The third novel from the author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy is an often satiric page-turner that tracks a Long Island family crisis. Josh Goldin is a happily married TV airtime salesman with an eight-month-old son. When baby Zack is treated twice for mysterious and life-threatening symptoms, the head of a pediatric ICU, Dr. Darlene Stokes, tells Child Protective Services that she thinks Josh’s wife, Dori, suffers from Munchausen syndrome, whereby the afflicted injure their children deliberately to draw attention to themselves. The Goldins’ ensuing battle to keep Zack provides grist for public debate about issues ranging from parents’ rights to race (Dr. Stokes is black, the Goldins Jewish). Strauss takes delight in skewering a world in which everything (news coverage, legal representation, hospital beds) is for sale, sometimes digressively, always amusingly. The stereotypes are intentionally heavy-handed: Josh’s perceptions almost always register through race and class-related fear and disgust. But the heart of the story—the unraveling of Josh’s life and the steady erosion of his faith that ignorance can be a virtue and happiness a choice—is riveting.
“This book is harrowing, hurtling, heartbreaking and—more than anything— devastatingly accurate. Darin Strauss (a novelist whose talents sometime seem limitless to me) has created characters whose complexities and dark motivations—though they are always hidden from each other, and even sometimes from themselves — are never hidden from their author. This is a brilliant, sharp, suspenseful novel, impossible to turn your gaze from.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
When cruising the aisles of bookstores either on foot or online, I’m drawn to books I don’t know very much about by their covers and/or their titles. Even without the heads-up on More Than It Hurts You from Mother-Talk’s blog, I would have purchased Strauss’ book.
My parents, when dispensing some sort of punishment-either in form of spanking (rare) or grounding (frequent) would often precede the consequence by announcing, “Now, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” One time, before becoming kid-savvy about what not to say to parents (give me a break. . . I was a first-born) I blurted: “Well, if that’s really true, then why are you doing this?” As a parent myself now, having pronounced those same words of self-absolution, the title of Strauss’ book transported me to my childhood and that of my own children. . .into this murky place of confusion and guilt.
At first glace, the words on the cover seemed to be suspended on thin strands, like a mobile that hangs over a crib, and anchored by a lovely blue gossamer butterfly. But when I looked closer, the words and the butterfly are actually pinned by needles. Sewing needles. If that didn’t make the book a must-buy, Elizabeth Gilbert sealed the deal with her “harrowing, hurtling, and heartbreaking.” The story is all that Gilbert proclaims it to be, and I’d add “haunting.”
In attempting to describe powerful books to my high school students, I tell them that a writer’s task is to take you across the river, experiencing the currents and the sways and rocking and splashes without ever realizing you’re in a boat. And, when you arrive at the distant shore, you’re amazed by the speed of the journey, gratified by the its fullness, and changed by the experience. Strauss provides whitewater rafting, but with prose that, as a writer of books, I admired and envied.
Darin Strauss in conversation:
How did the success of your first book, Chang & Eng, impact your career?
The only impact it had was the pressure to improve myself, to get better. I was very lucky to have a best-seller right out of the gate. A writer friend of mine calls the period before one’s first book comes out “the calm before the calm.” So I felt blessed to have gotten any attention at all. But I also didn’t want to repeat myself. I want each book to be different, to stand on its own.
That’s interesting, because your previous books have focused on real, historical people in a fictional setting. Why did you depart from that for this book?
The Chinese have an old saying: “May you not live in interesting times.” We live, unfortunately, in interesting times. So I wanted to write a book that brings together all the threads and fears of contemporary life — corporate greed, the modern mania for attention, loss of privacy, the maddening even-handedness of media coverage, a family’s threats from within and without. And, of course, race and gender. Just look at the current political landscape to see how important those last two subjects are.
At the same time, I wanted the book to address the sort of personal themes that good literature looks into: such as, How much blindness does a happy life require? How well do you know anyone—even those closest to you?
And, of course, I wanted to tell a page-turning story. So, if I did my job right, this book also tackles the most bewildering family mystery of our time. Munchausen by Proxy is a disorder in which parents secretly injure their own children. Often the children die. What earthly motive could explain harming one’s own baby?
The crazy thing is that Munchausen’s is much more common in the US than most people know – over 100,000 cases a year. But it only happens in rich countries, such as ours or the UK. It’s a disease of luxury, of idle minds.
What is your take on the state of American media, the loss of privacy, etc. — and how does that play a part in this novel?
Well, my wife’s a journalist who covered the Duke lacrosse scandal. And I learned a lot from watching her experience. On TV, “even-handedness”—(the good offices of both-sides-get-equal-air)—means the truth wins no more time or merit than any other position. The yelling is the message; the yelling and the easy digestibility of one’s story. People nowadays need to be amused even when learning—especially then. And so to compete for our attention, the news has gotten buffed into a plaything among the brighter playthings of entertainment. Everybody knows this. But everybody’s still astounded when it impinges on them. When it’s their lives getting trashed by it. And as Media has become one of life’s Stations of the Cross, it happens to more of us all the time.
Unfortunately, whoever shouts loudest, wins.
Why did you set this on Long Island, and why did you make Darlene Black and Josh Jewish?
Well, I grew up on Long Island; but I thought it served well as the Über-suburb; it’s kind of place many Americans have grown up in. I wanted the story to be both very personal—we watch Josh Goldin’s life come undone and see him learn that ignorance, even in today’s America, is no virtue—and also about larger things. The book covers issues ranging from parents’ rights to race. But the heart of the story is a Jewish man and a Black woman—who could stand in for any of us, and who might have been friends in other circumstances—finding themselves on either side of a terrifying media firestorm.
The book is very specific on medical details, without being too textbookish. Did you do tons of research?
I talked with a number of doctors, including the most respected physician on the subject of Munchausen by Proxy in the United States. But, to be honest, I think research can be too easily used as a crutch for a fiction writer: There’s always a temptation to use it too much. One of the best advice nuggets I ever got was from E.L. Doctorow, who told me, “Do the least amount of research you can get away with, and no less.”
Its true: if you do too much research, you feel this pressure feel this pressure to stuff all the factoids you’ve gathered in there, and then it’s going to read like a text book — and a novelist’s first responsibility is to make the story interesting and move along; veracity is the province of historians.
When you first started writing this book, you didn’t have children, and now you have twins. When looking over the pages now, what sort of response do you feel?
Years ago I wrote my book Chang & Eng about conjoined twins, and very recently my wife gave birth—and the news initially came as a surprise to us—to identical twins. As I spent days with my new and tiny children in the post-natal Intensive Care Unit (my boys were born prematurely), I scanned the proofs of More Than It Hurts You, which had sections devoted to children’s hospitals: to that frightening world of oscilloscope blips and ventilator beeps, to the cosmic creepiness of a baby ICU.
Reading about what happens in such a complex nerve center right when it was happening to my young family gave me a vibe of portents getting charged into sparks of reality. It sounds hokey, but my book seemed as much an inexplicable force as a novel.
As Norman Mailer told us, writing has its own occult force. I can say only that these novels have gotten me to wonder about whether any coincidence is truly a random happenstance. I feel that this book has plugged into something extraordinary in my life, and, I hope, that of many other potential readers. It’s about a very specific, harrowing problem, but at the same time about the little problems we all face, and the little acts of bravery that life requires of us if we are to go on living as we do. It’s a family story, a story about modern America, and, in the end, about the difficulties and wonders of love.
And presented here because they’re just so darn cute…the Strauss twins, Shepherd and Beau: