A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

Sometimes you watch a film that feels like a punch to the solar plexus.

In a good way.

I was bored and channel-surfing this week on yet another stiflingly hot evening when, at 10:00 pm, I found a film I had really wanted to see in 2018 when it came out. It received rapturous reviews, including a 15 minute standing ovation when screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Capernaum — also named Chaos — was filmed in a dusty, crowded Beirut for $4 million, starring a 12 year old Syrian refugee named Zain who’d already survived eight years in that city’s slums. The stars of the film include the most gorgeous baby — not more than a year old — and an Ethiopian woman, his mother, living and working there in menial jobs illegally.

If there is a film that more powerfully shows what it’s like to scrape every single day for food, water, income and dignity, I don’t know what it is.

The child who plays Zain is also named Zain, and was 12 at the time of filming, then illiterate. He is so tiny he looks like he might be eight or ten. (He now lives in Norway.)

Every element of this film is searing: the fate of his sister Sahar, a child bride; his abusive parents unable to care for him in any way; his resilience; the empathy and compassion Rahil shows for him (the mother of the baby) and his, in turn, for her toddler.

There’s a kind of intimacy and immediacy to this film that renders everything more slick and produced meaningless in comparison. It is in Arabic and Amharic with subtitles.

Slumdog Millionaire made in 2008 for $15 million — and which made $377.89 million — is the only other film that comes to mind like this, and Capernaum is much better.

Like Slumdog, it was made on  a small budget of $4 million (thanks to a producer who mortgaged his home), and has so far earned $68.6 million becoming a huge and unexpected hit in China.

Ironic that two films about desperately impoverished street children have proven so popular and lucrative.

I sure hope these child actors have also enjoyed some of that wealth!

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

Getting older, becoming invisible

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By Caitlin Kelly

I live in a building dominated by older people.

Here’s my essay published this week about it on nbcnews.com:

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.

Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.

Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.

She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.

It’s sobering. It’s instructive.

As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.

I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.

So this is what I know.

But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.

You can’t understand what you don’t see.

The challenge of finding love

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My sweetie, making photo history by photographing the Pulitzer Prize journalism judging — his idea!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In the romantic sense, anyway.

I see a lot of anguish among my friends who are single, no matter their age. One is desperate to have children but has no partner. Another has had her heart broken a few too many times.

Another already knows men her age insist on dating women decades younger.

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is reading The New York Times wedding announcements, aka the social box scores. I admit it — my mother’s wedding and both of mine made the cut. And, for every kindergarten teacher marrying an investment banker, or a Harvard-educated physicist marrying a former White House speechwriter, there are a few fun couples you just want to cheer for, like the 71-year-old therapist and mandolin player who married an 80-year-old — and met him while sharing their love of vintage Porsches.

I married for the first time at 35 and he bailed after barely two years, re-married to a colleague within a year. He was “perfect on paper” — a tall, handsome, medical student who played clarinet and guitar and also loved to travel. But it was not to be.

Divorced (no kids) for six years, I had plenty of time to re-think who or what I most wanted — as I missed being married. One of my hopes (realized!) was to find a partner who was interesting, well-traveled, accomplished yet also modest. In New York, that’s almost impossible; I was way out of most leagues, not having an Ivy degree, let alone several.

In those years I dated a computer geek of Greek origin, a ship’s engineer and a Jewish man whose parents’ first question to me was: “Are you Catholic?” (No.)

I met a few charming liars, as anyone does when meeting people on-line. Even a convicted con man. Terrifying!

Then I wrote about online dating — still a novelty then — for Mademoiselle, a now-defunct national women’s magazine. My profile headline read, truthfully: Catch Me If You Can. Jose, now my husband, liked the challenge and we met and…that was it!

 

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In sickness, surgery and in health…

 

We would never have met any other way, as he lived 30 miles south of me in Brooklyn and worked full-time, an odd schedule, at The New York Times. The day he was to have moved in with me was 9/11.

Yes, the 9/11.

Our first few years weren’t smooth. We loved one another, but were tough, prickly, set in our ways and, typical of successful journalists, extremely competitive. Whew!

But we’ve also always been quick to laugh, to hug, to forgive. We share a ferocious work ethic. We love to mentor and entertain, to share what we have with those we love. Our sofa is well-used by visiting younger pals.

We love to travel, whether in a tent (rarely!) or an elegant city hotel. We both have spiritual practices — mine, Episcopal church, his Dzogchen Buddhism; you can see his mala beads on his left wrist below and the stained glass of the tiny wooden church on Toronto’s Centre Island.

 

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September 2011

 

It’s never easy or simple to find a great match, especially later in life as career and education and children enter the picture and each of which can make a commitment more challenging.

I was unhappily single for years in Toronto because I knew I really wanted to move to New York — and who would move with me, legally? It all worked out (moved here with first husband who I met in Montreal), but who knew at the time?

I’m so grateful for how it worked out.

How have you found romantic love?

What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

Which was your best decade? Worst?

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One of the great pleasures of Montreal, the Atwater Market

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We listen to satellite radio in our nicer car and, I admit it, I listen to the ’80s channel.

Why?

Because, yes, it was easily my best and most fun decade, my 20s.

Promptly followed by my worst, the ’90s.

So, my ’80s:

 

1982-3

I win an eight-month-long fellowship, based in Paris on Rue du Louvre at the CFPJ, called Journalists in Europe, which chooses 28 men and women 25 to 35 who speak fluent French and English to come and study Europe and write about it, traveling throughout as a group and on solo 10-day reporting trips. There are JEs from Togo, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Brazil, China and many others. We form unlikely close friendships, like mine with Yasuro,  from Japan, discussing baseball in French. It’s an amazing, exhausting, life-changing year, the happiest of my life, creating friendships that will last for many decades yet to come and giving me a tremendous boost of skills and self-confidence. Plus, getting to live in Paris!

1983-84

I return to dreary Toronto and finally break up with my live-in boyfriend there who wants to get married. I don’t want to get married so young.

1984-1986

I finally win my dream job, as a reporter for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I get to cover a Royal Tour, following Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip across Canada for two weeks, a Quebec election and stories from profiling a female prison warden to a series on re-using disposable medical supplies. But it’s a mean, tough, elbows-out newsroom and after 2.5 years I’m burned out and need a break. A friend helps me win my next job.

1986-1988

I move to Montreal to become a feature writer for the Montreal Gazette. I meet my first husband, an American in his final year of medical school at McGill. I love my spectacular top-floor apartment in a gorgeous 1930s downtown building, with two bedrooms, a working fireplace and tall windows. Nicest place I’ve ever lived. But I didn’t love the Gazette and I really hated the ferocity and length of a Montreal winter.

1988-1989

Unbelievable luck — I get an H1-B visa to work for three months in Hanover, NH as an editor, in the exact place my first husband (not yet my fiance) is in his medical residency at Dartmouth. I’m able to get a “green card” to live and work in the U.S, thanks to my mother’s birth in the U.S. and I move to Lebanon, NH. I’ve left behind career, income, friends. But, pre-Internet, locals are so unfriendly I can barely believe it. I usually make friends easily and quickly. We’re broke and my boyfriend is exhausted all the time, if he’s even home. This makes for the roughest experience I’ve had in many years.

1990

We move to New York, to a suburban town where we buy an apartment that needs renovation we can’t afford. It takes me six months of cold calls, and a lucky New York Times’ job ad, to get my first job, as a senior editor at a monthly magazine focused on global news — saved by my ability to speak French and Spanish. We know no one.

1992-1994

I quit that job, and get married, albeit with very serious doubts about whether it will last, no matter how hard I’m willing to work at it. My family wants nothing to do with me and I’ve already had the best jobs in my industry in Toronto and Montreal. Not a lot of options. After barely two years, my husband walks out and re-marries someone from his workplace.

1995-1999

Chaos. I get divorced. I have a few staff jobs, but they don’t last. I had alimony, but it ends. I start online dating and meet a con man through a newspaper ad, who is ruthless and vicious and terrifies me. I waste four months of my life with him, trying to get him arrested and charged, but give up. I am burned out. I am lonely. I am struggling financially.  In 1998 I fly, on my dime, all the way to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to write and sell my first book, a narrative of the women’s boat in that year’s round-the-world Whitbread (now Volvo) Yacht Race. But they blow me off when I get there…so I have a great but very expensive and unplanned vacation alone.

2000

Phew. I meet Jose, now my husband, in March. Finally, life starts to become happy again.

 

Have you had a rough decade?

Or one (maybe several) filled with joy and accomplishment?

Social triage

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I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.

But social triage is also  — as we say — “a thing.”

Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.

I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.

(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)

 

 

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So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?

 

— We laugh a lot.

— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.

— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.

— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.

— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.

— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.

— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.

— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.

 

 

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Those left behind?

 

— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.

— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”

— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.

— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.

— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.

— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.

— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.

 

Have you become more selective about your friendships?

Where will love take you?

 

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Atwater Market, in Montreal, where I met my first husband

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

My mother was 17 — a headstrong American beauty freshly graduated from her prep school. My father was then 23, a handsome sailor from Vancouver painting in the south of France, supported by his father.

They met, bien sur!, in a little village on the Cote d’Azur at a party and that was that. My mother, desperate to flee life with her wealthy mother who kept marrying and divorcing (six times, maybe eight?), returned to New York City and married my father at the enormous Romanesque Park Avenue cathedral of St. Bartholomew. I used to walk past it on the way to one of my Manhattan journalism jobs, aware it was partially responsible for my even being in New York.

They moved back to Vancouver — a provincial backwater in the early 50s —  but they had fun: he opened an art gallery and she modeled. They moved to London for three years after I was born; (he made films for the BBC) then to Toronto, finally divorcing there, where I grew up.

I wanted to get to New York and I also wanted to marry, but I couldn’t quite imagine how either of those things would happen. I couldn’t picture a Canadian man willing and legally able to move to New York.

 

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Montreal

 

Living in Montreal in the 1980s, working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I met my first husband — also a party guest at my housewarming. He was an American from New Jersey, in his final year of medical school at McGill.

We spent seven years together in New Hampshire and New York; I followed him to the U.S. in 1988, legally able to do so thanks to my mother’s citizenship.

My mother and I basically switched lives — I to live in a town 25 miles north of her birthplace, New York City, and she living 25 miles north of Vancouver, my birthplace.

I also longed to better understand the American side of my family, which included a rancher, an ambassador, a bullfighter and an archeologist, and the drive and ambition that led my paternal great-grandfather to develop a Chicago landmark, still there, the North American Building. Thanks to him, I knew the names of downtown Chicago streets as well as those of my native Toronto.

 

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The Met Opera. New York City. I do love the elegance!

 

My mother, politically liberal, was much happier in Canada than in the sharp-elbowed U.S. Without a college degree, she also couldn’t compete effectively for good jobs; luckily for her, she inherited enough money she never had to.

Jose, my second/current husband, and I met in the year 2000 — when I wrote a story for a women’s magazine about a then new trend called on-line dating; my profile placed on aol.com drew 200+ replies from around the world but he lived within the desired radius of 35 miles.

We were wondering the other day how our lives would have turned out had we never met, which seems happily unimaginable to us now, all these years later.

What if he’d gone back to Denver, a city he loved?

What if I’d returned after my divorce to Canada or to France?

What if?

What if?

 

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Northern Ontario, a landscape I love and miss

 

I’m always intrigued by people who move very far from their homes for love.

It is a huge leap of faith — as getting divorced in another country can be really expensive and lonely and confusing.

It seems normal in our circles, peripatetic journalists and photographers. One friend became the “trailing spouse” and follows his wife to every State Department posting. I have a friend in London, recently widowed, who met her American husband while reporting in Israel. A couple we know — he’s French, she’s American — met (of course) while both were were working as journalists in Tokyo.

 

Have you ever moved a long distance, even to another country, for love?

Did it end happily?

 

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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It’s called growing up

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Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:

Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.

As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.

 

I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.

Here’s my college experience:

— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.

— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.

— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.

— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.

— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding  and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.

— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.

 

So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.

 

The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.

The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.

I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.

Neither parent attended my graduation.

 

What do you think of this relentless parenting?

 

Do you do it?

 

Have you experienced it?

When estrangement feels right

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It’s not an easy decision to make

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s still a social taboo, to cut off contact with a parent or child and/or a sibling, sometimes for months or years, and sometimes forever.

Divorce is now almost banal in many cultures — but not estrangement from your family of origin, held up in most cultures as sacrosanct, the place they have to, and always will, take you in.

But that’s not true for many people, and I’m one of them.

My mother and I gave up our strained relationship in 2010 — 2011? — and while I send an annual Christmas card and letter, no reply. Having run through a large inheritance, she lives in a charity nursing home a seven hour flight away. I’m her only child, but a local woman my age made sure to be cruel to me, and triumphantly replace me.

The details are too tedious, and yes it hurts sometimes, but how much energy can you keep wasting on a relationship? Alcoholism and poorly managed mental illness, both in my mother, destroy many relationships. If one person isn’t willing to work with the other toward a tenable relationship, it ends.

And the break may come when things don’t look that bad to an outsider — but there’s been one final straw and decades of forbearance just explode. With the agency of adulthood, you’re done.

I recently had yet another fraught phone encounter with my father, one of too many over the decades. We’ve had years when we simply don’t speak or visit.

There are calm and affectionate periods when it all looks like it will be OK….and then it’s not.

Again.

 

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When every encounter feels like incoming warfare, flee!

 

I know why. I’ve read books and done therapy.

It’s difficult to dismiss your parents for good. They’re the only ones we get. As it is, one of my two half-brothers cut me off 11 years ago and didn’t invite us to his recent lavish wedding. (There are four adult children in our “family” — from four women, two wives, two affairs. It’s no Hallmark card.)

The damage that prolonged estrangement, if you wish otherwise, can inflict on one’s self-confidence is considerable — but no matter if you’re at midlife, being ignored or subjected to abusive language and anger are also corrosive and toxic.

I recently read a truly harrowing book whose author, badly abused for many years (emotionally) by her parents and siblings, also chose to cut them off — Tara Westover, author of the best-seller Educated. 

She grew up in rural Idaho and now lives in England.

I actually found her book re-traumatizing, between her family’s relentless verbal (and often physical) abuse, gaslighting and her unwillingness or inability to break free from all of it.

 

Have you ever been estranged from your family?

Did you resolve it?