From Scarsdale: A Childhood

Dan O’Brien. Dalkey Archive Press, 2023. 216 pages. $16.95.

From Scarsdale Book Cover

​​ By Will Zimmerman

“What is forgiveness?” Dan O’Brien asked. It’s the question at the heart of his new memoir, From Scarsdale: A Childhood, a question made all the more complicated when “you’re talking about a painful childhood,” he said, “about parents or siblings or other loved ones who may have hurt you very deeply.”

An author and poet by trade, O’Brien has written a memoir that reads like a Terrence Malick film, with lyrics carrying readers from the roof of his childhood home to the swamp at the end of his suburban cul-de-sac, from a Gatsby-esque mansion to empty paper grocery bags on the wrong side of the train tracks, from a tumultuous upbringing in Scarsdale, New York, to a reawakening in Middlebury, Vermont, to a reckoning 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, in Ireland—The Fatherland. The Motherland.

While O’Brien gives these latter steps of his journey due space within the memoir, From Scarsdale is focused most intentionally on the place he came from, the scars born there, and the memories he carries with him.

“To be from someplace implies that you’re someplace else,” O’Brien said in an interview with The Key Reporter. “And really, I’d be told I’d never escape the sadness or the dysfunction or the scars in my family.”

The literal and figurative escape from his hometown, from his family, and from their stories, O’Brien divulges with thoughtful empathy. His story is one of a fractured child growing up in a fractured home, and yet, we don’t get the sense that the author is trying to put the pieces back together. Today, three-plus decades removed from the events he’s writing about, O’Brien’s aim is more cathartic, more lustral. “If forgiveness is understanding,” he writes in From Scarsdale, “then this book is my attempt.”

The result is a profoundly personal exploration of the mysteries held within his mother and his father, and embodied within the home; a particular and visceral portrait of a childhood robbed of innocence; a story that will resonate deeply with anyone whose childhood contained layers they couldn’t fully comprehend.

Form follows function, and O’Brien’s poetics abound as he conjures disparate memories and images. Bits and pieces of his childhood are detailed with precision and clarity, but the onus is on the reader to fill in the larger picture, much in the same way O’Brien struggled to as a child. He recounts his story through cracked doors and celluloid photographs—never held in hand, but only in the mind’s eye; peculiarities are illuminated only by the sparse light that emanates from the sodium-flare streetlights, that seeps in through the gauzy curtains of home and of memory.

From Scarsdale is an active refutation of the notion that things, moments, and people, less than beautiful, can’t be written about with beauty, and in this way, the memoir mirrors the confessional writing that enchanted O’Brien during his adolescence—the very same years he’s writing about. “Living in a family that repressed intimacy and vulnerability . . . [and then later reading] writing that seemed to be as honest as possible, as accurate as possible—it was liberating,” O’Brien said about the book. “Like tapping into a life force.”

Disentangling from the story, O’Brien stated, was a life-affirming endeavor in and of itself. He first began on the rough draft in 2016 following a cancer diagnosis. “I had maybe an eight percent chance of surviving,” he said. “I had to tell the definitive version of the story, even if just for myself.”

At the same time, O’Brien believes this book couldn’t possibly just be for himself. “It’s for my wife and my daughter, the family we’ve chosen,” he said. “And it’s [also] for my family in the past. If they would read it, they will see that I wrote it in an attempt to make sense out of pain. And out of love.”

Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in journalism, film, and creative writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa several weeks before his graduation.