An Unusual Coming of Age in L.A.

Book review: We Are All Shipwrecks, by Kelly Grey Carlisle

If you read history, you could learn where the ideas you took for granted actually came from and, what I found oddly reassuring, that the world had always been a terrible mess.

Kelly Grey Carlisle had an unconventional childhood, to put it mildly. In 1976, at three weeks old, while she lay in a dresser drawer in a seedy Hollywood motel room, her mother was strangled to death, her body left in a vacant lot. She may or may not have been a victim of the Hillside Stranglers, who are known to have become active the following year.

Kelly was rescued by a detective and raised by her maternal grandfather, an Englishman named Sir Richard Grey, who has a fantastical biography and tales of past glories like being knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his service in World War II, surviving Buchenwald concentration camp, writing episodes of Perry Mason, and hobnobbing with Hollywood elites.

Then there’s his reality during Kelly’s lifetime: he’s the owner of a Los Angeles porn video shop and has a bizarre penchant for moving his family onto money pit boats docked in LA marinas.

But before she got to Sir Richard, she lived with his ex-wife, Kelly’s lesbian grandmother, and her partner, who would also become influential figures in her life. Telling the tales of the colorful characters around her is almost entertaining enough even before Kelly works in her own story.

Throughout this richly detail-driven coming of age narrative, Kelly works to reconcile her sense of self with what she knows of her history. This includes trying to suss out what was truth and what was fiction in the many complicated, imaginative tales her family and family friends tell about their pasts.

It’s at times difficult to read, because Kelly, although clearly deeply loved by the adults in her life, both blood-related and otherwise, also faces some difficulties at the hands of those same adults. It’s nothing physically abusive or sexual, but there’s a disturbing emotionally abusive component, plus the upsetting idea of adults allowing a child to live in less-than-ideal conditions because of their own shortcomings.

The specter of her murdered mother, Michele, hangs over Kelly and the entire narrative, but it’s only in the book’s final thirty or so pages that the details of her death get unraveled. It’s packaged as being about the murder and a daughter’s tracking down the truth of her mother’s life and death, but I didn’t feel that was the case. There’s a lot going on here, and though her mother’s death may have been the early catalyst for why her life took the turns it did, it’s not the main theme.

Michele and her death constantly haunt her daughter’s life, sources of guilt and worry even though Kelly has no memories of her, and very few impressions or solid facts about what she was like. She only has a few photographs, even. But Kelly’s self-development is the driving force of the book, how she finds strengths in herself through or despite the weaknesses of those who should be supporting her in more appropriate ways, and how she handles the influence of these flawed but loving adults.

They include Marilyn, her grandfather’s younger wife, who becomes a devoted if troubled maternal figure despite the complicated nature of her marriage, and a bevy of quirky, struggling adults who live at the L.A. marina where her grandfather docks the boat that the little family is forced to live on. Her very nontraditional upbringing and rocky start in life obviously influence her interactions with her peers, and she does an admirable job of rising above. But there’s an ache as she makes her way through school and adolescence:

The first year of high school, it became apparent that there were two kinds of families: the one I lived in and everyone else’s…I didn’t know then what I know now, that there are almost as many ‘weird’ families as there are normal families, that ‘normal’ isn’t really normal, that we all have stories to tell about where we come from. 

I didn’t love that in situations where concrete facts or evidence of what really happened were lacking, she imagined what might have taken place. I know this is a common tool, and it’s something everyone does in order to fill gaps in narratives that our brains require answers to, but it drives me crazy in memoirs. And occasionally, some major questions were left in the air, and that’s unsatisfying after reading so much about one person’s messy life, with a lot of detail about the various messes – the big issues weren’t always satisfactorily resolved or explained.

My grandfather was wrong when he told me, ‘Where you come from is important; it’s who you are,’ because it was only partly true. ‘Who you are’ also happens after you leave home. You are turning into ‘who you are’ your whole life.

Mostly well-written, hopeful coming-of-age tale with some beautifully poignant passages (plus a few that veer into unnecessary descriptions or uncomfortable detail), that manages to be captivatingly page-turning.

We Are All Shipwrecks: A Memoir
by Kelly Grey Carlisle

published September 5, 2017 by Sourcebooks

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository.
It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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