Jamaica Plain resident Mindy Fried, a local author who is also the co-founder of JP Porchfest, will be appearing at the Boston Book Festival this weekend (See Sights and Sounds for more information.). Fried will be discussing her book, Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session through email with Fried about her book and appearing at the festival. (The session has been edited.)
Question: Caring for Red is a memoir about caring for your 97 year old father – what challenges did you face when writing this memoir?
Answer: Writing is how I process the world. Writing about my father’s demise and ultimate death was a way to reflect on what I was experiencing, and more deeply, to deal with the really hard work of grieving. I had a complicated relationship with my dad, but I loved him deeply and felt loved unconditionally by him. When he was still alive, I started writing short blog pieces about my experience caring for him. Some of this writing was painful and some was just plain crazy fun. For example, I wrote a post about “engaged aging”, which is basically staying involved with activities that are meaningful to you as you get older, something my dad was really good at.
But in another post, I wrote about “living in assisted living”, after he moved into the place I call Harmony Village. That was harder, because it was clear that he was in his “final chapter” of life. When I decided to actually write a book, my first thought was that I could piece all of these little blog posts together like a puzzle, and it would magically become a book. But I was wrong! I decided that blogging about this giant loss wasn’t enough to capture the totality of the experience. I wanted not just to tell my story, but to tell the universal story of caregiving for an elder parent, including the process of ushering a loved one gracefully towards their death.
Writing the book was very satisfying and at times, emotionally wrenching. I read somewhere that writers live life twice, and I think this is particularly true for memoir writing. As we translate our experiences into text, we’re trying to bring our experiences to life for readers, and to do that, we need to re-immerse ourselves in that experience, to call upon our senses, and find words that provide more detail – the smells, the sounds, the feel, and at times, the dialogue. There were times when – and I’m not sure if this makes sense – but there were times when the words I used would capture exactly what I felt like in a particular moment and I would start to cry or laugh. These were moments when my words were aligned with my feelings – with the feelings of loss and sadness, or a feeling of connectedness to my past. What I also realized, in writing Caring for Red, is that there needed to be an arc, a beginning, middle and end to the story, and that the through line to the story was my process of transformation as a caregiver; in other words, not just my observations and experience, but how that experience changed me as a daughter.
Q.: Did your father live at an assisted living facility in Jamaica Plain?
No, my father lived in Buffalo, New York. That’s where I was born and where I lived until I left at age 17. When my father was “going downhill”, I went to Buffalo every other weekend to care for him. Did you know that there are 65 million caregivers in the US? That includes people who care for someone who is ill, has a disability or is aged, and that’s nearly 30 percent of the population. Roughly 10 percent of them care for parents from afar, which is what my sister and I did. Caregiving is invisible labor, and people who are doing it often don’t talk about it, but anyone who has done this work will tell you that whether or not you are living near your parent(s), you’re “on” 24/7, staying in touch with your parent, talking to practitioners, making appointments, and generally making sure they’re safe and receiving quality care. There were moments when my sister and I considered moving our dad to Boston or Pittsburgh, where she lived. But ultimately, our dad was so firmly connected to so many different people and networks in Buffalo that we all (including him) decided that it made more sense for him to stay in a place where he was known and loved. My father was four days shy of 98 years old when he died. In a sense, he lived many lives – as a labor organizer, as an insurance salesman, political activist, actor, and playwright. By the time he hit his 90s, he had won many lifetime achievement awards, recognizing his contributions as a writer and political activist.
In the final year-and-a-half of his life, my dad lived in an assisted living facility that I call Harmony Village. I write a lot about this place in the book. It’s kind of like another character in the book! He had visited Harmony Village several times, and over time, it began to grow on us. I had had an aunt who had lived there and really liked it; the staff seemed caring; and it was conveniently located close to my cousins’ home and close enough to restaurants and the theatre district where my father had spent so much time performing.
Q.: Why were your father’s beliefs so controversial?
A: That’s a great question! My father was a union organizer back in the 40s and 50s, and he fought for wages and better working conditions for factory workers. We were still in the industrial era in this country, before large corporations moved to the southern US or the global south in search of cheaper labor. My father was an incredibly articulate and impassioned activist, who challenged factory owners to treat their workers with respect, and when owners refused to make changes, he led workers on walkouts and strikes. This was during a dark period in American history called the McCarthy period, when thousands of people were targeted as “Communists”.
The most famous were the “Hollywood Ten”, but there were lots of everyday people, workers at the State Department, in the military, and certainly in labor unions who were called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. They were all asked that now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” This was a time when many of the people who were called to testify were terrified about losing their jobs and destroying their families. Some people named names of other people they felt had Communist leanings, but many people refused to speak, using the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, claiming their right to not respond on the grounds that it might incriminate them. While my father respected people’s right to use the “Fifth”, he took another direction. He challenged the right of the committee to exist, and also “took” the First Amendment, or free speech amendment.
It might be difficult to imagine now with this period was like, but there was a huge frenzy that permeated our culture. People were afraid to be associated with other people who were considered Communist. As a result of being subpoenaed to testify in front of the committee, my father was “blacklisted”, meaning that no employer in the US would hire him. Friends and family rejected him and our family. My mother, whose family owned a fancy restaurant in Buffalo, was kicked out of the business for at least a year. And my sister and I experienced rejection from friends. Throughout this period, our phones were tapped by the FBI, and our entire family was followed by the FBI for a 30-year period! If I ever doubted that this was true, the evidence was in the 5,000 pages of FBI files that my father was able to get through the Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, Newt Gingrich called for a reinstatement of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and it sent a chill through my body. I do believe that we have to be vigilant about the current chafing away at our liberties in this country, particularly for immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people and women.
My father ended up selling life insurance for a Canadian company, but continued his political activism and started writing plays about working people, based on his experience. The FBI is known to have halted the production of some of his plays. None of this stopped him. That’s why I think of him these days as a social justice warrior, who refused to give up, in the face of all this adversity.
Q: Do you think your family members would like the way that they are portrayed in your book?
A: I was very careful about how I depicted my family members. I don’t skirt around the complicated feelings I had towards my father, but at the same time I did my best to write about him with love and respect. There are things that I left out of the book. I think that there is a huge difference between honesty and cruelty! Before the book was sent out to publishers, I shared it with my sister and made sure that she was comfortable with the way she was depicted and the way my family was depicted. She has been an incredible support throughout this process.
Q: Do you think that your struggle in caregiving for your father is unique or relatable? Why?
A: I believe that my story is unique, as all our stories are unique, but at the same time it is a universal story of caregiving. As I was writing my story, I realized that I had an opportunity to bring in a universal perspective, since so much of what I experienced as a caregiver is something that all caregivers experience. As a sociologist, I tried to frame the story in that way, drawing upon theories of aging, data about long-term care insurance, information about assisted living and more. It’s not a how-to book; it’s a book that relies on story-telling, but I tried to include useful information in the book as well.
Q: You are speaking on a panel at the Boston Book Festival about memoirs. What sorts of questions and themes do you expect to come up?
A: I have been touring with Caring for Red for a year now. I think that by being vulnerable and open about my experience, people tend to think about and share their own experiences. So who knows? But people have asked questions about sharing care with my sibling and what that was like. Some people have asked how you know when it’s the right time to put an elder parent into an institution. Some want to know if I feel any regrets, or if it was hard to write about the experience. We’ll see! I’m looking forward to it.