Magazine journalist Cullerton’s debut excavates the emotional rubble left in the wake of her family’s passage through life.
First there is a lull, when readers might mistake this memoir for a piece of comic absurdism: the final, even odder years of two already eccentric parents and a select cast of strange characters who live with them on the family property in Connecticut. Cullerton’s mother, given to gardening in her black lace underwear in suburban New England, had always been a step out of the frame, with a wicked tongue that neatly cut people down to size. Today she is a caricature of herself; what was once vital is now purely intolerant when not purely unhinged. Cullerton’s father had once seemed urbane, but his “stealthlike humor [and] light, deft touch” have degenerated into “a heavy-handed coarseness, a vulgarity, that made me cringe.” Their daughter visits often as they dwindle toward their graves, scraping away the overburden until it bleeds, to arrive at “a place where there are no metaphors . . . the subconscious ceases to exist”: her childhood. She gathers episodes, develops themes, puzzles them into an unsettling picture of fear, desertion, grief, and isolation. And it gives her dreadful pause, for she learned early the survival mechanism of flight and disappearance. “What if fear, rage, arrogance, and despair, like my genetic dispositions for alcoholism, osteoporosis, strokes, and cancer, are hardwired into my brain?” she asks. There is evidence of this, but also evidence that she’s identified the enemy and taken countermeasures. Yet Cullerton’s own internal wilderness is clearly far from tamed, and though it is full of hazards, she notes that “the edge is what keeps us on our toes.” Yes, her parents were only human—“unbearably alive,” she says—but that doesn’t mean they should not have come with warning labels: Exposure to the contents herein is dangerous to your health.
A history that comes alive as discomfiting flashes, then in great fearful helpings.