The youngest of four daughters in an old, celebrated St. Louis family of prominent journalists and politicians on one side, debutantes and equestrians on the other, Jeanne Darst grew up hearing stories of past grandeur. And the message she internalized as a young girl was clear: While things might be a bit tight for us right now, it’s only temporary. Soon her father would sell the Great American Novel and reclaim the family’s former glory.
The Darsts uproot themselves and move from St. Louis to New York. Jeanne’s father writes one novel, and then another, which don’t find publishers. This, combined with her mother’s burgeoning alcoholism—nightly booze–fueled weepathons reminiscing about her fancy childhood—lead to financial disaster and divorce. And as Jeanne becomes an adult, she is horrified to discover that she is not only a drinker like her mother, but a writer like her father.
At first, and for years, she embraces both activities—living in an apartment with no bathroom, stealing food from her babysitting gigs, and raising rent money by riding the subway topless and performing a one–woman show in her living room. Until gradually she realizes that this life has not been thrust on her in some handing–down–of–the–writing–mantle–way. She has chosen it; and until she can stop putting drinking and writing ahead of everything else, it’s a questionable choice. “For a long time I was worried about becoming my father,“ she writes. “Then I was worried about becoming my mother. Now I was worried about becoming myself.“ Ultimately, Darst sets out to discover whether a person can have the writing without the ruin, whether it’s possible to be both sober and creative, ambitious and happy, a professional author and a parent. Filled with brilliantly flawed, idiosyncratic characters and punctuated by Darst’s irreverent eye for absurdity, Fiction Ruined My Family is a lovingly told, wickedly funny portrait of an unconventional life.
ABOUT JEANNE DARST
Jeanne Darst is a writer and performer who has written for The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine and performed her solo plays in bars, barns, and living rooms across the country. An excerpt of this book aired on This American Life. She lives in Los Angeles.
- Both Jeanne Darst and her father are committed to being writers, in part, because they can’t imagine being anything else. Is writing a calling or a career? Is her father any less a writer because he’s never published a book?
- The Darsts didn’t have health insurance, and their “Torino wagon was now so rusted through that you could see the road from a hole in the backseat floor“ (p. 47). Yet they lived in Westchester, and Doris had family heirlooms to sell when money was really tight. Why do you think the Darsts hold on to the trappings of their former life? Why do these symbols matter?
- Jeanne Darst writes with deep humor that often masks real emotional pain. How does she use humor as a means for navigating her life? Do you think this is a helpful mechanism? Does her humor alter the reader’s response to what is happening to her parents?
- The book declares that “fiction ruined my family“ and Darst’s father’s obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald seems to indicate that even if you can write “the great American novel,“ you still might have a tragic personal life. Why is F. Scott Fitzgerald so important to Darst’s father? How do the fictions we tell ourselves help or hurt us?
- Darst doesn’t want to follow in her father’s footsteps as a writer because she’s afraid of the damage it would cause, but mocks her therapist for suggesting she get a “real“ job. Is it necessary to be self–destructive to be an artist? Why do you think this myth persists in our culture?
- Darst’s parents eventually divorce, but never really end their dysfunctional relationship. Why do they cling to each other? Do you think if they had divorced earlier in life, their lives would have been different?
- Darst winds up falling into the worst habits of her parents: her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s determination to be a writer. How much agency did she have over these choices? Discuss the role that family heritage plays in your decision making as an adult.
- Writing ends up being a salvation to Darst. Do you think Darst would have gotten sober without being able to channel her energy into writing? In what way does writing allow her to be a healthy adult and raise a child?
- Jeanne Darst’s father obtains and then quickly leaves more “normal“ jobs. Why do you think he is so reluctant to have a more conventional career? Why does he persist in being a writer?
- At the end of the book, Darst is starting her own family and continuing on her career as a writer. How can she keep fiction from ruining her new family?