Category Archives: Family Memoirs

Blood-Dark Track: A Family History by Joseph O’Neill (Knopf Doubleday, 2010)

Blood Dark TrackI enjoyed O’Neill’s last 2 novels, The Dog and Netherland very much. In the latter, the protagonist is British, living in New York, but brought up in Holland. I was curious about how O’Neill came to give his protagonist a Dutch background. When I learned that he had been raised in Holland, I suspected that this memoir about his family would be of more than usual interest. I was right.

O’Neill’s memoir tells 2 stories: his mother’s family was Turkish; his father’s family was Irish and for most of the book the chapters alternate about the two branches. Growing up he spent summers in the small city of Mersin, Turkey, with his mother’s family but hardly any time at all in Ireland until undertaking the research for this book. Both of O’Neill’s grandfathers, in a strange turn of fate, were imprisoned by the British. His Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, was imprisoned during a trip to Jerusalem during World War II on  suspicion of being an Axis spy. His Irish grandfather, Jim O’Neill, an active member of the IRA, was interned by the de Valera government at roughly the same time.

The curious coincidence of these events sparked O’Neill’s exploration into his family’s past. It’s hard to imagine 2 more different lives. Joseph  Dakad, a Turkish Christian, was a sophisticated hotelier in the port city of Mersin. O’Neill recreates the exotic ambience of the 1920s and 1930s and the tensions among the various minorities: Muslim, Christian, and Armenian. As his research brings him deeper into that time, he toys with the possibility that his grandfather’s trip to Jerusalem for lemons was not so innocent.

In Ireland, he spends time with his grandmother and uncles, who were active participants with Jim O’Neill in IRA activities. Was his grandfather, who certainly took part in violent incidents, also a murderer? As the author explores these questions, unearthing family papers and interviewing the aging participants of that era, he learns much about himself and his relation to his family. The role of memory assumes great importance; here’s a quote to give an example:

“The reservoir of O’Neill republican confidences was Brendan. He was the son whom my grandfather trusted, and to whom he vouchsafed knowledge of certain matters so that Brendan might bear witness to them and, it could be inferred, keep them in memory until they might safely emerge at the lit surface of history.”

That “lit surface of history” is a wonderful image of what memoir does, but even more, it’s what good historical writing, like this, is all about.

This would be a good choice for readers who enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal,  She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes, or Out of Egypt: A Memoir by Andre Aciman.


Immortal Cells

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has received lots of wonderful press and will probably appear on many “best” lists at the end of the year. There’s a good reason: it’s quite special; an engaging human interest story that combines personal history and medical history. Henrietta Lacks, in case you haven’t picked up on the press for Rebecca Skloot’s book, was an African-American woman living in the Baltimore area, whose cancerous cells, by their amazing replicative abilities, helped drive advances in medical science via cell research.

All of our lives are better because of Henrietta Lacks’s unknowing contribution. That’s the problem; neither Lacks nor her family were aware that she was donating her cells. it wasn’t until 20 years after her death that her daughter discovered–by accident–that her mother was famous as the HeLa culture, found in labs all over the world, a source of profit for the companies that manufactured it, and the subject of conferences and controversies.

Skloot makes all of the science accessible, introducing us to the scientists she met during her research and their conflicted relationship with HeLa. Beyond the science, she tells the story of the Lacks family and their struggle to understand and come to terms with the appropriation of Henrietta’s cells. In addition, Skloot tells us how she got the story, overcoming the resistance of the Lacks family to talk to yet another intrusive white person about Henrietta. The combination of science, family history, and Skloot’s personal involvement works on all levels. It’s a wonderful tribute to a woman who’s been anonymous for far too long.

The heart of the story is the issues it deals with: medical research ethics, racism, cancer, and poverty. Skloot makes these isues personal and compelling. There was no informed consent in the early 1950s, when Henrietta’s cancerous cells were appropriated by a researcher. Skloot writes about the debate over the ownership of human tissue; despite the myriad of forms we sign in doctors’ offices and hospitals, you may be surprised with what she reveals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Rebecca Skloot is the daughter of another wonderful writer: Floyd Skloot. I particularly recommend In the Shadow of Memory, a wonderful memoir–in-essays about illness (his own). Skloot is one of the most elegant, graceful writers I know.

Sink or Swim Parenting

In Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival, you’re not sure if  “survival” refers to the plane crash he walked away from, or the fact that he survived childhood at all. I’m sure the ambiguity is intended, since Ollestad’s parents were spectacularly unconcerned about pushing their son into life-threatening situations to toughen him up.
At age 3, he began surfing off the California coast clinging to his father’s back. His father also pushed him early into competitive skiing with training that took them only on double black diamond trails, or to those slopes that were pristine because no one else was crazy enough to ski them. Ollestad idolized his father and feared his accusations of wimpiness when Ollestad was frightened, frustrated, or expressed his own needs.
His mother appeared unfazed by the extreme challenges, unwilling to interfere with her divorced husband’s adventures with Ollestad, and also unconcerned about the sporadic violence her son suffered at the hands of her alcoholic boyfriend. For most of  his boyhood they all lived in a laid-back California beach community, where surfers were stars and the state of the waves was the most important news of the day. It was a world where a conventional childhood was unlikely.
For me, maybe because I’m a parent, this is a memoir about parenting and the way that children accept what they’re handed, at least when they’re young, too young to know how it could be different. Ollestad believes that his father’s regime of toughness saved his life when their small plane crashed in the snowy mountains. That’s a good thing for Ollestad to help preserve the myth of the charismatic father who only had his son’s interests at heart. The Talmud tells us that one of a parent’s 3 most important responsibilities is to teach a child to swim; but there are many ways to teach survival skills. Ollestad alternates chapters about the crash with chapters about his childhood, a good device that keeps the tension ratcheted up. This is an engrossing addition to the already rich genre of father-son memoirs.
The Three of Us: A Family Story,  by Julia Blackburn looks at frightful family dynamics from a daughter’s point of view. Blackburn’s parents had their own demons and didn’t have a clue how their actions affected their young daughter. Her father, addicted to sodium amytal and alcohol for decades, was a poet, whose non-poetic rages eventually drove her mother away. But as Blackburn says, she wasn’t afraid of her father since he never struck her. It was her mother, an artist, who took in male lodgers for sex and confided in Blackburn like a sister, who did the real damage. In 1966, when one of the lodger-lovers began an affair with the 18-year old Blackburn, it was too much for her mother, who drove her daughter away. Blackburn’s writing is dispassionate, almost clinical.Her words are made all the more effective by illustrations–family pictures that look almost like photos of happy times and her mother’s bleak paintings which reveal the ugly reality under the surface. It’s one of those memoirs that had me studying the author’s picture, trying to see in her face some indication of how she lived through it.