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Emi Nietfeld, who went public about harassment at Google, tells her story in ‘Acceptance’

In high school, Emi Nietfeld won writing awards that earned her local press coverage. From there, it was on to Harvard and then a job as a software engineer at Google.

It sounds great on the surface, but the story as she writes about it was anything but. Nietfeld’s parents split when she was young, her father, who came out as trans, was largely absent from her life, while she describes her mother as a hoarder with mental health issues. Nietfeld got caught up in the child welfare system, which ranged from cruel and indifferent to brutal. Nietfeld was essentially homeless by the end of high school, writing her college essays while living out of a car; with nowhere else to be for a summer before college, she backpacked in Europe where she was raped by a hostel employee in Budapest. 

Nietfeld, 29, gained attention last year with an essay in the New York Times about experiencing harassment at Google. Now she tells the story of her life in her just-published book “Acceptance,” a memoir that is not just about family dysfunction but about how America’s child welfare system does very little to improve the welfare of the children it supposedly cares for. She spoke by video recently about writing the book and what she hopes readers take from it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. After working through and then writing about all the issues that you have dealt with, is it challenging emotionally to relive your traumas for every interview you do to promote the book or can you distance yourself from it all now?

In high school, I won some awards and was interviewed by all these newspaper reporters. I had been given some training and was not talking about the things that were more lurid or could be used in a way that felt really gross, yet that process still felt kind of dehumanizing. I was being held up as an example, as merely a human interest story. It was good training to have gone through that, so this time I could think about what I want to say and what meaning and message actually feels authentic to me. So this has now been a really empowering experience; it is my version of my story and it’s not for someone else’s agenda. 

Q. Did you start out writing a more straightforward family dysfunction memoir or were you always interested in exposing the flaws in the system and society that made your situation so much worse?

I started writing this when I was a senior in high school applying to college and I was overwhelmed by trying to market myself. I definitely saw there was a big problem, but I thought the problem was with me: Why am I not the person I’m supposed to be, this overcomer? Why does everything I say, even when it’s true, feel like I’m lying?

I started writing the book in earnest in November of 2015, a few months after I graduated college. Then it was another three years of writing before I really re-examined myself. Writing the book was a process of figuring out the truth and understanding where the responsibility lay with me and where it was within the systems that failed me.

I felt a lot of pressure to end the book smiling in Harvard Yard, being so happy and grateful and making everything worth it. That was impossible — there’s no way to make things that should not have happened OK. That’s a big fallacy we have as a society that is super dangerous. 

Q. Did writing about the bigger picture temper how you wrote about your foster parents, your therapists and others along the way, including those who seem invested in perpetuating the bureaucracy? 

Part of writing this book was going through the process of assigning responsibility where it should be assigned: Your mom failed you, your foster parents failed you. So I worked hard on how to be fair, especially to people who failed me in some way but who had good intentions. 

The writing was really about all the larger systems that were shaping our interactions and trying to make that known to the reader without distracting from the immediacy of the story. 

Q. But in the book, your foster parents come across as close-minded and willing to crush your spirit to preserve their worldview.

Yes, but that’s an artifact of how foster care works, placing a child with a family full of strangers and expecting it will work out well seems pretty unrealistic. 

Q. As an adult, you learn through research that your brother wanted to take you in but your mother undermined it and no one in the system tried to help. And you had a loving mentor who also wanted to but was forbidden by the rules.

I spent a year in a locked facility, a year in a foster home and then I was at boarding school, never knowing where I’d stay on breaks. Learning that my brother and my mentor had been willing to take me in was devastating. That’s when I felt really angry at the child welfare system and at the way things are done. 

Q. Some people seemed to blame you for getting raped in a Budapest hostel. One therapist later said you were “promiscuous,” as if you’d asked for it.

When I was homeless or tentatively housed, I felt I was always vulnerable — if somebody decided to hurt me they could and would. This blame is really common to survivors of sexual assault, but it has a different flavor when you have teenagers who are on their own.

Those questions — “Why were you on your own?” “Why were you in Eastern Europe?” — may have come from a well-meaning place but it was not a choice I made to be vulnerable. Abuse, assault and rape of homeless children are still really taboo topics and that hides the danger of young people who don’t have homes to go to or families who are able to protect them.

Q. It feels like children like you don’t just fall through the cracks but actually get stamped down and shoved through the cracks. What do you hope readers see in this critique of our society? 

My situation actually was a best-case situation. My family had these privileges — we’re White, my mom was a homeowner with a college degree. But I’d like people who are not familiar with these systems to understand that this is how they work when they’re functioning in the best way you could hope they’d function. 

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