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Leave the Lights on When You Go
This is a beautifully written and compelling autobiography, about the emotional complexities of individuals in families, how every child in a family has different parents. When Janis Ahlenberg is twelve, a turn of family events leads to Janis being prematurely pressed out into the world. Many years later—as a mature professional woman who is undergoing the painful dislocation of divorce after having been a wife for thirty years, and a mother—she returns to this family of origin to find that florid mental illness has dominated the family homelife for decades. In this vivid portrait of tragedy, adaptation, and survival, surprising moments of amusement and sometimes hilarity surface. Questions arise about how sibling relationships, family constitution, and personal experience plays a role in making us who we are. Ultimately, however, it’s one question in particular—Where did it all start?—that grabs hold of Ahlenberg and leads her to explore the what, the where, and the persistence of love.
The pseudonymous Ahlenberg’s uneven memoir boasts fluid prose and a strong narrative flow that’s sometimes disrupted by navel-gazing. She was born in the 1940s and raised in New England with her brother, Steve. She was 12 when their mother, pregnant with triplets, announced she would no longer give Ahlenberg care beyond room and board. Ahlenberg never recovered from that betrayal and left home at age 18. The triplets, denied nothing, descended into mental illness. After Ahlenberg’s 30-year marriage ends in divorce, she tries to reconnect with her family, but Steve’s libertarianism manifests as selfishness, and her aging parents and the triplets are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of despair.

The author deserves kudos for crafting nonfiction that reads like a novel, but her all-too-human faults sometimes make her a challenging protagonist. Though she’s a therapist who understands toxic family dynamics, she’s often blindsided by those she loves. Still, she describes them vividly, particularly the sadness of her parents’ final years and the triplets’ struggles. Her attempts to confront her parents are understandable, but her bad timing makes for cringe-worthy moments. Her account of grieving her ex-husband’s death is an evocative portrait of being emotionally stuck, but the overabundance of self-analysis is difficult to read.

Ahlenberg makes the curious authorial decision to only briefly summarize the eventual upward trajectory of her personal story. She writes that she has not “taken the room here to tell” about her joy, but after so much emphasis on her sadness, readers will wish for balance. Regardless, the underlying resilience of her spirit comes through. Readers looking for stories of coping with difficult relatives and childhood sorrows will find this memoir satisfying and inspiring.

Takeaway: Fans of beautiful prose and sad stories with a glimmer of hope will be satisfied by this memoir of a family’s fragmentation.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: -
Editing: A+
Marketing copy: B

American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work Newsletter

I’ve never read anything like this book, and I’m sure hers is a new contemporary voice. There is a darkness which pervades . . . truths we’d rather not know, be told, or be made to hear. Nonetheless, we are not alone in the reading; Ahlenberg is right there with us and she never leaves us wandering.  She takes the reader along, like a sure psychological guide, working nonchronologically, giving us our free associations, while she remains ever present in the writing, the way a well-examined mind works and remembers. In her words, “ Feelings are never without their opposites. And each one has its range. All of it has music.”

         Marilyn Palasky PhD, LCSW

           American Associaton for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work

           (AAPCSW) Newsletter