Priscilla Gilman, THE CRITIC'S DAUGHTER: A Memoir

Priscilla Gilman, THE CRITIC'S DAUGHTER: A Memoir

Zibby interviews writer, former professor, and repeat MDHTTRB guest Priscilla Gilman about The Critic’s Daughter: A Memoir, an exquisite and wrenching portrait of her unique relationship with her father, the esteemed, brilliant, but deeply troubled theater critic and Yale drama professor Richard Gilman, and the deep wound that her parents’ divorce left her with. Priscilla talks about her father’s depression (which competed with his utterly magical, devoted, childlike side), and how becoming the designated caretaker at age 10 forced her to soldier on through disappointment, trauma, and loss for years. She also talks about the incredible emotional toll of remembering her childhood and putting it all on paper.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Priscilla. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” You were here before for The Anti-Romantic Child, and now The Critic’s Daughter: A Memoir.

Priscilla Gilman: I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Priscilla, this book, oh, my gosh, I actually cried. I haven’t cried in a book in a really, really long time. I cried.

Priscilla: Zibby, I never want to make you cry, but I do that way.

Zibby: No, it was so amazing. The part when you quoted Charlotte’s Web — I know I have a thing about it, but in the context of the story, oh, my gosh. It’s really great. By the way, we have the same life. I know we went to the same grade school and college. We were only a couple years apart. I was like, okay, I just read every cultural, personal reference of my entire life in this book.

Priscilla: Wow, that’s amazing. Zibby, those Charlotte’s Web lines, oh, my gosh. When I did the audiobook — I recorded my own audiobook. I only cried three times. One of them was that time.

Zibby: What were the others?

Priscilla: I had to stop. I looked at the engineer. I was like, . The others were — actually, it’s interesting. I didn’t make myself cry with my own prose. One of them was my sister’s eulogy for my dad, when I was reading that about the magical childhood and how we could’ve shared more with him. Then one of them was his own lines about not wanting to die, wanting to be remembered, wanting to give comfort to the people that he left behind, wipe away their tears, those lines where he’s echoing . I found out later. I didn’t know when I first read it.

Zibby: Wow. I jumped right in so fast. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Priscilla: My book is about my father, Richard Gilman, who was a theater critic, a professor at the Yale School of Drama, and a writer. It started out as a book about criticism and culture in the seventies. It was going to be much more about his cohort. He was very close friends with many famous critics, from Susan Sontag; Elizabeth Hardwick; Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Anatole Broyard, who were the two lead New York Times book critics; Stanley Kauffmann, a film critic. It morphed into a really personal story. It is a story about a lost New York. It is a story about a lost culture and an era in the arts and criticism, but it is a very personal family story about my complicated relationship with my complicated father, whom I adored, revered, and then lost for the first time — the first line of the book is, “I lost my father for the first time when I was ten years old.” That line came to me, Zibby. I don’t know where it came from. I got that line. Then The Critic’s Daughter, the title, came to me. I was like, okay, I’m going to be able to do this. I had been putting off writing a book about my father. My agent, Tina Bennett, who was my friend at grad school — she’s a character in the book. Remember? She talks to my dad about trying to make his writing into a book when he has cancer. She said, “This is the book you have to write. Anti-Romantic Child, wonderful, great, but you really need to go back and talk about your dad.” I got that line and that title, and it was off to the races.

It became so much more about me than I originally thought it was going to be, and about my evolution from a girl to a woman. My parents had a very, very bitter divorce. Wondering if that’s one of the points of reference, Zibby, with your life, and what it’s like to love both of your parents very, very much and have them possess so much animosity and bitterness between them and feel like you’re caught in the middle. My father was an extremely brilliant but very troubled person. Being the child of somebody who struggles with depression, self-medicates with smoking, ultimately dies of lung cancer — I always knew he would even though he said, “No, my parents lived until they were ninety-something, and they smoked.” I knew it. The pressure that I felt, even before my parents split up when I was ten, to keep my father in a good mood, to pull him out of his darkness, to help him, to bring sunshine and light and joy and fun and play into his life — he had this very playful, joyful, childlike side. He was an incredible father in so, so many ways and when I was a little girl, just a magical, wild, zany figure who adored reading to us and watching the PBS shows with us — I know you watch those — and joining in our games. He honored our belief that our stuffed animals were alive. He talked to them. He took us to the library to take all the books out. He was just magical, completely magical, but dark, had a dark side, or had darkness in him. I don’t like the phrase dark side. He had darkness in him, as we all do.

Zibby: I feel like even though he loved childhood and made yours so special, and even things like — you had the one when you were in Weston. He would have you dive off his shoulders in the pool and all of that.

Priscilla: That was in Italy, yes.

Zibby: Italy, sorry. My dad used to do the same thing. All of his love of childhood, he inadvertently, though, stole yours because you had to grow up so quickly and take care of him so much. There was so much pressure on you. First of all, I feel like I understand you so well, at least what you shared. The book is about your dad, but it’s really your — I guess that’s why it’s the daughter. It’s making sense of you and how you’re working through all of this. There’s so much. We all have so much with our relationships with our families and whatever. All the pressure to take care of him, even when you were visiting the friends and he would leave his glasses and cigarettes burning — they were like, “You girls don’t even mind.” You were just like, “Oh, Daddy, another glass.” All of the things from making sure he’s okay to his emotional state, that takes a lot of toll in a developing child.

Priscilla: It really does. I think I never slowed down enough to acknowledge that or see it. I remember talking with you last time when we were talking about Anti-Romantic Child. I’ve gone through a lot of challenges. We all do, but I had a lot of major challenges at a young age, when my father is dying of cancer when I’m in my twenties. I’m married. My mother-in-law has just died of cancer. Then I have a child with developmental disabilities. It turns out to be autism. My marriage is falling apart. I’m in a tenure-track job in academia. I am just soldiering on. I am not wanting to slow down and cry or say, this is hard. This is difficult. I’m in that mode that my parents trained me to be in from a very young age, which is the smiley one, the poised one, the caretaker, the one who brings strength and cheer and steadiness to everybody else.

Zibby: I loved that part of the book. Wait, I’m going to read this passage.

Priscilla: Oh, good. Thank you.

Zibby: You said, “This insistence on soldiering on through disappointment, trauma, and loss, this buoyant optimism had served me well as I weathered my parents’ split, Sarah’s illness and death, Benji’s special needs, and my father’s diagnosis and diminishment, but they came at a cost. I didn’t allow myself to truly feel or acknowledge the terror, disorientation, and profound sadness that must have accompanied these situations and experiences, and I certainly didn’t share those feelings with others. I feared being a burden. I feared undermining the listener’s own well-being. I feared appearing weak and vulnerable rather than strong and capable. I feared not being able to parent effectively if I leaned into or came face to face with my own wounded child. I feared playing anything other than the role I’d been assigned at a very young age, the happy, resilient, reliable one who counseled and supported, cheered up, and calmed others. Even though the role and the self are closely related, even though I’d been chosen for the role because it wasn’t a stretch, playing it to the hilt took a toll.”

Priscilla: You just made me teary because you read that with such empathy, Zibby.

Zibby: That totally jumped out at me when I read it because it’s so easy — isn’t it? — to hide it all and just keep going.

Priscilla: Hide it all and keep going. I know that you understand that better than most people do, Zibby. It’s funny, when you were reading it, I heard something different in it. Obviously, I do engage a lot with this idea of how, in families, children get slotted into certain roles and how I very much tried to avoid that with my own kids, even though I did write a piece called “Ernie and Bert’s Mother” where I slotted them into the roles. Then right after I wrote it, they were like, “Wait, actually, I’m more like Bert, Mom. He’s more like Ernie.” Also, of course, that word role, I play on theatrical metaphors and similes throughout the book. I structured it in acts. That was a big, formal decision to do it in acts. It was three acts. Was it four acts? Was it five acts? I stretched it as much as I could. Then I added an epilogue.

Zibby: Wait, just on this topic again, you wrote, “In the fall of 2017, I unearthed a bin of old things from my mother’s basement. In it was a diary I’d kept in middle school. Here is a page from that diary. ‘Things not to do when I’m with Daddy. 1) Don’t cry. 2) Don’t complain. 3) Don’t be difficult. 4) Don’t tell him anything but good news. 5) Don’t mention Mommy. 6) Don’t expect him to be the Daddy of old.'” That is heartbreaking.

Priscilla: I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have any memory of it, Zibby. I’m flipping through. There’s entries about, “This new Go-Go’s song is so great. This cute boy, I’m going to slow dance with him at the dance.” Then there was this. It was right in there.

Zibby: Doesn’t it break your heart to think of you as a kid going through this now that you have kids?

Priscilla: Yes. You know what’s interesting? My agent and my editor, both of them would say to me at various points, “I have so much empathy for little Priscilla. I want you to have more empathy for little Priscilla.” I think that was one of the hardest parts of the book, is to go back into it. Pictures were really important. I put up a picture of myself just a few months before the split on Instagram yesterday. Looking at how little I was, then I think, oh, my gosh, I’m ten years old. I cannot imagine my children, who are a college first-year and a recent college graduate now, but I can’t imagine them at ten finding out the stuff that I found out. Experiencing and going through what I did and seeing one of their parents in so much distress and so much pain, it’s unfathomable to me.

Zibby: That they asked you to keep all this a secret for a long time, that is so hard.

Priscilla: Zibby, isn’t that interesting? When we were talking about Anti-Romantic Child, I remember you asking me about when Benj first had all these challenges, my ex-husband asking me to keep it a secret, not to tell anyone because he didn’t want a school or family friends’ perception of Benjamin to be shaped by an idea of disorder in some way. When people ask me, “How did you become a memoirist from being an academic and writing a dissertation? You’re also a critic. How can you do all this personal stuff?” in a way, merely telling the truth and sharing things that are hard and sharing things that were difficult and going back in with empathy and sense a sadness for that little girl, that in and of itself is correcting the past. It’s me saying, I don’t have to keep secrets anymore. Do you remember, there’s that part in the book where Jill Krementz — I hope she took your picture too.

Zibby: Yes, I circled that. It’s hanging downstairs in the bathroom.

Priscilla: They really are the best, her pictures. They’re really amazing. She’s doing this book, How Children Feel When Their Parents Divorce. She asks me and my sister to write for it or participate in it, be photographed for it. My mother’s like, “You don’t want to talk about it. That’s private.” I’m thinking, I don’t want to talk about it because I’d have to say a lot of very painful things and possibly expose my father and some of his actions that were less than savory and paint my mother — I just thought, I can’t do this. In a way, I’m doing it now. Thank you, Jill Krementz, for being the first person to ask me to talk about it honestly and openly. I’m doing it now.

Zibby: I just connected with her in the last couple months. If you want me to put you two in touch, you could almost do a reprise of the whole thing.

Priscilla: I’m her Facebook friend. She loves my posts. Every time she does, I’m like, yes, yes.

Zibby: That was just one of the thousands of things. I really couldn’t even believe it. It’s not even worth going into how many references that were all the same.

Priscilla: Did you read the Betsy-Tacy books, Zibby?

Zibby: I read the Betsy-Tacy books. You reminded of another series that I had totally forgotten about. It was in the same sentence. The Ever After Girls? Wait, what was it?

Priscilla: Oh, the books?

Zibby: No. It was the same sentence, though. Hold on, I’ll find it.

Priscilla: I’m looking up at my children’s books. My academic e-books are behind me. You can see them on the video.

Zibby: All-of-a-Kind Family books.

Priscilla: They’re so good.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I had forgotten all about them.

Priscilla: They’re fantastic.

Zibby: This was so my life, the beauty products, the Noxzema, Sea Breeze, Clearasil, Flex & Finesse, Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, Ban Deodorant, Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers. It was like you opened up my childhood medicine cabinet and took me back on a time travel.

Priscilla: Zibby, that was so much fun.

Zibby: How did you remember all this?

Priscilla: I have a really good memory. Ask any of my friends from elementary, middle school. I can tell you what they wore to the dance, if it was a purple off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, capri pants. I have an incredible memory. I really do. I just remember. It’s so vivid to me. Then if I wasn’t quite sure, I did a lot of research. I actually did do a lot of incredibly fun romping through rabbit holes and going on old Upper West Side websites and tribute books and remembering The Green Noodle, all the restaurants and the stores. It was so much fun.

Zibby: It’s crazy. You literally recreated the same world. I also, by the way, I got mono at Yale my freshman year. I know yours wasn’t diagnosed until later with all of your sinus infections. I could not believe that you took time off and were an instructor at Gilda’s aerobics class, which I also used to take. It’s incredible.

Priscilla: Zibby, that was the most fun. I don’t know if you read my interview with Tertulia. They asked me about bookstores. It just went up.

Zibby: Yes, I saw.

Priscilla: I said I tried to get a job at Shakespeare & Company, but they were like, “You’re a sophomore at Yale. You don’t have enough literary and philosophical range.” I was like, okay, I’ll go audition to be an aerobics teacher. I ended up teaching stretch and firm, body sculpting, and step to Mary Tyler Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Mary Stuart Masterson, Connie Chung. The list goes on.

Zibby: Unbelievable.

Priscilla: So fun. So much fun.

Zibby: You have just a little bit at the end about how you processed all of this stuff and the aftermath of the loss and your relationships and the inappropriate men and all of this. I was like, I feel like there’s another memoir right in this section here.

Priscilla: I think those men would beg to differ.

Zibby: Maybe it’ll be a novel or something.

Priscilla: Zibby, I may take a page out of your book. There may be a novel. From memoir to fiction, yes.

Zibby: How do you feel that this is all out there and that you went through the — what was it even going through emotionally writing this all down? What was it like for you?

Priscilla: It was really hard. I will say, when people ask me, how long did it take you write this? I started working on it in 2015. I teach more than full time. I lead six book groups. I teach college. I teach a writing class. I’m a private writing coach. I’m a meditation teacher. I really don’t have much time to write, and getting my son into college and getting Benjamin, my autistic son, transitioned to college and all of that. When I started writing it — we sold it in 2017 as a proposal. I would go a month or two without working on it. In part, I think it was good that I was working so much and consumed with parenting because I don’t think emotionally, I could’ve done this in a stretch. I just don’t think I could. The idea of a writing retreat, to me, I just don’t think it would work for me. I do well when I write — I’ll have a weekend. I’m like, this is my weekend where I’m going to go in and I’m going to write a couple of scenes. Then I might not look at it again for a month. Sometimes that was really emotionally necessary because there was a lot of crying while I was working on this. There were also moments where I would finish a scene and just feel completely hollowed out. Oh, my gosh, I need to go meditate. Meditation was key. A lot of sleep was key.

In terms of it coming out, it’s very scary. If The Anti-Romantic Child was personal, this is even more so. I had a wonderful Kirkus review. Anonymous Kirkus reviewer, whoever you are, you really read with such empathy and appreciation. I absolutely love the review, but they did describe my mother as cruel. I took that as a sign that they were reading the book with an abundance of empathy for little Priscilla. They were just thinking it’s cruel to tell a child terrible things about their father when they’re ten, whatever. I don’t think my mother was cruel. I don’t think she did it to hurt me. I don’t think she did it with some kind of twisted agenda. I think we did not know how to talk about divorce to children. This is 1980, 1981. She was not in therapy. We never got therapy until much later. I think she genuinely thought, I’m helping her process this and come to terms with this very complicated man. Remember, I’d found that letter that my father wrote to his first wife where there was all the sexual details. That’s what started her trying to explain and account for it to me. I think she wanted me to understand why she had to end the marriage. I absolutely agree that she had to end the marriage. I am so glad my parents split up. It would’ve been terrible if they had stayed together. They both ended up much happier and more fulfilled apart. That doesn’t mean that the split itself didn’t take an enormous toll on me.

Zibby: I don’t think she came across as cruel. What came across the most for me was your longing for her to understand, to forgive your dad, to make peace with who he was, and to go back to when she loved him.

Priscilla: Exactly. Zibby, you nailed it. I remember I interviewed the amazing, incredible writer Laurie Siegel. Read her books, everyone. She’s in her nineties and still going and one of my parents’ closest friends. I interviewed her a few times when I was working on the book. She has such fond, vivid memories of my parents in the early days of their relationship and their marriage. She said there was so much that was good in their connection. They had the same values. They had the same passion for literature and the arts and the same adoration of their children. I think that they created two interesting children. My sister’s my best friend. We always talk about how we are so weird because we’re a combination of our two very different parents. I do have my mother’s steely resolve and her ability to be a great advocate, which she used as an agent and I have used as a parent of two children with special needs. We all get bits and pieces from our parents. The ultimate message of my book is being able to look at your parents as human beings and understand their own demons and their own complicated histories and why they did what they did and not to blame and not to reduce them to something simple because none of us are simple. We’re all complicated. In the end of the book, there’s that moment where my mother finally does, she finally gives me that affirmation about my dad. I think so many people who have bad splits can identify with my mom. You don’t want to acknowledge that there’s anything good about the person. In a way, sometimes it’s to separate yourself because you need to get out. You have to shut down the part of you that loves that person or the part of you — my dad was draining my mom, as he drained me.

Zibby: Then there was all that stuff that came out from her, from what you found out. It must have been hard. There’s no good way.

Priscilla: There’s no good way. I say this to my mom all the time. I was talking to her this weekend. She said, “If I’ve made mistakes, I’m so sorry.” I said, “Mom, you don’t have to ever apologize. All parents make mistakes.” I want the same forgiveness for myself. We all make mistakes. There’s no right way. If she had done it when we were younger, that would’ve had its own problems. If she had waited, that would’ve had its own problems. If she had not told me and I found out later — I think about Wally and Allen Shawn and how they found out that their father had another family and other kids. They hadn’t known. They found out in their thirties. That’s its own kind of drama.

Zibby: You also, though, could’ve written The Literary Agent’s Daughter.

Priscilla: Yes. A reviewer on Goodreads wants me to do that. They’re like, “I hope that she will do a memoir about her mother, Lynn Nesbit, next.” I said, I don’t think that’s happening.

Zibby: Was it hard for her? Was it hard for Claire and your mom? How did everybody in your ecosystem feel about having all of this out there? Were they okay with it? Did you check with them? What was it like?

Priscilla: I did check with them. My mom is not going to read it. My ex-husband didn’t read my first book. Very similar reasons. They don’t want to go into the pain. My mother hates reading anything about herself. There are a lot of books that my mother is in. She is in The Year of Magical Thinking. I did she read that one. There’s a biography of Donald Barthelme that she’s featured extensively in. She sent me to Borders to read the sections that she’s in. She can’t stand to read anything about herself. I think it’s good. My ex-husband actually did read this one and helped me with it, knows my mother very well. We’re very good friends, but didn’t read the first one. I did interview both my mom and my sister and my brother, who’s not my mother’s son, but my half-brother Nicky. He was a fountain of information, oh, my gosh. He sent me pages-long letters with his memories and things. It was very validating because he said, “I never thought they would get divorced either.” He was older. I thought maybe it was just me that didn’t think it. He was like, “No, no, no, it was completely shocking.” He said, “They both yelled when they fought. It wasn’t just our dad. She yelled back.” I checked a lot of things with them. I wanted to get their take and their perspective.

Zibby: When you think about the reader of the book, what do you want the reader to get out of this?

Priscilla: I feel so warmly towards my readers and my potential readers. Just as I did with The Anti-Romantic Child, I do think this is a universal story. I think that Benji, my son who has autism — it’s called The Anti-Romantic Child because he was the opposite, in many ways, of what I was expecting or predicting or projecting as a parent. You go through this romanticization of what being a parent is going to be. Then there’s all this disorientation, disappointment, loss, whatever, of what you think. Then you come to a deeper sense of romanticism where you see your child as he or she actually is rather than who you want he or she to be. I think that this book is, even though my father is obviously a very idiosyncratic — he’s really an original. His life in and of itself, there’s probably going to be a biography at one point because, wow, the conversion to Catholicism, all of the stuff. Even as he’s very eccentric and idiosyncratic, I think all of us at some point in our lives, we worship an adult, and then we come to see that adult as flawed, having limitations, much more complicated than we thought. We have to come to terms with seeing them with greater complexity and in greater depth or whatever. Then how do we get to that place where we recover the sense of wonder and magic and love and also mystery? My father’s memoir was called Faith, Sex, Mystery. Great title. No “ands.” Just faith, comma, sex, comma, mystery. Even as I’m writing this book about my dad and attempting to capture him and attempting to revive him in some way, I want the reader to end the book with a sense of reverence for mystery because my father would want it that way. Even as we should strive to know each other and accept each other and love each other with empathy and attunement to individuality, respecting the essential mystery of every person is another value that my father taught me.

Zibby: Priscilla, oh, my gosh, thank you. Thanks for this book, this conversation. I was so just completely immersed. My heart was open for you the whole time. I just feel like this was such a personal, intimate account. It was really great. Thank you.

Priscilla: Zibby, I’m so, so touched by your reaction. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you.

Priscilla: Always wonderful to talk to you.

Zibby: You too.

Priscilla: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Priscilla Gilman, THE CRITIC'S DAUGHTER: A Memoir

THE CRITIC’S DAUGHTER: A Memoir by Priscilla Gilman

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