The exterior shell of Nicole Harkin’s life exudes accomplishment.
The 1993 Flathead High School graduate’s resume is stuffed with achievement — a law degree, Fulbright Fellow in Germany, a research associate for a federal project on government oversight, a long stint as an analyst with the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Harkin’s personal life seems right on track, too. As a child she belonged to Girl Scouts, played on Flathead’s first girls soccer team, was a ski-school instructor and took dance lessons. Now, at 43, she has a loving husband, two young sons and a nice life in Washington, D.C.
Yet there was a story to be told about what people didn’t see when they pictured her life. What bubbled up is the account of a family that was flawed and sometimes excruciatingly human. Harkin’s book, “Tilting, A Memoir,” was published in June by independent publishing company Black Rose Writing.
“It’s so funny when people say my family was dysfunctional,” she said in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C. home. “It didn’t seem dysfunctional to me.”
Harkin’s family life wasn’t normal by most standards, though.
“We only learned about our father’s girlfriend after he became deathly ill and lay in a coma in Missoula, having been airlifted there from our home in Kalispell,” Harkin said, describing a jumping-off point for her memoir.
She remembers overhearing the nurse tell her mother about the girlfriend who stopped by nearly every day to visit her gravely ill father when the rest of the family wasn’t there.
That “confirmed that the last moment of normal had passed us by without our realizing it,” she said. “Up to then, our family had unhappily co-existed with dad flying jumbo jets to Asia while we lived in Montana,” she said. “He was a commercial pilot for Delta; his job was to be gone.
“We finally came together to see dad through his illness, but he was once again absent from a major family event, unable to join us from his comatose state,” she said, describing the crux of her memoir. “This is the moment when our normal existence tilted.”
Truth be told, there were earlier hints of infidelity by her father.
“When I was much younger I heard my mother and grandma talking. She had found a black hair in his luggage,” Harkin recalled. “He was vehement in his denial, and I believed him.”
But later she learned her father had an affair with another woman while her mother was pregnant with her.
Harkin’s father recovered, but her parents divorced and in 1999 her mother became deathly ill with cancer and died just nine months later in 2000.
“When my mom was sick I wanted to write something. I had this kind of ‘War of the Roses’ [theme] in my head,” Harkin explained, referring to the black comedy film that follows a couple with a seemingly perfect marriage that ends in an outrageous and bitter divorce battle.
After Harkin’s mother died, she recounts in the book how she and her three siblings “began to move down an entirely different path with silver linings we wouldn’t see for many years.”
Harkin had a strained relationship with her father after her mother died. He died of a heart attack at 68 nine years ago, just six weeks before her marriage to Brent Lattin, also a Flathead graduate.
The idea of writing about her flawed family chipped away at her, so she set out a strategy for becoming an author.
“The first thing was I read a ton of books,” she said. “Step one: read more.”
Then she tapped into an online writing studio through Stanford University. That allowed her to refine the idea of a memoir and develop a cohesive narrative.
She worked on the book full time for three years.
Harkin intends to continue writing and currently is working on a mystery novel set in Berlin.
“Tilting” already has gotten favorable reviews, with Meghan Phillips of Hippocampus Magazine, an online literary magazine, writing that “‘Tilting’ offers an honest portrait of a family that didn’t know how to communicate without screaming at each other, and shows that even the most unbalanced family dynamics can find an equilibrium.”
“Tilting, A Memoir,” is available at all major booksellers. For more information go to www.tiltingmemoir.com.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.