In mid-20th-century Southern California, Dorothy Hall kept records of her family—her husband and “four drifty children.” She tracked them in her diary and in rolls of Kodak film. She made scrapbooks in which she constructed, out of her memories, a story as sunny, she hoped, as its West Coast setting.
After Hall’s death in 2008, her daughter, the actor Diane Keaton, became the family documentarian. She acquired her mother’s 32 journals, 15 scrapbooks, 20 photo albums, and hundreds of letters. She would also absorb her now-dying younger brother Randy’s archive of poetry, notebooks, and journals. “I want to understand that mystery,” Keaton writes in her vivid memoir Brother & Sister. “Or at least try to understand the complexity of loving someone so different.”
Reexamining photos, reading between the lines of diaries, revisiting her relationship with a vexing sibling, Keaton seeks the point at which their paths diverged. Her brother struggled with dread for as long as she can remember: as a boy, he was afraid to venture outside. In notes and letters, their mother documented trying to rally Randy’s courage while protecting his “sensitivity.” The two would never be as close as the mother desired.
Like his sister, Randy exhibited early artistry: provocative collages and verse that could be destructive in its honesty. Slinking out of a failed first marriage, trailed by alcoholism, he found a home for a while in art and writing: “My yellow chair is a living thing. It feeds me fairy tales. My chair pulls me away from the darkness I wandered in when I was young. My life was the nightmare I hid my dreams from.”
This is no simple business Keaton is attempting—a dual portrait of oneself and a loved one as he slips away. Brother & Sister ruminates on the mysteries that shape us—nurture or nature, volition or destiny. Disassembling the family narrative, Keaton asks big questions, bracing for the discomfort they provoke. Her approach mirrors her brother’s tendency not to arrange the narrative: “Randy never lied about who he was.”
Randy seems to be forever after a glimmer. “You know what I want?” he asks. “I want to be part of the unexpected surprise. If I were to take a photograph of a person, I’d want to catch that person out of character.… I’d like to be witness to their unseen beauty.” In Brother & Sister, this is what Keaton so poignantly achieves.
• By Diane Keaton
• Knopf, 176 pages, $25.95