Mum (and Pup) Dearest

I can’t imagine what possessed Christopher Buckley to publish the memoir of his recently departed parents that is excerpted at length in the New York Times Magazine as “Growing up Buckley.” The excerpts derive from Buckley’s forthcoming Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir.

The Times excerpts seethe with hurts and resentments that the passing of Buckley’s parents appears to have done little to assuage. He sees his father from a son’s perspective as neglectful and self-involved. He refers to the Hundred Years’ War he waged with his father over religion. By the evidence of the excerpts, Buckley is still in dubious battle even though his antagonist has passed on. Buckley even recalls his father’s poor conduct at the time of Buckley’s graduation from Yale some 35 years ago.

One excerpt portrays Bill Buckley’s physical decline culminating in death. When Buckley attends his father as his condition weakens, he finds him dependent on stimulants and depressants like a latter-day Elvis Presley (coincidentally, the subject of Bill Buckley’s Elvis in the Morning).

Buckley’s mother Pat fares even worse. She comes across in the excerpts as something of a mean drunk, guilty of numerous outrages over the years. Buckley characterizes the outrages as “serial misbehavior.” This one involving Buckley’s eighteen year old daughter Cat and best friend Kate Kennedy visiting the Buckleys in Stamford betrays Pat Buckley’s imp of the perverse:

At some point, Mum turned to — on might be the more exact preposition — Kate, informing her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel. Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Kate’s grandmother, was (as you might be aware) the defendant in a sensational murder trial in Stamford several years before, for the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Having presented this astonishing and perfectly untrue credential, Mum then proceeded to launch into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s relative.

Buckley undoubtedly anticipates a negative reaction to his memoir among friends, fans and followers of Bill Buckley. As he puts it: “This book is going to land hard in some quarters. They were not your typical mom and dad. This is not Ozzie and Harriet. They were William F. and Pat Buckley. The phrase ‘larger than life’ doesn’t twice cover it.”

Buckley badly needs to achieve some perspective on his parents. Their deaths should have helped provide it, but it appears still to be lacking. He claims on occasion to be feeling “some sort of primal liberation” in his parents’ deaths. It is a feeling suggestive of how raw the material presented in the excerpts is. But can he really be happy to have contributed a Mum (and Pup) Dearest to the literature of muckraking children of illustrious parents?

The excerpts suggest that Buckley is working out deep hurts and settling grievous scores. They read like an act of vengeance. Buckley’s public acting out was palpable last fall in the terms of his endorsement of Barack Obama. As it turns out, that was the least of it.

No one who reads the Times excerpts is likely to think more highly of Christopher Buckley, or of either of his parents. It is not apparent to me that Buckley understands the first outcome, however much he may have intended the second. (Thanks to Joe Malchow and the many readers who helped me reconstruct this post.)

JOHN adds: I’ve read only a few of Bill Buckley’s books, but I recall the great affection with which he wrote of Christopher in one of his later books about sailing. I suppose there is something lower than attacking your parents in print after their deaths–while, no doubt, assiduously cashing all inheritance checks–but I can’t offhand think what it would be.

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