Judy Goldman is the author of the new book Child: A Memoir. It details her relationship with Mattie Culp, who worked for Goldman's family. Goldman's other books include the memoir Together, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Real Simple and The Washington Post. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Q: What inspired you to write Child, and how would you describe your relationship with Mattie Culp?
A: I’ve wanted to tell this story my whole life! The first poem I wrote as an adult was about the triangle Mattie and her daughter and I formed – how I was raised by Mattie, but Mattie’s daughter was left behind to be raised by someone else.
That poem remained in my drawer. I didn’t think I had the right to tell the story of a privileged white child and her Black maid in the Jim Crow South. Now that I’m 80 and I see time running out, my lifelong yearning has taken on more urgency and I’m finally giving voice to the story of a key relationship in my life, in all its complexity.
My relationship with Mattie was one of deep mutual love, but it was built on the unconscionable scaffolding of racism. She came to work for my family in 1944. She was 26; I was 3. We remained close – I took care of her in her old age – until she died at age 89.
Q: What impact did writing this book have on you?
A: It was a pleasure summoning up small moments in our relationship. How lovely to re-inhabit and interpret our shared past! At the same time, it was painful remembering the difficult moments that were so typical of the 1940s and ‘50s.
I must add -- It was a shock to discover the truth about Mattie’s childhood and her daughter’s birth. The clues had been in my pages all along; I just didn’t see them. When I truly understood, I then had to re-think and rewrite the ending of my book.
Q: The author Tommy Tomlinson said of the book, “It's a story about love, family, privilege and prejudice, seen through the eyes of innocence and the eyes of experience.” What do you think of that description?
A: What differentiates memoir from simply writing in a journal are brief sparks of reflection. You cannot get by with just a listing of the events from your past. It’s the writer’s gradual understanding of those events that elevates the work. What do I see now that I didn’t see then?
So… I love Tommy’s comments about my book! The eyes of innocence see the events as they happened. The eyes of experience reflect and intuitively analyze those events. I’m happy he found both perspectives in my memoir.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope readers will be inspired to look at the relationships and events in their own lives in a clear, honest-to-the-bone, un-idealized way. In my book, I ask this question: “Can we ever tell the whole truth to ourselves? It’s so hard to go beyond the familiarity we have with our own stories, interrupt what we’ve known forever.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a new memoir about aging. I’m hoping I can bring to these pages a clear, honest-to-the-bone, un-idealized perspective!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Thanks so much for your interest in my work, Deborah! I’m always awed by people like you who honor readers and writers!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb