If Dede Wilsey's outrage overshadows her stepson Sean's accomplishments as a memoirist, he has himself to blame. "Oh the Glory of It All" is his account of growing up as the rich, spoiled product of a famously broken home. His socialite parents' divorce didn't just get written up in the local San Francisco papers. It got ink in People and the National Enquirer. Wilsey complains about that, just as he whines about nearly every other facet of his childhood. But he saves most of his bile for Dede, the woman who Sean claims stole his father from his mother and then took all the money when Daddy died: "Inside her, I imagine wheels and racks and cogs covered in pink-and-green chintz, with lipstick-stained lapdogs making it all turn. If you want a sense of her values, rent the movies 'Gaslight' and 'Sweet Smell of Success.' The scheming lead in 'Gaslight,' who sweet talks a wealthy heiress into marrying him and then drives her mad with drugs and double-talk, is her."
Not surprisingly, news stories about Dede Wilsey's threats of legal action are threatening to drown out any other consideration of the just-published memoir. That's a shame, because Sean Wilsey is such a fine writer, funny and self-aware, and possessed of such wonderful material that his memoir doesn't need the help of controversy. But given the tabloid-scale visibility of the characters who populate this story, maybe that was unavoidable.
If Sean Wilsey needed lessons in self-absorption when he was growing up, he didn't have to look far. Besides Dede, there was his authoritarian father, Al, a San Francisco businessman who made a fortune selling butter and spent his spare time flying his helicopter and philandering. Wilsey's mother, Pat Montandon, was a local society columnist so egocentric that she once told her son on his birthday, "your birthday should be a celebration of me. I was the one who did all the work. You didn't do anything." When Sean was 11, she suggested he join her in a double suicide. Neither parent had much time for Sean. Judging from his book, he spent most of his time memorizing every slight he ever received at the hand of a parent, a teacher, a schoolmate or a stranger. If nothing else, his recollection of those events is a classic in the annals of payback.
Somewhere, somehow, though, Wilsey learned to think like a writer. He doesn't just remember what happened to him as a kid, he remembers what it was like to think like a kid. So flunking out of school and learning to skateboard take on all the grandiose importance of Napoleon's invading Russia. And to his credit, he's as hard on himself as he is on anyone else: "I felt as if I were reinventing myself with every new place and every abandoned and replaced friendship. Reinventing myself, almost invariably, as a worse and worse person." You're almost sorry when he grows up, because then he becomes reasonable--and much less entertaining. Luckily, he knows this, because the mature Sean takes up only a fraction of the narrative. Until then, he's a magnificent mess. "Oh the Glory of It All" is the best possible proof that it's not facts of a memoir that make it memorable. It's how you tell it. No one else would have bothered recounting this little brat's story. Thank goodness he did.