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How did a family achieve the American dream — only to see it unravel?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The writer Prachi Gupta comes from a family that appears a certain way from the outside.

PRACHI GUPTA: Many people, including within my own family, saw us as this picture-perfect Indian American family - a father who's a doctor. My brother and I were very high achieving. We graduated college with prestigious job offers. We really embodied the American dream. But at the very moment that we settled into that dream, when I thought that we would all sort of be happy - live happily ever after, our lives really began to unravel.

FADEL: And she's telling how in her new book "They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us." She says her dad taught her from an early age to project a certain image. It would be a lifestyle that her and her brother constantly chased, her brother going so far as to seek cosmetic surgery to lengthen his legs, a surgery that would ultimately kill him.

GUPTA: He was 5'7", and he believed that if he had been 5'9" or 5'10" - 5'9" is the average height for an American male - that if he had been taller, he would have been treated with more respect. And I wanted to understand how this idea came to him and what those two or three inches of height meant to him emotionally to drive him to do something so painful and so destructive. And that really uncovered this exploration of the intersections of racism and patriarchy and mental health and how these systems affect - you know, affected his perception of himself as a brown man in America.

FADEL: The book is a letter to your mother. Every page is written to her. Tell me why and what you're trying to say to her.

GUPTA: So after my brother Yush died, I was thinking about mortality a lot, and I was thinking about how I'm the only remaining child left. And the thing that I wanted most in the world was to connect with my parents and specifically my mom. You know, I see a lot of myself in her, and my relationship with my mom was really loving. My best memories are, you know, of childhood, of us just, like, playing and singing. And I wanted to reach out to her. But in real life, I couldn't do that because there were so many things that stood in the way of us being able to talk honestly with each other, one of them being the ability to acknowledge my dad's role in our relationship, seeing how my dad treated her and then knowing that I was next in line for that treatment.

FADEL: Describe some of the things that you watched in the dynamic between your dad and your mom that stuck with you when you talk about I was in line for that treatment.

GUPTA: There's a moment where my dad throws my mom out of the car because she opens up a map too slowly and isn't reading the directions fast enough or clearly enough. And in that moment, I didn't know if I was going to see her again. And then he picks her up. And then we just had to pretend like it had never happened, and we never talked about it again. And I think for the sake of maintaining the family unit, there was this pressure on me to put up with it, to accept it and to just forgive and forget.

FADEL: You write about the control your father had or the control he needed that was ultimately passed on to your brother a little bit. And in some ways, there was an anger towards women that he and your brother had when they didn't fulfill that perfect picture of what a man is supposed to be, right?

GUPTA: Yeah.

FADEL: So they took a very different path than you took with the pain that they had inherited.

GUPTA: What I saw with my dad and my brother was how racism really shaped their views on women as well - like - especially, like, Asian men, South Asian men. They're put into boxes in white America about who they can be and who they can't be. And we all are. And one of the ways that manifests is, racially, it's this demasculization (ph), this feminization. So one of the ways to take back power when that happens is to then assert it over women in your life. And I think that, you know, that's not a rule for everybody, but I think that that's how these systems are set up. And if we're not careful, we can see those dynamics play out. And that's what happened in my family.

FADEL: And you were estranged from your brother because you identified as a feminist, right? He took offense to that.

GUPTA: He did. And, you know, I think there was so much justified anger on both sides, but we personalized it so much. And I think that there were so many misunderstandings and miscommunications about, like, what feminism is and isn't. And also, there was no accountability in our household for the dysfunction that we saw. And I think, you know, when we don't hold people accountable for their actions, we as individuals end up taking on that shame and the responsibility for their actions. So we blame ourselves. You know, I think accountability, that enables repair, and that builds intimacy. But escaping it and in creating these scapegoats, at first, it can feel more comfortable to blame other people for these problems. But ultimately, it breeds dysfunction and denial and keeps us sitting in that pain.

FADEL: And that's what happened with your family?

GUPTA: Absolutely. Yeah.

FADEL: Ultimately, you chose to walk away from that relationship with your dad and your mom because you couldn't continue in that cycle?

GUPTA: I tried so hard to be the daughter and the woman that my culture and that my society, I think, expected me to be and wanted me to be. But what I discovered was that it was never good enough. I could never be that way. I would have to always contort myself to reach some abstract, hypothetical idea of perfection that just didn't exist, and I was breaking myself in the process. So choosing myself wasn't really this rebellious act of reclamation. It was this desperate act of self-preservation. In many ways, I lost everything that I loved and cared about, and I have almost, like, nothing left to lose, which is part of why I'm doing this. And I want to warn other people about what can happen when we buy into the American dream uncritically, about what happens when we prioritize success, outward markers of achievement instead of our internal peace.

FADEL: Prachi Gupta. Her memoir is "They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us." Thank you so much for this conversation, Prachi.

GUPTA: Thank you. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "SOMETIMES HE'S IN MY DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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