germany.”
Dead air. And then, “Oh. Yes. Of course.” Her voice was strangely inflectionless.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t think you really want to go there.”
“Oh, so you would not go to Germany?”
Huh? What? Huh?
The pointless surge of adrenaline through my veins was making things worse.
“No,” I heard myself say. “I, uh, hear great things about Berlin. I’m definitely hoping to check it out someday.”
Huh? What? Huh?
“Yes, you should come,” she agreed. Somehow, the phone call ended, and I sat down on a park bench and fought off three or four brain aneurysms.
3. Your girl Kathie Lee
I got to go on the “Today” show twice, which is two more times than I had ever anticipated, being that before stumbling into the obscene-fake-children’s-literature game, I wrote novels that do not feature wizards, vampires or love affairs for the ages.
Live national television is something of a fraught environment, and more so when it’s very early in the morning, you’re caked in makeup, and there are scores of people standing directly behind you, on the other side of a plate glass window, screaming like banshees and holding up cardboard signs with the names of their hometowns written in magic marker. Oh, and also you’re trying to remember not to curse, even though the thing you’re there to talk about has a curse in it.
Interviewing people in this context is an art form. You’ve got about two minutes to make the subject feel comfortable, before the cameras roll. Matt Lauer is excellent at it. By the time we went live, I felt like he and I were old buddies, and after the interview wrapped we were going to grab some pancakes, or hit the driving range, or whatever the fuck Matt Lauer does for fun. He started out by calling me an award-winning novelist, which was very kind of him, and the interview was great.
Two days later, I came back to do a second interview, this time with Kathie Lee Gifford and her homegirl Hoda, during what was ominously referred to by all the publicists and producers as “the 11 o’clock hour.” I’d never even seen the “Today” show, so I had no idea what any of this meant. And I was getting about four hours of sleep a night, because of all the excitement.
Kathie Lee Gifford takes a slightly different pre-game tack than Matt Lauer. The last thing she said to me before the cameras rolled was, “Your daughter Vivien, how old is she, that little bitch?”
Ha ha, Kathie Lee Gifford. I understand that you are joking, and possibly inebriated, and that I am allegedly the bad boy of parenting and all, but really? Say another word about my daughter, and I will punch you in your enormous dinosaur teeth.
Oh, and then the first thing she asked me on-air was what I did before I wrote this book.
I wrote a bunch of other books, KLG. Why don’t you ask your boy Matt Lauer? Oh, right. As he told me over pancakes at the driving range, he avoids you, because you are cruel to children.
4. The right-wing, freedom-hating zealots of New Zealand
There was, of course, a fair amount of blowback to “Go the Fuck to Sleep’s” incursion into the cultural mainstream. This was largely in the form of huffy weirdos fulminating on the interwebs. (“I would never read this book to a child.” Yeah, no shit. It says “fuck” on the cover. And on the back it says “you probably should not read this to a child.” It would take a very particular blend of literacy and illiteracy to mistakenly read this book to a kid.)
They, in turn, were shut down by the nation’s grandmothers, who turn out to be a really crass and hip group of people. There was also an up-in-arms essay on CNN.com that asked “what if this book was about blacks, or Muslims, or Jews?” – which, of course, it was – and low-key accused us of causing child abuse. But the author got shouted down immediately.
This other guy claimed the book was a parody of his book, based on the fact that we both rhymed “sleep” with “deep” and had a picture of a tiger. Besides being incorrect, he seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of parody, which relies on familiarity with the original text – you don’t parody something and then deny it. He faded away, too. I had this persistent fantasy that Michele Bachmann was going to crusade against the book, because she seemed like the most desperate and batshit-insane of the GOP presidential hopefuls, but it never happened.
Instead, the most entrenched attack – and the only one that developed into a full-throated attempt at censorship – came from New Zealand. This seemed, and continues to seem, incredibly random.
The organization pushing booksellers to take “Go the Fuck to Sleep” off the shelves was called Family First New Zealand. They were Christians of some kind. Their press release was awesome. I have it framed in my office. It reads, in part, “While we appreciate that in an adult context, the book may be harmless and even amusing, we have grave concerns about its effect on aggressive and dysfunctional parents.”
Is that right, national director Bob McCoskrie? Your rubric for banning shit is whether or not aggressive, dysfunctional parents can handle it? Are you also proposing to ban spoons, since those too could pose a grave threat to children in the hands of aggressive, dysfunctional parents? How about canned food? Should we pull that off the shelves as well?
While I got the distinct sense that Bob McCoskrie might have been not only the national director of Family First New Zealand, but also the secretary, the minister of information, the sergeant at arms and the membership, he managed to get on TV to talk about the book. Which is when Noni Hazlehurst, our Australian audiobook reader, stepped in.
Noni is a beloved children’s television presenter who’s also managed to have a serious film career. She’s like an Australian mixture of Maria from “Sesame Street” and Meryl Streep. She represents the childhood of every Aussie and Kiwi under the age of 40. You’d be crazy to mess with her.
On national television, she told Family First New Zealand that the book was providing real relief and catharsis to thousands of parents who felt isolated and exhausted and bad about themselves – just like she had as a young mother – and that they should shut the fuck up.
So they did.
I was hoping she’d step in when the United Arab Emirates forbade import of the book, but even Noni Hazlehurst can only do so much.
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