A Family Affair

Marsha Recknagel's memoir explores the darker side of family obligation.

The state of Louisiana, writes Marsha Recknagel, is like kudzu. Green, luxuriant, deceptively beautiful, the innocuous-looking vine has wrapped itself around all neighboring plants and is slowly strangling them. Louisiana "glitters and beguiles," but its underlying tendrils of racism, political corruption and stifling social pressure are impossible to escape.

Not what it seems from the outside, her Louisiana family, writes Recknagel, is also like kudzu. Her memoir If Nights Could Talk attempts to extricate and explain family entanglements--tight as they still are around her, and difficult as they are to perceive clearly.

For years, Recknagel told stories about her family--incredible, far-fetched but true. In this memoir the Rice University literature and writing professor finally writes them down, and they become entertaining contemporary dirt sifted through Faulkner, Dickens and Lillian Hellman.

Central to her story is family warfare over the custody of a child. Supporting and intertwined with it are themes of privilege, alcoholism, mental illness and the debilitating effects of unattained expectations and unearned wealth.

If Nights Could Talk opens in 1993 with the arrival on her Houston doorstep of Recknagel's 16-year-old nephew, Jamie. A Goth, his hair dyed black, without socks or laces in his combat boots, he carries only a guitar, a Sega CD and a book on witchcraft. He's just been kicked out of his latest (the Jimmy Swaggart) school, and he's run away from his parents. Recknagel has for 10 years regretted not stepping up before, so she doesn't hesitate: She takes him in and heads directly to Louisiana to sue for custody. It's not until she's in the New Orleans lawyers' office, regaling them with tales of Jamie's mom's aberrant behavior (like driving through her Baton Rouge neighborhood in her nightgown, dangling raw meat out the window) that Recknagel gives any thought to exactly what her role in Jamie's life will be.

She adopts him. Then she promptly emancipates him. ("No Recknagel should ever have legal control over Jamie again," his therapist has stated.) She rents her neighbor's guest house for him, and her work begins.

The central piece in the memoir is the difficult six years that follow Jamie's arrival, told relatively chronologically. The examination of the situation that created it, however, flashbacks of the family history and Recknagel's own struggle for independence and identity weave in and out of the action. Jamie's undeveloped intelligence, his social ineptitude and his apparent total emotional apathy Recknagel sees as the logical consequence of family dysfunction.

The family, three daughters and the son of an engineer who made a fortune in oil, grew up in a Shreveport country-club, bourbon-sipping society. Basically, nobody could match Dad. First-born Gail got pregnant at 16 and developed a taste for alcohol early. Sister Jen posed no problems, but neither did she pursue goals for herself. Youngest child and only son Jimmy--the custody of whose son would split the family--Recknagel speculates to be their father's great disappointment. Sickly, protected by their mother, timorous and unathletic, Jimmy first entered a mental institution when he was in his teens, and he married a girl he met in one of his incarcerations. Marsha, a year older than Jimmy, was the one achiever--a competitive swimmer, an A student and shot-for-shot-with-the-men drinker.

Behind their mother's world of pearls and nylons, and their father's of oil roughnecks and ol'-boy lawyers, the kids sank into a deliciously Southern sort of booze-trash-madness-lies-sex miasma. Faulkner comes to mind, right down to Jamie's wife's unfounded accusation of "incestial relations" between Marsha and Jimmy.

The gist of the tale, peculiar to this family, is nonetheless emblematic of an American society sometimes too self-absorbed to rear its children: Unmarried Aunt Marsha takes on the task of rehabilitating a teenager raised by two adults who couldn't even care for themselves. In the process, Recknagel encounters other "throwaway" kids, adolescents lured to the street, which she represents as a "living, breathing entity, a snake that grew longer and slinkier and more bedazzling by night [that] slept curled--like the children--by day, and then spread out its seductive wings when evening fell."

If Nights Could Talk raises questions about the nature of memoir itself: It's to be assumed that Recknagel's reading of her family is subjective, colored by her perceptions, personal needs, experiences and motivations. Recknagel alludes to this, herself, in her Lillian Hellman section, in which she discusses Hellman's notoriously self-serving, prevaricating memoirs, and the reader knows there are other sides to this story. Certainly one wouldn't want to be caught in the line of fire between Recknagel and her sister-in-law once this memoir hits the shelves.

Generally well paced and balanced, artfully nuanced with unforced, natural metaphor and rich visual detail, If Nights Could Talk is an intelligent and intriguing glimpse into family relations. But what you sense when you finish is disturbing; like kudzu, this story will continue to grow.