Reality check

Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational 'experiment'

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

Katie Hafner tried – and failed – to live under the same roof as her mother.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

Indeed, what was meant to be Ms. Hafner and her mother’s emotionally healing second chance at family life turned into a six-month fiasco, resulting in the 2014 memoir “Mother, Daughter, Me,” which the sisterhood of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley has been reading as its fall book club selection. Ms. Hafner will speak about the book, via Skype, at a special program on October28.

Ms. Hafner’s is a story of survival and growth; it manages to be both moving and at times very – and very surprisingly – funny.

It is also, she said, a Jewish story; her family might not have been stereotypically Jewish but they were unmistakably Jewish nonetheless. “The Jewish sensibility is never far from the surface.”

Katie and her sister, Sarah, were taken away from Helen, an alcoholic, when Katie was 10. Subsequently her father incorporated them into his household, first in Rochester, N.Y., and later in Amherst, Mass. Living with her father, his new wife, and their children, Ms. Hafner soon learned that staying under the radar was the best way to fit in.

As Ms. Hafner writes, “By the time I entered sixth grade…I had attended seven different schools in four different states, and I had mastered the difficult art of being the new kid, which means I had perfected the art of ingratiation.”

She met her future husband, Matt, as well as his loving family, when she was still quite young. When Matt died suddenly at 45, she and their daughter, Zoe, were left “really wounded and adrift.”

“A few years later, I made some bad choices,” she said, referring to a failed second marriage. But once that ended, and she and Zoe succeeded in restoring and strengthening their mother-daughter bond, she decided to take another gamble.

“My mother went into a crisis and needed to leave San Diego,” Ms. Hafner said. “In my infinite optimism, I invited her to live in San Francisco with Zoe and me. I had this fairy-tale idea that we could have the amazing nuclear family we never had.”

As she subsequently learned, “children of alcoholic parents have almost an exaggerated sense of what life could have been. I had decided that this was our chance to be a happy family.” She thought this might be possible since her mother has an “interesting” form of alcoholism and is able to drink a little bit without going on a binge.

“I thought it would work,” she said. “And my mother bought into it too. We were both optimistic. She called it our year in Provence.

“So we started on this experiment. It was a disaster from the beginning.

“I had all that anger,” she said, admitting that she had not been fully aware of what was pent up inside her. “My poor mother. She didn’t know what hit her. It lasted six months – and then she moved out.”

In fairness, the difficult behavior, lack of understanding, and ability to inflict pain was not one-sided. Her mother and Zoe were not able to connect with each other, and the proximity of the three generations strained all their relationships.

“I thought she and Zoe would have a great relationship,” Ms. Hafner said. “But she’s terrible with children, a terrible narcissist. There was no psychological room,” for dealing with her teenage granddaughter. Just as her mother was unable to cope with her own daughters, she was unable to develop a relationship with her daughter’s daughter.

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Hafner said she learned a good deal from the experience. For example, observing that her own daughter “carries my anger for me,” she said that Zoe got her to understand that her mother had given her a raw deal.

This insight led to other questions: What do you do, then, when you become a mother yourself? What is our responsibility to our parents, especially for those who’ve had a less-than-stellar childhood?

Relationships with siblings also may be problematic, she said, noting that Sarah fared less well, becoming an alcoholic when she was young, overcoming the addiction, but dying at 55. Although the two sisters had been close as children, their fraught relationship with their mother served to drive them apart. They seldom talked to each other.

Ms. Hafner said she has no doubt that Helen loved her and her sister, but that she didn’t know how to express it. Calling her “a brilliant physicist and mathematician,” she said that her mother, who is also a dedicated pianist, dropped out of Radcliffe at 19 to marry her father “and was stuck in Rochester with two little kids.

“Alcoholism was her escape hatch. She didn’t have any coping mechanisms. My heart goes out to her on that level.”

Despite being anti-religion, her mother is very much a cultural Jew, Ms. Hafner said. Matt was not Jewish, but Zoe “is the one who most embraced her Jewishness.

“My mother had probably never set foot in a synagogue – but my daughter had a bat mitzvah.”

Ms. Hafner’s second husband, Bob, comes from a tight-knit Jewish family. They summer in Boca Raton. “They are a completely different set of Jews from the ones I grew up with,” Ms. Hafner said. “My family’s ancestors were all academics. Bob’s family was in schmattas.” She fell in love with the family, whose stability and pride in each other was so unmistakable.

Ms. Hafner said that while her mother has had a negative reaction to the book, she feels that she has written a “loving” memoir. It is also, she said, about “multigenerational trauma,” not passing on to the next generation what was passed on to you by your parents – in effect, breaking the cycle.

“It’s a question of looking our families square in the eye and coming to terms before it’s too late,” Ms. Hafner said. In addition, she noted, “people talk a lot about learning to set boundaries. Boundary-setting is a key element.”

Despite the difficulties chronicled in the book, Ms. Hafner and her mother have become closer now that they live apart.

“When I speak, some people come and say that it must be great to have your mother live with you; others say they can’t be with their own mothers for more than 48 hours.”

Whether such an arrangement can work very much depends on the people involved, Ms. Hafner said. Still, there are lessons to be drawn even from failed attempts such as hers, and while her book is not a work of self-help, “it should be sold in the self-help section.”

What: Katie Hafner, author of memoir “Mother, Daughter, Me,” speaks, via Skype

When: Oct. 28, 8:15 p.m.

Where: Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, 87 Overlook Drive, Woodcliff Lake

How much: Free and open to the public

For information: email

read more: