Author Julia Blackburn’s latest nonfiction work, The Three of Us, shows the reader how her unique narrative style, unlike most that have been used along the well-traveled path of writing about one’s own family, keeps her audience willingly captive. In the opening sentence of Chapter 10, her voice clearly holds as innovative.
“My mother said I was more like her sister than her daughter. She said it as if this was a good and comfortable thing to be, but already when I was still quite young, I knew her sister was dead and it was very disconcerting to be seen standing in the shoes of a dead relative.” In The Three of Us, Blackburn manages to be both in the story of her own life and yet remain outside as a partial observer. She presents the reader with chapter after chapter of horrifying, while somehow still humorous, anecdotes of her tale of bouncing about under her precarious parents’ care, all the while leaving any judgments to the reader - a fantastically rare accomplishment in these days of reflection meant to warn, blame or cleanse the soul.
Julia’s father is a poet who suffers from an increasingly dark depression, and possibly other disturbing mental health problems. The medications the doctors prescribed to help him perk up serve instead to increase his aberrations. Julia’s father tends to take his prescriptions by handfuls, while consuming bottle after bottle of alcohol. He alternates between two main pastimes: one, fondly teaching Julia long verses of famous poems to recite at the family dinner parties; and two, becoming unashamedly involved in extramarital affairs. Although he is often a violent man, Julia loves him completely, never relinquishing her protection of him.
Julia’s mother is a painter. Julia recalls one early painting done by her mother which hung in the family’s main room. It showed a snarling dog on a chain that emerges from the deep gloom of a barrel. When Julia inquires what the frightening painting might mean, her mother informs her that it is meant to be a representation of her father. A strong woman by nature and need, she is given to grand displays of attention-grabbing, brought about by an old rivalry with her dead sister. She often spends long nights in Bohemian-style parties, leaving her sexual conquest to be discovered in the morning by Julia, still lying asleep in her mother’s bed. Julia’s mother also had a proclivity to be extremely direct in conversations about varied aspects of sexual behaviors. Her mother usually spoke to young Julia as if she were an adult friend rather than her child, with apparently no thought as to what this might do to her daughter’s developing views of her world.
Blackburn is refreshingly honest with her frightful family life, hiding nothing in order to avoid humiliations. Julia’s life is filled with a competitive mother who pushes her into the arms of the conquests, all the while blaming Julia for the transgressions. This, while her father never stops his dance toward increasingly psychotic realms but remains steadfast in his attempts to connect with and advise Julia. Despite all the opportunities Julia has in her upbringing to become embittered and to share with the reader an ugly tale, she does not. She not only survives but seems, in the end, to thrive.
Blackburn’s family tale is perhaps the best story ever written about a family on the brink of daily insanity. No moralizing or moaning, just a family in extraordinary circumstances, living out their daily lives with the cards dealt to each of them. This is a book that the reader will not want to put down until the end, and even then, he will want to know more.