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Monday, February 06, 2023

Review: Acceptance - A Memoir

 Acceptance is Emi Nietfeld's memoir about her childhood and tertiary education years, topped with her successful career at Google and Facebook as well as a bestselling author. A childhood where her father decided to become a woman, her mother being described as a "hoarder" (you quickly discover what it means and it's not a good thing), followed by spells of institutions mixed in with forster care but then success at getting a full scholarship as a boarding school.

Many parts of the books are dramatized --- there's a definitely vibe that comes from being a person who's successfully marketed herself to Harvard and other Ivy League schools. For instance, she mentions that she wrote her college applications while sleeping in her car. When you get to that section you realized that she did it only for a couple of days before her pro bono famous college counselor told her to get to a shelter to get evidence for it so she could write a statement of extenuating circumstances. (I had no idea that that was a thing!)

That's not to detract from Nietfeld's achievements --- she did win national writing competitions (including the Horatio Algier award --- which she successfully turns into a skewering of the kind of person who sponsors those kind of awards). It's also a statement about how important a prestigious university like Harvard is --- she claimed to be the kind of student who got Bs and A-s in an institution where due to rampant grade inflation, it would have been an equivalent to be a C elsewhere, but the aura of Harvard was such that she managed to get a $130K/year job offer from Harvard, which she turned into a $200K offer by getting a second offer from Yahoo, where she had interned and been compared to then-CEO Marissa Mayer.

Nietfeld also describes her rape with unflinching detail. It took place in Budapest where she stayed at a hostel where there were only 2 men, a red flag which she hadn't been taught to avoid. It happened to her in between her high school and starting college, which led to her taking a gap year, which incidentally also made some of her sponsors from the Horatio Algier writing competition withdraw their support!

Her description of Harvard reminded me of the time when I went to graduate school and everyone else had an NSF fellowship but I had no idea what one was:

Harvard’s hands-off approach might have been ideal if I wanted to “explore” and “find myself.” But after everything, I mainly wanted to explore lucrative careers and find myself incredibly wealthy. Given my lack of parental guidance and ignorance of elite social norms, the freedom that Harvard offered didn’t feel like freedom at all. Instead it felt like another way other people knew the rules and I was in the dark. (kindle loc 4167)

Right at the end of the book Nietfeld got access to her childhood records and realized that much of what she thought was her fault turned out to be just how the system worked:

I  saw in the records that from my very first therapy appointment after my parents’ divorce, discussions of my mom’s diagnosis and potential treatment took up as much space as my own. Professionals knew she was sick, but they didn’t hesitate to medicate me rather than her. When I found my descriptions of our living situation, I wondered why no one had investigated. A decade after Ingrid first showed up at our front door, she told me she was glad I hadn’t let her inside. She knew Child Protective Services would’ve taken me away: “It would have made a bad situation worse.” One downside of a broken child welfare system is that no one wants to use it. While some families, largely those of color, have their kids taken away because they’re poor, other families who need interventions, like mine, do not get them. Much later, Annette told me she’d filed at least one maltreatment report. They told her there was nothing they could do since I wasn’t in immediate danger. As far as she could tell, no action was taken. (kindle loc 5010)

All in all, I found the book compelling reading.  It's probably going to be used as a defense of how the current systems work, since clearly it's possible for someone to work herself out of the horrible situation she found herself in. But obviously that's survivorship bias. There were probably many kids like Nietfeld who didn't get her successful outcome and we'll never know their story.

Recommended, but you'll need a strong stomach to get through many sections of it.

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