Memoirs of severely dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen these days, Darst’s excellent writing skills have created a book well worth the read. Darst grew up with her parents’ alcoholism, social pretensions, delusional behavior and financial instability. She and her three sisters played peculiar games. (“You’re Patty Hearst, and we’re the S.L.A.”) She began drinking heavily herself and took temporary jobs (like hydrangea window-box gardener), failing at all of them. She watched as her parents’ marriage broke up and tried not to mimic their behavior. The author’s father, Stephen Darst, wanted so badly to write and did write constantly but after his second novel was rejected never completed another project. Darst’s mother’s Social Register family status, shaped Ms. Darst’s childhood as surely as her father’s literary aspirations did. With a friend from the same Hamptons yacht club, she played a game they called the Weinhausers, about shunning a family of poor townies. (“Get outta my house, you lousy Weinhausers!”) She says that her father’s conversational style made it especially hard to make friends. A girl whom Ms. Darst met at the local Teen Center might find herself grilled by Mr. Darst as he drove them home: “Now, Shannon, who would you say, and I know it’s tough to name just one, but if someone had a gun to your head, who would you say is your favorite essayist?”
Fiction is well worth the read.
“As a kid I was absolutely terrified of clichés. My father forbade them in our home. It was like the way other people regarded cursing in their house. If you said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” my father would go ballistic. Mom couldn’t control herself, apparently, because she violated this rule about every five seconds.
I was under the impression clichés could ruin you, ruin your life, your hopes and dreams, bring down your whole operation if you didn’t watch it. They were gateway language, leading straight to a business major, a golfy marriage, needlepoint pillows that said things about your golf game, and a self-inflicted gunshot to the head that your family called a heart attack in your alma mater announcements. Character suicide. Language was important, sexy, fun, alive, extremely personal, it was like food, you wouldn’t just pop anything into your mouth, why would you let anything pop out that hadn’t been considered and prepared for someone to enjoy? To ignore language was akin to ignoring the very person you were speaking to, rude, uncaring, unfeeling, cold. It was a way to connect and also to woo, to charm, to manipulate, it was a tool for love, for survival. Your words were you. To ignore language was to ignore Dad. To love words was to love Dad.
My father had extremely strong feelings about what was okay to read and what was not. I was completely intimidated by his literary standards and expectations and to this day it seems amazing and daring to me that other people will just read something without thinking much about it. “Oh, I found that book in my living room. I don’t know where it came from. My babysitter must have left it here.” Your babysitter? You just read whatever’s lying around? Are you crazy? You think you’re gonna make it to fifty living like that? My father asked in every conversation, “So what are you reading these days?” I always knew it was coming, I agonized over whether to lie or not.”