on February 11, 2008
It's been a long time since a personal memoir stayed with me for so long after I turned the last page.
Sonnenberg is living proof that money and privilege don't insure happiness ... or even a glimpse at normalcy.
Sonnenberg's grandfather was one of New York City's most successful publicity machines. Her father was somewhat of a literary star, especially during the 1960s. He grew up in one of the city's most recognizable mansions, The Fish House, at 19 Gramercy Park South. He had a fling with Susanna's mother when she was 15, got her pregnant and married her when she was 16.
Sonnenberg's maternal roots are just as impressive, even though she changes their names, so we can't Google them for more background. Her maternal grandfather was a successful musician and wrote tunes for the movies. Her grandmother could have been Carole Lombard's twin. After the two divorced, 'Patsy,' as Sonneberg calls her, had houses in Barbados, London and Monte Carlo.
Forget Joan Crawford and the wire hangers. 'Daphne' was addicted to drugs, sex and rock 'n rollers. If Sonnenberg has written the truth, it's a wonder Daphne survived her addiction to morphine, cocaine, Valium and percodan, not to mention her binge drinking. She was hospitalized for mental meltdowns on numerous occasions. She taught Sonnenberg how to give her drugs with needles. When Sonnenberg was 12, Daphne gave the child cocaine, telling her it was important for her to know the difference between quality cocaine and powder that had been "cut," or watered down. Daphne seduced her daughter's boyfriends. She had sex on Daphne's bed at boarding school. She punched her daughter in the stomach, a lot.
And, there was really no one to protect the young, sensitive girl from the maniac that had given her life.
How Sonnenberg ever found her way through the mania to a healthy relationship is a miracle. Now living in Missoula, Montana, with a loving husband and two young boys, she has written a glorious accounting of her time in hell. Her ability to tell her story with a precision-like insight is true testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
Warning: This book is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Daphne's drug use is just the tip of the iceberg. Until her marriage, Sonnenberg used her sexuality to get what she wanted and to fill the gaping holes in her heart. She was promiscuous. It's a wonder she wasn't an alcoholic or druggie to boot.
I suspect this book will garner a lot of attention come awards season and I'm sure Hollywood will scarf it up, even if the screenplay would have to be rated X.
on December 28, 2007
This is the most courageous and riveting memoir I've ever read. The author unflinchingly recounts the details of her traumatic and frequently disturbing upbringing. She allows us to see into the life of a financially privileged, yet emotionally and physically abusive family where anything goes. She bravely shares her own darkest moments in her journey to free herself from the pattern of histrionic behavior that has been the norm for her entire life. It is a triumphant and inspiring story of a chronically codependent mother-daughter relationship. An absolute must-read.
on July 9, 2008
I love memoirs and I found Her last Death to be hard to leave when I had to go to work, but I have a few quibbles.
The book started off wrongly in the preface where the author, Susannah Sonnenberg, warns us that the only "real" character in the book is her; everyone else has a pseudonym and people and events may be composites of characters and situations. That is not the definition of a memoir, in my opinion. Rather, I felt I was reading fiction into which the author had inserted herself. Therefore, I have no idea if what she wrote actually happened as described or if the people she wrote about, including most of all, her mother and sister and her wealthy grandparents, really existed. A memoir, at least since James Frey got reamed out by Oprah, is about real people and real occurrences.
I also must admit I didn't like almost all of the people described in the book, including the author most of the time. Her husband remains a complete enigma (leading me to believe he's boringly normal) but that he doesn't seem to buy into her dramas says a lot about him. Her father has some interesting qualities and more so as his neurological disease has progressed. The mother, of course, is singularly distasteful in almost every aspect and it seems she has similarly doomed the younger sister. Her story is one of rampant, unrepentant child sexual abuse, passive aggressiveness, and deceit intended for no other purpose than to hurt her children in ways I haven't seen anywhere before. Everything she did was so inappropriately perfused with sexuality in dangerous and unspeakable ways. Should the author rear her two sons to be honest, decent, responsible, and loving adults, that will be a monumental credit to her ability to overcome her dreadful family.
If readers discount the story and the people populating it as mostly fictionalized, then they will experience a well-written, fast-moving "novel" about a quite unsettling family they should never hope to meet.
on December 9, 2008
I cannot join the rhapsody of praise critics have lavished on Susanna Sonnenberg's memoir, "Her Last Death." Initially I felt pity for the author, but soon enough, compassion changed to contempt, engagement became indifference. Sonnenberg is the daughter of enormously wealthy and spiritually bankrupt parents, and her youth was spent in astonishing material affluence. As if to compensate for the surfeit of money surrounding Susanna, her parents proved to be incompetent, emotionally distant and cruel, especially her mother, who may well lay claim to have her own room in the Hall of Fame for liars. "Her Last Death" is a voyeuristic, embarrassing description of abuse; lacking universal lessons, the memoir abounds with grimy, disheartening revelations
The premise of the memoir is an answer to a question: Why does a daughter refuse to fly from her Montana home to be at the bedside of her comatose mother? For the next 250 pages, Ms. Sonnenberg gives us, in excruciating detail, the reason for her decision. We learn that her mother, Daphne, is a pathological liar and a sex maniac. Disdainful of any personal boundaries that may separate her from her daughter, Daphne attempts to indoctrinate her young daughter into a world of hedonism where indiscriminate sexual encounters and casual use of addictive drugs abound..
Given this endless catalogue of abuse, it is paradoxical that Sonnenberg never figures out how to stop her own self-absorption. Both mother and daughter are self-absorbed and limited people; their addiction to conspicuous consumption distances themselves not only from each other, but from the real world. Since the Sonnenberg family possesses extraordinary wealth, it is often difficult for readers to respond sympathetically to Susanna's admission admission that she has never had to wait in a line in her life until she has reached adulthood?
The only value this overwrought memoir has is its painful realizations that abusive parents cripple their children's ability to become parents in their own right. Children with parents who have no boundaries become adults who doubt their own abilities to function as mothers or fathers. Susanna is panic stricken after giving birth to her first son, and her self-doubt rings true. Of all the pernicious influences Daphne had on Susanna, it is her residual mistrust of self that is most horrifying.
An adult so dwarfed by wealth that she doesn't understand the mechanics of making a grilled cheese sandwich is a severely limited human being, a person with whom most readers cannot identify. Human anguish abounds in this tell-all memoir, but it is tinctured by an environment in which only the super-rich live. When the mother gloats over successfully shoplifting toiletries, I hoped that she would have been arrested, tried and convicted. Instead, the punishment the mother deserves has been reserved for Sonnenberg's readers.
on February 5, 2008
What kind of daughter gets the most dreaded of all phone calls --- "Your mother's been in an accident, she's probably going to die" --- and doesn't drop everything to rush to mom's bedside?
In this case, a smart one.
Eternal vigilance, someone said, is the price you pay for not turning into your parents. And that's for garden-variety neurotic folk like you and me. For the kids of parents who should never have become parents --- the hard core druggies, the passionate narcissists, the spoiled rotten rich --- it's much harder. To hear the stories those kids tell is to wonder: Why didn't you self-destruct?
Of these horror stories, Susanna Sonnenberg's is a stunner. "It's official --- the worst mother, ever," one reviewer wrote, and I don't disagree. Susanna's mother abuses drugs so casually she mixes them with tap water before injecting her thigh, encourages her single-digit-aged daughter to masturbate, seduces (or pretends to) her kid's boyfriends. That she shamelessly drops names and makes her sick self the center of every conversation --- in this family, that's not even a misdemeanor.
The father's no peach, either. He becomes afflicted with multiple sclerosis, which buys him some slack later on, but he's already done his share of damage. Just one example: How do you justify taking your grade-school daughter to the movies and blaming her for doing nothing when a guy gropes her?
I say it all the time: We become what we behold. It doesn't matter what our parents tell us, we imprint who and what they are. So what are the odds that Susanna's teen years are about school and extra-curricular activities and making sure she gets into a good college?
Readers who don't like to read about lovemaking-without-love should stay clear of this book, because there's a ton of it here. And not just the mother. Susanna gets off to what, in her family, is a slow start, but by 16 she's doing it with her English teacher, and in her early 20s, she sleeps with anyone who crosses her path.
So, you ask, what's in this squalor for me?
First, redemption. Many of us believe that people don't change. But the last half of "Her Last Death" chronicles Susanna Sonnenberg's path from talented loser to wife and mother of two. It's not a pretty story --- there's backsliding galore --- but it's credible, and moving, and surely an inspiration to anyone who's lost and thinks there's no way out of the hole.
And then there's the writing. Susanna Sonnenberg puts you in the room and keeps you in the room. And something harder: She doesn't step back and judge. Was her mother bipolar? Reads like it. But Sonnenberg is too good a writer to turn her book into a tract about a woman who needed help and a family and culture that didn't know enough to provide it. And because she doesn't judge, we never catch a break. We're in it with her, begging her not to get engaged to the gambler who doesn't love her, willing her to break up with the chilly and controlling Brit, praying that she doesn't lose her first good relationship by confessing a meaningless lesbian affair.
Funny thing. Susanna Sonnenberg's grandfather --- the source of the money that started the chain of indulgence and sickness --- was Benjamin Sonnenberg, who more or less invented public relations in America. He commanded huge fees for expert spin; you could say that deception was the family business. Generations later, his granddaughter has told her story as harsh truth. Good for her.
on December 14, 2007
From the first sentence I was hooked, and I spent the next many hours immersed in a world that is alternatingly horrifying, entrancing, illuminating, and darker than night--much like Daphne, the author's mother and the subject of this book. In the hands of a less accomplished writer, "Her Last Death" could have been a sensationalistic, simplistic shocker, but the prose is so gorgeous and Sonnenberg's control over the material so complete, the book is simply irresistible. One can only hope that this isn't "her last book."
on December 30, 2008
Having had a wife who suffered sexual abuse from a stepfather as child, I could not stop reading this book from the first chapter. It hit too close to home. The author's prose is crisp, sharp, and vivid, but therein may lie the rub. I could never quite get a feel for how this insane mother truly affected her emotions and world view. She writes almost in a distant and third person non-emotional state, as if recording this had happened to another person. Sure, she describes how her mother's pathological behavior affected her relationships with lovers and children, but for me it rang hollow. I still could not quite feel or figure how, or who, Susie is, or was. I kept reading, fully engrossed, unable to stop, like watching a car or train wreck.
Finally, we are still left to wonder where or when her mother really does die, so the title is a bit misleading, but does work to draw one into the web of dysfunctional childhoods. For me, I would have liked a little more meat and substance.
on January 31, 2011
It's my opinion that a good memoir should be half-art and half-psychotherapy. It should be sad at times and funny at others and mine all the motions in between. "Her Last Death" by Susanna Sonnenberg does just that. It's about the author's unconventional relationship with her drug-addicted, eccentric mother, who would rather be her daughter's friend, but is ultimately neither. She's a compulsively lying, shoplifting, scandalous, attention-seeking, spoiled-rich monstrosity instead. But with all her drug use, it would be impossible to be a good mother. The two really can't co-exist. If I could defend the mother's indefensible behavior, I would say that she's not a bad person who needs to be good, but a sick person who needs to get well. It's hard to separate the inexplicable behavior of the addict from the person her or she truly is. All we see is the behavior. I felt Sonnenberg's intense pain, humiliation, and conflicted love for her mother, but as a recovering addict, I also felt the mother's hurt. No one does that to themselves without feeling some degree of strong, psychic agony.
I can't say that I didn't feel much disgust as I read this story, for both mother and daughter, but that's proof of how well Sonnenberg writes honestly about her life. She definitely wasn't trying to paint a pretty picture, and it didn't seem contrived and pretentious like some memoirs I've read. She just put it all out there to let us be the judge. Every twenty pages or so I had to turn the book over and look at her picture on the back, trying to match the details of her life to her face, as if it should all be plain to see in her eyes.
I was thoroughly disappointed when I came to the end only because I wanted more. I wanted things to be neatly tied up at the end. But "Her Last Death" is about life and not about things that are neatly tied up at the end.
David Allan Reeves
Author of "Running Away From Me"
on April 1, 2008
OK, Susan Sonnenberg grew up rich. No getting around it. But while a wealthy upbringing usually colors a memoir in a distinctively self-pitying shade (usually through the author trying to hide it), this memoir actually acknowledges that while the money made her life comfortable, it didn't mean her life was free of torment.
What is perhaps most striking about the eloquently expressed reflections and memories here is how Sonnenberg can write about what has lacks a definable quality...it isn't quite sexual abuse, though sexually inappropriate; it isn't quite forced drug addiction, but availability of drugs makes a terrible living environment; and what do you call it when your mother teaches you that sex is the key to everything but then tries to protect you from the men that want to have sex with you?
The biggest surprise as I read was how much the author seemed to have in common with the author of Sickened, whose mother suffered from Munchausen's by proxy. The two women are worlds apart, and yet suffer for their mothers' sins. They are also both exquisitely crafted memoirs, both trying to make sense of strange childhoods, and trying to find who they are as adults separate from their mothers.
on March 31, 2009
I seldom pick a book after reading the blurbs offered by other writers. This time, largely based on Frank McCourt's praises, I did. However, Sonnenberg's memoir is no "Angela's Ashes." Both writers tell of childhoods wrought desperate by an irresponsible, addicted parent. (McCourt's often drunken father vs. Sonnenberg's sex-drugs-alcohol-crazed mother.) Although she grew up in affluence, Sonnenberg got the double-whammy of an abusive situation by having a critical, self-absorbed father compared to McCourt's Angela, who struggled to raise several children in dire poverty. Thus, Sonnenberg's story is a dreary, even frightening depiction of a parent's endless emotional, and yes, physical, brutality. I wanted Daphne dead by page 50. Daphne is the über-Mommy Dearest, exposing her daughter to her drug use (even introducing the child to cocaine) and her serial liaisons with a host of men. There is no humor or humanity revealed in this youth managed by a narcissist, perhaps sociopathic parent. The family's wealth and social connections makes the situation even more horrible. The grandparents and father had the resources to intervene; yet, they appeared to accept Daphne's behavior as normal. Unlike most victims of abuse, Sonnenberg was not silent. In the same matter-of-fact way that she has written the story from an adult perspective, as a child, she revealed alarming incidents to her friends, her friends' parents, hospital staff and teachers. No one intervened. Without anyone's help, it appears that in the end, the writer has built a normal, happy family-life that is so very different and distant from her childhood. Never have I read a book that is so hard to evaluate. It's impossible to separate the merits of the story (I'm still trying to find one) from the quality of writing (so-so at best) because reading it was such an uncomfortable, voyeuristic experience.