Rich People Behaving Badly

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Dead End Gene Pool is a memoir by the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, another in a long line of books about severely messed up families. In the book jacket photo, the author Wendy Burden looks like she’s in her mid-thirties and possibly a sister to Reese Witherspoon. In reality she’s 55, so either the photo is old or those genes ain’t so bad. The rest of the photos on the book jacket are intriguing but frustrating, since they are never explained anywhere. I want to know who the people are and what they’re doing. I assume they’re some of those wacky family members the author describes inside.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. It’s certainly vivid, and parts of it are unforgettable, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Burden describes her dysfunctional family in such brutal detail, you end up feeling like you’ve been caught staring too long in fascination at a car wreck. It’s certainly a remedy to any misplaced belief that tons of money can buy happiness. This family she describes has everything material they could want and nothing emotionally that they need.

Burden’s description of their material wealth includes a drawer-by-drawer inventory of her grandparents’ bedroom and office. Her grandparents loved food, so much of the book is focused on various chefs, kitchens and elaborate meals. This attention to detail can be almost cruel when she’s describing her family. Her grandmother had chronic gas, so the book does too, punctuated by variations of “brrrfffttt.” As a little girl, Burden would wander into her grandparents’ bedroom when they were undressed, and she leaves nothing to the imagination here, either. Later in the book, she details the physical deterioration of her elders, and her drug-addicted brothers, with the same unflinching honesty. I found myself wishing she’d shown a little more compassion or at least some discretion. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, Burden claims she left out the “real dirt,” so you can’t help wondering…

Burden was a little girl filled with rage, and she certainly had reason. Her father committed suicide when she was six, so she and her brothers were shuttled back and forth between a neglectful mother and grandparents who treated her brothers like princes because they happened to be born with a Y chromosome. She was surrounded by adults who were either related by blood diluted by copious amounts of alcohol or chemical imbalances, or who were paid staff unprepared to cater to the emotional needs of a neglected rich kid.

How you feel about this book will depend on your reaction to this bratty, sad little girl.

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