Although Wendy Burden begins her darkly funny memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, by recounting the lives of her ancestors on her father’s side (she’s the great-times-four-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt), the book’s dedication makes it clear where the heart of her story really lies: “For my mother, goddamn it.”
After Burden’s father killed himself when she was six years old, her mother, Leslie, routinely packed her children off to stay with their grandparents for weekends, summers and whenever she wanted them gone. “Burdenland,” as Leslie contemptuously called it, was as outlandish (and alcohol-soaked) as one expects from the extremely rich, and Burden is especially adept at describing its various settings, from the Fifth Avenue apartment with 14 bathrooms to the private island in Florida. But when Leslie remarried, she began to take a more active role in her children’s upbringing. First in a split-level in Virginia, then in a series of cramped houses in suburban London, they endured not just her terrible cooking and lack of any real maternal compassion, but also her disappointment in them. Burden got the worst of it, constantly fending off remarks about her weight and appearance.
The narrative loses a bit of steam toward the end, when it seems the best stories have already been told. But the last chapter contains enough revelations and scandal to carry the reader through, and the epilogue supplies Burden with, if not closure, at least some measure of reconciliation—not just with her mother, but with all the ghosts of her history.