“’I fucking love it here,’ I said like a spoiled white asshole …” So begins the first chapter of Home Is Burning, Dan Marshall’s entry into the genre of the dying-parent memoir. It’s a crowded field, but the first-time writer — who started these confessions as Facebook posts — manages to catalogue improbably unprecedented levels of profanity, scatology, self-awareness, love, endurance, and sheer familial weirdness. Naturally, it’s been optioned by Hollywood, with Marshall signed on to adapt.
His memoir tells the story of a brood of five misfits who grew up among Mormons in Salt Lake City and have mostly fled the coop by the time their 53-year-old, marathon-running father is diagnosed with ALS. Bob’s wife, Debi, a 14-year survivor of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, calls everyone home to help, believing they’ll pull through on the high-octane fumes of hope, denial, and potty humor. Then she gets addicted to pain pills; Dan gets dumped and drinks too much; one teen sister suffers from Asperger’s, and another sleeps with her soccer coach; Bob deteriorates surprisingly fast, and the dick and death jokes roll on. It’s enough to tingle your James Frey antennae — not least because Frey blurbed the book — until you hear from Debi herself (now in remission a year after a mastectomy and 23 after her first diagnosis). This week, as the book came out, we got mother and son on the phone to discuss the fallout, and to have them ask each other some burning questions of their own.
Debi, I thought you might want to ask Dan some questions.
Debi: Okay. Well, now I can’t remember how long it took you to write this.
Dan: I think I made my first blog post around March or April of 2008, a little bit past halfway through what we were going through with Dad. I think people were worried about us.
Debi: They didn’t care about us. They wanted to know what the hell was going on with those crazy people down the street!
Dan: We were like the Kardashians of our Mormon neighborhood.
Debi: They called us the hippies down the street. And if you could meet us — Bob always wore a suit, very conservative.
Dan: In high school, I told the Mormon kids if they wanted to swear, I could be the designated swearer. All they had to do was point to me.
Debi: I know you’re trying to avoid answering, Danny. So it took you several years to write the book, and you’re 33. And I want to know how much longer I’m going to have to wait for you to give me a grandchild.
Dan: Well, hopefully, now that I have a book out, more women will be interested.
Debi: I was thinking maybe you should start using your hands for something other than masturbating.
Dan: Masturbating and typing are pretty much all I use my hands for.
And how did you feel about the typing, Debi?
Debi: You should have read the original posts. I called him and I threatened him: “I’ll sue your ass in two seconds!” I was just furious. But I didn’t read it because I was grieving too much and nothing was funny. I read it probably a year after Bob died. I called Dan and said, “I’m so sorry that I disappointed you so much, that I wasn’t there for you when you needed me most. But it’s the truth, and it’s really well written, I think you’ve got a best-seller.” I’m not proud of the way I behaved in it. I took too many painkillers, and I wasn’t there for the kids the way I should have been. I mean, I wasn’t off being a hooker or something, but there’s no excuse for it except that it was just so hard.
Dan: It was just really an unpredictable, wild time, and I think that’s why we all dealt with it differently.
Debi: If I had it to do over again, I would run through the house with a whole thing of gasoline and just set it on fire — with the kids not there. I’m half kidding.
Dan: That would probably be a better ending to a book called Home Is Burning, if you had actually lit the thing on fire.
Debi: Anyway, I was just wondering, Dan — I haven’t read the final version — did you say anything about me giving your dad blow jobs?
Dan: Oh yeah, that’s still in the book. I was gonna cut that part, but you said, “You need to have that because it just shows how much I loved your dad.”
So that part was not a joke?
Debi: Yes, I really gave him a blow job every day. Nothing in his body worked, you know? He couldn’t lift a finger or wiggle a toe, and I just thought if there was one thing I could do for him that would make the day any better, I would do it. My other son’s like, “What do you mean?” But, you know, I’ll leave it up to your imagination. I think that all the men who read it will think that I’m the nicest wife ever. Dan, you know how everybody dropped a bucket of ice water on their head, or they had to give money to ALS? I thought we could start something with your book — give somebody a blow job, and if that didn’t work out …
Dan: That’s a good idea, a charity that donates blow jobs to people who have Lou Gehrig’s disease. My mom set the bar pretty high. But there are a few things that I ended up cutting. I had to tone down some stuff with my boozy sister for legal reasons.
So otherwise, the family is happy?
Debi: I am so proud of him. Everybody needs some way of dealing with something like this. It’s just too big for anybody to handle. He started writing this blog, and then people thought it was hilarious and they couldn’t wait to read it every day. After Bob died, I didn’t even know that he had sent it to USC’s screenwriting school for his master’s program, but he did, and he got in with that blog.
But is it accurate? The dialogue gets pretty crazy.
Dan: A lot of the dialogue is 100 percent accurate. I did have the benefit of writing this blog, and I would jot things down right away.
Debi: He also videotaped a lot of his dad’s last months of his life, so a lot of quotes are taken directly from that.
I had to ask, partly because it’s blurbed by James Frey.
Dan: I was a little taken aback by that. Like, oh, okay, let’s attach his name to this thing?
Debi: Wait, what did he say? Oh, I know who he is. You know, that is his reality, and who’s to say if he made it up?
Dan: Well, they proved that a lot of the stuff [Frey] wrote about was not true. He took some pretty significant liberties. And I realized that that would be a pretty big issue with Home Is Burning. I tried really hard to be accurate and talk to my family about how certain situations went down.
Debi: I’d say it was completely accurate. We were all there, it all happened. Parts of it might not seem funny to people, but that’s just how we’ve always dealt with tragedy in our lives, through humor. Chelsea [the youngest sister] just had her graduation, and Danny’s like, “Where is that son of a bitch, he never even showed up to his own daughter’s graduation. I can’t believe that asshole!”
Dan: Mom, I’ve gotten this question. I picked up the swearing from you, but where did you pick it up?
Debi: Jesus Christ, Danny, you know I don’t even swear, I don’t know why you say that about me?
Dan: I don’t know —
Debi: That was a joke. All I can think is probably Catholic school. Sometimes there aren’t words that work well in every kind of place. I mean, think of it. Fuck you, you big fuck, what the fuck are you talking about? Just think of all the different ways you can use it. But I don’t walk around the street saying that, I’m not like crazy person.
CBS News ran a segment about Bob running his last marathon. It seemed so wholesome and heartwarming; you looked like a completely different family.
Debi: When you’re on TV, and it’s gonna be on for one minute, you know. You can’t go on the TV screen and say, “Every day, to relieve my stress, I go get a hammer and then I go to a junkyard and just start pounding stuff, saying, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Dan: You actually did that?
Debi: I actually did that. At this Cancer Society thing, I said, “You want to do all this stuff to help people? Cupcakes help, too, but give us all a hammer and take us to a junkyard and let us bang the shit out of something. I’m serious. And you can’t say that on TV.
Dan: Even memoirs do lean toward the more sentimental side of this stuff, and I did kind of want to write the raw, human side of this. When you’re taking care of someone with Lou Gehrig’s disease, 60 percent of the care is the bathroom stuff. You just don’t read about it. We were all on edge and exhausted, and slept only a couple of hours every night. His respirator would go off all night long. Our family was built around hope because of my mom’s cancer fight —
Debi: But your dad never really bought into the campaign.
Dani: You still have that HOPE rock, and have “Never, never, never give up hope” plastered all over your room. What the book is about is that fine line between hope and denial, and we weren’t really facing the reality of the situation. Nobody survives Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Debi: I didn’t ever believe that, I always had the hope that if we kept doing everything right — he wasn’t a patient laying around in bed all day. We took him on field trips every day.
In the end, he decided to get taken off the respirator — a decision Debi fought to the end.
Dan: It was crazy watching some of the footage that I shot. At the last moment, we’re all around the bed, and the doctor comes in, and you just say, “Tell him not to do this,” and then, finally, at the end, you said, “It’s okay for you to go.” You said it a few times, and that was kind of his last moment. But if you had the option, you’d probably still be taking care of Dad.
Debi: Well, I guess I’d hoped that he would just live and I would keep taking care of him for a long time. But I also knew in my heart and in my mind that we couldn’t keep on like this. We were just all on our last legs. I know he did it out of love for all of us, and you know, it’s okay.
So how did all those blog posts eventually become a book?
Dan: It was a couple of years after. I was stuck in my screenwriting career, and [younger brother] Greg said I should convert the blog into the book. I probably had 900 pages, and the tricky part was to figure out what I was trying to say, or was it all just whiny fart jokes? I soon realized, okay, it’s about this spoiled white asshole faced with a situation where he can’t act like a spoiled asshole anymore.
Debi: You’re not a spoiled white asshole, Danny, you never were.
Dan: Eh, maybe.
Dan, your older brother has a writing MFA and is shopping a memoir. How are you divvying up the family story?
Dan: He’s definitely a lot smarter than I am, and a little bit more of an intellectual, and he’s been trying to find an agent. I really hope he does. He was always going to be the writer of the family, and so I feel really guilty that I’m stealing his thunder. It’s really good, about growing up in Utah in the closet. And he had cerebral palsy, and it goes into some of those struggles and dealing with our mom’s cancer. But I beat him to all the juicy Lou Gehrig’s material.
Debi: Well, you know, there’s probably not one dirty word in Greg’s. It might be looking more like the television version.
Dan: I don’t know, Greg has a chapter called “Pussy Bacon,” about how our dog Moose ended up running up the street, and this dog had just been fixed, but Moose somehow barged in through the front door and ended up fucking this dog in front of this entire Mormon family and ripping up her stitches.
Debi: It was real odd raising a family in Utah.