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Emi Nietfeld is done reaching for redemption in 'Acceptance'

Penguin Press
Penguin Press

With conventional framing, Emi Nietfeld's life story could be fodder for a Lifetime movie not unlike Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story.

Like Murray, Nietfeld went, well, from homelessness to Harvard University. She grew up with a mother who hoarded, in a home that reeked of mouse urine. At 13, she attempted suicide; at 14, she was hospitalized for an eating disorder. She saw both as ways out of her hopeless life.

Soon, Nietfeld became fixated on another form of escape: getting into an Ivy League university. She held fast to that dream through stints in a residential treatment facility and in foster care, and wrote her college essays while living out of her car during summer break from boarding school. Upon graduation from Harvard, she had a job offer from Google in hand, her ticket to what seemed a life of success and stability.

But Nietfeld's memoir Acceptance is not a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes tale. Instead, Nietfeld refuses silver linings and focuses on the toll of contorting oneself into a "perfect, deserving" victim who was "hurt in just the right way." As such, Acceptance serves as a necessary corrective to what she notes is called "the gospel of grit" in discussions of hardship in America, and an indictment of not just the systems that failed Nietfeld, but of a society that only wants to hear from its most vulnerable when they exhibit post-traumatic growth.

Nietfeld first had to unlearn that resilience narrative for herself. At the outset of Acceptance, Nietfeld is in her mid-20s and trying her hardest to outrun her past, clinging to the belief that she had successfully "traded in [her] whole life." Nietfeld writes, "I basked in my apparent health and productivity, but I'd organized my life so that I'd never had more than fifteen minutes free for everything I'd overcome to come back and haunt me."

Acceptance is a memoir of coming to terms with the reality of a traumatic upbringing without reaching for redemption. The first three-quarters of the book is dedicated to retracing that upbringing in an unsparing account that asks readers to bear witness without flinching, woven through with reflections on the messages Nietfeld once bought into about resilience and meritocracy.

In 2002, when Nietfeld was in fifth grade, her parents divorced after her father came out as trans. Her mother won full custody, hiding evidence of her hoarding in the upstairs apartment of her Minneapolis duplex during the home visit. Soon, the duplex became uninhabitable, "full of trash and rustling with mice," with no hot water in the winter.

Nietfeld's other parent disappeared from her life. She begged for someone to report her mother to the child welfare system, but authorities always appeared to side with her mother. "She was white and well spoken, with a house, a college degree, and full custody of me," Nietfeld writes. At medical appointments, her pediatrician "seemed unfazed" by a series of illnesses and injuries caused by the condition of the duplex, but listened to her mother, who lobbied for Nietfeld to be diagnosed with and over-medicated for conditions she didn't actually have. This provided an early lesson in the ways systems overlook abuse and neglect in white families, and of the powerlessness of childhood.

In her early teens, Nietfeld turned to self-harm to cope, and after her suicide attempt, a psychiatrist finally reported her case to the county. But, she writes, "there was no maltreatment investigation; instead, I was assigned to a special social worker who handled troubled teenage girls sick enough to be their own problems."

This would be the start of years in which Nietfeld — and not her mother — was blamed as the source of her own struggles, a theme that she smartly hammers home in Acceptance in order to illustrate the ways in which the American fetish for personal responsibility poisons us. When Nietfeld was hospitalized for an eating disorder, her new psychiatrist told her she could choose to be sick or well, as though it is possible to recover through will alone. When she was transferred to a residential treatment center — a sort of juvenile detention for behavioral rehab that Nietfeld would later learn was a "holding cell for adolescents no one wants" — staff demanded that the teens accept fault for their circumstances to cure their suffering.

In the years that followed, Nietfeld's situation improved somewhat, but not because she had accepted her fate, or because of her own intense academic drive. Rather, she was still subject to the whims of the adults and systems around her. When she was discharged from the residential treatment center, her social worker recommended that she be voluntarily placed in foster care, saving her from both the institution and her mother's hoarding. When she struggled in the home of strict Christian foster parents, she found respite in a photography teacher who encouraged her to apply to camp at Interlochen Center for the Arts. She parlayed her camp experience into a merit scholarship for boarding school at Interlochen that fall.

But while teenage Nietfeld believed that studying hard enough would be her road to safety, she is now all too aware that it wasn't because of merit alone that she was admitted to Interlochen and later to Harvard. If there is one thing to take away from Acceptance, it is to interrogate why we cling to the myth of meritocracy — why we want stories like Nietfeld's to be evidence of the American Dream rather than a nightmare of precarity. Instead, Nietfeld portrays her success as the product of not just her drive, but of chance and white privilege.

"The suspicion that I would have gotten put into the justice system instead of the mental health system if I were Black or Latina gave me no relief, to put it mildly," she writes. "It did not console me that I had worked hard: in hindsight, my adolescence felt like buying every lottery ticket I could afford."

The Harvard lottery ticket required Nietfeld to "cash in on [her] sorrows," to mold her messy life into a narrative that showed she was deserving but not so devastated by her traumas that she wasn't Ivy League material. She writes of having nightmares about admissions officers interrogating her on what she left out of that narrative in order to market herself as a "perfect overcomer."

Those nightmares feel prescient, as they echo with the story of Mackenzie Fierceton, another white, blonde, determined former foster youth who had been abused by her mother. The University of Pennsylvania accused Fierceton of lying about her experiences in her application essay, after first using her story in a press release to make the university look as though it supported disadvantaged students. Elite universities put vulnerable applicants in an impossible bind: they want you to bounce back from trauma when it is ongoing, and if you don't fit their preconceived notion of victim, you are suspect.

Toward the end of Acceptance, Nietfeld reaches a new understanding of her past, one that acknowledges the cost of coming-of-age in a society obsessed with resilience. "I had spent my young adulthood desperate for redemption, striving to make everything that happened 'for the best,' " she writes. "It would only be a good story, I believed, if it had the happiest ending." The ending of this memoir is not happy, per se, but it is clear-eyed, one that accepts reality for what it is. It's a perspective that we can all learn from.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kristen Martin