REVIEW | Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir
author: Jeanne Darst
genre: memoir
pages: 303
published: 2011
source: New York Public Library

Oh man, Jean-Joe. Where to start?

Jeanne Darst, youngest of four sisters, was raised by an alcoholic mother (she gives Joan Crawford a la Mommy Dearest a run for her money) and a father obsessed with the idea of being a writer, and rarely produces any actual writing. Her childhood was spent just outside of New York, during which her father attempts to shop around his novel (no one bites) and her mother cooks, drinks and mourns her lost youth. As Jeanne approaches adulthood, three things become clear:

  1. she’s an alcoholic like her mother
  2. she’s a “writer” like her father
  3. she’s completely self-absorbed, a trait she inherited from both. Genetically speaking, she was fucked.

Fiction Ruined My Family had all the makings for a terrific memoir: potential for triumph (or at least growth) over a dysfunctional upbringing, incredibly rich characters in her parents, oodles of family history…but it just didn’t work for me for two reasons:

  1. The writing.
  2. Jeanne Darst.

1) The writing:
Darst’s style is not my favorite: tell, not show. There are very few passages with any description or reflection in the book, creating so many missed opportunities! For your consideration, I give you a typical passage: (to set the scene, Jeanne and her sister Julia have just walked into the apartment during Christmas from college to find their alcoholic mother facedown in a pool of her own blood. Massive craft opportunity)

“I opened the door and Mom was lying facedown in the ivory-colored carpet. The rug around her head was red and black. I went to her and pulled her up by her shoulders as well as I could, her head drooping forward and gushing blood onto my T-shirt and jeans. I called out to Julia. She phoned 911. They told me to apply pressure to where her head was spurting blood until the ambulance got there, which was within about four minutes. They took her to the Doctors Hospital around the corner. We walked the block and a half there ourselves, rather than get in the ambulance. I had a lot of blood on my shirt and hands.” (page 126).

*facepalm*

Tell tell tell tell tell. Very little show. And the little show there was…was so utilitarian!

Ironically, throughout the book, Jeanne’s father suggests multiple tomes he thinks Jeanne should check out (Gardner, Cather, Frank O’Connor, Keats, etc) for the benefit of her writerly development, advice which Darst flippantly blows off.

Excuse me! Move over, John Updike. Here comes Jeanne Darst. And, apparently, she can’t learn anything from you.

2) Jeanne Darst:
I really wanted to like her. And the only reason I finished reading the book is because I kept waiting for her to exhibit some sort of genuine self-reflection, some iota of empathy, any tiny bit of honest self-scrutiny.

Nada.

She has to be one of the most self-absorbed, deluded, self-aggrandizing people I’ve ever had the displeasure of spending 300 pages with (or at least she presents herself that way. I’ve never met her and thus cannot make a definitive statement as to the veracity/degree of her awfulness/self-preoccupation. I can only go on what she’s chosen to share. And the self she decided to share sucks). The reason: she (or the she Darst has chosen to share with the reader) completely lacks empathy. Darst seems to inhabit planet Jeanne and very seldom seems willing to emerge from her bubble and look at the world from any perspective but her own. Now, for a decent portion of events in the book, Darst is a raging alcoholic making all kinds of destructive decisions, and I get that, in the moment, asking that she experience any real empathy is asking too much…but this is a memoir. Not a case history. A central part of the memoirist’s job is to engage in a process of honest self-scrutiny, to not just regurgitate their history but react to it. Darst’s telling comes off as smug, at times arrogant, at all times oblivious to those around her, and at worst self-congratulatory. And it’s incredibly unattractive, which made it really hard for me to want to stick with her throughout the rest of the book.

Example the first: Darst, when in college, unknowingly contracted crabs when borrowing a nightgown from a high school friend. She then inadvertently passed them on to her boyfriend (via the usual means) and to her sister (by sharing a pull out couch over Christmas break). Now, a decent person would feel AWFUL about the situation and would express that, if not in the moment, at least in the retelling. Nope. Darst is more concerned with setting up a funny anecdote about her mothers divorce lawyer walking into the apartment to catch her walking around topless with a garbage bag duct taped to her lower half (in theory, so she wouldn’t reinfect the pull out couch in case the anti-crab medicine didn’t work).

Example the second: In the quote I shared in “1) the writing” section, notice how much emphasis is placed on the blood on her clothes, the number of times she uses the word “I”? For the record, she never does share exactly what happened that rendered her mother near death, soaked in her own coagulating fluids, but man, does she have time to make another crabs related joke!

Example the third: Darst’s supposed close friend Kristina got a job as Anthony Mazzola’s secretary at Harper’s Bazaar, a job many a young fashionista would die for (insert skinny-bitches-eye-gouging-with-Louboutins reference here). Darst decided, on the day of a big gala Mazzola was throwing, to prank call Kristina at work. She pretended to be Lauren Hutton, as Kristina had shared she had left a message for Ms. Hutton earlier in the day to inquire as to whether or not she would be attending said gala. Darst, as Hutton, proceeded to tell Kristina that she wanted to go down on her in quite explicit language. And hangs up. Without telling Kristina that it was a joke. Kristina, shook up from the call and believing that she was going to show up at the gala to find Lauren Hutton ready to lady rape her, told her boss about the sexual harassment she’d been subjected to. Thankfully, Darst serendipitously calls Kristina before Mazzola calls Hutton to confront her about her lascivious intentions for his office manager…Jesus H. Christ.

Example the fourth: There’s a chapter ( A CHAPTER!) about the time she defecated into a plastic bag in her living room (she was living in two rooms and with a shared, and unfortunately occupied, bathroom) and cranked up NPR to mask the sound (“Pulling the bags away from my butt, I thought that, all things considered, Linda Wertheimer, it worked very well.” page 205). An entire chapter. About shitting in a bag. Just to set up an NPR joke. For shame.

Example the fifth: Darst finally decides to see a therapist, Hildey, who unfortunately has Lyme Disease that’s causing all sorts of health problems. During one of their (last few) sessions, Hildey experiences a slew of unfortunate events over the course of a brief period of time (her lunch explodes in the microwave and sprays chicken vindaloo all over the break room, the receptionist at her doctor’s office calls and is particularly hostile regarding an upcoming Lyme Disease related appointment, compounding the stress caused by the Lyme Disease itself) and Hildey begins to cry. We’ve all had one of those days, where a universe of small disappointments seems to come crashing down on us at once. Darst’s reaction: “I walked out onto University Place wondering why all the people who were supposed to be in the stability biz–mothers, fathers, therapists–fell apart on me…Each week after that I was meaner and meaner to Hildey. I couldn’t help it. She wasn’t capable of doing her job. She lost her shit. Maybe she should have taken a day off.” (pg 219).

*headdesk*

I wish I could stuff this critique into the middle a nice little compliment sandwich…but there was only one part of the book that worked for me, and that was when Darst reflects (and yes, this is one of the few places in the book where there is evidence of reflection) on cleaning out her mother’s apartment after Mommy Darst finally succumbs to a stroke. Her description of the apartment, her mother’s personal affects, the memories they evoked…the start of some really great stuff. I recall there was a particularly nice description of a lamp. I could see glimpses of what Darst is capable of when she takes a moment and lets herself be serious, honest and reflective…when she stops writing with what reads like the desire to be seen as this outrageous-shock-jock-esque-nonstop hilarious-anecdote-machine, and lets us glimpse briefly at what’s underneath the facade her former-alcoholic-self’s-go-to-defense-mechanism has erected.

Rubric rating. 4. What was supposed to be hilarious sharing of family history felt both exhibitionist and pathetic. I probably wouldn’t have been so critical about the manner in which the story was told, or even the story itself for that matter, if Darst hadn’t presented herself as so incredibly and completely self-involved, and thus virtually unlikable. And maybe that was the point. Some genius intentional stylistic decision. To write as to portray herself like the jackass she was when she was at her worst, and to only give the reader fleeting peripheral glances into the person she’s capable of being. To inflict on the reader just a teeny bit of the frustration her nearest and dearest must have felt with her throughout the years. Regardless, it just didn’t work for me.

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