On the surface, Emi Nietfeld’s story is the American Dream brought to life. Through grit and determination, a young girl propels herself from foster care and state institutions to stability and success (by way of Harvard, no less). However, in Acceptance, Nietfeld refuses to allow this caricature to represent her experience. With insight and humor, the memoir interrogates the social structures that sometimes supported and frequently ensnared Nietfeld as a young woman. In doing so, she strips the rags-to-riches fairy tale of its façade and incites urgent questions about true consent and agency.
Nietfeld’s memoir details her fraught adolescence in the Midwest, where her childhood was disrupted by her parents’ divorce. After the split, Nietfeld’s father underwent a gender transition and disappeared from her life; her mother developed severe hoarding tendencies and became increasingly unable to care for Nietfeld. As a young teenager, Nietfeld spent time in a youth psychiatric facility. At this point in her memoir, she first explores how the structures meant to elevate her trapped her instead. She realizes that the very symptoms that indicated she needed care could cast her as a liability in certain contexts. In a Longreads essay that offers a preview into her memoir, she explains: “I learned my shot at upward mobility hinged on the correct marketing. The girl who hadn’t showered in a week and stank of anxious sweat — she wasn’t going to cut it. I had to embody overcoming.”
Nietfeld crafts a narrative with all the propulsion of a novel in order to track her pursuit of that goal. She recounts a stint in foster care with well-intentioned but insular suburbanites, whose care provided her with safety but limited the height of her ambitions. She recalls the leaps she took to gain admission to Interlochen, a prestigious arts boarding school in Michigan, and the isolation she experienced even as she worked tirelessly — arguably, destructively — toward her goals. Her time at Interlochen was punctuated by a stint sleeping in the backseat of her Corolla and attending an AP Chemistry boot camp with an unresolved concussion. Throughout the chapters, the memoir ratchets up Nietfeld’s adolescent terror: given the looming snare of student debt, she has to achieve the highest goals in order to afford herself guaranteed security.
Nietfeld characterizes the adults around her with humor and empathy. Though she candidly describes her mother’s inability to care for her, evidenced by rodent droppings, rotten banana peels, and a home so crammed with garbage that Nietfeld once slept in an unheated foyer in a Minnesotan winter, Nietfeld also depicts her mother as someone who loved her and championed her Ivy League dreams when no one else thought they were possible. She characterizes herself as someone trapped by her own ambitions for a stable life in a system that functions like a negative feedback loop. Every victory feels tenuous, in part because she is forced to peddle her own story in order to gain opportunity before true security can materialize.
A particularly striking scene remembers Nietfeld’s experience attending the Horatio Alger conference, where she was awarded a $20,000 scholarship for “overcoming adversity.” During the conference proceedings (featuring Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh), “a live bald eagle soared across the auditorium to rapturous applause.” Nietfeld recalls realizing that she was expected “to smile and to show them that the status quo was not that bad, because some people — including me — supposedly transcended.” In her memoir, she refuses to let her own story be reduced to such a punchline. As she states, “I had worked so hard to pretend that I had transcended my circumstances when I was still in the middle of them.”
The memoir’s final chapters reveal that Nietfeld’s golden ticket could not insulate her from human fallout. She delves into a troubled romantic relationship and painful family investigations that prompt her to decipher the evolving puzzle of reconciling where she has been with whom she will choose to be. Despite different circumstances, the memoir begins much where it began, with Nietfeld serving as her own truest advocate in the search to define her life. After all, in the end, only she can blaze her trail to true acceptance.
Acceptance will draw inevitable comparisons to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, for good reason. Both memoirs explore a hoarder mother’s well-intentioned negligence with empathy, humor, and without shying away from horror. And in some sense, Acceptance’s implied social critique echoes the Netflix distillation of Noam Chomsky by providing a requiem for the American Dream, though not all hope is lost. Despite the long tradition of voices as varied as Alexis de Tocqueville and F. Scott Fitzgerald proclaiming that Americans will never be satisfied, Nietfeld’s memoir also provides an example of reinvention and resolution. In this, perhaps her ultimate goal joins various cultural phenomena, from the Me Too movement to The Good Place, with a shared impetus — the desire to subvert exploitative relationships by stripping their façade.
Acceptance is a gripping, urgent memoir in an era when social mobility feels beset from all sides. Nietfeld recasts the myth of resilience as a veil for society’s failure to empower vulnerable individuals. And in her pursuit of healing, she offers the hope that even in our darkest moments, there is a future — and within it, the ability to be fully present.
By Emi Nietfeld
Published August 2, 2022