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September 14, 2017

The Splendid Things We Planned

by Anne Paddock

Blake Bailey is best known for his biographies of very talented but troubled writers (Yates, Cheever, and Jackson) so when The Splendid Things We Planned – a personal family memoir – was published in 2014, readers took note because it’s one thing to write about other people’s lives but quite another to open the flood gates on your own family.

Meet the Bailey’s – they’re not the Wheelers of Revolutionary Road – but they are uncannily similar. Burck, a smart, hard-working lawyer looking for a better life; Marlies, the free-spirited, young German girl who comes to New York for a beatnik lifestyle only to get pregnant and marry (it is 1959, after all) effectively squashing her dreams of living a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Bored with motherhood and the suburbs, she is on a life long search for something she can’t quite find; Scott, their colicky firstborn who nearly drives his parents to jump off a building (or throw him off) and then grows into a very troubled adolescent and adult; and Blake, the author, their second son who arrived three years after Scott. A self-described fuck-up like his older brother (but not as bad..there are degrees of fucked-upness), Blake has two things going for him – his intellect and the advantage of being in the back of a train so he can see what’s ahead and jump before it’s too late.

The story appears to be about the author’s very troubled older brother, Scott but as the story progresses, the reader realizes the story is really about a family that fell apart, that did the best they could (which wasn’t enough), and loved each other imperfectly. As the author notes “a person doesn’t destroy himself in a vacuum” – we all participate.

Blake crucifies his mother and clearly blames her for many of the family’s problems while portraying his father as a patient, if not pussy-whipped guy on the sidelines, essentially giving his father a pass. During one reunion when Scott laments the damage done to his psyche by their father, Blake dismisses the blame by saying “you were spanked a few times. If you want to blame your whole fucked up life on that, fine…” But the reader – an observer – knows it wasn’t just a spanking. It was the humiliation, the shame, and the threat of violence at the hands of their father that certainly contributed to Scott’s mental illness. Scott was probably born with mental illness but his family and the environment didn’t help the situation.

Scott tells the story of being a young boy forced to drop his pants and lay across the bed while their father took off his belt and started lashing the bed with it. Instead of acknowledging the act for what it was – mental  and physical abuse – Blake dismisses the event saying “Listen I have the same father and I got the same spankings. The reason he whipped the bed was because half the time he had no intention of whipping us, and it sure as hell didn’t traumatize me. So fuck you, if you can’t take a joke.” As if making a child strip and submit to assault was ok because the father’s intentions were to whip the boys only half the time. Shaming a child by making him strip and then either whipping or threatening to whip him is not a joke, and the author should have at least had the foresight to realize this later in life, even if he couldn’t when he was in his 20’s.

Reading The Splendid Things We Planned  is often difficult, if not exhausting and at times, exasperating. Every family has their issues and there are degrees of dysfunctional behaviors, but reading about the Bailey family will make most readers feel like they are watching an episode of a reality show of self-absorption that doesn’t end. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. How the author turned his life around (the reader knows this before reading the first page because one of the author’s biographies was a finalist for the Pulitzer) and what happens to Scott is what will keep you turning the pages of this memoir.

…Scott would always believe we owed him love and patience no matter what, he must have known he wasn’t wanted, and his pleas for attention only made it worse.

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