Many parents raise their children emphasizing the “goodness” and “badness” of everything from food to language to sex. The good-versus-bad mindset can easily foster adolescent periods wrought with secrecy and confusion, distrust and resentment. Certain baby boomers especially love that kind of thing.
Sara Faith Alterman details in her memoir, Let’s Never Talk about This Again, exactly that kind of childhood in mid-1980s Massachusetts – purity rings, fast-forwarding through kissing scenes, and Highlights magazine, instead of Madonna. Her parents won’t let her watch Back to the Future or listen to new rock music. They are even disgusted by the title of the Bon Jovi song “Social Disease.”
But her dad, Ira Alterman, is a likable man. He’s funny and unpredictable, and loves playing word games with his kids, initiating the author’s lifelong interest in both writing and humor. (“I am pundamentally a word nerd,” she writes.)
As a child exploring bookshelves in her family den one day, the young Sara discovers a set of books – among them Games You Can Play with Your Pussy and Bridget’s Sexual Fantasies – and her father’s name, Ira Alterman, on the cover. Curious. Did her father write these books? Is he really talking about a cat?
Up until this point, she saw her dad as the most powerful, perfect person on the planet. Yet she starts to understand that some things, even for him, might be secretive and shameful. She knows it isn’t something she’s supposed to talk about, even if she’s not sure why. So, she keeps her discovery a secret. For decades.
Into adolescence and adulthood, Alterman continues to struggle to understand why her father would have written such raunchy books, why he would have kept it from her, and why he acted like such a prude around his kids.
She writes, “I loved Dad so blindly that it took me ten years to realize he’d shaped my tastes on purpose.” She grows up, gets married, and is thinking about starting her own family across the country in San Francisco. But she writes that she was “approaching thirty with the silent anxiety of any woman who’d internalized a lifetime of perceived inadequacies.”
Then, in his sixties, Ira loses his job and is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He also decides he’s longer keeping his sex writing a secret.
One day Ira asks his daughter to help him get back on track with his writing career, nonchalantly sending her children’s stories mixed in with manuscripts like The Naughty Bride and Sex After 40. All this while Alterman is starting her own career and still hasn’t come to terms with her dad and sex coexisting in the world.
Alterman’s dad slowly transforms from the fun-loving foundation of the family, the rule-setter, the wit, into someone childlike, unfiltered, and irritating. He repeats his obsessions over and over and over again. On a road trip, they have to pull over every time they see a Dunkin Donuts so he can get a new coffee. Or, he endearingly obsesses about taking the Pennsylvania Turnpike and brings it up every five minutes as if it were the first time.
Alterman delicately and humorously communicates these new quirks, these shifts in both his temperament and in her opinion of him. She admits that she’s not always the most patient of daughters.
It’s already a challenge to come to terms with your parents’ shortcomings as you age. You have many, many questions. You block out memories that are too awkward or painful. But to face all this with a parent who’s losing their memory and agency adds a whole new layer of bad feelings that will probably never be dealt with. Alterman handles these topics with care and sometimes humor, yet never lacks vulnerable authenticity.
At age five or six, Alterman has a string of terrible nightmares. In one, a murderer is on the loose who dresses in a cow costume. In her dream, she hides, watching and waiting for the murderer to reveal their true identity. But the cow costume is taken off only to reveal another cow underneath.
She writes, “At the time there was nothing more terrifying to me than this bizarre reveal, that you can have a completely unpredictable secret beneath the face you show to the world.”
Let’s Never Talk about This Again is Alterman’s first memoir but third book, following two novels. She writes hilarious, dark, and touching prose, creating that right level of cringe to inspire others to tell their own problematic childhood stories (baby boomers be damned).
Let’s Never Talk about This Again
By Sara Faith Alterman
Grand Central Publishing
Published July 28, 2020
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.