Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Summertime reading calls for books with sex or dirty secrets. Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden has plenty of the latter, so delicious that you won't miss the former. A memoir of growing up in a rich offshoot of the Vanderbilt family, Burden's story spares no one in that branch of the tree. Most of her relatives born in the 20th century are pretty worthless in the achievement department: one uncle has OCD, another is mentally challenged and ignored by Burden's grandfather; her brothers have both struggled with severe addiction and careened from lifestyle to lifestyle; her father killed himself, and her mother was an emotionally stunted anorexic alcoholic.

Does not sound fun to read? Oh, but it is! It is book candy, and the reason is Burden's delightfully sardonic writing style. She weaves humor (though it is dark) through her tale, and opens wide the door on the super rich. Her grandmother, though clad in Chanel, continually passes gas (brfffft, a constant refrain in Burden's prose), her Uncle Ham-Ham's repetitive comments ring like a happy Greek chorus through gin-soaked gatherings featuring French cuisine and priceless works of art. Burden even can't resist poking fun at herself: for years she's fascinated by the Addams Family (author Charles Addams is a family friend); and she calls herself "about the ugliest thing anyone ever wrapped a diaper around." Self-deprecating to a fault, Wendy Burden and her wealthy, kooky world absolutely entertained me.

And as dark as her outlook can be, it is rarely mean-spirited. The reader gets the sense that Burden loved her grandparents; with her adult insight, she can now be grateful for the court-ordered visits to their 5th Avenue apartment, a ruling which provided the only stable residence of her childhood. Likewise, she doesn't disparage her privileged upbringing, even though there was plenty of bad stuff served with the good. Burden formed close attachments to servants, relished access to country homes, boats, and art, and traveled widely. These memories are gems for which she is grateful.

The only time Dead End Gene Pool nears nastiness is in Burden's description of her mother, Leslie Hamilton Burden Tobey. In the book, Leslie is the quintessential love with-holder. Absent from her children, she is a social x-ray, courting alcohol and men. (Amazingly, Leslie is also brilliant, graduating from Radcliffe and eventually earning a PhD from Oxford University--all the more amazing an achievement when she seems to exist on raw hamburger and Tab!) The Burden grandparents blame Leslie for their brilliant son's suicide and despise her. Indeed, the reader starts to side with the Burdens regarding this awful woman and her harpiness. Yet, Wendy Burden never lets the reader stray too far into mother hatred. She always tempers her stories with humor: her mother's obsession with tanning is hysterical--a photo in the book showing a dark faced woman with white moons for eyes proves the author's point. Though her mother is a nut, she is a nut with goals. (If perpetual sunburn counts as a goal.)

It is only at the very end of the memoir that Burden reveals a vital piece of information unearthed about her parents' marriage. This revelation softens her (and our) opinion of Leslie Hamilton Burden Tobey. A supreme loss in childbearing must have triggered some sort of sea change in her mother's personality which dominoed to her father's suicide. With this realization, Burden moves toward forgiveness of this strange, sarcastic person--her mother, who always called everyone "Toots."

Wendy Burden's late breaking life reinterpretation is an example of the prime reason I love memoir. The fact that adults can revisit childhood and see it with a mature eye, and maybe, just maybe, discover a new truth, strikes me as something like sorcery. How many of us, after having children, now see selfless acts in the everyday memories of our own mothers? Can't we all see a pattern and purpose in our early lives from our perch of time? Memoir is the adult mind making gold out of straw, finding logic in the chaos. First time out, Burden has proven herself masterful in this genre. Imho, her gene pool is definitely not dead-end.

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