Prachi Gupta never planned to write a memoir. “I’m a reporter and I prefer writing about other people,” she explained to Jezebel in a recent Zoom. But the death of her younger brother Yush in 2017, and her subsequent discovery of his men’s rights activism and the cause of his death (a blood clot after limb-lengthening surgery) led to her award-winning investigative essay “Stories About My Brother,” published on Jezebel in 2019. “I had to turn that into something that I felt like could heal myself and help heal other people,” she recalled. “And it was the response from Jezebel commenters, readers, people who found the essay and reached out to me, that made me realize that I need to tell my full story, because I think there’s a lot here that could help other people feel less alone, too.”
The full story from the Jezebel alum arrives in stores Tuesday. They Called Us Exceptional is a prequel of sorts to “Stories About My Brother” insofar as it contextualizes Yush’s politics and attitudes with an in-depth description of his and his sister’s upbringing. Patriarchy begins to look like a chronic condition in light of her father’s behavior. Her father, she writes, was strict, intimidating, and humiliating. His temper sometimes manifested in physical or emotionally manipulative ways (Gupta uses the word “abuse” sparingly). Her mother mostly backed her father up, though she bore the brunt of his rage as well. Gupta kept this mostly hidden, putting up a front for the various racial groups she navigated in her life as an Indian-American girl then woman. “Everything in our lives had fallen into place the way that we’d always dreamed. We had perfected the delicate alchemy of culture, family, and work that resulted in happiness and success in America,” she writes of the facade. Achievement provided a way to organize and control life in the face of racism. “When we had nothing to throw back at the slurs thrown at us, when we had to silently swallow the humiliation of knowing that we were inferior in our own country, Yush and I found solace in the idea that success was part of our destiny. The belief that we were exceptional protected us,” Gupta writes on what she deems the model minority myth.
They Called Us Exceptional, written in the second person addressed to Gupta’s estranged mother, is a synthesis of personal storytelling and cultural reporting. It’s the product of diligent journaling and research, as well as interviews with mental health professionals and family members like Gupta’s aunt and uncle. It’s a vivid and precise story of survival. “In many ways I feel lucky and grateful, because I could have gone down a very different path,” Gupta told me. “I’m okay and I feel very grateful for that.” What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
JEZEBEL: Writing in the second person is such a rare, bold choice. Did anyone ever try to dissuade you from it?
PRACHI GUPTA: No, it was the opposite. I mean, it was a risk. To have a book like this published by a commercial publisher, I couldn’t have imagined it five, 10 years ago: A book that’s written in the second person addressed to an immigrant brown woman—an immigrant, Indian woman—that ties in research and history and centers the experiences of an Indian woman and an Indian-American woman. I think it was the strength of the proposal, but also the relationships that I had built with [journalist and Crown Publishing VP and executive editor] Madhulika Sikka and the writing that I had done before. But also the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests and the awareness over racism and lack of diversity in publishing I think that really started a change, at least at that moment.
I really appreciated the cultural reporting, but at the same time, and I don’t want to sound crass when I say this, but there’s a juicy story here. Familial strife is the stuff of Greek drama. I wonder how aware you were that you were not just creating something that was culturally relevant, but that you were crafting a yarn.
As a writer putting out a book, of course I thought about turning my life into a narrative. It’s a weird thing to do. But as writers, that’s part of what our job is. Especially as a memoir. It’s not my journal. It’s not a documentary. There’s a story here with a narrative and dramatic arc. And how do I tell that story? By trying to be as honest as possible. I didn’t want to create trauma porn. I was very sensitive to the fact that some people might read this and just gawk. Some people might be like, “Oh, I want the sensational value.” There’s something that feels very humiliating about that. I don’t want to share my life story just as gossip fodder. I can’t control how people perceive it and read it, and I’m sure some people will read it that way. My way of sort of mitigating that was that every bit, every detail that I put in there, whether it would be seen in a positive light or a negative light, serves a purpose in the story that I want to tell about how we prioritize external validation and outward achievement in this country over our sense of internal peace and what that costs us.
You know, personal stories are the vehicle for change. There’s a reason why these Greek dramas stay with us and get passed down generations. Like sure, there is a sensational aspect to them. But I think stories are how we interpret the world. And stories are what give powerful institutions their power. And when we understand how those systems work and the stories that support those institutions—like the model minority myth, this idea of Orientalism that I talk about in the book, the stories that uphold racism and patriarchy and capitalism—we can undo them and write new stories. And that’s ultimately the reason that I had to share my full story as honestly as possible.
When you talk about avoiding trauma porn, I sensed that your writing was extremely careful, down to the syntax. The word “abuse” is not mentioned until 148 pages into the book, and then it’s like 184 pages when it’s used to describe your father’s behavior.
Yeah, I appreciate you noticing that. I didn’t want to use a lot of labels. Labels can be very helpful. They can help us denote what our beliefs are in shorthand in a world that tries to put us into boxes. It can be a way to help us categorize like, “Okay, this is what I believe and this is what I don’t believe,” and signal to other people that we’re safe or likeminded. But I think it can also be really limiting, because they signify a box. I saw this in my own family, how the labels that we’ve used or tried to adhere to could block intimacy between us, because we each had different ideas of what this label means or is supposed to mean. Like the idea of a feminist. My idea of a feminist is very, very different from what my brother’s idea of a feminist was. And that got in the way of us being able to have the close relationship that we both wanted.
I don’t often use the words “patriarchy,” “feminism,” “capitalism,” “racism,” “abuse” in the book. I wanted to show how these systems make us feel, how these behaviors make us feel. And also because, the idea of abuse makes it sound so black and white. You know, when I say the word “abuse,” it’s like, oh, of course everyone says abuse is wrong. But many of us do things that enable harm. When you peel back at the behaviors that actually signify abuse, a lot of people who say that it’s harmful also do things that enable it. And what are those behaviors? What are the things that we’re doing to enable them? I think that the word “abuse” can sometimes get in the way of us understanding that, because the truth is that life is complicated and the people we love are complicated, and sometimes people we love hurt us or hurt other people that we love, and we can’t see them in the black-and-white terms that these words suggest.
In the book, you describe having a conversation with your father and then transcribing it immediately afterwards. Did you have an acute sense that you needed to get your story on the page?
My plan was to write fiction. I thought I was the only Indian-American kid in the world experiencing this kind of dysfunction and this double life, and I wanted people to know what it was like and how crazy I felt. I questioned my sanity almost daily. When I tried to talk to people about what was happening, I felt like either they didn’t believe me because they saw this outward image of success or they thought I was exaggerating—they thought it was hysterical because I was a woman. I always felt as if the things inside me, the words that I wanted to express, were being misinterpreted or rewritten for me. I felt like if I could put it together on the page that I could show them something that felt invisible and make people see something that I didn’t know how else to make them see. When I was a kid, I thought so much of my dad’s behavior in anger was maybe because he forgot what it was like to be a kid—he forgot what it was like to be on the receiving end of this kind of treatment. And so I was determined that I didn’t want to be like that, and writing would help me remember so that I wouldn’t be like that when I became an adult.
It sounds like all of this stuff—the notes, the journals, the research—helped you overcome what you write about: the idea of memories as Rorschach blots or not being able to remember certain dialog from your youth.
My family comes from a legacy of colonialism. My grandfather left India in part because of colonialism, but ironically settled in Canada. One of the things that colonialism does is that it erases our histories and rewrites them with the history of the colonizer. It only picks parts of our histories, maybe small parts that may or may not be true, and turns them into the full stories in an effort to dehumanize. So part of the act of reclamation is going back into history and looking at what was said. So much of it is what’s left out. And so much of our histories, especially as immigrants and children of immigrants, are unknowable to us. So what kind of stories do we tell ourselves? To answer that unknowability, what do we replace that with? And a lot of times, like in my family, those assumptions, those stories were stories crafted by white America. They were stories about us that were not meant to empower or uplift us.
The millions of dollars that your brother ended up making off of crypto before he died, what happened to that?
I have no idea.
Could your parents have the money?
I don’t think so, because it was all encrypted and protected. I don’t think any of us have ever found the passwords. I think his friends tried to get together to help my parents find them, but I don’t think we ever did. I was shocked to discover, at the end, that he had become a millionaire through Bitcoin. But also knowing him, my brother was larger than life. He could move mountains. He was brilliant. I expected him to become some sort of tech billionaire in a few years.
I assume that your relationship with your parents is where it was when you stopped the book. Has there been any kind of communication, or any kind of progress made there?
You know, I get the impulse behind or the intent behind that question. I think everyone kind of wants to know. But for me, I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I agonized over it. How could I write about this when my parents are still alive? And a lot of memoirists wait for that very reason. But I felt like there was something for me that was dishonest about waiting. Estrangement is so stigmatized, but it’s also really common. Like one in four Americans are currently estranged from a close family member and 40 percent will experience it at some point in their lives. Yet this emphasis on reconciliation, the way we frame it of like happily ever after, we want to believe that people can come together and overcome their differences. It doesn’t really acknowledge the reality. We can’t control who other people are and if they’re willing to acknowledge and face accountability. And I think it creates a lot of shame when you can’t reconcile or if you say you don’t necessarily want to if choosing to create these boundaries is what’s best for you. Sometimes I think the happy ending is choosing yourself. And I wanted to end the book on that note, because I wanted people to know that it’s okay and sometimes necessary to choose yourself for own preservation.
I ask because in the book there are times when you seem to make that call and yet your heart softens and you’re amenable to a conversation after your father reaches out. We watch you in and out of this relationship, knowing that choosing yourself is important, but also they’re your family.
It’s hard to live with two realities. I live in acceptance. I now know that I cannot control somebody else and how they choose to respond, but I also live with this longing or this desire. That want doesn’t go away. But I no longer live in the space where I tell myself that if I change or if I, you know, do X, Y, and Z, that thing that I want will suddenly materialize. I now know that it won’t.
I think the book precisely delineates the process of that evolution that you’re talking about. But with all of that said, do you have any awareness of how aware your parents are of the book?
I wrote them a letter about it, so I know that they are aware of it.