By Mary Fensholt Perera
In her new book Brother & Sister, Diane Keaton describes her brother Randy as living on “the other side of normal.”
“The other side,” a comforting phrase used by those struggling to accept the loss of a loved one, harkens back to the myth of the River Styx. In Brother & Sister, Randy’s mental illness runs like a dark river through both her brother’s life and Keaton’s story. This debilitating illness, culminating now in dementia, is the current that continues to take Randy further and further from those who love him. It is a force they are powerless to understand or to stop.
Diane Keaton and her younger brother, Randy grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1950s, with parents determined to live the American dream. Their civil engineer father, Jack Hall, worked diligently to support his family. Their homemaker mother, Dorothy Hall, documented their days with her diaries and cameras. The family grew and prospered. Yet Randy failed to thrive emotionally; his childhood was not a happy one, and his inability to cope with the world around him became more and more apparent as the years passed.
While Keaton studied acting, built her movie career, and traveled, her brother struggled to find his feet. By his early twenties he was divorced, drinking heavily, and working sporadically. As Keaton went on to become a fashion icon, Academy Award winner, real estate developer, designer, and author, Randy became a recluse and an alcoholic, reluctantly supported by his father. Eventually, he wrote to Diane relating his fantasies of violence toward women (something, Keaton states clearly, he never acted upon): “‘You can’t imagine what it’s like to actually start planning how to get a pretty woman and kill her. I did Diane, I had scenarios of doing just that. I figured I would sneak into a room where a woman was sleeping and stab her to death.’”
Randy’s liver failed, but a well-timed donation helped secure a new liver and a life-saving transplant. The surgery, clearly recognized by Randy as a second chance, gave him and his family hope that his life would change for the better. But even as he recuperated from the operation the dark current pulled him in again.
Working with her own memories, her mother’s substantial trove of documents, and Randy’s own journals, poetry, and artwork, Keaton dives deeply into the past, seeking an understanding of how siblings could come to take such different paths. She invites the reader into her own family to explore the nature of mental illness and the complexity of its effects on family members. In a letter the adult Randy wrote to Keaton, he describes his memory of his relationship with their father: “‘I don’t have a pleasant memory of Dad. I was afraid of him the whole time. … He made me feel like I didn’t know anything. … He wanted precision in the world, and, from me, less meaningless talk.’”
But Keaton never resorts to attributing Randy’s problems to his relationship with their father. Remembering an incident in their shared early childhood, she wonders if she could have done something to prevent Randy’s slide:
In the dark, secured by my pillow, my blankie, and the quiet company of my little brother below, I was ready for sleep.
I remember glancing down from my top-bunk apartment in the sky and seeing Randy’s anxious bobbing head, his fear of the dark, and his sweet if hapless face. Why was he such a chicken? Why couldn’t he stop seeing ghosts that weren’t there lurking in shadows?
Brother & Sister is a story of responsibility, for one’s self and for others. It is a story that explores the complexity of family relationships and the ties that bind a family: siblings together, children to parents, and parents to one another. It is permeated with the joy of closeness, the pain of separation, the struggle to understand one another, and the complexity of expectations.
It is a story of places, of Los Angeles and suburbia, of places where increasing opportunities, choices, and financial prosperity fail to prevent isolation and despair, where the perpetual sunshine fails to shed light on the mysteries of mental illness.
But it is also the story of our times. Brother & Sister reminds us that mental illness can strike any family. We know that poor and working-class families often suffer its consequences more immediately and more severely than those with money. Members of Randy’s family provided enormous resources over the years to keep him visible, keep a roof over his head, and provide him with high-quality medical care. In our time, in our cities and towns, we have only to look up and around to see people suffering from mental illness, addiction, and self-destructive actions in the ways that Randy did. The meanest streets in our cities are crowded with those who do not have a family with the resources Randy’s family did.
Brother & Sister shares Keaton’s life with her brother with only the most necessary departures into her other experiences. We follow them from their early closeness, through years where the circumstances of their lives pulled them apart, and into the present, where her brother’s diminished capacity makes a closer relationship possible. As the book closes, Diane writes: “After a lifetime of self-imposed barriers, I finally gave myself permission to be close, quiet, and intimate with my brother.”
Here I think she sells herself short. Brother & Sister makes clear that no matter how close you give yourself permission to be, there are limits to what intervention can accomplish when a loved one is caught in the dark current of mental illness. Brother & Sister is a book steeped in compassion—an effort to diminish the stigma around mental illness. As with her other books, the multi-talented Keaton gives us a thoughtful and insightful story written with clear prose, frankness, and humility.
Mary Fensholt Perera is a business presentation consultant, speaker, and author. Her book, The Polished Presentation, is a Benjamin Franklin Award winner. She is on the faculty of the UCSD extension program Executive Perspectives for Scientists and Engineers, a Vistage speaker, and a member of the Board of Trustees for the California Botanic Garden. She is also a student in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at UC Riverside. She lives in Claremont, California, one-half block from Pomona College. She thinks of the Claremont College campus as a large, well-manicured park full of interesting creatures.