Everything/Nothing/Someone: A Memoir
“That Carriere manages to exceed those expectations and write with such clarity about the darkness that consumed much of her young adulthood is a gift . . .”
Alice Carrière comes from a world of wealth, and she doesn’t try to hide it. Her memoir, Everything/Nothing/Someone, begins with a description of the massive home in New York City where Carrière grew up. In an early scene her mother’s voice reaches her through an intercom from the pool room on the third floor.
Yet the abundance that cushions Carrière is also a curse. The pool is not a place of pleasure but instead “ninety tons of water” she feels “balancing” over her head as she sleeps in the room below it. Wealth has made possible not just a physical distance in the vast home Carrière shares with her family but an emotional one as well. The three-story building is both where Carrière’s famous mother, Jennifer Bartlett, creates her art, and a piece of art itself.
It has everything and nothing.
“Our world had all of the disparate components of the world from which we were disconnected—steel and trees, fire and water, soil and decomposition.”
It also had a room where her father, European actor Mathieu Carrière, lived for a time after her parents separated but before they divorced. His stay is followed by that of her uncle, who comes there to die. Carrière explains this early on in direct statements that promise tragedy but not pathos. And she delivers. She does not deny, apologize for, or pretend to have appreciated her privileged upbringing. Instead, she confronts it with brutal honesty, introducing her nanny by her full name, Eileen Denys Maynard, only to admit Maynard was only ever called Nanny.
“She existed to everyone like a paper doll Mary Poppins, two-dimensional, her life beginning and ending as the British governess paid to raise me.”
The self-absorption may be disappointing, but it is real, the reality in which Carrière lives. At the heart of her story is her parents’ brutal and prolonged divorce, which pits Carrière, their only child, at its center. The tug of war that results is reminiscent of the 1984 film Irreconcilable Differences featuring a young Drew Barrymore. In Carrière’s case it is no surprise she begins to lose herself amid the swirling renderings of her childhood she hears recounted by her parents’ lawyers.
“Everyone told a different version of what happened, what I needed, and who I was.”
She starts cutting herself to release her anguish and in an effort to establish boundaries. Worse is to come. Through specific, concrete, and unsparing descriptions, Carrière draws readers into her unraveling so intimately it is sometimes hard to read. She is able to put in words what was happening, no easy task. When you are lost inside yourself it is hard to describe what is happening to those outside.
Some of what Carrière recounts is so disturbing, it is almost unbelievable. As an infant her uncle is entrusted to a woman who has been institutionalized for having tried to burn her two children alive. The boy’s father, Carrière’s paternal grandfather, is a clinically depressed psychiatrist who at one time worked at a mental institution where the patients cared for their doctors’ children. The ritualized sexual abuse Carrière’s mother remembered from her own childhood is in the end most likely unbelievable, a result of questionable “recovered memories.”
While this is a memoir, like any good memoir it says as much about Carrière and her eccentric family as it does about society. In particular, Carrière’s story offers a look at what happens when children become pawns in their parents’ battles as well as the shortcomings of therapy and inpatient mental health treatment. Carrière compares the former to English assignments that provided her with “opportunities to construct perfect stories about myself and wait for praise.” Her description of the latter is all the more devastating for its lack of outrage.
“Expectations were low—we were not here to get better, just not to get worse . . .”
That Carriere manages to exceed those expectations and write with such clarity about the darkness that consumed much of her young adulthood is a gift to all those who read Everything/Nothing/Someone.