Learning How to Parent from a Warhol Factory Girl at the Chelsea Hotel

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

Alex Auder’s childhood was what a lot my fellow parents would consider unsafe. She grew up living with her mother, Viva, who was an actor, writer, and a legendary muse of Andy Warhol, in the Chelsea Hotel in the ’70s and ’80s. She spent occasional time with her father, the filmmaker Michel Auder, who lived in a Tribeca loft that he shared with his then-wife, the artist Cindy Sherman.

Auder was on the loose a lot and did a lot of mothering of her highly volatile mother. She was 11 when her younger sister, Gaby Hoffmann, was born, and she did a lot of caregiving for Gaby, too. At 11, Alex took 3-month-old Gaby along with her to a sleepover, confident that she could care for the baby while playing with her friends. That night, Gaby wouldn’t stop crying, so the hosts sent them both home in a cab.

From a very young age, Auder witnessed drug use, and sex, and extremely erratic behavior on the part of, well, all kinds of people. There wasn’t much in the way of routine or healthy boundaries. In many ways, her new memoir, Don’t Call Me Home, reads like a story of the kind of upbringing most people today conscientiously work to avoid giving their children.

But her memoir is not at all a cautionary tale. It’s a story of love — embodied, practiced, habitual, crazy-making. Never have I read so vividly about how it feels as a young child to love a parent, probably because most of us forget that feeling by the time we’re writing our memoirs. Auder doesn’t forget, and the way she writes about loving her mother took my breath away.

Auder, 52, lives in leafy Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Nick, and their 11-year-old son, Miko. Her 19-year-old daughter, Lui, is a student at Bard College, which is where Alex and Nick met as students. For many years Auder acted and taught yoga. During the pandemic, she moved her classes online and made bizarre and excellent satirical videos about yoga and wellness culture that she’d put on Instagram. If Yoga With Adriene is yoga for everyone, Auder’s classes were yoga for eccentrics. I got into taking them during the darkest early COVID days, until my husband made me stop because Auder’s style of asana-instruction was too distracting while he was trying to work from home in the next room.

I spoke to Auder recently about reconciling her childhood with raising kids today, the challenges of having an “open door” policy at home, and what it feels like to push a child on a park swing.

You were raised in an environment that was permissive to an extent that is totally unheard of now. And you’ve raised your kids in a very nice, quiet area where people are conscientious about children above all. Has it ever been hard for you to adapt to the parenting culture that you’ve been raising your kids inside of, given the way you grew up?  
Absolutely yes. I feel really shocked at times about what other parents’ expectations are. My girl was completely easy. Figured out how to tie her shoes on her own. Didn’t fight with other kids. With my boy, that wasn’t the case at all. He’s amazing, and very, very energetic — you know, wants to make anything into a sword or a gun. When he was a toddler, he would fight with kids at the playground, and I wasn’t used to that. We were in the West Village at the time. To me, the playground was like, I take the kids there, and I sit on the bench and do my work. I have no interest in pushing the swing. The minute I start doing that, I either feel like I’m being tortured or I suddenly come down with narcolepsy.

Anyway, there we are at the Bleecker playground, and I actually got into a verbal argument with another parent. My son was like 3, and he’s standing on the bottom of the slide, and there’s a kid who can’t slide down. And that kid’s mother is, like, looking around. I was ignoring her. Sometimes I would pretend my kid wasn’t my kid, just to avoid these exchanges. She was like, “My child wants to go down the slide.” I was astounded. I would never say that to another parent! I’d just let my kid figure it out.

There were these plastic toys that they’d have there, and once my kid was in a fight with another kid over a toy, and the parent kind of looked at me, like, What are you going to do about this? And I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t believe in sharing.” Just to end the confrontation. I mean, you’d have thought I uttered something satanic.

Nobody is going to learn how to do interpersonal dynamics with this kind of micromanaging by adults! But then of course, you become the asshole. At some point you’re forced into the negotiation with the other parents, especially as they get older. I can’t believe I have to pretend to care about these negotiations.

Does it bother you, to feel judged by other parents? 
When we moved from the West Village to Philadelphia, we switched the kids from public school — PS3, where I went — to private school, a Quaker school where my husband had gone. And we were considered these wild, laissez-faire parents. I was shocked! Compared to the way I grew up, we were so conservative. I really feel like we were on top of things! I honestly think that it was because we seemed bohemian. The only thing we didn’t do was use the tracker on my daughter’s iPhone. And my daughter had a lot of boyfriends early on, coming to the house, and other parents were like, “Did you make sure the bedroom door stayed open?” And I was like, “That is so weird! No!”

My husband was tracking my book sales during the week it came out, and there was a fun moment, where, very briefly, my book was No. 1 on Amazon in the “Parenting Girls” category. I was like, “Fuck all y’all!” I wanted to make a flier and throw it on the lawns of all the parents I knew when my daughter was in high school.

I spent a lot of my childhood on a commune, and I loved the parts of your book where you describe the community that existed at the Chelsea — spending time in other people’s rooms among their things and their smells, blending into the background while the adults hung out. Sometimes I feel bereft for that kind of living — I don’t live like that anymore at all. Do you miss that?
My husband and I are always trying to re-create this. We’re really on the same page about this even though he didn’t grow up in this way. We have an open-door policy. We have this great little community, but that being said — and I don’t think my neighbors will be too offended by this — I feel like it’s not really reciprocated. I don’t feel like I could just walk into my neighbor’s house. My kid is growing up as an only child because his sister is so much older. We are always asking our neighbors, “Can we take your kids to the park? We will feed your kid, we will take them somewhere!” And the answer is often no. It’s much more boundaried. People don’t seem to want to give us their kids. I can’t fuckin’ pay someone to loan us a kid!

You were the subject of your mother’s autofiction and your father’s films, and you do great work on Instagram. I wonder, do you have thoughts about social media? 
I think it’s an absolute nightmare. I think with my parents — I hate saying this because it sounds very annoying — but it was art. The kids on social media today, it’s branding. It’s late-stage capitalism mode. For women, for girls, the hypersexualized dances and stuff on TikTok? I think it’s only negative. Sorry, I’m not into the whole, “It’s all sexual positivity.”

And adults putting their kids on social media constantly? This is going to be super-interesting when this generation turns 30. There’s no way there’s not going to be some strange cultural shift in like 20 years.

What’s one thing that people worry a lot about nowadays that maybe they shouldn’t worry about?
 You can try to do every little thing right, but my mother would always say it’s all in the peers. Nothing to do with the parents. I don’t know what the research says now, but I do believe that. We are switching my son from private school to the local public school because I do think I’d like him to have a peer group that is more local, more diverse, lower income. I want him to experience that. I usually feel like I don’t need to manipulate the situation. But in this case, I’m like, You know what, actually, let’s manipulate it a bit.

What’s something parents don’t worry about that maybe they ought to? 
It’s a systemic issue — it’s the school systems, public and private. Basically, your public schools are funded by the real estate in the neighborhood. It’s systemic racism and economic injustice, represented in the schools.

Our neighborhood is a very progressive Quaker community, and very few of the local people send their kids to our public school. Most of them send their kids to these Quaker private schools. I guess, because of how the world is now, the wealth wrapped up in the schools makes them more conservative. My daughter was at PS3 in the West Village and we came to a private school in Philadelphia when she was in middle school. She did great, but I was shocked at the feeling of conservatism. My vibe did not mesh.

I did have a fight at a school potluck over politics. The parents were very generous, hosting these lovely parties in their homes. My husband and I were, and still are, very vocal Bernie supporters. The host says, “I’m not on the same page as you, Alex, I’m socially liberal but  fiscally conservative.” That absolutely enraged me. I think of that as libertarian, but no one wants to call themselves that. It’s just a trigger for me. I got up and walked out. And I was never invited to a school potluck again.

In your book, you write very vividly about how much work it was for you, as a child, to anticipate and work around your mother’s reactions to things you would say and do. Has Viva read the book yet — and were you nervous about how she would react? 
She has not read the book yet. I didn’t feel I could share it with her beforehand — I just knew it would be a shitshow if I did. So maybe I did protect myself in that way. She’s about to read it — she’s tracking it, it’s in the mail. I wasn’t at all terrified while I wrote it. I just wrote what I needed to write. But once the final draft clicked together, and there was no way anything was going to change — I was terrified. But now, we’re in a fairly copacetic state together. Maybe there was some part of me that felt good enough about the work. None of it is written in a spirit of revenge.

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Learning How to Parent from a Warhol Factory Girl