Emi Nietfeld: The Cost of Survival

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What does it really mean to “survive” when what you survive… lingers? Emi Nietfeld went from being homeless to graduating from Harvard. But the rags-to-riches story isn’t ever completely true. It skips over the hardest parts—complicated families, long-term trauma on brains and bodies, the ways we wish we could go back and undo what has been done.

This is an incredible story about resilience—what it is, and what it isn’t. You’re going to love the way she talks about the power of her efforts. And the ways she learned to get back up, but should have never had to.

In this conversation, Emi and Kate discuss:

  • the cost of resilience
  • the downsides of relying on the individual therapeutic to solve every problem (and why we should be looking for ways to create systemic or family solutions too)
  • how hope and ambition can pull you toward a future
  • the complexities of navigating the value of success when weighed against the lasting impact of trauma

Emi carefully interrogates what it really means to “overcome” anything. It makes us all feel less alone when we can say, honestly, that some things can be conquered and some things conquer us.

CW: brief mentions of suicidal ideation, eating disorders, self-harm, adverse childhood, hoarding, trans issues

Watch clips from this conversation, read the full transcript, and access discussion questions by clicking here.

Follow Kate on InstagramFacebook, or X (formerly known as Twitter)—@katecbowler.



Kate Bowler, Emi Nietfeld

Kate Bowler  01:51

Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens.


Kate Bowler  02:01

So, recently, I’ve had some news, which has been really good. I found out that I’m in what they’re calling a durable remission. Which means really, that there’s no evidence of disease. And I’ve got to get used to saying it that I had stage four colon cancer. And now I don’t, and that is beyond my wildest expectations for my life. And they’ll have to keep monitoring, and I’ll forever have to get colonoscopies and I swear colonoscopies are really not that bad. You can just, you know, make the phone call schedule yours now. I’ll also remind you to do that because I have a T shirt that says what doesn’t kill you is waiting to get you again tomorrow, schedule your colonoscopy. But it’s this deep belief that I have that it’s really important for us to make more language for this space, this space between what was and what will be the place between, you know, victim and survivor. But people you know, myself included, find it very difficult to live in the in between a space between sick and healthy, unwell and perfect. So few words to describe what it actually means to survive. Because while I might not have any cancer cells in my body today, I won’t ever be over it. I will never not be afraid of every scam. I will never forget the feeling of being so disposable, so fragile, so human. So today I wanted to talk to somebody who understands that, what does it mean to survive, quote, unquote, when it all just lingers. Emi Nietfeld is someone you are really going to want to hear. She’s the author of a gorgeous, honest memoir called acceptance. And I could give you a few different biographies here. I could tell you that me had a really unstable childhood. When she was 10, her dad came out as transgender and her parents divorced, and her mom was in full custody. But her mom was a compulsive shopper, who hoarded to the point that the house became so full with the stuff and the mice and the mold. That Emmy left home at the age of 14 and refuse to live with her again. And it’s hard to quickly sum up how entirely out of control me was of her own life and well being. She bounced around between hospitalizations to foster care to couch surfing to living in her car. And the result of that was so much instability and over medicating and self harm and eating disorders and suicide attempts. And wow look at how how much she endured. And I could also tell you that me is so smart and ambitious and unbelievably resilient. She ended up graduating from Harvard and got a job at Google, and married an incredibly wonderful human being. And wow, look at how much she’s overcome. But the more honest truth is somewhere in the middle. Emi is someone I trust to carefully interrogate what it really means to overcome anything. Her story invites us to take a second to just kind of feel that discomfort about why we love stories of triumph. But we don’t always love the truth, that sometimes our survival comes at a cost. So well, it’s not entirely true. You all know this, you all love this truth. We share this worldview and so I cannot wait for you to meet me. She is our people. Emi, hey, hello. Oh, my gosh, what a joy to be with you today. I have so looked forward to this.


Emi Nietfeld  06:08

Thank you so much, Kate, I’m so excited to be talking to you.


Kate Bowler  06:12

When we’re kids, we don’t always know that we’re not in the that our experience isn’t always the normal one. I wondered if there was a moment you can remember when you realize that your childhood might not be the same as other kids that you knew.


Emi Nietfeld  06:26

Oh, that’s a beautiful question. There were a couple of those moments. I grew up in Minnesota, and my family was really religious. And I loved God, I loved church, I loved all that stuff. At the same time, it was kind of a dark thing sometimes. Like when I was turning eight, my friend got me a Destiny’s Child CD for my birthday. And my dad, like, shut down the party, I had to go to the basement for the rest of the party. Because it was like evil secular music. Yeah, and I, you know, and back then I was like, okay, I’m just holding her than these people. But a few years later, it made more sense. When my dad picked me up from school, and pulled over the car, and was like, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m changing my name. And, I’m going to be a woman now. And I felt this huge sense of relief like, I knew that my life was different, and I had kind of felt that way for a while but then I was like, okay, this is an explanation for why my childhood has been like so strict, and why my parent has been so mean to me sometimes. And I really thought, okay, things are gonna be a lot better now.


Kate Bowler  07:51

Wow, it sounds like to your love for your dad sounds like it was you felt such love for their new expression. And at the same time, that must have been a very strange and difficult time to be understanding different gender identities?


Emi Nietfeld  08:10

Yeah, it was a different, it was a different time. And I think when you’re a kid, like the world is kind of open to you, you don’t necessarily have all the same expectations of how things will be but other people were definitely like, scandalized. In our community.


Kate Bowler  08:25

Wow, yeah.


Emi Nietfeld  08:27

And we’re like, this is a huge either people were like, this is a huge sin. And me is like messed up now and will be for the rest of her life. Or people were like, this is perfect. And you’re gonna have two smiling mommies, you know, there was kind of this this, no, middle ground.


Kate Bowler  08:45

Yes, and then you and then you never ended up with an idealized portrait of either you’re very sensitive about that. I really appreciate it. You’re like, everybody was having issues, I mean, you say it in the nicest way.


Emi Nietfeld  08:58

Thank you, yeah I mean, I feel like it’s, it’s also just honest, right? Where, like, there were so many years where people just didn’t know enough trans people or know enough about being trans, that there were all these like stereotypes out there. And it was, I know, we’re not looking for bright sides here but it has been really wonderful, as a child of a trans person to see this awareness and to be able to be like, okay, now I can speak more freely about what my childhood was actually like.


Kate Bowler  09:30

Yeah, your parents divorce your dad’s transition, this really difficult custody battle over you. Um, these are so like, such big tender forks in the road. What were things like with you and your mom at that time?


Emi Nietfeld  09:52

I loved my mom, she had been the primary breadwinner and had been in a way a lot like during my childhood and during the custody battle, I moved in with her when I was around 11. And she wanted full custody. But she had a problem with compulsive shopping and hoarding. And before that time, it had kind of been like a fun quirk. Like, she would go to Target and come back with like 100 wristwatches that had been on sale for $1 each. But, but I had never been kind of in the middle of it. And suddenly I was, and that put it put a lot of strain on our relationship. And then also that dynamic that’s so common to kids in custody battles where my mom was like, you know, I saved you, right? I spent all this money and all this time to like, rescue you from your father. And you’re not grateful for it.


Kate Bowler  10:56

I see.


Emi Nietfeld  10:57

Yeah, and she was totally right, I was absolutely not grateful for it not at all. I was like, could I just have both parents? Like, is that okay?


Kate Bowler  11:09

That’s funny, grateful is never a word, a kid who’s losing their other version of home is ever going to feel.


Emi Nietfeld  11:18

Yeah, at the same time, I feel for you know, I feel for her, like she was in a horrible marriage. Like, in hindsight, it’s like, my parents marriage was bad. And they think it was bad for both of them. And way worse for my mom, you know, and, and my dad’s behavior like affected it affected me too. You know, I think divorce has this special property where it can take a bad situation, and people who have problems and it can just amplify those problems to the nth degree, because it’s like, you know, she was she was in a crappy marriage. And then suddenly, she has like legal debt. She’s a single parents. Her kid is not happy to be with her. It was a tough, it was a tough situation. And she was coping the way she coped, which was in the Walgreens clearance section in the Home Depot clearance section. And all that stuff was coming back home.


Kate Bowler  12:10

Oh, my gosh, at that time, did it just sort of like multiply the like, the worse it got for her financial emotionally, then the worse your living environment became?


Emi Nietfeld  12:21

Absolutely, yeah and I hadn’t realized how my dad’s controlling behavior had kept my mom’s hoarding in check. And suddenly, she was free. And she was going to use that freedom to buy. And so we lived in a apartment with like, every single surface had a pile of stuff on it. And the kitchen countertops, they were full. And so we would pull out the drawers. And then there would be a pile of stuff on top of all the drawers, like on top of the oven in front of the oven, like in front of the washing machine. And so there were only these like, narrow paths between the rooms, like within the course of maybe a year.


Kate Bowler  13:13

You know, friends coming over and not an option, like being able to take care of yourself easily not an option.


Emi Nietfeld  13:19

Yeah, the rule was like, do not let anyone inside under any circumstance, especially somebody from the government. I see. And like the shower, pretty soon it was filled with stuff. It was like, you know, my mom would do like, towel baths? Is that what you call it? Where you do like, I think people say like, it’s another word that rhymes with that. And that was like the way that we paused because we knew. Exactly, yeah and we had mice like that mice were fearless. They would just like run across the room, and they knew we couldn’t stop them. And, and I got really sick, like I had a hacking cough. And I was I think I had a pretty good attitude. Like for being a pissy like 10 year old who didn’t want to be with my mom. I think I had a pretty good, like level head about the situation when the house was going badly and when, you know, I was having conflicts with my mom. She was like, you’re not okay, like you are traumatized by your dad. Like we have to take you to therapy. And that was really when the big problems started for me. Like everybody always talks about therapy like it’s the solution. And like, it’s always good thing, but like I went to therapy and that was like, my funeral as a child, like that was when things were gonna get really bad.


Kate Bowler  14:50

Say more about that. That is such a perfectly devastating thing to say.


Emi Nietfeld  14:56

A few months after I moved in with my mom, she brought me to family therapy. And I remember, I sat down, she sat down. And she told this psychologist, I think my daughter has DDD and my mom had ADD, she thought that my brother had ADD, even though he was never diagnosed, he was 12 years older than me and so I was like, you know, out of the house, and she’s like, Emi is disorganized, and chronically late. And when she reads she gets hyper focused, which is like a sure sign of ADD. And the doctor didn’t say like, hy, okay, how can an 11 year old be chronically late?


Kate Bowler  15:44

How was that possible places? How would that work?


Emi Nietfeld  15:47

Or like, how is she disorganized? Right, especially living in a home where like, you can’t use the oven. Like, you know, why isn’t her organization transcending that? But, you know, I really believe my mom was trying to help me. And she thought, you know, she couldn’t do everything she wished she had for my brother. And that she looked around our living situation and she was like, okay, this is this happened when me moved in with be like, this must be Emi. Yeah and so, you know, the, this psychologist, he gave me like a form, I filled out like a little checklist. My mom filled out a checklist, and my teacher filled out a checklist. And then the next session, we come back and he’s like, okay, I mean, you should be medicated. I got the diagnosis of ADHD. I was like, referred to a psychiatrist. And after I saw the psychiatrist, once I went to a physician’s assistant, and I got Concerta and then Adderall, and spoiler, I did not have a DD. And those drugs, they can feel grave, like I’ve taken them a little later in life, like off label. But back then it was terrifying. Like to be to be a child who’s like, never even had coffee before, and then get prescription speed. I had like a panic attack, I freaked out. And I like the first day on the drugs, I hit a kid over the head with a textbook. Like I had never been violent, I had never done anything like that. And like Grant said he was he was like, acting badly towards a classmate. Like we both got detention. But I was so scared because I was like, that’s not like me, and I was like, what has happened to me? And it seems like you’re reversible thing. And like once I had kind of seen that darkness, it was like, I don’t think I can ever go back. Like I think I’m just broken now. And the doctors kind of treated it that way too. Like I got Xanax right away, which made me feel better.


Kate Bowler  17:57

Because they’re just like flipping backward on your chart all of a sudden before, like, there was nothing and then all of a sudden there’s just like case history, case history case history.


Emi Nietfeld  18:05

Yeah, and then once you have one diagnosis, everything is like in reference to that diagnosis. And so they were like, okay, well, the ADD meds didn’t work, we’re gonna try Prozac. Like, you must be depressed, if Ritalin doesn’t help you. And from there, it just started the cycle, where I went through a dozen drugs.


Kate Bowler  18:26

It’s like a waterslide it sounds like.


Emi Nietfeld  18:28

Yeah, absolutely. It’s like once you get on that train, like you can’t get off. And and like, and it was the early 2000s, like people didn’t think about, like, there’s withdrawal that happens there side effects, you know, and obviously, these meds they can be really helpful to people when they’re used, like in the right way. And also a lot of people get them and then struggle in similar ways that I did.


Kate Bowler  18:55

Listening to your story reminds me of something that Tara Westover said about, like binaries of people want to say, you know, like parents are either all good or all bad, or, you know, in this case, professionals are either all good or all bad, and we should be grateful and, and she said about her parents. Well, yeah, my parents were doing their best, and their best was devastating. And I really liked the idea that like, even like, even if we’re, if we’re locked into something, like, it doesn’t we don’t just, it doesn’t explain away the cost of it just to say people, people were doing their job. It doesn’t, he doesn’t explain away that cost.


Emi Nietfeld  19:38

Yeah, absolutely I don’t think anybody had bad intentions at all. But I think it’s a really systemic problem with particularly when, like children who are in vulnerable situations are getting treated, how we have, you know, this this therapeutic model, where we have diagnosis you use and labels and that’s like the primary way we’re thinking about things, it and where the primary treatments are like individualized therapy and medication. It does a really bad job of finding like the systemic problems, or even just like the slightly larger like the family problem or the community problem. And then it just ends up being put on to like an individual, young person. And in America, we’re all about the individual we’re like, that’s the only thing that matters.


Kate Bowler  20:31

I leave it just like coming back to your like this 11 year old is chronically late, is like a perfect little microcosm of like, the rest of the years that followed for you where it’s like, yes, you are seeing things in my life that are that like, are not setting me up for success, like what but like, I am in I am in that I am an actor in that scene, what else is in the scene you’re naming a kind of like, theory of agency, a theory of whether or not we have the ability to act that we don’t like, we don’t have enough language for in our culture, we really don’t, we will say everything is possible, or we will say nothing as possible. And either iteration is just frankly not true.


Kate Bowler  21:19

Yeah, I love that theory.


Kate Bowler  24:15

We’ll be right back.


Kate Bowler  24:42

Especially your teenage years. It’s like just watching you try to figure out what your options are. Every time like You’re like you’re in so many different kinds of worlds trying to figure out the framework of choice. It’s a it’s a bit like a theoretical but like that’s totally how I see your beautiful are you at work? You had to leave your mom’s home, and then like what happened next?


Emi Nietfeld  25:06

Yeah, so when I was 13, and 14, I was hospitalized a number of times, I loved the hospital, there was clean showers, like good food, air, no mice. And then when I was 14, I finally got sent to this locked treatment facility. And it was like a place from movies with the cinderblock walls bars over the windows, soundproof glass. And we were basically not not let outside for the first month. And then it was like, if you were good, you got to go outside for like two hours a day. And then the rest of the time you’re in this facility, you go to school, their little classroom on site. And this whole time I was being told by adults, this message of like, you messed up, like you’re here, because you had bad behavior. And you, you not only need to fix your behavior, but if you ever want to be happy, you’re going to need to accept your circumstances. And I was like, I don’t see a life worth living. When I’m looking around me, right, when I’m thinking about spending the rest of my life on these anti-psychotics that I was on. Like, the outcomes for people coming out of there were like, you know, really crappy jobs, like really living like subsistence lives. And so I was like, okay, if you’re gonna force me to stay alive, and be on this hellhole planet, I’m gonna find a, I need to find a way to have a life that I’m happy with. And for me, like I was a little bookworm. And so I was like, I really want to go to college. And ideally, I want to go to Columbia University in the city of New York, because it’s in New York City, and who doesn’t want to go there. And so that was, so I started, you know, studying from these ACT books from the library. And that was how I found like, the meaning of my life.


Kate Bowler  27:12

Yes, but then like, every time somebody tried to manage you, by setting low expectations, sounded like that was a very painful kind of certainty. Like just saying, I don’t know, because I just find that in the worst moments of my life, like, I can’t stay, I can’t stay locked in the present. I like that’s why our brains mercifully, toggle back and forth between like, lovely moments in the past, you can pull into that second, or like, hopes for the future that you can somehow conjure up, but like, the idea that you would then have to sort of have a low, low expectation was almost that must have felt like, either almost certain failure or just like an inability then to, to dream a different reality.


Emi Nietfeld  28:05

Yeah, absolutely. I, I was surrounded by these people who said, that hope just makes you depressed. And that seemed to blame the depression, these kids, you know, most of whom who had been neglected and abused that it was because of their over optimism. And that, like, if we just really had a, an attitude adjustment downward of what life should be like, then everything would be hunky dory. And, you know, as an adult, I understand the statistics a lot better about how rare it really is to go to college and graduate college and, and have stability. At the same time, like you can’t just tell me to live without giving me something to live for. Seems like, it seems like such a missed opportunity, because like I was, I was 14, and I was not willing to do a single thing to get better. Like I did not want to get over my eating disorder. I didn’t want to stop self harming. I had been abusing leftover Adderall. I certainly did not want to stop doing that. But I was willing to do anything to achieve my dreams. And I think most many of most teenagers are like that. And even if that dream is kind of unrealistic, or something that’s not maybe not going to happen. It’s just it’s like why could people have not used that as like, Okay, you want to go to college, like here’s what it takes to go to college, right? And you’re not going to be able to go to the place you want to go if you are not eating and you’re hospitalized for starvation, right like That’s not going to be an outcome. I feel so lucky, okay, we’re not supposed to say that on the show but I feel like we do it. But the thing that I feel lucky about is that I’m the kind of person who, who doesn’t like being told I can’t do something.


Kate Bowler  30:18

Yeah, that’s right, you don’t I love I really, I feel about like, sliver of iron in you, and it’s just wonderful.


Emi Nietfeld  30:27

Thank you, I mean, cuz I was at this treatment center. I was studying for the ACT I was reading Joan Didion and Annie Dillard and I was like, happier than I had been in like years, even though I was eating like industrial Chicken ala King and like hot dish and couldn’t go outside. But then then they they took away my books, because they were like, these books are a distraction. Like, you need to not think about the future, you need to focus on being a kid on healing, whatever that means to heal. And I, I think so many people would have been broken by that. And people are always saying, like, oh, I wasn’t broken, because I’m like, this special person, or I have this magic trick. And I’m just like, no, I was just mad. And I’m so glad that I was mad, and then I was like, you know, screw you. I’m gonna prove you all wrong.


Kate Bowler  31:20

Yes, yes totally. That’s so funny because it’s true sometimes there’s these wonderful little glitches in our programming, where it saves us. And it was just there all along. And like, yeah, I mean, me being angry at the right time has it saved my life and it had not been had I not needed anger to validate the part of me that felt totally disposable. You know, and then I just wouldn’t have thought there’s anything worth saving.


Emi Nietfeld  31:54

So, man, I feel like we need to cultivate anger we need like an anger practice especially for people who are like young young women and girls like you know, they need they need to get on like a bike in New York City right and then navigate through traffic like.


Kate Bowler  32:10

One of the funniest little you know, those little like, like nametag plaques you can get for your for your desk or something. One of my friends got me one that just said stay angry. They were like actually, this was working for you, Richie let’s.


Emi Nietfeld  32:25

I love that, I will […]


Kate Bowler  32:29

I will make a mistake.


Kate Bowler  32:30

We’ll be right back.


Kate Bowler  32:43

Your dream though for higher education had this like wonderful validating piece like your mom always was like you’re so smart like saw something really beautiful in you and yet it’s it was also coupled with this like sort of world made of helium feeling where you’re like how how does this even work? Like, thank you, but like, who would? Who would pay for this? How does one get there? What are applications? I mean, you had this massive obstacle course to even try to imagine and getting from like the most desperate circumstances to, like this dream world.


Emi Nietfeld  35:21

Yeah, because I had a, I was, I had a mom who was like, you know, you’re a genius. You’re brilliant, and I was like, shut up, mom like you’re getting into trouble, because the doctors would hear her say that and they’d be like, okay, her mom is delusional. And Emi is like, feeding off of her mom’s delusion. And yeah, I mean, in hindsight, I do think a lot of my mom’s faith in me was delusional, like, it was not fully like, based in reality, it was more of like a feeling and but she’s my mom, then a reality, like, in fact, but it really did. It made a huge difference in thinking like, okay, that’s something that’s an option for me. And so I ended up being discharged from this locked facility and going to foster care. And I luckily lived in a home that was in an amazing school districts, where I had teachers who cared a lot about me, and one teacher who really encouraged me to apply to summer camp. And this is something that people in foster care almost never get to do, and there was so many different factors that played into it but a big part of it was like my mom’s support. And so I went to this beautiful idyllic place in the woods with all these other 16 year olds. It was for photography camp, and I got to photograph other teenage girls looking cute. And at the end, at the time, my teacher was like, you should apply to boarding school. There’s like a boarding school that the camp runs, and you can go there. And I was so scared, because I was like, if I go to boarding school, then the pressure is really on, to try to get into a elite school. And I went and interlock in my high school, it’s like a feeder school, but for orchestras, and like conservatories, and so there was not like the counseling infrastructure there to like, help me get into Harvard, or Yale or Columbia. And so I was like, and I was like, I have this background that I’m going to need to explain right, like my freshman year, my freshman grades are like from three different schools, one of which was a locked classroom. And I knew that I needed like, serious help. And I got, I basically begged a private college counselor to take me on for free. And she did, and so she was like my guide through this at that point, but it was still just like, you know, a totally different world than the one that I had come from. And one where I needed to, like, present my, my best self, all my best angles, when I had been so used to being forced to like, okay, take responsibility, blame yourself. Like, if you don’t do that, like your problem. It was like 180 to see like, okay, in this world, you’re gonna pretend that you’re perfect. You’re the successful overcomer, and you have never had a mental health problem in your life. Like, you went through all this stuff, but you’re just stronger for it.


Kate Bowler  38:31

You had this like, amazing insight that they didn’t, it wasn’t enough for you just to have survived. Like you’ve had to overcome. Did it feel like telling a lie about yourself? When you’re like, I have overcome or were there moments where it felt true?


Emi Nietfeld  38:50

It absolutely felt like, really, because it was a lie. I was not an overcomer right, and in some ways, you know, I was still, like, alive. I had gone to boarding school. But I remember the summer before my senior year, I was 16 and I had couch surfed with, like staying with like, 10 different friends until I ran out of friends no more friends left. So sleeping in the backseat of this 1992 Corolla. And I remember going into the library and being like, okay, it’s time for me to write my essay of triumph. And it was just like such a farce to be like, okay, I’m writing this essay about how I’m stronger because I slept in my car, and like tonight, I’m probably going to sleep in my car again. And like if I don’t sleep in my car, it’s because I go to a shelter and sleep at a shelter. And so it was it, it felt like a huge lie.


Kate Bowler  39:46

Yes, you’ve got this, y.ou’ve got like the two frameworks side by side and where people usually just have one. They either have like the hyper individualism which like what can I do? What am I responsible for? What are the side door worse, to like, help me get where I need to go. And then the structural thinking, which is, what the hell, why was a little sick need side doors? Like why can’t this room just be normal i’s safe. That’s like, basic amenities in it. So you’re like your, yeah, your structural brain is kind of if it must have been so hard to always be trying to figure out then, like, who’s responsible for me? Am I alone in all of this? Or is some Is there anybody else? That’s gonna, is any? Is anyone else gonna help me keep all the walls of this house up?


Emi Nietfeld  40:35

Yeah, and I think I felt just completely responsible for everything for so long, like, throughout my whole, like high school time, honestly, into my mid 20s. And if you had asked me like, okay, what were the systemic things that were affecting you, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything. Nothing at all like, and it was really like, I had to go back and like, read stuff, and talk to a bunch of people, like, tell a bunch of people my story and be like, what do you think this means? Like, I, to me, it’s just like a series of events, right? And then to go back and reconstructs like, oh, okay, this is like what’s happening, and this is a thing that happens for a lot of people. Because I think that that the experience of, you know, being one of these overcomers, who like goes through these institutions. And then, like SPOILER ALERT gets into Harvard. It’s fundamentally such an isolating experience. And I think it’s isolating by design, often, where like, I won the scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association. But they literally had this 104 deserving scholars, like in the balcony of this ballroom like there was a real bald eagle who flew across the National Eagle. It was real, it was real. His name is challenger. You can google him. I did it’s he’s terrifying, it’s really.


Kate Bowler  42:02

I’ve seen an eagle, I’ve seen an eagle released inside of a mega church one time, it was really stressful. The spirit was with you hit one of the windows. And it was it was a dark time. It was it was metaphorically rich, but it was but even like, I mean, Horatio Alger, of course, like the, 19th century, like rags to riches dime novels that say that every scrappy, actually and also the real Horatio Alger stories, like there’s a million it’s just like a zillion orphans, right? And they’re deserving, obviously otherwise, they don’t get but they’re always saved by a wealthy relative, like not the actual Horatio Alger stories have people bootstrapping, they all just get like some stroke of luck comes to a virtuous person, which is like, totally different than the way we think about like the rat making its way through the maze of capitalism.


Emi Nietfeld  42:56

Absolutely yeah, but I mean, it’s less of that’s less of a convenient story. Like it’s much more convenient to be like, okay, her little little ragged Dick got there because of his sheer force of will, and his, like, cuteness. Because we were we were there and I started to realize I was like, I think that this is a conservative organization. And they told us, they were like, 50,000 students applied for these 104 scholarships. Yeah, and it’s like point oh, 2% ad then they looked out at us, and they were like, you are proof that anyone can do it. In the free enterprise system. And we don’t need government handouts. Like, yeah, I was like, I was like, looking like, like, my hands were folded in my lap, as I’ve been taught. And I was like, looking side by side and being like, is anybody else think that this is bizarre?


Kate Bowler  43:47

Oh my gosh, and meanwhile, you probably would have been like, actually, I would like very well funded supports for foster care, homes and, and some educational benefits. And I would really appreciate more social services for teenagers who have, who might need to emancipate themselves at that early age. It’s like all kinds of structural things would have made your life completely different instead of the hanging by a thread feeling all the time.


Emi Nietfeld  44:20

Yeah, maybe it’s just a dentist, right? When it became my number one life goal dental insurance.


Kate Bowler  44:25

Yes, totally I wonder, I wonder what you think it means to survive something. Because as part of writing this absolutely gorgeous book, you did so much looking back and so much fact checking and so much looking into medical records and like trying to piece together all the bits of it your story and I imagine kind of locking it into a framework of like, what did I experience but then also what happened to me? And so I don’t know when I do when I hear your story, and you’ve survived so much, and you had to piece together, what happened to you? I wonder how you think about survival and its cost.


Emi Nietfeld  45:14

After I got into Harvard, and it totally changed my life, I started to really buy into this idea that getting something that very few people get, like admissions to an elite university, that it was kind of this debt that I was going to carry with me for the rest of my life, where I had to be this person that I promised I was in my applications, where I was the smiling, grateful happy overcomer. And that everything that contradicted that had to be like pushed down, like when I started having nightmares, and being unable to sleep through the night. And just like screaming when people came up behind that, it was like my duty and obligation to be this like paragon of like a happy smiling person. Because that response, it, it restores a kind of order in the world, right of like, okay, people go through hard things, and they survive it. And then like, look how amazing they are at the end. In my mid 20s, that pressure really became overwhelming. And it did coincide with like, I was writing this book, I knew I wanted to write it. And I felt like I needed to have a very happy ending. And I literally went through my life, and I would tell people, I’m happy ending, like, everything that I do is that I can have a happy ending for this book, and I’m going to like heal my relationship with my mom, and I’m going to be like, so healthy, I’m going to be able to run faster thoughts and, like, be this perfect, shiny person. And that expectation was actually worse than the actual aftermath of what happened when I was a child and a teenager. Because it’s like, that expectation was not something that I could ever, like, move on from because it dictated my whole entire future.


Kate Bowler  47:16

I see, you’re like a survivor forever, you’re like, exactly like, paying back to back a debt. The truth is, you were in debt at the time.


Emi Nietfeld  47:28

Yeah, exactly, and I really hate hated that word survivor because it was like, there were certain people who I felt like, their struggles were okay. And whether they were like, you know, I’m proud or not proud, but they were like, people who were public survivors, and whose lives had told them that it was okay to talk about what happened to them. And like, okay, to be angry, and okay to say, like, my experience means something. And that was a really hard part of going to college at Harvard, because you see all these, you know, the charity founders, people passing bills, and I’m like, I don’t feel like what happened to me matters, like, and I don’t feel like I’m allowed to be angry about it, or that it means anything. And so I, I ended up going, I had to go into this place of like, deep negativity. And I think negativity can be really undervalued in our culture.


Kate Bowler  48:27

Emi’s singing my sweet, sweet song Emi. I will listen to you say that all day. Tell me why negativity, like helped you.


Emi Nietfeld  48:37

I what happened to me was so messed up. And it was not just me, it’s millions of young people are, are being, like, messed up in the same ways. And I had to just be like, I’m going to be upset. And if I’m going to be upset about this every day for the rest of my life, like that is okay. And that is my prerogative, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to be nasty to people because of it. But like, I don’t owe anybody my happiness. And I think it was also like recognizing, okay, if I had been born, like, into like one of these upper middle class families, like some of the stuff that happened would be a tragedy, and people would be mourning it. And there’s no reason that I don’t deserve that, just because I was not born into those circumstances. And I mean, I was working on the book, and I wrote like, the most depressing ending that like I can even imagine, right where I was like, ending my memoir, and I was like, every day I like, basically I think about suicide, but I’m not going to do it because I owe Harvard. And like, that was literally an ending, but I had to go there and I had to let myself go there in order to, to realize that like that idea that we’re made stronger by everything that happens to us, that is messed up like some people, I’m sure are made stronger by everything that happens to them, like good for them. I don’t want to be your friend, you’re not a healthy person for me to be around. But for me, that’s not true like, I’m a different person, I’m changed by what happened to me. But that is okay, and I think the idea that it’s not okay to be affected by tragedy, it’s a big lie, it’s a big lie. And it’s used to uphold the status quo. And to say, like, okay, nothing needs to change, everything is fine, and you’re the problem.


Kate Bowler  50:34

As we would say, in religious circles, that’ll preach. Oh, my gosh, that’s so good Emi I wish I’d read you five years ago, so good. That that feeling where it’s, um, we just need a minute to actually like, be honest about the cost. There was this, I was writing about the as looking at all the charts of all the people who didn’t make it in these clinical trials, and under what conditions they would give them the drug or not give them the drug. And how you make these casual evaluations about whose life is worth being sad about what people deserve these really, really like bald and terrible ways. And I think I said something like, there’s no accounting for the things we’ve done for the things done to us. And like, who is that just kind of like, sometimes it just like, it just breaks your heart to be to be like, to feel like the actual cost? Or what, of what nobody can undo now, but dear God, aren’t people still running around supporting the same systems?


Emi Nietfeld  51:57

Yeah, it’s, I think that that’s one of the joys of being able to write memoir is that it’s so hard to understand what a million people means. But we all know, one person.


Kate Bowler  52:13

Emi, let’s do this any time, I’ll keep you also just I’m so I’m so grateful for this conversation honestly. Thank you so much.


Emi Nietfeld  52:22

I’m so grateful too, thank you so much for having me.


Kate Bowler  52:34

I think one of the great gifts that Emi has is that she really helps people feel believable, as they say something that really runs against the grain of a story that we would all prefer that we tell where there’s no cost to what we’ve been through, that we’re so lucky that nothing is lost, that zero systems are working against us, that we can all just become the person we want it to be through hard work and determination that we are the sum of our grit and our mental fortitude and nothing is impossible if we just believe me gently reminds us that there are things you can change and work toward and it is truly amazing what people can survive. But it is okay to count the cost, so if you’re listening to this, and you feel the weight of your own survival on your shoulders, bless you. This is a blessing for you. Bless it are you who are tired of feeling grateful all the time, who feel more comfortable with moments of rage, and negativity and venting all that you lost? Bless it are you when you say hand on your heart, that there are truths you wish you could unlearn riches you wish you could get back. The innocence, hope, the sweet fearlessness of never having lost. You are resilient. But I wish you never had to be your survival costs deal. And it’s okay to name it to be grateful and outraged. You might never get the apologies you’re owed. And we long to hear them say it. I’m sorry, I should have believed you. I should have sheltered you. This never should have happened. The almost truths are difficult to swallow. Yes, we learned so much. Yes, we overcame we grew but this perspective, we would give it back in a heartbeat. Bless us God in our gratitude, in our anger in our survival. And may you my dear are being met today with gentleness and stillness and peace, energy, momentum and rest. Whatever it takes to carry the weight of all this resilience bless you, my dears.


Kate Bowler  55:27

Okay, this is the part where I get to say thank you , thank you, thank you. Thank you because really, thanks. Thank you to my incredible partners. This whole thing is made possible by the amazing people at the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment who wanted to support storytelling about faith and life. And I just cherish them for it. Thank you. Thank you also to my academic home Duke Divinity School and to our new podcast network Lemonada where their slogan is when life gives you lemons, listen to Lemonada hilarious, I love it. And of course, a huge shout out to my unbelievable team who always makes everything happen. They are the everything happens at everything happens. Jessica Ricci, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Glen Higginbotham, Brenda Thompson, hope Anderson, Kristen Bowser, Jeb Burt, and Catherine Smith. And hey, we have some really fun stuff coming this fall. And I don’t want you to miss any of it. So if you head over to Katebowler.com/newsletter. And if you sign up for my free weekly email, it’s got all kinds of news video clips from episodes like this one discussion questions must read books, free printables, all kinds of things. And my dear listener, it would be the most helpful thing in the whole entire world. If you left us a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. It is weirdly the most important thing when other people are like, Hey, do people listen to those podcasts and then they look at that. It only takes a few minutes. And it makes a huge difference to our ability to do this. And while you’re there. If you click on the subscribe button, then you won’t miss any of our new episodes that air every Tuesday. We love hearing your voice. Leave us a voicemail and we might even use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731 All right, lovelies, I’ll talk to you next week. I’m going to be talking with Angela Williams. She is the head of a wonderful organization called the United Way I am sure you’ve heard of it. And she has some straight wisdom for us about how to sustain our lives of service. And in the meantime, come find me online. I’m Kate Bowler This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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