In “Acceptance,” Emi Nietfeld has given up trying to earn her salvation.

Penguin Press

Penguin Press
Penguin Press

Penguin Press Emi Nietfeld’s life story might serve as the basis for a Lifetime film similar to Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story using traditional framing.

Nietfeld, like Murray, transitioned from homelessness to Harvard University. She grew up with a hoarding mother in a mouse-urine-smelling house. At the ages of 13 and 14, she made suicide attempts and were hospitalized for eating disorders. Both were options for her to escape her bleak situation.

Nietfeld soon developed a fixation on enrolling at an Ivy League university as a means of escaping. Through her time in foster care and a residential treatment center, she clung to her dream. During the summer break from boarding school, she lived out of her car and composed her college essays. She was holding a job offer from Google when she graduated from Harvard, which appeared to be her passport to a successful and secure future.

Acceptance by Nietfeld, however, is not a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Nietfeld, however, rejects the idea of positive outcomes and emphasizes the costs associated with transforming oneself into a “perfect, worthy” victim who was “damaged in just the right way.” As a result, Acceptance acts as a crucial corrective to what Nietfeld calls “the gospel of grit” in talks of adversity in America. It also serves as a critique of a society that only values the voices of its most vulnerable members when they demonstrate post-traumatic growth.

Nietfeld had to first unlearn her own version of the resilience story. Nietfeld is in her mid-20s at the beginning of Acceptance, desperately attempting to escape her past and clinging to the idea that she had successfully “traded in {her} whole life.” “I basked in my seeming health and productivity,” writes Nietfeld, “but I’d planned my life so that I’d never had more than fifteen minutes free for everything I’d overcome to come back and torment me.”

The memoir Acceptance is about accepting the realities of a difficult upbringing without seeking atonement. The first third of the book is devoted to recreating that childhood in an unflinching description that challenges readers to bear witness. Reflections on the ideas Nietfeld originally accepted about perseverance and meritocracy are interspersed throughout.

After her father came out as transgender, her parents separated in 2002, when Nietfeld was in fifth school. After winning full custody, her mother buried proof of her hoarding during the house visit in the upstairs apartment of her Minneapolis duplex. The duplex quickly devolved into an untenable condition, “filled of trash and rustling with mice,” and the wintertime lack of hot water.

The other parent in Nietfeld’s life vanished. She pleaded for someone to alert the child welfare system and report her mother, but officials always seemed to support her mother. According to Nietfeld, “She was white and well spoken, had a house, a college degree, and complete custody of me.” The duplex’s condition resulted in a number of illnesses and injuries, but Nietfeld’s physician “seemed unaffected” by them at appointments. Instead, the doctor listened to Nietfeld’s mother, who pushed for her daughter to be misdiagnosed and over-medicated. This served as a formative lesson on how systems ignore abuse and neglect in white households as well as about how helpless children are.

Nietfeld began self-harming in her early teens, and after she attempted suicide, a psychiatrist ultimately reported her case to the county. However, she claims that “there was no investigation into any maltreatment; instead, I was given a special social worker who dealt with disturbed teenage females who were so ill that they were their own issues.”

This marked the beginning of a period of time during which Nietfeld, rather than her mother, was held responsible for her own problems; she cleverly hammers home this point in Acceptance to highlight the ways in which the American obsession with individual accountability corrupts us. When Nietfeld was admitted to the hospital for an eating issue, her new psychiatrist made the absurd claim that she could choose whether to be ill or healthy. Staff at the residential treatment center, which Nietfeld would later learn was a “holding cell for adolescents no one wants” for behavioral rehab, asked that the teenagers take responsibility for their circumstances in order to alleviate their pain.

Nietfeld’s circumstances did slightly improve in the years that followed, but not because she had come to terms with her fate or because of her own tremendous intellectual desire. Instead, she was still at the mercy of the institutions and grownups in her environment. She was spared both the institution and her mother’s hoarding when her social worker suggested that she be voluntarily placed in foster care when she was released from the residential treatment clinic. She found solace in a photography instructor who pushed her to apply to camp at Interlochen Center for the Arts when she was struggling in the home of strict Christian foster parents. She used her summer camp experience to get a merit scholarship to Interlochen that fall.

When Nietfeld was a teenager, she thought that working hard in school would lead to safety, but she is now painfully aware that admission to Interlochen and then Harvard weren’t based only on merit. If Acceptance has taught us anything, it is to question why we believe in the meritocracy myth and why we want Nietfeld’s story to represent the American Dream rather than a nightmare of precarity. Nietfeld paints her achievement as the result of chance, white privilege, and other factors in addition to her effort.

She adds, “The idea that if I were Black or Latina I would have been sent into the judicial system instead of the mental health system offered me no relief, to put it bluntly. “Working hard did not comfort me; looking back, my youth felt like buying every lottery ticket I could afford.”

Nietfeld had to “cash in on her sorrows” in order to use the Harvard lottery ticket. She had to craft a story about her complicated life that demonstrated how deserving she was while without letting her traumas render her unsuitable for an Ivy League school. She claims to have nightmares about admissions officers questioning her about the details she omitted from that account in order to present herself as a “perfect overcomer.”

Those nightmares seem foreboding in light of Mackenzie Fierceton ‘s experience, another white, blonde, and strong former foster child who had been mistreated by her mother. After first utilizing Fierceton’s account in a news release to give the impression that the university helped underprivileged applicants, the University of Pennsylvania charged her with lying about her circumstances in her admission essay. Elite institutions put weak applicants in a catch-22 situation because they want you to recover from trauma while it is still present, yet if you don’t fit their victimized stereotype, you are suspect.

In Acceptance, Nietfeld comes to a new view of her past that accepts the price of growing up in a culture that values resiliency. She writes, “I had spent my early adulthood desperately seeking forgiveness, trying to make things happen ‘for the best’.” “I thought the only thing that would make a decent story was if it ended happily.” This memoir’s ending isn’t very joyful, but it is clear-eyed and accepts life as it is. It’s a viewpoint that everyone can benefit from.