Interview Emi Nietfeld, a light-skinned woman with straight blonde hair, wears a blue button-down shirt and leans against a brick wall. She is smiling.

Published on September 12th, 2023 | by Jenny Bartoy


Mature Minor: An Interview with Emi Nietfeld About Her Memoir, Acceptance

Emi Nietfeld wears many hats: mental health advocate, software engineer, public speaker. She’s also a prolific writer, with op-eds and articles published in The Atlantic, Forbes, The Nation, The Rumpus, and more. Her New York Times essay about experiencing harassment in her job at Google went viral in 2022. In her memoir Acceptance, just out in paperback from Penguin Press, Nietfeld recounts her journey from foster care and homelessness to Harvard and the promised land of big tech. 

Nietfeld grew up in the Midwest, raised by a bubbly, evangelical Christian mother who was a hoarder. Her other parent came out as trans and moved across the country when Nietfeld was still in elementary school. As her mother’s hoarding escalated, Nietfeld self-harmed and was soon put on antipsychotic medication, her objections dismissed. Unable to live at home, she bounced from bouts of hospitalization to in-patient treatment and a foster family, to finally a homeless stint couch-surfing and sleeping in her old Toyota Corolla as she desperately applied to Ivy League universities. 

That she not only survived but learned to thrive is testament to her grit, heart, and intelligence. But Nietfeld is reluctant to accept praise for this outcome, instead finding harm in our culture’s value of resilience and merit. Nietfeld spoke with me about this as well as about her estrangement from her mother, her perspective on truth, and her thoughts on children’s rights, among other topics. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Book cover of Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld
Penguin Press


In Acceptance, you describe your frustration, as a child and teen, of having clarity and logical desires about a situation, and being ignored in favor of adults’ preferences. You were forced to accept the consequences of other people’s actions and treatment you didn’t need or deserve. You were also a gifted child who had to wrestle with adults’ discomfort with your intelligence and ambition. This sense of vulnerability and powerlessness is vivid throughout your pages. If you could snap your fingers and change things for minors in a similar situation, what would that look like?


It was often in medical situations where I felt most acutely that adults had all the power. Some states like Tennessee have “mature minor” laws, where instead of parents being in charge until age 18, the child’s freedom is incremented. Starting at age 12 or so, the child has input. It’s really shocking to me that in the United States, you can be locked up in a facility by your parents for any reason, and you have no recourse to be free. Basic freedom that we would never take away from adults is taken away from young people all the time. My dream would be that in the United States, you cannot be detained in a facility without being able to go in front of a judge and argue your case. 

Even before I went to a mental health treatment center, my mom had for years threatened to send me to Teen Challenge, an evangelical Christian drug rehab and bootcamp, even though I was not doing drugs, and didn’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, but she knew she had this power and could use it. As adolescents grow up, they deserve to have more control over their medical decisions. And I think people regardless of age should not be detained against their will without a very good reason. In America, there is a big political group of people who do not want children to have rights apart from their parents, who view children as the property of their parents, and that enables a lot of abuse and mistreatment.


Many of us grow up hearing edicts like “The truth will set you free,” but when you were a child, the truth was treacherous and often turned against you. Early on, your safety hinged on whether social workers should see the truth of your living situation. Telling psychiatrists the truth often backfired. In the college admissions process, you excised mental health diagnoses from your essays because that truth was a liability. How did these experiences shape your relationship with the truth as an adult, and specifically in the context of memoir writing?


One of my mom’s favorite sayings was “Always tell the truth. But don’t always be telling it.” She would tell me that a lot as a kid, especially in reference to what was happening at home — a warning that the truth could be dangerous. But lying could also be extremely dangerous, like in the locked residential treatment center where if you told a lie, you would be punished really harshly and trapped in your room for days and socially isolated. 

Because I grew up with a parent who engaged in gaslighting, I had been in these situations where I could see what was happening but could not process it like a rational person and still be in a relationship with my mom — or still keep myself sane. In college I couldn’t write papers that had an argument because the part of my brain that made meaning from facts was completely broken. The act of writing this book required unpeeling this alternate “truth” and confronting the facts. In order to craft a comprehensible story, I was forced to do that work, which was very freeing in terms of being able to live as a person in the world, having recognized the reality of what had happened.

Book cover of Acceptance by Emi Nietfeld, featuring a black and white teenage photo of the author
Penguin Press


I learned that a need for authenticity is common in trauma survivors, along with a strong sense of justice. These two traits often show up in adult children who are estranged from a parent as well. Being inauthentic is how we survived because being ourselves threatened rejection, and authenticity can help heal trauma. Have you found that to be true?


I love the idea that authenticity can be healing to trauma. Because trauma does change us and there’s so much pressure to hide the ways we are changed by it. As a teenager, I found myself in these situations where I could not be myself and I had to play the game to get where I wanted to go, which was gutting. It’s so important to teenagers to figure out who they are and try to live authentically. Then I got into Harvard, which is seen as a huge accomplishment, but it’s also a very inauthentic place. So I emerged from this adolescent experience of feeling I had to hide who I was, and the place I had aimed for sent that message even more strongly: speak a certain way, dress a certain way, look a certain way. In the end I didn’t even remember who I was. Part of writing Acceptance was to get back in touch with who that person was before I made these sacrifices and to ask myself, can I become that person again?  


Your memoir touches on your adult estrangement from your mother. Throughout your story, she seems unable to recognize the problems you see so clearly. She admonishes you to “overcome victimhood.” She pushes you to stay in a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. She refuses to validate your experience of a sexual assault. In my personal research, I’ve noticed that the root of parental estrangement, whether it’s low contact or no contact, can be that an adult child feels unloved, of course, but often it is that they feel unseen. 


The way I had conceptualized it was that my mom and I did not live in the same reality. As part of the process of writing Acceptance, I interviewed many people from my life, including my mom, and I had been hoping that there was some middle ground between my memories of what happened and her memories, where I could forge the story and through that, make a place where our relationship could live. And in talking to her, I learned that that middle ground did not exist. So I think that’s a sharp theory of estrangement. In some ways, people are more understanding of estrangement where there’s a lack of love. We tend to believe in our culture that love is [everything]. But what does love mean, when there’s no understanding? Can you really love someone that you don’t see? I’m grateful for my mom’s love and for the ways that she protected me and took care of me. And I also had to ask myself, was it really me that she loved? Or was it some idea of who I was? When you can’t agree on which direction is north, everything else becomes much harder and sometimes impossible.  

Headshot of a white woman with straight blonde hair and a light blue, button-down shirt


We love a story of overcoming and grit in this country but frequently disregard the cost. About the college application process, you write: “I stuffed manila envelopes full of my traumas and submitted them for the judges’ considerations.” What did your experience teach you about resilience? 


Meritocracy in America is so important so that we can justify inequality. We have to believe that the hard worker will end up on top because otherwise, what happens in this country around poverty and opportunity is indefensible. I was aware of these contradictions — and I also felt that I had to play the game. I still feel that my life has this paradox: I was resilient. And I’m also broken inside by what happened to me, like most people are. And I worked really hard. Some people see a broken system and choose not to participate, and I admire and respect that. But that idea of, if you work hard, you can get yourself out of a bad situation — that idea saved me, even if it’s not always true. It’s one of those beliefs that can be both so helpful and so harmful at the same time.


Your young narrator is remarkably adaptable and pragmatic even when exasperated. However, your narrative itself seems galvanized by a sense of outrage. With distance and research, how much anger factored into your writing, and how did you manage it? 


I usually wish that I could be angrier. I almost pathologically don’t feel anger toward what happened to me in the past. With a few exceptions, it is almost impossible for me to be mad at anybody. Where I was able to tap into that anger was with systems and institutions. Things like laws really can be changed, and policies really can be different, whereas people are much harder to to blame, because they’re generally doing the beset they can. In college, I would see these people who were charity founders and activists, and I noticed that all of them have a sense of outrage at the things that had happened to them. I admire that so much, because I do think that’s necessary for change. That’s one of the things that our society does wrong when raising girls, especially anybody coming through a system where they are vulnerable and have to follow the rules: that sense of “I have a right to not be harmed” gets crushed. And it’s a big process to build that back up.


“Acceptance” is the title of your story, and a multipronged theme in it. Your story touches on more than just accepting your fate with resignation. Acceptance also refers to facing the reality of who your parents are, of who you are, and of what happened, in order to move on. What does acceptance mean to you after writing your story?


I have thought so much over the years of this quote by James Baldwin from Notes of a Native Son, in which he speaks of “the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are.” I read this essay in high school, and for years, I would think about the first part of that quote, and really strive for that ideal. I thought healing meant being okay with the way things are, including injustice. But sometimes I had this nagging feeling that there was more to it. Then when writing Acceptance, I googled this quote, and saw the second half of it: “that one must never … accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.” I realized, that is what I have been missing! This idea that, yes, this is reality. And also, we shouldn’t accept that. We should try to change it. 

I think that’s a big challenge especially with teens. The climate is changing for the worse, there’s lots of gun violence and a mental health crisis, and we’re telling people, “This is reality and you better be okay with it,” when that force to make a difference is such a powerful drive, especially in young people. It’s something that really needs to be nurtured, because that is where we get our sense of agency and power and where so much self-destructive energy can be used to create a better world. 

James Baldwin at age 37, a Black man with short hair, a widow's peak, a white shirt, and tie
James Baldwin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


When you won a prestigious award as a teen, your teacher told you, “Success is hard. It doesn’t always make you feel the way you think it will.” You’ve achieved so much: Ivy League education, career in big tech, publication at a young age. Is success still hard for you?


Yes. The nature of earth-shattering accomplishments is that they are destabilizing. For years I lived just hoping that I would get an acceptance letter that changed my life. But I didn’t realize that having your life change, whether it’s having one parent move across the country or getting into Harvard, changes everything. 

I still grapple with post-achievement depression. There’s this emptiness of, “What comes next?” This process of publishing a book has been an unexpected way to get in touch with my younger self, because I’ve gone through so many of the same emotions with regards to getting into college and getting a job — these dreams that I was sure were going to save me. Going through that process for the book has given me so much empathy for my younger self. And it’s shown me some downsides of living an achievement-focused life. The path that I took taught me that status matters so much, and accomplishments are the end-all be-all. And now, I’m trying to unlearn so much of that.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Jenny Bartoy is a French-American writer, developmental editor, and mama of three based in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Boston GlobeRoomChicago Review of BooksLiterary Mama, Permafrost Magazine, and the anthology Sharp Notions (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2023) among other publications. She is the editor of Broken Free: On Cutting Ties, an anthology of essays and poems about estrangement, currently in development, and the former managing editor of Literary Mama and Quiltfolk magazine. You can connect with her at or on Instagram @jbartoywriter.

Leave a Reply

Any comments left on this article will be sent directly to its author. We do not at this time publicly display comments. (If you want to write a public post about this article, we encourage you to do so on social media). We love comments, feedback and critique but mean or snarky comments will not be shared and will be deleted.  

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency