You, You, You, You, You, You, and Mom

Curtis Sittenfeld

  • Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
    Viking, 482 pp, £14.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 670 91601 3

Sean Wilsey’s father, Al, was orphaned as a teenager, dropped out of college, and made a fortune in dairy, real estate and other business ventures. Over fifty when Sean was born, Al flew a helicopter, charmed women and inspired in his son an apparently unquenchable desire for approval. Sean’s mother, Pat, the daughter of poor Texan evangelical ministers, was a beautiful, captivating, flaky quasi-journalist. Both had been previously married multiple times, and Al had several children; Sean was the couple’s only child together. In 1979, when Sean was nine, his father filed for divorce in order to marry Pat’s former best friend Dede. The divorce proceedings were a pageant of ugliness, exacerbated both by the personalities of those involved and by the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Pat’s lawyer had her ‘itemise a month’s worth of expenses and ask for them as alimony,’ Wilsey writes in his dazzling memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. ‘The list she produced was massive, exorbitant, alienating, embarrassing. She seemed to have taken the largest sums of money she’d ever spent on every single thing in her life and thrown them all onto a list as monthly expenses.’ These included $2500 a month for travel, $2500 for clothes and $500 for flowers: ‘casual, everyday flowers – there was a whole separate “entertaining” figure’. Al mostly kept his cool in court and even represented himself. He won public sympathy not just in San Francisco, where the local media worked themselves into a lather over the case, but across the country: the National Enquirer ‘ran a full-page photo of Mom under the headline the world’s most expensive wife’.

‘It was Dallas and Dynasty and Danielle Steel come to life,’ Wilsey writes – and indeed it was. Steel was a family friend with whom Al had had an affair. ‘This was a 1980s prime-time soap opera drama. Except for the pain.’ The divorce was just the beginning of the pain, especially for Pat and Sean. But it is a reflection of Wilsey’s ability as a writer that reading his book doesn’t feel at all like watching a soap opera. The circumstances of his life are bizarre and extraordinary, but they’re believable too. Wilsey takes the time and space – nearly 500 pages – to make his parents and everyone else who populates the book three-dimensional, living and breathing. People are recognisable not as types but as complicated individuals who are neither entirely likeable nor entirely unlikeable. His mother believes herself to be a reincarnation of Joan of Arc and keeps blonde wigs in the car in case of ‘a glamour emergency’: in other words, she’s ridiculous, but she’s also generous, affectionate and plucky. His father is a powerful, calculating and often remote business magnate who pops the adolescent Sean’s zits with his own fingers, eats pieces of butter the way others eat cheese, and arrives at the airport early to ‘roam around … looking for luggage carts to return for the deposit’. Even the one figure who is entirely unlikeable – Wilsey’s stepmother, Dede, who’s so awful you’ll finish the book thinking you’d spit in her eye if you ever passed her on the street – is evil in such specific and nuanced ways that she defies the wicked stepmother stereotype.

Following the divorce, Sean alternates between staying with his mother in the penthouse where the family used to live together and staying in a newly acquired mansion with his father, Dede, and Dede’s smart, arrogant, shallow sons, Todd and Trevor. The penthouse is ‘eight hundred feet in the air … an apartment at the top of a building at the top of a hill’. It’s the highest point in San Francisco, a fortress the size of six normal apartments, decorated in imposing marble and mirrors:

All the walls were mirrored. Every vertical surface was mirrored. No architectural detail was insignificant enough to escape mirroring – light switches, doors, plug covers. In every direction was the view and yourself and yourself and the Golden Gate and yourself and Coit Tower and yourself and yourself and Alameda and yourself and Alcatraz and you again and Angel Island and ships coming in and helicopter tours and you and DC-10s and a submarine surfacing and a big neon captain’s wheel that was the sign of some restaurant on the wharf – and a certain grand loneliness and the clouds and everywhere you, you, you, you, you, you, and Mom.

Pat’s narcissism is boundless. She confides in Sean about her menopause and reveals that his new stepmother once performed oral sex on his father in a wine cellar before the divorce – this is the sort of stuff Pat discusses with her son on a good day. At her worst, which is astonishingly bad, she threatens suicide and tries to convince 11-year-old Sean to kill himself with her. She also falsely tells him she has cancer and will die soon, saying: ‘You’ve been a very bad son, and now there’s no time to change.’

But at her best, Pat is kookily dynamic. She writes books – ‘one about throwing parties, one about battling malevolent ghosts’ – and hosts a local television show; she holds salons where Black Panthers schmooze with unionised prostitutes and Nobel laureates. On one occasion Sean comes home from school to find that ‘the cook and the housekeeper – in French maids’ uniforms – had joined the table for lunch with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. (Said Mom: “They were the perfect people to talk with domestic workers about the difficulty of working in someone else’s home.”)’

After the divorce, Pat alternates between tearfully eating tubs of ice cream in bed and leading kids, including Sean, on trips around the world to meet foreign leaders and promote peace. Calling themselves ‘Children as Teachers of Peace’, Pat and the children write letters, sing songs and drop in on Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev and Indira Gandhi. If anything, Pat gets more ridiculous – she starts talking in an earnest new voice, gives ‘a Dior nightgown to a starving child in an Ethiopian famine camp’, and decides she deserves to win the Nobel Peace Prize – but her achievements aren’t unimpressive.

When not meeting world leaders, 12-year-old Sean heads over to his father’s house, where he’s increasingly excluded from the new family. Dede’s cruelty to him is the most vivid aspect of this vivid book. Before she became his stepmother, Sean adored Dede for her liveliness and warmth; she bought him sweets and directed him towards the golden egg at her annual Easter egg hunt. When she becomes his stepmother, she explains: ‘You were so stupid I had to walk you right to it.’

From a wealthy background – in 1961, Town & Country magazine made her ‘Deb of the Year’ and put her on its cover – Dede is tiny, attractive, materialistic, shrewd, dishonest and manipulative. She sets up tests for Sean to fail and imposes arbitrary rules:

Dede gave everybody an assigned place at the table during meals. You could not sit anywhere besides the assigned place. She’d purchased a plate-glass octagonal dining-room table, and according to her design, she and Dad and Todd and Trevor sat in an arc of four, then there was an empty space, and then came my place, with two more empty places on the other side.

I asked: ‘Why can’t I sit with the rest of you, you know, where this space is?’

She said: ‘That’s impossible. It would throw off the symmetry.’

Though the adult Sean Wilsey does occasionally editorialise, one of the book’s strengths is how often he doesn’t: he describes such scenes in exquisite but never boring detail, and trusts the reader to draw her own conclusions. Wilsey’s eagerness to be thorough, his compulsion even, gives the book an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel: he shrinks and expands fonts, plays with italics and with spacing. He also includes a translation of a speech by a Russian dignitary, song lyrics, movie scripts, academic evaluations, his mother’s will, an extract from one of Murakami’s novels, and panels from comic strips. Wilsey has obviously done his homework, both by interviewing people from his past, among them his mother, and by reading archived newspapers and magazines. He traces his relatives and the world they lived in back for several generations, focusing on the personality traits that seem to have been passed down.

The decision to use sources other than his own memory bolsters the book’s credibility; there is a good blend of the urgently personal, the brimming stew of facts and impressions, and the more clinically reported. But Wilsey has sometimes failed to make choices about what not to include – if in doubt, toss it in – and parts of this book come across as self-indulgent.

In the book’s second section, as Sean goes to high school, it’s not particularly surprising that he becomes what those around him have told him all along he is: a first-class fuck-up. Dede lobbies to send him to boarding-school and eventually gets her way. He enrols at St Mark’s in Massachusetts and finds a snobby subculture of drugs, alcohol and hazing, and academic requirements he’s too distracted to handle. ‘I had all this energy that was used to panic situations, fast, reactive energy developed for the appeasement of glamorous, mercurial, suicidal, self-enamoured older women.’ He cannot, though he tries, retrain himself to excel in the classroom or become a jock. When he’s expelled for bad grades, he lands at Woodhall, a boarding-school for delinquents, where some of his classmates are taking so long to finish high school they have beards and children. Wilsey’s excellent descriptions continue as he gets kicked out of Woodhall, and goes to a creepy locked-down school of last resort, where the teachers play mind games with the students and make them clean the grounds; Sean’s eventual escape is dramatic.

Once a sweet and eager-to-please child, he has turned into a teenager who lies, steals, takes drugs and plots ‘to fondle the breasts of random women on the street’ before skateboarding away. Wilsey is as unflinchingly candid about himself as he is about others – which makes his scathing portrayals seem fair, though it’s hard not to wonder about their consequences. His father died in 2002; his mother and Dede are both still alive, Dede a prominent San Francisco philanthropist. All of these people were in the public eye well before the book was published. Wilsey quotes from magazine pieces about their parties, houses and charitable donations, and the discrepancy between the glossy tone of these articles and the inside story is part of what makes his memoir so riveting. There’s a sense of justice being served, especially with regard to Dede. It’s satisfying as a narrative, it’s voyeuristically titillating, and it’s also unsettling. After all, these are real people, and their names have not been changed. Undeniably, Wilsey is brave. But how do the people he’s written about, complicit as they are in their unmasking, now go on living their lives?

Wilsey spends the last fifty pages struggling with such questions. He circles back on his own reporting, explaining how he came to write the book and how his family reacted when they learned of it. He brings us up so close to the present moment, even anticipating reviews, that it feels like the last line is going to be: ‘I’m now sending the manuscript to my publisher.’ And yet, because the questions are unanswerable, especially by Wilsey himself, the book could have done without its extensive self-analysis. Oh the Glory of It All is a coming-of-age story and when Wilsey does, at last, come of age at an Italian school (one that also seems to play mind games, but of a more well-intentioned and helpful variety), the story should be over. Once we know he’s OK, that he made it through his weird childhood and adolescence – which of course we knew all along, because he grew up to be capable of writing this book, though we didn’t know how – the narrative loses its urgency. For the first time, the profusion of details seems gratuitous, and in the last section Wilsey appears, as he never does elsewhere, to be both apologising for and justifying his editorial decisions. All the same, he is a very gifted writer. It is both a curse and a blessing that he’ll probably never again have a story quite like this to tell.