'The Three of Us' by Julia Blackburn

The Three of Us

A Family Story

Julia Blackburn

Pantheon: 320 pp., $26

"This is the story of three people," Julia Blackburn begins her memoir, "The Three of Us." "It is the story of my two parents and the three of us together, but it is also the story of the tangled fairy-tale triangle, which took shape between me and my mother and the succession of solitary men who entered our lives after my father had left."

That's true, except for the "fairy-tale" part, which is an odd word to choose. Really, Blackburn grew up in a nightmare. The only child of noted autobiographical poet Thomas Blackburn and his wife, painter Rosalie de Meric, Blackburn was born in London in 1948, into a crucible of multi-generational family dysfunction and epic narcissism.

Of her father, a blackout drunk and drug addict, terminally haunted by atrocities perpetrated upon him by his own father, Blackburn says, "He was disastrous in so many ways, yet I never felt threatened by him. I could be frightened of the madness and the drunken rages, but I never doubted the honesty of his relationship with me and that was what really mattered." Her mother was another story altogether: "[S]he rarely got drunk and didn't use prescription drugs, and she was sociable and sane and flirtatious, and I was always afraid of her."

Rosalie de Meric, thanks to her own macabre upbringing, was a woman utterly without boundaries. She exposed her daughter to peril and mature sexual content from an early age. "Right from the start I was her sister and her confidante," Blackburn remembers, "and, eventually, her sexual rival, as the boundaries between us became increasingly dangerous and unclear."

Blackburn was 8 years old when "my mother told me that my father was having 'an affair' with a woman called Patricia. I didn't know what the word meant. 'It means he loves her and he doesn't love me,' she said, 'and he sleeps in her bed and has sex with her, but I suppose you don't know what that means either.' " Rosalie spared her daughter no graphic detail in her sexual education, from the particulars of wet dreams to the metal clip Julia's grandfather strapped to her father's penis as a boy, to prevent him from having them. "I was afraid of all this talk, without understanding the nature of my fear," Blackburn writes. "And I suppose my mother smelt my fear and it made her aggressive."

When Julia was 12, her violently feuding parents finally separated, and her mother took in a series of single male lodgers, sexually fixating on each. One early lodger, Paul, made advances toward the pubescent Julia, scaring her. When Julia reported the incident to her mother, Rosalie accused her of leading Paul on: "You must have done something to make him behave like that! . . . You'd better keep out of his way in the future. Particularly because I like Paul very much and I'd like to have an affair with him. He's just my type."

The book is full of bizarre threesomes. Beyond the immediate Blackburn family, there is the extended family, which is littered with them. Thomas was the only child of a twisted vicar and his ineffective wife and, like his daughter to come, bore the full brunt of parental madness. Though Rosalie grew up in a family of four, suicide left her an unwanted only child. The story of Rosalie and her sister is one of the most heartbreaking in the annals of family dysfunction.

Then there are the many sexual trinities that litter "The Three of Us," most notably an early erotic union between Blackburn's parents and Francis Bacon, that dark lord of 20th century art, which makes for one of the book's stranger chapters. Both parents had inappropriately intense relationships with their Freudian analysts. Rosalie's "busied her with thoughts of her inner penis, while my father had his Freudian analyst with whom he discussed the Oedipal and what he referred to as 'Mother's septic tit,' which he saw as the direct cause of his alcoholism." The damaging repression suffered by Julia's parents combined with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the contemporaneous rage for Freudian psychology to generate a perfect storm of dysfunction in the Blackburn home.

The ultimate triune forms as an art-school instructor named Geoffrey becomes their new lodger when Julia is 16. Rosalie believes that Geoffrey may be her "Mister Right," but she warns her daughter that he has a fondness for very young women: "This means that I don't want you to have any contact with him. . . . I'm sure you understand." That three-way ends epically and tragically, causing a crisis between Julia and Rosalie that, Blackburn recalls, "never really passed, the scent of rage and adrenaline hanging in the air as sharp as gunpowder" for more than 30 years.

But in March 1999, Rosalie, 82, is diagnosed with leukemia and told she has not long to live. She goes to her daughter's house to die, and in this final month together, "[s]omething crucial happened and the spell that had held us for so long in its grip like an icy winter was finally broken, and we were able to laugh and talk together with an ease we had never known before." Blackburn uses faxes and journal entries from this time of reconciliation to frame the story of their troubled past.

So often in memoir, good stories happen to bad writers, but that is not the case here. Blackburn is an experienced biographer, who has penned books about Goya, Napoleon, Billie Holiday and others. She has a practiced hand and works her own story from the outside in, using a mountain of family ephemera -- letters and journals, photos and receipts -- to track the saga down to its raw core. Much of that material is reproduced in the book and enriches the narrative, though occasionally one wishes for a caption or two.

Blackburn maintains a professional distance, never letting her persona get in the way of her reporting, rarely commenting, allowing the astonishing facts to carry their own weight. At times she seems a little too removed from the story; we come to see that this is not because of narrative cowardice but is simply the lot of children who grew up with a mother who could not or would not reflect them, so that it was difficult to develop a sense of self. This is an effect she grapples with in the book. A psychiatrist's diagnosis described her at 18 as having "emerged from a disturbed family . . . with no personal identity." Blackburn avers, "I had no sense of inhabiting my own body and I felt as if I was evaporating and would soon cease to exist." It is at these times, when journal pages or memories are missing, that she relies on her biographer's skills to spackle holes with research and educated conjecture, maintaining the narrative flow and reminding us that memory is often incomplete.

It's unsurprising, in light of her troubled childhood, that Blackburn has become a biographer, devoting her career to making sense of people's lives. Before she dies, Rosalie tells Julia, " 'Now you will be able to write about me, won't you!'

" 'Yes, I will,' I replied, because in that moment I felt she was giving me her blessing, making it possible for me to tell a story that otherwise I could never have told."

"The Three of Us," amazingly, ends up being a love story -- and a story about forgiveness. It may have been a long, painful time coming, but this book was worth the wait. *

Erika Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."