A complex tale about families, history, and ‘knowing’
‘The Nix’ by Nathan Hill requires a serious amount of time invested in it. It is 620 pages long, in very small type, a real mammoth read. Is it worth the effort? I believe so.
I won’t spend long on a synopsis, as it is the themes of the book that I really want to get into. It is the tale of Samuel Andreson-Anderson, a failed author and bored teacher. In order to honour his publishing deal (and avoid a lawsuit) he is forced to reconnect with his mother, Faye, who left him at the age of 11. His mother has recently gained notoriety after assaulting a presidential candidate, and his publisher requires a tell-all book about her to feed the current public obsession with the incident.
The book moves through different phases of time, going back and forth between the present day, Samuel’s childhood, and his mother’s late teen years when she became involved in the protest movement of 1960s Chicago.
Samuel is haunted by not understanding how his mother could have left him. He only has small snatches of information, and due to his age and his own coming-of-age story, he feels like he never really knew her. It is this aspect of the book that really captured my attention.
As children, how much do we ever really know of our parents’ real character, or of their lives before us?
We know them only in their role as parents. If we are lucky, when we are adults, our relationship may change and become one of mutual understanding and respect. However, this is rarer than you may think, and there are many reasons why this may not happen for you. Bereavement, divorce, or even dysfunctional dynamics, are all very common in parent-child relationships, and can lead to adult children missing out on the opportunity to learn more of their parent’s histories. What made them the person you knew? Why did they respond to you in the way they did? These are valid questions. But do we have a right as children to know everything about our parents? I’m still on the fence on that one.
It may be impossible to ever have the opportunity to know, and this can be hard when we are trying to figure out how our parental relationships became what they are now. In a therapeutic setting, I would look to work with the client’s experience in the here and now. How do they think their parental relationships have impacted them? How do they feel about that? Because although we may never know from the parent’s perspective, we can always discover new things when looking from our own.
In reading the novel, I could empathise with Samuel’s conflicting feelings about his mother. I could understand why he was angry with her for leaving him, but also his desperation to know more. However, I could also empathise with Faye, whose life had not taken the turn she would have wanted, and who as a traumatised young woman, in the 1960s, chose an unsuitable marriage for protection from a harsh world.
Could Faye have found another way to deal with how she was feeling at the point where she left her family? Do we judge her differently for that act once we discover her history?
And what about Samuel? Shouldn’t our sympathy be reserved for the man whose mother abandoned him?
The sensitive way in which the author allows the reader to feel empathy for both mother and son is the real beauty of the novel. We can feel anger at Faye on Samuel’s behalf while simultaneously understanding why Faye felt trapped in a marriage of convenience and a life she didn’t plan for.
As a therapist, the novel made me consider the importance of empathy and non-judgement. Good therapeutic work requires a therapist who is able to demonstrate empathy and a non-judgemental attitude, with both a client struggling with abandonment by a parent, or a client struggling with the guilt of abandoning a child.
Have any of the issues raised here impacted you? Please do get in touch.