Review: ‘Acceptance,’ by Emi Nietfeld

ACCEPTANCE: A memoir, by Emi Nietfeld


Overcoming adversity is a classic plot arc among recent hit coming-of-age memoirs — from Tara Westover’s “Educated” to Viola Davis’ “Finding Me” to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” It’s a satisfying type of story, and often deceptively ordered. With her first memoir, “Acceptance”, Emi Nietfeld enters the genre in an ambivalent way, paying particular attention to what is elided in stories like hers: the cruelty of a society that subordinates survival to excellence. .

“Acceptance” traces Nietfeld’s childhood at the mercy of faulty systems and people. Her family life, as she describes it, was never functional, but became untenable by the end of elementary school. His mother was a charismatic and intelligent crime scene photographer whose hoarding problem and irrational behavior were so severe that Nietfeld was unsafe at home. Her mother took her to see a series of doctors, insisting that Nietfeld be medicated for ADD although she had no trouble concentrating. “The pediatrician gave me Concerta. When I panicked, I took Xanax. After a few weeks of Wellbutrin, my mom gave me her leftover Adderall. Eventually, she was on antipsychotics. “‘Come home,’ I begged the adults, sure that if anyone saw how we lived they would understand why I was becoming more and more miserable,” wrote Nietfeld. “Nobody came.” At 13, she attempted suicide and landed in a psychiatric ward, which she loves for its clean air, “the endless hot water, the meals that arrive on trays. As soon as I got home, I wanted to go back.

Psychiatrists taught him that most of his problems were self-inflicted; she needed to learn “radical acceptance”. In his group therapy room, a photocopied sign read, “’Not accepting pain = suffering’…insisting that our misery was a choice. Patients were trained to fill out GEDs and look for minimum-wage jobs in the local newspaper, but when Nietfeld pointed out that “the only way to balance our sample budgets was to allocate $32 a month for care of health” and one of his prescriptions cost $1,000, the counselor suggested Nietfeld was “catastrophic.” When she worried about college prospects, she was chastised for the avoidance. When she expressed her latent suspicion that she had been questioned, confined and forcibly medicated because doctors and social workers found it easier than going after her mother, she was told to ” focus on what you can control”. Time and time again, she struggled to discern which aspects of her situation she was supposed to accept (as an immutable fact, or as mere deserts) and which she was supposed to fight against.

Nietfeld is a fighter by nature, and she understands that her future depended on her ability to excel in school – to be a kid that another kind of institution could take a chance on. Through psychiatric hospital care, foster care and then homelessness, her goal was an acceptance letter to Harvard, which for her symbolized security and credibility. Much of the book traces Nietfeld’s dogged pursuit of this dream, as she dutifully learned the rules of every system (social, academic, legal) that ensnared her so that she could negotiate, bluff, and study. his exit. But when she “made it” – Nietfeld opens the book in her late twenties, as a Harvard-educated engineer – she found herself unable to understand her story as one of triumph.

Nietfeld’s story is a detailed critique of the American fantasy that poverty, disease, or other adversity can be conquered by the courage and ingenuity of priming; and how and to whom our company distributes aid. While Nietfeld manages to pull off the impossible—she acknowledges that being pretty and white has been a huge factor in her success—the effort leaves her feeling nauseous and compromised. Her Ivy League upbringing was a result of her performing the right kinds of skills and as the right kind of victim: A foster story is attractive to scholarship committees, she found. Psychiatric services and sexual abuse are not.

Despite the narrative’s inconsistent pacing – exhaustively detailed at times and pointedly glossed over at others – Nietfeld’s gifts for capturing the fury of living at the mercy of bad circumstances, for critiquing the hero’s journey even while 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 that could make for a great story, but it doesn’t make for a very pleasant world to be in.


Jordan Kisner is a contributing writer for Times Magazine and the author of “Thin Places.”


ACCEPTANCE: A memoir, by Emi Nietfeld | 359 pages | Penguin Press | $27

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