A fascinating, if sometimes scattershot, memoir detailing the author’s life in a dysfunctional family.
Burlingham’s (The Starlings in London, 2016) life history is complicated. Now in her fourth marriage (this time to her college sweetheart), she reflects on the combination of forces that resulted in so much turmoil. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Lewis Tiffany, “maker of silver and fine jewelry,” the great-granddaughter of Louis Comfort Tiffany, “the creator of Tiffany glass,” and the granddaughter of Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, disciple and companion of Anna Freud. Grandmother Dorothy turned her back on the glamorous Tiffany lifestyle—and the dark outbursts of her father’s rages—when she married surgeon Robert Burlingham. Unfortunately, Robert was bipolar, and his manic periods terrified Dorothy. Four children later, she packed up her brood, left America, and headed to Vienna, undertaking psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud and placing her two oldest children (including the author’s father) in analysis with Sigmund’s daughter, Anna. Dorothy’s close friendship with Anna became a dominating, and much resented, factor during Burlingham’s formative years. When the Freuds moved to London in 1938, Dorothy followed, eventually moving in with Anna. The author was born and raised in America, but she, her parents (Bob and Rigmor Burlingham), and four siblings moved to London for six years in 1957. Her father had suffered a mental breakdown and took his family with him when he returned to Anna to resume lifelong psychoanalysis.
The memoir whiplashes back and forth in time as Burlingham alternates between chronological storytelling about her ancestors and vignettes from her own childhood and adolescence. The jumps can be a bit jarring, but they present short events that effectively serve to illustrate, rather than directly state, the frustrations, loneliness, and considerable anger Burlingham experienced as she sought attention and approval from a father who was emotionally unavailable. Readers may agree with the author’s negative assessment of endless psychoanalysis—especially given the bizarre dynamic of her father receiving treatment from his mother’s companion. These two women were far closer to him than were his own children. Ironically, the memoir itself reads much like the author’s own passage through a long psychoanalytic tunnel. She did get one thing from her Tiffany heritage: her father shared with her an appreciation of beautiful precious and, especially, semiprecious stones. She uses them as an interesting literary device to introduce different periods and people in her life. Expressive prose eases readers through a very personal exploration of the underbelly of a complex family: “I never went with [my father] on his solitary walks. Alone, he ambled along the chilly shoreline, especially on sunny days when light shone through the wet stones, revealing their yellow-orange to reddish-brown to rich red tones.” Photos are included.
An engaging read and an enticing peek into the secret lives of two celebrated families.