I picked up four new books from the library this afternoon - all novels except for Blake Bailey's memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait. Hours later, I opened Bailey's memoir after briefly reading one of the novels. The cover, the title, and the prologue all quickly demanded my attention. The majority of my reading is fiction and fictional stories usually beckon me the loudest. Yet, I have recently been barreled over by a series of non-fiction books. And when I think back over the last ten years I can think of countless memoirs that have captivated and haunted me.
Fiction is marvelous and in my eyes one of the greatest joys of my life. But there is something about a true story that demands a different type of attention. As human beings, we feel an imperative pull to make sense of the world around us but also a deep pull to schadenfreude. We read every detail about Adam Lanza in the hopes of making sense of the unfathomable. But we also drive by a car crash and crane our necks. We tune into 20/20 and get drawn in by the story of a man stolen as a baby. We feel a deep desire to discover his personal truth as if it is our own. And we open our newspapers and peruse stories accessible and impenetrable. We try to understand the mistakes of others. And sometimes we try to put ourselves in other's shoes. We study an individual's actions and family in the hope of learning lessons that will make our own pathways easier. And thus memoirs continue to find audiences.
I have read other memoirs because I couldn't pull myself away. I have read them because the story was so unbelievable and the language so stirring. But I have also read memoirs because they reflect back to me an experience through which I can make better sense of my own experiences.
The implosion of Bailey's family is something very foreign from my own lived experience. But there were still elements that helped me to make sense of my experiences. For example, while reading about Bailey's delayed adolescence (and long path to his eventual success as a literary biographer), I felt a loosening of some of my own anguish.
I think what drew me the most into Bailey's story was the concise and calm way he reveals the events of his brother's life. A screaming baby morphs into a thirteen year old who masters German, torments his younger brother needlessly and works harder for his parents' attention. He goes off to NYU only to quit without even attempting to complete a semester. He eventually joins the Marines and finds success at least in the eyes of his mother while continuing down the same spirals.
Bailey is deeply honest and also deeply detached. He reveals details about his own family as if he is writing a dictation of their life events and not an autobiography. He imparts his own thoughts and feelings about events and yet they are delivered without real emotion.
Bailey has a (unsurprisingly) keen eye for detail and a no-nonsense approach to writing. But part of me wanted more from the memoir. Bailey fails in the end to explain his brother's behavior and also at times fails to humanize him. As an adult, he is quick to dismiss his brother and wish him dead (he seems to think time and time again: it's enough already, he will never change). He also seems unable to understand why his mother was unable to give up on her son.
The memoir ultimately raises many more questions than it answers. Could the Bailey parents have done more to prevent their son's failures? Were the Bailey parents too lax? Did Blake owe his brother more kindness? Was Scott schizophrenic or bipolar and self-medicating?
Even though I wished for more emotion and more definitive answers, the memoir is a deeply fascinating read. There are two main themes that reverberate throughout the book - the first is the idea of complicated love. The epigraph before the book states: "That's one of the damnedest things I ever found out about human emotions and how treacherous they can be--the fact that you can hate a place with all your heart and soul and still be homesick for it. Not to speak of the fact that you can hate a person with all your heart and soul and still long for that person." Bailey asserts that even though his brother was an addict who wreaked havoc in their family, he is still the only sibling he had, the brother who held him when he was a baby, the only person who shared his childhood memories. His own feelings for his brother seem overwhelmingly negative but maybe that is just the feeling one gets from the second half of the book. And even so, it is clear that Mariles still longs for her son. The second main theme is the question of what does a parent owe a child and is it ever acceptable for a parent to give up on their adult child? Bailey recalls his father saying, “When a child is young, you can catch him if he falls. Then he gets a little older and falls from a higher place. Maybe you can still catch him. But finally he’s a full-grown adult and falls off the top of a building—then you have to decide: either get out of the way or be crushed.” Bailey's parents (who divorced) had different responses to their sons troubles and thus represent the ends of the spectrum.
The memoir is captivating and thought-provoking and their are ideas and images from it that will stay with me for a while.