Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life
By Tracy Tynan
302 pages, $26
An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir
By Ariel Leve
272 pages, $26.99
My Father Before Me: A Memoir
By Chris Forhan
310 pages, $26
By Karen Brady
Privilege comes at a harrowing price in two of three revealing new memoirs about parents who deviated – stupendously – from the norm.
All three books, by adult children of those parents, pull the veil from the very sort of private and otherwise unknown behavior that, outside of family, rarely comes to light. Unless, of course, the children tell – and tell they do in this trio of exposés, two by the daughters of once-celebrated English and American writers, one by the son of a man who, in a single and unexpected act, upended the lives of everyone in his orbit.
Tracy Tynan’s “Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life” is the double whammy here, a blistering but utterly compelling account of alcohol-fueled dysfunction on the part of not one but both of her parents – the late English theater critic and author Kenneth Tynan and the late American actress, novelist and biographer Elaine Dundy.
Ariel Leve’s “An Abbreviated Life” is a searing albeit spellbinding chronicle of a childhood spent largely with her talented and glamorous but, as portrayed here, disturbed mother – the American poet, novelist and filmmaker Sandra Hochman.
Chris Forhan’s “My Father Before Me” is an often achingly beautiful quest to determine just who Forhan’s father was and why he suddenly killed himself when Chris was 14.
All three memoirists are clearly trying to make sense of their chaotic childhoods. Each is in a different phase of withdrawal, with Tynan, the eldest, the furthest along.
Her upbringing, like Leve’s, was celebrity-laden: Katharine Hepburn was her godmother. At 6, Richard Avedon gave her a Russian blue kitten. At 7, after seeing “Peter Pan” on Broadway, she rode to dinner with “Peter” himself (the revered actress Mary Martin), never mind if the peanuts Leve ingested too quickly at intermission ended up in Martin’s lap.
But those are heady times seen from the outside, and Tynan is dealing here with the inside, including the evening her mother burst, naked, into her bedroom shouting, “Your father’s going to kill me!” and the night her father, partially clad, climbed out on a window ledge yelling, “I’m going to jump!”
Worse were the days of indifference, Tynan left in the care of a string of nannies, never knowing what to expect when her unpredictable parents came home, especially from her mercurial mother. There are affairs, then a divorce, and a stepmother, and – when Tynan turns 21 – a party not of her making (or wanting) to which her father invites the likes of Dudley Moore, Liza Minelli, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith and Lauren Bacall, none of whom Tynan knows. It is emblematic of Tynan’s fringe existence in her parents’ obviously outward-looking lives. (“It doesn’t matter if you’re not beautiful,” her father told her once, in passing.)
How gratifying, then, to read – via the threads that bring “Wear and Tear” together – that Tynan not only extricated herself from her “notoriously libidinous parents” and their “pretty sophisticated universe” but carved a stable niche of her own as a widely respected costume designer and loving wife and mother (although her own mother persisted in asking her, “Exactly what is it that you do?”).
“Wear and Tear” is told via Tynan’s own chronicling and design talents, each chapter a vignette developed according to what she wore during the turbulent years of her youth. It is a modus operandi perhaps not as interesting as the antics of the Tynan mère et père, but effective nonetheless.
Ariel Leve’s “An Abbreviated Life” reflects a truly traumatic childhood – and one hardly knows what to make of the fact that Leve’s mother is still alive and living in New York. But Leve never says so nor does she name the woman who apparently spent not only a good part of Leve’s life attempting to own Leve but is the very foundation and focus of this book.
“Her love comes with conditions,” Leve writes. “You need to be able to give her what she needs first. You have to meet her demands. For attention, appreciation, company, and admiration. Anything else is unacceptable. But no matter how much you give, there will be a need for more. These are the terms.”
Years of therapy give Leve this perspective, this vantage point she never had as a child – a time when her alcoholic mother would play a game called Being Born which called for Leve’s crawling into bed with her naked mother to help her re-enact Leve’s birth, once including a classmate of Leve’s in this shocking adventure.
“There were no barriers between what my mother was experiencing and what I was exposed to,” Leve recalls. “There was no normal, only a calcified tolerance of abnormal.”
Leve’s father, an attorney working for the U.S. in Hong Kong, then Bali, kept his daughter summers – but released her each fall to the escalating turmoil of her mother’s way of life.
“Her poetry was praised and Harper’s Bazaar listed her as one of the most beautiful and intelligent women in America,” Leve tells us. “Other artists and writers became her friends – Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. Andy Warhol made of film of her reciting her poetry…”
But at home, in her mother’s New York penthouse – “a Fellini-like universe within a view from the terrace” – Leve did not feel safe. “If I slipped, I would tumble into her rage,” she recalls.
There were au pairs – including Leve’s beloved “Josie” and a former girlfriend of her father’s, Rita – who had Leve’s back. But they were not always there.
“To cope, in childhood,” Leve says, “was to be on guard at all times … This was an operating system that allowed me to function, and it carried over into adulthood. The result was to live a life in brackets. An abbreviated life.”
Like Tynan, Leve has stability in her life today – and not only an established writing career but a good man whose twin daughters she is helping to raise while maintaining no contact with her mother whatsoever.
Chris Forhan’s “My Father Before Me” is a heartrending tale told – completely without rancor – in the words of the poet Forhan is. Of the three memoirs here, it is the most affecting, tracing the silent descent of Forhan’s father, Ed, into an interior abyss from which he never emerges.
Forhan and his seven siblings spent their early years in an uncertain home, their parents sometimes shouting and slamming doors “but more prevalent and unyielding was the simple heavy tension in the air, the tension of the unsaid, maybe of the unsayable.”
It was the early 1970s. The Forhan parents, with an “old-world way of dealing with problems,” left them, unspoken, until it was too late. Strikingly, it is Forhan’s mother who serves as the heroine of her son’s memoir, breaking that long silence to fill in the blanks. Despite some chapters that are sheerly Forhan home movies tending to slow the book’s intention, “My Father Before Me” is a triumph.
All three memoirs, in fact, earn stars for courage and for candor – and for serving a higher purpose. “We tell our stories,” as Leve puts it, “to be heard. Sometimes those stories free us. Sometimes they free others. When they are not told, they free no one.”
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.