In her riveting new memoir, “Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home” (Scribner, 277 pp., $26), Long Island native Jessica Berger Gross excavates the violent truth beneath her seemingly ideal suburban childhood. Physically abused by her father and emotionally abandoned by her mother, Gross struggled to make sense of her life until breaking completely free of her parents and two brothers 17 years ago at age 28. Now living in Maine with her husband and son, Gross spoke by phone about the challenges of telling her story and healing through her own experience of motherhood. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Much of your book takes place on Long Island. Why was this middle-class setting so important to your family?
My parents grew up in the city, so moving to Long Island felt like we were moving up. Living in a house was huge for people like my parents who grew up in apartments. We lived in one of those faux Tudor houses, with a flimsy swimming pool that took up the whole backyard. There was a lot of emphasis on people thinking we were a nice Jewish family.
Meanwhile, behind the curtains you were hiding a terrible secret. Your father abused you, but your mother’s detachment seemed equally, if not more, painful.
My mother was cold and not affectionate. I don’t think she was a happy person. She was all I knew at the time, and there were certain moments when we could bond, like clothes-shopping, but she was shut down.
My father, meanwhile, could be very effusive, and that’s why it was so confusing. He was so affectionate and was also the one hurting me. I longed for my mother to save me, to be like Farah Fawcett in the movie “The Burning Bed,” and prioritize her kids. I think a big part of the reason she never did was that she didn’t want to lose her house or her standing in the community. The abuse was too shameful and embarrassing, and she didn’t want people to know.
You came close to telling a librarian at your Hebrew school about the abuse, but didn’t. Why did you keep the secret?
Looking back, I wish I had told, and I would counsel any child to find a trusted adult and tell — but I just couldn’t. There was so much pressure to believe the myth my parents propagated that we were this really good family in town. My mother told me as a child that she would stop talking to me if I married someone who wasn’t Jewish or got a tattoo, so I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I told on my parents for the abuse! It was confusing for my mother to care so much about morality as connected to Jewish rules and holidays when the very basic desire to protect her children was not there.
You originally told a shorter version of this story in a Kindle Single in 2013. Did your parents read it?
I am not in contact with anyone in my family so I don’t know. But I feel good about how hard I worked to be fair and compassionate and honest. I know in my bones that I can stand behind everything that’s in the book. I didn’t do anything but write about what happened from my perspective. Maybe they’ll decide not to read it. Maybe they won’t recognize it. All I can control is that I told the truth and tried to do it with as much kindness as possible.
You’re a parent now. How does this change your perspective?
When [my son] was 2 years old he asked, “Mommy, do you have a Mommy?” It was like a knife through my heart. I know what it means to him to have a mommy, and he wanted me to have one, too. I knew I would not lie to him about what happened to me but would need to be age appropriate and make him feel safe. So I explained that sometimes parents in fairy tales are mean, and that’s why we don’t see my family. But I make sure to tell him I am so lucky to have him, and his dad and our family, where we are safe and loved and have so much fun. I really am so lucky to experience the family I always wished I’d had.
An earlier version of this story misstated the length of time since Gross has spoken to her parents and brothers. It has been 17 years.