When Maria Flook was 12 years old, her 14-year-old sister, Karen, walked out of their family's fieldstone ranch house in Wilmington, Del. When she returned after two years of turning tricks near a Virginia Navy base, Maria was in jail following a joy-riding accident and their mother, Veronica, had arranged for Karen to be checked into a psychiatric hospital the next day. Karen never lived at home again. Her fall from an opulent upbringing -- the girls' father was an engineer, their mother a beauty with a taste for luxury and a disdain for maternity -- was dramatic and permanent. At the end of "My Sister Life," in which Flook recounts the sisters' entwined and terrible comings-of-age, Karen is married to a truck driver and working "in a twenty-four-hour emporium of dollar slots at the Hollywood Riverboat Casino in Aurora, Illinois."
"My Sister Life" is less about the horror of being lost than about the terrible disappointment of being found. Running from a narcissistic mother and an amiable but ineffectual father, Karen finds a grotesque parody of parental care in the trailer-park home of Ruth -- who runs a whorehouse into which she introduces Karen -- and James, who alternately succors, rapes and abuses her. At home, Maria embarks on a milder, but parallel, career of sexual bravado, drug use and association with petty criminals, and does her own stint in Cheltenham's psychiatric hospital. Consigned by Veronica to a convent for homeless girls, she finally escapes via a brief marriage to a dissolute preppy who turns out to be obsessed with hard-core pornography.
With its unblinking vignettes of maternal rejection, rape, prostitution and abuse, one of the memoir's most striking qualities is its apparent candor. Any memoir, however, omits as much as it includes, and Flook's largely bypasses both emotion and analysis. Flook employs the affectless style common to recent memoirs of personal trauma: "My lip is puffy from when James whacked me with my loafer. Ruth told James that if he locks me in the shack again, he'll have to find another hamper for his booty. 'You want to discipline your girlfriend, just don't use my Alum-a-room,' she tells him." The blame for these numbing events rests squarely, but vaguely, on Veronica, whose self-absorption seems beyond analysis and describable only through metaphor: "Our beautiful mother was the mysterious kernel, the blister, the contagion seed in our family's doomed whole."
Veronica remains an opaque icon of rejection, and metaphors of disease and contagion shed only fitful light on the family's unraveling or its relationship to the larger context of the social upheaval of the 1960s and '70s. The lack of more pointed analysis perhaps reflects the real ineffability and isolation of family dysfunction, as Flook's deadpan style presumably enacts the numb distancing induced by the traumas she describes. Yet if the purpose of personal writing is not to engage its readers' emotions and lead them to ponder cause and effect, then what can it be? "My Sister Life," for all its candor, never quite answers that question.