By Martin Northway
Though the title of Jeanne Darst’s memoir “Fiction Ruined My Family” suggests a chilling indictment of the human cost of art, it could well be subtitled “But I Became a Writer Anyway.”
Whether it is genetics or nurture or both that made her this way, Darst is clearly a natural—a Gen X’er who though failing in every other way has finally succeeded as an artist, here with a book that is both a rant against and an anthem to the making of literature, turning on a dime from hysterical, often ribald humor to unvarnished, painful and sober (literally) reality.
Darst, a third-generation writer on her father’s side, has a nuclear family rooted in two old St. Louis lines—her father’s politically savvy Irish clan that includes a former mayor and her mother’s financially successful Gissys, who are country club and horse people. (Darst’s mother was a champion equestrian in her youth as well as a high-achieving collegian.)
Jeanne is the youngest sprout of four sisters, the baby, spoiled, the dotty “idiote” (her childhood spelling) of the family. (More particularly: “from oldest to youngest we had: a book-hater, a compulsive reader, a paperwork fanatic and an idiot detective.”)
Her dad Steve was a newspaperman and gifted magazine freelancer with dreams of being a novelist, a tension nonetheless negotiated by mother Doris’ supportive homemaking—until Dad takes the whole family out on a long limb, uprooting them to an uncertain rural life in New York so he can finally finish and sell a novel.
Grandma Gissy’s gnashing of teeth seems to foretell (if not actually doom) the ultimate failure of the project, and a second attempt to follow, but not before the girls are exposed to the peculiarities of the Eastern literati.
Sadly, the parents’ marriage falls apart, dad sidelined by projects that fail to produce income, mom dissolving into alcoholism (dying in her sixties), both tied in the end by the slimmest thread of a youngest daughter who has not yet gone to college. “I felt like I was a slow eater and the check had been paid and everyone had their coats on still sitting at the table, waiting for me to be finished.”
Jeanne went to artsy but architecturally bleak SUNY Purchase. From her father’s financial failure she concluded that to be a writer she also needed an alternative career to produce income. Plan B? “Acting,” she writes. “I’d like to reiterate in case you missed that: Acting was my backup career, my safety net so that I wouldn’t have to be broke.”
Along the way, neither her father nor mother counseled her that the hard drinking she had begun in high school did not mix well with success. There followed a decade of frustrated artistic ambitions and menial or temp jobs, relying on the kindness of strangers and boyfriends to keep herself housed and clothed.
Solo, she was relegated to a tiny third-floor Brooklyn flat with a shared bathroom down the hall. Here enters one of numerous tragicomedies: on the verge of a gastric explosion, she finds the bathroom occupied, so she voids into a garbage bag that she can’t bring herself to dump into the building’s trash, thus finding herself accosted by an arts colleague in the street as she is seeking an alternative disposal site.
Meanwhile, she suffers the foibles of an impecunious father who clearly loves his daughters, whose idea of hospitable gift-bringing is sharing cheese in the vestibule of his ex-wife’s apartment building. As a loquacious, cultivated character, he far exceeds his professional status as writer.
Darst herself is absolutely blunt about her own shortcomings. Toward the back of the book, blackouts and lost weekends are replaced by a recording of her road to sobriety. Thus empowered, she does find salvation in the arts—in writing one-woman shows she performs in venues as diverse as homes and barns, and now in writing and publishing a book.
Her father is a good-enough sport to have vetted and blessed this memoir, but his loving but bruising treatment here offers a stern caution to parents everywhere whose children have suffered for one’s writing: Take care lest they grow up to write about you.
Honey, I promise to try to do better.
“Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir”
By Jeanne Darst
Riverhead Books, 318 pages, $26