Award-winning biographer Blake Bailey took on a different kind of challenging biographical subject in The Splendid Things We Planned — his own dysfunctional family.
The central point of his memoir, around which everything in this story revolves, is his older brother, Scott. Scott suffered alcohol and drug addiction, and exhibits the familiar characteristics and behaviors of someone living a life in thrall to addiction and personal demons. His addictions are coupled with an increasingly disturbing descent into mental illness and violence. It ends up being a harrowing portrait of life with a person that the family didn’t know how to help, if he could be helped. Though they’re not exactly blameless themselves, and Bailey looks candidly at his own shortcomings as well as his parents’.
All I knew was that every time he opened his mouth something strange came out, as though he were addressing us from the fog of some alien world.
Scott’s story begins with the story of his parents, Burke and Marlies Bailey. They met in New York, while Burke attended law school and Marlies was a new immigrant from Germany. They eventually settled in Oklahoma, where the brothers grew up under their serious, hardworking father and chronically dissatisfied mother. Bailey chronicles, with a careful biographer’s style, the family’s suburban life as their bonds slowly dissolve, thanks in part to Scott’s troubles. The author himself is no saint, but the focus here is the family dynamic around Scott and how it magnifies other problems.
This was so extraordinarily written and darkly hilarious and honest and everything I love in a memoir. I can’t say it’s perfect only because it was just so painful sometimes. That’s not fair, of course – it’s someone’s experience, it’s what happened and how they acted and felt, but it feels gut-wrenching even with the remove that Bailey uses to describe some events, particularly in the book’s latter half.
And thankfully there is some remove, because when he shows how much this hurts, it’s powerfully affecting. There’s a line where he writes, recalling one such scene, that he couldn’t bear it then and he still can’t now. Elsewhere he allows the dark humor of situations to take over, and both of these reactions, the pain that’s too much to remember and the kind that can have a comic twist, end up deeply relatable. I mean: “Mortified, I spluttered some kind of idiotic disclaimer that I refuse to remember, such is my lingering trauma.”
This won’t appeal to everyone – you’ve got to be willing and able to spend time with a fairly difficult and troubling bunch of people, author included – and stomach some serious, disturbing subjects and the downward trajectory of a lost and hurting person, but if you can, this is some kind of brilliance. It’s certainly the best writing I’ve read in a long time. It’s a David Sedaris recommendation and it’s easy to see why — like Sedaris Bailey can blend personal horrors into a candid portrayal of himself and his dysfunctional family and still manage to deliver a richly nuanced tragicomedy.
Like when Bailey describes not fitting in at a new middle school and making it worse when he “regaled my new homeroom with what I thought was a spot-on imitation of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Nobody laughed; nobody had seen The Exorcist. My teacher was so embarrassed for me that he chose to ignore this sudden eruption of guttural profanity.” I died!
His descriptions are so vivid that even when the events are troubling, including for Bailey in recollecting them, the levity in his telling and his ability to paint scenes saves it from bleakness. I loved his description of an apartment building:
I’m unsure what the Tiffany House looked like in 1979; nowadays it’s pretty grim, part of the nondescript suburban badlands—a painting by the misanthropic love-child of Norman Rockwell and de Chirico.
And this one, of a girlfriend of Scott’s:
Blowzy and moonfaced, she put me in mind of a good-natured housemaid who tells your kids about Jesus while scrubbing the toilets. Nor would she have been out of place in a Vermeer, hefting a milk jug.
It’s not easy to read or joyful, it can be upsetting and I would imagine it’s either a balm or a trigger for those who have had similar family situations with a troubled person. But it made me question something about what’s meaningful to me in a book. Why do I choose to read the story of someone’s life who I don’t know? It’s not always to feel happy or uplifted, though of course I appreciate when a book can do those things. But here I felt horrified and disturbed and still entirely grateful I’d seen into these lives. For learning about others’ experiences, and how they’ve reconstructed these narratives themselves and tried to make sense of events, complicated personalities and strained relationships, it’s outstanding.
The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait
by Blake Bailey
published March 3, 2014 by W.W. Norton