On Tama Janowitz’s ‘Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction’
Janowitz leaves out crucial parts of her life in her memoir, but talks with heart about the care and death of her mother.
Memoir | Non-Fiction
6” x 9”
Review Format: Hardcover
Dey Street Books
New York, New York
The memoir begins in Janowitz’s childhood, which gives us the most dysfunctional pieces of her life puzzle: her family. Her life begins in a typical nuclear family, and like many, it explodes. After her parents’ divorce, her brother and she spend the majority of their childhood with their mother, scraping by on a limited income with little assistance from their mentally and verbally abusive father.
Understandably, Janowitz doesn’t hold much faith in the theory of uncomplicated relatives:
I don’t know why Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike.” First of all, he couldn’t have spent much time with any family or he would have found out that there is no such thing as a happy family. I have met happy families, and after a few minutes one of them takes you off to the side to explain the real truth.
The memoir is mostly centered on her family, particularly her mother and father. One she adores. One she does not seem able to make up her mind about.
The star of Janowitz’s story is her mother, the poet Phyllis Janowitz. Their bond is deep and unwavering. Tama praises her for encouraging her creativity and supporting her dreams of becoming a famous writer. She explains in detail her mother helping her fill out applications for scholarship and letters to literary magazines, and driving her to the post office to mail her submissions. In Janowitz’s rose-colored vision, she is patience and nurturing at every pass.
In contrast, her father, a wealthy retired psychiatrist who had a tendency of sleeping with his clients, was emotionally and verbally abusive the entirety of Janowitz’s life. Still, she remained in contact, including annual visits, with him until his death.
A hefty portion of the memoir deals with Janowitz moving to upstate New York to take care of her mother, whose dementia is advancing. The culture shock Janowitz feels in her move is referenced so often you have to wonder exactly what she is trying to say. The small town supermarket baffles her. The locals frustrate her, though she manages to date one. She spends a good deal of time advocating for the working class and denouncing her prior class struggle to rise above it:
Now, I am old. I am educated. I have met rich people, including socialites and aristocrats with titles. I am happy with the working class. I do not need to escape their company. Then, however, at fifteen years old, I was in search of upward mobility, though I did not understand it at that time.
Still, she makes it painfully clear she does not fit in with the locals of upstate New York.
Occasionally, she name drops, but the pages aren’t continuously peppered with anecdotes of encounters with the rich and famous — though one chapter is dedicated to her run-in with the Kennedys. She doesn’t try to attempt to convince you she knew those involved more intimately than suggested. In fact, if you’re looking for glamorous stories about Janowitz’s time in New York as part of the literary Brat Pack, you will be left wanting. She delivers chapters explaining her relationships with Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed and his wife, Sylvia, but she doesn’t go into much detail. For the most part, she glazes over her time in New York, even though it was the height (so far) of her own personal fame.
The memoir does contain other missing elements. Her husband is mentioned, but their meeting or relationship is not examined. She spends more time on her contractor boyfriend than the man she married and shares a child with. Janowitz repeatedly states she’s broke and unable to make ends meet, despite her successful career and the fact she’s remodeling a house.
Janowitz ends the memoir the same way she begins it, with her family. Her mother’s death leaves her heartsick living in a community she does not feel a part of. The chapters detailing the struggle and burden of her mother’s illness contain the most heart. You get the sense that the eighties in New York were a lot of fun, but they were not real life. Her mother’s death is real life.