In the realm of memoirs, the recounting of eccentric and abusive childhoods has become a subgenre. Think Jeannette Walls and Augusten Burroughs, think horrific events retold with sharp insight and even wry humor. Actress and writer Wendy Lawless has now added to this collection with her tragic yet darkly entertaining memoir, CHANEL BONFIRE. It is a slim book and a quick read but packs an enormous emotional punch.
Wendy and her younger sister, Robin, were raised by a mother who seemed, at first blush and in her early years, like a glamorous and sophisticated socialite. But Georgann hid many dark secrets from the men who courted her and the women who admired her. Put up for adoption at two years old after her birth father tried to throw her birth mother off a bridge, Georgann (born Loretta) remembered crying for her parents and siblings in the orphanage before being adopted by the couple who raised her. Life in suburbia was hellish for Georgann, who was the focus of her mother’s rage and violence for years.
"CHANEL BONFIRE is a voyeuristic pleasure, but also a fascinating story of survival. It is perhaps best read as an ode to courage, self-preservation and the power of sisterhood."
Georgann married James Lawless, an aspiring actor, and they stayed together for seven years, raising Wendy and Robin together. But the mental illness that would characterize Georgann the rest of her life began to show. After locking her daughters in a closet all day, she was hospitalized, beginning the pattern of relative health and breakdowns. When Georgann left James for another man (the affair announced at a party to all the guests), Wendy and Robin were taken from their father, told he didn’t love them, and whisked around the world with their increasingly erratic mother for the next decade.
But as much as Wendy tells the story of her mother, CHANEL BONFIRE is really the story of two daughters caught in the sad web of illness. Whereas Robin was rebellious and confrontational, Wendy tried her best to protect her sister from their mother’s violence, instability and irrationality. From swank New York City to posh London, the girls moved with their mother and did their best to enjoy life. Sadly, though, Georgann was like a volcano, always ready to erupt. As she aged, things got more difficult: her drinking escalated and her anger toward her daughter grew. Wendy found solace in the theater and in a series of kindhearted friends and boyfriends. Finally, Wendy and Robin both moved away for college, reconnecting with their father and leaving the insanity of Georgann behind.
Wendy’s parents are deceased now, and this memoir reads very much like a therapeutic exorcising of childhood demons (like so many similar memoirs). Wendy bravely examines her mother and her own responses to Georgann. The figures here are interesting and flawed, and Wendy strikes a balance between the terrible and the funny. Also well balanced are the setting and action; for much of the story, the girls and their mother lived in enviable and beautiful material circumstances, but there was nothing enviable or beautiful about Georgann’s treatment of her children or her manipulation of the people around her. If she was born just one generation later, perhaps her mental illness and alcoholism would’ve been better understood, recognized and treated. Instead, we have Wendy’s compelling and heartbreaking memoir, told with an honesty and style to be admired.
CHANEL BONFIRE is a voyeuristic pleasure, but also a fascinating story of survival. It is perhaps best read as an ode to courage, self-preservation and the power of sisterhood.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 9, 2013