The secrets, lies and many half siblings of an L.A. writer’s not-so-’Normal Family’
On the Shelf
Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings
By Chrysta Bilton
Little, Brown: 288 pages, $29
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Chrysta Bilton’s memoir, “Normal Family,” is ironically titled. It’s also been a long time coming. Now 37, Bilton first set out to write about her unconventional clan back when she was a teenager, but at that point she didn’t even know the half of it.
Here’s what Bilton did know: Her mother, Debra, was an “incredibly original” character — pals with Warren Beatty, she worked as presidential candidate Ross Perot’s “civil rights coordinator.” Most notably however, she’d had two children, Chrysta and Kaitlyn, in the 1980s as a single, gay woman. She also had a penchant for pyramid schemes and was averse to many basics of parenting; she ricocheted in and out of relationships, bouncing the trio around Southern California as her addictions dragged her down.
The girls’ father, Jeffrey Harrison, was not about to come to their rescue. A sperm donor, he was in and out of their lives. His parents were well off but he had skipped college to study Transcendental Meditation and he floated through life without a plan, increasingly spouting wild conspiracy theories. A former Playgirl centerfold, he too battled addiction as well as depression.
And so, while Debra was in rehab and the sisters camped out in an abandoned office, the teenage Chrysta — also in a relationship with a volatile rich boy — began writing a screenplay about the instability that surrounded her.
It was the first of many attempts across two decades to tell her story, always shelved because ultimately she knew it was incomplete. “I had a lot of healing to do first,” she explains during a recent video conversation from her home in Los Angeles. “I didn’t have enough distance to have a healthy perspective — I had to work through a lot of resentment so the book wasn’t just filled with that. There was a lot of joy and happiness in our life as well as dysfunction.”
She also knew she didn’t have the whole story. To begin with, her mother had “a precarious relationship with the truth.” Who knows if she really slept on the Sphinx in Egypt, marched with Angela Davis while at UCLA or introduced Tina Turner to Buddhism? Debra had never fully explained their past or their present. And then there was Bilton’s father, not so much an unreliable narrator as a narrative black hole.
Bilton’s perspective tilted dramatically after a 2007 New York Times article revealed that Harrison had also been an anonymous sperm donor for untold others — something Harrison had promised Bilton’s mother he’d never do — leaving Bilton with a growing raft of half-siblings.
Stunned, Bilton rejected efforts by newfound family members to connect. “I’d had so many different types of families already,” she says. “I wanted nothing to do with one more sibling, let alone possibly dozens. It gave me a giant panic attack.”
She wasn’t ready to share her life — not with new siblings or with readers, not after having lived a life of secrets. Bilton had spent her adolescence filled with shame — of having a lesbian mother and not much of a father, of hiding under a table while their landlord knocked and shouted about evicting them.
“Through college and even after that, my closest friends didn’t know a truthful thing about me,” she says. “It was a sad, lonely existence.”
Finally, Bilton got sober — a process that tends to propel a public accounting. She began telling friends about “bits and pieces,” but she didn’t really learn to open up until she met her husband, Nick Bilton. “He’s a journalist, so he asked a lot of questions and there was no way to get around them.”
That’s when the dam began to break. “It was incredibly healing to tell someone my truth and be loved for that,” she says, choking up a bit. “I just started being more open and people are so filled with compassion when you’re honest with them. I think so many people can benefit from not being ashamed of the hard things they’ve gone through.”
With more of an open mind, she was able to see more in her half-siblings’ queries. One named Jennifer strongly resembled Bilton’s sister Kaitlyn; she had the same obscure gardening and philosophy books as Bilton; and there, on Facebook, was an image of Jennifer in the same studio in Florence where Bilton had once painted. (Her old roommate was even in the photo.)
“She was so enthusiastic about this larger biological family and how wonderful it was,” Bilton recalls. “Instead of being bummed out about this family I could see the beauty in it. She really changed my perspective.”
“Hollywood Park,” a new memoir from the frontman for the Airborne Toxic Event, recounts his childhood in L.A.’s Synanon cult — and his recovery.
Bilton now shares strong bonds with several half-siblings, often musing on their eerie similarities (they almost all love cats and philosophy) and the genetics underlying her own life story. “It has added understanding that some of my challenges are biological, which proved incredibly affirming.”
There was still, however, a story to write down. She didn’t want to make it a straightforward memoir, choosing instead to interview family members and include multiple points of view, especially on incidents that preceded her birth or living memory. Her parents’ memories of facts largely “lined up perfectly,” she notes. “It was just their sense of who was at fault would differ.”
She learned a lot too. Her father confessed that Debra had paid him to keep showing up in Bilton’s life. “He just told me that matter of factly.”
It took some time to get over that one — but the oral-history approach allowed for exactly what Bilton was craving all those years: perspective. Debra knew no other gay women raising children in a blatantly homophobic society. “I can’t even grasp what it must have been like for her,” Bilton says. “So as crazy as it is that she gave a man a $100 bill to come to my birthday I understand it in some way now.”
For her mother, it wasn’t quite so easy. Debra, now sober for years (“and an unbelievable grandparent”), felt safe talking openly about the past — including the drinking, violence and suicide in her own Beverly Hills childhood. That was in part because she had come to believe this writing project of Bilton’s would never see the light of day.
“She thought it was just quality time with me, spending dozens of hours talking about her life,” Bilton says.
The result, when Bilton handed her the finished book, was “a really big panic attack.” Not wanting to risk a “beautiful relationship,” Bilton considered shelving the project. “But we had multiple therapists involved and we worked through it and she’s proud of it now.”
At last, Bilton has no unfinished business — and no regrets. “I was thankful to learn everything,” she says. “You always benefit from knowing the truth.”
Readers thought Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, “Sweetbitter,” was autobiography. The reality, in her memoir “Stray,” is far more painfully dramatic.
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