They f*** you up, your mum and dad

So you thought your parents were weird. Two remarkable memoirs about partner swapping, revolutionary politics and other unorthodox family tales.

Published March 31, 2009 10:41AM (EDT)

It has come to my attention, and very likely to yours, that everybody in the country, and quite possibly the world, has a story to tell about his or her screwed-up family background. My own story, which I will certainly tell you sometime, involves the Communist Party, a pornographic anecdote regarding J. Edgar Hoover, the accidental deaths of two of my grandparents, and a woman marrying the same man three times over the course of 50 years.

Even by the standards set by the rest of us, it must be granted that Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Jane Alison have remarkable stories to tell. They are stories both familiar and strange. Both authors are children of 1960s-era family breakups, and nothing could be more ordinary than that. But in both cases the divorces emerged from their parents' highly unconventional life choices. Sayrafiezadeh, author of "When Skateboards Will Be Free," was the product of a failed marriage between an Iranian immigrant father and an American Jewish mother, which is almost enough drama for one life all by itself. Then there's the fact that he spent most of his childhood and adolescence attached to the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist fringe element of the American left. While the SWP experienced a brief boomlet of prestige and influence in the late Vietnam era, its principal mission throughout the Nixon and Reagan years involved convincing its ever-shrinking, ever-aging membership that it stood "at the vanguard of the class struggle."

Jane Alison was raised in a globe-trotting diplomatic family, or rather in two different such families, as she conveys in the gotcha opening sentence of "The Sisters Antipodes": "In 1965, when I was four, my parents met another couple, got along well, and within a few months traded partners." This was in Canberra, the capital of Australia, where Alison and her sister were born. After this startling switcheroo, they abruptly moved to Washington with their mother and their new stepfather to become Americans. The other couple's two American-born daughters went off to become Australians with their own mother and Alison's father. So begins a torturous and complicated narrative of doubleness and disloyalty, spanning several continents, in which Alison haunts and is haunted by her seeming doppelgänger, a girl who shares her birthday and has almost the same name, a girl who is blond and pretty like her and who has stolen her father.

These two writers wade into the crowded memoir pool with very different but strikingly apposite chronicles of disruption, displacement and turmoil. Even their last names reflect their approaches to their family struggles. Sayrafiezadeh barely knows his Iranian-born father, who moved out when he was 9 months old. But instead of opting to take his mother's far more familiar name (which is Harris), he has clung proudly to a monicker that defeats all American attempts to spell or pronounce it, and for which he took considerable abuse in grade school (especially during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980). Alison had two different last names in childhood -- she was born with her father's name, and became a naturalized United States citizen under her stepfather's -- and now uses her middle name as a professional surname.

"When Skateboards Will Be Free" is a deadpan-hilarious account, deceptively dispassionate in tone and often heartbreaking in its coolness and directness. If Sayrafiezadeh describes the sordid, delusional details of his parents' lives in the Socialist Workers vanguard with pitiless clarity, there is both affection and honor in his refusal to look away or to sugarcoat the truth. His title, as any other children of leftists will likely have recognized, comes from an anecdote about asking his mother to buy him a fluorescent-green plastic skateboard for $10.99. "'Once the revolution comes,' my mother said, 'everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.'"

More remarkable still, Sayrafiezadeh views himself through the same harsh prism, time and again refusing to use his childhood as a way of excusing his own perceived failures of will or character or talent. He is acutely aware, for instance, of the relationship between his childhood in an atmosphere of voluntary deprivation and dreariness and his adult career as a graphic designer for Martha Stewart, a person who will deliberately buy a brushed-metal tissue holder for $25 at Bed Bath & Beyond because it is the most expensive one in the store. To write a memoir is simultaneously to glorify oneself, as if to say, "My life is worthy of your attention," and to serve as sole prosecutor and sole judge of one's own crimes. Both these authors are obsessed with this difficult dichotomy, and Sayrafiezadeh handles it with an austere grace.

As a writer, Alison veers in the opposite direction, sometimes gloriously and sometimes to a fault. We can read prodigious pain beneath the placid surface of Sayrafiezadeh's account, and can divine that his parents are likely to be hurt by it. Perhaps because Alison's family trauma was half-concealed beneath a dysfunctional, WASPy edifice of silence, evasion and alcoholism, the pain and rage in "The Sisters Antipodes" explode from it at volcanic intervals. She repeatedly makes it clear that her various family and stepfamily members wish she weren't writing this book, and openly dares us to wonder whether exhuming this story in all its fascinating and agonizing details is doing more harm than good. There's something Promethean about the scale of talent and self-torment on display in this book -- if, that is, Prometheus were both the guy tied to the rock and the eagle eating his innards.

A novelist who has already published two semi-autobiographical works (and one about the Roman poet Ovid), Alison possesses a self-aware literary consciousness and a lyrical narrative voice to match. (She now teaches in the University of Miami's MFA program.) Those are weapons with two edges. She is capable of brutal, almost slashing insight, and also of tremendous writerly structures of image and artifice and metaphor that seem more evasive than illuminating. Her anecdotes about her strangled relationship with her stepfather Paul -- a charismatic, moody, Jaguar-driving American diplomat who married Alison's jilted mother and then jilted her himself -- have a piercing, shattered-mirror clarity. Paul is the person in this book whom Alison most unambiguously loves, and who most unambiguously loves her back, and yet he is not related to her. Nothing could explain the strange and layered ironies of Alison's story better than that.

 When Alison veers into extended lyrical passages that sound and feel like outtakes from an archetypal female coming-of-age novel -- reminiscences of tomboyish summer nights on the streets of northwest Washington, say, or knowing meditations on a pubescent girl's physical and social transformation -- one becomes aware that she is "narrativizing" the past, stitching together fragmentary facts and memories into an artful tapestry. There is almost certainly no other way to write about events deep in one's personal history, even for the most compulsive diarist, and it's foolish to look for unalloyed truth in autobiography. But there's something anesthetic about these literary flourishes, as if Alison is trying to use beautiful prose to insulate herself from the black cloud of pain, guilt and shame that hangs over her story.

If the original sin in Jane Alison's family was the admittedly bizarre family-switching of 1965, she clearly believes that she responded to this betrayal with betrayals of her own. She became much closer to Paul, a distant, difficult and highly intelligent man who may have recognized a kindred spirit, than to her own father, who thereafter was little more than an occasional correspondent and an amiable presence at holiday get-togethers. More strikingly, she became obsessed with Helen, her father's elegant and cultured new wife (and Paul's ex-wife), who seemed to represent possibilities of womanhood her own stressed-out mother, raising two daughters alone in a dreary Washington house, decidedly did not. And then there was Jenny, the biological daughter of Paul and Helen who was exactly one year older than Jane and who grew up under Jane's father's roof. (Alison's book could probably use a fold-out explanatory chart.)

While "The Sisters Antipodes" almost literally bursts with stories -- stories about being a white child in largely black 1970s Washington, stories about a young woman who drinks herself into oblivion and has sex with men she doesn't know -- running beneath all of them like an underground river is the tense and intense relationship between Jane and Jenny, the girls who traded fathers. Jenny appears intermittently throughout the book as a protean presence, scarcely seeming to be the same person: A long-legged, horse-riding girl of privilege on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a voluptuous Aussie barmaid and party gal, a dropout and drug addict on the fringe of Alison's Washington social circle. Hanging between Jane and Jenny throughout their unresolved and tragic history is the same invidious question that hangs between their mothers: Which of us was wanted?

As different as Sayrafiezadeh's book is from Alison's, and as different as their childhoods were -- while she was living in an Ecuadorean villa with a possible CIA agent for a stepfather, he was preparing for proletarian revolution in Pittsburgh meeting halls -- the common elements are nonetheless striking. Both are stories about emotionally inaccessible and physically distant men, and the wounded women and bewildered children they leave behind. Both are also, of course, stories about families whose unorthodox lifestyle decisions marginalized them; Alison and Sayrafiezadeh grew up with the uncomfortable sense that there were certain things about their families they should avoid discussing with strangers.

Sayrafiezadeh's father bailed out before Saïd's first birthday, and thereafter played little role in his son's life. "Mahmoud went off to fight for a world socialist revolution," with only 24 hours of warning, Saïd's mother told him later. As Sayrafiezadeh reflects, it was "redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me." He and his mother did not discuss the fact that the revolutionary cause had evidently required Mahmoud to set up housekeeping not far away with a younger girlfriend and Saïd's two older siblings.

One could argue that Sayrafiezadeh gets his revenge through comedy. He depicts his father as a genial, woolly-headed buffoon, a big-bellied math professor who in late middle age lives in a dusty, half-empty apartment with a dying plant and a 94-volume collection of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who spends his weekends selling copies of the Militant on street corners, who does not know that Chardonnay is a white wine.

Sayrafiezadeh's mother, the one-time Martha Finkelstein of Mount Vernon, N.Y., is painted quite differently. Once an aspiring writer -- she anglicized her last name to match that of her brother, the novelist Mark Harris -- Martha is a doomed heroine worthy of Tolstoy or Flaubert, a woman who has martyred herself for a man who did not love her, a cause that was a ludicrous and monumental failure, and a shy, awkward son who is only now beginning to appreciate the extent of her suffering. It's easy to read this account and think, my God, that woman needed some antidepressants and a decent shrink, but Martha had to be true to her code. Sayrafiezadeh remembers her telling him, "The roots of suffering are in the capitalist system. We must do away with capitalism in order to do away with suffering."

Both authors struggle a little with the problem of showing themselves to readers in the present tense, as functional human beings who have come through all this. It's an understandable disorder of the memoirist, who is writing a story, after all, and wants to deliver a satisfying conclusion, one that suggests that some wholeness or synthesis has been achieved. Life does not often deliver such things. A shadowy husband is mentioned by name in Alison's book, but by the end of her story he seems to have evaporated without ever having been a character. Sayrafiezadeh shares a few sweet anecdotes from his budding romance with a Martha Stewart co-worker -- she may have inspired his interest in brushed-steel bathroom accouterments -- but this material seems tenuously connected, at best, to his family history.

Alison and Sayrafiezadeh don't need to convince us that they're not among the casualties of their screwed-up families. First of all, they are; everybody is. But somehow they found the perspective and the tools that enabled them to write awkward, painful, compelling books -- to construct a temporary, literary self that stands at some remove from the damaged personal self and is at least partly able to see it. That's impressive enough. In the opening sentence of "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy famously writes that happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. It's a great line, from a great book. But the older I get, the more I think he got it backward.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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