Every time it seems the literary memoir craze has played itself out, that writers well-known and obscure have mined their childhood neuroses and family dysfunction ad nauseam, along comes another memoirist who shocks and amazes with a fascinating story well told.
Oh the Glory of It All, Sean Wilsey’s memoir of growing up rich and really screwed up in 1980s San Francisco high society, had all the advanced warning signs of memoir overindulgence. Like, what, are we supposed to feel sorry for this poor, little rich kid because his parents didn’t love him and his stepmother was truly evil? Are we supposed to understand and justify his stealing, lying and drug use as just a manifestation of benign parental neglect? Are we supposed to root for him to pull himself up by the bootstraps sans trust fund?
Turns out, yes. We do feel all those emotions for Wilsey, who wins us over by sheer charismatic writing and by wisely being as unsparing on himself as he is others.
He’s written a masterpiece of a memoir, ranking with Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club as the pick of the modern crop.
Eggers blurbs Wilsey’s book, not surprising since Wilsey is editor at large for Eggers’ McSweeney’s literary magazine. But in this case, the gushing is not hyperbole.
If you ever really wanted to know how the rich live, stripped of the adornment, this book is downright illuminating.
It’s more than that, though. Wilsey’s parents, Bay Area butter magnate Al Wilsey and local TV celebrity turned peace activist Pat Montadon, are real pieces of work.
Dad thinks nothing of gathering Sean, hopping in his helicopter, and flying 40 miles to a pancake house. Mom one day decides to kill herself and asks Sean to join her in the enterprise, then turns around and decides to lobby for the Nobel Peace Prize by organizing a “children’s peace mission” to the Soviet Union, Egypt and the Vatican.
And, incredibly, she accomplished all that (a memorable scene is Sean and Pat having an audience with Pope John Paul II and later storming the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War). “Somebody has to win (the Nobel Prize), why not me?” Pat chirps. Well, she didn’t win the Nobel, but she was nominated.
Wilsey paints a vivid portrait of parents who care more for their social standing than the social welfare of their child. We’ve read “arents-Behaving-Badly” tomes before, but nothing like this.
Sean’s world is turned upside down before puberty when his parents’ marriage exploded publicly in the society columns. Al was having simultaneous affairs with three high-profile women — Dede Traina, the San Francisco socialite and Pat’s best friend; romance novelist Danielle Steel; and aging actress Dinah Shore — while Pat seemed more concerned with how this would affect her guest lists for her lavish parties in their penthouse apartment. The divorce trial in 1982 was covered daily in The San Francisco Chronicle, and People magazine devoted a spread to it.
Caught in the middle, of course, was Sean, who — and he’ll be the first to admit this — was a strange child even before the devastating divorce. Without spoiling the surprise of Sean’s peccadilloes awaiting the reader, let’s just say Sean was a “different” boy.
The memoir’s title comes from an expression little Sean would say to himself “when I was alone and things were glorious I would only say it when I was alone. It came out spontaneously. It felt like an affirmation of my own identity in the face of my parents’ overwhelming identities.”
Halfway through the memoir — at 482 pages, it’s hefty but does not feel padded — Wilsey expands his acute novelist eye away from his dysfunctional family (though they’re always hovering) and concentrates on the dysfunction of first snobby East Coast prep schools and then tough-love “reform” schools. Wilsey went through a lot of them in several years, his grades and bad behavior getting worse with each stop.
Many memoirs have tackled prep schools, but few have been this unvarnished and truth-telling. In Wilsey’s account, the amount of drugs and alcohol consumed at the prestigious St. Mark’s Academy and others is staggering. And it would take something just short of homicide to get kicked out, but Wilsey found a way to get eighty-sixed.
Then he ran away from the “tough love/brainwashing” academies and, for a while, became a San Francisco skateboard punk.
Wilsey is smart to give his sometimes lurid, always intriguing tale context by doing research about his forefathers and mothers. Turns out, many were as wild and dissolute as Sean. And that’s saying a lot. It’s only after Sean, on the cusp of 18, winds up in jail for stealing a gas-powered scooter that he starts to straighten up.
But — and this also is to Wilsey’s credit — there’s no magical transformation. The adult Sean is more mature, of course, but he’s still not without his issues. He is, however, self-aware enough to realize his shortcomings. As he writes late in the book, “A memoir, at its heart, is written in order to figure out who you are.”The reader, too, is all the better for knowing him.