As the story goes, when Susanna Sonnenberg was 2 years old, Norman Mailer took one look at her and pronounced to her mother that ”Susy’s got a great ass. It’s going to get her into trouble one day.” The anecdote means to both impress and horrify, and it captures the flavor of Her Last Death, Sonnenberg’s bracing memoir about growing up rich and glamorous with a savagely inappropriate, drug-addicted mother. This is a world where Bob Dylan is a neighbor, Grandpa had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, and Mum tearfully gives her child a Montblanc fountain pen and a gram of cocaine for her 16th birthday. For every breathless tale of outrageousness, Sonnenberg simultaneously struggles, with cool gravity, to grapple with what it means to be the daughter of a liar. Throughout the narrative, she second-guesses her memories, and gives airtime to the family members who shrug off her recollection of events.
Her Last Death opens with a wreck. Daphne, as Sonnenberg calls her peacock of a mother, is in a coma after a head-on collision following a dinner party in Barbados. The author, then 37 and at a safe remove in Montana with her husband and two young sons, is asked to come at once. But after years of suffering through her mother’s manufactured crises, she refuses to get sucked in again and stays put in her carefully cobbled-together life.
Thus begins Sonnenberg’s story of how she sawed herself loose from her mother’s manicured tentacles. Inevitably, as in any tale of childhood trauma, there’s something of the ”If you thought your mom was nuts, get a load of this!” stream of horrors. Daphne got her drunk at 12, bragged about sleeping with her teenage love interests, overdosed in front of her, and punched her in the stomach if she ever thought her daughter was giving her own boyfriend the eye. Daphne was beautiful and funny but in every way a disgrace of a parent. No wonder the author ended up confusing sex for power and screwed her way through her 20s. There are points in the author’s chronicles of seduction — maybe around the time she squirts raspberries into a magazine writer’s mouth and beds an Orthodox rabbi — that Sonnenberg risks becoming that tiresome girl at the party for whom other women have little patience.
Perhaps that’s what’s most brave about this often coarse story. For all Daphne’s failings, Sonnenberg writes just as candidly about her own. There’s shame in these pages, and an artful floundering for acceptance and understanding. Also, as in her tender memory of her mother scooping her shivering, 3-year-old body out of the bathtub and wrapping her tight in a warm towel, there’s beauty. B+