Skinfolk: A Memoir (Paperback)
A haunting, poignant story of growing up in a mixed-race family in 1970s New Jersey, in the tradition of The Color of Water.
Race is made, not born. It can materialize with a thunderous suddenness. It can happen to you in moments that will be cauterized into memory as if into flesh.
Could a picturesque white house with a picket fence save the world? What if it was filled with children drawn together from around the globe? And what if, within the yard, the lines of kin and skin, of family and race, were deliberately knotted and twisted? In 1970, a wild-eyed dreamer, Bob Guterl, believed it could.
Bob was determined to solve, in one stroke, the problems of overpopulation and racism. The charming, larger-than-life lawyer and his brilliant wife, Sheryl, a former homecoming queen, launched a radical experiment to raise their two biological sons alongside four children adopted from Korea, Vietnam, and the South Bronx—the so-called war zones of the American century. They moved to rural New Jersey with dreams of creating what Bob described as a new Noah’s ark, filled with “two of every race.”
While the venture made for a great photograph, with the proverbial “casseroles and potato chips out for everyone,” the Brady Brunch façade began to crack once reality seeped into the yard, adding undue complexity to the ordinary drama of a big family. Neighbors began to stare. Vacations went wrong. Joy and laughter commingled with discomfort and alienation. Familial bonds inevitably buckled. In the end, this picture-perfect family was no longer, and memories of the idyllic undertaking were marred by tragedy.
In lyrical yet wrenching prose, Matthew Pratt Guterl, one of the children, narrates a family saga of astonishing originality, in which even the best intentions would prove woefully inadequate. He takes us inside the clapboard house where Bob and Sheryl raised their makeshift brood in a nation riven then as now by virulent racism and xenophobia. Chronicling both the humor and pathos of this experiment, he “opens a door to our dreams of what the idea of family might make possible.”
In the tradition of James McBride’s The Color of Water, Skinfolk exposes the joys and constraints of love, blood, and belonging, and the persistent river of racial violence in America, past and present.
About the Author
Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana Studies and American Studies at Brown University. He is the award-winning author of four books, including Josephine Baker and the Rainbow Tribe. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Transracial adoption will never empower adoptees of color or our white family members to sidestep the realities of privilege, bias, and racism; as Skinfolk shows, we will meet and experience these things in the most intimate of ways, within the microcosm of our own family. Reading Anna’s challenge to her brother, one that may have been decades in the making, I knew where all my natural sympathy as an adoptee lay. My response to Guterl’s description of his agonizing confusion and self-doubt, which kept him awake for hours that night, took me by surprise. It made me catch my breath and wish that I could see or speak to my adoptive parents, both of whom are now gone, and simply feel close to them again. I know what it is to confront a painful and unwanted distance between you and those you love; to want to believe, if only for a moment, that your will alone can bridge it.
— Nicole Chung - The Atlantic
Ambitious, intellectually searching... Guterl doesn’t spare himself when describing the inescapability of racial harm.... [His] strengths as a writer show in his unflinching analysis of this and other racially complicated scenes.
— Chloé Cooper Jones - New York Times Book Review
— Casey Schwartz - New York Times
[Guterl] writes poignantly about his upbringing, particularly as the family and his siblings battled xenophobia and racism.
— New York Times Book Review, “14 Books Coming in March”
Guterl, professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University and author of Seeing Race in America, fashions a moving, elegant memoir of his childhood within the 'idealized experiment' of multiracialism . . . An earnestly felt, beautifully wrought story of an American family in all its complexity.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review
With precision and unwavering care, Guterl explores the ethics involved in his parents’ endeavor and confronts the consequences of even the best intentions. The result is an eye-opening, instructional, and necessary take on race in America.
— Publishers Weekly
Guterl focuses much of the story on himself and his closest siblings, Bear and Bug, and on the realities of growing up in a big family. But he is clear-eyed about his privilege, even within his family, and about his parents who, with the best of intentions, have the whiff of white saviors.
— Kathy Sexton - Booklist