Drew Barrymore, the tiny changeling who captivated the world when she befriended E.T. on screen at age 4, is a bona fide Grimm’s fairytale princess. Born to acting royalty (she’s a fourth generation Barrymore — thespian equivalent to a Kennedy), she was raised poor and in obscurity by a single mother. Her Barrymore father, John Jr., a drug-addled, abusive, and largely absentee parent decamped for good when his wife was three months pregnant with Drew. Mother Jaid, if not literally an evil stepmother, a not-good-enough mother, put Drew to work at age 11 months, in a Gaines Puppy Chow commercial, where she was bitten during her audition by the canine co-star. Jaid also presided over her daughter’s pre-adolescent descent into drugs and alcohol, taking her on late-night bacchanals to Studio 54 where, due to child-star celebrity status and non-existent parenting, nine-year-old Drew was allowed to smoke cigarettes and stay up all night, school being something she got to do only when filming a movie. The Bad Mother locked Drew in an institution (can anyone say Rapunzel?) for a year and half when Drew was 12, but was vanquished when Drew turned 14 and successfully petitioned the court for emancipation. Essentially an “orphan” at age 15, she lived alone in a West Hollywood apartment, worked the odd neighborhood waitress job (too young for a driver’s license, she required employment within walking distance) and struggled to return to acting after her very public flame-out, recounted in her first autobiography, Little Girl Lost. (“Co-written,” when Barrymore was 13, with People magazine correspondent, Todd Gold, this first person narrative, long out of print, has become something of a collector’s item: paperback copies from second-party vendors on Amazon are currently priced as high as $1999.12.) Along the way, she acquired a fairy godfather in the form of director Steven Spielberg, a fairy godmother in acting teacher Anna Strasberg, and a professional Prince Charming in Adam Sandler with whom she made a trilogy of romantic comedies and whom she calls her “cinematic soul-mate.”
Under the circumstances, to objectively consider her new book makes you seem like someone who doesn’t believe in fairytales or who would rather slap Tinkerbell than clap for her. At 40, despite those little-girl-lost years, Barrymore has miraculously managed to retain the charming innocence and wide-eyed wonder of her E.T. character, Gertie, qualities on full-display here, in Wildflower, which mostly sidesteps her early life to focus on her current happy-ever-after: marriage, motherhood, the extended family she lacked growing up, and successful careers as actress, producer, photographer, writer, philanthropist, vintner, and CEO of a beauty company. (If you have not seen the recent commercials for her new eyewear line at WalMart you do not own a television.)
Barrymore refuses to call Wildflower a memoir. In the preface, she refers to her second autobiography as a collection of personal stories, “an elaboration on times in my life as I remembered them” and explains, ‘“Memoir’ seemed heavy to me, and I wanted this to be light.” Elsewhere, she notes she wrote the book primarily for her two young daughters, and she “now knows how to teach and instill the pillars of wholesomeness.” She goes on to say, “I couldn’t feel more passionate about being appropriate. Everything in my world is about being ‘appropriate.’ People ask me, what are you going to tell your daughters about some parts of your life? I don’t want to have to lie, but I am much more invested in telling them how I found my values.” Herein, however, lies the chief problem of the book: it works so hard to be appropriate that it sidesteps most of what is interesting in the author’s life, including the challenges she overcame to reach this happy, healthy place. Apart from two mentions of underage drinking, the story of a striptease (while playing a character named “Lola”) in a New York City performance art club, and an incident where she famously flashed talk-show host David Letterman her breasts (which she takes pains to characterize as a “moment of freedom” and “something fun rather than something wrong”) Wildflower is PG fare. There are anecdotes about her dogs. Love letters to her infant daughters. Struggles to master cooking and laundry. And Barrymore herself wonders whether such careful withholding — the effort to keep her private life private — is deadly to a personal narrative:
Nobody wants to watch a woman strive to be a normal mother of two. Or maybe they do? Is there enough drama in that? Well, there is, but it might not be as cinematic. And any drama that occurs in my real life, that I struggle with, I prefer to keep it private. So where does that leave me?
Where it leaves us is with a book that feels sanitized, and (dare I say it) — given her life as we know it from biographies written by others — dull. Wildflower is a hodgepodge of brief biographical sketches, skewed to deliver wholesome inspirational messages. And if memoir describes a first-person account in which a writer struggles to understand something about herself, then Barrymore is correct, this isn’t one: rather it’s a collection of anecdotes innocuous enough to share with anyone. Selections fall into three main categories: family (snapshots of people Barrymore has adopted in lieu of blood relations: her business partners, in-laws, friends, and dogs); trips (to India, to spread her dog’s ashes; to Joshua Tree, to spread her father’s; to Utah, for an Outward Bound course with her Charlie’s Angels co-stars); and youthful hi-jinx (wrecking a gate with her first car; wrecking a gas station roof with her RV; tossing hotel patrons’ clothes into a swimming pool in Germany; jumping off the side of a Greek cruise ship.) The sole mention of her year and a half in rehab is buried in a chapter about her maternal grandfather:
I was thirteen and living in an institution slash rehab. My mother just wanted someone to deal with me. My anger had taken over and I was out of control.
No specific mention of why she was there — drugs? alcohol? depression? — it’s just a backdrop to the news of a grandparent’s passing.
If there’s a theme in the book it’s family: Barrymore grew up without one, but has assembled another in adulthood to provide the happy ending she sought for so long. The last lines of the book are,
I am forty. I am really happy. And I am lucky to say it feels really great.
And we want her to be happy. She deserves it. She had a difficult childhood (for a movie star) and is evidently a kind person, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, and a devoted mother. Having steadfastly refused to label herself a victim, she forgives the people who took advantage of her. Plus, as she tells the reader in the opening chapter, she “loves flowers.” Her film company is Flower Films, her cosmetics company Flower Beauty, her eyeglass company Flower Eyewear. “If I see a commercial for a spray that kills dandelions,” she writes, “I’m like ‘Why?’ and it pains me. I am on the first line of defense of flowers.”
To criticize such artlessness seems churlish and mean-spirited. While Barrymore reveals few facts here not available from other sources (she and Cameron Diaz call each other “Poo Poo;” Steven Spielberg has been known to dress in drag for Halloween), this is not a book for the general populace or fans so much as it is a crayoned valentine to her nearest and dearest who will stick it on the refrigerator no matter its shortcomings. They’ll overlook things like “words were not an option at this point, as my tongue had become a fat cashmere taco” or “they fought like pathetic poets, but really my mom had just made a terrible choice in my dad and he wanted to be worshipped from afar without the dare of an expectation!” (If there’s a villain in Wildflower it’s the editor who decided bad grammar, poor syntax, and crazy punctuation who let Barrymore’s book go out into the world un-corrected.)
As for the genre: Wildflower possibly marks the birth of a new form of autobiography — the “shoutie?” — designed for the Followers-and-Friends generation and characterized by scattershot bursts of on-demand information. Barrymore writes, “This is a book you can dip into and read when you want. A book to read when you want.” I’m not sure why the repetitive emphasis, but she’s right. Taking its cue from Facebook, Wildflower is essentially a series of analog posts (with photos) about pets, friends, food, and trips. Deliberately light, as per her intentions, these posts take the form of “shout-outs” to the people (Adam Sandler! Nancy Juvonen! Eliza Chasin! Olive! Frankie! Spielberg! My in-Laws!) who have become her surrogate relations, interspersed with prose “selfies” (Me skydiving with Cameron Diaz! Me wrecking an RV! Me making my husband sick with raw pancakes!) that blend to create a new promotional biography-form that generously plugs friends and acquaintances in equal measure to self. While the exclamation marks above are mine, Barrymore has included 535 of her own (I counted), deployed with no discernible logic or rule except to indicate excitement on her part. Consider the following:
I am lucky that I got dealt some cards that showed me what it’s like to not have family, and I am much luckier to now have the chance to create my own deck! I will fight like William “Braveheart” what’s-his-name to keep them protected and intact! I am a warrior. I am a soldier. I am a not-to-be-messed-with lion! I am a mother!
Again, I’m asking: where is the editorial oversight? Will nobody protect this defender of flowers?
Despite this sort of sloppiness, there are glimmers in Wildflower of the book Barrymore might have written had she been willing to go beyond the anecdotal: there’s the Laundromat vignette about learning to wash clothes as a newly-emancipated 14 year-old. And a chapter called “The Acting Lesson” in which, as a four year-old roaming the Lee Strasberg Theatre, she spies on an actress preparing to play a scene in a concentration camp Drew wonders about how the woman is able to convey her character’s inner life so convincingly; how does she produce such raw emotion in front of an audience night after night? Hidden behind a curtain in the empty pre-show theatre, the young Barrymore observes the actress who lies onstage beating her chest and moaning “as if she was dredging up the ocean floor of her own personal painful memories.” As she recalls the moment,
There were no actor tricks. No stepping into character at the last second. She was willing to unzip herself and get to a truth I’m sure most people would prefer to avoid. She gave herself fully. She intimidated me, but I could not stop watching her.
Would that Barrymore had been willing to do the same. Now that would’ve been something worth reading.