Adolescence is tough on everyone. But imagine the growing pains that come along with a drunken mother who uses an ax to chop down your sister's bedroom door.
Such tragicomedy was typical of Wendy Lawless's teen years in Cambridge and Belmont; now her bizarre upbringing has become fodder for her new memoir out this month, Chanel Bonfire.
"I used to just sort of dine out on a lot of these stories," says Lawless, an actress and mother of two now based in LA. "I'd tell them at dinner parties, or to a person who was buying me an expensive dinner. They'd say 'Oh, you should write a book.' "
Lawless spent six years writing the tome, which tells of her nomadic youth spent jet-setting with her social-climbing, nervous-breakdown-prone mom, a striking "Hitchcock blonde" who lived in a blue Pucci nightgown and could suck down a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé at lightning speed.
"I started to write stories about a mom who was raised by a mom who was a nut," Lawless says. "And one of those essays became the foundation of the book."
Lawless, her sister, Robin, and her mother flitted from New York to London and eventually landed in Cambridge in the late 1970s. The book serves as a love letter to the Cambridge of yesteryear, before parking lots and high-rises sprouted up at every corner. Lawless slung newspapers at Out of Town News in Harvard Square and worked as a wardrobe assistant at the American Repertory Theater while a student at Beaver Country Day School and, later, at Boston University.
In fact, BCDS plays a vital role in the book: it's where Lawless's mother drunkenly crashes Robin's high-school graduation, wearing her blue nightgown and clutching two garbage bags of Robin's belongings (and leaving in handcuffs). But despite her family's unstable history, Lawless was determined to avoid writing a Debbie Downer sob story.
"I read a lot of memoirs before I wrote mine," says Lawless. "There are a lot of really amazing and great memoirs out there, but I didn't want . . . I don't feel sorry for myself. I think that's a big waste of time. I didn't want there to be any self-pity in it. I wanted it to be funny. You have to, or you'd fall apart."
Lawless used to get the creeps upon returning to Boston, the ghosts of her past lurking around every corner. Luckily, that's changed.
"It was like the scene of the crime," she says. "Now I love visiting. But there's nowhere to park."
CHANEL BONFIRE by Wendy Lawless :: Simon & Schuster :: 304 pages :: $25