Several weeks ago, I spoke with writer A.M. Homes about her forthcoming memoir, when she asked rhetorically, "What is it about our culture right now that makes people want memoirs so badly?" It's a loaded question, obviously, but I think a small part of the answer is that post-Vietnam middle-class America has become one of the loopiest, most excessive exhibitionist cultures in modern memory. Sean Wilsey's story, meticulously chronicled in his 2005 memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, certainly lends credence to this theory.
Born in 1970, Wilsey's life could only have flourished in the Reagan years—his family saga spreads from the National Enquirer, where his parents' divorce was detailed, to the Vatican, where his mother organized a vague group of multi-racial children with pithy peace messages, to reform schools around the globe, where Wilsey received threats of anal rape from the counselors.
Oh the Glory of It All is a huge, rollicking story of humans on their worst behavior. After Wilsey's parents—high-profile denizens of San Francisco's society pages—got divorced, his father married one of the most reprehensible characters in literary history, Dede. Almost a stereotypical wicked stepmother, Dede detests young Wilsey, and undermines him on every level—framing him for petty thefts around the house, effectively turning his own father against him, and ultimately, lobbying to have him sent to increasingly bizarre boarding schools. Wilsey rebels, as most teenagers would, but within a few years, Wilsey has surpassed all levels of healthy rebellion, and is stealing cars, running away, and passing around an outbreak of crabs.
The remarkable part about Oh the Glory is the light, lively tone in which it's written. If you compare it with The Liars' Club, for instance—another hugely popular memoir about family dysfunction—Wilsey reads as if he has moved past blame and anger, even though few would deny him his entitlement to those feelings. But his willingness to find the absurdity in his pain, and to forgive even his most egregious offenders, makes Oh the Glory of It All one of the most likeable and endearing books I've read in ages.