The Kids Are All Right is a joint memoir by four Welch children after their parents died in the 1980s. The book is spearheaded by the second eldest daughter, Liz, a journalist and feature article writer who now lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
They are three girls and one boy -- the youngest only eight when her second parent, her mother, a soap actress, died. The four were separated, and each tells their story of growing up, only in this case youthful angst is multiplied many times over by the absence of parents and a family home.
The book is a coming-of-age, sex-drugs-rock-and-roll, child-abuse, almost-lost-soul journey. Diana, the youngest, is shipped off to a cold, unyielding family led by a vindictive, often abusive mother. The only male sibling, Dan, is on the verge of being kicked out of a number of schools due to his drug habits and other illicit activities. In fact, he hasn't fully leveled out by the end of the book -- unless you believe his family reunion conversion experience -- when he has been cruising bars, getting drunk, and looking for fights.
The oldest, Amanda, like Dan, skips quite close to all-out drug and alcohol excess. But she is rescued by her family values and work ethic. She reattaches to the real world in the form of a farmhouse in Virginia that she buys and renovates with her New York boyfriend (later husband). Amanda's home then serves as the physical center of their reconstituted family.
Liz, the person whose views and memories most inform the book, had her sexual and substance use rough spots (the book in unflinchingly honest). Then again, who hasn't? She is kept on track by values towards achievement, exploration (she travels to Europe as soon as she turns eighteen), and family.
The Welches are not psychologizers -- aside from Amanda noting that Diana, as a free spirit, could not fit in with the family to which she was assigned. Although this is part of their charm, perhaps more insight by their mother (who participated in the assignment) might have made life easier for them. But, obviously, these hook-ups were made in a desperate state.
You learn in the book that adults -- even relatives -- are unreliable, often cruel. The friend of their father's who was supposed to take Dan sloughed him off with a gift tennis racket. He then ended up with a Manhattan friend of his mother's, who often seemed too preoccupied with her own bachelorette lifestyle (as well as Dan's social security survivor payments) to serve as a substitute mother. Their mother's favorite brother was concerned primarily with carting away family heirlooms after his sister's death, and demanded that the children pay for their mother's burial before she was laid to rest in the Arizona family cemetery plot.
Indeed, one question I came away from the book with was whether the publisher had legal qualms about presenting such unflattering views of so many people.
You learn that family love is the best antidote to drug excess and addiction. Amanda cleans herself up whenever she needs to be responsible for her much younger sister, Diana. In one of many moving scenes, Liz pulls Dan back from all-out drug self-assault by telling him how much she loves him -- and successfully conveying the strength of her feelings.
You wonder whether losing parents can actually make children more considerate of and helpful towards one another. The older two girls especially proved to be real mensches, but everyone pitched in for their parentless family. (Although Dan probably created more problems than he assuaged with his activities during the period this book covers.)
And being forced to work hard and look out for yourself and your siblings is perhaps not bad preparation for life. Liz weeded gardens for rich neighbors, was an au pair in Paris and London, and took out a summer to care for orphans in Africa. When Diana's stepmother suddenly thrust her onto Amanda after enrolling the girl in a high-tone private school, Amanda chauffeured her sister in a crappy pick-up truck. "We'd be in this long line of BMWs and SUVs ... poor Di would shrink in her seat. But, I figured, hell -- it was good for her. Builds character."
So the book is depressing: how, in the 1980s, could a small girl be forced to eat from a dirty dog food bowl by her foster parents in a wealthy CT suburb? The book is uplifting -- love conquers all. The book is literarily interesting -- can a four-score-settling joint memoir really work? (It does.)
And, finally, the book is optimistic. It is about irrepressible human spirit. Childhood trauma, mistreatment, and lack of guidance cause all sorts of lifelong problems. But these four ended up constructive citizens who enjoy spending time together.
And none appears to have incurred a permanent addiction or emotional disorder. Yet none of the kids spent time in therapy. Nor did Dan and Amanda go to rehab or join AA. Indeed, during their first full reunion, they all had wine with their little sister!
So, Hallelujah! Or is their shared recovery due to family love? Here's one expression of that love. Dan heard his uncle cut down his aunt. "I was shocked. I would never talk that way about one of my sisters. I worshipped them and the time we spent together. . . Liz's self-confidence made me feel human, and Amanda always made me feel safe."
The boy's all right. In fact, they're all okay.