Three temptations face a memoirist when she begins writing her life stories. They are hard to resist, yet guaranteed to ruin a memoir by turning it into a therapy session. The three sins? Navel gazing. Victimization. And worst of all, revenge. In her recent coming-of-age memoir about surviving an abusive childhood and cutting off ties with her family, writer Jessica Berger Gross sidesteps this literary kryptonite.

“Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home,” begins simply: “My father said I was the one who started things.” From that first line, Gross jumps in to tell us about growing up in a Jewish family that appeared on the surface to be a “nice,” liberal, religious family in middle-class Long Island; her father with a Ph.D in educational psychology, her mother subscribing to Ms. Magazine and Working Mother and collecting “ethnic” jewelry. But things were not what they seemed.

The family had a “secret,” she writes. “My father had a terrible, out-of-control temper. When he exploded, every couple of weeks, he cursed at me. He hit me, and threw things. He hit my older brothers, too. And, on the very worst days, I saw him slam my mother against the peeling yellow of our refrigerator door.” His rage, she writes, “was a runaway train.”

Gross and her two brothers endured a childhood of abuse: tongue-lashings, bruises and beatings from their father with nary a word or move of protection from their mother. Gross’s parents blamed the victim, describing their daughter, Gross writes, as “fresh, a back-talker … too loud, too opinionated, and too smart for my own good.”

Despite the violence, isolation and misery that constituted her childhood, what is most striking about “Estranged” is that Gross, an essayist and author of “About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope,” chose to share her story at all. She is brave and unshaken. She is also straightforward, unsentimental and matter-of-fact while still a lyrical storyteller. She gives us her truth without too much analyzing or psychoanalyzing (read: diagnosing) her family members, without giving reasons or excuses for their behavior.

Jessica Berger Gross

“My parents believed in corporal punishment,” Gross tells us in Chapter 1. “My parents hardly even drank.”


The growing girl finds some hope and comfort in her Jewish faith. “In synagogue, and sometimes at home in bed at night, I’d pray to God to be rescued from my family, and to somehow find a way out.” But by high school, she is a self-proclaimed “mess,” finding momentary respite – or just a change of scenery – in drugs and alcohol. She begins to loathe her family and herself, feelings that eventually manifest in thoughts of suicide. Gross’s one safe place is a diary (perhaps the seed of her writing career), where she shares “the truth of her home life,” things that she cannot not and will not reveal to anyone out of fear that it would do no good or that she was “the crazy one.”

At college, Gross is finally able to confide in friends, but even after revealing her family’s ugly secrets, she tries to forgive and forget and move on. She tries therapy. She attempts to talk to her brothers. She begs them to confront their father about the abuse, but her siblings will not (or can not?) back her up, instead suggesting that their sister just “forget about it.”

After moving in and out of jobs and relationships and dealing with recurring episodes of depression, Gross leaves for graduate school and an eventual move to Israel, taking her far, far away from her family. There, Gross learns about the concept of shalom bayit, the Jewish value of creating a happy and peaceful home. Inspired, influenced and enlightened, at age 28, she makes the “heart-wrenching decision” to break from her parents. During a job-search trip home to Long Island, Gross confronts her father and mother and demands that her father admit his guilt. When he doesn’t, Gross severs the relationship. “‘Don’t call me,’ was what I’d said to my parents back when we were standing on the street saying goodbye.” And that was that.

“When the estrangement began, I thought of it as a break,” she writes. “The days stacked up and I came to collect and register each no-parent day like someone in recovery would record a day of sobriety. The plain truth was, the longer I went without seeing my parents, the better my life became.”

Today, Jessica Berger Gross lives in Maine with her husband and young son. She moved here in search of safety and happiness – for herself and her young family. And yes, Gross does worry that being abused as a child could affect her parenting skills (“Did this mean I was destined to hit my children, too?”). Then she wonders, “How could he hit a toddler? How could anyone?” She finds solace in yoga, in nature, in faith. She listens to her intuition and inner voice, which, all this time, have prevented her from becoming a victim of the gloom, doom, victimization, self-defeat or revenge that could so easily take her over.

In “Estranged,” Gross reminds us that life is not black and white; she even comes to a sort of understanding of her parents: “They did love me, I know. Maybe they still do,” she writes. Life is that subtle gray area that we’re all constantly swimming in, and, if we are good to ourselves, we swim in the direction of shelter.

Mira Ptacin is the winner of the 2017 Maine Literary Award for her memoir “Poor Your Soul.” She lives on Peaks Island and her second book of nonfiction, The In-Betweens, is forthcoming by W.W. Norton/Liveright books.

Comments are no longer available on this story