Michelle Zauner on Choosing to Forgive Her Estranged Father for Starting a New Life

michelle zauner

@Jennameto is an observer. While her peers spend their days curating content, perfecting angles, sharing #MorningThoughts and #GoodVibesOnly, @Jennameto likes to keep her life private, her followers to a minimum. In fact, she follows only one account, keeps but one digital window of interest across the world.

@Jennameto is my Instagram burner account. I created her about a year ago after my father got engaged to an Indonesian woman who, at 24, is seven years younger than me. Because I did not wish to possess any further insight into their relationship, my father and I stopped speaking. Subsequently, @jennameto was born because his fiancée’s account was set to private, and apparently I did, in fact, wish to have further insight into their relationship. When my mother died of cancer in 2014, my father was quick to reinvent himself. Within a year, he moved to Thailand, became obsessed with scuba diving and consumer-grade underwater photography, and proposed to a Burmese woman in her mid-30s, an engagement he broke off within a year or two. I saw him only once or twice a year on holidays, and year after year he transformed more and more into a man I hardly recognized. First it was the bright-red ruby stud the size of a corn kernel in his left ear. Then came a large tattoo on his bicep. He sold the house, shed 40 pounds, had his eye bags lifted. He started wearing those loose muscle tees that come attached with flimsy little hoods and pre-shredded jorts.

I tried to approach these changes with compassion and measured understanding. This must have been how my mother felt waiting outside the Hot Topic while I shopped for bondage pants, when just weeks before I’d begged her for my very own pair of pre-shredded jorts from Abercrombie. It was a passage natural to the established arc of generations, one of those full-circle karmic life things when the adult child must learn to temper their parent’s regressions, their sad attempts to deny the inevitable and unflattering onset of old age.

It was a passage natural to the established arc of generations, one of those full-circle karmic life things when the adult child must learn to temper their parent’s regressions.

I was convinced my dad would get this all out of his system eventually. He would move back to Oregon, settle into his 60s, and our relationship would resume some type of normalcy, but five years later he met @amalia129, and all my compassion rapidly curdled.

“Since when did I have to make a choice between my girlfriend and my daughter?” my father messaged via Facebook, his preferred method of communication, and where all dads seemingly flock to ruin relationships with their children.

“You have no moral compass,” I wrote back. “You will never see your future grandchildren!” I added, hurling every last threat I could summon from the hypothetical future to try to persuade him to leave her.

“Yes there’s a BIG DIFFERENCE in age. It honestly just doesn’t come up,” he insisted. “Also she is a Muslim and I have to become one too.”

And then I blocked him, and we stopped speaking.

There are two blonde women pictured in @jennameto’s avatar, but for one reason or another I have decided that Jenna is the one on the left. Her hair is a little darker, more honey than hay. She wears diamond studs in her ears and pouts, while her friend sticks out her little tongue. I think I found her through a Google search of “pretty white woman.”

Under such guise, I gained access to @amalia129’s private feed and quickly developed an unhealthy obsession with the overactive grid. I began to check her posts and stories at all hours of the day, rubbernecking at the multiple photos she’d post of herself seemingly mid-orgasm writhing on the white sand of a tropical shore, a cement staircase, at the rocky base of a cascading waterfall, and various other, semi-scenic public spaces.

While it hurts too much for me even to look at my father, watch him rush a path in which I was a casualty, @jennameto chooses #love and #forgiveness.

Of course, there are no photos of or with my father, who most certainly does not fit any stretch of an Instagram aesthetic. Instead, “local tomato, come to me then I will touch u with tomato juice spray ;),” reads one caption, accompanying a photo of her reclining in a wheelbarrow, eyes closed and mouth agape as she fists a tomato. “Hi, guys,” she calls out in that copycat rhythm, shopping for oversize sunglasses, lip-synching into the vanity, having her eyebrows threaded, her milia lasered, nothing too personal or banal. And all the while @jennameto ravenously consumes, eating up all content, waiting desperately for the next upload.

“@jennameto is, like, obsessed with me,” @amalia129 must think. “She watches all my stories, and I’m her only friend. Is it my commitment to self-care that reminds her to pause and reflect? My Monday motivation that gives her the morning boost she needs? Am I funny?”

While my resentment of @amalia129 is bound up with a lifelong paranoia of the concept of yellow fever, which exacerbates my fear that my father is desperately attempting to replace my Korean mother with whatever Asian vessel is most readily available, @jennameto observes her silently and without judgment. She respects @amalia129’s dedication to body positivity and the flexibility required to bird-dog beside an infinity pool. She can appreciate that she is a woman who celebrates her youth and sexuality, even if it sometimes feels a little shameless. Remembers that she was a little shameless too when she was that age. But above all @jennameto feels grateful to @amalia129 because she knows she saved someone’s life, even if he is always out of frame. Knows we can’t plan the way things happen, the void that’s left behind, the lengths we run to fill it. That if you find someone who makes you happy, who can keep you from getting crushed under all that dark weight, well, that’s all that really matters. And while it hurts too much for me even to look at my father, watch him rush a path in which I was a casualty, @jennameto chooses #love and #forgiveness.

Michelle Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart (Knopf), is out this month.

Hair: Monaé Everett for Sebastian Professional; Billie Gene for M.A.C. Cosmetics; Manicure: Aja Walton for Essie.

This article originally appears in the April 2021 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands April 6.