Trial by Tinsel

Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family BY Mariel Hemingway, Ben Greenman. Regan Arts.. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family

Basically, whenever a Hemingway has a baby, child services should swoop in and snatch that chisel-cheeked moppet away. It’s not that the Hemingway tribe is all that hideously abusive or monstrous, but some combination of dark genetics and family assholicness just makes for emaciated, nervous children who can be suicide prone and occasionally delusional. Of course, a lot of families are like that. With every celebrity-family memoir, one has to stop and ask: How much worse is this family than mine? Eh, not much—and we didn’t even have a share of the royalties to fight over.

Hypervigilant Mariel Hemingway, a lifelong emetophobe and otherwise super-controlling food person, grew up in Idaho, the third daughter of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife’s first son. Her parents were funny, perhaps, but not too happy; of her two older sisters, one (“Muffet”) drifted into madness and maybe alcoholism, and the other (Margaux) drifted into alcoholism and maybe fame.

Mariel ended up accidentally, haplessly famous. It’s a little inconceivable, and she doesn’t understand it, either, as she lays out the tale in Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family (Regan Arts, $27). Margaux went off to New York and became a supermodel. She sent for teen virgin Mariel, who was cast as her sister in a movie, Lipstick—in which her character is raped. Her ensuing decades-long descent into Hollywood proved to be much, much worse than anything her family could have done to her.

It must have been revolting to face that career. Each producer and actor she encountered was more disgusting than the last. Woody Allen came to Idaho and invited her to go away to France. Bob Fosse chased her around a couch, saying, “I have never not fucked my leading lady”—though he went on to concede that at least Shirley MacLaine had escaped his gross touches. Eric Roberts asked her out during filming and then, when denied, stomped on her feet just before close-ups and spit in her face. Gene Hackman “hit on me.” Robert De Niro was “fat and unpleasant.” Hollywood! It sucks like you imagine it would.

Having played nursemaid to a mother with cancer for years, Mariel was a practiced doormat and wound up filling much the same role in her marriage to Stephen Crisman. One way she tried to care for her mom was to be incredibly domineering about what she ate. For years! Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to persuade her husband to eat well enough to not have cancer: “After the year of remission, Stephen reverted to his old ways. He started drinking again. He ordered pizza late at night. I tried to enforce healthy eating, but I could only do it when I was around. . . . In late 2001, his cancer came back. . . . ‘Look,’ I said. ‘You know where I stand on this. Chemo and radiation are killers. They might kill the disease, but they might kill you too, especially if you don’t pay attention to diet and meditation and exercise.’”

Not exactly fodder for mindfulness or serenity—nor did Mariel’s counsel appear to make much of an impression on Stephen, who lived! . . . only to be dumped by her.

As is true for the stories that all of us put forward into the world, it’s hard to tell what elements of this Hemingway saga are most trustworthy when the star is narrating it. She wants to be understood as a victim—and, in several ways, she undeniably is one. She describes herself over and over again as an OCD-riddled control freak. But lurking in the background of her account of past Hemingway traumas are descriptions of how the people around her saw her: as obstinate, angry, and overbearing. The hospital served her husband hospital food, as hospitals will: “I confronted the doctors, who responded with blank faces.” She was told by Robert Towne, the director of Personal Best, “You’re a brat. You’re horrible to be around,” and, for good measure, “You’re not being nice to people.” We’re not really going to find out who we are just by telling our long-therapized stories of ourselves. Growing up is usually about finding out you had it backward all along.

This life lesson isn’t on offer in Out Came the Sun, in part because, throughout the book, Mariel is so passive, or trained to be so passive, that she accepts most of this treatment without bothering to determine whether it’s based in any provable facts. After Personal Best wrapped, for instance, she wrote Towne a thank-you letter—and he decided it meant she was in love with him. And so she dated him! Poor thing.

Still, don’t worry. She seems fine now! She has a hot man in her life and her daughters seem awesome and hilarious and fun.

That’s not to say, though, that her story is the exemplary moral one she so clearly wants it to be. One terrible thing that lingers from her chronicle of her childhood years in this book is this: “I have sometimes wondered if there was anything going on behind closed doors that I didn’t know about, anything improperly intimate or even sexual.” So . . . then . . . her sisters said . . . ? “No one ever said anything to that effect. It’s hard for me to even imagine. But I force myself to wonder,” she writes. “Years later, I raised these issues in a documentary about my family, and when I went on to promote the film, I would talk to crowds after screenings. More than once, someone in the crowd would stand up and thank me for my frankness regarding sexual abuse.”

It goes on for pages, this strange, waffling attempt to fit a known description, using a salacious yet evidence-free invocation of events that did or did not happen—and it grows so self-involved that the author even starts to sermonize about how naming something sexual abuse “obscures and trivializes the hundreds of other ways that a family can betray a child.” This is rotten, the worst sort of Californianist garbage. It’s the shadiest variety of the mantra to “speak your truth.” I suppose we can thank ghostwriter Ben Greenman that there wasn’t more of it.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History (Harper, 2013).