The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts February 10, 2006

Oh the Glory of It All Revels in a Life of Scandal

Danielle Steel, Joan Baez, President Reagan, Jessica Mitford, Armistead Maupi, and the Pope — how could someone involved with such a celebrity cornucopia have escaped the spotlight for so long? Sean Wilsey is such a man; his new autobiography Oh the Glory of It All helps illuminate the details that escaped the minds and pages of the thorough society editors who went so far as to interview both sets of his parents, Alfred Wilsey and Pat Montandon Wilsey.

Growing up in San Francisco in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, Wilsey was an innocent bystander in one of the messiest society divorces in the city’s memory. Mommy dearest was labeled “The World’s Most Expensive Wife” by local papers after her millionaire husband asked her to come up with a list of typical monthly expenses. These he went on to decry in court as “appropriate for Prince Charles and the deceased Shah of Iran.”

The beginning of the book is no surprise, including brief biographies of both parents up until his birth, going through the basic facts of Wilsey’s childhood, and then the background for the sensational divorce.

We watch Pat go through round after round of battle with her soon-to-be ex-husband who eventually shacks up with her best friend, launching her into an overwhelming depression. It is both her histrionics and the overwhelming narcissism of all adults involved that loom large over Wilsey’s transition into adolescence, an event that makes up the crux of the book.

To those who have a familiarity with divorce, this might seem like a realistic, though often stereotypically melodramatic situation. However, the smaller details set this story apart; for example, Wilsey takes a trip with his friends to the batting cages in his father’s personal helicopter.

While researching for the book, Wilsey discovered that his father had multiple mistresses. Bedding his wife’s best friend was not enough; Mr. Alfred Wilsey also found himself involved with romance novelist Danielle Steel and “Burt Reynolds’ ex-girlfriend” Dinah Shore.

To escape her devastating depression, Pat immerses herself in new age culture; during one of her guided meditation sessions, she is inspired to create a charity named Children As Teachers of Peace. In 1982, the misadventure finally culminates in a meeting with the Pope. Pat, Wilsey and a multiracial group of children (lured in by newspaper ads) and their parents also meet officials at the Kremlin.

Wilsey describes it all in hysterical detail, enumerating how his mother put a therapist cum wandering minstrel on retainer to sit in their house and bought a horse-sized satin stuffed Pegasus statue to put in their living room.

Eventually, Wilsey grows up and becomes a roustabout, facing alcohol and drug problems while bouncing between boarding schools and reform schools. As he enters his 20s he finds himself at a therapeutic community in Italy where he finally starts to gain control over his life and free himself from the shadow of his parents. It does not give much away to say that this is the life changing force he needs.

In terms of style, parts of the book read like notes written after a therapy session, but the memories described are vivid and painful, allowing the reader to enjoy the intimacy and catharsis. It is his emotional acuity that draws the readers in and involves them in his personal drama.

A possible problem with the book is that most of the beginning feels like too much time is spent dissecting the dotted lines of the divorce, to the point that Sean puts himself in the backseat in his own biography. This can be excused, though, since he makes clear that at the time he was indeed being given the backseat in the lives of everyone around him, and that the back story is important in order for us to understand his emotional problems and inclination toward self-destruction.

The witty autobiography of an unorthodox life is fast becoming a genre of its own these days, with memoirists like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Wilsey’s friend Dave Eggers holding eminent positions in the field. It’s hard to read Oh The Glory Of It All and not think of Running With Scissors or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, though each has a distinct style and history.

It’s also hard not to think of the recent overexposure of the James Frey controversy, though luckily, one can tell that Wilsey harbors a truthful tale and that most of the details he includes are too unique to have been confabulated. At heart, one gets the feeling that Wilsey is telling his story not just to entertain you, but also to document and examine his own peculiar history.


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