Emi Nietfeld, ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir

Emi Nietfeld, ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir

Zibby speaks to debut author Emi Nietfeld about Acceptance, a gripping, page-turning, and darkly humorous memoir about a life that took her from homelessness and foster care to Harvard and Google. Emi describes the chaos that ensued after her parents’ divorce–from her mother’s compulsive hoarding to her own mental health crisis and hospitalization. She also shares what it was like when her father came out as trans in the early 2000s in a very religious family (Emi was a state bible champion!). Finally, she discusses the absurdities of the college admissions process, the culture shock she experienced at Harvard, and her hopes of starting a family soon!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emi. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful memoir, Acceptance.

Emi Nietfeld: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Your life, oh, my gosh. First of all, you’re a great writer, as you must know, but you are. Second of all, all that you have been through and that you write about and that you overcame in your teenage years and all of it, it’s just amazing. I really appreciate you sharing all of it. It was very, very powerful. Really great.

Emi: Thank you so much. That means a lot.

Zibby: Tell listeners about your life, your book, why you decided to even write a book about your life and what you’ve gotten out of that.

Emi: I started writing Acceptance when I was in high school shortly after I had tried to summarize my childhood and adolescence for these college admissions committees. That was a really hard thing to sum up in one or two pages. Like a lot of people, I had a dysfunctional family. I grew up in Minnesota. We were evangelical. When I was nine, my parents separated. It threw my family from a middle-class existence into chaos. Both of my parents had severe mental illnesses that really emerged in the aftermath. My mom, who got full custody, struggled with compulsive shopping and hoarding. Instead of getting help for her problem herself — she couldn’t even recognize it was a problem. I was medicated. I developed mental health issues. I was hospitalized a bunch of times, eventually went to this locked facility for troubled teenagers before going into foster care, and then dealing with homelessness during breaks at an arts boarding school. The whole time, I was really focused on, I want to get out of here. College is my escape and my way out. I write about that journey and this wild system of college admissions that we have in this country where for so many young people, it’s their hope and their dream for a better life and an affordable education. I ended up getting into Harvard. It was not exactly what I expected, as you might actually expect.

Zibby: You have that moment — I would say you’re hitting bottom, but there were so many bottoms in the trajectory of your story. You have this one doctor who says, “Have you thought about college? Is that your plan?” You were in this very wealthy area where everybody was there because — you said it was almost like the mental illness sort of came out of the privilege. Maybe you could describe it better. The doctor there was used to counseling kids who had every intention of going on to Ivy League schools and all of that. You hadn’t really been on that track or thinking about that. All of a sudden, you were like, well, yeah, I do want that. I read all the time. I’ve memorized the Bible, for God’s sake. Yes, I should go to college. Even when you were praying that she would ask you again about college the next time and then she didn’t, just that feeling of, oh, my gosh, I want this person to say this. Why are they not? It was amazing. Tell me about that time.

Emi: One of my hospitalizations, I want to eating disorder treatment when I was thirteen. Actually, I had just turned fourteen. Before that, I had been, pretty much, with other working-class teenagers in psych wards where the doctors were like, “Do you torture animals?” Those were the kinds of questions you would be asked. It was so shocking to me to walk into this suburban hospital where everyone is, from your first approximation, is white and wealthy. I’m white. I did not feel like I fit in with these people. Then just to be asked this question that really assumes that I had a future and that the ways that I was harming myself, they might not be evidence of my internal badness — maybe I was actually good and had potential. Unfortunately, readers will know that this moment, it did not really last. It was kind of a flicker of hope that I spent years chasing afterwards. It really did open up this possibility for me. I think it shows the power of, even if you can’t be there for somebody all the way through the journey, those small interactions can make such a big difference.

Zibby: It’s so true, oh, my gosh. I had a friend who was in an eating disorders unit when we were in high school. Then I ended up working at an adolescent in-patient unit in college, probably as a result of that, in part. I’m very familiar with what the wards are like because I was one of those undergrads who were helping out. The whole system of rewards and — I spent a summer there. I was just like, oh, my gosh, no one’s going to get better here. This is not where the magic’s going to happen. This is just another place where they have to figure out how to get through. How are they going to all get better? It was kind of depressing, to be honest with you, which I know you felt, having read your own experience being one of the patients. The one person I felt like I could reach was a depressed teen who was able to articulate and be like, “I’m really depressed. Let’s talk,” as opposed to, a lot of it was oppositional defiant disorder and all of that. They end up there because I guess society doesn’t know what to do with them. I don’t know.

Emi: It’s such a big issue. Fifteen years after I went through this stuff, it’s finally getting more traction where we look at, how does being institutionalized affect a teenager? I was in a locked facility for nine months that was very restrictive, kind of like a prison, which was where I started studying for standardized tests. It seemed impossible to go away to college, but it also seemed impossible to literally go outside because we were trapped inside in this place for months. It has a big impact on people. I’m grateful that for me, it made me so angry and made me want to prove everybody wrong. I’m grateful that that’s how I responded because a lot of people don’t.

Zibby: To this day, are you in touch with others you met along the way?

Emi: I lost touch for a really long time. Then when I was writing Acceptance, at a certain point, I started interviewing people. It was really amazing to see so many things that I didn’t remember and then also to see how similar experiences affected us similarly. I think when you go through those places, a big part of it is just feeling really isolated. For me, a big part of writing Acceptance was to figure out, what is the bigger themes that were happening in my life in a story that felt so lonely? I was just interviewing somebody from residential treatment the other day for another story I’m writing. It’s wild to see where everybody has gone in life.

Zibby: Wow. Did you feel there was some value? Were some people helped more than others? Where did you come out?

Emi: That’s such a good question. I think that there is value at least in making sure people stay alive. A lot of people there were really at rock bottom. Now that I’m getting to parenthood myself, I have so much empathy for the parents who are like, my kid is going to die if I don’t help them. I think there’s a long way to go and also that there’s definitely places that are better than others and that are doing the best practices. That should really be held up and lauded.

Zibby: At what point in your life did you know this would be a book?

Emi: When I was seventeen, I was like, I want this to be a book. We’re talking about the mental health part of it and the treatment part of it, which is certainly a big part of the book, but what was so, so hard for me was to try to write this retrospective, here’s my life, and here’s what I’ve been through, and then tie it up in this pretty bow. I just felt like it was so dehumanizing and gutting. I thought there must be thousands of teenagers who have just submitted their college application who feel exactly the same way, but nobody is talking about this. Nobody is talking about this identity crisis that’s happening at such a vulnerable time.

Zibby: I knew that you had said that the college essay had sort of instigated. It’s one thing to have a lot of material. It’s another to be like, and actually, I’m going to publish this for the entire world, which is crazy. When you said Harvard was unexpected, can you give listeners a peek at some of the things that were the most unexpected?

Emi: When I was a teenager in Minnesota, and especially when I was living with people like my foster parents, who thought Michelangelo’s David was pornography and who thought The Biggest Loser was high art, I lost myself in fantasies of this place where it would just be filled with bookworms who were all exactly like me. I would totally fit in. Everybody would be kind of nerdy and weird. Then I got to campus. I couldn’t even recognize the clothes that people were wearing. Everyone was wearing these weird leather shoes, which I learned were called boat shoes because you’re supposed to wear them on a boat. People just had amazing social skills. They were very polished. To this day, I still really struggle with my classmates. It was impossible to tell if anybody liked me. I had come from this experience of having these rules and consequences and really getting in trouble if I didn’t do things the way that the institution told me you have to do it. Then suddenly, I’m at this place where you need to be entitled to ask for what you want. If you just know how to ask the right people, the world is yours. It was a huge, huge culture shock for me. I didn’t even expect to be culturally shocked. I think that that’s really how little I knew about the reality of the Ivy League, to not even expect that people would be different than me.

Zibby: Maybe it’s better. Maybe then you wouldn’t have gone or you would’ve not tried as hard or whatever. Who knows? Maybe it’s a good thing.

Emi: If I could give advice to my younger self, I would’ve read How to Win Friends & Influence People a little earlier.

Zibby: My mother gave that to me, by the way, as a high school graduation gift. She was like, “You have to read this. Dale Carnegie. You must read it. So important.”

Emi: Did you read it?

Zibby: I started it. I don’t know if I finished it. I remember starting it. I was like, I don’t know about this. Did you read the whole thing?

Emi: I loved it.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Emi: I loved it. I was so charmed by the titans of industry. I think also, if you’re coming from a dysfunctional family — I had not learned the basic social rules, like, don’t be a Debbie Downer. Learn people’s name. Don’t just say, “Oh, hey. Are you Ben?” when the guy’s name might be David. That was just so immensely useful to me. I hope that if people read Acceptance, maybe they’ll pick up some of those tips and tricks too. I would love that, if a reader wrote to me and was like, oh, yeah, I learned how to act at Yale after reading this book.

Zibby: I actually have an intern downstairs who is going to Yale in the fall, so maybe I’ll see what she takes out of — I’ll tell her to write you with her feedback.

Emi: Congratulations.

Zibby: She’s doing a two-week school internship and was like, “Can I hang out?” I was like, “Sure, hang out. Why not?” Anyway, I’m curious about your history with medication. You detail a lot of meds that you were on at different times, and different treatments. You’re pretty emphatic that you did not necessarily need them and that it was your mother and her warped view of the world and the fact that she presented as so competent — why would people doubt her view of reality? It ended up having you treated for things you didn’t necessarily believe you had and then medicated, which felt like just another failure of the system, to be honest, as I read it. After that whole experience, what is your view on medication in general or medicating kids and where you stand on medication now for yourself?

Emi: Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I was prescribed more than a dozen psychiatric drugs in a twenty-four-month period. It’s obviously a very complicated topic. Recently, as an adult, I went back and I took an antidepressant, which I felt was really helpful for me. Then about nine months ago, I started going off of it with my doctor’s support. It has been a really, really eye-opening experience, both of how useful it can be and just of how difficult withdrawal can be and how that can make you feel like you’re going crazy, that process just in and of itself. As I write in the book, my mom thought I had ADD. I was prescribed Concerta, which is a stimulant medication. I reacted by panicking. I was given another one. It was even worse. It started this spiral of, oh, if this medication didn’t work, then it indicates some other problem. It was two years until I was given a full ADD assessment. I wish that this was rarer, but from talking to so many people and doing reporting in this space, unfortunately, it’s really, really common. While meds can be super helpful to people, it’s hard. Once you start taking something, if you have an adverse reaction, it can be really hard to tell, is this kid freaking out because they are depressed, or are they just really sensitive to Adderall? Today, I can’t even drink decaf coffee. I’m that sensitive to stimulant medication. Looking back, it’s really, really sad to me to see how many of the things that were happening to me might have just been a physical reaction not only to having a messed-up home environment and Mom dealing with mental illness, but just to the ways that doctors were trying to help.

Zibby: Wow. You write in the book about your dad becoming Michelle and how, at the time, this was — you said something like even Oprah hadn’t had a transgender guest on at that point. Now of course, it’s much more a part of the mainstream. We talk about it a lot. Tell me how that felt to you at the time and how it contributed to your sense of isolation.

Emi: My family was very religious, as I mentioned. I was a state Bible champion for Bible memorization in fourth grade. That was also the year that Michelle came out to me. She picked me up one day from my parochial school and told me, “I’m changing my name to Michelle.” People thought that this was going to be really, really shocking to me, but I had grown up — my dad was the head of the family. Whatever Dad says goes. I was in the headspace of, okay, that’s what you say, you are Michelle now. You use she/her pronouns. Even in the Bible, God made Eve out of Adam’s rib, so I was like, there’s precedent here. I think kids are just so much better at accepting stuff like that, in some ways, than adults because I didn’t have all the same ideas that other people had. It was really hard because people did not have any knowledge about it. There was either this assumption from people at church that I was traumatized, that this was really bad for me, and then on the other side, there were people at the public school that I went to after and people who were really liberal who were like, you must have a happy family with two smiling mommies. I was like, that is not the case either.

Zibby: There is a lot. You’ve gone through a lot. It’s amazing and impressive. You’re so bright. Where are you taking this whole operation from here? What are you doing professionally? What are your thoughts on parenting now? All of it. Tell me all of that.

Emi: I have been doing more reporting, mostly about inequality, teen mental health. It’s been so wonderful to talk to other people and tell other people’s stories. I am also planning to, hopefully, become a parent soon myself. I’m sure that I’m going to have a different perspective on everything I wrote about as soon as I’m a mom. I feel really grateful to have had the chance to not only tell my story, but to really figure out how some of this stuff, like overmedication and institutionalization, how that is affecting young people. We’re starting to think about it so much more, but I don’t think there have been enough stories coming from people who have lived it who can shine a light on that complexity. I feel really, really grateful to be able to do that through journalism and through some more essays that I’ve been working on.

Zibby: Are you thinking about another book?

Emi: I would love to write another book. A lot of my friends are planning families too. There’s some really, really interesting frontiers of elective fertility treatment that’s happening in Silicon Valley.

Zibby: Really?

Emi: Yeah, a lot of sex selection stuff.

Zibby: Really?

Emi: Yeah. Without giving away too much, it’s kind of a 180 from what I’ve worked on before. I think it’s also very tied up in these questions of, what does it mean to have a child? How do we best take care of our children? What kind of expectations help versus hurt? I’m just really, really fascinated by that whole world and that whole thought process.

Zibby: Totally. Fascinating. Do you worry — maybe worry is the wrong way. I don’t mean this to be offensive in any way. Do you worry that some of the things, the mental illness that your parents grappled with, will be present in your own children?

Emi: Absolutely. It took me a long time to be willing to take that risk. I have people who have schizophrenia on both sides of my family. I think that there’s a thing where being a parent is innately so, so risky. I have the privilege of having gone to lots and lots of therapy, which neither of my parents really had. I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping that that is enough.

Zibby: The good news is there are treatments that are appropriate for the situations and not just — I feel like you had a BB gun full of treatment coming at you. The proper treatment by great doctors can really make all the difference in people’s lives, obviously.

Emi: Absolutely. I married the most level-headed person in the world. He’s truly just so stable. It’s really, really amazing.

Zibby: That’s really great. Congratulations.

Emi: Thank you.

Zibby: Emi, thank you so much for coming on and for sharing your soul and your experience and your family and your life and all of it and your Harvard experience, everything, start to finish. I’m just really rooting for you and can’t wait to see where you end up. I feel like there’s a Pulitzer Prize in your future. If you win one, you can say that I said this on this podcast in 2023, when you look back.

Emi: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Emi: Bye.

Emi Nietfeld, ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir

ACCEPTANCE: A Memoir by Emi Nietfeld

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