Image by John Kazior

A Star Is Born | Raffi Gessen-Gould’s Examined Life

Piper French

Social media has produced a curious phenomenon: the unwitting child star. These are kids who seem to intuitively mug for the camera without having the slightest idea of what it means to be watched by thousands of strangers around the world. Their parents have made them famous before they can really grasp what the internet is, or meaningfully consent to have their image distributed there.

It’s hard to say who is the most prominent of these famous youngsters. There are a host of children jockeying for the top spots on the usual platforms: TikTok, Instagram, YouTube. In the pages of middle-to-highbrow publications, however, there’s no competition: Raphael Gessen-Gould is undeniably the most chronicled child in the Brooklyn literary world (certainly the name recognition is far lower, but we’re grading on a curve here). Practically since his birth, Raffi has been the subject of essays by both of his parents, the writers Keith Gessen and Emily Gould, in The New Yorker, n+1, The Atlantic, The Cut, the New York Times Magazine, and other prestigious outlets. Six of Gessen’s previously published essays about his son have now been collected, along with three new pieces, an introduction, and an epilogue, in a memoir called Raising Raffi.

Like TikTok toddlers and baby YouTubers, the Raffi essays raise fascinating and thorny questions about children’s rights to digital privacy, and how the internet has influenced our willingness to accept levels of access into people’s lives we would have once found unthinkable and likely grotesque. What happens when the first generation of internet writers, who made their careers documenting their lives and the lives of others in blog posts and magazine essays and even, half-disguised, in novels, grow up and have children of their own? 

I wanted to see Gessen grapple with these questions in Raising Raffi, and I suspected he would, for two reasons. The first is the existing volume of online writing by and about Gould and Gessen. Both writers have held their personal lives up to the internet in ways that have been by turns bracing (their essays about money in the collection MFA vs. NYC were honest about the realities of trying to make a writing life work if you lived in an expensive city and were sadly without a trust fund) and discomfiting (Gould’s essay about money also includes a riff about her fury upon discovering Gessen had donated sperm to his sibling’s partner without telling her). Both are intimately familiar with the consequences of a life lived online.

The second is textual: Raising Raffi is, at its core, an investigation into what it means to be a good parent, not just within your own household but also out in the world. Gessen takes up the issues of school choice in gentrifying Bed-Stuy, parenting during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, the long half-life of emigration, and the impact of his family’s ghosts on his own fathering style. He also examines the small tragedy of parents imposing their own selfhood onto their offspring: “Children are their own people, yes,” he writes, “but they are also so much at our mercy — at the mercy of our moods, our insecurities, even our dreams.” 

But Gessen’s new memoir is strangely devoid of reflection on the ethics of writing about his own child. That Raffi is an acceptable source of material appears a foregone conclusion. Like his TikTok analogues, Raffi becomes content: well-written, funny, charming, sometimes powerful content, but content nonetheless. Gessen’s unwillingness to take up these questions may be borne of a desire to put his younger online self behind him, but here’s the thing about the internet: the past may be dead, but online it’s mummified, preserved for all to see. 

Gould and Gessen rose to literary semi-stardom with two publications, Gawker and n+1, that debuted in the era of early social media, and the two writers in many ways embodied their respective sites: the former chatty and fun and a little vicious, the latter more intellectual and self-serious. That they would eventually collide seems, with the benefit of hindsight, inevitable. In fact, their very first in-person meeting is documented online, in the form of a Gawker post Gould wrote about ferrying a bunch of n+1 print magazines around Brooklyn with Gessen and her then-colleague Choire Sicha. It was all very meta and self-referential. As Adrian Chen put it in a New Yorker postmortem of Gawker: “Sicha and his co-editor, Emily Gould, announced that they were quitting the site at the very end of a meandering account of an evening they had spent with Keith Gessen, the founder of the literary magazine n+1 and a favorite target of Gawker, during which they discussed an essay that had recently run in n+1 . . . about Gawker. Whoa.”

Together and apart, Gould and Gessen were the subject of a considerable amount of ire, directed at them by everyone from malevolent book bloggers to precocious college students feeling prematurely jaded by the New York literary scene. I don’t think younger millennials who were shocked and thrilled by Lauren Oyler’s 2020 smackdown of the beloved writer Jia Tolentino fully understand how mean the literary world used to be. Even the venerated critic Michiko Kakutani fell prey to Keith-and-Emily-derangement syndrome: in a 2014 review of Gould’s novel, the critic quoted an anonymous commenter who had called Gould a “trollop.” 

Gessen wasn’t exactly a closed book — he updated his Tumblr regularly between 2008 and the beginning of 2010 (it’s still public, if you’re curious), and once made use of a piece about his book tour to riff on his then-faltering relationship with Gould (“I’m pretty sure my girlfriend and I have broken up, though I can’t seem to get her on the phone to confirm this”). Both writers have composed at least one blatantly semi-autobiographical novel. But Gould, who had written more exclusively about her personal life — for Gawker and other publications; on her blog, Heartbreak Soup; in a memoir — and who happens to be a woman, seemed to have received the lion’s share of the criticism. Its apotheosis came on a Larry King Live segment in 2007, in which Jimmy Kimmel, who was standing in for King, tore into Gould with an unsettling degree of hostility for her involvement in Gawker’s proto-DeuxMoi celebrity sightings page, at one point implying without evident humor that she is probably going to hell. 

The following year, Gould wrote a cover story for the Times Magazine detailing the repercussions of collapsing all distinction between private and public life: After all, by going on TV and having a daily blog presence in front of thousands of people, I had put myself in the category of ‘people who make their livings in public,’ and so, by my own declared value system, I was an appropriate target for the kind of flak I was getting,” she wrote. “But that didn’t mean I could handle it.” Part of the vitriol, Gould noted, seemed to stem from her own mockery and exposure of other people’s personal lives, loved ones and strangers alike — and her arguably hypocritical criticism of others for talking about themselves too much, as in a 2007 Gawker article that chided the Village Voice for “letting married breeders gross us all out with overshares.” 

Well, live long enough, etc., etc. Since Raffi was born in mid-2015, Gould has written about him regularly on her blog, Emily Gould Can’t Complain. She occasionally writes about her son for other publications, too: in August 2020, she penned an essay about Raffi and remote learning for The Atlantic; in December of the following year, she wrote about trying to get him diagnosed with ADHD and discovering, instead, that she had it. She has also spoken about Raffi, giving quotes like this gem, from an interview with LitHub: “When I look at Raffi… I’m like oh, yeah, it’s just the worst of me plus the worst of my husband combined” — which was undoubtedly meant with affection but does not come off terribly well in the harsh light of a MacBook screen.

In the end, though, it is Gessen who has covered the Raffi beat most publicly and at greatest length. His first two essays arrived in June 2018, when Raffi was three: a piece on early fatherhood for The Cut, and one on teaching Raffi Russian (or trying to) for The New Yorker, the first of a trio of Personal Histories he would write about their relationship for the magazine. In 2019, he composed a piece for n+1 about trying to choose a school for Raffi, which Gould posted on Twitter with a sort of self-aware comment: “Keith did another Raffi essay, despite my repeated ‘stay in your lane’ type remarks!”

What offsets the queasy ethics of writing about the people around you is precisely that it is an unmistakable gamble: in doing so, the writer accepts the possibility of alienating friends, lovers, and parents. Those people can respond: in private, in public appearances, or in writing. Often, they do: Michel Houellebecq’s mother wrote a revenge memoir; Karl Ove’s ex-wife, Linda Boström Knausgaard, became a novelist in her own right. Gould once told The Guardian that her own family stopped speaking to her for a time after her memoir came out, and her best friend also felt burned by a fictionalized doppelgänger. One of her exes even published an essay about what it had been like to date someone who treated their relationship as blogging fodder. But children can’t write back. 

Raising Raffi’s essays progress forward in time, from birth through the terrible twos and threes and slightly-less-terrible fours and fives, culminating in a brief epilogue, “Raffi at Six.” (The memoir’s subtitle, “The First Five Years,” left me wondering whether Raffi would ultimately be subjected to the same repeated scrutiny as the Up series kids.) In his introduction, Gessen says he wrote Raising Raffi in part because he felt unsatisfied by the existing writing on fatherhood. “There was a particular gap, I thought, in the dad literature,” he writes. “In the few books out there, we were either stupid dad, who can’t do anything right, or superdad, a self-proclaimed feminist and caretaker.” Rather than charting a third course, Gessen sort of combines the two existing options, providing a voice for the voiceless: dads who don’t really know what they’re doing, but are well-educated and extremely involved and sure as hell going to overthink it. 

Gessen is self-aware but understands the limits of self-awareness. He agonizes at length over how to choose a school for his son, then freely admits that he and Gould made the wrong choice, and that their choice didn’t make much of a difference anyway. He knows that dads often foist sports onto their kids, in resoundingly regressive ways, but he also wants Raffi to love sports! 

Gessen’s writing about Raffi is sweet and exasperated and often quite funny — I found myself laughing aloud at his descriptions of their squabbles. Raffi dumps an entire glass of water on him: “What the fuck!” Raffi snitches on his little brother: “‘Those are fake falls, Dada!’ Raffi called out to me. ‘He’s only pretending to fall.’” Gessen accidentally swats Raffi’s head while trying to get him away from baby Ilya:

He staggered back a bit and then called out, “Mama! Dada hit me!”
“Is that true?” said Emily, emerging from the kitchen. “Did you hit him?”
“Kind of,” I said. 

But I felt sort of strange about it, too, the same feeling that comes over me when I realize I’ve become a little too invested in the Instagram presence of some couples I vaguely know who’ve had babies recently. The kids are adorable — but they’re someone else’s kids! The internet, alas, has molded my own thought processes. Whenever Raffi says something impossibly cute (“Dada, we need to put English in you,”) I found myself distrusting my reaction, leery of the tendency of Twitter users to fabricate their children’s quotes — even as I have no doubt Gessen is telling the truth about these interactions.

Part of the problem here is that Raising Raffi doesn’t quite know what kind of book it’s trying to be. It’s being marketed as a balm for harried parents. The cover is meant to look like it was defaced by a toddler riding a sugar high, and blurbs reference the memoir’s soothing capacities. “New parents will find no shortage of laughs, cries, and solace here,” says Publishers Weekly. “Gessen would be the first to admit he didn’t set out to write a book of parenting advice,” writes a reviewer for Shelf Awareness, “but young parents reading the nine frank but warmhearted essays that compose Raising Raffi will be happy he did, not least for the collection’s reassuring message: you are not alone.” His chapter about navigating the treacherous waters of toddlerhood, or experiencing horrifying pangs of rage towards his child, will likely be cathartic for other sleep-deprived, first-time parents; those same people might read pseudo-profound banalities like “he is still unlike anyone we’ve ever met” and think, My kid is also like nobody I’ve ever met! 

If Raising Raffi were exclusively composed of relatable parenting tales, I don’t think it would be fair for me to review it like this, or possibly to review it at all, being childless. But Gessen clearly wants the memoir to be something more than a tonic for his fellow dads. He can’t help himself: he’s a writer, after all, someone who cut his teeth on serious literary criticism, has published two novels and translated Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, and reports frequently on Russia and Ukraine. 

The spectacle of Gessen bringing his considerable talents as a critic and journalist to bear on early childhood is unintentionally hilarious. He manages to make pretty mundane realizations — some days, you think your kid is a genius; others he seems like a bully or a petty tyrant! — seem hard-won. He has a tendency to write in declarative sentences that are meant to seem, by virtue of their simplicity, pregnant with some greater truth. Witness: 

[On Tolstoy’s maxim about families:] There was no family like ours and no child like ours.

[On co-parenting with Gould:] She was beautiful, and that made it easier. But it didn’t make it easy.

[On a hockey rink:] And I loved what people did there: they played hockey.

These kinds of truisms, of course, say more about Keith than they do about Raffi. 

When Gessen isn’t focusing on his son’s antics, he’s often looking to previously published writing to help him make sense of parenthood, or simply as a distraction. “Zero to Two,” “Picture Books,” and “Bear Dad” are the only essays not previously published online, and all three are largely about other books: “Zero to Two” is a quasi-survey of traditional parenting literature; under the auspices of investigating child-rearing methods around the world, “Bear Dad” covers Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé, and the ominously titled, U2-inspired Achtung Baby; and “Picture Books”… well, you get the picture. Of Tiger Mother, Gessen writes, “The book is pretty funny, as I say, though Chua is one of those writers with whom you can’t always tell when they’re joking.” I could say the same for him. The “Picture Books” chapter approaches satire: 

I loved the Frances books by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban, came to have a grudging admiration for the Knuffle Bunny books by Mo Willems, and was lukewarm toward the Harold and the Purple Crayon books. Dragons Love Tacos I threw in the trash.… That’s Not My Penguin, meanwhile, began to seem stale.

This brand of literary criticism may replicate the experience of being an accomplished professional who’s suddenly spending your days around someone who barely knows how to talk, and thus desperately searching for intellectual stimulation wherever you can get it — but I’m not sure quite what the larger point is here, especially because Gessen doesn’t really acknowledge what he’s doing. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear his critique of the Captain Underpants books that Raffi tears through later on, though given his withering assessment of Dragons Love Tacos, I am surprised he ever let the series across his threshold.  

Finding a school for your child in New York City seems mind-bendingly challenging, and doing so without being smacked across the face by the realities of race, class, and gentrification, obviously impossible. If you want to delve further into this conundrum, I would recommend reading Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 2016 essay for the New York Times Magazine, which Gessen quotes and paraphrases at length in his essay “A School for Raffi,” noting that her piece is “the culmination of a decade and a half of reporting on education.” He appears to have read the story, met Hannah-Jones, realized she lived in the same part of Bed-Stuy as he did, and, some years hence, decided that the world needed another such essay — but this time from a white parent, and devoid of those years of meticulous research and reporting on school segregation. 

Beyond its hubris, the original essay, which was published as “School Daze” in n+1 in 2019, is pretty clear-eyed about the dynamics of race and gentrification in Gessen’s neighborhood, and the updated version is even clearer about how the writer himself fits in. At one point in the n+1 version, he reflects on one of the school tours he attended: “By this point I had also started to hate my fellow parents, and myself.” I was interested to note that in the updated version, this becomes: “By this point I had started to hate my fellow white parents. Also myself.” Among other tweaks, he also adds the following: 

The other thing I see now is my moral vanity. I alone, I thought, could see the gentrification in the schools; I alone could fix it. All the other white parents were racists; I was the lone anti-racist. I was going to be the one person who made the just choice. 

This is a genuinely perceptive critique of white liberalism, which causes people to spend more time seeking to differentiate themselves from the other, bad white people than reflecting on how they might unconsciously replicate the same patterns that they critique elsewhere. But I’ve read plenty of other white people agonizing over the implications of their whiteness — we keep getting book deals to do so! (See Gentrifier: A Memoir.) It may be “helpful” for another white parent to read Gessen’s essay, but mostly in the sense that it absolves him, too (nobody has the answers!), and I suspect it could even be maddening for a longtime resident of Bed-Stuy to come across an essay for which someone has gotten paid to handwring over how his child can more gently and ethically gentrify her own child’s school. It’s obviously preferable for white people to think and talk about these things, rather than pretending they don’t exist; I’m not sure, at this point, how urgent it is to keep publishing essays on them.

Gessen’s ambivalence about how much of his culture to pass on to Raffi is the most interesting part of his memoir, precisely because it’s highly specific, a story only he can tell. Like Raising Raffi’s other essays, “Say It in Russian” makes use of Raffi’s idiosyncratic turns of phrase and tantrums and halting growth. We see Gessen trying to ascertain whether Raffi’s baby talk is Russian or English (it’s English), the moment Raffi notices that his parents each speak to him in a different language, and the moment later on when he realizes that they only speak English to each other, even as his dad refuses to use it with him. The stories are still cute, but that’s not the whole point; they’re also evidence of something larger. Gessen’s characteristically simple, declarative prose moves in service of truths about the mystery of language acquisition, his own doubts about the meaning of his heritage and the possible futility of trying to keep it alive, and how strange it is that with a little effort and persistence, you can give your child the key to a whole world your partner will never be able to access:

For the first weeks and months of speaking Russian to Raffi, I felt like a person who was pretending to speak Russian to Raffi. He didn’t understand me. Emily didn’t understand me. I could have been speaking anything and just claiming that it was Russian. It was just a bunch of sounds. 

This is powerful, in part, because there’s something behind it: Gessen’s relationship with his own parents. In “Say It in Russian,” Gessen writes that it took his mother’s death, when he was just seventeen, for him to start learning Russian in earnest. When she first tells him her diagnosis, she uses a Russian word he doesn’t know, and he’s too embarrassed — and, likely, too scared — to ask what it means. Later, his father asks if she’s shared her news:

Trying to look on the bright side, I added, “At least it’s not cancer.”
My father stopped. “It is cancer,” he said.
“An opukhol’ is cancer?”
“Yes,” he said. Opukhol’ means tumor. My mother had a tumor in her breast.

His mother was his main connection to Russian, he writes; when she died, that link was severed. Later, trying to decide whether to speak Russian with Raffi, he realizes that “to me it was the language of childhood, the language of love for children, the language in which my parents and grandmothers had spoken to me.” 

So Gessen writes about being Russian. He writes about being an immigrant. He writes about loving sports and books. He writes about being a white dad in gentrifying Brooklyn. But he doesn’t really write about what it means to be a writer, with all of his specific history and baggage, writing about his child like this. Gessen says in his introduction that it feels “ridiculous” to write about parenthood, but only because he understands his child less than he suspects Gould does; he doesn’t push further than that. He’s understandably concerned about the language he chooses to speak to Raffi in, and everything that’s bound up in it — but he doesn’t seem very reflective about the language he’s choosing to speak about his son. And that feels like the missing thread that could have bound these essays into a cohesive whole, and elevated them beyond the relatable anecdotes that make up much of the Raffi material, beyond Gessen’s aimless searching — beyond, well, content. 

When we reach into the past, we’re trying to make sense of it: why our parents were the way they were, how we got here. There’s so much data, and much of it is fixed, if only in the sense that the past is not actively occurring. Gessen’s mom died when he was a teenager; her story is no longer taking shape. But Raffi’s is just beginning. Any narrative Gessen spins about his son is not just an act of interpretation — it’s inevitably one of imposition. 

Maybe this is what is so hard about parenting: there’s just not that much to grasp onto yet. Maybe that’s why the impulse to transmute it into writing is so strong. But we can choose to betray our family, lovers, friends in order to make art. More than to anyone else, we owe our children the chance to write their own stories.

Piper French is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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