The Hemingway family is cast under an enormous shadow. Ernest, even before Mariel’s birth, was an author primed to go down in the history books alongside the very best American authors. Often hidden from view, however, are the tales of suicide, alcoholism, depression, and mental illness that have also become ingrained in the family legend. Genius manifests itself in the Hemingway genealogy, but so does tragedy. A family known for its itinerant, risk-taking alcoholic writer, is now equally known for a history of mental illness that has led to seven suicides.
Out Came the Sun, Mariel Hemingway’s autobiography, brings to life the notoriously chaotic legacy of the Hemingway family wherein she battles the dysfunction with an uncharacteristic desire for cleanliness, order, and normality. Her struggle appears to glue her kin together, and her tenacity to overcome the so-called “Hemingway curse” is uncovered in this revealing memoir. Here are six leitmotifs that might help to untangle this family’s complex history:
1. The entropic battle
The Hemingway household was, by almost any definition, “dysfunctional.” Mariel’s parents lived a double-life between children and friends, physically separated in the downstairs, uncontrollable world—the world of adults—while upstairs there was the realm of their children—a secure world under ever-tidy sheets. Mariel recounts the painful arguments heard through the floor, especially after guests left, between her parents that often led to cursing, spilled wine, and broken bottles. After one of these difficult nights, she would go about restoring order, cleaning up under the cover of night so that everything would be forgotten in the morning. She controlled the environment by keeping the household space clean. The world that her parents lived in was chaotic, so she kept her personal space—and every other space she could control—as ordered as possible.
2. Reverse Caretaking
Her mother’s ski accident prolonged this theme later in life. Prodded by Mariel, her mother followed her adventurous 11-year-old onto the nearby ski slopes. Unfortunately, her mother collided with another beginner skier, shattering bones in her leg, which left her immobile in a cast from hip to toe. As a result, Mariel became the full-time caretaker for the family. This shift in the household dynamic paradoxically created a disjunctive comfort: “It had an immediate effect on the house. I saw that my mother was less likely to snap at me than she was at my father. I saw that my father was happier keeping his distance. Caretaking was an extreme version of what I had been doing for years: creating artificial order so that the house didn’t descend into chaos.”
3. Ernest as the trunk of the family tree
But not in the way you are thinking: He cast a shadow that “pressed down upon all of us.” Although this remains the largest shadow, Mariel maintains that each family member lived under a secondary shadow. Her father was shadowed by his wife’s previous husband, a war hero. Margaux was shadowed by her oldest sister, Joan, aka Muffet, and all the way down the line to Mariel, who from an early age noticed that there was hardly any record of her existence. Whereas Muffet and Margot had boxes of photographs to document their lives, Mariel, as is the case with many youngest children, had almost none. She recounts a particularly lonely youngest-sibling-syndrome life where her own history appears to be lost to the fatigue of aging parents.
3. Sisters lived troubled lives.
The youngest of three daughters—a “mistake”—Mariel looked up to her eldest sister Joan (Muffet), whose adultish demeanor made her a sort of surrogate mother to Mariel, while Margot, at least initially, was an unpredictable and worrisome presence. One of Mariel’s earliest memories is being awoken by a drunk Margot attempting to strangle her, before passing out again. As things moved on, Muffet, the former star child, developed a mental illness that forced her into a life away from home, relying on drug therapy to stay “normal,” and therefore disappeared as source of safety. Margot, surprisingly, became a popular supermodel, changed her name to Margaux and had a shortlived acting career. But critics panned her screen debut in Lipstick and she soon ran out of work, while Mariel’s career simultaneously took off.
Complicating matters even more, a now depressed Margaux developed an eating disorder that put further pressure on the family. Even worse, Margaux continued to feel less and less secure in her self-image, and disappeared into a life of drugs and alcohol. Mariel believes that Margaux’s eventual lethal overdose was the result of the consistent inconsistency of their family life, combined with her own absence of any safety net, of never having anything or anyone to fall back on. Mariel believed that Margaux felt she didn’t deserve her own fame. The older sister’s gregarious personality, which would’ve been taken by any stranger as self-assuredness, is weighed against the softer and less secure Margot that her little sister grew up knowing intimately. Mariel isn’t convinced, therefore, that her sister’s death was suicide. At the very least, she cannot decisively conclude, despite knowing of all the drug abuse and family dysfunction, that Margaux would choose to end her own life. For Mariel, it remains a question that cannot be answered.
4. Inside and Outside
Around the time her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Mariel felt a renewed wish to change everything around her. Feeling unregulated was no longer reasonable. The accumulating tragedy that had surrounded her adolescence and resulted in further complications was pushing her to a breaking point. Since alcohol and drugs were already associated with the suffering of her sisters and father, she turned to food. She became “completely obsessed with food,” convinced that certain ways of eating could make herself immune from the problems those closest to her were facing, and that she could even ease her mother’s pain with a better diet.
The prior purification motif overlaps and contributes to her obsession with food and body image for the rest of her life. The mantra became, I can’t change the outside, but can change what goes inside. The management of food flows naturally from her desire to remain in control. To make matters worse, Margaux’s relationship with weight after her career as a model further confuses Mariel’s relationship with food, and led to later thoughts of discipline and body image issues. Mariel claims that she “never had bulimia, but did every other obsessive thing with food that was humanly possible.” Interestingly, though, she mentions that perhaps the only thing preventing bulimia was her irrational fear of vomiting, which fits, given her obsession with keeping clean, as it would coincide with keeping chaos out of the world.
After years of general unhappiness and discontent, Mariel finds her “deeper connection” in the spiritualized and “purified” world of Yoga. It becomes her source of discipline and control. In the late ’80s and ’90s, she found herself participating in different spiritual endeavors, taking cues from friends in Hollywood. She visits all kinds of healers with the goal of well-being and further purification. However passionately she follows her mentors in this world, she vehemently denies that she became “some diet-obsessed New-Age-susceptible nut job.” She maintains that she dove into this world level-headedly and with an adequate amount of skepticism. Perhaps this is the case, though her ideas about food and healing later in life complicate this fact. In giving advice to her husband undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, she recalls saying, “They might kill the disease, but they might kill you too, especially if you don’t pay attention to diet and meditation and exercise.” Her travels down this slippery slope are noted honestly throughout her memoir, which for better or worse leads the reader to some odd endorsements, including “Brainwave Optimization,” found in the appendix.
6. Relationships with Woody Allen, John Mellencamp, and Bob Fosse
After her success with her debut film appearance in Lipstick, which was ultimately the flop that led her sister (the star) to begin doubting herself, she found herself serendipitously cast in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Allen, Mariel recounts, developed a crush on the then-17-year-old, and repeatedly invited her to join him in Paris, where she believes that he might make a move on her. Her naivete when it came to the film’s innuendo left her feeling conflicted toward Allen, who was also one of the first to be supportive of her intelligence and talent. Eventually, succumbing to the pressure, Mariel invites Allen to visit her family back home in Idaho, where she remembers sneaking into the guest bedroom and waking him up in the middle of the night to tell him that she wouldn’t go to Paris with him because she couldn’t figure out the sleeping arrangement.
Perhaps typical for young actresses of this era, Mariel notes several other instances of being under direct sexual pressure by important Hollywood presences, including her strange interaction with Bob Fosse during filming for Star 80, where she found herself chased around a couch to avoid his sexual advances. That is not to say that all of the sexual pressure surrounding Hollywood was malicious. As an adult, too, while filming another movie, this one with John Cougar Mellencamp, she reflects rather fondly of falling in love with the motorcycle-riding rock ’n’ roller. Eventually, she worked up the courage to confess to her husband of the (clothed) affair. Stephen retorts by mentioning the extracurricular activities that he had been participating in at the same time, and that in the end,“You should have just fucked him and not said anything.”
Andrew Spevack is a writer at The Daily Beast.