The Kids Stay in the Picture
Diana Welch talks about the joint memoir she wrote with her siblings about surviving childhood
It's unfortunate that the term "survivor" has been co-opted by reality personalities eating bugs for 30 days, but then again, Diana Welch –most definitely a survivor with a capital "S" – has lived such a colorful life that maybe she's subsisted on bugs, too. I don't know. We only talked for 30 minutes, so we didn't cover every base.
What we did get to, in glancing: Mexican banditos, a green card marriage (and divorce), a high school sex ed tutorial on fisting, and her recent home birth to son Harvey. Diana points to the dining room, where the birthing tub once sat. "I rocked it," she grins.
Diana, a former Chronicle contributor, has stories, for sure, but those are for another book. The story we're talking about today is the one she and her three siblings – Amanda, Liz, and Dan – wrote a book about, The Kids Are All Right. The title may tip the hand of the happy ending – well, happy enough –but what comes first is the frankly devastating story of what happened when the Welch kids first lost their father in a mysterious car accident and then their mother, the actress Ann Williams, to cancer four years later. The kids were scattered to the four winds –Amanda off to college in New York; Liz, living with friends during her last year of high school in their Connecticut hometown; Dan, shuttling between reluctant guardians and then shoved off to boarding school; and Diana, only 7 at the time of her mother's death, dropped into a new family entirely, with limited contact with her siblings.
According to Diana, it was Liz, now a New York-based journalist, who first tried to set the story down of the Welch family. "She's an investigative journalist so she was trying to report the story – that was her instinct. She collected all of our mother's medical records, all of our father's financial stuff, talked to people who worked with my mother – just really reported the shit out of it. But then every time she tried to put it together as a story, it just wasn't jelling."
On the advice of an agent, Liz took a different tack: to attempt to describe what happened to someone younger, "too young to know what was going on." Diana was the obvious choice. "So [Liz] wrote this memory of our father's funeral to me. And when I received it, I was like, 'This is insane – I remember it completely differently.' So I wrote back, and that started the whole thing."
Liz and Diana then interviewed their two other siblings in order to incorporate all four voices. "We used their words, but we sort of rearranged them and shaped them and also strategically asked questions. We would use them to fill holes in the timeline or [when] there were certain instances that we asked all four of us to examine, so we could get that contradiction of memory."
With so much hubbub about the authenticity of memoir, you'd think they'd be striving for a "word of God" kind of accuracy, but Diana says they reveled in the contradictions in their accounts. "I think it's cool. I really do. Especially with the whole memoir drama that's been going on in the past couple of years, I feel like it really challenges the whole idea of what a memoir actually is and how memory, as a reliable narrator – you shouldn't really expect it to be one."
For Diana, one of the "secret instigations" in writing the book was to finally find out what her siblings were going through during the five years they were separated from one another. When Diana was 12, she left her guardian family, the Chamberlains (whose names and identifying characteristics have been changed for the book), to live with her eldest sister, Amanda; she says at that point, the Welches didn't spend much time swapping horror stories.
"I feel like all of us were, at the time, young and just surviving. And when we all got back together, we would tell funny stories. My siblings would always crack me up with hilarious stories about making each other eat soap – weird sibling stuff, very light – and nobody ever talked about the hard stuff. We just didn't really go there."
When they did go there, there were some shockers.
"I didn't know my brother was going to hookers when I was at summer camp. I love that," Diana laughs. "I mean, it's actually really sad, but it was also hilarious to me. It was sad to think about this lonely kid doing a bunch of blow and going to hookers when he was, what, 15 or something. But it's also a hilarious juxtaposition."
The book also allowed her siblings to better understand the psychological trauma of Diana's years with the Chamberlains. Some of the book's most painful passages detail Diana's time there, with an ill-fitting family dominated by a "new mother" – a woman who seems, by Diana's own admission, to have meant well, but who disastrously set about tamping down Diana's spiritedness and dramatically reducing contact with her siblings. In the book, Diana remembers one of the few times she saw her siblings during that time, when Amanda and Dan came to visit. They walk the Chamberlains' property together, and Diana points out the invisible fence keeping the family dog in its place. "I thought that we could make a break for it," she writes. "We weren't wearing any collars." Diana wouldn't be reunited with her family for another five years, when the Chamberlains shipped her off, for good, to her sister's farmhouse in Virginia, more or less playing return-to-sender with a 12-year-old girl.
Twenty years and many stories – some funny, some tragic – later, the family gathered at a beach house in South Carolina to assess. "It was right before we were going to turn the manuscript in to our editor, and we all four read our chapters out loud together. And that was really moving and beautiful."
And not a little bit scary, too: "I think seeing it as a whole, it made us all kind of realize that this was going out into the world. I think we've had little moments of, 'Holy shit, what the fuck are we thinking?' since then."
There's been a barrage of glowing press, and a crew from Good Morning America recently flew in to film Diana, then nine months pregnant, and her siblings at her house in East Austin, a complex with a lovely sort of landed Swiss Family treehouse feel to it, with chickens and a dog and a retired schoolbus all sharing space. "This producer from Good Morning America came here with a camera crew and took one look at my house and rented a suite at the Four Seasons," Diana laughs.
"But it was moments like that, before this Good Morning America thing, when tensions were running a little high, because we were like, '[Are] we marketing our family to mainstream America?,' which is this really weird feeling to actually do that.
"But then my siblings came down and we hung out for a couple of days beforehand, and every time we all get together, all those tensions disappear. Because we all just like laugh and have a good time together, and we all really are close, and we all are all right, you know?"
Better than all right, even. To sticky-finger a verb from Diana: I'd say they rocked it.
The Kids Are All Right (Harmony Books) is now available at bookstands. Diana Welch will appear at the Texas Book Festival, which takes place Oct. 31-Nov. 1. Liz and Diana will appear at a BookPeople reading on Nov. 25. For more information, visit www.thekidsareallrightbook.com.