Lies My Mother Never Told Me

By Kaylie Jones

384 pages | William Morrow, 2009

Reviewed by Andrea Janov

After I finished reading Kaylie Jones’ memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, I tried to answer the question that most people ask when they finish a book: “What is this book telling me?” Usually this question is easy, but in this memoir, Jones touches on many intriguing topics: her famous father, best selling novelist James Jones, who wrote From Here To Eternity, his literary legacy and her insight into the man, the extravagant parties at their Paris flat, her mother’s alcoholism, and her own struggle with alcohol, marriage, and motherhood.

It’s difficult to say what layer is the most prominent.

Each of these topics is fruitful enough to provide material for an entire memoir. Some readers may argue that this is a story about the disease of alcoholism and how it can affect a whole family. Although alcohol is one of the main catalysts for Jones, I don’t believe that this disease is what the memoir is about; but rather, it is about life. It is a story about finding the things that are truly important to you and living for those things.

From the first page the reader is captured. Jones’ direct, unadorned language and tone immediately make the reader feel as if a good friend is telling a story. Jones immediately engages the reader with a simple anecdote, “When I was little my mother often told me, ‘If I had to pick between having your father or having you, I would pick your father.’ This seemed to me a perfectly reasonable and honest statement because given the choice, I also would have picked my father.”

By sharing this with the reader, Jones sets up the family dynamic that permeates the rest of the memoir, while also establishing her voice and the tone of the memoir: blunt, aware, and non-judgmental.

Lies My Mother Never Told Me spans Jones’ entire life, including her childhood in their Paris flat, where ongoing cocktail parties around her father’s beloved pulpit bar, would include discussions with members of the important literary and artistic society. This was a part of her daily life.

It is easy to be enthralled by her unique upbringing, but what really stands out is the relationship that she has with each of her parents. Jones’ admiration, love, and respect for her father, as a father, a human and an author, are clear each time he is mentioned. She shares stories of her father reading at the dinner table, sharing the love and the power of literature with his family; the way he was always able to connect with her in order to soothe her anxieties, or how, no matter how late her father stayed up drinking and entertaining friends, and no matter how hung-over he probably was, he always put in a full day of writing.

She tells the reader all these small stories in a way that paints James Jones just as she saw him, as an extraordinary man.

As much admiration as Kaylie has for her father, she is equally ill at ease with her mother. She tells the reader of the anxiety that overtook her when her beloved nanny would be off for the day, or mounting apprehension in the hours leading up to the end of the school day because her mother so often forgot to pick her up. The reader also sees her mother call her names, taunting her, as a malicious child would. Jones allows the reader to grow with Kaylie’s memories; she tells of her fears and anxieties through the eyes of a child, telling us how she loves the sweet smell of scotch on her mother’s breath, with an innocence that we never question.

She never passes judgment on her mother, yet is aware that what her mother was doing (or not doing) was not normal mother behavior. By keeping us in the discovery along with her, Jones retains the innocence she had at that time, and in turn, never villainizes Gloria. She makes us feel disgust but never full blown hate, by showing us that Gloria doesn’t know any other way to act, tarnished by her own abnormal relationship with her mother.

Due to her open and honest tone, we become invested in what happens to this woman. We are there when she has a drunken fight with the writer, Nelson Algren, about the death of the novel. We are there for her troubled first marriage and divorce, and when Gloria, in a fit of rage, comes to their apartment and tries to stab the man who is leaving her daughter.

We are there when a drunk Gloria tells Timothy Hutton, “’You want to fuck my daughter? You can have her for free.’”

We are there when Kaylie begins drinking heavily and when she realizes that it is a problem. Jones chooses events that have the most punch in order for us to begin to get fed up with Gloria’s behavior, just as Kalyie does in the memoir.

As Kaylie begins to recognize her mother’s alcoholism and her own problem with alcohol, we see her start to grow and feel comfortable in her own skin. Throughout the memoir, there are many beautiful, quiet moments, moments of grace that harness the power of human connection. One of the first takes place early in Lies My Mother Never Told Me, when Kaylie is riding a train with a copy of From Here to Eternity lying on the seat beside her.

She gives a physical description of the conductor and speculates what he did prior to this job. The conductor suddenly comments that From Here to Eternity is the best book that he has ever read. This catches her off guard and Kaylie is too touched to tell the conductor that it was her father who wrote the novel. The reader and Kaylie are very struck, and the conductor will never know.

This inability to speak up shows how introverted Kaylie was at this point in her life.

We are never allowed to forget about Gloria’s role in Kaylie’s life. Just as her mother comes and goes from her life, her voice is always in the back of Kaylie’s head, and the reader is reminded of Gloria by having one of her stories introduce each chapter.

As Kalyie’s life becomes more cohesive, her mother’s deteriorates further, being admitted to hospitals while still denying her addiction to alcohol. Slowly but surely, Kaylie stops feeling the need to take responsibility for her mother and begins to have confidence in her own life.

Throughout this review, I found myself wanting to discuss the techniques that she uses to convey her intentions to the reader, or the way that the teacher in her is present in various passages, but this is not an academic paper. When you read Lies My Mother Never Told Me, you may not notice her techniques, but you will feel them.

Jones inherited her father’s passion for writing, and is using that power to make a statement that she wholeheartedly believes in, that we all have our own obstacles to overcome, but once we do, a whole different world begins to present itself.

Return to home page