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Start reading The Family Outing by Jessi Hempel

A striking and remarkable literary memoir about one family’s transformation, with almost all of them embracing their queer identities.

Start Reading The Family Outing by Jessi Hempel


Everyone has secrets. I exist because of two secrets—one acute and unusual, belonging to my mother, and one common and culturally condemned, belonging to my father. These hidden truths worked their way into the fabric of my being, coming up through me. My parents’ shame became my shame. Without ever being told, 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.

I dreamed about this before I had language for it. It’s my earliest memory that I know to be all my own. I must be almost three, because I don’t remember being in my crib. I already sleep in a big- girl bed, with a mesh safety net attached to it. This bed is nestled against one pink- patterned wall of a room where my dad, a law student, studies. Our family lives in a duplex in Acton, Massachusetts, with train tracks that cut a line through the backyard. In a house nearby are Raina and Bill Rice, the landlords. They are retirees who have shells and sea artifacts all over their home from Bill’s scuba- diving hobby. Raina is a mousy woman with tightly curled white hair. Bill is good- natured, grandfatherly. He gives me orange soda when I visit. But in the dream, I awake to noise outside my window. This is the confusing part, when I am awaking but still asleep in a dream—the reason that, later, I will be so certain that these events actually happened. Dream- me pulls back the curtain and peeks out the window, and there are Raina and Bill coming toward me, flanked by a fireman and a police officer. The sky behind them is orange and red, dusky, opening up as if it will swallow all of us. Raina has a black pistol. Bill is pointing a green water gun at me. They know what I have done, who I am. If they reach me, they will shoot me. I’m sure of it. I’m screaming. I’m screaming in my sleep so loud that I have screamed myself awake.

Then my mother is there. She’s lifting me up out of my bed, and she sits down in the mahogany rocker that my grandparents in Ypsilanti bought my parents for their first Christmas together. Adrenaline runs through my body as I try to explain the danger. But I don’t have enough language yet. I can only express that there is someone outside the window. My mother reaches forward and pulls the curtains open, says there is nothing. I don’t believe her.

For a while, this happens most nights. We sit there in the chair. My mother is trying to help me, but she can’t understand the danger. I can’t communicate it to her. When I think about it then, and even when I think about it now, my arms freeze up so that I cannot lift them. Eventually my mother carries me back to my parents’ room, to the large waterbed they share. It’s one of those mid-1970s mainstays, one big bag of water that sloshes anytime anyone moves. I’m sandwiched between my parents. I know that I must lie very still if I’m going to be permitted to stay, that I must try to sleep. And there, right there in between their bodies, my mom’s elbow draped over me, I relax. I’m safe. But I can never sleep. I can’t stay still, and the waterbed roils like the ocean every time I move. No one is sleeping. Now my parents are annoyed with me. Dad lifts me up to return me to my bed. “No,” I cry. No. I’ll be killed, the landlords are coming for me. Dad carries me through the kitchen and back into our shared bedroom- study. He tucks me into bed and then plops into the rocker, waiting and waiting for me to sleep.

This dream stays with me in the years that follow. I have it when I am six and seven, and I wake up in a cold sweat. By now, I’ve learned not to call for my parents when dreams scare me. They cannot make it better. And anyhow, now we live in a four-bedroom split-level on a cul-de-sac in Greenville, South Carolina, and Raina and Bill are still back in Massachusetts. I know as soon as the adrenaline shoots my body into waking that there is no one outside my window. I pad down the hall to the bathroom and pour a glass of water that I drink slowly. This is the first time I remember thinking I’m a bad person.

I have the dream at nine, as we move to another new house. We are back in Massachusetts, staying with my aunt while we get settled. Katje, Evan, and I sleep on the floor of my aunt’s study like a pile of puppies. Katje is five and Evan is three, and as I watch them sleep, I’m angry at them for their relative youth and innocence. It doesn’t occur to me that they may already have fear and shame, too.

For a little while, the dream comes frequently again. I’m nervous about starting another new school. Then I make some friends and get to know my teacher. The dream recedes.

At sixteen, when I’ve figured out that (maybe possibly but not for sure) I am gay, the dream comes back. I’m old enough to notice how the emotions it conjures are filtered through a younger me, toddler-sized, amorphous and physically grounded in my body. Raina and Bill are there, more muted, with their guns. Now they feel more distant. As scared as I am, I’m also curious. In the dream, I know that I’m in the dream. I can pause it in still frames, but I can’t figure out how to move closer to the figures who are pursuing me. I wake up panicked and sweaty.

The last time I have the dream is when I’m twenty-four. I live in the Bay Area, and I’ve just started therapy with a therapist I don’t perceive to be helpful because I don’t feel better after I speak to her. I tell this woman everything I know about myself. She’s like the garbage barge that runs along the bottom of the river dredging up sediment so that the water becomes cloudy, leaving it for something else to clean. Only what I don’t realize then is that the work is the dredging. Cloudy waters come clean on their own.

I tell her about the dream, about how it makes me feel. And then I never have it again.

Excerpt from The Family Outing, Copyright © 2022 by Jessi Hempel. All rights reserved.

The Family Outing will be available in bookstores across Canada and online on October 4, 2022

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The Family Outing by Jessi Hempel

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