While others strive to cover up their family's dysfunctions, writer Marsha Recknagel has chosen to bare all. Her new book If Nights Could Talk a searingly honest, distinctly Southern memoir that brings to mind the work of Rick Bragg and Mary Karr tells of her sister's alcoholism, her mother's chronic helplessness and her father's decision to disinherit his own children. Recknagel has many stories to choose from, but the focus of the book is her nephew Jamie's struggle to overcome an abusive childhood a past that has repercussions for the entire family. When 15-year-old Jamie shows up at the door of Recknagel's Houston home, she fears he will kill her dogs, perform Satanic rituals in her well-ordered house and worst of all, revive memories of her own troubled childhood. Yet, in a moment of impulsive compassion, she adopts Jamie and tries to lead him out of the dark cocoon into which he has withdrawn.
Her success is far from assured. As she seeks therapy, prescription drugs and a GED for Jamie, Recknagel fights to save him from the scars left by a nightmarish childhood. She must also come to terms with her own more subtly harrowing youth: the memories of a harshly demanding father, a wildcatter who made millions drilling oil, a beloved brother who is psychologically shriveled by their dad's contempt and a sister who gets pregnant while still a teenager, then descends into the bottle.
The great strength of If Nights Could Talk is Recknagel's unflinching candor, which rivals that of any nonfiction writer today. It's one thing to transmute one's demons into a novel or short story series and quite another to expose family secrets, with real names and sordid skeletons intact. Recknagel doesn't shield herself from her own ruthless searchlight, either. She comes clean about how often she turns to alcohol when life with Jamie gets rough, and how she used her inherited wealth to resolve many of Jamie's problems, including a life-threatening sleep apnea condition.
Don't let the word memoir in the subtitle fool you. This is anything but a sweet stroll down someone's memory lane. If you want to read a thoroughly honest book that tells the whole truth about one American family, read If Nights Could Talk. Marsha Recknagel has set a new benchmark for total exposure in American letters.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.