Growing up is hard enough when you have two loving parents (who love each other), enough money to make all of you comfortable and no serious illness or addiction in the family. What about someone who grows up in this situation: his mother is schizophrenic; his father is bipolar, an alcoholic, a cross-dresser and has a partial sex change? Then, there are three new mothers after divorce number one. John Hemingway (born 1960, brother of Lorian) dealt with all of this, and he has lived to tell of it in a fine memoir, Strange Tribe, a saga of the ongoing influence (and damage) that Ernest Hemingway, one of our country’s finest writers, has had on his extended family.
Being born into a famous family is both a gift and a curse. Living with the legend of one of the most famous Americans of the last century is not an easy task, but it can open doors, as well. Not surprisingly, several of the Hemingway family members (of origin and/or ex-wives) have also become writers – and some, like Papa and his father before him, have committed suicide.
Memoirs are popular these days. Almost everyone thinks his/her life warrants a 300-page tale. Perhaps even 15 years ago, only memoirs of famous people – or people in highly unusual circumstances – were published. But, today, everyone’s tale, if told compellingly, is fair game. John Hemingway is a good writer and his tale is heroic, amazing, but what will probably hold most readers’ interest are the truly bizarre, dysfunctional family dynamics of the Hemingway “tribe.” John clearly is a survivor –married with two children, living in Italy. He put some distance between himself and the relatives, probably what saved him in the end.
This is not to say that John’s father Gregory Hemingway, an M.D. and occasional writer did not love him. To John, as a young boy, his dad was a hero. Greg did love his children, without a doubt. It’s just that it is hard for anyone to maintain contact with a father who might be drunk, or in jail, or having sex change surgery, or divorcing, or running around in drag. Years intervened when John and Greg didn’t see each other, as years had passed when Greg, the youngest of Ernest’s sons, didn’t see his father.
In a much earlier memoir written by Gregory, Papa, A Personal Memoir (1976), he writes of his father’s death, “I confess I felt profound relief when they lowered my father’s [Ernest’s] body into the ground and I realized that he was really dead, that I couldn’t disappoint him, couldn’t hurt him anymore.” The influence of both Greg and Ernest, whom John never met, still weigh heavily in the younger writer’s psyche and heart.
In his fascinating memoir, John Hemingway often refers to his father and his grandfather as “two sides of the same coin.” Both suffered from bipolar disease, were fascinated with sex and androgyny, married several times, had children, and were writers, although, of course, Gregory to a much lesser extent. Also, Ernest’s father was a doctor, Ernest had a formidable grasp on medical matters, and Greg became a doctor (although he eventually lost his license to practice).
For serious Hemingway scholars, this book may provide few new secrets. But for the Ernest Hemingway reader, especially one studying his work after a hiatus and re-appreciating the man’s genius, this book is sure to shock, fascinate, and engage.