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BOOK REVIEW / MEMOIRS : Lifelong Quest for an Affectionate Mom and Truth : HAPPY DAYS: My Mother, My Father, My Sister & Me, by Shana Alexander ; Doubleday $27.50, 386 pages

November 23, 1995|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shana Alexander's description of life as the child of Milton and Cecelia Ager is so frightening that the reader almost has to laugh in self-defense. What were these people thinking?

In the name of science, as Alexander recalls, she and her sister were subjected to a daunting regimen: "no kissing, no rocking, no picking up a crying baby, no talking at mealtimes, no playmates, no baby talk." It may not be as blatant as some forms of child abuse, but this willful neglect, in the name of civilized enlightenment, left its mark on the author for a lifetime.

Alexander set off on a lifelong quest for the two things that had been denied her--an affectionate mother, and the truth, which her parents always kept from her behind a snazzy veneer of swell clothes and snappy patter. Milton Ager was the songwriter who gave us "Happy Days Are Here Again," and his wife, Cecelia, the real tough cookie of the piece, was a reporter and columnist for Variety, an appraiser of other people's work and behavior. He was distracted and deferential; she had an eye for the jugular.

Shana and her younger sister, Laurel, saw all the hot restaurants, wore the best clothes and went to private school. What they did not get was all the stuff money can't buy--appreciation, warmth, a sense of family, a willingness to celebrate life. They were trapped in a family that seemed to make no sense, but endured nonetheless.

That she became a journalist is a great irony, since what do journalists do but pester people with questions, in the sometimes naive hope that truth exists. Having rarely received a straight answer from the people who were supposed to be her primary resource--her parents--she made a successful career out of asking everybody else to tell her what was going on, from Marlon Brando to the German analyst who wanted to teach married couples how to fight productively.

And surely Alexander needed some of that kind of advice. She got married with the equivalent of one hand tied behind her back; her only model was Milton and Cecelia, whose union mystified everyone who knew them. They slept separately. He was ready for bed at about the time she was prepared to go out on the town, and vice versa. She traveled; he stayed home. She worked her coutured behind off; he played golf and dabbled.

Alexander unwittingly followed their lead the first time out, marrying a man who had only a glancing acquaintance with employment--and then, in some awful, karmic joke, found herself unable to have a child even though a handful of fertility specialists found nothing wrong with either her or her husband. It was almost as though she was going to prevent herself from perpetuating her parents' example, one way or another.

(That she never confessed her husband's one physiological eccentricity until late in life is an indication of just how much slack she was willing to cut him in her quest for happiness.)

But Alexander adopted a daughter, got divorced, had a great love affair, and endured a good share of sadness, most notably the suicide of that adopted daughter.

It is a heart-wrenching story, from a highly respected journalist. Then why is it not more absorbing? It seems that two disciplines conspire to handcuff Alexander, to keep her from the sort of brave self-examination that a memoir like this requires.

Her journalistic integrity keeps her always at a distance from the material, and her mother, unfortunately, has a last laugh. Shana Alexander was taught to behave like an adult--that is, never to succumb to excess, never to display emotionalism. As much as she wanted to rebel against her mother, her ramrod psyche prevails. Her response to a crumbling private universe is always to impose order from the outside in.

She writes, too often, as her mother's daughter, detached, formal, more comfortable criticizing others than looking to herself. It is an interesting life, but not as compelling a story as it could be. Truth is stranger than fiction--and often, too painful to contemplate.

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