Attachment Transcript

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It was late at night. I was standing outside my house. I had just driven in from the airport. I was always driving in from the airport. And I remember staring at the front door, knowing that once I opened it my life would never be the same again.

That morning I'd been in St. Louis giving a talk to 1,000 people at the Convention Center. Right before I stepped on stage, I got a call. I learned that another writer has discovered that I fabricated several Bob Dylan quotes in one of my books. I'd been a lifelong Dylan fan and was familiar with the approximate versions of what he'd said. So, I put in those approximations to make it sound better, as if I'd actually done my homework, and then I forgot they were there. These fabrications weren't the only mistakes in my work; they were simply the worst.

There is no excuse for what I've done, for breaking the most basic rule of journalism: don't make shit up. Instead, all I've got is a long list of regrets about the kind of writer I'd become. I was driven by a mixture of insecurity and ambition. No matter how high I got—and I got really lucky, really fast—I was convinced it would all disappear, that I had to grab the chance and the checks while I could. So, I said yes to everything: columns, blogs, books, articles, talks. Instead of focusing on the difficult pleasures of writing, checking, and rechecking my work, I judged myself by the superficial markers of success: the sound of applause in a hotel conference room; my Amazon sales ranking; an inbox full of invitations. And then it all feel apart.

I got that call backstage, and I knew right away that my career was over. People talk about public shame, about all the mean people on the Internet, and it's true. There are mean people on the Internet, but for me—and I can only speak to my own experience here—the private shame is so much worse. I can turn off my phone. I can't turn off those thoughts about how I'd hurt the people I'm closest to, those I most respect. Those are the thoughts I'm going to be wrestling with for the rest of my life. Above all, I think about my wife.

I opened the door and there she was, sitting on the couch, in a ponytail and her pajamas. I had called from the airport, telling her I was coming home early, that I had terrible news, but now I had to give her all the sordid details. I remember the way she listened and tried not to cry. I told her that night to leave me, that I wasn't worthy of her and never would be, that I would be sad for a long time, and she deserved so much better. But she stayed, and because she stayed, I have a story to tell.

The transition was sudden. I went from living a very busy life full of deadlines, to one in which I had nothing at all to do. But I did have a young daughter, which meant that I was stuck with childcare by the process of elimination. And the sad truth was that up to that point I'd been a bad father. I was always gone on the road more than I was home, and when I was home I was always staring at a screen, which is probably why my daughter said, "Apple," long before she said, "Dadda." In fact, for the first 16 months of my daughter's life I never put her to sleep, not once, not even for naps. But now I was home, eager to make up for lost time, and I decided that parenthood would be my consolation. I would use my failure to become a better father to my young daughter.

Of course, I settled on this narrative for all the wrong reasons. I chose it mostly because it sounded like something I should say, the appropriate turn in the movie version of my life. Failed writer becomes devoted family man. Disgraced author turns into dad of the year. That, at least, was how I imagined it.

One night early on, my wife had to work late, which meant that I had to put my daughter to bed by myself. I said it was fine, not a problem. I knew what to do. I carefully repeated her bedtime ritual. There was Sesame Street and a glass of milk, followed by a long procession of books in bed, but nothing worked. She just kept asking for her mother.

I begged, I pleaded. I read more books, I sang songs. I tried lying down on the floor next to her crib, but she didn't care. Why would she? Who was I? Where had I been? And then when I felt my own anger welling up inside—because kids, they can make you so angry—I exiled myself to the hallway. I sat there outside her door and I listened to my daughter very slowly cry herself to sleep. I sat there, and for the first time since everything had happened, I started crying, too.

Years later, this is a memory that still makes me ache, that makes my chest all tight and hollow, because it was there in that hallway that I finally felt the full scope of my mistakes. I wanted my daughter to be my redemption, my consolation, and she wanted nothing at all to do with me. And those were just the nights. The days were just as difficult and endless-seeming. It doesn't help that two-year- olds tell the truth. My daughter wasn't afraid of pointing out all my errors. And when she complained because I was doing it wrong, because I let the sunblock get in her eye or put her diaper on backwards again, I would get sad and furious, which only made me feel worse.

This wasn't how the movie was supposed to go. In the movie, my daughter never swallows a penny. In the movie, I don't have to spend the next week searching through her dirty diapers, looking for a coin I never did find. But children are forgiving, and I kept showing up because I had nowhere else to be.

One day, about a year into my adventure in fatherhood, my daughter invented a new game for us to play. At the time she was deep into Doc McStuffins, that Disney cartoon about the little girl who takes care of her sick toys. She decided that she was going to be Doc, which meant that I was going to be the sick toy. She told me to lie down, and began looking over my limbs, asking for a medical history of every scar and bruise. Here is where I fell down and cut my knee and got stitches. Here is where I banged my shin into the car door. I broke this finger playing basketball, which is why it's so crooked. Then she'd get out her little plastic doctor kit and, with a patience I didn't know she had, tend to all my wounds. At the end of a session I'd be covered in Band-Aids, gauze, and scotch tape. We played the doctor game every day for months. I thought I was taking care of my child, but really, she was taking care of me.

When I look back on these last few years with my daughter, and now my toddler son, the days I felt closest to them have often been the most difficult ones. Not the filtered portraits you share on Instagram, but the night when the kid pukes on you in your bed at 2:00 AM, or when the afternoon has dissolved into a series of crying fits about, "No more Gummy vitamins," and, "This is the last book. Really, it is," and, "Yes, you have to brush your teeth. Do you not remember eating all those Gummy vitamins?" They are those moments when you realize that this whole situation only exists, that you are putting up with the fights and the exhaustion and the boredom and the boogers, because you love them beyond words.

I don't want to make it sound like I'm raising these kids by myself, when the reality is my wife still does most of the work. And I don't want to pretend that getting to spend the afternoon playing Harry Potter and searching for Goldbug means I don't sometimes miss the sound of applause. There are still so many days when I wish I could disappear my sins, purge my Google results, travel back in time, and just do it all over again.

But I also know that the worst parts, those scenes I most want to forget, they're also the most important parts: the look on the face of my wife when I tell her what I've done; the sound of my daughter crying in the hallway because I provide no comfort at all.

There's a line from the Sufi mystic, Inayat Khan: "God breaks the heart again and again and again, until it stays open." That's what happened to me.

The best days for me now are when the happiness catches me by surprise: the joy it gives my son to watch the tire guys at Costco; the dance party to Beyoncé that's interrupted when I realize my daughter knows way too many of the words to Drunk in Love; that moment in every meal where things get so messy you stop noticing the mess and just enjoy the sight of a hungry kid smearing peanut butter into his hair.

Such is family life. Sometimes you can't believe who you've become or what you're laughing at or where you most want to be. Our attachments bend us in funny ways. I'm grateful that I got bent. I learned about love. My family taught me about love, and that has been my great consolation.

Thank you.