How a writer learned to open up about Dad’s secret sex books
The title of Sara Faith Alterman’s memoir, “Let’s Never Talk About This Again,” is both perfectly on point and totally ironic. Alterman’s story revolves around her family’s inability to discuss anything even remotely uncomfortable, especially having to do with sex — which became a problem when the young Sara, reaching for her “Sesame Street Cookbook,” discovered a stash of novelty sex books written by her father, Ira.
They were largely softer-than-soft core, with an emphasis on naughty humor. “Games You Can Play With Your Pussy” had a silly cat on the cover; at first, Sara didn’t realize it was even sexual. Others, like “Bridget’s Sexual Fantasies,” were more explicit, including nude photos and chapters on bondage, orgies and oral sex. By the time she was in seventh grade, Alterman knew exactly what “cannoli,” “weenie” and “lollipop” meant when they were in a book by her father.
Alterman, now 40, gradually overcame her family’s culture of reticence, becoming a comedy writer and performer and producing the stage show and podcast “Mortified,” in which people read their teenage diaries and tell personal stories onstage. Her own tale, published this month, is told with warmth and wit but also with candor, as Alterman confronts her past and grieves her father’s rapid decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease. She spoke to the Times by phone about what she still can’t talk to her family about, her mortal enemy “Don Wang” and how she learned, unlike Ira, to lay off the puns.
The publicity materials emphasize your father’s dirty books, but it’s your family’s inability to discuss them that the memoir is really about.
The book is really being marketed by leaning hard on “Her dad was a porn writer,” but there’s a lot more to the book and my dad. When I first found his books, they were so sexual, surprising and scandalous, but as an adult I see there’s no need to be so pearl-clutching about it. I already walked on eggshells around him and didn’t want to make him uncomfortable — he had a temper when he was feeling backed into a corner and I did not want to set that off.
It’s a common experience that these are subjects you don’t want to talk about with your parents, but my parents were so bizarre about it. The books took up a huge amount of real estate in my brain about him. It was when I sat down to write about our whole relationship that I realized the books are just part of it. The more space between my father’s death and the present, the more I’m able to parse out the really beautiful and simple parts of our relationship.
The title is a quote from a conversation with your brother Dan. Have you and Dan ever sat down and discussed how your dad’s books affected each of you?
Dan and I are still figuring out how to talk about Dad’s death and life. He had his own uniquely complicated relationship with our dad. We’ve talked a little about the books but we’re both still pretty uncomfortable talking about it with each other. We can laugh about them now but we both feel icked out enough that we’re not going to talk about it unless we sit down and split a bottle of scotch. It’s the one thing we still feel immature about.
Why write a memoir about something that made you so uncomfortable?
Nothing good can come from keeping secrets from people, even if they feel like stupid secrets. Now that I’m a parent myself, I see how much our 5-year-old picks up; he can tell when my husband and I are in an argument just by our body language or because we’re short in conversation. Then he’ll literally tap dance to try and get us to laugh. I feel holding things back from him does a disservice to him and to the trust we’ve established as a family.
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Was the writing difficult?
My first draft was terrible because it was full of dumb jokes and puns and I was tap dancing around sincerity. My editor called and said, “You need to cut all the [crap], you need to just tell the story. You’re dancing around the truth here and the whole point of this book is that you were raised to dance around things that were uncomfortable.” The story evolved by allowing myself to be vulnerable and also to opening myself to criticism that I’m sure is difficult to deliver to a writer: “Thanks for pouring your heart out but you didn’t pour your heart out in the right way.” She was really gentle in her delivery but firm about what was needed. Once I gave myself permission to say what I wanted to say, it became a better book and I felt better about it. I feel I’m still cultivating a relationship with sincerity.
Your tone is very conversational. Is that a conscious choice?
That’s the way I write. I developed some of these stories onstage, so I’m pretty comfortable speaking directly to an audience. I used to be more self-conscious and was conversational because I felt the need to include the reader, and to explain myself or apologize for my own writing within the context of my writing. Which is a bad habit. I reined that back. I still talk to the readers but not to the degree that it takes you out of the moment, with a parenthetical, “Wink wink, did you get that joke?” My editor played a huge role in helping me curate my puns. I still lean very heavily on wordplay or “dad jokes.” I was raised to think that stuff was fun. It just automatically happens in my brain.
Were there personal things you still left out, for whatever reason?
Things got left out for discretion. I wanted to respect people’s privacy and comfort levels. I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of writing a memoir because most memoirs I have read — and enjoyed, to be honest — were very salacious and extremely dramatic. I even wanted to respect the privacy of someone I will hate forever. There’s a section about this boy who bullied me relentlessly, and I changed his name to Don Wang. But I’m hoping the grapevine of our town will carry word back to him about the book. I’m sure he’s different now, but in my head he’s still that malicious boy. So it’s important that nobody feels surprised or exploited or embarrassed by what I wrote, except for Don Wang.
What would your dad think of the book?
He’d be proud that I’d gotten it published but he’d be embarrassed to be the center of attention, so it would be a real mix. My dad was in a lot of ways my closest friend, and we were a lot alike. I would call him constantly for work advice; if something exciting happened, he was always my first call. After he died, I’d saved his number in my phone and when I learned my memoir had sold I actually called my dad. I was so excited to tell him and then I remembered, “My dad is dead. He’s not going to answer the phone.”
Over the last three months, 17 writers provided diaries to the Times of their days in isolation, followed by weeks of protest. This is their story.
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