I’ve read countless memoirs and interviewed dozens of people about their journey but none have been as honest, conflicted and raw as Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld. Her story is marked with countless issues and circumstances that she has had to overcome and her book looks to reconcile them in the context of a culture that likes these stories told in a very particular way.
Her experience in crafting her college essay is particularly telling. She writes: “But I know I’d need to discuss it again and again on my college applications, prostituting my sorry for a shot a joy. That fact seemed the saddest of them all?”
For one college she shares too much and gets rejected, forcing her to re-calibrate the kind of suffering that is just the right amount for her subsequent essays.
When she ultimately gets into Harvard, she hides most of her story, but the inequalities are none-the-less apparent to her. In comparing herself to fellow students from well-off families who were groomed to follow their parents into the Ivy League, she writes, “My wildest dream was their destiny. At that moment I pitied them…That morning it felt as if suffering had sharpened me and made all the good things lovelier. I was grateful for it. “
After graduating she went on to work at Facebook and Google, where again her back story remained in the rear view mirror. Still she was moved and frustrated by the prevailing narrative of what was expected of children who had similar challenges to hers, writing: “In the years after I graduated from college, it made me squirm to watch the gospel of ‘grit’ making its way into the mainstream…. I recognized the emphasis on ‘grit ‘was a final throwing up of hands. Kids too young to speak would be held responsible for their own problems. It didn’t matter how they were wronged, or how preventable the harm. Their job was to contain the damage, making the blast zone smaller by absorbing all the impact.“
She began writing this book shortly after college. Like most writing, I assume this was a project designed both as a sense making exercise and one that brought some level of catharsis.
The name of the book is Acceptance but the writing of the book seems as if it is taking us through the process of accepting. Not just for Emi but for all of us.
Coming to terms with both the insufficient support we offer to people struggling but also with the unfair and unrealistic expectations we put on how we and others should tell our stories once we’ve “made it.”
In her acknowledgments, Emi reflects on the people who have helped her along the way. Many of which she writes about with brutal honesty as their best of intentions often came with unintended consequences. Yet with grace and acceptance, she writes “I’m deeply indebted to everyone who helped me reconcile my past with my present…this book would not exist without the kindness of the people in it.“
Her final acknowledgment goes to her husband, of whom she writes, “Byron, who held me while I cried night after night, month after month, until I didn’t need to anymore.”
The line gutted me when I read it. Later when I interviewed her for the latest episode of my podcast, I uncharacteristically choked up when I asked her about it. It was the ultimate act of accepting – raw, painful, honest and loving.
If you or anyone you know has struggled with accepting, understanding or sharing their stories then I think this book could be of incredible value to you. If you want to learn more or hear from Emi herself, then please listen to our conversation – it was probably the most moving episode to date.