Growing up in a seemingly loving, stable, middle-class family on Long Island, Jessica Berger Gross didn’t initially have words to describe her father’s violent rages and physical blows, her mother’s distance and blame. It wasn’t until she saw a televised public-service announcement one day that she learned that what happened to her had a name: child abuse.
In her new memoir, “Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home,” Gross describes her painful youth, as well as what came after. Its title comes from a decision she made more than 17 years ago to cut ties with her parents and brothers. Although the book is filled with pain, she said, “for me, there’s a very happy ending. I’m a happy and healthy person now. I hope that people come away knowing that you can come out the other side.”
It wasn’t quick or easy, Gross added. In the early years of her estrangement from her family, even the most benign cocktail-party questions felt like a test. “People would ask, ‘Where are you from? Where do your parents live?’ It would be hard to answer without crying.”
Becoming a mother put her own childhood into stark relief. “Once you’re a mother, you’re like, ‘How could anyone do this?’ Not that I am a perfect parent,” Gross said, “but the idea that I would lay a hand on him or let anyone else do that is just unfathomable.” At the same time, she added, creating her own family brought healing. “I still appreciate it every day that I live in a safe, supportive, happy environment.”
Writing about her life has ultimately been liberating. “In the end, it’s become a really positive thing for me to be open about this,” she said. “And I’ve heard so many stories of people with similar situations.”
Jessica Berger Gross will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brookline Booksmith.Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.