View Gallery


If Only You People Could Follow Directions

A Memoir

List Price: $15.95

January 13, 2015 | Paperback | 5.5 x 8.25, 256 pages | ISBN 9781619024670
Order Now From Indiebound

“This series of autobiographical essays from debut author Jessica Hendry Nelson hopscotches through time to offer a kaleidoscopic look at the way abuse resonates down through generations like a bell.” —ELLE

If Only You People Could Follow Directions is a spellbinding debut that reimagines the memoir in Jessica Hendry Nelson’s thoroughly original voice. In these linked essays, Nelson’s fearless writing and hypnotic storytelling centers on the story of three people: Nelson’s mother Susan, her brother Eric, and Jessica herself. These three characters are deeply bound to one another, not just by the usual ties of blood and family, but also by a mother’s drive to keep her children safe in the midst of chaos. The book begins with Nelson’s childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia and chronicles her father’s addiction and death, her brother’s battle with drugs and mental illness, her own efforts to find and maintain stability, and her mother’s exquisite power, grief, and self-destruction in the face of such complicated family dynamics. Each of the book’s chapters concerns a different relationship—friends, lovers, and strangers are all at play—but at its heart the book is about family, the ties that bind, enrich, and betray us, and how one young woman sought to rise above her perilous surroundings.

JESSICA HENDRY NELSON earned a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Alligator Juniper, Fringe, and PANK. A chapter from this book, “The Whitest Winter Light,” is a notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Currently, she is the senior nonfiction editor of The Fiddleback, a literary journal, and lives in Colchester, Vermont.


“In language that often reads more like poetry than prose, Nelson details her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s attempts to hold the family together, and her brother’s eventual descent into drugs and mental illness… Nelson presents this as both a betrayal and an achievement, and the way she writes is so unflinchingly honest it leaves you able to understand that perhaps both can be equally true at once.” —ELLE

“The 14 autobiographical essays in this collection […] are graced by fine writing and insight, all the more crucial since this territory is well traveled…  Each chapter could stand alone, and rather than driving a plot, they explore a set of relationships over time… Now that she’s weighed in with her version of the old story, it will be intriguing to see what this gifted young writer does next.” —Newsday

“Nelson’s collection, a series of linked personal essays, aptly captures the world-weariness of those of us who attend “the theater of addiction… Thus, she establishes one of the most significant and daring aspects of her literary debut: addiction in the present tense… The stage is crowded, yet these carefully crafted essays avoid the overwrought, or overly dramatic, or even the obvious. The best memoirists know when to stand back and allow certain events and images to speak for themselves, as Nelson does in her matter-of-fact, unadorned presentations of the most harrowing moments of her own as well as others’ lives… [S]he presents the addicts in her life honestly and fairly… In If Only You People Could Follow Directions, Nelson extends a message to all of us who beat on, boats against the currents that roil within ourselves and those we love.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Hendry Nelson is very much her own woman in these linked essays that take family dysfunction up what a writing teacher of mine calls “the ladder of abstraction.” […] Hendry Nelson is both brilliant and facile in her use of language… Jessica Hendry Nelson bravely forges her own voice in these complex essays. She succeeds in editing herself — that is shaping herself as a writer — and in the process stakes out a place as an admirable practitioner of contemporary memoir.” —Boston Globe

“Nelson’s voice is assertive and meaningful, with moments of wry wit and despair. She layers her experiences so aptly—a blackface ewe that has fallen to its death juxtaposed with her father falling down a staircase to his own demise—and her refreshing style makes the essays meld together with grace and fluidity. At the crux is unconditional love for both family and self, and underneath that, the tenacious will to prevail.”—Philadelphia City Paper

“The author’s family was stretched to its limits by addictions, mental illness, death, incarcerations and financial instability. Each episode in this carefully crafted series of essays illuminates another moment of inertia or determination in the shaky journey Nelson took toward independence and stability. The best essays unfold like scenes in an indie flick, with the bad motels and boardwalks so accurately rendered. Nelson presents clearly the frustrations of loving people who are just no good for you. The little girl who pictured her dad checking into jail as if he were checking into a hotel grew up to be a woman who could walk on all sorts of thin ice and survive to tell the stories about it. We’re fortunate she chose to share the stories.” —Library Journal Starred Review

“Nelson writes in stark, harrowing detail about the devastation alcohol and drugs have inflicted on her family over the years… as Nelson strives to find balance and peace, she manages to offer hope that survival is possible.” —Publishers Weekly

“While essays don’t follow the family chronologically, Nelson uses their order to illuminate her emotional evolution, which will prove reassuring and perhaps instructive to readers interested in overcoming similar hardships.” —Booklist

“Jessica Hendry Nelson knows the power of clean, sparse prose, and her keen eye for the small, most telling details of character show an insight into the human psyche well beyond her years. Her story is oftentimes a dark one, but Nelson holds strong, knowing that saving those we love may first begin, and end, with saving ourselves. A remarkable debut by a wonderfully talented writer.” —James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries

“The direction one should go is immediately to a book store and pick up a copy of If Only You People Could Follow Directions. What a great reading experience. Jessica Nelson is a genius at composing the perfect duet between autobiographical resonance and wholly inventive incident. The city of Philadelphia itself is a shady character here —but mainly this is an indispensable tale of family dysfunction and redemption. It’s like being read to by an excitable, melancholy, and vivid storyteller extraordinaire.” —Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

If Only You People Could Follow Directions breaks apart the pieces of family relationships, turns the pieces around, and puts them back together in a way that shows us how love, pain, death, addiction, mental illness, beauty, rage, and compassion are all embedded within one another. Jessica Hendry Nelson has remade autobiography into an unforgettable kaleidoscope where what seems broken is really, and astonishingly, precisely the thing holding your heart together. So you can keep going. So you know what love is. You will never say “family” the same way again.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water

“Memory doesn’t move in a straight line. It is chaotic, digressive, and imperfect. While most memoirs force life into the restrictions of straight lines, Nelson embraces the chaos by moving back and forth in time, free associating among memories, and organizing her life into a series of essays. What could be just another memoir of a family disintegrated by substance abuse becomes a vibrant and challenging exploration of abuse, obsession, coping, family, friendship, and self-discovery.” —Josh Cook, Porter Square Books (Cambridge, MA)

“Writing well about addiction is a rare gift, and newcomer Jessica Hendry Nelson, in If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir, comes at the problem elliptically, in some cases deliberately pruned of strong emotion. This works in her favor, as she eschews over-the-top bravado for the facts of life. The book is, heartbreakingly, a book about family—about the power of substance abuse, self-destruction, grief, and remorse to tear away at every connection human beings share.” —Dirk Hanson, author of Addiction Inbox

“This memoir in essays brings to mind Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. It’s a book for anyone who has ever been young and trying to find themselves – which is to say, it’s a book for everyone. Nelson’s punch-you-in-the-heart prose is incandescently beautiful.” —Michele Filgate, Community Bookstore (Brooklyn, NY)

“A stunning debut. Nelson is a writer to watch, not just for her sure-footed prose and her adept storytelling ability, but also because she survived a family defined by addiction and psychological destruction. Nelson grew up as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother who varied between best friend and neglectful parent. Her brother Eric is also an addict and suffers from bipolar disorder. It is no surprise that she and many of her closest friends had plenty of exposure to drugs, alcohol, and destructive behaviors during her formative years. Despite her background and her childhood, Nelson graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in English and earned an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her survival is a story in and of itself, but it is her writing that is the true standout in this memoir.” —Terry Louchheim Gilman, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore (San Diego, CA)

Related Products