Review | Growing up in the shadow of a Warhol superstar

Alexandra Auder, the daughter of Warhol superstar Viva, has been making sense of her existence through the literal lens of her mother since her birth on the carpeted floor of the Chelsea Hotel. Viva, now 84, is still very much alive, with an enduring celebrity. The price to pay for being that famous, or infamous, is what Auder attempts to come to terms with in her new memoir, “Don’t Call Me Home.”

Those recorded moments — Auder’s birth was made into a film and later a book by Viva and Auder’s father, the French filmmaker Michel Auder — are embedded into our cultural consciousness. But they’re also embedded in Auder’s own, since much of her sense of identity comes from movies, photographs and stories about her life that she is too young to remember. What is real, and what is art? Where does Viva end and Auder begin? In one scene in “Don’t Call Me Home,” Auder writes of her teenage self finding Viva’s book, “Viva Superstar,” in their apartment. Auder is shocked by the lesbian sex within. “It’s fiction!!!” Viva screams from the other room.

In the acknowledgments, Auder writes that she put this manuscript, which began as a work of fiction, in a drawer for 10 years. She explains that she’s “been writing versions of this story for over twenty-five years.” Her ability to hear her own voice through the noise of Viva’s is the key to this book’s charm and success. Auder recounts her childhood primarily through memories, with brief interludes of present day, in chapters titled “Now,” when Viva has installed herself in Auder’s adult household in Hudson, N.Y., and will not depart.

But the past isn’t past, of course, and Auder does good work of describing the world from a child’s point of view, where everything seems normal because that’s all she knows. Viva’s unhappy family comes into clearer focus when Viva takes Auder home to “the River,” a family estate where she and her father come to blows, landing them both in the emergency room. When Viva has another baby, Auder’s little sister (the actress Gaby Hoffmann), just before Auder turns 11, Auder is so besotted she spends her time running up and down the hallway of the Chelsea Hotel to soothe the baby to sleep. She strolls the baby down to the local deli with pride. Hoffmann and Auder grew up quite close, and in the “now” sections, the ways Auder conveys their feelings with a simple look between them says it all: “Gaby looks at me and lifts an eyebrow. Her eyebrow is a rune, speaking what can’t be said.”

In addition to the moving portrayal of a sisterly bond, “Don’t Call Me Home” is also a portrait of New York City in the ′70s and ′80s. Viva is always at war with her landlord at the Chelsea. When he posts a newspaper clipping at the front desk of Viva, Auder and Hoffman, to show off his famous residents, Viva scratches her face out of the photo, so that he won’t receive any new tenants on account of her residency. Auder and her best friend smoke cigarettes after school, act in an experimental theater troupe and date men in their 30s. Alexandra’s dad starts dating (and eventually marries) a photographer named Cindy. That Cindy is Cindy Sherman.

Part of the book’s appeal is Auder’s ability to simultaneously worship Viva while she fantasizes about wringing her neck, making this book relatable to anyone, even for those without Warhol superstars for parents. “They say your very first thoughts are the internalized dialogue of the mother figure (whoever raised you). Your first words were you mimicking what you heard around you; then one day that person shushed you, and you turned the words inward, and they became thoughts,” Auder writes, ominously. “So your thoughts are not your own.”

The most affecting revelations come from Auder’s “now” updates, where Viva hangs her enema bag in Auder’s bathroom and cooks gloopy chicken soup in the kitchen while berating the boyfriend who gave her anal cancer. In the midst of one of these diatribes, Auder remembers a time in which she dropped everything to nurse her mother through cancer treatment while enduring a loss of her own. So much of Auder’s pain comes from having to grin and bear it because at least, then, the pain is hers.

Which is not to say this is a sad book. “Don’t Call Me Home” is very funny. Auder has the sense of humor of a person who became an adult as soon as they were born. In other words, she is a natural writer. And her honesty in not knowing the solution to a problem like Viva is comforting in its familiarity. My mother has a saying: “I’m laughing to keep from crying.” It’s the perfect sentiment to describe this delightfully disturbing book.

Jessica Ferri is the owner of Womb House Books, and the author, most recently, of “Silent Cities San Francisco.”

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