There are bad mothers and there are alcoholic mothers, and then there are bad, alcoholic, psychotic mothers like Georgann Rea. Add glamour, beauty and a rapidly dwindling divorce settlement, and you’ve got Chanel Bonfire.

A small-town blonde from Kansas City, Georgann married up and out, catapulting herself and her two small daughters from a Midwestern first marriage to the luxuries of life in New York and London. In doing so, she effectively kidnapped the girls, blocking them from any contact with their father and holding them hostage to her volatile moods, her drinking, her florid romantic conquests and her suicide attempts.

Older daughter Wendy tries to protect her little sister Robbie from the worst of it, but she can’t stop the destructive spiral of her mother’s rage: how she breaks their toys, locks them in a closet, flirts with their boyfriends and tells them they’ve ruined her life. A fortuitous connection with a therapist helps Wendy, even as the violence between Robbie and their mother escalates. Little by little, the girls raggedly break away from their mother, although physical separation is easier than mental detachment.

This miracle of a memoir is completely free from self-pity, and it’s surprisingly suspenseful. Written from the point of view of Wendy’s younger self, it unfolds for the reader as it unfolds for the daughters: with no clear resolution in sight. And yet it is clearly the product of a healthy retrospection, driven by a cinematic attention to detail, dialogue and scene. In writing Chanel Bonfire, Wendy Lawless has given up disguising her mother’s craziness in favor of telling the truth as clearly and objectively as is possible to do.

comments powered by Disqus