“What happened to me?”
Family is a funny thing. They’re supposed to be a cohesive whole, the family unit. And it’s true that the intimacies of growing up together — sharing a table or a bedroom, having the same nose or freckles or glasses prescription, pulling clothes from the same pile of clean laundry — all of this can convince us that we know each other completely. But humans are complex, and even growing up in the same household, every one of us emerges from our childhood with a unique story. Piecing together those stories can be challenging work, especially when your family’s whole foundation was built on shifting sands.
Jessi Hempel was raised in a family of secret-keepers. Her childhood home was full of sharp emotional corners, things the family just didn’t talk about. “Without ever being told,” she writes, “I learned what I could share about myself and what I had to hide. I didn’t have a name for this, only a fear that I was in danger.” In her new memoir, The Family Outing, Hempel attempts to piece together her family’s puzzle. At the start of the pandemic, in a series of Zoom calls, she asks her family the same question she’d asked so many times before in therapy: What happened to us?
The short answer, the hook, is quippy and complete: We all came out. Over the course of five years, Hempel came out as a lesbian; her dad then came out as gay, her sister as bisexual, and her brother as trans. Finally, her mother, the token straight member of the family, worked through the trauma of a crime that happened in her adolescence. The whole family was out! No more closets!
But this memoir isn’t about coming out, not really. It’s about trying to make sense of an uneasy childhood in a home where so many things went unsaid. It’s about navigating adolescence with one parent entirely absent and another who sees you as a lightning rod for their all-consuming anger. It’s about moving beyond a time when your needs weren’t met, and realizing, once you can meet your own needs, that you might still want to show up for your family. It’s about growing up.
Hempel’s style is fluid, and she writes viscerally of her childhood. Here is toddler Jessi with nightmares she can’t explain; here’s teen Jessi, whose clothes have been locked in the attic by her mother. As her parents struggle with their marriage and their traumas, Jessi and her siblings are largely on their own through their teens and twenties, and each sibling has a unique way of dealing. But Hempel’s journalistic dedication to nailing down the facts, to telling each person’s story as completely as she can, is where the book lost focus for me. Near the end, she writes of the limitations of her own perspective; at points in the book, I found myself wishing she had stayed closer to her own experience.
The Family Outing sets out to tell one family’s story. But, as Hempel notes in her conclusion, there’s never just one story. When she digs deeply into her childhood — her betrayals and fears, her moments of joy, the ways she kept managing to forge ahead — that’s where this book truly shines.
And her family? “We began to find another once we found ourselves,” she writes towards the end. But knowing the ending doesn’t spoil this story. The story is how they got that way, a fight for authenticity two generations in the making, one closet at a time.