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Invisible Girl

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Invisible Girl Book Poster Image
Searing memoir of growing up in troubled family offers hope.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows what it's like to grow up in a family plagued by alcoholism and mental illness. Excellent resources at the back of the book show there are ways to get help from adults and nonprofit organizations if you're experiencing the kinds of traumatic things Mariel Hemingway did when she was growing up. Mariel feels ugly as a kid -- a revelation for a person movie fans regard as beautiful.

Positive Messages

There's help if you need it, so don't hold everything in; tell an adult, a teacher, or a family friend or contact one of the organizations listed at the back of the book to get the help that fits your challenging situation. You can still love your family members, even when they let you down. Your parents love you, even when their own problems seem to overshadow their caring for you. Nature is a great place to find solace, even in very tough times. It's good to exercise and eat healthy food. It's possible to survive your troubled family and not repeat unhealthy patterns, especially if you get help. Being a famous writer or movie star doesn't guarantee happiness. Tragedy can bring a family together. Even someone the world thinks is beautiful today may have felt ugly and awkward as a kid.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mariel often seems like the only sane one in her family, more grown-up and responsible than the grown-ups. But, she tells us, her need for control amid the chaos also led her to some obsessive behaviors, which she later learned were signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Her parents are loving, but their hard drinking and depression lead them to neglect her, and they have her fix them drinks and clean up after their parties. Her oldest sister is mentally ill, and middle sister Margot/Marguax is mean to Mariel when she's young, although she gives her a break with a movie role when she's a teen. Mariel's godparents are a positive force in her life. Her fifth-grade teacher is kind and helps Mariel not feel stupid and alone at school.

Violence

Mariel hears adults yelling and plates smashing outside her door. Death of a pet hit by a car, with blood described. When Mariel's a baby, her sister Margot picks her up and drops her on her head. When she's in grade school, Margot is swinging a bat and knocks Mariel's two front teeth out. Mariel's mom breaks her leg in a skiing accident. Mention of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on Mariel's second birthday and the national mourning that followed. Mariel and her dad hunt birds and ducks together. Mention that her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, shot himself to death, with an explanation of alcohol and depression as contributing factors: " ... sometimes people's sadness gets so HUGE that they can't feel anything else ... He drank lots of whiskey like my father and mother, and it changed him like like it changed them ... Even though the entire world loved him, his sadness covered him up like a dark blanket, and he couldn't find his way out." Mariel's dad has a heart attack, and her mom gets cancer and goes through treatment.

Sex

In third grade, Mariel kisses a boy she has no interest in as part of an "event" her friends cook up. A sweeter hand-holding at the movies with her first crush.

Language

Mention of "boobs."

Consumerism

Passing mentions of food and snack products: SpaghettiOs, Rice-a-Roni, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms, Juicy Fruit gum, Hostess fruit pies, Mr. Coffee, Instant Breakfast, Ritz, Wheat Thins. Also the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the stores FAO Schwarz and Harrods. Mention of Ernest Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey and wine, and Mariel recalls fixing her mother and father drinks that "my parents taught me to make with brown bitter liquid that I poured 'two fingers' of over ice."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Invisible Girl, by actress, author, and mental health advocate Mariel Hemingway and Ben Greenman, is a harrowing yet hopeful memoir of growing up in a troubled family with a legacy of suicide, alcoholism, and mental illness. Hemingway offers a kid's-eye view of a chaotic, angry family wherein "nobody's happy," charting her journey from infancy through early high school, trying to make sense of the behavior of those around her, from her hard-partying, always fighting alcoholic parents to her older sisters to the mean kids at school. Hemingway briefly mentions the suicide by gunshot of her famous grandfather Ernest Hemingway, her oldest sister's stay in a mental institution, eating disorders (one scene of binge eating followed by purging), obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, the death of a pet, her father's heart attack and survival, and her mother's cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her sister Margot hits her in the mouth with a baseball bat, knocking out her two front teeth. Mentions of drug-taking and lots of scenes of adults drinking, with young Mariel fixing her parents' drinks. One kiss as part of a planned third-grade stunt. Invisible Girl is being published at the same time as Hemingway's memoir for adults, Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family.

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What's the story?

Actress-author and mental health advocate Mariel Hemingway recalls her childhood growing up in a famous family with a legacy of suicide, alcoholism, and mental illness. From infancy, Mariel recounts feeling like an INVISIBLE GIRL, desperate for her parents' attention and her two older sisters' affection. Her alcoholic parents are always partying and arguing, and family members escape by various means -- oldest sister Muffet through drugs and flights of fancy (it turns out she's a schizophrenic and at one point does a stint in a mental institution), Dad through fishing in addition to drinking, and middle sister Margot through an eating disorder, drugs, and eventually a career as a model and actress, for which she changes the spelling of her name to "Margaux." When Mariel's 4 (in 1965), the family moves from California to Idaho, where her famous author grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, shot himself to death four months before she was born. Mariel feels awkward and isolated in school -- and is teased for being a rich kid whose name is actually on the school building. But she finds solace in nature, hiking with her dog, skiing, and riding horses. (Of nature she notes: "No one can make you feel stupid when you're outside in nature by yourself.") Her life changes when her father has a heart attack (but survives) and again when her mother gets cancer (a disease she lives with for 20 years), and Mariel cares for them in ways beyond what she'd already been doing all her young life. The story goes through her first movie role -- a break thanks to Margaux -- while she's still in high school.

Is it any good?

Invisible Girl covers territory common to many young-adult novels -- alcoholism, mental illness, suicide -- but it's all the more harrowing knowing this was the author's actual experience. Mariel Hemingway begins the narration in the baffled voice of a very young kid, and she basically maintains that voice throughout, puzzled by the bizarre behavior of the surrounding adults (she often seems like the only sane person in the family) and confusing, sometimes hurtful situations she mostly navigates on her own.

Kids will relate to the typical growing-up dilemmas and incidents, such as being the target of sibling or classmate rivalry, having a crush, and holding hands with a boy for the first time. And readers from troubled families can find hope in the fact that Hemingway survived hers and didn't repeat the familial pattern of substance abuse. The author not only offers a raft of "Where to Go for Help" resources at the back with website addresses and phone numbers (such as Alanon, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the International OCD Foundation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and so on) but also introduces each topic area in the context of her own experience. She advises kids that if they're going through something like she did or feeing the same way not to keep it to themselves; there are adults and organizations that can help.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about alcoholism and depression. Why do they seem to run in families? How can a person break a family pattern?

  • How does suicide hang over the Hemingway family? Have you read any books by Ernest Hemingway?

  • Does being part of a famous family seem to help or hurt Mariel when she's growing up?

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