Literary Hub

Culture vs. Nurture: When Family Hierarchy Informs Fiction

When you grow up a fatherless daughter of a fatherless mother, where does your outlook on family begin? Culture? Nurture?

My mother worked hard, partied harder, and resembled a movie star when dolled up. Each morning my sister and I watched her transform as we three raced around getting ready for school and work. Mom applied her makeup at the same time, same place, leaving her purse (with her cosmetics) in the bathroom, in position for her return to brush her hair.

I’d rush into the vacated bathroom and with a polished skill belying my years (10, 11, 12 . . .) swipe anywhere from one to five dollars from her wallet. (Years later I learned my sister did the same.)

Dinner consisted of whatever cereal my sister shook into the bowl or a walk to George’s Luncheonette on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn,

Nice clothes being rare, I snatched (stole?) what I could from my sister and mother’s closets.

Every family has a hierarchy; ours resembled an open-door prison. Mom was the warden. My sister and I, the inmates, fought for money, food and scraps, often turning on each other—sometimes teaming up. I escaped whenever possible (sometimes clear across New York City, once to Montreal) easing back into the apartment like the seasoned sneak I’d become.

Then Mom remarried. Nightly dinner appeared on the table. We had a car. Two parents. Our extended family grew to include multitudes of cousins, aunts, and uncles we were eager to please. Stepsisters matching each of our ages! We simulated a normal family, which pleased me to no end. We barely had to steal for money, what with having a kind stepfather who offered cash when we needed.

We slipped into our new roles like butter. How? Television is my only explanation. I watched Make Room for Daddy as religiously as my friends attended church and temple, latching onto the flickering stories of traditional nuclear families. I gorged on novelized wisdom from Little Women to Marjorie Morningstar. Newspapers fascinated me early on. At the age of eight I determined that President Kennedy and First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy were my real parents. They’d stuck me in Brooklyn to demonstrate cream rising to the top.

Media educated me and allowed me to fall into the warm chicken soup of a new family and pretend it could be reality. Nurture? That I never trusted for a minute.

My past educated me as I wrote my new novel, The Widow of Wall Street. My protagonist Phoebe lives with Jake for over 40 years, never knowing he’s pulling off the biggest Ponzi scheme Wall Street has ever seen, never questioning that her husband could invest money in an ever-upward trend. My childhood, when I wanted to believe everything I’d learned on TV about the hierarchy of a family, where daddy brings home the bacon, informed the story just as the open prison in which I’d come of age colored every action I took.

Phoebe grew up in a traditional family which, if not perfect, never strayed from doing the right thing. Only her mother’s critical view of Phoebe’s trust—that beauty equaled protection—wrinkled her world. Jake’s parents almost landed in jail for fiscal malfeasance. His goal? Make something of himself. Something huge and respected. And if he cut a few corners, he always meant to make it right.

Nurture or culture?

Even at the very beginning of Jake’s career, when he plans a righteous path, the inner fight is on. Top of his list is Crisp piles of money, scorching nights of sex, and silver-framed photos of a flawless family defined Jake’s endgame. Tons of dough. Tons.

This craving for success and his need to overtake his father incites a war between winning and rectitude.

Phoebe, with no need to prove her goodness—not after coming from a family where the golden rule was served with breakfast. She worried about being average.

Phoebe beat two eggs with fear and venom, certain that each circle of her fork brought her closer to becoming her mother. Smack in the center of the supposed youth revolution, she felt more middle aged than buoyant. Marriage at 19 meant this: four years later, only 23, she’d been tossed into the world of matrons.

Jake, child of a family where Mom taunted Dad for losing, where both parents flouted the rules, was determined to end up in a better place. Nurtured to believe regular folk were fools, his childhood lessons laid tragic tracks never overcome by culture. In his hierarchy of family, money was on top. That he wanted. In his family, men could be tortured if they didn’t succeed. That he could not let happen.

In Phoebe’s world, men brought in money, women cared for family. She was willing to raise children—but needed a sphere in which she could shine, a goal she met. However, the nurturing care she received and the trust she witnessed between her parents engendered her Achilles heel. Having learned the world at her mother’s knee, she never questioned her husband, even when he seemed out of control.

Jake and Phoebe both knew that the one with the money, held the power—a power for good, for evil, or simply for aggrandizement.

When Bernie Madoff’s crimes made headlines, I flashed to his wife. What would be like to learn one’s entire life was built on air? Every crime includes multiple victims—including the family of the perpetrator. I worked with criminals for 10 years. Their excuses simultaneously fascinated and repulsed me. Even those engaging in the most heinous behavior, manage to explain away their exploits to themselves and how much their families believe them or distrust them is usually rooted in their own version of nurture vs culture, the hierarchy in which they were raised.

The Widow of Wall Street allowed me to explore my fascination with how crimes affect those closest to the perpetrator and how the consequences play out within the family. I lived in the point of view of both my characters, husband, Jake Pierce, and wife, Phoebe Pierce—caught in a crime, one knowing, one ignorant.

A criminal’s lens on money and marriage popped up when I inhabited Jake. White collar criminals, accustomed to entitlement, commit the most outrageous schemes and crimes always believing they can and will find a way out. They use their ill-gotten gains as leverage in marital power struggles. Women, so conditioned to taking second chair in finances, won’t question what, in hindsight, seems like the most unlikely of financial scenarios claimed by their partners.

The family where I grew up, our hierarchy, was skewed in favor of distrust and cheating, which allowed me to enter Jake in totality when I inhabited his point of view.

The family I tried to make, as an adult, I pressed into use to access goodness and the cultural norms of living a righteous life. I remembered the little girl who believed a new family would change everything to kittens and ice cream. I could become Phoebe.

Everyone is the star of their own show. I access that doctrine with every character in whose point of view I must believe. To explore what I know, what I might recoil from, and what I must discover, requires allowing emotional cruxes, past and present, to bubble until culture and nurture make a dark viscous stew. Only then do I become every character, those with the best of intents, those with the worst of intents, and those who, like most of us, invent the story that allows ourselves to get away with everything—including murder.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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