Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones. William Morrow, 2009. 284 pages
Memoirs by children of famous people and children of alcoholics — and often the twain do meet — have long occupied a special niche in the fields of biography and substance abuse. Two of Hemingway’s sons wrote about their father, famed for his writing and his drinking. In Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever explored the work, sexuality, and drunkenness of her father, John Cheever. In a scathing memoir both admired and reviled by reviewers, Christopher Dickey dissected his father, the poet and author of Deliverance, James Dickey.
Now Kaylie Jones, daughter of the writer James Jones and a novelist in her own right, adds to this shelf with Lies My Mother Never Told Me (ISBN 978-0-06-177870-4, $25.99). Yet while her father, most famous for his first published novel, From Here to Eternity, receives a great deal of her attention, it is primarily to her mother and her mother’s addiction to alcohol that Kaylie Jones turns her gimlet eye.
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, James Jones traveled around America (he briefly lived in Maggie Valley), working odd jobs while trying to write a novel about the war. Lowney Handy, a married woman with whom Jones had an affair, helped support Jones during this time. Eventually, Scribners published From Here to Eternity. The novel won the National Book Award, become an enormous bestseller, and was followed by an Academy Award-winning film.
It was at this time that Jones met Gloria, who would become his wife and soulmate. For many years, they lived in Paris, where their home became an oasis for friends and a literary salon. They had one daughter, Kaylie, and an adopted son, Jamie. When Jones discovered that he was suffering from congestive heart failure, the family returned to the United States and eventually settled on Long Island, where Jones worked on his last novel, Whistle, until his death in 1977.
Though several biographies of Jones exist — a favorite for many people is the Willie Morris account of their friendship — Kaylie Jones’ account of her parents lives, their parties, their drinking, and the effect all of these things on her own life adds much to our understanding of James Jones. It reveals him as an author who could be crude, who seemed to lack deep intellectual resources, but who was nonetheless a compassionate man and a writer who valued honesty in his work and in his life. When Kaylie Jones as an adult eventually comprehends how much her relationship with her mother damaged her, she writes of her father:
“I wondered how a man as wise, intelligent, liberated, and experienced as my father could not have seen any of it. But, then, he’d not had the sanest relationships with women before he’d met my mother. He’d not been looking for a housewife and a mother for his children, after all, but for a lifelong companion who would support his work, and his creative process, and, of course, his strong sexual desires, and his heavy drinking.”
These things Gloria Jones fulfilled for her husband to her utmost abilities. Even Kaylie’s account, so critical of her, recognizes to what extent Gloria backed her husband in his work. She protected him from interruptions, rearranged her schedule to fit his working hours, satisfied his sexual desires, and apparently outdid him in lifting a glass at the bar.
What suffered in this arrangement was her relationship with her children, particularly with Kaylie. Gloria Jones was clearly unsuited to motherhood. Incident after incident reveals a woman who constantly denigrated her daughter, whose insults could be as savage as knife cuts, who frequently parceled out her children’s care to hired helpers, who offered Kaylie both too much freedom and too many rebukes when that freedom brought trouble. Between the chapters of her memoir, Kaylie Jones tells stories that her mother told to family and friends. These reveal a woman with a sharp sense of humor, a sharp and profane tongue, and an ability to hurt people deeply and quickly through insult and sarcasm. It is easy to see how such a parent, who loved her daughter but clearly had no idea of how to express that love, could do major damage.
Though some blame for Gloria’s behavior surely rests with her mysterious past — she rarely told tales from her childhood — Kaylie rightly points to alcohol as being responsible for her mother’s erratic behavior. Looking through photographs of her childhood, she realizes how infrequently her mother is without a glass in her hand. Rarely in the book itself does Gloria appear stone-cold sober. She either has a drink or is rushing off to a party where she will find a drink.
Like many memoirs of this sort, Lies My Mother Never Told Me has a self-pitying tone that can on occasion annoy even a sympathetic reader. Perceptive as she is in regard to her parents and their friends, Kaylie Jones seems to lack a crucial ability to critique her own self with much depth or disinterestedness. Once she becomes a mother, she also becomes, oddly enough, blind to her own faults. She is aware of every small detail of her daughter’s life: her moods, her appetites, her dress. She becomes the sort of doting mother one would dread sitting next beside on a long-distance flight.
One unintentionally funny episode in the book occurs when, while teaching, she leaves her daughter with her mother. Eventually, both Kaylie and her husband explode in an enormous row with Gloria because the little girl is gaining weight.
That observation aside, Lies My Mother Never Told Me is a fine memoir of a bygone era in American letters as well as an excellent account of the damage sometimes done to us by those we most love.