Book Review: ‘Della: A Memoir of My Daughter’ by Chuck Barris
One of the enjoyable things about reviewing books is that you seldom open a volume and have the word “reprehensible” come almost immediately to mind.
Game-show impresario Chuck Barris’ “Della,” which purports to be a “memoir” of his only child, who died at 36 from an overdose of cocaine and vodka, is an exception. It is distasteful to criticize someone else’s family arrangements — however chaotic — and, even more so, to disparage a parent who has suffered life’s most devastating blow, the loss of a child.
Regrettably, “Della” leaves us with no choice. It is, by turns, appalling, self-pitying, self-righteous and — in many instances — frankly unbelievable. Apart from the fact that Barris, who produced a long string of hit game shows that included “The Gong Show,” also enjoyed a kind of cult success with his “memoirs” — “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — it is difficult to understand how a reputable house like Simon & Schuster came to publish this wretched volume.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” clearly was the work of a fabulist, an edge with which George Clooney and Charlie Kaufman played successfully when they turned it into a well-received film. In the book, Barris claimed to have been an assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency and to have used the frequent foreign trips taken in connection with prizes awarded on “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” as cover for his purported assignments. The CIA, which routinely refuses “to confirm or deny” stories about its operations, took the unusual step of having a spokesman label Barris’ book “ridiculous.”
Making an absurd cinematic fiction of your own life is a curiosity; appropriating the circumstances of your dead daughter’s life for your own purposes is a betrayal. Actually, since — by his own admission — the author failed his child at every large and small juncture in her tragic life, it seems like the final, self-absorbed insult in a long series.
By his own account, Barris was the worst kind of self-involved father. He left his first wife when Della was a small girl. In this memoir, he has the child holding onto his leg and begging him not to leave as he drags her across the floor. Her mother eventually takes her out of the Hollywood school where she’s thriving and drops her in a dreary Swiss boarding school, where she starts using drugs. Eventually, mom and Della end up back in New York and — for reasons never explained — Barris takes charge of the girl and moves her back to Malibu, where he is ensconced with an endless series of girlfriends with whom the miserable Della quarrels endlessly. She is, by this point — again according to the author — a pathological liar and thief. She purportedly buys drugs from the alleged Manson family member whom Barris has hired to care for their horses. (It’s a false detail since, by the date the author cites, the Manson trials were years over and the group dispersed.)
Hysterically unhappy Della and the all-but-absent father who increasingly loathes her decamp to his house in the Hollywood Hills. He rents a mail-drop apartment in Beverly Hills so she can go to high school there. She hates it, does more drugs and, according to the author, organizes a gang of other druggies, who assault and rob fellow students. Della defies every attempt to regulate her conduct. When her father notices, he wrings his hands and wonders, what can a parent do with a child who refuses to obey? By his own description, he’s a father who put the “i” in inept and the “n” in negligent. He alternately ignores his daughter and showers her with expensive presents. What, indeed, is a parent to do?
Eventually, after Della has been hospitalized for a drug overdose, among many other incidents, she is “persuaded” to see a child psychiatrist. It’s one of the many patently unbelievable anecdotes in this book: Barris takes her to the early morning appointment in Brentwood. On the way in, they have an exchange about whether they’ve ever wished the other dead: It reads like something out of a romance novel. Barris alleges that, once alone with the therapist, his daughter withdrew a milk-filled baby bottle from her knapsack and proceeded to suck it throughout the hour, refusing to answer his questions. The psychiatrist throws up his hands, says “I give up” and tells Barris that he has “a bipolar, drug-addicted tiger by the tail.” This categorical assessment follows a single session during which the patient said not a word. Baloney.
Shortly afterward, Della falls into a deep depression when Barris rejects the one boy she ever loves because he’s a high-school dropout who works in construction. Unable to deal with her any further, Barris says that he threw her out: And, to assure her self-destruction, this depressed, drug-addicted, 16-year-old girl goes out on her own with a million-dollar trust fund.
Years pass in which father and daughter have no contact — at one point, as he tells it, for a decade. His daughter blows through her funds, spending them on multiple cosmetic surgeries, clothes, cars, clubbing and — of course — recreational drugs. Finally, when Della is past 30, Barris haltingly renews contact. After standing her up once, he flies in from New York, where he now lives, and the two exchange apologies and confidences in the same Beverly Glen park where he once taught her to walk. He writes that he confesses to being a terrible father; she confides that she’s penniless, HIV positive and has recently been prostituting herself for drugs.
Weekend visits produce an uneasy — at least on Barris’ side — kind of rapprochement. But, according to the memoir, after Della encounters her one great love — now CEO of his own construction company — in a Starbucks, and after her abusive drug-dealer boyfriend trashes the meticulously kept apartment that is her life’s one haven, she fatally binges on cocaine and vodka. Her body is found by her dog-walker.
If all this sounds like a made-for-cable film, what follows seals that impression: Later that day, Barris writes that he checks into the Peninsula Hotel for a weekend visit with Della only to receive a phone call informing him she’s been discovered dead. He goes outside and, up against the wall, smashes the snow globe he has brought for her collection. The next day, he goes to see his daughter’s body in “a seedy” mortuary and rages, Lear-like, over his failings as a father and his misplaced reliance on “tough love” — as if he’d ever been either tough or loving toward his child.
The problem is that — like so much in this book — it can’t have happened that way. Della’s death certificate, we’re told at the outset, said she died “from an overdose of drugs and alcohol.” It requires a toxicology report to determine that. That would require an autopsy, which would have been fairly routine in a case like Della’s. The chances of the county coroner’s office performing an autopsy and returning a body to the family in 24 hours, on a weekend, are somewhere south of zero.
One wants to give the 81-year-old Barris the benefit of the doubt, but questions arise about the purpose of publishing what the author insists is a “true story” 12 years after tragic Della’s death. (The author’s note is curiously dated 2008.) The fact that everything in this book seems inclined toward the cinematic suggests either a paucity of imagination or an aspiration for one more turn on the screen. Neither reason does anybody involved much good.
At the end, the only conclusion to be drawn from the account presented in “Della” is that this sad, lonely and self-destructive girl would have been better off being raised by wild dogs.