On the bookshelf
Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings
By Chrysta Bilton
Small, Brown: 288 pages, $29
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Chrysta Bilton’s memoir, “Normal Family,” is ironically titled. It was also a long time coming. Now 37, Bilton began writing about her unconventional clan when she was a teenager, but by then she didn’t even know half of it.
Here’s what Bilton knew: His mother, Debra, was an “incredibly quirky” character — friends with Warren Beatty, she worked as presidential candidate Ross Perot’s “civil rights coordinator.” Most notably though, she had two children, Chrysta and Kaitlyn, in the 1980s as a single, gay woman. She also had a penchant for pyramid schemes and was opposed to many basics of parenthood; she ricocheted in and out of relationships, bouncing the trio around Southern California as her addictions dragged her down.
The girls’ father, Jeffrey Harrison, was nowhere near coming to their rescue. Sperm donor, he was in and out of their lives. His parents were well off, but he had skipped college to study Transcendental Meditation and he floated through life without a plan, spouting more and more wild conspiracy theories. A former center of Playgirl, he too struggled with addiction and depression.
And so, while Debra was in rehab and the sisters camped out in an abandoned office, teenage Chrysta – also in a relationship with an unstable rich boy – began writing a screenplay about the instability around her.
It was the first of many attempts over two decades to tell her story, always shelved because ultimately she knew it was incomplete. “I had a lot of healing to do first,” she explained in a recent video chat from her home in Los Angeles. “I didn’t have enough distance to have a healthy perspective – I had to overcome a lot of resentment so that the book wasn’t just filled with that. There was a lot of joy and happiness in our lives as well as malfunctions.
She also knew she didn’t have the whole story. Initially, his mother had “a precarious relationship with the truth”. Who knows if she really slept on the Sphinx in Egypt, walked with Angela Davis at UCLA or introduced Tina Turner to Buddhism? Debra had never fully explained their past or present. And then there was Bilton’s father, not so much an unreliable narrator as a narrative black hole.
Bilton’s perspective shifted dramatically after a 2007 New York Times article revealed that Harrison had also been an anonymous sperm donor to countless others – something Harrison promised Bilton’s mother. which he never would – leaving Bilton with a growing number of half-siblings.
Stunned, Bilton dismissed the new family members’ efforts to connect. “I had had so many different types of families before,” she says. “I wanted nothing to do with one more brother or sister, let alone maybe dozens. It gave me a giant panic attack.
She wasn’t ready to share her life – not with new siblings or with readers, not after living a life of secrets. Bilton had spent his teenage years filled with shame – of having a lesbian mother and not many fathers, of hiding under a table while their landlord banged and yelled to evict them.
“During college and even after that, my closest friends didn’t know anything real about me,” she says. “It was a sad and lonely existence.”
Finally, Bilton got sober — a process that tends to propel public accounting. She started talking to her friends about “bits and pieces,” but she didn’t really learn to open up until she met her husband, Nick Bilton. “He’s a journalist, so he asked a lot of questions and there was no getting around them.”
That’s when the dam began to break. “It was incredibly comforting to tell someone my truth and to be loved for it,” she said, choking up a bit. “I’ve just started to be more open and people are so compassionate when you’re honest with them. I think so many people can benefit from not being ashamed of the hard things they’ve been through.
With a more open mind, she was able to see more into the requests of her step-siblings. One named Jennifer bore a strong resemblance to Bilton’s sister, Kaitlyn; she had the same obscure gardening and philosophy books as Bilton; and there on Facebook was an image of Jennifer in the same studio in Florence where Bilton had once painted. (Her former roommate was even in the photo.)
“She was so excited about this big biological family and how wonderful it was,” Bilton recalled. “Instead of being disgusted by this family, I could see the beauty of it. It really changed my perspective.
Bilton now shares strong bonds with several half-siblings, often reflecting on their uncanny similarities (they almost all love cats and philosophy) and the genetics underlying his own life story. “It added to understand that some of my challenges are biological, which has proven to be incredibly affirmative.”
However, there was still a story to be written. She didn’t want to make it a simple memoir, choosing instead to interview members of her family and include multiple points of view, especially about the incidents leading up to her birth or her living memory. Her parents’ recollections of facts “aligned perfectly,” she notes. “It was just that their sense of guilt differed.”
She learned a lot too. His father confessed that Debra paid him to keep appearing in Bilton’s life. “He just told me that factually.”
It took a while to get over that one — but the oral history approach enabled exactly what Bilton craved all those years: perspective. Debra didn’t know of any other queer women raising children in an openly homophobic society. “I can’t even grasp what that must have been like for her,” Bilton says. “So as crazy as it was that she gave a man a $100 bill to come to my birthday, I kind of get it now.”
For his mother, it was not so easy. Debra, now years sober (“and an amazing grandparent”), felt safe to speak openly about the past – including the alcohol, violence and suicide of her own childhood in Beverly Hills. This was partly because she had come to believe that this Bilton writing project would never see the light of day.
“She thought it was just quality time with me, spending dozens of hours talking about her life,” Bilton says.
The result, when Bilton handed him the finished book, was “a really big panic attack”. Not wanting to risk a “beautiful relationship”, Bilton considered putting the project on hold. “But we had several therapists involved and we worked on it and she’s proud of it now.”
Finally, Bilton has no unfinished business – and no regrets. “I was grateful to learn everything,” she says. “You always benefit from knowing the truth.”