Brother & Sister by Diane Keaton. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 157 pp.
Actress Diane Keaton has written about her life in other books, including Then Again, a memoir that focuses on her mother, and Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty, a book of musings about aging and beauty. Now she turns her attention to her younger, troubled brother, Randy, in her latest memoir, Brother & Sister.
Keaton explains she wrote this book in order to explore the mystery of her brother, “to understand the complexity of loving someone so different, so alone, and hard to place . . . because there are so many people who live through the sorrow and pain of not knowing how to manage a family member . . . who challenges and bewilders, upsets and dazzles us; who scares some of us away; but who still loves us, in his or her own way.”
Diane and Randy Hall (Diane took her mother’s maiden name, Keaton, when starting out as an actress) were born two years apart in Los Angeles in the late 1940s to Jack and Dorothy Hall, who would later have two more daughters. Jack was a successful engineer and Dorothy was a stay-at-home mom with an artistic bent. Some of the earliest signs that Randy was suffering from some level of mental dysfunction appeared when he was a toddler. He was terrorized by low-flying planes passing over their yard, which occurred daily as they played outside. Their presence would send him running inside where he would hide and cry. (Later, their father would set him up in an apartment next to the Air Force base.)
While Diane was outgoing and sought love from strangers through performing, Randy had few friends, preferring to spend time alone in his bedroom. He was always looking for love from his stern father who had typical post-World War II expectations of his son. Randy, sensitive, introspective, and artistic like his mother, would always feel like a failure in his father’s eyes and “. . . wore it the way Hester Prynne wore her scarlet letter.”
After high school, Randy went to work in his father’s company, but while Jack publicly encouraged and promoted his son’s work, behind the scenes Randy was faltering. He fell in love with a woman at work and they soon married, but the union did not last, and Randy began a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism.
While Randy spent his life trying to gain the respect of his father, he also spent a life under the influence of a mother that idolized her son and who was always there to save him, often at the expense of his autonomy. He most likely would have suffered some level of mental illness regardless of his parents, but the combination of an exacting father and a smothering, enabling mother, did not help.
As much as she explores the mystery of her brother, Keaton also examines her own role in his life and the guilt she feels for not always being there for him and for giving up on him at times, leaving him to his own destruction; but she is a loving sister, and uses the resources afforded to her as a successful actress to help him when she can. Unfortunately, as with so many with mental illness or addiction, Randy resists help, and it is not until he is suffering from dementia that he finally gets what he needs.
Both Randy and his mother left behind a lifetime’s worth of personal journals, scrapbooks, letters, poetry, and artwork, all of which means Keaton is able to share a fully realized story of her family. The writing is beautiful and intimate, and despite the sadness of her brother’s illness, Brother & Sister is a wonderful read.
Katherine Arends is the Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org