With his adjunct professor’s salary, her father was unable to afford an apartment for some time. When he did, sleepovers with Dad were scenes of penury: treats were Fritos divvied up, 10 for each daughter, and one Coke, split between them, all served on plastic dishware from the family’s former weekend house. “On the bright side,” said Gilman, grinning, “we got Fritos!” (The snack was verboten in her mother’s household.) He fought with his more successful ex over their assets, enraging Nesbit and shocking some of her friends, who made no attempt to hide their contempt for Gilman from his children.
In the aftermath of the separation, Gilman learned her father had had many affairs. He struggled with sexual urges of bondage and abasement, which he described in a letter he imprudently left laying around. A few years later, he wrote of his sexual alienation and a youthful, brief conversion to Catholicism — Gilman was a Jewish atheist — in “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir,” out in 1987. His daughters were teenagers at the time. They read the reviews, but avoided the book.
Both parents were overly forthcoming with their eldest. “I was never in love with your father,” Nesbit told her. “Sometimes I think I’d kill myself if it weren’t for you girls,” her father said.
“There was no discourse about how to talk to children about divorce in those days,” Gilman said, still the peacemaker. “We all make mistakes as parents.”
But oh, the fallout. After her own divorce and her father’s death, Gilman writes, she fell in love with a rogue’s gallery of tortured men “who teetered on the edge of insolvency or insanity, and desperately wanted me to nurture, bolster, save them.” She found them “glamorously, sickeningly familiar.” When one man tried to kill himself in front of her after she expressed doubts about the relationship, she writes, “It felt both utterly terrifying and weirdly normal.” Primed by her upbringing to be hypervigilant to a partner’s mood swings, she practiced her best buoying techniques.
Gilman has a Ph.D. in literature from Yale, where she was once a professor on the tenure track. She also taught at Vassar. But Gilman left academia when her eldest son, Benjamin, turned 7. Dazzlingly precocious — he was spouting Robert Frost at two — Benj, as his parents called him, was also averse to snuggling. He struggled with motor issues and social interactions. His diagnosis was hyperlexia, a kind of autism, among other conditions.