Synopses & Reviews
"The happiness of childhood is existential, not psychological," writes Emily Fox Gordon. Are You Happy?
is an evocation of a peculiar and paradoxical kind of happiness the happiness of an unhappy child. Gordon was a fatty, an academic failure, a schoolyard pariah, a disappointment to her highly educated parents. And yet her early life was, as she puts it, "a succession of moments of radiant apprehension." In a later age she might have been medicated and counseled and ferried from one appointment to another. But growing up in the college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the fifties, she spent her days rambling through woods and meadows, rattling around in the basements of college buildings and dropping in on student acquaintances via the fire escapes of dormitories. She was free to be alone with her thoughts, to mumble observations and descriptions as she cultivated the writer's lifelong habit of translating experience into words.
In the hands of this exceptional stylist and rigorous, elegant thinker, we understand how happiness can be recaptured through telling the story of its loss. As Gordon grew older, she began to be aware of her charming mother's long, slow withdrawal into alcoholic depression. This was a new kind of observation, made from the outside. Having learned to assume this perspective, Gordon began to see happiness as something outside herself, something she could appropriate from the world and make her own. In Are You Happy? Gordon recounts how her childish view the world was lost, and of how that loss ended her childhood.
Depicted here is the evolution of a wise and perceptive child's self-awareness and as such, it is an exemplar of the examined life.
"The answer to the question posed by such a title would seem, inevitably, to be 'no,' but Gordon qualifies her frequent tears as 'the manifestation of a particularly satisfying kind of lyrical sadness.' This is her second venture into memoir, following the well-reviewed Mockingbird Years, an account of her institutionalization as a late teenager and subsequent therapy. This book covers her earlier, 1950s childhood as the daughter of a miserly and often hectoring Jewish economics professor at Williams College, whom she claims to have hated, and his eventually alcoholic Presbyterian schoolteacher wife. Though bright (readers are told frequently), Gordon felt like a 'misfit'; an overweight, underachieving faculty brat; a 'social pariah'; a 'blob.' By sixth grade, she was failing school and, like her classmates, fascinated by sex. A crush on her voice coach led her to try to implicate his wife in an affair with the soccer coach, but the lie was easily discovered, leaving her humiliated and eager to move with her parents from the Berkshires to Manhattan for a fresh start. The book, about childhood friends and teachers, too, analyzes Gordon's parents throughout. Early on, Gordon comments, 'There's nothing more tiresome than a grown daughter's brief against her parents.' Indeed." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Hopefully this cathartic work will allow Gordon to move on and turn her considerable talents loose on a larger world." Booklist
"[Gordon's] writing...is skillful, and her account is replete with lurid scenes....A wistful coming-of-age tale." Kirkus Reviews
"Gordon...writes lyrically and convincingly about the subtle joys of childhood..." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Gordon is as readers of her first memoir...know a terrific writer." New York Times Book Review
"[W]hile Mockingbird [Years] (a New York Times Notable Book) was deeply affecting, this new work lacks the same impact." Library Journal
From a memoirist of great style and insight comes an elegant dissection of how youthful happiness is lost.
About the Author
Emily Fox Gordon has published personal essays in Boulevard
, and the American Scholar
, among other literary magazines. Her work has won two Pushcart Prizes and has been shortlisted in Best American Essays, and three of her essays were anthologized in the Anchor Essay Annual. An essay about her hospitalization as a teenager at Austen Riggs formed the basis for Mockingbird Years
(2000), a memoir which was also a critique of psychotherapy. Mockingbird Years
was named a New York Times
Notable Book and was chosen as one of Amazon.com's top ten memoirs for the year. It also received glowing front-page consideration in the New York Times Book Review
and was subsequently translated into Hebrew and Chinese.
Gordon has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell colony. She has developed a strong interest in teaching as well, and has taught workshops at Rice University, Houstons INPRINT program, and the University of Wyoming. Her new memoir, Are You Happy?, began, like its predecessor, as an essay. Emily Fox Gordon lives in Houston, Texas.
1. You open Are You Happy? with, "The happiness of childhood is existential, not psychological." What do you mean by that?
The happiness of childhood is nothing but the joy of being alive. Somehow we lose access to it as we grow up. Adults tend to confuse this happiness with psychological well-being, but it's quite a different thing. I think of my daughter as a toddler, squealing and clapping her hands. What she felt was glee. What adult can feel glee?
2. How does childhood happiness differ from the happiness of adulthood?
Adult happiness is contingent. In all its forms it depends on something else. Satisfaction, joy, pleasure, even the rare hearts-ease kind of happiness, all require that some condition be met. Its certainly worth striving for, but thats the pointyou have to work at it. Childhood happiness is a pure gift.
3. The years you spent growing up in the "gentle fostering town" of Williamstown, Massachusetts, sound idyllic, yet you describe yourself after age seven as a "social pariah" and an "academic failure." As a child, how did you reconcile the two views?
I suppose I let them go unreconciled. In the book, I compare the emotions I felt as a child with currents in river. They ran through me, but stayed separate. My happiness remained quite unaffected by my misery. It was only at puberty that my feelings ran together and became moods.
4. Once you started digging into this paradoxical kind of happiness, was there a specific memory that surprised you most in its intensity?
There's no one particular memory. What I find striking is the feeling and tone of all those early memories. They have a radiance and clarity, and also a peculiar stillness. They're ineffable.
5. During your early years, your mother "occupied the greater part of the firmament" of your existence and that your father "was a minor figure, an irascible North Wind puffing at [you] from a far corner of the celestial map." How did each one shape you?
We all feel the shifting influence of our parents all through our lives. Even after their deaths, my own parents are still moving around in me, each one taking a turn at dominance for a while and then yielding to the other. My mother's literary inclinations have been very important to me, and her wit, and also her sadness, which I still find haunting. But it's my father who rules the internal roost right now. I find myself thinking about him and wishing we'd had a chance to talk in recent years. What I most value about him, in retrospect, was his spacious mind. As I say in the book, it was large enough to turn around in.
6. A creative and inspired parent, your mother gave you the gift of what psychologists would call an "enriched early environment." It was what you called, "a valuable inheritance, if not an easy one to spend." How was it difficult?
My inheritance from my mother was her unspent literary gift. I think the one thing she expected of meand in spite of all my academic trouble she expected it very confidentlywas that I would spend it for her.
7. You write that you lived with a myth your whole life: that your happiness was lost when the family moved away from the Eden you knew at Williamstown. What ultimately dispelled the myth?
It was writing this memoir that exploded the myth for me. As I moved in closer to the preadolescent I was, I saw myselfat eleven and twelveas a pretty complicated psychological organism. I was hovering right on the edge of adult consciousness of guilt, and I had lost my childish happiness quite a while before I admitted to myself that it was gone.