IT’S HARD TO WRITE about Hayden Herrera’s Upper Bohemia. It’s a memoir, but not in the way that so many memoirs take one long story over a traditional roller coaster of plot points. Herrera is after something different, a story told by amalgam, a story that gets to its essence not by sticking too long with any one episode, but by showing through a long series of short memories that a lifetime of well-meaning neglect can breed fear, uncertainty, and dissatisfaction in children.
Some context: Hayden Herrera’s Upper Bohemia is a memoir of the author’s childhood during the 1950s in Cape Cod, New York City, Mexico City, and Boston. Her parents, two upper-class artists of means, “did not have to earn confidence by achievement.” Both talented and beautiful narcissists were absorbed in the pursuit of both artistic and romantic transcendence, and saw parenting their children Hayden and Blair as less important than their other aims. “Children were secondary to the leading of a passionate life.” Each parent was married five times, each moved around sporadically, and each abandoned their children when it suited them. “Our mother was a terrible mother, wasn’t she?” Hererra asks in the introduction to her book, but she adds, “our terrible mother gave Blair and me a wonderful life.” Herrera, known best for her acclaimed biographies of Frida Kahlo, Henri Matisse, Maxim Gorky, and others, turns her focus to her parents and their contemporaries — other “upper bohemians [who] constituted a second lost generation” like Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, writers Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, and architect Marcel Breuer in her parents’ ever-changing circle of cultural icons. Herrera tells her story through a catalog of brief memories, each organized into topical chapters. One memory bleeds into the next in this tale of abandonment and self-actualization.
What happens to a child whose mother lives on the edge? As Herrera reveals, that child develops a strong sense of fear and personal responsibility. Often left alone without a babysitter or in the care of a complete stranger, she recalls that “[n]othing scared my mother. She wanted her daughters to be undaunted, but her blithe attitude frightened me.” When her mother ignores a baby rattlesnake in the path during a trip to Mexico, she says: “My mother’s attitude annoyed me. She was fearless, so I had to be afraid for her.” Herrera begins to parent herself. She develops an outsize fear of the world; she is the cautious one because no one is looking out for her. The world overwhelms her and she begins to overthink. “Besides death I had two other big worries — infinite time and endless space.” When her mother would pull her out of a familiar setting and enroll Herrera and her sister in a school that had already begun for the year, or unexpectedly move her to Mexico, she learns to adjust, to distance herself. Upper Bohemia is a story of neglect. Even though she feels positively about her mother and her mother’s ability to create and fix, she reveals so much through confessional asides. “My mother rarely got angry,” she says at one point. “I do not think that she paid close enough attention to get mad.”
Herrera’s journey mirrors that of her parents only in that each is searching for a spark of love. As a child, Herrera’s desires cleave more to the traditional. She craves security, while her parents look outward for the new and exciting, whether that be architectural, artistic, or romantic thrill. Over time, they each grow tired of their spouses, their locations, and their ideas. They move on, leaving their daughters in their wake. As Hayden’s parents’ marriage begins to dissolve, her grandmother accurately sums up their futures. “I think that you both have made a fetish of your own happiness,” she says, “and that seems ironically to defeat its own ends.” Upper Bohemia clearly portrays how Herrera is of two minds about her parents, though, and rightly so because she was a child. For all of her frustration with them, she finds herself unable to fully abandon any hope that they might decide to love her fully. Of her mother, she writes, “My squashed-down rage did not obliterate my fascination with my mother’s beauty and power. I couldn’t stop longing for her admiration.” She loves the time spent with her father on the family’s property on Horseleech Pond, adding, “I was a little bit in love with my father.” Herrera, who says she learned to “squeeze [her] heart into a stone,” eventually dissociates until she can create her own peace and order.
Language and story are Herrera’s way out of her difficult childhood. “To me each new word was like a rung in a ladder,” she writes, “the more I knew, the more grown up I felt.” What emerges from the beginning of Herrera’s tales is an affinity for language and for the meaning and structure that narratives provide. A child whose entire world consisted of chaos, she remembers, “I loved rhymes. They made the world seem a place where everything fit neatly together. Nothing would fall apart.” Only once Herrera is away from her parents and enrolled in the structure of a school does she make sense of her early years. Her story is, then, a way to put chaos into an ordered form, a place for her to confront those wild years and her parents’ intentions even if they were not traditional or beneficial to their children.
Upper Bohemia can feel disjointed; at times it is a frustrating read because Herrera moves so quickly from one memory to another. Still, Herrera espouses a form that mirrors her upbringing. She doesn’t stick to any one thing for long because the narrative of her own life was one of constant interruptions. “Life was an invention.” So, too, is story.
Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, where she serves as vice president in charge of the Emerging Critics program.