I will, as far as I know, occur once. This thing I call “Chloé” is singular; it lives once, dies once. But I am also born into a body, a time, a class and a place, and those biographical facts carry sociopolitical meaning that precedes me. I cannot be fully explained by historical signifiers, but I’m never free of them either. To be alive is to grapple with these two truths, to struggle at the intersection of self and society, interiority and exteriority, individuality and environment.
The work of accepting this is inelegant and often challenging. But literature is here to help. Through depicting how real and imagined individuals have met their larger historical moment, a great narrative can expand my capacity to meet my own. This requires an author who can deftly render both the complexity of the social world and the specificity of a character making their way through it. Matthew Pratt Guterl’s ambitious, intellectually searching memoir, “Skinfolk” — which chronicles his life growing up in a multiracial, partially adopted family in suburban New Jersey — has the potential to achieve this expansive effect but falls short as it keeps its subjects at arm’s length.
Born in 1970, Guterl, a professor of Africana and American studies at Brown University, is the first of two white, biological children born to Bob and Sheryl, a handsome, idealistic couple whose dreams of a large family lead them to international adoption. In 1972, Bug is adopted from Korea. Mark, a second white biological child, is born in 1973. Bear — born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and an African American G.I. father — arrives in 1975. Anna, half-Korean, half-white, is 13 when adopted from Seoul in 1977. Last comes 6-year-old Eddie, Black and from the South Bronx, adopted in 1983.
We are told in the preface not to expect a dystopian narrative of family abuse and trauma. Bob and Sheryl provide well for their children, adoring, supporting and celebrating them. The kids’ childhoods are filled with family dinners, lake vacations, Sunday afternoons spent hand-washing “the fleet” of cars in their driveway. But the world and its dangers loom.
It is not a spoiler to say that this multiracial household does not quite experience absolute harmony. The family frays into disunity; idealism gives way to the weight of reality. But that happens to many families — my primary quibble with “Skinfolk” is that Guterl’s distanced prose and chronic abstraction holds us back from seeing how this statement applies specifically to his.
Guterl’s subjects are frequently obscured by circumvention. That is evident in even the recounting of his family’s creation story. He refers to his family as an “arcadian experiment,” but what, precisely, Guterl’s parents hoped to achieve in shaping their family as a “grandiose, racial mélange” is not totally clear. My confusion comes in part from the unparsed friction between how Guterl describes his parents and how they explain themselves. Guterl portrays Bob — a judge and a prominent figure in their small community — as a self-styled modern Noah who collects “two of every race” and places them safely behind a white picket fence, in a white house that Guterl is taught to see as “a biblical ark for the age of the nuclear bomb, of race riots, of war.” But when asked about racial preference on adoption forms, Bob and Sheryl answer “none” and cite environmental rather than racial concerns as driving their desire to adopt. Sheryl — a practical and even-keeled teacher turned housewife — states plainly the influence of zero population growth theories and Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” “That was our motivation,” Sheryl says. These two motives — wanting to protect the earth and wanting to be race conscious — aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but Guterl fails to clarify why his emphasis on race differs from his parents’ emphasis on conservation and what that distinction means for the finer aspects of the family relationship.
And it’s not just in the setup — evasion mars this memoir throughout. Certain important questions, Guterl tells us, are “too searing” to be asked. For instance, there’s some foreshadowing leading up to an important “incident” in the family’s history, but when we get to the moment, it’s ambiguously described as “a conflict of some sort” between Bug and Eddie, the details of which Guterl writes around because “I wasn’t there. I can’t ask Eddie or Bug about it because they have made peace with it. Mom would prefer not to guess what happened.” Guterl skirts concrete arguments for or against transracial adoption. He doesn’t argue that adoption agencies should or should not prioritize racial similarity in placement practices, nor explain how these practices might have changed in the 50 years since his parents made their choices. He doesn’t include his adopted siblings’ perspectives on the matter at all.
Guterl does successfully explain and dissect how racial prejudice flows within and around the family and how this engulfing tide cannot be stemmed by good intentions, nor by fierce and protective familial love. And admirably, Guterl doesn’t spare himself when describing the inescapability of racial harm. In middle school, Guterl — after classmates tease him for the fullness of his mouth and use a racial slur to compare it with a Black person’s — gets his parents to pay for cosmetic surgery to thin his lips. Even at 13, he claims to understand this surgery as an act of racial editing, meant to clarify and affirm his whiteness, and now, in adulthood, the memory of the feeling of the sutures serves as a permanent reminder of his own complicity in “the project of anti-Blackness.”
Guterl’s strengths as a writer show in his unflinching analysis of this and other racially complicated scenes, but what’s often lost is how these scenes connect to and define the family story. Guterl does not tell us how he persuades righteous Bob and Sheryl to pay to surgically alter his face to look less Black. Absent, too, are the reactions of his nonwhite siblings — their emotions or thoughts, then or now — to the dehumanizing message inherent in the decision made by their own brother and parents.
Actually, we don’t know much about Guterl’s brothers and sisters at all. After 300 pages, I still don’t know the siblings’ idiosyncrasies, nor do I feel the texture of a life lived in their presence. I know simple facts — Anna is competitive. Bug ends up partially estranged from the family, but we are never fully told why. Mark, as a youth, is briefly sketched as resistant to work, collapsing when asked to take out the kitchen garbage. We learn the most about Bear — he is athletic, well liked and gets good grades in school. Eddie’s story seems crucial to Guterl’s views on how race complicates the family’s dynamics, but Guterl renders it too vaguely here to give a full understanding. After the “incident” in the basement, we’re told that therapists are enlisted, Eddie is institutionalized, there’s a suspected suicide attempt and a bipolar diagnosis. A clear timeline for these events is withheld. He is incarcerated, but that part of the story is, for Guterl, “perhaps too long and too complex and too heartbreaking to narrate for the here and now.”
That’s indicative of a problem throughout “Skinfolk” — Guterl chooses elision over concrete depiction in the memoir’s hardest moments. This impulse likely stems from compassion and a desire to protect his family’s privacy. And sure, a memoir need not be a storage container for every family skeleton, but relevant narration — heartbreaking or otherwise — is, I’d argue, a big chunk of a writer’s basic job description.
It’s hard to write about the people we know and love. But looking away from thornier truths and concealing the singularity of the people at the heart of one’s story risks perpetuating the very shallowness a project like this is meant to oppose.
The post When Your Family Becomes a Noah’s Ark-Style Experiment With Race appeared first on New York Times.