The author's daughter

Most parents try to shield their children from adult thoughts and desires. But for children of novelists, whose desires are available for public viewing, there's no protection.

Published March 11, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

The notion of parents mortifying their children is nothing new. Everyone is familiar with the horrors of, say, one's mother doing the hokeypokey in public, or one's father wearing an orange windbreaker and whistling "A Whiter Shade of Pale" while on carpool duty. But the children of writers are given a mortification all their own. It reaches beyond the hokeypokey and deep into regions unfamiliar to the children of management consultants and travel agents.

In its most common form, the embarrassment occurs when a writer is simply doing his or her job: describing the world in an unflinching, candid manner, and casually borrowing recognizable bits and pieces from real life. Occasionally, a writer borrows much more than that. This was the case with A.A. Milne, who used his son Christopher Robin as a character without asking. The child grew up and was left to languish in bitterness, loathing the father who left him frozen in a kind of twisted, eternal moppethood. It seems clear that writers who use their children to advance their own work are guilty of some kind of unsavory pimping, and that those children -- those trapped-in-amber, beloved figures from picture books and novels -- have a right to feel furious.

But what of the children of writers who neither borrow overtly from real life nor steal their children's souls, but who, along the normal course of their work, write books that include something more mortifying than the image of Christopher Robin in a gender-ambiguous nightdress? What of the children of novelists who dare to write about sex?

I know something about this, having grown up as the child of a fiction writer. When my mother, Hilma Wolitzer, published her first novel, "Ending," in 1974, it featured a scene in which a woman performs oral sex on her dying husband: "I kneeled and made a carpet of our clothing on the floor, and I led him down inside me." After the novel came out, Brian Spiviano went roaring down the ninth-grade hall, shouting, "Read Page 180! Read Page 180!"

By 10 a.m., all the boys in my grade -- boys who never read fiction, and whose reading matter consisted entirely of "Neil Armstrong: A Life" -- had absorbed this sex scene and all its nuances. Their faces were hot with excitement; my own was hot with shame. At the end of the day, when my mother appeared in the white Rambler station wagon to pick me up from school, a few boys lingered near the car wolfishly, sizing her up. I was horrified. Who was this woman who felt at ease not only writing such things, but also, in all likelihood, doing them in real life? Who was this whore?

To a certain extent, my horror was a simple projection of my fantasy of someone finding and reading the quilted and deeply personal journal I kept in a drawer. The fact that my mother was delighted to let the world read over her shoulder was perplexing and even infuriating to someone like me, who still felt uneasy in her skin, and who thought it only right that everyone else should feel that way, too.

Mostly, my mother's fiction was (and is) delicate and funny and only incidentally sexual. But my threshold of tolerance was extremely low. And it wasn't only sex that bothered me; other things did as well. In one of her short stories, she put her protagonist, a young mother, on the side of a bathtub while washing her son's hair, and she had her think to herself, I don't love you, kiddo. How many times had I, when I was younger, sat in the tub with my mother above me on the ledge, pouring water over my Johnson & Johnson-scented head? Was it me she was writing about? For the first time in my life, it occurred to me to question her love. And even though I quickly decided that of course she loved me deeply -- she was wonderfully attentive and caring and expressive -- I never forgot this scene. It made me realize that adults could possess ambivalence and think dark thoughts. It gave me an aperture into adult life, and I was unnerved.

As an adolescent, I jokingly formed an organization called COW (Children of Writers), along with the daughters of a well-known novelist and a poet. We met once or twice over Chinese food to gently mock our parents and then, in a burst of loyal guilt at the end of the evening, to hastily praise them. In the ensuing years, membership has grown, at least in my mind. Recently it occurred to me that Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of Erica Jong, should perhaps be our chapter president (or at the very least our executive treasurer), for the wonderful, fearless "Fear of Flying" is a book that practically taunts its author's child: "Try living with this!"

I first encountered Jong-Fast when both of us were accompanying our mothers to the Breadloaf Writer's Conference. I was a prickly, slouching young adult, and she was a beaming red-haired little girl who was still unaware of her mother's fame and sexual wit. I was tempted to grab her beneath the birch trees and whisper, "Call me! I've been through a miniature, low-level version of what you'll be going through!" Because when your mother writes a book that includes unabashedly sexual material, it becomes an object that must be reckoned with; it becomes a part of your consciousness and, in a sense, your identity. Certainly, you react. You might become pierced and wanton. You might think the whole thing is pretty cool. You might become a Shaker and take a vow of celibacy. Or you might become a writer yourself.

Jong-Fast, who did become a writer, has a new book out, "The Sex Doctors in the Basement," which deals in part with her famous mother. The book was praised in advance by kindred "child of" spirit Moon Unit Zappa. (What's the matter, they couldn't get Frieda Plath?)

When I began writing fiction, my first efforts were probably an unconscious response to my mother's writing. It wasn't as if I made one of my young characters sit and look at her mother across the kitchen table, thinking, "I don't love you, kiddo," nor did I go for a big fellatio scene. But I did realize that writing was a way to hammer out ambivalence, just as my mother had done. I discovered that I was filled with ambivalence about almost everything, including sex, which I incorporated into my writing tentatively, not unlike the way most people first begin to incorporate it into their lives.

The fact that I've recently written a novel that features sex front and center reflects my longtime thoughts not only about that subject, but also about shame. My novel, "The Position," follows the lives of four grown children whose parents wrote a "Joy of Sex"-type book back in the 1970s, featuring illustrations of themselves making love. My instinctive sense is that to be a child of parents -- any parents -- is to be ashamed. Shame separates the generations, draws a neat line between us and them, which psychoanalysts would say is useful, even urgently necessary. Shame, along with its pale stepsister, modesty, provides an effective shield against incestuous acts.

But what children are often ashamed of about their parents is not only sex, but also the simple fact of "adultness." When we're young and we witness older people doing just about anything without children around -- eating, laughing, dancing -- we sometimes feel slightly uncomfortable, and we experience the vague impetus to break up their fun. Writers celebrate their adultness in the most public way, and their children feel a responsive uneasiness, and are powerless to do anything about it. In the arena of sex, where the state of being adult is highly concentrated, most parents keep a lock on the door when it's appropriate, protecting children from the supposedly blinding sight of the primal scene. But the children of writers are given an open door, and it's up to them to decide whether to peer inside.

Over the years I've wondered how some of my friends navigate writing about sex and not upsetting their children. "Don't worry," I recently overheard novelist Cathleen Schine say cheerfully to another fiction writer. "Your kids will probably never read your books. Mine don't." Her children view their mother's work as about as compelling as the work of a management consultant or travel agent. They would rather not read her descriptions of sex, but they would also rather not read her descriptions of an oak leaf or a summer morning in Maine.

Curiosity can be aroused slowly, though, over long stretches of time. I feel fairly sure that there will be a day when her children casually open one of her books, then dip in with gusto, or hesitation, or anxiety, but certainly with interest. I have no idea how that will make her feel, but it's probably more comfortable for most writers to imagine a perpetually uninterested child than one who turns a wide eye toward the complex hive of ideas and images that comprises his mother's or father's fiction. Most parents go to great lengths in their lives to try to temper, or modulate, or at least partially control their own authenticity in front of their children. When a child opens a parent's book, all control is lost. Our hard-won opacity gives way to visibility, and suddenly we stand there like those Visible Woman and Visible Man anatomical models from our own childhoods, whose pumping hearts and cerebellums and delicate threading of veins are on display for all to see.

My own children have been rising up from their slumber of self-absorption and asking questions lately. "What's your new book about?" my fourth-grader wants to know. "Sex" is the answer I would say to an interviewer, but I give my son another answer, not any less true, but one that will make both of us more comfortable. "Family," I tell him, and for the moment -- maybe the briefest of moments -- he is satisfied, and so am I.

By Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer is the author, most recently, of The Uncoupling.

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