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Sarah Payne Stuart is an insider. She has relatives who came over on the Mayflower; relatives who were very famous poets; relatives who were fabulously wealthy. She uses her insider status to the benefit of all, showing us what this odd and famous family is really like-at least from her admittedly personal point of view. She exposes the humor and the horror of growing up among the influential and the insane, and she never spares herself.
The eponymous Robert Lowell, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, was a frequent resident of MacLean Hospital in Boston, as were two of the author's brothers, and sundry aunts and cousins. (This is the same mental hospital made famous by Susanna Kaysen's book Girl, Interrupted.) Lowell was also the first cousin of Stuart's mother, herself a sometime sufferer from extreme depression. Stuart admits that she never understood much of the great man's poetry, but she was not above using her connection to him to advantage: the book begins with her sheepish confession of how shamelessly she worked him into her Harvard application essay. From there, she tells the history of her family-and his-as best she can pull it together from the tales of the many unreliable narrators in her life. Though Cousin Bobby is the most famous member of this family, he is not the most colorful or even, probably, the most ill.
"Sometimes it seems a bit more than a genetic accident that my ancestors produced so many manic depressives," says Stuart, and the book can be read as a search for the reasons behind this. Her mother's mother, for example, "had grown up with every luxury but the one that seems to count the most-the luxury of early parental love."
Even more interesting is the author's realization that all the mentally ill people in her family are not, in fact, related by blood. So is it genetic or isn't it? To some extent, perhaps, their sufferings were more diagnosed and celebrated because this family had the money to see the best doctors and rest up in the most comfortable asylums. But also: "I always assumed that the manic depression in my family traveled on the same gene as Bobby's, until my mother happened to mention recently that the Winslows [Stuart's maternal grandfather's family] aren't crazy at all-they just have a tremendous attraction to crazy people." Aha! Is the tendency to marry the insane a kind of illness in itself? It certainly seems to intensify and perpetuate the problems for future generations.
And yet Stuart herself seems delightfully sane. She has produced a memoir of the best kind: it is personal and universal at the same time. The book adds new dimensions to our knowledge of the famous Robert Lowell and some of his illustrious ancestors whose activities are intertwined with the history of America itself. It also tells the very immediate story of Stuart herself, an appealing, down-to-earth woman whose family was often difficult, fascinating, beautiful, self-important, compassionate, and many other very human things. She somehow manages to distance herself enough from the pain and confusion in order to write about it while still locating herself firmly within the circle.
Technically speaking, Stuart suffers from some of the pitfalls of an amateur writer: She says "from whence," she uses "as well as" when "and" would work better, and she has a few convoluted sentences that don't seem to contain a subject and a verb. Interestingly, the very sentence in which she thanks her editor is one of the worst-it's confusing and needs some editing. Given how delightful Stuart's storytelling ability is, we should probably blame this editor for the minor technical errors. She is a wonderful writer and deserves some help with the small stuff.
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© 2001 Heather C. Liston Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.