When Christina Crawford published Mommie Dearest
, her tell-all about her movie-star mother, she waited until Joan Crawford was dead ? really
dead, not just acting. And Christina was prudent to wait, I think, since her mother reportedly tried to strangle her over a messy closet. Just imagine what kind of mauling her memoir might have prompted.
My mother never attempted homicide, and she was anything but evil. Nonetheless, she could come up behind me as suddenly as a twister and turn Providence into Oz. And when she crashed, she was the wind-shear beneath my wings. When I was 10, she announced that she was "the center of the universe." She was very convincing ? electric, magnetic, charismatic ? but her medical history read like the chapter headings of a psychiatric manual. I started gathering material for a book about her when I was in kindergarten. That's the back story.
In 1983, I was far from her orbit, living in Paris, working for an ad agency, and launching the first deodorant to the French (this was a huge failure). In the midst of my grand cru reverie, I got a call that changed my life. My parents had been found in Rhode Island aboard their boat, the aptly-named Mr. Fix It, which had leaked carbon monoxide all night. My father was dead, and my mother, who was 55 at the time, was in a coma. She was taken to a little seaside hospital that was so out of its depth, her chart said she was in a "comma."
I flew back to our incongruously named hometown of Providence, thinking of Sonny von Bülow... and, once I saw my mother's condition, eyeing the plug.
But this is the story of an indomitable woman who survived the improbable ? repeatedly. She recovered from what the experts diagnosed as "permanent and irreversible" brain damage. One year after her accident, she learned to think, talk, and walk again, and she got up out of her hospital bed and came home a very different woman. And there's a silver lining: I'm hardly recommending traumatic brain injury as a therapeutic option in manic depression, but it had an unintended benefit in this case ? today my mother is as steady as the beat of a metronome. As Pirandello wrote, some things are implausible, and they don't need to appear true, because they are true.
I never thought I'd publish The Center of the Universe while my mother was alive, so I allowed myself to write things that are supposedly "unsayable." The pen is a blunt instrument, and I told stories that I'd never said aloud to anyone, certainly not to her. But she read a draft, and it was quite a conversation starter. Afterward, the self-proclaimed "center of the universe" announced that I'd "never have better material." So the decision to publish my memoir was hers ? it isn't a revenge-memoir, after all. In fact, she thought I should call it "Love Story."
A close friend who's a comedian gave a show a few weeks ago near my mother's home in Florida, and she went backstage. When he asked if she was proud of my book about the family, she told him that the book isn't about the family, it's about her. The day the memoir was released, she went to her local bookstore and insisted on signing copies. So the center of the universe is still spinning, albeit more slowly.