Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
In 1976, when she was just three weeks old, Kelly Grey Carlisle’s mother left her in a Hollywood motel room. Carlisle was led to believe her mother died in a car accident. When she was eight, however, she learned at a luncheon with Detective Varney that her mother was murdered, possibly by the Hillside Stranglers.
“This was the detective who’d found me nestled in a pulled-out dresser drawer…My grandfather had explained these things to me a few weeks before, the first time I’d ever heard the truth about her death,” the author writes.
In her debut memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks (Sourcebooks, September 2017), Carlisle recounts the memories of her nontraditional upbringing, first being raised by her grandmother and her close friend, Dee. Following her grandmother’s death, Carlisle is only four years old when she goes to live with her grandfather and his second wife, Marilyn, whom she lovingly calls “daddy” and “mommy.” Carlisle bonds with her step-grandmother, stating that Marilyn “…unrelated to me by blood, wanted me more than anything in the whole world, and the simple fact of her love made my childhood and my life better.”
Better…considering the circumstances.
Carlisle’s memoir is divided into five sections, aptly titled “When We Lived in a House,” “When We Lived on a Boat,” “A Normal Family,” “The Ends of Things,” and “Where You Come From.” The sections are written chronologically, with the exception of occasional flashbacks, and the memoir reads as smoothly as a novel. In “We Lived on a Boat,” Carlisle’s descriptions of life in the L.A. harbor with six cats are portrayed with gritty details in her distinct, authentic childlike voice. The reader suspects Carlisle isn’t aware of how awful the conditions became while living on the boat. Her voice brings the reader right into the moments, recalling details that, well, can be somewhat disgusting.
While at the dinner table doing her homework, she examines pieces of rubble: “I picked at the cat debris on the table, sorting fur, cat litter, and tapeworm eggs into little piles.” And she often comments on the smell of cat urine, and characteristics of her grandfather that are less than desirable:
There was a crust of black dirt behind his knees because he couldn’t reach back there to wash. His toenails were thick and yellow, and his heels were cracked and dry like an elephant’s. Hair like steel wires grew from his ears and nostrils. He’d leave a trail of urine along the hall and a puddle around the toilet, and Marilyn or I would have to clean it up because sometimes he didn’t notice what he’d done—and even when he did notice, he couldn’t’ bend over to reach it. Instead, he’d haphazardly lay a paper towel over the puddles and drag it along with his foot, smearing the urine across the floor and leaving damp footprints.
Yet these disconcerting details didn’t prevent the young Carlisle from appreciating the good things about living on the boat. She writes how she befriends some others living on boats in the harbor, and how she helps one woman grow and sustain a vegetable garden. The symbolism of something beautiful and rewarding growing out of dirt and neglect is profound. But Carlisle’s narrative also portrays a naïve young girl surrounded by some shady adults, both at the harbor and also at her parents’ store. At first she seems proud of her parents owning a video store, until she learns that it is an adult (pornography) video store. But, these tidbits of recalled memories do not sway Carlisle’s belief that her parents had loved her deeply. Although her childhood could be seen as unconventional and complex to most, she reflects upon that life with honesty and tenderness. She always feels loved, even though she has questions about her mother’s death and doesn’t know anything about her biological father.
Ultimately, while reading about her struggles, the reader wonders…will Carlisle overcome the obstacles of her eccentric upbringing, or will she feel “trapped” in her situation, feeling obligated to care for her parents as they age? Will her mother’s murder case finally be proven by the growing technology of forensic sciences that she was murdered by the Hillside Stranglers?
Press releases and publicity surrounding this book have suggested it is as unique and captivating as Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle. While a completely different story, the two do have something in common: surviving a strange and fascinating childhood with the desire to escape into something better. In this raw, original memoir full of mystery, We Are All Shipwrecks can give anyone hope that a peculiar childhood may not be normal, but it can be tolerated, examined, and moments of it even cherished.
Angela earned her master of arts degree in creative writing from Wilkes University under the tutelage of Kaylie Jones and John Bowers. She lives below Blue Mountain in a log home with her husband and three cats, and she works in a delightfully quiet office. In her spare time, she indulges in books, films, ice cream, and making art.
[Angela previously served as a reviewer for Hippocampus for a number of years before moving into the editor role.]