Lily McLemore

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic is so fabulously surreal, I checked twice to be certain it was indeed a memoir and not a work of fiction. In her debut, Hindman recounts the nearly four years she spent as a violinist in an ensemble led by an eccentric man whom she refers to only as the Composer. Hindman and the other musicians perform shows across America in performance halls, malls and at fairs, but they’re part of a bizarre deception: The musicians are barely making sounds with their instruments. The music the audience hears is coming from a hidden CD player hooked up to the speakers. 

“From the very beginning of working with that group, I knew that there was a story,” Hindman says in a call to her home in Kentucky, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University.

Playing the violin professionally had been Hindman’s dream since she was a child growing up in a small West Virginia town, as her devotion to the instrument earned her peers’ awe and adults’ respect. Hindman recalls, “There was something going on in the way people would look at me when I played the violin, that I could tell even as a kid, it made them think of me as more serious.” Being a classical musician also allowed her to escape the suffocating confines of gender norms—she was a talented violinist, not a talented girl.

Determined to leave her Appalachian upbringing behind, she applied to and was accepted at Columbia. But at Columbia, she realized that while she was talented and hardworking, she was far from a spectacular violinist. Tuition was also exorbitant, and when she saw a job listing for a violinist with a famous composer and his Billboard-topping ensemble, she mustered up her last dregs of optimism and sent in an audition tape. 

She was stunned when she got the job. The Composer has sold millions of albums, and his uplifting, soaring music has scored numerous television specials. It also sounds just like the soundtrack for the 1997 film Titanic. “It’s as close as you can get to the Titanic soundtrack without being the Titanic soundtrack,” Hindman says. “Hours and hours and hours of instrumental music with a lot of penny whistle and violin and light piano playing.”

When she first began performing with the ensemble, the admiration on the faces of audience members listening to her “play” was like a drug. But during a seven-week cross-country tour with the ensemble in a decrepit RV, Hindman realized a few things about the Composer. His diet was seemingly composed entirely of apples and cereal. He was unable to remember Hindman’s name, and instead called her Melissa for the entire tour. He was unfamiliar with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and in 2004, he had no idea who John Kerry was. Before every concert, he told the ensemble that they must remember to grin throughout the entire performance because “some people out there have cancer.”

“When you look at him, he looks like a famous composer,” Hindman says. But as she stood on stage with him, faking a smile and pretending to play the violin, she began to lose touch with reality. She started having crippling panic attacks, sometimes multiple times within an hour. The violin no longer provided her with an escape. 

“I think that there was something that was just plain old stage fright about it, where you’re just up on the stage and all these people are  looking at you,” she says. “Because the music was prerecorded . . . all you’re doing is basically standing in front of people playing a role. You have a lot of time to think.” 

Working with the Composer was a grueling, difficult time for Hindman, when her understanding of who she was and what she wanted was turned on its head. But it also forced her to inspect some of her flawed beliefs about gender and femininity, the definition of success and happiness, and the debatable merits of working yourself to near-death. “I think part of it was just growing up and realizing that the pressures that I was putting on myself at that age were just completely unreasonable and dumb,” she says. “There’s all these other aspects of life that have nothing to do with winning trophies or being the best at anything but that are just as important. Certainly, writing the book itself helped me congeal all of this in my mind.”

It’s clear that Hindman feels conflicted about the Composer, although she is generously empathetic. “Probably the biggest surprise was how I started feeling a lot more like I had so much in common with the Composer. As I was reading and revising the book, I started to feel a more profound kinship with him in terms of, like, well, what do you do if you’re not born with genius? You have to work your way around that in some way.”

Surprisingly, Hindman’s bizarre, existentially traumatic stint as a pseudo-professional violinist hasn’t spoiled classical music for her. “I listen to violin music all the time. I don’t play so much anymore,” she says. Although her violin days are over, Hindman can be assured that she’s accomplished something incredible: She has written a memoir about identity and finding a sense of self that is funny, personal, empathetic and, amazingly, true.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic is so fabulously surreal, I checked twice to be certain it was indeed a memoir and not a work of fiction. In her debut, Hindman recounts the nearly four years she spent as a violinist in an ensemble led by an eccentric man whom she refers to only as […]

Personal finance can be a fraught subject for anyone, but if you came of age during the 2008 economic meltdown, it can be downright terrifying. Instead of facing it head-on, many young Americans don’t talk about what’s going on in their bank accounts, and as a result, they don’t know the first thing about personal finance. Pundits are fond of telling the under-35 crowd that they need to stop buying their precious avocado toast if they ever want to buy a house, but in Bad with Money: The Imperfect Art of Getting Your Financial Sh*t Together, 30-year-old comedian, author and financial podcast host Gaby Dunn makes it clear that the financial hurdles and morphing job market faced by her fellow millennials are far more difficult to navigate than the ones faced by their parents. 

Silently struggling with your finances while feeling guilty and ashamed about your lack of know-how won’t get you anywhere, and Dunn advises that letting go of those feelings is the first step toward a brighter, more bountiful bank statement. She lays out the basics of how finances work with good humor and friendly prose, clarifying the perplexing and cryptic language of taxes, 401Ks and investing while offering advice on how to create a budget, choose a credit card, find an insurance plan and manage young America’s kryptonite: student loan debt. Dunn admits that she used to be terrible with money, but she learned a lot through her various money missteps, and she wants to share that hard-earned wisdom with the financially clueless out there. Anyone overwhelmed by the murky, flawed system of finances in America will find an honest, helpful guide in Dunn. 

Elizabeth White represents a different demographic of the financially unmoored. She has worked at the World Bank, holds an MBA from Harvard and started her own company with her mother. After eight years and the dissolution of that company, she re-entered the job market at age 47, certain that her stellar resume would land her a job fairly quickly. But years went by with no steady source of income. Short, unfulfilling job stints and freelance work saw her turning 60 with a rapidly dwindling number in her bank account and rapidly rising panic. She was broke, and she was ashamed. Looking around, she realized that her private shame was something many older, former professionals were quietly carrying with them as well. But no one was talking about it, and no one knew what to do. 

In 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life, White offers advice, exercises and tips for the millions of Americans in their 50s and 60s who have unexpectedly found themselves struggling to stay afloat. But perhaps most importantly, she provides hope and empowerment. Throughout this book, White includes quotes and stories from boomers who are figuring out their next step, bringing home the powerful and important message: You are not alone. This is a deeply empathetic, informative and accessible book from a woman who understands—because she’s been there. 

Perhaps an antidote to financial frustration is to understand, fundamentally, how we arrived at our current financial landscape and where our world economy can go from here. Renowned English economist and social science expert Paul Collier takes a broad view of our economic climate in The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties and asks the big questions: How did we get here, and what do we do now? Collier lays bare the inherited flaws of Western society’s corrupted capitalism and how it has failed us. As the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider, other divisions become more pronounced, and contempt blossoms. In such an environment, something must change—and soon. Collier eschews political partisanship, instead presenting practical, deeply researched arguments for ethics-based capitalism to heal a deeply fissured society. Bringing morality and ethics back into the economic and public-policy discourse is the only solution. 

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Taking an honest look at your financial situation can provoke a panoply of unpleasant emotions, and let’s be honest—finances are boring. Understanding the complex, jargon-filled American financial system can be difficult, but these three new books work to dispel the mysteries and put you on a course to a more stable, realistic financial future.

Psychologist Mary Pipher’s 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, was a revolutionary exploration of the psychology of teenage girls, and in her inspiring new book, Women Rowing North, she considers the psychological effects of aging on women. Women face many challenges as they age: misogyny, ageism, loss and physical changes. Yet Pipher shows that most older women are more content than their younger selves. Pipher offers warm, empathetic guidelines for navigating aging and for recognizing its unexpected gifts. Here, Pipher answers a few questions about her new book.

Can you tell me about why you decided to write this book?
I always write about something that I need to understand. For example, I wrote about teenage girls when I had an unhappy, teenage daughter and many troubled and angry adolescent clients. I wrote about refugees after Lincoln became an official refugee resettlement community with 54 languages in our schools.

I am particularly attracted to topics in which the cultural messaging is very different from my own experience. I want to explore that disconnection. To me, writing is the deepest form of thinking.

What’s one message you would like to convey to women with this book?
That happiness is both a choice and a set of skills and that with the right attitudes, we can make everything workable. Yes, everything.

I feel like many women today look toward aging with dread and anxiety. What’s something you wish you could have told your younger self about aging?
We now have research that shows that older women are the happiest people of all demographic groups. I wish I had known that earlier. I thought I was peaking in happiness in my 20s, a time that, in retrospect, wasn’t all that happy for me. Many women have expressed how surprised they were by the richness and joy of this life stage.

What’s an example of something you find joy in now that you didn’t when you were younger?
I actually like almost the exact same things I did when I was 10 years old. I love reading, swimming, being outdoors, and my friends and family. During the years I was a working mother, I didn’t have much time for these pleasures, but now I can once again spend much of my time doing these things.

Your groundbreaking 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, examines the reasons—from unrealistic beauty standards to media’s portrayal of sexuality—behind the growing number of teenage girls developing depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Do you think this trend among adolescent girls shares any similarities with the struggles aging women face?
Both age groups on the cusp of great changes. Because of the tidal wave of experiences coming our way, both adolescent girls and older women need to expand our coping capacities and grow our moral imaginations. We also face a culture that sees us in stereotypes that don’t match with our own experiences. We are searching for new ways to understand ourselves and the complicated situations we are experiencing. Both stages are catalytic for great growth.

What do you think are some of the biggest societal challenges women face as they age?
Many women face financial issues, especially around health care. We also are likely to experience the loss of our friends, parents, siblings and partners. By the time we are 70, most of us have experienced some health problems and some collisions with a culture that doesn’t value us because we are old.

When I told my women friends I was writing a book about older women, they would say, “I’m not old.” What they meant was their view of themselves did not fit the cultural stereotypes for older women. They weren’t grumpy, depressed or decrepit. Instead they felt vibrant and deeply engaged with life.

One of the takeaways from your book is that a sense of community is an important part of wellbeing. Where do you find community in your own life?
I have lived in the same small midwestern college town almost continually since 1972. I have friends who I knew in my 20s and friends from various communities—neighbors, activists, writers, therapists and musicians. Many of my friends know each other and we have watched our children grow up together. I am deeply grateful for this. My community has helped hold my family’s lives in place. However, knowing so many people for so long also means that I go to lots of funerals and make many hospital visits.

What did you learn while writing this book that surprised you, either about yourself or in research?
I realized that a great deal of my thought came from white men. I had read Rousseau, Tolstoy, Lincoln, Camus, Thoreau and Whitman. I challenged myself to find women’s quotations for this book. I was happily surprised by how many new authors I met as I researched the book. I also realized I had pretty much downloaded Eleanor Roosevelt into my head. Her quotes kept showing up in every chapter!

Where are you rowing to next?
I want to become more engaged in saving our democracy from money and greed. I want to work to stop climate change so that the grandchildren of humans and all other species have a clean, green planet to inhabit.

 

Author photo by Sarah Greder

In Mary Pipher's inspiring new book, Women Rowing North, she considers the psychological effects of aging on women. Women face many challenges as they age: misogyny, ageism, loss and physical changes. Yet Pipher shows that most older women are more content than their younger selves. Here, Pipher answers a few questions about her new book.

We all have a few delightfully odd friends or family members: your nephew who just moved back from New Zealand after 14 years herding sheep, your conspiracy-theorist cousin, your friend who’s always mastering some obscure talent. These five books might be the perfect solution to the riddle of what to get the person on your list who’s just a little . . . out there.

You were hoping to witness our ancient ancestors in action thousands of years ago. But then your time machine broke, and now you are stranded among people whose sole form of communication seems to be grunting. Thankfully, though, you have a handbook: How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, written by bestselling author and computational linguistics expert Ryan North. And luckily for any stranded time wanderers, North is incredibly funny, so you’ll be entertained while inventing fundamental technology for your fellow, albeit less-developed, man. This guide offers everything you need to build a civilization in no time (relatively speaking, as it took our ancestors 150,000 years to figure out how to talk). North covers language invention (English is not suggested; it’s kind of a wreck), measurements and horseshoes (which allow horses to work comfortably year-round, and as North writes, putting shoes on an animal “honestly seems like one of our most adorable achievements”). Avoid the pitfalls of our ancestors with this handy guide.

© The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons / Cartoon by Victoria Roberts.

 

COMICALLY SPEAKING
It’s OK. We know your secret. Sometimes, life gets busy, and all you have time to read in the New Yorker are the cartoons—in fact, the cartoons may be your favorite part of the famed literary magazine. We have a feeling there’s more than a few people harboring this secret, and for them, there’s The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons: A Semi-serious A-to-Z Archive, a handsome, two-volume, slip-cased collection spanning nearly 10 decades and featuring almost 3,000 cartoons from the magazine. Each was chosen for inclusion by Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker from 1997-2017. There’s no lack of humor in its format either, as it is divided alphabetically into sections such as Crash Test Dummies, Elvis, Grim Reapers, Kayaks, Octopuses, Wise Man on the Mountain and (of course) Psychiatrists.

DAZZLE THEM
Do you ever feel that holiday comedown, after all the presents have been unwrapped and the coffee pot is empty? It’s only 10 a.m.—what do you do with the rest of the day, and how can you keep the kids from falling under the spell of their phones? Allan Zola Kronzek has provided the answer: a little magic. In Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids, Kronzek shows readers how to use everyday items like straws, cards, coins, toothpicks and even dinner rolls in simple tricks and sleights of hand that are fun, easy to master and guaranteed to impress a range of ages. And don’t worry, you don’t have to have grandchildren to enjoy this book. Illustrations of Kronzek, as your genial grandpa guide, provide instructions for the tricks, and Kronzek includes riddles and brainteasers of varying degrees of difficulty as well. By dinnertime, everyone will have a few new tricks up their sleeves.

ROAD TRIPPING
Despite being the creator and star of Comedy Central’s very funny “Broad City” with her friend Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson is a private, contemplative person, more comfortable alone than in a crowd. In her 30s, she fell in love for the first time—and then, just as suddenly, the relationship was over. She was devastated, and after struggling through the fourth season of “Broad City,” she got in her car and drove across the country to reaffirm her identity as independent and capable. In her vulnerable yet laugh-out-loud collection of essays, I Might Regret This, Jacobson shares her thoughts on love, heartbreak, insecurities, tiny coffee cups, snacks and a lot more. It’s the perfect gift for any “Broad City” fan, and it wonderfully captures Jacobson’s voice in all of its kind, slightly neurotic, tangent-prone hilarity. She also narrates the audiobook, making it ideal for someone going on their own road trip of self-discovery.

MATH FIENDS
If you know a numbers or logic lover, The Riddler by Oliver Roeder, the puzzle editor for the statistics and analysis website FiveThirtyEight, was crafted for them. These puzzles aren’t for the faint of heart, though. They’ll test your geometry, logic and probability skills, and thankfully, Roeder provides thorough, entertaining answers to each puzzle. If you’re not currently working at NASA, you will probably need to think outside the box to solve these puzzles. Mind-bending questions ask you to consider the radius of a martini glass, Bayes’ theorem, the probability of a house being robbed in a town full of thieves and more. Just like a few loved ones on your gift list, The Riddler is a puzzler, indeed.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We all have a few delightfully odd friends or family members: your nephew who just moved back from New Zealand after 14 years herding sheep, your conspiracy-theorist cousin, your friend who’s always mastering some obscure talent. These five books might be the perfect solution to the riddle of what to get the person on your list who’s just a little . . . out there.

It’s officially the month to be spooky, and you can only watch so many classic horror reruns each year, so why not try a fresh, new story? From spine-tingling tales for the hard-to-scare to books with just a touch of terror, we’ve got the Halloween read for you.


Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts
By Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose

The guts of the tale: Before his death in June 2018, beloved bad-boy chef and comic lover Anthony Bourdain had wrapped up work on this comic anthology of tales of haunted chefs and bedeviled diners with his Get Jiro! collaborator and friend, Joel Rose. Filled with gruesome art from some of the comic world’s top horror artists and inspired by Japanese folklore, the collection is centered on a group of chefs who take turns telling increasingly horrifying tales of spirits like Hidarugami, the ravenous souls of those who starved to death, or Jikininki, ghouls who feast on the dead.

Bone-chilling quote: “There’s just something about horseflesh. I crave it.”

For fans of: The Tales from the Crypt and Haunt of Fear comic series or anyone interested in the legacy of Bourdain, whom Rose lovingly calls “the hungriest ghost of them all” in a dedication penned after the chef’s death.

Costume inspiration: Check out the glossary filled with legendary Japanese spirits like Yuki-Onna, a beautiful spirit with a deadly kiss.

Spook-o-meter: 


Dracul
By Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker

The guts of the tale: Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, and established horror author J.D. Barker (The Fourth Monkey) have teamed up to pen this prequel of sorts to Dracula, the 1897 vampire novel that kicked off the still-fervent fascination with the Count. In keeping with the classic’s epistolary style, Dracul is written as journal entries and features Bram himself as the protagonist. This delightfully gothic tale is packed with gore and atmosphere.

Bone-chilling quote: “He smiled at me and tapped on the glass again with his fingernails. His nails were long and yellow, hideously so. Oh, and his teeth! . . . His lips were curled back like those of a snarling dog, and his teeth were like fangs. He licked at his lips and said my name. He said it so quietly, as if mouthing it, yet I heard him perfectly, as if he were right next to me.”

For fans of: Dracula by Bram Stoker (duh), The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova or Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield.

Costume inspiration: This one’s obvious: Grab a cape and some plastic fangs!

Spook-o-meter: 


The Witch of Willow Hall
By Hester Fox

The guts of the tale: Equal parts romantic and supernaturally chilling, Hester Fox’s sweeping tale is set in 1821 New England, two centuries after the infamous Salem witch trials. But it looks like the witches were real after all, and young Lydia Montrose has the lineage and burgeoning power to prove it. A creepy estate, juicy scandal, family secrets, ghosts and a handsome yet mysterious suitor make this a satisfying and quietly foreboding tale that never gets too dark.

Bone-chilling quote: “It’s a slow moan, a keening wail. The sound is so wretched that it’s the culmination of every lost soul and groan of cold wind that has ever swept the earth.”

For fans of: Deborah Harkness, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Jane Eyre and “Charmed.”

Costume inspiration: A witch from the era of your choosing.

Spook-o-meter: 


Llewellyn’s Little Book of Halloween
By Mickie Mueller

The guts of the tale: This little book is a history of Halloween, a party-planning inspiration and a book of charms all rolled into one. Mickie Mueller provides insight into Halloween’s origins, along with simple spells (sprinkle thyme in your shoes for courage), recipes and decor ideas that are perfect for your own gathering of spirits.

Bone-chilling quote: “Bats have been a longtime symbol of Halloween, and it’s not because they’re scary; I’ve met a few, and they’re really not.” (Which sounds exactly like something a bat disguised as a human would say!)

For fans of: All things Halloween!

Costume inspiration: Something classic, like a sheet-clad ghost.

Spook-o-meter: 

Devil’s Day
By Andrew Michael Hurley

The guts of the tale: John thought he had escaped the superstitious ways of the wild English countryside. Yet when his grandfather dies, he is pulled back into his family’s tiny farming community, where strange things have been occurring. Has the devil slipped in among the flocks of sheep? Or has the devil always been among them? This atmospheric, eerie novel is perfect for a rainy night in.

Bone-chilling quote: “Days were late to lighten and quick to end and people began to die. The older folk first, coughing up their lungs in shreds like tomato skins, and then the children, burning with fever.”

For fans of: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent or Hurley’s previous book, The Loney.

Costume inspiration: A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Spook-o-meter: 

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s officially the month to be spooky, and you can only watch so many classic horror reruns each year, so why not try a fresh, new story? From spine-tingling tales for the hard-to-scare to books with just a touch of terror, we’ve got the Halloween read for you.

In his deeply personal and compassionate collection of essays, Criminals, Robert Anthony Siegel explores his unusual upbringing as the son of a charming, erratic criminal defense attorney, whose ethically dubious practices eventually send him to prison, and a culturally eloquent mother who was always reaching for more. Siegel’s writing is breathtaking—I had to take a walk around the block after reading the crushing, beautiful title essay.

I asked Siegel, who lives in North Carolina with his family, a few questions about his parents, the Hells Angels and the unexpected solace he found in Eastern traditions.

What was the most surprising or challenging part of writing this book?
There were a lot of surprises. The first was just the fact that I was writing a memoir at all. I’ve always thought of myself as a private person. But then the second surprise came very quickly after that, which is that I’m actually no more private than anyone else, just way more ashamed of myself.

I’m not sure either of those two surprises would matter much without the third, which is that there’s really nothing to be ashamed of. My family and I made a stupid hash of things, just like a lot of other people on this planet. The sense that this was all so very shameful, that I had to protect us with my silence—really, I was just frightened of everything I would have to feel if I ever tried to tell our story: anger, sorrow, forgiveness, and of course the hardest thing of all, love.

Do you think it’s possible to truly know your parents? Would anyone really even want to?
I sometimes feel that thinking about one’s parents is really just a way of thinking about oneself in disguise. But that’s what makes it such an important thing to do.

How accurate do you think the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” are?
I’ve always loved Larkin, but I don’t think that poem is about its first line. If you look at the poem as a whole, it’s really about the way pain is transferred down from one generation to the next. It revolves around a moment of compassionate insight, when the poet realizes that the harm his parents caused him was rooted in the suffering they themselves experienced as children.

But I don’t share Larkin’s conclusion, his wish to stay aloof from life. When we had our firstborn, Jonah, I couldn’t believe they were letting us leave the hospital with that beautiful little creature. Didn’t they know we knew nothing? That baby care books scared us? But a voice inside my head kept whispering, Jonah will show you how. Just listen to Jonah. If you listen to him, everything will be all right. And it was.

Growing up, your family had a fraught relationship with food, especially your father, who “believed that eating would protect us from sorrow.” Can you tell me more about how food factored into your family’s dynamic?
Food was a form of comfort, something that would make us feel a little better, at least temporarily, when we felt sad or lost or disappointed in each other. It was also something we could give to each other, a way of showing love, and something we could share, a way of experiencing connection. And it was aspirational, a form of self-transformation—we could imagine ourselves differently in a French restaurant, eating escargot with those long delicate forks.

But my father would sometimes go on eating binges that lasted for days. He seemed helpless to stop, but it also felt as if he was wielding his eating as a kind of weapon, and that the rest of us were being held hostage, a captive audience to something that we didn’t fully understand.

Your memoir beautifully recounts your growing realization as an adolescent that the parents you adore are, in fact, also flawed humans. Do you think the parent-child relationship is inevitably set up for disappointment, or is it just continually evolving?
Oh, I vividly remember the comfort of thinking my parents were magical, and that I was privileged to be at the very center of the universe. And looking back, I can still see how a little kid might draw such a conclusion. My father was the kind of criminal defense lawyer who wore cowboy boots and a beard and drove to court on a motorcycle. My mother was a lawyer, too, but gave it up to take us kids to the symphony and ballet, all the things she thought necessary to a real education.

Of course, what I see now is that my belief in them was driven by a sense of their underlying fragility, the fear that they might fall apart and then there would be nobody to take care of us. The period when my father came under investigation and I started to see the cracks in our façade was the most painful of my life. It felt as if I were cracking. But I don’t believe that kind disillusionment is a necessary part of growing up. On the contrary.

Your father represented the Hells Angels, and was careful to cast them as bumbling “characters” instead of dangerous figures, and he took you to the clubhouse regularly. Has your understanding of your father’s work changed given your adult knowledge of the Hells Angels’ white nationalist connections and today’s political climate?
I think we were always secretly uneasy about our relationship to the clients, Hells Angels included. They were criminals and did bad things we ourselves would never do. We didn’t want to be tainted by them, or feel responsible for what they did. At the same time, they were the source of everything special about us, including our money, and we wanted them to love us and need us, like we needed them.

The way we elided that contradiction was humor. In the jokes we told each other at home, we made the clients look harmless and silly, and we made our own participation in the situation feel ironic, a kind of tongue-in-cheek performance that would never have any real-world consequences.

What strikes me now, looking back, is how that kind of joking bled into the rest of our lives without anyone even noticing. We started using it among ourselves whenever we were mean to each other or failed each other in some way. Turning the situation into a joke prevented the other person from expressing any sense of hurt and erased our own sense of responsibility. The interesting thing is that the Angels used much the same strategy to talk about themselves. Just watch their self-produced documentary, Hells Angels Forever, and you’ll see what I mean: It keeps switching rhetorical modes between threat and joke. Cross us and we’ll kill you. No, just kidding! And of course, that kind of rhetorical strategy has gone mainstream now, from Neo-Nazis and racist internet trolls to our elected representatives.

You write that you are from a “family of endomorphs,” and your family was shocked by your interest in judo. Why do you think judo became such a passion for you?
If you’re not familiar with the sport, go to the internet and find a highlights reel from one of the big international competitions and you’ll understand: Judo is exquisite, a kind of human fireworks. And it’s a powerful form of self-cultivation, too: The little I know about bravery and resilience, I learned from judo.

But in my case, there were confused motives from the very start, and that’s the part I wanted to write about here. I think I wanted judo to take away my fear and my loneliness, and cure my sense that something was wrong with me. That was asking too much.

Your mother was particularly interested in being “cultured,” and you were drawn to Eastern traditions such as Taoism and judo, and you have lived in Japan and Taiwan. Why do you think Japan holds such a fascination for you?
Oh, that question has many, many levels to it. If you’ve ever been to Asia, then you know what it’s like to step off the plane and find the English language gone, even the Roman alphabet gone, an entirely new set of rules in place. It’s more than a little scary, but also incredibly thrilling.

On a deeper level, I think I had a secret wish to remake myself: to stop being me and start being somebody who came from an ancient culture and a highly nuanced civilization that offered clear rules about how to treat other people and how to make sense of life. Of course, that was a fantasy. As far as I can tell, everyone on this planet is utterly lost. But even with that understanding, I always feel better in Asia. It makes me present in the moment in a way I can’t always manage elsewhere.

What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve written the one story I was never supposed to tell, and the result is that I’m feeling a tremendous sense of liberation. Suddenly, everything seems possible. So, the short answer is that I want to write as much as I can, with all the daring that I can find.

Author photo by Jonah Siegel

In his deeply personal and compassionate collection of essays, Criminals, Robert Anthony Siegel explores his unusual upbringing as the son of a charming, erratic criminal defense attorney, whose ethically dubious practices eventually send him to prison, and a culturally eloquent mother who was always reaching for more. I asked Siegel a few questions about his family, the Hells Angels and the unexpected solace he found in Eastern traditions.

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