Tad Friend on Fathers and Sons, Husbands and Wives, and Surviving Infidelity
What started as a literary excavation of his dying father turned into a forensic excavation of self. IN THE EARLY TIMES, by Tad Friend, is a brilliant new memoir of family and love, lost and found.
I have loved Tad Friend from the moment I met him at a cocktail party in an odd little circular library my first week of college in 1984. He was a senior, casually leaning up against a bookshelf, sipping beer from a bottle and looking dapper in a Brooks Brothers shirt. Knew everyone at the party. Was already considered a gifted writer, destined for greatness. I was a clueless ex-cheerleader from the Maryland suburbs, wearing, saying, and drinking all the wrong things. I believe an electric blue rayon dress with fake diamond shoulder straps was involved. Patent leather pumps that would lose a heel, an hour later, to an errant cobblestone. Stiff 80’s hair. Grain alcohol punch. And a lack of insouciance so extreme, I blush, even now, recalling it.
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After some small talk, Tad, realizing just how clueless I was—I’d insisted that “Tracks of My Tears” was sung by the Temptations, not Smokey Robinson—proceeded to delve into the entire arc of Motown history, artist by artist, song by song. Even though he hates when I tell the story of our meeting, because he says it makes him sound like a pompous know-it-all (which, he also adds, he probably was), I have loved learning from him from that night forward, and a lifelong friendship had begun: one that has sustained me now for nearly four decades. Tad was my Google before Google; the silent and selfless editor of every first draft of my books; the person I have always turned to in times of sadness, confusion, and need.
I take partial credit for helping set him up with his wife, Food52 CEO Amanda Hesser, back in 2000. (Our friend Jennifer Steinhauer gets most of that credit. I just created the Friday morning breakfast club at Xando—RIP—on the Upper West Side, where this plan was hatched.) And then, in 2013, when my own marriage collapsed, Tad and Amanda picked me up off the floor and took me and my then seven-year-old third child into the Hesser/Friend fold. Really all I remember about that year was sitting at their dinner table either laughing or crying. Sometimes—no, often—with “Tracks of My Tears” playing on a speaker in the background. (Yes, we all get stuck in the music of our youth.)
I met Tad’s father, Dorie—called Day, by his kids—many times over those years, and I always found him affable, kind, loving, and warm. I had no idea, until I read In the Early Times, that the last hug Tad would ever receive from his father, until he asked as an adult, was when he was seven years old: the same age as my son when we started leaning on Tad and Amanda for meals and hugs.
I asked Tad to conduct a short interview with me. He gamely obliged. Herewith, our conversation.
Deb: I read a draft of this book in 2020. It was quite different from what you just ended up publishing. Tell us about the manuscript’s evolution.
Tad: First, I wrote the version you saw, which was focused on my effort to get to know my father better before he died–to understand who he was and, in so doing, to know myself a little better.
Then he died. And I discovered that my feelings about him began to change, now that there was no longer a chance to speak frankly to each other. As my father had made me his literary executor, I began reading the private notes he’d made over the years. He’d scribble his thoughts on a Post-It note or torn-out legal pad page, throw the notes in a file, then write some more on a napkin or takeout menu or a shirt cardboard. How he came across in those notes--bursting with hopes, dreams, wounded feelings–was so different from his demeanor with me and my siblings that I had to revise the manuscript.
And then Amanda learned that I’d been unfaithful to her, and her understanding of who I was–and therefore my understanding of who I was–blew up entirely. So I rewrote the book again. More on that below.
Deb: Your book delves, with refreshing honesty, into both your own extramarital affairs and those of your father, which you discovered only after his death. Were you shocked at the parallels?
Tad: Yes. I knew that I behaved like my dad in superficial ways. I sneezed loudly, bumped my head and then glared at the wounding object, responded to heartfelt concerns with clinical logic–that kind of thing. But I had no idea how much like him I was in a much more thoroughgoing way: his trick of seeming to be one person (calm, doughty) as he secretly behaved like a very different one.
Recapitulating the way of life of a parent is a form of love, I think, but it’s certainly not the best form of it. The book describes my effort to love my father without becoming him. My jailbreak was made possible both because Amanda is the greatest person on Earth and because our therapist is warm and attentive and skillful at drawing each of us out so we can talk about painful matters in a way that opens up the wounds to heal them. But it’s taken a lot of hard work, and the work continues.
When I decided to cut my emotional losses with my father, in my twenties, I imagined that I could effectively cut our ties. That he would no longer be inside me. That’s not how it works, of course. But I don’t blame my flaws on him; I’m an adult, and I could and should have behaved like one. Trying to behave like one now entailed rewriting the book to include my infidelities, their effect on our marriage, and my determination to become, at an embarrassingly advanced age, a different and better person, one more deserving of love. The idea was: put it on the page and draw a line under it. That was then; this is now.
Deb: Many women who read this publication have contacted me privately about ailing marriages, ailing friendships, ailing relationships with parents, ailing relationships in general. In this book you closely examine the pain points in so many one-on-one relationships—your father and mother’s, yours and your father’s, yours and Amanda’s, etc. What have you learned about fixing problems before they calcify? Can good communication solve everything, or does it take more than that?
Tad: I’d say I’ve learned three things. The first is that communication in a relationship is not just about stating your needs clearly; rather, it’s about being attentive to moods and silences and fleeting expressions–about drawing out how the other person is feeling, and making them feel safe if they express a scratchy emotion. Our therapist often asks us to mirror what the other person said, ask if they got it right, ask if there’s more, and then validate the feeling: “That must have felt X; I’m sorry that I made you feel Y.” This process can feel rote and infantilizing, but it creates a bubble of security that allows for candor. You know that the other person is listening, and is going to recapitulate what you’ve said until you’re both confident that you’ve gotten your message through. In the old days, when an emotional topic came up at home, my baseline feeling was, “I am going to prove I’m right and win this argument.” Now it’s, “I am going to become closer to my wife.”
The second thing I’ve learned is that shifting my focus from “What do I want?” to “What does Amanda want and what’s the best way to make sure she gets it?” increases not just her happiness, but mine. My tenth-grade English teacher wrote in my yearbook “It is in giving that we receive.” It only took me forty years to come around to her way of thinking.
And the third thing I learned is that I’m not an expert in anything. The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder, as the religious scholar Huston Smith wrote. That applies to self-knowledge, too.
Deb: By writing this book you were hoping to know your father better. But when he died in the middle, the book also had to become an act of remembrance. How has writing it affected your mourning?
Tad: Paying closer attention to my father made me value him more and love him more, even as it also made me keenly regret our shared frailties. Writing the book amplified that whole process, made everything go to 11.
But even if you don’t write about a dead parent, even if you just grieve in private, the surprise is that that relationship continues to evolve. I feel differently about my mother, who died in 2003, than I did when she was alive, or just after her death, or ten years ago. I feel more sympathetic to her struggles, and more appreciative of all she did and all she was. Time and therapy and raising children of my own helped me to see things differently. At some invisible point, over the years, mourning turns into simple missing.