Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
I recently tore through Sean Wilsey's energetic, engaging, often funny (though at times definitely unfocused) memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, about his life as the messed-up son and stepson of some seriously sick San Francisco socialites.
Much has been made of Wilsey's portrait of his (step)parents, and rightly so. His father and mother—mega-millionaire Alfred Wilsey and flighty, flakey, Nobel Peace-Prize nominated Pat Montandon—are two of the most narcissistic, pathetic, emotionally manipulative (yet admittedly also charismatic) people you'll ever meet (shown below with Sean, age 3). His stepmother, Dede Wilsey, comes off even worse: a cruel, greedy homewrecker who was best friends with Pat before stealing her husband away. Once she married Al, Dede ruthlessly set about making young Sean feel horrible about himself. This is all well presented by Wilsey, with only a minimum amount of bitterness.
But my favorite part of the book by far was the big fat middle section in which insecure skate-punk stoner teenage Wilsey is shipped off to (and kicked out of) a string of boarding schools. Maybe it was because his first two destinations—preppy, elitist St. Marks; hippie, party-school Woodhull—are like extreme versions of my two boarding schools, Concord Academy and Solebury... or maybe it was because, now away from his confusing family, Wilsey drops the more pastiche-y approach of the book's first part, and the narrative really kicks in. Either way, I couldn't get enough of his high school memories: the time he turned on his only friend at St. Marks—a geeky Russian kid—in order to save himself from a brutal bout of teasing; or his affectionate description of a Woodhull roommate, who looked—and, so, acted—exactly like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club; or when he got over on his Dad by running away from the Nolls program before it even started (he even got them to mail him the refund); or when he finally found some inner peace and a measure of confidence at a short-lived alternate school/rehab for troubled teens in Italy.
Anyway, despite a few missteps (too much time on his ancestors during the aught-six quake, for example, and his mom's Children for Peace trips got a bit tedious, as well), Oh the Glory of It All remains entertaining and likable pretty much throughout. Here's an excerpt, a scene typical of Wilsey's desperate attempts to fit in with—and, even more important, be loved by—his new family once his dad marries Dede (seen below in a picture from 1975). Trevor and Todd are Dede's older sons from her previous marriage to John Traina (who went on to marry author Danielle Steele, who herself was a former lover of Al Wilsey).
In January of eighth grade, following another Christmas peace trip with Mom (Japan, China, India, Russia, France), Dad, Dede, Todd, Trevor, and I went skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho. At dinner in a dim restaurant, looking for a good conversation starter (nobody asked me about the trip), I remarked on the colors of a sweater Dede'd given me for Christmas. They were always talking about the color and pattern of draperies, or the rare hues and qualities of rugs—I thought I'd give it a shot. The sweater was dark green with three horizontal bars across the chest. Putting it on that evening I'd noticed that the center stripe was white and the other two were pale yellow: This seemed like conversation.
I said, "Hey, one of these stripes on my sweater is actually white, not pale yellow, like the other two are. They all look the same, but the center stripe's white!"
Dede said, "They're all yellow, Sean."
This was exciting. Dede considered herself an authority on color. Here I'd noticed something she hadn't noticed.
I said, "I think it's an optical illusion. Because it's between the other two it looks yellow, too."
Dede said, "No. They're all the same, Sean."
I said. "It's hard to distinguish between white and pale yellow in here. But I looked in the sunlight. That's how I noticed the difference. And you've probably only seen it in store light, when you bought it, and now, in candlelight." I was getting nervous.
Dede paused for a moment, the replied, "I bought that sweater for Trevor four years ago. All three stripes are identical. You're color-blind, Sean."
I said, "My left eye won't turn all the way to the left—but I'm not color blind!"
"Sean—enough!" Dad said.
I thought, Am I color-blind?
The waiter came. He took all their drink orders. When he got to me I said, "Can you tell me what color the stripes on this sweater are?"
He said, "White?"
I said, "Look closely."
"Oh, is one different?"
Dede said, "Do not look at his sweater! Do not talk to him about his sweater! He will have water to drink."
I said, "No Coke?"
Dede said, "You will not talk about this anymore with anyone. Not with the waiter. Not with Trevor. Not with Todd. Not with your father. And you will not have any dessert. You are hyper on sugar."
I was still convinced that the truth mattered. That the truth was the truth and it would come out eventually. But that was just one of my many mistakes.
Back in San Francisco I tried to get Dad to look at the sweater when we were alone in the garage. He growled, "Enough about the sweater, Sean."