When a writer is born into a family, you can forget family.
This is the line I got from literary-minded friends when they learned I'd written a memoir about my overfunded, over-served, morally and financially declining, hugely dysfunctional, and dipsomaniacal family. When the same friends asked if I cared what my family thought of me, I answered, of course. But then I wasn't anticipating any negative reaction to my book — mostly because the central characters in Dead End Gene Pool were all safely tucked away, six feet under. And I was naïve.
Shortly after my manuscript was sold, I came across an article by the memoirist Sean Wisley in which he related how he dealt with the people he wrote about. I thought the title of the piece, "Publish, Then Flee," was hilarious — until the advance copies of my own book came out. Then I was scouring his words for advice on what to do when flight is not an option and there's a silent lynch mob, with your DNA, lighting torches and gathering in the dark.
The irony is that I never set out to write a memoir in the first place. I am not a reader of them, so I did not hear the clarion call. Actually, I was writing a cookbook.
A little background: In a past life I was chef/owner of a seasonal French bistro on an island in Maine, where the average income of the summer residents is somewhere between a hundred billion and a hundred trillion dollars. My restaurant was there for a reason. I may have initially been clueless, but one thing I knew was that even the kitchen staff of the wealthy get a night off a week, and you can eat lobster just so many times a summer.
We'll skip the details as to why, but in the mid-90s I, a die-hard New Yorker of the first degree, moved to Portland, Oregon, to marry the love of my life, a man with a silly name, a faltering string of Mexican restaurants, four children, and the proverbial ex-wife from You-Know-Where. Cheever's suburbia would have been a better fit for me. I sought refuge from the strain of carpools, endemic sports, and lack of take-out Chinese, in a painting studio down by the train tracks on an industrial stretch along the Willamette River. I set up the easel I'd used since art school, along with all my oil paints and brushes, and set about writing a cookbook.
It's a given that writing projects rarely go as planned. Seemingly overnight, my family back East started dropping like flies in a hard frost: first my grandmother, then my cousin, then my mother; they all bought the farm. Then, horrifically, the grim reaper headed north-northwest, and orchestrated the deaths of my husband and three of his children in an airplane crash. When I took up writing again, I was not at the controls and the cookbook turned into an I-need-to-make-sense-of-my-life memoir.
Now, after a 10-year pregnancy, the baby is finally about to be born. And it's a lucky thing I live out here in Portland and that there's a whole lot of country between me and my blood relatives. Most of them knew I was writing a book — after all, I'd only been doing it forever — and it was no secret that it was about our family, nor that I am not exactly an historian, more a ranteuse, so I dumbly assumed everyone was up to the task of being my subjects or they would have said something. In good faith, I even tried interviewing a few kin still aboveground on my side of the tree, but they were either too skittish or too steeped in alcohol or other worldly conditions (including actual other worlds) to offer much.
There was really only one person whose reaction I dreaded, and that was my mother's best friend Greta, whom she'd known practically since childhood. I fretted over this gentle woman's reaction to my less than flattering depiction because she seemed blind to my mother's glaring character defects — and in my book I pretty much force my mother to stand trial. (And although she's not proven guilty, she's sure as shit not innocent.) A couple of times a year, ever since my mother died, Greta sends me a memorial souvenir — a poem my mother once wrote in a moment of accidental sensitivity, a photograph of her in her teens, another of her jumping her favorite horse bareback — and I wince in a combination of guilt, physical pain, and regret for the sides of her I didn't see or managed to ignore.
When I did finally screw up the courage to write to Greta and explain to her the nature of the beast, instead of stoning me, she wrote back that she knew her friend was "brutal" to her children, and that she was incredibly proud of what I had done. I was, and remain, undone by her kindness.
Early on, my publisher's legal counsel had advised me that a shouldering of arms amongst family members immortalized by one's personal narrative is not uncommon following the publication of advance copies. However, we Burdens (except for me of course) are nothing if not discreet. So hardly a direct peep did I hear, despite familial upheaval akin to the shifting of tectonic plates, except for the one from my younger brother, Edward. And he was pissed. As he should have been; his name is practically in lights in the last quarter of the book. In spite of my being an atheist and Edward a confirmed straddler of more than one universe, he and I are very similar — so it wounded me more deeply than I let on that I had wounded him so deeply. After a flurry of over-excited and unrepeatable transmissions, there has for months been a stony incommunicado silence.
But here's the deal:if my book were a novel, maybe I'd have exhibited more sympathy; but it's not, it's a memoir, and neither sympathy nor objectivity is the point. And like I said, I'm not a memoir buff, but if I'd had the sense to read some, I might have heeded those famous second thoughts of Dave Eggers, or added corrective chapters à la Mary McCarthy. But I didn't. So instead, I repeat my new mantra of I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry. Even though I'm not.
Perhaps you find it as anachronistic as I do that generations of gently bred WASPs are still homeschooled to believe one's name appears in the papers three times only: at birth, marriage, and death. With the exception of ambassadorial postings or the donation of a museum building, that's basically it.
And as upper middle class endeavors go, it's also a little iffy to write, not to mention sell, an autobiography. (Note the word.) Far better to self-publish your life story and public achievements and distribute the project amongst friends and business associates. Better yet, wait until you are dead and have your spouse create and share a beautifully printed, exquisitely bound tribute, including the eulogy from your funeral, tasteful condolence letters, a flattering chronology of your life and deeds, and a photograph of you from a younger day.
So imagine the horror when the phone rings and it's the New York Times calling to do a little fact checking about a feature they plan to run on your sister and her memoir, and is it true you believe you've come back as your reincarnated father, and would you like to comment on whether you stole your mother's hospice morphine patches and wore one on each arm?
I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry. (But it is kind of funny.)
That was when my younger brother broke down and called me, and we banded together, as in days gone by, against the enemy; in this case, the wicked reporter to whom I'd perhaps said more than I should have. And when the reporter telephoned our older brother, he and I did the same and we all became, once again (and however tenuously), siblings.
To paraphrase my publisher's own paraphrase, today's paper catches tomorrow's parakeet droppings. And so what if it's mostly in four-letter words; at least my family and I are talking again.
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The great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden is a former illustrator, zoo keeper, taxidermist, owner and chef of the bistro Chez Wendy, and served as the art director of a pornographic magazine — from which she was fired for being too tasteful.
Books mentioned in this post
Wendy Burden is the author of Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir