Laurie Fox & Robin Hemley

Laurie Fox
My Sister from the Black Lagoon
Simon & Schuster

Robin Hemley
Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

IN ONE OF the climactic moments of the movie The House of Yes, a jealous sister (Parker Posey) works herself into a near-tantrum over a lack of ice cubes. "I suppose you think I'm going insane just to be fashionable?" Posey asks her brother's new girlfriend, Tori Spelling. "I don't think you're insane," Spelling responds. "I think you're just spoiled." This scene replayed through my mind while I read Laurie Fox's My Sister from the Black Lagoon, a somewhat fictionalized tale about growing up with her own insane sister, Lonnie. Was this girl truly mad, misunderstood, or the spoiled by-product of privilege?

Such armchair psychology might seem insensitive if it weren't for Fox's glib, almost wacky tone throughout. She opens with a memory of her 1950s family gathered around the breakfast table: "Lonnie's screaming bloody murder at the toast lying buttered and helpless on the Melmac plate," she recalls. From here, we're trapped in a not-so-atypical cycle: Lonnie throws a fit, which her domineering father attempts to squelch; her angelic mother acts as intermediary; and Lorna (as the author renames herself in print) hides in her bedroom with Barbie.

Lonnie, a tomboyish figure with an affinity for snakes, horror movies, and all things morbid, has her every whim fulfilled by her frazzled parents, and comes off as an eccentric monster--that is, until she fades into the background by mid-novel. At that point, Lorna becomes absorbed with coming of age during the '60s in Southern California, where her crazy-by-association status serves as a boon in finding pals discovering their own hippie alienation. Lorna checks in with Lonnie somewhere toward the end of their high-school years, realizing that she doesn't even know the names of Lonnie's friends. "Lon has blitzed her way through so many special schools for the mentally ill and mentally retarded that I can't keep up," Lorna recalls.

Robin Hemley offers an altogether more serious account of his insane sister, who died of a Thorazine overdose at 25, in Nola: A Memoir of Faith and Madness. Surrounded at an early age by literary figures such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and her own writer mother, Nola scripted her journal as though she imagined it would be published one day. Her mother tried to edit the memoirs shortly after Nola's death, but then gave up. Returning to this project some 20 years later, Hemley shuffled between his sister's original entries and his mother's editing, bringing to bear both his disdain for his sister's use of flowery prose, and his own firsthand knowledge of facts contained within. "I have to resist being an apologist for either my mother or my sister," Hemley writes, "in the same way I have to resist being critical or patronizing to either--although this is an impossible task I've set for myself. How can one be objective about one's family?"

Hemley's text is a tribute to these challenges. For instance, while reading Nola's journal, Hemley stumbled across her version of the time when he and his brother saw a ghost. Nola wrote that Hemley says he "met a Scotsman on the stairs." Though only a child at the time, Hemley is certain that he did not say this, ("I didn't even know what a Scotsman was," he claims) and wrestles for pages about what do with this bit of misinformation.

As if doing penance, he documents his every move while reconstructing his family's history. Apparently concerned that he is exploiting his own family to gain a book, Hemley even confesses a childhood of thievery. "Now I don't think I'd lie for anyone, not even myself," he writes, "[E]xcept for the lie that is always inherent in the telling, in the imperfection of it." Not that he'll ever be satisfied with his results--which turns his very personal trial into a universal struggle. Nola speaks to the writer's difficulties in relating facts accurately and the reservations raised in ruthlessly mining another person's pain for artistic material.

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