Review: “Acceptance” by Emi Nietfeld
ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir, by Emi Nietfeld
Overcoming adversity is a classic plot arc among recent blockbusters about coming-of-age memoirs—from Tara Westover’s “Educated” to Viola Davis’s “Finding Me” to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” It’s a satisfying type of story, and often a deceptively neat one. With her debut memoir, Acceptance, Emi Nietfeld enters the genre ambivalently, paying close attention to what disappears in stories like hers: the cruelty of a society that makes survival dependent on excellence.
“Acceptance” traces Nietfeld’s childhood at the mercy of flawed systems and flawed people. Her home life, as she describes it, was never functional, but became unsustainable by the end of elementary school. Her mother was a charismatic, intelligent crime scene photographer whose hoarding problem and irrational behavior were so severe that Nietfeld was not safe at home. Her mother took her to a series of doctors, insisting that Nietfeld be medicated for ADD, even though she had no trouble focusing. “The pediatrician gave me Concerta. When I was cursed, I got Xanax. After a few weeks of Wellbutrin, my mom fed me the leftover Adderall.” Eventually she went on antipsychotics. “Come to the house,” I begged the adults, sure that if anyone saw how we lived, they would understand why I was becoming increasingly miserable,” writes Nietfeld. “No one came.” At 13, she attempted suicide and ended up in a psychiatric ward, which she loved for its clean air, “endless hot water, the meals that came on trays. As soon as I got home, I wanted to go back.”
Psychiatrists taught her that most of her problems were self-inflicted; she needed to learn “radical acceptance.” In her group therapy room, a photocopied sign read: “‘Not Accepting Pain = Suffering’ … insisting that our misery was a choice.” Patients were taught to complete GEDs and look for minimum wage jobs at the local newspaper, but when Nietfeld pointed out that “the only way to balance our trial budgets was to allocate $32 a month to health care” and one of her prescriptions cost $1,000, the counselor suggested that Nietfeld was “catastrophic”. When she worried about her university prospects, she was scolded for avoiding. When she voiced her nagging suspicion that she had been doubted, locked away and forcibly medicated because the doctors and social workers found this easier than taking on her mother, she was told to “focus on what you can control”. Again and again she struggled to determine which aspects of the situation to accept (as unshakable fact, or as mere deserts) and which to combat.
A fighter by nature, Nietfeld understands that her future depended on her ability to excel in school—being a kid that a different kind of institution might take a chance on. Through inpatient psychiatric treatment, foster care and then homelessness, her goal was an acceptance letter to Harvard, which for her symbolized safety and credibility. Much of the book traces Nietfeld’s dogged pursuit of that dream, as she dutifully learned the rules of every system (social, academic, legal) that trapped her so she could negotiate, bluff, and study her way out. But when she “did it”—Nietfeld opens the book in her late 20s, as a Harvard-educated engineer—she found herself unable to understand her story as a triumph.
Nietfeld’s story is a detailed critique of the American fantasy that poverty, disease or any other adversity can be overcome through sheer and cutting ingenuity; and how and to whom our community benefits help. While Nietfeld manages to pull off the impossible—she admits that being pretty and white was a determining factor in her success—the effort leaves her feeling nauseous and compromised. Her Ivy League education was the result of her attainment of the right kinds of skills, and as the right kind of sacrifice: A story in foster care appeals to scholarship committees, she discovered. Psychiatric wards and sexual abuse are not.
Despite the narrative’s inconsistent pacing—exhaustively detailed at points and conspicuously veiled at others—Nietfeld’s gifts for capturing the rage at living at the mercy of bad circumstances, for critiquing the hero’s journey even as she tells it, make “Acceptance” a remarkable memoir . . At every turn, she asks us to remember the cost of success stories like hers: All of this may make for a great story, but it doesn’t make for a very nice world to live in.
Jordan Kisner is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the author of “Thin Places.”
ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir, by Emi Nietfeld | 359 pp. | Penguin Press | $27