Winning (or losing) the genetic lottery
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.Her mother looms large in these pages, most often dressed in skintight microskirts or see-through crochet dresses, setting a standard that her daughter could never reach (and deeply resented). Other family members and housekeeping staff—the retired-Nazi chauffeur, the flatulent, absent-minded grandmother—also play memorable parts, and Burden herself is a delightfully strange character, especially as a child, when her fascination with all things morbid was at its peak. (In one episode, she attempts to drive off one of her mother’s suitors by dressing up like Wednesday Addams and trying to cook her pet hamster in a frying pan.)
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.