The Unexamined Life
Here is the 12-year-old Sean in Moscow in the early 1980s, as part of a group of children transported around the world by his mother, who through her social connections had turned herself into a highly visible advocate of world peace and nuclear disarmament. Sean is standing in the office of a Soviet official named Ruben, who is speaking informally to Wilsey's group:
Ruben was talking about the Soviet Union's many allies.... He said, "I'd like to reemphasize that all of those people regardless of their faith or race or color or nationality are absolutely equal in their rights. And I am not merely talking of...equality of peoples in the Soviet Union. For it is a genuine and true equality in everything and every sphere of life."
Strangely, not a single reviewer has wondered about Wilsey's superhuman powers of recall. Critics could at least have used the occasion to reflect on the question of truth in memoir. This is not, after all, Speak, Memory or The Words, memoirs in which poetic imaginations create their own truth, mere facts be damned. Oh the Glory of It All doesn't ask to be read on poetic terms, so isn't it fair to ask if the facts are accurate?
Although Wilsey blames his parents for his shortcomings--"they destroyed my childhood"--and refuses to accept that their complicated, messy lives are the inevitable lot of being an adult--"there was something childlike about Mom and Dad"--it's hard to resist feeling that he's displaying the same sense of entitlement and lofty indifference to reality that he claims characterized their treatment of him. Such is Wilsey's self-absorption that he doesn't tell us he has two full brothers and two half-sisters until the memoir's final pages, and then says nothing about his relationship to them. This makes it especially hard to credit his avowal that he and his siblings calmly accepted Dede's announcement that she had cut them out of their share of their father's fortune. (Wilsey insists that he would have given the money to charity.) No litigation on the part of any of the siblings? Even for the sake of charity? Call me cynical, but I just don't believe it. Yet all the other reviewers apparently did, because no one bothered to question Wilsey's Prince Myshkin-like account of his and his siblings' reaction to the news. Were the critics afraid that raising the subject of money in a review of a book about superwealthy people would somehow be considered... ill-bred? The country has become so money- and status-obsessed that talking about money and status has become almost taboo.
Wilsey says two things that betray both his self-deception and his peculiar re-enactment of what he has presented as his parents' coarseness and materialism. The first occurs in a description of his mother's alluring physical appearance: "Beauty is like money from God." The second is about his father's "social prominence to which I owe my existence." Holden Caulfield, where art thou?!! Beauty may be the apple of money's eye, but it is nothing like money. It is the one quality on which money has no purchase; that is why money so hotly pursues all things beautiful. As the young Wilsey might have said: Duh! And if Wilsey wrote this book in order to better "figure out" who he is and concludes, without so much as the slightest irony, that he owes his very existence--not his status and opportunities in the world, but his existence--to his father's social prominence, he is a long way from self-knowledge. Especially given that his entire memoir is devoted to showing his father's uncaring, unloving, soul-deforming effect on him.
But, then, nonrich people keep getting reminded by reality that the stories they tell themselves aren't true. The rich have a better shot at making up narratives that they can believe in unencumbered by the facts. At least, that's the type of denial Wilsey says his wealthy parents are swaddled in. As for Wilsey himself, he tells us in a concluding chapter titled "Redemption" that the special school for troubled rich kids in Italy transformed him from "a wounded sarcastic wiseass, a self-serving liar, and a sneak" into "A Beautiful Man of Honesty and Integrity." Later, he says,
Kids are trusting and wise and I cannot think of a less useful combination to be born with. The wisdom lets children know who they are. And then the trust lets everyone else take that knowledge away.
He follows that breathtaking fantasy about life some pages further on, right at the end of the book, with this beautiful hallucination about his parents' and stepmother's influence: "If the three of them hadn't been so consistently themselves, it might have turned out otherwise." The neat happy ending of a redemptive transformation: wise, trusting children and cruel betraying adults, people who are knowable, predictable, "consistently themselves," just like comic book figures--forgive my own coarse materialism, but you need a lot of money to sustain these illusions about life into nearly middle age. Only in the current overheated publishing climate could someone offer a memoir so devoid of self-understanding, a tale that presents wealth and privilege as an affliction--wealth as the new poverty; privilege as the new disadvantage--and soars onto the bestseller list with the blessings of respected critics.
And there is something eerily familiar about all of this. A rich kid who owes his existence to his rich, influential daddy; who blames everyone but himself for his mistakes; who charms everyone into forgetting his flaws by winkingly acknowledging his flaws; who has fabricated and follows a fantasy-narrative about his life; who appears to promulgate naked deceits and self-deceits that, astonishingly, seem to strengthen his credibility. Wilsey for president! No, I'm not comparing the injured (but isn't everyone?) San Francisco heir to the injuring Washington scion. But if we really want to step outside the status quo and get to the bottom of what's happening in this country, maybe we should start paying attention to the culture in a different way. We might want to start thinking about our nominally liberal culture-makers and culture-appraisers--and just about everyone in the arts is "liberal"...aren't they?--with the same skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to politics. Everything really is connected, in one way or another.