Allegra Huston describes the crueltly of adults who raised her.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 22, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Casual Cruelty Towards Children (Which Doesn't Stop There)
I've written about the cruelty casually visited on children daily on TV reality shows (like Maury Povitch). I've written about celebrity biographies that are amazing in the degree to which women tolerate abuse (like Pattie Boyd). A new biography combines the two in equal amounts.
Allegra Huston's memoir, Love Child, is not a tell-all, Mommy Dearest style book. It does have much of a forties Hollywood flavor to it, although Allegra was born in 1964, because her father, John Huston, became a famous film director in 1941 (when The Maltese Falcon appeared) and he directed his last film in 1987 (the year he died). But her low-key, insightful writing presents even more devastating portraits of the adults in her life than earlier tell-alls by the daughters of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
Allegra's mother, Ricki Soma - a beautiful, talented woman, wife to John Huston - died when Allegra was 4, having failed to establish a career or a successful marriage (she and Huston had an "arrangement," where each took other lovers). Allegra was a dozen years younger than her famous older sister, Anjelica, who was already on her own while Allegra was shuttled from home to home in England, Ireland, New York, and California. Her guardians included her maternal grandparents, her father (in both Ireland and California), her sister - sometimes she lived only under the guidance of her nurse.
A shy, sensitive girl who always contrasted her lack of brilliance and daring with her father and sister, she was a keen, intelligent observer of the adults around her. In addition to the adults who raised her, these included Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal, her sister's lovers.
After growing up in London with her mother, then moving to John's Irish estate, then living with her grandparents outside New York, Allegra was moved (with her nurse) to California. In California, the nurse was let go (with no notice to Allegra) and she was moved in with John and his fifth (and last) wife, Cici (who was half John's age):
Once again, the pattern had been played on me: wait for the end of the school year, send me somewhere that seemed temporary and see how I liked it, then fix things behind my back and tell me it's permanent. I was happy with the outcome this time, but I resented being the subject of an experiment that nobody admitted was being conducted on me.
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Cici had a son by a prior marriage, Collin:
Daddy always said the same thing to prove that Collin wasn't stupid [Collin had a learning disability]: "He can name all the prehistoric reptiles." It was the tone you'd use to tell someone about a circus act: "Just imagine that," I could hear him saying. "He can juggle jelly fish." He said it with exaggerated seriousness, as if this feat of Collin's was so extraordinary that one could only gape in wonder. He was so pleased with himself for being able to appreciate Collin's particular intelligence - as if he felt the need to demonstrate that Collin wasn't an idiot, which only showed that he entertained the possibility. And why "prehistoric reptiles?" [to make himself sound knowledgeable?] What [actually] made Collin's intelligence remarkable was his sharp wit, which Daddy seemed unable to hear.
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After John divorced Cici, Allegra lived with her step mother, who started drinking. They (she and her step brother) were playing a game where their dog chased a whip they had in the house:
Suddenly the door slammed open and Cici stormed in, grabbed the whip from my hand, and slashed it across our legs.
"Don't you ever whip an animal."
"We weren't" - I started.
"Ana Maria [the new maid - the last one ran off with John] said you were whippinhg Snowflake. She could hear her crying." I could see Ana Maria in the hallway, looking pleased with herself.
"We would never whip Snowflake!" I was furious through my tears. I couldn't understand how Cici could believe we'd do that, even if Ana Maria had told her so. Didn't she know us any better than that? But she wouldn't listen.
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Dividing up the marital loot, much of which came from John's estate in Ireland (where Allegra had lived in a separate house), Cici convinced Allegra to request one sculpture that meant a lot to her:
Dad wrote back to say that of course Night Image should be mine; it was only fitting since the sculpture was the last thing my mother had given him. The formality of Dad's words - a sort of official presentation to me of this piece of art - seemed to be taking credit for his thoughtfulness in giving Itt [the sculpture's name for the family] to me. So why did I have to ask? If I hadn't asked, if Cici hadn't made me, "Cousin Itt" would have been swept off without a thought for me or Mum [and would have ended up] in storage somewhere.
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Allegra started spending time with Anjelica and Jack Nicholson:
Jack's pals came over to watch the Lakers' road games. On the screen, fuzzy washed-out giants in yellow uniforms pounded up and down the court while Jack yelled at them, jumping up and down like them, cheering as loud as if he were at the stadium. His friends pounded the air and cheered too - a little less loudly, like backup singers. It reminded me of Dad: another king, another court.
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Although Allegra idolized Anjelica, she witnessed her being brutalized by men. First, she thought her sister had a special room in Nicholson's house where she could go to cry - as she often did. But Allegra much preferred Nicholson to Ryan O'Neal, who constantly snorted coke, allowed his children to take drugs (both Griffin and Tatum became adult addicts), and regularly became menacingly angry towards her and Anjelica - until Allegra, then 10, suggested that Anjelica return to Nicholson.
Eventually, she realized that the sister she worshipped - who had been raised by a mother Allegra couldn't remember - was at least as emotionally damaged and psychologically vulnerable as she herself was. Always shy and more conventional than her sister, father, and those around her, she eventually entered a counter-cultural environment herself in Taos, where she formed a stable family, finally finding the security and happiness those who raised her had never provided.