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Harvard Authors Profile: Tom W. Seeman ’85 on Crafting A Faithful Memoir

Harvard alumnus Tom W. Seeman '85 sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his new memoir, "Animals I Want To See."
Harvard alumnus Tom W. Seeman '85 sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his new memoir, "Animals I Want To See." By Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan and Post Hill Press
By Leah M. Maathey, Contributing Writer

In his debut memoir set to release on May 14, Tom W. Seeman ’85 uses prose to illustrate the many complex emotions of the human experience. “Animals I Want To See: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Projects and Defying the Odds” is a riveting tale on the power of childhood imagination, benevolence, and tenacity.

The story begins as a young Seeman moves into a new house on Bronson Street, along with his mother, father, and nine siblings. He chronicles his experiences with his neighbors, teachers, and family — all of whom played a part in his childhood journey that culminated in his graduation with honors from Yale University and later, Harvard Law School.

Young Seeman was determined to succeed. He took advantage of the opportunities presented to him by those who were willing to take a chance on him. The memoir interweaves narratives about his academic tenacity and home life, creating a complex portrait of the Seeman family, the community around them, and Seeman’s personal road to success. In writing this memoir, Seeman was not motivated by monetary gain, but rather the impact his story could have.

“I didn’t write it to be stuck in a corner, it’s an inspirational book, and it can help many people,” Seeman said.

Seeman’s memoir is rife with anecdotes that range from painful and heartbreaking to inspiring and comical. The reader is given an insight into the love and pain inherent in family dynamics that, in this case, are magnified tenfold as a result of having such a large family. Seeman describes his relationships with his siblings and friends, his arduous relationship with his father, and the strength and determination of his mother.

While the memoir is his first published book, Seeman discussed that he has maintained various creative outlets over time, citing a painting easel he had in one of his early apartments as an example. He discusses how writing the book allowed him to continue to maintain his artistic side while writing a story he felt needed to be told. Seeman began writing the memoir as a kind of “labor of love,” allowing him to be imaginative while still creating a truthful and impactful story.

Even though Seeman was committed to creating an accurate image of his upbringing, he was still able to add creative flourish through dialogue and other scene and plot-building elements. These instances allow the reader to better understand a young Seeman as well as those around him.

“I think there are many artistic opportunities while still telling a true memory,” Seeman said. “There were some moments when I was writing when I felt this is exactly what this person would have said at that moment, at that age. Staying true to what really happened and to who these people really are is the key.”

In writing the story, Seeman made various active decisions in order to create a compelling narrative, taking careful measures to avoid reusing old tropes.

“I almost saw it as a success story, but not one that is cliche in its approach,” Seeman said. “I tried to do something a little bit [differently].”

Seeman's approach to writing went beyond the mere act of transcribing his childhood memories. He worked with a writing coach and conducted countless interviews with the people present during that period of his life, all while chasing the impressions and emotions of his younger self. The outcome is a narrative that first intermittently whisks the reader away to the past and then gently returns them to the present. In one moment, it feels as though the reader is immersed in the world of Seeman and his companions, and in the next, one finds themselves contemplating their own life in relation to the book's themes and characters; the story is evocative and retrospective all at once.

“Another example of literary decision-making was that every once in a while, I would have a short chapter that was in the present tense. The book was in the past tense, and then once in a while, there was a chapter in the present tense,” Seeman said. “It takes a lifetime of learning and honing your craft and getting better and better at it, and understanding all these different things that you can know about it — that makes a great book.”

Despite the difficulties of his upbringing, Seeman’s story brims with quiet optimism and wonder — he has an awe-inspiring ability to make the best out of difficult circumstances and to find joy and beauty in the things around him.

One of the overarching messages Seeman hopes to convey is the importance of “small kindnesses,” specifically kindness through service. During his interview and in his memoir, he recited stories of various acts of kindness he had done for others to pay homage to the acts of kindness done for him. Seeman's mother, a seminal figure in the book, epitomizes the kind of dedication and love through care that Seeman hopes readers leave with.

“I do feel like the book changed me — I felt the book made me more kind. I think my premonition was about the compassion of the small kindnesses that were done for me. I recognized all of those as I wrote the book, as I thought about it and more and more of it came out,” Seeman said. “I try to do a kindness every day, and I would say I wasn’t doing that, but now I really try and I really focus on that.”

“Animals I Want to See” cannot be easily classified into one specific genre. It’s a coming-of-age story, a self-proclaimed “rags-to-riches” tale, and a personal account all at once. Still, the themes of love, compassion, hope, and persistence are pervasive throughout. Seeman encourages people to aspire and imagine, to act with compassion and kindness, and most importantly, to persevere.

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