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All Family & Relationships Coverage

Growing up together means our siblings understand “not just who you are but why you are,” as author Annie Sklaver Orenstein writes. Sometimes the “why” is even a direct response to the siblings themselves; we may follow in an older sibling’s footsteps or rebel against expectations set by their example.

We expect siblings to not only grow up with us but also grow old alongside us; even when relationships are strained or barely existent, siblings share history, and their family experience may most closely mirror one another’s. When a sibling dies early, it can be a devastating, isolating loss. But there aren’t a lot of resources for sibling-specific grief. Orenstein has learned this firsthand in the 13-plus years since her oldest brother’s death in Afghanistan when she was 25.

In Always a Sibling: The Forgotten Mourner’s Guide to Grief, Orenstein addresses this gap in resources by providing tips, related reading and exercises to help readers face their grief after a sibling’s death. A researcher and oral historian, Orenstein puts her skills to use by collecting stories of sibling loss, braiding anecdotes and data with her own experience with grief.

Her plain-spoken, direct style ensures that the research she shares remains relatable. Sometimes she names too many interview subjects and their siblings, leaving the stories at risk of running together. But at their best, the stories help readers feel seen. For example, Orenstein recounts a woman at a party who opens up after hearing that the author is working on this book. The woman quickly warms to the subject and asks, is her experience normal? Or are the feelings she’s faced since her sibling’s death just her own? 

And that’s Always a Sibling’s greatest triumph. There are grief support groups and resources for parents, spouses and kids whose parents have died. But it isn’t often that young (or youngish) adults encounter others who share sibling loss. Orenstein shows her readers that they aren’t alone. Their feelings and reactions aren’t unusual. And their grief matters, too.

Always a Sibling braids stories, data and the author’s own experience with loss to provide a rare guide to mourning a sibling’s death.

Emily Nagoski’s third book, Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, like her second, Come as You Are, focuses on better sex. But where Come as You Are was aimed at women, Come Together is for couples in long-term relationships. To be clear, though, Come Together isn’t a book filled with sex tips or techniques; it’s a book about relationships, communication and methods to frame and understand emotions. 

Nagoski, a sex educator who trained at Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute, sets out to debunk popular beliefs, primarily one that “puts desire at the center of our definition of sexual wellbeing.” She argues that when we focus too much on desire—a “spark, a spontaneous, giddy craving for sexual intimacy”—our worry about losing that spark “hits the breaks and puts sex further out of reach.” Instead, Nagoski argues that partners should center pleasure, writing that “great sex over the long term is not about how much you want sex, it’s about how much you like the sex you’re having.” Nagoski offers tools to increase pleasure, such as an “emotional floorplan,” a map of the brain’s different emotional states, some which are pleasure-favorable (lust, play, seeking), and some pleasure-adverse (fear, grief, rage); prompts to help partners discuss sex; and even a breathing exercise to help readers tap into their “erotic wisdom.” 

Happily, Nagoski does not exclusively focus her attention on heterosexual sex. Through the dozens of interviews conveyed in the book, Nagoski includes LGBTQ+ couples, as well as those in polyamorous relationships, kink and BDSM communities, and more.

Nagoski reminds readers that the key to great sex over the long term isn’t frequency, novelty or special skills. Instead, it’s trusting and admiring your partner, prioritizing one other and prioritizing sex. She shares research findings, the ongoing stories of three very different couples, and pieces of her own story—for instance, how her work as a sex researcher and coach caused her to lose all interest in sex, and how she and her partner grappled with this loss. For readers with shorter attention spans, Nagoski closes each chapter with a TL;DR summary and questions to consider. Well-researched but accessible, Come Together is an inclusive, good-humored and reassuring book that offers something for every couple in a long-term relationship.

Emily Nagoski’s Come Together is a refreshing, inclusive and good-humored guide to sex between long-term couples.

If you’ve ever watched TV shows like “The Golden Girls” and “Kate & Allie” or considered super-close friend-duos like J.D. and Turk or Abbi and Ilana and thought, “What a great way to live!” then The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center is for you. Like her pop-culture compatriots before her, debut author Rhaina Cohen understands the preciousness of a deep and abiding platonic relationship—no romance necessary.

That’s not to say Cohen is anti-romance: The NPR producer and editor is a happily married proponent of wedded bliss. But when it comes to relationships, she’s not in support of treasuring only wedded bliss. Instead, she urges readers to cultivate and celebrate “devoted, life-defining friendships.”

Cohen’s fervor for the topic was ignited by her own life-altering bond with a woman named M, who “stretched my understanding of the role a friendship could play in my life” and “made the world pulse with more possibilities for intimacy and support than before, and I wanted others to feel those possibilities for themselves.”

Over years of research, Cohen conducted 70 in-depth interviews with proponents of platonic life partnerships. And in eight chapters written with empathy, curiosity and a clear knack for storytelling, she shares the fascinating and heartwarming tales of several of those duos. They vary by gender, age, religion and sexuality but share a willingness to defy convention. Readers will meet youth pastors Nick and Art, whose platonic life partnership has confounded potential romantic partners; Inez and Barb, coworkers who became helpmeets in retirement; Lynda and Natasha, who went from colleagues to coparents; and more.

Cohen notes that due to societal factors including increased housing costs, decreased birth rates, evolving views on marriage and a growing willingness to home-share later in life, non-marital partnerships are more common, while not yet commonplace. The Other Significant Others offers readers an insightful and intimate look at what life could be like if we broaden our horizons beyond “compulsory coupledom” and welcome the idea that “romantic relationships are not the only unions that can shape our lives.”

Rhaina Cohen’s The Other Significant Others offers an insightful, intimate look at how deep, abiding platonic relationships shape our lives—no romance necessary.

Christie Tate confronted her eating disorder head-on. She worked through her tendency to date men with alcoholism and even found a healthy relationship with a man she would eventually marry. This meant she’d tackled her issues, right? 

Tate recounted this recovery process in the New York Times bestseller Group, but it turns out the work of healing doesn’t end at “I do.” Her fear of intimacy had improved in some areas of her life, but Tate soon realized that her friendships needed attention, too.

In B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found, Tate writes about her journey toward friendship using the language of recovery and 12-step programs. Such meetings brought numerous influential women into Tate’s life, including Meredith, who pledged to work through her own friendship issues alongside Tate.

Tate had previously allowed friendships to fade whenever she moved from one life phase to the next. When Meredith came along, however, she pushed Tate to reflect on why she felt separate from others, which allowed Tate to begin recognizing patterns from her childhood. For example, Tate’s mom and sister had shared a bathroom when she was growing up, and they sat beside each other at the family dining table. Meanwhile, Tate had shared a bathroom with her father and brother, who also separated her from her mom and sister at meals. 

Tate explores these memories and her adult friendships with the same vulnerability that made Group such a captivating read. She’s unafraid to share the unvarnished truth about her insecurities, such as when a friend with whom Tate felt competitive considered joining one of her therapy groups, and Tate reacted by gouging a bloody line into her own arm.

But Meredith modeled lasting friendship for Tate, even when it was uncomfortable. One memorable day after Meredith had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, Tate told Meredith she planned to write about their friendship. Meredith gave her blessing: “Tell them how we changed by holding each other’s hand as we looked honestly at ourselves. Tell how one life can alter another.”

B.F.F. is an openhearted examination of the power of friendship from people who love us exactly as we are.

In B.F.F., Christie Tate explores her adult friendships with the same vulnerability that made her first memoir, Group, such a captivating read.
Review by

Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time is a thoughtful manifesto on the inherently subversive and joyous act of socializing. In seven chapters about different types of hanging out (“Dinner Parties as Hanging Out,” “Hanging Out on the Job,” etc.), Liming explores the fading art of leisure and its cultural roots.

Liming defines hanging out as a conscious act of refusal in a production-obsessed society. “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much,” she writes, “and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others.” She acknowledges that it is a peculiar time—amid the COVID-19 pandemic—to call for a return to the in-person hang, but this context is precisely why we are realizing the importance of spending idle time in physical communities. We cannot let corporate capitalism snatch away what is left of our free time, Liming argues. “Time is being stolen from us—not for the first time . . . but at newly unprecedented rates.”

Hanging Out reads as a chattier, slightly more precious version of How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. The book embraces its call for intentional meandering with wide-ranging references and a loose narrative structure. An English professor, Liming is unsurprisingly the most compelling when she incorporates literary criticism into her treatise. While the personal stories drag, the fiction references crackle. This is particularly true in her analysis of “party literature” in the chapter “Hanging Out at Parties,” in which Liming looks at several 20th-century novels and examines the different ways parties have functioned as social mechanisms.

What is quickly revealed in Liming’s contemplative writing is that hanging out—and all of its possible ramifications, limitations and effects—is too enormous a subject to comprehensively discuss. Instead, Liming uses her time to argue for the importance of mingling with others and finding time, even in an increasingly virtual world, to enjoy the hang.

Sheila Liming’s Hanging Out reveals how the joyous act of socializing is inherently subversive.

Throughout our lives, we encounter fraught decisions around love and money: whether to take a better job across the country when our partner wants to stay put; when and whether to marry, buy a house, have a child; if we should work full time with children in the picture. Money and love “are profoundly intertwined, and both are fundamental to living a life of purpose and meaning, health, and well-being,” write Myra Strober and Abby Davisson, co-authors of Money and Love: An Intelligent Roadmap for Life’s Biggest Decisions.

Strober, who was the first female faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, created a groundbreaking class on work and family and has led thousands of students through it over the years. As a business school student, Davisson took Strober’s class with her then-boyfriend, and for their final paper, the couple chose the topic of living together before marriage. (Now married, the two have returned to the class as guest speakers for a decade.) Money and Love is informed by this popular class.

Organized around issues such as dating, marriage, deciding where to live and dividing household chores, the book’s chapters offer anecdotes, background research and thoughtful commentary, as well as questions and exercises. The authors call their decision-making framework the 5Cs: clarify (define your deep-down preferences), communicate, choices (generate a broad range of choices), check in (consult with friends, family, research) and consequences (categorize possible outcomes over time). This framework may sound simplistic, but the authors emphasize the complexity of each step toward making life decisions. Good communication, for instance, “isn’t always polite and calm. Sometimes it’s incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it involves raised voices and, later, apologies for what was said in the heat of the moment.”

Money and Love offers a readable approach with nuggets of wisdom throughout. “Remember that each new agreement is essentially temporary, changing as different parts of life ebb and flow,” Strober and Davisson note in the chapter on sorting out housework and caregiving. The authors supplement anecdotes from former students and colleagues with their own, and Strober’s stories about the end of her first marriage and her second husband’s Parkinson’s disease, and Davisson’s story of her mother’s devastating brain injury at 68, add depth to the book. Money and Love is a useful guide, particularly for young couples on the verge of big decisions.

Organized around issues such as dating, marriage and deciding where to live, Money and Love is a useful, logical guide for couples on the verge of big life decisions.
Review by

Licensed therapist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab offers readers practical guidance on breaking the cycle of family dysfunction in Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships. In the introduction, Tawwab writes, “How people engage in the family is usually how they engage in the world.” This might be a relief for the lucky few who grew up in perfect families, but for most of us, unlearning the cycle of family dysfunction takes hard work and a little help. 

Drama Free offers just that: clear, easy-to-understand direction for identifying and breaking dysfunctional family patterns. The book is divided into three sections titled “Unlearning Dysfunction,” “Healing” and “Growing”—three important milestones on the road from chaotic family relationships to healthy ones. Each chapter begins with a quote or a real-life example from Tawwab’s therapy practice. Then it moves on to a brief analysis of the dynamics at play in the opening story and ends with a series of self-reflective questions. Chapters cover a wide range of topics including codependency, enmeshment, thriving versus surviving, managing relationships with people who won’t change and troubleshooting relationships with parents.

Tawwab’s longtime career as a therapist, her thriving Instagram community (@nedratawwab) and her New York Times bestselling debut, Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, have made her a leading voice on relationships and boundaries. Drama Free builds on this work by concentrating specifically on family relationships, supporting readers as they take responsibility for their own actions and move toward greater authenticity. 

Whether you’re struggling to process trauma, addiction or neglect in your childhood or just looking for increased transparency in your family relationships, Drama Free offers clinical insight in the warm, accessible tone for which Tawwab is known.

Nedra Glover Tawwab builds on her work in Set Boundaries, Find Peace by concentrating on family relationships in Drama Free, helping readers unlearn the cycle of family dysfunction.
Review by

Journalism professor Michelle Dowd was raised in California’s Angeles National Forest as part of an ultrareligious cult known as the Field, which was begun by her grandfather. She grew up fearing the apocalypse might arrive at any moment, and public education was shunned and largely avoided. “Outsiders” were never to be trusted. As Dowd writes in her excellent memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, her father taught his children that “preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.” He forced them to embrace discomfort, limited their food, weighed them after meals and sent them hiking in the snow in tennis shoes. Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Dowd’s unique spin and reflective voice elevate her story.

Forager is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, especially in the way that Dowd used her innate curiosity and thirst for education as a means to eventually break free. As a child, she began devouring the Bible—the only thing she had to read—taking secret notes on the many things she found puzzling or contradictory, “as if constructing a map for a prison escape.” Often she joined other cult members on long cross-country trips to raise money by performing in circuslike road shows. Dowd learned to endure her father’s frequent “rage and random violence” but never stopped yearning for her mother’s love and approval. Her mother was often absent, hugs weren’t allowed, and little if any nurturing was provided. 

The one thing Dowd’s mother did provide was an exceptional naturalist’s education, which serves as the book’s framework. Since the apocalypse was believed to be imminent, Dowd and others were expertly trained in survival skills. Each chapter begins with an illustration and short discussion of a plant that might provide sustenance, such as chokeberry, yucca or Jeffrey pine. Dowd’s survival skills, which have long provided her with a life raft, both mentally and physically, are not only admirable but fascinating.

Although Forager chronicles a horrific upbringing, Dowd’s narration is ultimately hopeful, uplifting and always appreciative of our intimate, fragile dependence on our planet. As she so beautifully concludes, “The sustenance I rely on is from the Mountain, which has made my mind large, open, like the night sky, where there is room for paradox.”

Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Michelle Dowd's reflective voice and unique connection to nature elevate her story.

Behaviors and beliefs are often perpetuated throughout families, when what we learned as children continues to show up in our families and relationships as adults. Sometimes these behaviors stem from childhood wounds that have led to negative repeating patterns.

In The Origins of You: How Breaking Family Patterns Can Liberate the Way We Live and Love, therapist and relationship expert Vienna Pharaon explains how to tap into the origin stories of these wounds in a productive way. Although naming the wounds we received during our upbringings can be a difficult and painful process, Pharaon writes that it is the “first step toward your healing.” The book is divided into four parts: our roots, our wounds and their origins, changing your relationship behaviors, and your reclamation. There’s an emphasis throughout on “origin healing work,” which is “an integration of family systems work and psychodynamic theory.”

By digging into her backlog of over 20,000 hours of work as a therapist and her Instagram community of over 600,000 followers, Pharaon puts feelings such as unworthiness and an inability to trust in context—along with these feelings’ subsequent destructive behaviors, such as being self-critical, not living authentically and avoiding honest communication. However, no client confidentiality is breached. Clients’ identities are disguised, and sometimes several clients are combined to emphasize a point. She also uses her own story as an example, referring back to her journey and growth time and again. These reality checks help the reader understand that they are not alone in their pain and show how addressing these origin wounds can be healing and transformative.

Thoughtful self-help exercises with suggestions on how to best read, process and digest this information are woven throughout The Origins of You, and Pharaon feels like a cheerleader and confidant as she offers honest, straightforward advice. “What if . . . digging into your origin story,” she asks, “could yield the relief and the exact answers you’ve been looking for all along?”

Therapist Vienna Pharaon is a cheerleader and confidant throughout The Origins of You, helping readers break negative family patterns and find healing.

Bozoma Saint John’s list of accomplishments is long. She has built a career as a marketing executive, most recently at Netflix, and filled her resume with hall of fame memberships and other accolades. You could be excused for wondering if her memoir is an executive’s story of professional success; this reviewer asked the same question. But no, The Urgent Life isn’t an executive’s guide to anything. It’s Saint John’s personal story of grief and survival.

In 1982, Saint John’s mother fled Ghana with her daughters. Their father was taken into political detention, and Saint John didn’t know when she would see him or their home country again. Her father rejoined the family in the United States months later, but from that point on, the young Saint John was familiar with loss. She later became acquainted with death after her grandmother’s passing, and more intimately so following the death of her college boyfriend.

When Saint John’s husband, Peter, received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2013, her perspective on loss quickly changed. The couple had been separated and in the process of divorcing, but in light of this development, they called it off. With limited time left together, they knew they wanted to live in the here and now. “We had to make haste, whether that meant moving back in together after being separated for years, booking a trip to our favorite getaway, or eating lasagna before it had time to cool,” she writes.

As Saint John vividly recounts the couple’s waning time together, she also reflects on the path that led them to each other. Their first meeting was acrimonious, but Peter quickly won over Saint John by reading her favorite book, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and taking her to dinner to discuss the novel. His insights impressed Saint John.

The couple fell fast after that, but the differences in their life experiences and upbringings—hers Ghanaian American, his Italian American—became difficult to sort through. Although Peter hadn’t previously been in a relationship with a Black woman, his 6-foot-5-inch, redheaded self fit into Black spaces with ease. He was content to watch Saint John and her friends dance at a club, nodding in time with music he didn’t otherwise listen to as he waited along the wall. She appreciated his comfort in her world while acknowledging that it was because of his whiteness that he was at ease. “There was no place that would deny him entry,” she writes.

The Urgent Life is an unflinching examination of Saint John’s experiences as a Black woman, the difficulties that almost ended her marriage and the love she and her husband clung to in his final days. Facing a life without Peter, Saint John made a decision to live urgently, recognizing that time spent with the people she loves isn’t guaranteed.

The Urgent Life is Bozoma Saint John’s personal story of the difficulties that almost ended her marriage and the love she and her husband clung to in his final days.
Interview by

Although Leta McCollough Seletzky wasn’t born until eight years after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she has always been haunted by the photo of that tragic night—one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century. And no wonder, since in it, her then 23-year-old father, Marrell “Mac” McCullough, can be seen kneeling beside Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, holding a towel over the civil rights leader’s wounded face, trying to staunch the bleeding. Several other people stand nearby, pointing toward a spot in the distance.

“In my mind,” Seletzky says, “those were accusatory fingers. I felt a sense of blame, that on some level, those fingers were pointing at me or [at my father].” The lawyer-turned-memoirist and California resident spoke by phone about her fascinating debut, The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This “black-and-white image of horror” was something Seletzky’s family rarely discussed, despite her father’s presence in it. His work had always been shrouded in secrecy and silence, and in many ways, the fact that he eventually opened up about it is nothing short of a miracle.

Read our starred review of ‘The Kneeling Man’ by Leta McCollough Seletzky.

Seletzky’s parents separated when she was 3 and later divorced. In high school, she learned from a newspaper article that her father, who by then lived elsewhere and worked for the CIA, had been an undercover officer for the Memphis Police Department at the time of King’s assassination, tasked with infiltrating and keeping tabs on a group of young Black activists called the Invaders. “The revelation felt like a body blow,” she writes. Had her dad’s work spying on the Invaders been similar to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tactics for harassing and controlling the Black Panthers, she wondered? Despite her curiosity and concern, Seletzky didn’t inquire about Mac’s role until 2010, after the birth of her second son. “One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story,” she says, “was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

When Seletzky eventually asked her father about that night, he responded with a 17-page document. However, Seletzky was so saddened by his description of growing up in poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi that she stopped reading after three pages, putting his account away for five years. Finally, in 2015, she read to the end of the letter. After that, she plunged into years of writing, research, Freedom of Information Act requests, interviews and, most importantly, collaboration with her father. The resulting book provides an account not only of the amazing trajectory of her father’s life but also of her own reconciliation with his mysterious past as a Black man spying on a Black Power activist group for the police.

“One of the main reasons I thought it was so important to tell this story was so [my sons] would not be left wondering or feeling that sense of silence and dread.”

Book jacket image for The Kneeling Man by Leta McCollough Seletzky

While writing The Keeling Man, Seletzky and her father visited King’s assassination site together, and she also facilitated a 2017 meeting between her father and Andrew Young, an early leader in the civil rights movement who was also present the night King was murdered. “It felt like walking into history,” Seletzky says. “I mean, not only were we meeting with Andrew Young, but we were at his house. It was something I’ll never forget.” One of the most endearing moments of their encounter was Young’s recollection of Dr. King playfully swatting him with one of the Lorraine Motel’s pillows just hours before his assassination. “He was a hero, but he was a human being,” Seletzky says. “I feel like sometimes this gets lost when we lionize people.”

Seletzky also interviewed numerous members of the Invaders, the activist group her father was spying on, and was surprised by their warm welcome. “They were not upset,” she says. “They were not angry.” In fact, she’s come to think of one of the group’s leaders “as family.”

On the night of King’s assassination, Mac and several Invaders had just returned from a shopping trip with one of Dr. King’s aides, who invited them to dinner. As they walked from Mac’s car toward the motel, shots rang out, and Mac, who had been in the Army, sprinted up the stairs to the balcony. “He was trying to save Dr. King’s life, and he ran into the zone of danger to try to do that,” Seletzky says. Although federal investigators never raised concerns about Mac’s presence that night, he was eventually questioned and called to testify at a Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. He was even warned that the attorney of James Earl Ray, the convicted killer, might stand up and accuse Mac of assassinating King. “Sometimes I think about what it would feel like if you had tried to save someone’s life and instead you were painted as having been a wrongdoer,” Seletzky says.

“When Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, ‘Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.’”

But the toughest part of Seletzky’s writing process was writing about herself. “It was difficult to weave my story through the magnitude of his,” she says. “I felt that it really should just be all Mac, but at the same time, I feel this story is more than that.” Three memoirs were particularly helpful as she figured out how to walk that line: James McBride’s The Color of Water, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family.

Ultimately, Seletzky is thrilled that writing this book brought her closer to her father. “I am in awe of him,” she says, “and the way he allowed his experiences to mold him into who he is.” She was also pleased by her mother’s response to The Kneeling Man. Her mother was a reporter in Memphis for many years, and when Seletzky let her mom read the final draft, she told her daughter, “Leta, I didn’t know 75% of what is in this book.” “I was shocked,” Seletzky says, “because she was born and raised in Memphis, and she was married to my dad for several years.”

When Seletzky asked her father what he wanted people to understand about his life and choices, he responded, “What I want them to understand is exactly what you wrote in that book.” That, Seletzky says, was perhaps her proudest moment. “At that point, I said to myself, ‘OK, well, the book is a success no matter what.’”

Author headshot of Leta McCollough Seletzky by Gretchen Adams

It took nearly 35 years for the debut author to ask her father why he was present on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Kneeling Man now reveals the full story.
Behind the Book by

The books I’ve written so far began almost accidentally. Not the day-to-day, year-to-year accumulation of words—no accidents there. But the inciting moment or the controlling idea that ended up as the buttress for the whole contraption was unplanned, and usually came from me just playing around with words. With Big Fish, I was passing the time taking care of my baby son and writing brief modern myths while he napped, and after a couple of years, I discovered I had enough of them to make a book. The Kings and Queens of Roam, a long and complicated story about two sisters, two men, blindness and revenge, began as a couple of pages about an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician was drawn from a character in a discarded screenplay.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, my first nonfiction book, followed this same script but in a different way. The accident didn’t come in the form of an unforeseen inspiration but in the accidental discovery of my brother-in-law’s journals, 10 years after he died. They were hidden in the back of a closet beneath the stairs of my sister Holly’s home, covered in dust and protected by a herd of camel crickets. My brother-in-law, the writer and artist William Nealy, died in 2001 by what the death certificate described as an “intra-oral gunshot wound.” Then in 2011, his wife, my sister Holly, died herself of what seemed like a dozen different things, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and grief. My remaining two sisters, my wife and I were cleaning out her house when I found the journals. There were about 15 of them, and they dated from 1977, when William was 25 years old. I put them all in a glass-doored bookcase in the hallway outside of my office and finished the novel I’d been working on, Extraordinary Adventures.

Read our starred review of ‘This Isn’t Going to End Well’ by Daniel Wallace.

Two years passed before I took them out of the bookcase. It took me that long to parse through all the incumbent taboos, the ethical considerations and my own desires. Were they mine to read? Did I even want to read his journals, and if I did, why? What did I think I’d get out of that? William’s suicide was, like all suicides, the kind of tragedy that changes the course of many lives; even after 13 years, it felt fresh. And though he’d left three long suicide notes, two to Holly and one to his mother, they somehow felt insufficient to explain what at the time I saw as the ultimate betrayal of my sister, of me, of everyone who loved or knew him. I was mad at him for killing himself and stayed that way for a long time. But eventually I dove in, was mesmerized from the very first page and knew almost immediately that I would be writing about this, about him—that William’s story would become a book. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.

But this was a bit of a leap. I’d never written a book of nonfiction before, had never wanted to, had no idea how to go about it. Even so, I thought, all writing is hard; how much harder could it be?

As I discovered over the next five years, very hard. Very. Very. Very hard.

Each book presents its own challenges, its own problems to solve. You would think that with practice a writer could skate from book to book without breaking a sweat. But nothing about writing has gotten easier for me, and each book has taken longer than the last to finish. So I was ready for a learning curve. But writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.”

I was drawn to becoming a fiction writer in the first place because of the freedom of that form. In a novel I’m constrained by logic and time and character, but I’m in charge of the constraints; I make up the rules I am then expected to follow. In writing a so-called true story, you enter a world that’s already been created, telling a story that has already happened and maybe already been told. A novel is a story only one person (the novelist) has access to; a story about an actual person is a story dozens, maybe hundreds of people know at least a small part of. If you knew my brother-in-law, or my sister, or me, you are in some tangential way a part of the story; you have feelings about it, about him. This meant that in order to write the book, I actually had to leave my office and talk to people. I had to interview them. I recorded conversations and quoted from them or used them as “background.” Suddenly it was as if I were collaborating with a small village.

This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. I was able to see old friends and meet new ones, and as a reporter, I got to ask them questions a civilian could never get away with.

On a craft level, I didn’t know how to create a scene from my own life that’s as compelling as one I could make up, with all the bells and whistles of inventive possibility. Is imagination possible in this ready-made world I was writing about?

Yes—kind of. It’s not really imagination, though. Writing nonfiction is closer to reimagination, where you’re calling forth a memory and giving it life on the page. Memories half a century old are dim, fragile and fleeting. You have to pin them down the best you can and take a long look at them, editing them for meaning and clarity and supplying supporting details (what the room looked like, what the weather was like that day, what you were wearing) that might be, at best, stabs in the dark.

“Writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.”

But the hardest part of this project was writing a book about people I knew and loved. There was so much I wanted to say about them! So many stories. The first few drafts of this book were twice as long as the final version ended up being, which is not unique for early drafts. But each time I had to cut a scene, I felt like I was cutting out a part of their lives, and I believed (and still believe) that without all these stories the reader wouldn’t get to know them for who they were. The story, for instance, of William hunting down the man who stole the motor off my mother’s pool filter, or how he tried to save a man’s life at the drugstore. And what about the time Edgar (William’s best friend who died in 1993) was robbed and tied to a chair in a hotel room, left there until he was discovered by the staff eight hours later? The time Holly wrote a song about our father and rented a recording studio to record it? And so many other cool things. I could write another book about them, I think. And maybe I will.

This Isn't Going to End Well audiobook cover
Read our starred review of the audiobook, narrated by Michael Crouch.

This Isn’t Going to End Well isn’t “drawn from life,” the way my novels are; it’s full of people who actually existed, same as you and me. In this book I’m not trying to create or imagine a life, I’m trying to reconstruct one. I think I’m also trying to resurrect my sister, my brother-in-law, their best friend—a risky enterprise (see: “The Monkey’s Paw”). In this book I share details from their lives that would embarrass them, were they here, and, in some cases, get them into a lot of trouble. But they’re not embarrassed or in trouble because that’s one of the pluses of not being alive. Which is the real difference between this book and all the others I’ve written, and the most stubborn of facts I can’t deny or get around: Their deaths are what made it possible.

Headshot of Daniel Wallace by Mallory Cash

The acclaimed novelist wondered how hard writing a memoir could really be. As it turned out: very, very, very hard.
Review by

The epigraph at the beginning of Nicole Chung’s vivid memoir A Living Remedy includes a line from Marie Howe’s poem “For Three Days”: “ . . . because even grief provides a living remedy.” As Chung immerses readers in her experience of grief, her powerful words compel us to follow her on a beautiful but difficult journey of loss.

Chung was born prematurely to Korean parents who felt they could not care for such a fragile baby. She wrote about her adoption by a white couple, and her subsequent search for her birth family as she became a mother herself, in her bestselling 2018 memoir, All You Can Ever Know. Now Chung continues her story, returning to the Oregon mountains of her childhood at the moment her beloved adoptive parents’ health began to fail.

Chung’s struggle to be present for her parents as a daughter, while also being a wife and a mother in another city three thousand miles away, will be familiar to many readers. When her father’s health began its slow downward spiral, he was still young enough to seek a better job with better health resources but was stymied by his limited education—and proud enough to resist the government assistance Chung begged him to request. When he finally did, he was denied, falling through the cracks of a broken health care system. By that time, his illness had taken an irreversible toll. Chung’s grief and frustration over his death were fanned by the costly miles between them, but she resolved to do better by her widowed mother. However, Chung’s time with her mother eventually ran out as well, as the gathering storm of the COVID-19 pandemic spread its own brand of pain and panic.

A Living Remedy makes this era of collective grief more personal, as Chung honestly explores her childhood and the lives and deaths of her parents. She gives these hard times a purpose, absorbing them with both fury and compassion, making them part of her own legacy to pass along to her daughters. For her, this is indeed a living remedy.

In Nicole Chung’s memoir about the deaths of her parents, she absorbs hard times with fury and compassion, making the universal experience of grief vividly personal.

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