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Book Reviews   |    
A Paper Life
Reviewed by Micah J. Sickel
Psychiatric Services 2006; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.57.5.727
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by Tatum O'Neal; New York, HarperCollins, 2004, 304 pages, $24.95

Dr. Sickel is affiliated with the department of psychiatry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At age ten, the youngest Academy Award winner in history for best supporting actress. Proud mother of three. Privy to the glamorous life. Molested at six by a friend of her father. Emotionally and physically abused by both her parents. A mother with amphetamine and alcohol addictions. A father with cannabis and womanizing addictions. She certainly did not have ideal parental models, but Tatum O'Neal still turned out pretty well.

In her memoir, A Paper Life, Ms. O'Neal writes about her life growing up in Hollywood amid liberal helpings of alcohol, drugs, sex, fame, and the Hollywood life. Her father, Ryan O'Neal, shuns her and her brother for a long-for-Hollywood-standards relationship with Farrah Fawcett. Fawcett is one of her father's many women, and, unfortunately, Tatum is not the priority female in her father's life. This is the same dad who says of another Hollywood actress, she is the "daughter I should have had." Unfortunately for Tatum, it never is a joke; rather, it is her reality. Luckily, or not so luckily, she is able to move onto the next phase of her life: marriage. But, as the grass is typically never greener anywhere but where you are already standing, she finds that having left one abusive relationship, she arrives at another. She enters into a relationship with John McEnroe, a former top tennis player whose tantrums on the court are apparently not too different from the tantrums he throws at home.

The problem with early imprinting is that you feel comfortable with a particular template, and it replays itself over and over, sometimes in a good way, others like a bad rerun. One particularly poignant example is McEnroe's ability to turn most arguments into a whining match about what Tatum does not do for him, a typical pattern for a narcissist. During the 1987 French Open he is not playing as well as he hopes, so he sits her down and berates her, saying, "You haven't supported me one day during this pregnancy. You need to look it up—the word 'support.'" At that point, I think a good number of women would realize that perhaps this guy is off. Obviously, the telling of the story may be inaccurate—hindsight is 20-20—but it seems that during their ten years of marriage a great number of these scenes repeat, beginning with the prenuptial agreement that she is coerced into signing.

Unfortunately, part of growing up with poor parental role models is the retelling of said story over and over in the lives of these children, who make poor decisions themselves. In this case, Tatum, a victim of early physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, later demonstrates a number of borderline personality traits, including impulsivity with drugs, a vacillating sense of self, efforts to avoid abandonment, and feelings of emptiness. One of these decisions is marrying a supreme narcissist. It seems that in the beginning of these types of relationships, people like the attention being showered on them by someone so arrogant and seemingly disliked by the rest of the world. They probably sense that the narcissist will be different toward them than he or she is toward others. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Tatum gets three children, of whom she is very proud and who seem to be doing well, out of the match, but she had to endure such an unpleasant journey to achieve that.

For her performance in the made-for-television movie "On the Run," Tatum received a review that pretty much sums up her sense of self. "Tatum O'Neal's performance in the title role steadily conveyed the impression of a virtuous woman undone by diabolical men." She writes that the review was like getting a fortune cookie "that was all too apt!" Unfortunately, what it continues to convey is the sense that she is a victim throughout her life and that poor decisions are inevitable, that blame is always placed on someone else, and that she just stands there allowing things to happen to her.

The first part of healing is admitting there is a problem and acknowledging your role in the problem. I had a hard time finding such an acknowledgment in this book. O'Neal did enroll herself in a couple of detoxes, but it is unclear what role she actually plays in her own life. Perhaps the paper life she is referring to in the title is a life solely on paper, not felt inside, not genuinely lived, but only written about, and commented on. So, too, this is my paper review. But don't believe everything you read on paper. Read it for yourself if you like, but save your money and borrow it from the library.

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