"How do you feel about being depicted the way you are in this book?" I paused. I was confused. I was on the phone with a reporter whom my mother had asked me to speak to. The reporter was doing a big piece on Mom's newest novel for a big newspaper.
"Why should I feel anything?" I responded, and then I realized (via a quick Google search) what she was referring to. In my mother's newest novel, there was an adult daughter roughly my age who gets inpatient treatment at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota. If the story has a familiar ring, it's because it really happened. I myself completed a monthlong residential-rehab program there, in 1997. Now, at 37, I've been sober 18 years, and I have three kids of my own — all of whom are old enough to read. I stammered at the reporter. I wondered why my mother had given me no hint that perhaps the reason this reporter was so incredibly keen to speak to me was because I was in the book. I felt furious, embarrassed, enraged, and, of course, exploited. As friends expressed concern for me, I found myself having to explain my sobriety to people who didn't even know I had ever had a problem, since I've never had a legal drink.
This wasn't the first time this had happened. It was very much the occupational hazard of being the daughter of popular author Erica FEAR OF FLYING Jong. But this time it was infinitely more annoying.
It first dawned on me that my mother was chronicling my every move via her autobiographical fiction when we were eating in a fondue restaurant called Ships in Connecticut in 1990. I was a rotund 12-year-old who believed that my perm made me look like a young Shelly Long. I wore scrunchie socks, and they pooled at the ankle for seemingly no reason. My shoulder-padded mother had just published a novel that told the story of a world-famous folk singer with whom she shared many similarities, including voluminous hair, a drinking problem, and motherhood issues (though the folk singer had twin daughters my age).
A woman approached who was also puffed up like a linebacker, with wads of polyester sticking out of her jacket. "May I?"
My mother invited her to join us. The woman gleefully recounted the story of a painful divorce and a young lover who had ended up liberating her from the bonds of domestic oppression. My mother nodded. She knew what the woman was talking about because both she and her novel's protagonist had been though the same experience. After Mom gave this stranger permission to go off and live the life she had always dreamed of, the two women hugged. I wasn't really listening. I had dropped a piece of brownie into the fondue pot and was doing my damndest to save it. But as the woman was leaving, she looked at me.
"You are just adorable," she squealed, and then she started to sound almost disappointed. "But you're not twins! You don't have a twin, do you?" She seemed almost irritated at my single status.
No, I did not have a twin. If I did, I could call her and we could commiserate about how invasive it is to have your mother reveal your secrets to the world. This, and other slights real and imagined, caused me to vow to be the mother whom my mom was too busy earning a living to be.
* * * * *
In that moment, I promised myself I would give my children the stable childhood that I both longed for and lived in mortal fear of. My children would have bedtimes, routines, and healthy organic meals that did not include ice cream. I would parent the hell out of those kids.