Two things elevate Carrière’s memoir: First, the inherently interesting world Carrière grew up in as the only child of the painter Jennifer Bartlett and the German actor Mathieu Carrière in the downtown New York of the 1990s. Second, the courage, candor and charm with which she tells her story. Laden with a raft of psychiatric diagnoses and medicated to the gills beginning in adolescence, Carrière provides a compelling depiction of dissociative disorder — the most debilitating and eerie of her many conditions.
Carrière’s childhood was one of immense wealth and “extraordinary privilege,” but also of profound loneliness and disorientation. Her mother, an eccentric workaholic, delegated the great bulk of child care to her playful and charismatic, if pretentious and self-involved, husband and to the family’s reliable, steady nanny. Carrière conjures the pristine, protected, creepily curated world of 134 Charles Street — the vast townhouse in which her family lived, worked and entertained — with portentous efficiency. It was a castle that quickly crumbled when Bartlett recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse in therapy. Soon after, she initiated a split from her husband and accused him of “inappropriate conduct” with 6-year-old Alice.
In revisiting these events, Carrière chalks up her mother’s recovered memories to the “satanic panic” culture of the era, and yet some of the details she presents seem to corroborate her mother’s claims, at least in part. It becomes clear that there is something awful about Carrière’s father and terribly awry in the father-daughter bond, as disturbing anecdotes pile up and as she quotes aghast remarks about his behavior from her nanny’s journals.
Nevertheless, the villains of the story, it turns out, are not Alice’s parents but rather what she refers to scathingly as “the American psychiatric complex” and the U.S. legal system. In Carrière’s view, she and her mother were victims of unscrupulous therapists who created false stories and recklessly dispensed a slew of medications; her father of a puritanical American court system that relied on “intentional exaggerations and fabrications by lawyers.”
Carrière documents her own issues extensively: At age 7, she began cutting herself; years later, she started burning herself. In adolescence, she self-medicated by guzzling wine, chain smoking, filling her body with drugs both prescribed and illegal. Expelled from Vassar after one semester, she flitted in and out of mental institutions, visited a rotating cast of therapists, fell into love affairs with abusive addicts and worked on “a novel about the necessity of perverse relationships, how masochism is a kind of art.” Along the way, the child who had been everything to her parents became nothing, both socially and psychologically. At times, she was unable to recognize her face in the mirror or her thoughts as her own.
As Carrière catalogues her troubles, I found myself wanting more authorial reflection on the vagaries of memory, especially when it’s clouded by medications, dissociation, and the blurring effects of alcohol and drugs. Instead, she gives us extremely detailed scenes and presents them as factually accurate, even as she insists on her disorientation, inebriation or mania during the events she’s describing.
The account also suffers at times from a lack of self-awareness, especially when she describes observations by her therapists that could just as easily be accounts of the book itself. Carrière cites mental health professionals who identify three salient aspects of her psychological profile: her fear of being average, her need to be considered exceptional, and her predilection for outlandish or falsifying language. One therapist after another describes her desperate need to shock, dazzle, overwhelm others with the demanding force of her personality.
When fellow patients call her out on her linguistic obfuscations, she admits, “I had started using huge words, often incorrectly, in every sentence I spoke, as if encrusting my speech with precious gems would blind people to its fundamental worthlessness.” She tells us that during psych testing, “I felt an immense pressure to come up with the most interesting stories I could possibly tell. … I didn’t know the plain language of feeling, the fundamental mechanics of observation, without the flourishes of violent imaginings.”
When Carrière sticks to that “plain language of feeling” in her narrative, she is a moving and effective writer. But at times “the flourishes of violent imaginings” (awkward or absurd metaphors, odd or incorrect word choices) mar her memoir. She describes her mother as having “a loudness that came not just from the amplitude of sound waves, but from an orogenic pressure that brought the hilt of her desires … thrusting up through the moment.” Describing her excitement at hearing the word “dissociating” from a nurse, she writes that “the pumping of my heart felt like hands grabbing at a lifeline.”
She often seems theoretically aware of her stylistic excess. When recounting her first conversations with Gregory, the man she eventually married, she approvingly reports that “he asked me many questions … about what I actually was trying to say when I obscured my meaning with metaphors and big words.” But then on the same page, she presents four awkward metaphors to describe her falling in love with Gregory. One example reads, “We flung ourselves at each other until the paste of us could mix, participating in the invention of a novel compound.” Much later she writes, about a cozy moment with her father, “The cadence inside my chest chugged out an unremarkable ode.” Such moments speak to a pattern in which she rehearses her long-standing habit of “trying to lilt myself into that lofty register of specialness my whole life.”
The book’s final third is its strongest, in large part because Carrière mostly abandons her attempts at lilting and loftiness, sheds the fussy, metaphor-dazed diction and simply tells us what happened. It also helps that during the years she describes here, she is not as heavily medicated, has sober Gregory as her witness and eventually stops drinking, rendering her memories more palpably trustworthy. I found myself ardently rooting for her as she graduated from college, settled into a delightfully endearing marriage, shifted from fiction to memoir writing, and signed with “a top literary agency.” I also felt a deep affection for both Carrière and her mother, as Bartlett slipped into dementia and her daughter committed herself to loving care, ultimately achieving a fragile peace. A reconciliation with her father, presented as loving and liberating, is less earned and more fraught.
The narrative shift from Carrière’s well-being to that of her mother permits these familial closures but undermines the rhetorical closure of the author’s story of psychiatric practice and malpractice. Crucial questions go unanswered: What, if any, medications is she currently on? Does she believe in any of her diagnoses or labels? Does she consider herself cured? How does the psychiatric plot end?
Beyond such loose ends, what is certain is that hers is a story of immense bravery and resilience. It is clear, too, that this book was written by an exceptional human being, one with a remarkable capacity for forgiveness and a keen ability to see “love hidden in the heart of our failings and misfortunes.”
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”
Spiegel and Grau. 276 pp. $28
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POST AUTHOR: Priscilla Gilman