Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Kids are All Right: Liz and Diana Welch

The Kids Are All Right

I knew ever since I was 21 years old that I was going to write my life story.

I know that sounds pretentious—whenever I would tell people I was working on a memoir, they’d say, ‘how is that possible? You are too young!’

And then I tell them my story, which started out like a fairy tale:

My father was an investment banker, my mother a well known soap opera actress. They got married in New York City, and then moved to a suburb an hour north, to a preppy town called Bedford, New York.

At the time, my mother had quite a following:  she was the original Maggie on the Doctors, a well know soap opera in the sixties.  She left the show to give birth to my big sister Amanda, and then was hired to play Eunice on Search for Tomorrow.   She got pregnant with me, and the writers wrote her pregnancy into the show. 

Dan was born next. And our life seemed perfect.  We had pets, and a pool, and went on vacations to Disney Land. I never once recall my parents even fighting. I really had the happiest childhood.  Then Diana was born.  We called her the “love child” as she was not planned. Mom was 42.  She called Diana a “happy accident.”

Happy really is the best word to describe our family. 

And then, in 1982, our father died in a car accident.

I was 13 at the time. I was in 8th grade.  Diana was only 4.  Amanda, my big sister, was 16.  And Dan was 11.

We only have a few photos of the four of us together during that sad time—sad not only because our father had died, but because one month after his death, our mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

To be honest, none of us believe she was going to die—that meant we’d be orphans.  That was an impossible notion!  Oliver Twist and Annie were the only orphans I knew.   We were privileged kids with ponies, and a country club membership too! 

But those perks disappeared after our father died.  He left our mother in terrible debt—1.2 million dollars to be exact.   Mom sold our house and 7 acres of the estate we grew up on, and the five of us squeezed into the three-room caretakers cottage on the remaining seven acres.   Dan slept in a walk in closet.

Our mother was told she had six months to live after our father died but she was strong—she lived for 3 ½ years before finally succumbing to the disease on December 13, 1985.  Diana was 8 years old, Dan was 14, I was 16 and a senior in high school and Amanda was 19 and a junior at New York University.

Here’s the hard thing:  none of us really believed she was going to die.  We kept thinking she’d beat the cancer.  She did too. That is why she did not make adequate arrangements for us, her kids, after she passed away. As a result, the four of us were split up and we learned, by writing this book together, that losing our parents was not the most painful thing that ever happened to us:  being split up as a result of that loss was.

It took five years before the five of us found one another again—I moved in with a local family for six months before graduating from high school and taking off—first to Europe for a year, then to Georgetown University where hardly anyone knew I had lost my parents.   I kept it a secret.  Diana stayed with another local family who felt it was in her best interest to not see her siblings.  The family was preppy and proper—they thought we were wild, and drug addicts.  They were not entirely wrong.

Dan was bounced around from one family to another before he landed in an apartment in NYC with our mother’s dear friend, a single career woman who had never had or wanted kids.  And Amanda left New York city for Charlottesville Virginia after being held up at gun point.  She was sick of the city.

That is where our story ends—Amanda bought an old farmhouse and for the first time in five years, the Welch kids had a place to go and be together. Diana’s family decided, for reasons we are still fuzzy on, that it was time for Diana to move back with her big sister. 

The book begins with me as a 13 year old losing her dad, and ends with Diana as a 13 year old finding her family.

And it is told from all four perspectives. In fact, I tried to write this story for 15 years by myself. I wrote three drafts and none of them worked.  So one day, I wrote a scene about my father’s funeral and sent it to Diana who by then was living in Austin Texas and, like me, making her living as a journalist.

I asked Diana to line edit my work. She called me the same day she received the story and said, I don’t remember any of this!  Instead of editing my memories, she wrote her own, and sent them to me.

I remembered the outfit I wore and the fight I was in with my best friend.  I was 13.  Diana remembered how dad smelled, the feel of his scratchy beard on her soft cheek. She was 4.

We asked Amanda what she remembered. As a 16 year old, she remembered our mother falling apart.  That made her angry.

We asked Dan, and he remembered Dad telling him that “men don’t cry” and struggling with his own sadness about our dad’s death, now that he was the “man of the family.”

Losing your parents is every kids worst nightmare.  And it happened to us.  And we not only survived, we thrived.  This story is about that loss, but it is also about sibling love.  And being teenagers—yes, there are sad scenes of our mother coming back from chemo, or from the hospital with a bag instead of a bladder. But there are also hilarious scenes of keg parties gone awry and my brother getting busted for turning science beakers into a bong in boarding school.

I have visited several high schools to talk about this book and am constantly amazed at how students respond.   Because this story is told in four perspectives, everyone picks a favorite character—the person the most relate with, or feel for.  Most people love Amanda—she is the tough one. She swears in every chapter. And the first line of the book, she tells the reader that she hates her family.  By the end of the book, she is the one who brings us back together.

Dan is the only boy—which means he has to go through puberty in a house full of women. 

And Diana is the baby. She sees the world through childlike eyes.

What we learned from writing our book this way—together—is that everyone has the right to their own version of the same story. 

In the book we openly disagree with one another about very serious things:  like my mother’s cancer diagnosis.    I remember the tumor being the size of a grapefruit and in her uterus.  Amanda corrects me on the very next page:  Actually, she says, it was cervical cancer and the size of an almond.

In my 13-year-old mind, it got bigger.

This book was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which tells the death of Addie Bundren from several different points of view—from Addie’s husband, to her young son Vardamon to the vultures that are trailing the horse drawn wagon that is carrying Addie’s coffin to the family burial ground.

I am in no way comparing myself to Faulkner!  But I will say this:  his book inspired me to write mine. And I think our story will inspire your students to write their own family stories, from different points of view.

It certainly lends itself to that.  I have lead workshops at different high schools that focus on point of view—pick an important milestone in your life.  Who was there?  Write about that moment from your own point of view.  Now pick another person at the scene—how might that person experience it differently?  Now write about the same scene from his or her point of view.  One student wrote about the day her parents told her they were getting divorced.  After class, she came up to me to say, “I never thought about it from my father’s point of view before.  I see it in a new way.”

That is in the end all we can hope for—to make people see things from different angles, to broaden their world view. 

My brother and sisters are my best friends still to this day. And we could not be any more different.  We respect one another’s memories and stories and experiences.  That helped us recover from a most painful loss.  And we hope will lead others to heal too.

Liz Welch is the co-author of The Kids Are All Right with her sister, Diana.  Her siblings Dan and Amanda also contributed. Find out more at

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