Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America

Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America

by Carolyn See

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“Without sensationalism, totally outside the chic-trash mode, Carolyn See writes from way down inside the pain, the depression, and the lies that encumber most American lives. She knows what ‘family values’ really are, and tells her story with a hard-earned sweetness that transforms the unbearable into clear profit for the reader’s mind and heart.”—Ursula K. Le Guin
“I’ve always thought Carolyn See was one of the most intelligent as well as funniest living writers, and Dreaming is indeed brilliantly intelligent and terrifically funny.”—Alice Adams

In this bittersweet and beautifully written memoir, Carolyn See embarks on nothing less than reevaluation of the American Dream. “This is a history,” she writes, “of how drugs and drink have worked in our family for the last fifty—actually it turned out to be closer to a hundred—years. In varying degrees, it’s history seen through a purple haze. It’s full of secrets and chaos and distortions, and secretly remembered joys. I’m beginning to think it may be the unwritten history of America.”
Although it features a clan in which dysfunction was something of a family tradition, Dreaming is no “victim’s story” or temperance tract. With a wry humor and not a trace of self-pity, See writes of fights and breakups and hard times, but also of celebration and optimism in the face of adversity. The story of See’s own family speaks for the countless people who reached for the shining American vision, found it eluded their grasp, and then tried to make what they had glitter as best they could. Dreaming is about yearning, imagining, and reinventing oneself, about rolling with the punches and continuing on. In this fiercely funny and deeply empathetic book, See shows us that the wild life, for better and worse, has made us what we are.

Praise for Dreaming

“Carolyn See, in her singular fashion, captures a throw-away world. It is a class that is neither upper nor middle nor under there, simply there, alive with troubles. In so doing, she tells as much about the United States as any commentator around and about today.”—Studs Terkel
“I read Dreaming with fascination. The inimitable Carolyn See voice is linked now to some sort of historical and familial (what a family!—families!) context.”—Joyce Carol Oates
“The impact of Carolyn See’s dreaming will likely stay in the reader’s memory as a singular ode to the human spirit.”—William F. Buckley, Jr.
“Carolyn See is battling the family demons that grip America by the throat.”—Bebe Moore Campbell
“Autobiography . . . elevated to literature.”—Jonathan Kellerman
“Dreaming is an unforgettable memoir that shimmers with intelligence, wit, moxie, and a fiercely American spirit of survival. I haven’t laughed—or cried—so hard in years.”—Elizabeth Benedict
“I am stunned and completely in awe of the honesty and courage it must have taken to write this book. I would challenge any man who ever dismissed women’s writing as being too romantic to read this book and ever feel the same way again.”—Fannie Flagg

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307807274
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/19/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 343
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Carolyn See, the author of over a dozen works, was a book reviewer for the Washington Post and L.A. Times. She received a Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA, where she taught creative writing. Her awards include the prestigious Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award (1993) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction.

Read an Excerpt

We’ve spent the last three hours—my daughter Clara and I—looking through the pigskin chest that holds about seventy-five years of family photographs. I need some for this book, but I don’t want to go through the chest alone, or for too long at a time. I guess it might be like that in every family: if the pictures remind you of sad times, you feel sad all over again. If the pictures bring back something joyful, you feel an emptiness because that time is gone.
We’re looking for stuff from the old days; we know it’s in here somewhere. We seem to be groaning and sighing a lot. Then Clara rocks back on her heels. “Aaah,” she says. “Oh God!” She hands it over. “Pay dirt,” she says.
And there’s my Aunt Helen, the cruelest person I ever knew, dressed up to beat the band. My mother, dressed up too, looks straight into the camera. Aunt Helen’s got her arms around my little half sister Rose, who’s about thirteen years old, already wearing mascara, one of the things that would get her into so much trouble down the line.
“OK! That’s it!” Clara says. We close the chest, get up from the floor, move creakily over to the couch. “How can you keep doing this?” Clara asks, and then, “I know I shouldn’t, but I could really use a glass of wine.” I open up a bottle and we tell each other, as rapidly as possible, the story of Uncle Bob, so drunk (but who wouldn’t be with that bat for a wife?), unfurling his napkin through a candle flame on Thanksgiving and setting himself on fire. Or Uncle Bob sitting next to Clara’s dad on another terrible holiday, when something like Godzilla Meets the Undersea Monster was playing on TV and as Godzilla crushed an aircraft carrier, Uncle Bob earnestly said to Tom, “I guess this reminds you of the old days?” Because Tom had served on a carrier. And Tom had to laugh.
We tell these stories fast because we know them so well. Then Clara sighs, and sighs again. “Poor Rose,” she says. Clara’s done her good deed, helping me with this, so she goes home.
I take the bottle and my glass and go out to the patio, which overlooks miles and miles of Topanga Canyon and the mountains beyond. It’s so beautiful out here! I need it, because most days, working on this project, I feel like I’ve gone fifteen rounds with the champ, and the champ has generally won. I pour a second glass. I’m pretty much the only one around here who drinks anymore.
I’ve been writing a history of how drugs and drink have worked in our family for the last fifty—actually it turned out to be closer to a hundred—years. In varying degrees, it’s history seen through a purple haze. It’s full of secrets and chaos and distortions, and secretly remembered joys. I’m beginning to think it may be the unwritten history of America. Sometimes it’s hard to be American—to live, and work, and love—and not be disappointed by the results, the discrepancy between what we wanted and what we got. It’s so easy to slip into easy answers to the question of what has happened to us: the exhortations of Norman Vincent Peale, or AA, or “Just Say No!” And the equally easy rhetoric of “I’m just no good, that’s all, so I’m going to get loaded and stay that way the rest of my life.” I want this book to fall like a plumbline down through four generations, tracing that history of drugs and drink, depression and divorce. I just want to take a look at it, see how it works. Refrain from judgment. But of course I can’t refrain from judgment.
My family on both sides is very “old” in America. We’ve been here since before the Revolution. How lucky for those starving peasants—to make it out of England, Ireland, Scotland, over here to a land of unimaginable opportunity. The trouble was, they were starving peasants, so they really couldn’t imagine the idea of opportunity or dream. It took about 14,000 drinks for them to calm down. I began to see pretty early that this was also going to be a story of climbing—or drifting—out of the underclass, into the working class, and into something upper-middle or beyond. From the beginning, as far as I can make out, “dreaming” in our family meant either the opium that my grandmothers used—for medicinal purposes—or buying that “lovely” home, starting the new business, getting married, publishing a book. Getting high, going up, in this society.
As a child, listening to family stories, I’d think: “If we’re so old, why aren’t we rich?” Later, my mother would echo this to me: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Now I know the obvious answer. I wrote the draft of this introduction in the British Library, and when I got tired I went out and looked at the illuminated manuscripts next door. What beauty, what focus, what intelligence, what hard work! But for every learned monk, there were thousands of other Joes out in the fields toiling and sickening and dying. My family on both sides belonged to the toiling and dying types who made it over to America.
And once in America, people divided once again: you could say they became the poor and the rich. The losers and winners. The artists and scientists. If they were countries, they’d be Ireland and England. The former have a particular set of belief systems. They are prone to dreaming, wool-gathering, calling in sick. They lose the deeds to their houses and cry easily. They are often eloquent and intelligent, but they succumb to melancholia, drink, and drugs. The latter? When they hear about clinical depression, they say, “Oh, everybody gets discouraged sometimes.” They do not see the abyss. Maybe in their world the ground is flat and safe. Maybe it’s a golf course.
This is partly the story of a family finally getting enough of the abyss, getting terminally tired of psychic and emotional free fall, and trying with all its collective might to at least consider breaking through to the world of peaceful afternoons at home, whole months going by without a fight, with nobody nodding off in a restaurant or throwing up on the rug. That’s been the struggle of our family for perhaps twenty of the last fifty years. The truth is, we still live more or less in both worlds. My family is full of disappointed lives, of “potential” not lived up to. Of folks who were dealt lousy hands (and played them badly, too). But they took the cards, cracked open a bottle of scotch, and made that material glitter as much as they could. And then, when it felt right to them, one by one they stopped drinking, or the drugs they used went out of style, or their lives pleased them so much that drugs and drink didn’t seem to be a problem anymore. Out of the abyss and onto the safe green lawn.

The heart of my story is what happened to my half sister, Rose, who left home when she was sixteen, hung out with the rest of us for five uneasy years, then disappeared into the world of hard drugs for another twenty. For us to find each other again, to be sisters again, has been one of the sweetest things in my life. Rose’s story alone guarantees that this history can’t be chronological. In Californian terms, she lived in a parallel universe.
Life lived by a few dozen people isn’t like a novel. You can’t stick a love affair or a betrayal or a deportation into Chapter Six and be done with it. I’m happy about these photographs, the ones from the pigskin chest, and I ask the reader to look at this book as a family album. Here are these little girls, so happy! Here’s a man, he’s in disgrace, because there’s only one picture of him left in the whole world. There’s a side of the family where for two generations there are no pictures of men at all. Here are some parties: the people look happy, but take another look, and then another. Here are some wedding pictures; some marriages didn’t work out, but these others—they have to work out; there’s so much riding on them, so much love. And these moments last through time.
So, some of these chapters aren’t precisely chronological. The ones on acid and on divorce overlap, because the years my second husband and I were dropping acid and getting divorced overlapped by about six months. The chapter on “hanging it up”—becoming a respectable citizen—and “the embarrassing Californianness of it all” overlap because in our particular case becoming respectable paradoxically meant going to some pretty silly seminars. And the main part of Rose’s story comes before the story of how we met again after twenty years—partly to keep things as chronological as possible, and partly to say to readers who have lost people they cherish to the hard-drug world: don’t worry! You may still get them back again—sit down for long hours on a balcony beside a lagoon and talk about the things you missed, piece the past together again.
I said I’ve tried not to be judgmental, not to intrude on events, just to write them down. But sometimes I can’t help it, sometimes I have to call time out and talk about what’s happening. Sometimes the photograph, the telling of a story, isn’t enough. What’s behind the story? I may bend your ear for a while, but I won’t take long, because I hope these characters speak for themselves.

Table of Contents


1. Orphans
2. A Hard Life
3. Dad and AA
4. Rose as a Kid
5. Getting Married
6. Getting Married Again
7. Acid
8. Divorce

9. Rose's Story

10. Hanging It Up
11. The Embarrassing Californianness of It All
12. Finding Rose
13. Mom Stands Pat
14. Peace Breaks Out
15. Dreaming

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