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Monday, March 22, 2010

Lies My Mother Never Told Me

Her father is James Jones, the National Book Award winner most famous for From Here to Eternity, the first book of his World War II trilogy that also includes The Thin Red Line and Whistle. Her mother is Gloria Jones, an outrageously full of life woman so beautiful that she was once a Marilyn Monroe stand-in. Like her father, Kaylie Jones is a talented writer and she has spent a lifetime immersed in the literary world. Unfortunately, Jones also shares the alcoholism suffered by both her parents, a problem she addresses frankly in Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir.

Jones begins her story in 1958 when, some seven years after the publication of From Here to Eternity, her father decides he wants to live in Paris for a few years in the manner of some of his literary heroes. In 1960, after her mother has suffered several miscarriages, Kaylie Jones is born there into a fairy tale world marked by all-night parties attended by the famous writers, movie stars, directors, socialites and diplomats her father collects around him. Kaylie will spend her childhood among the likes of William Styron, Richard Wright, Carlos Fuentes, Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy, Jean Seberg, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut and Willie Morris. It is a world in which the excessive use of alcohol and drugs is seen as part of the creative process, a world in which real men can handle their liquor, and one in which alcoholism is seen as something shameful that happens only to the weaker among them.

Alcohol’s destructive influence on the James Jones family is only part of the story. Kaylie, who lost her father when she was 16, promised him on his deathbed that she would make her mother stop drinking, a promise she would find it impossible to keep. The relationship between Kaylie Jones and her mother was so toxic that it would dominate both their lives for decades. According to Kaylie, “…from the moment I was capable of thought, I was certain that something was seriously wrong with me, because I annoyed and bored my mother to distraction, and elicited from her the most soul-shattering cruelty – the kind only a mother can inflict.”

Kaylie, as an adult, finally would reconcile herself to the fact that her mother would never change her behavior or end her dependence on alcohol – and, most importantly, Kaylie would stop blaming herself for her mother’s failures. As she describes in Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Kaylie managed to get her own drinking under control but failed to remove her daughter from Gloria’s influence before Gloria desperately tried to steal her daughter’s love from her. Watching Gloria Jones slip into the helplessness of dementia made terribly worse by her heavy drinking makes for painful reading, but Jones’ writing does not allow the reader to look away from what turns out to be the messy end of her mother’s life.

Fans of American literature, as well as those who enjoy reading frank memoirs of all types, will cherish Lies My Mother Never Told Me. The book is filled with stories about some of the literary greats of the mid-20th century, some flattering and some not so flattering, and Kaylie makes very clear her love and respect for the father she lost at such an early age. Even in death, James Jones set his daughter on a path she might never have found for herself. As she puts it, “It also occurred to me that if my father had lived, I would never have written. His death had broken me, and it was only through reading and writing that I had begun to heal myself.” And now, Kaylie Jones has written a remarkable memoir.

Rated at: 5.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)
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