Diane Keaton’s Very Different Kind of Memoir

For her new book, Brother & Sister, the Oscar-winning actor pored over hundreds of journals, letters, and scrapbooks to tell a difficult family story.

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Memoir is a slippery, intimate craft. To trust the memoirist, a reader must believe in the author’s ability to remember with some degree of clarity. But when writing her new book, Brother & Sister, the Oscar-winning actor Diane Keaton rejected the fidelity of her own memory altogether—in part because the story she wanted to tell isn’t solely her own. Keaton’s second memoir examines her strained relationship with her only brother, Randy. Once close, the two grew apart as a young Keaton found success in Hollywood, and as Randy later struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and social isolation. Because her brother now has dementia, Keaton needed to look elsewhere to reconstruct the past.

It helped that her late mother, Dorothy, had meticulously documented her four children’s upbringing in 1950s Southern California via photography. “It was always a visually dominated kind of life,” Keaton told me when we spoke last week. “We just followed the path that Mother laid out.” And after Dorothy died in 2008, Keaton—who uses her mother’s maiden name—inherited a trove of mementos, including hundreds of letters, and dozens of journals, photo albums, and scrapbooks. Though Keaton treats her memory as a starting point for Brother & Sister, she uses these family relics in an almost journalistic way: to corroborate her recollections of Randy, to challenge them, and to fill in the gaps where she never quite knew him at all. Apart from telling a poignant story about two siblings, Brother & Sister is a fascinating exercise in writing a personal and methodical tale about someone who has come to feel, in some sense, like a stranger.

At first glance, Randy’s life might not seem like an obvious subject for Keaton’s memoir, a slim volume of 176 pages. The siblings’ paths in the world diverged after they outgrew their childhood bunk beds: Keaton has been a celebrated actor for decades; she’s traveled the world to shoot movies and to hone her skills. Randy, meanwhile, never left the county where he and his siblings were raised and found only periodic employment. Though Randy also found comfort in creative pursuits, most of his work as a poet and collage artist remains unpublished. Keaton admits that she often saw him as a burden, and Brother & Sister seeks, on some level, to atone for her absence or inattention. Keaton attempts this in part by deferring to her brother’s accounts, by interspersing her chronological recollections with Randy’s own words. “It’s hard to be a better sister or family member, because you can’t really put yourself in his shoes unless you really investigate it,” Keaton told me. “And I didn’t really. I was busy with me.”

A young Randy and Diane dressed up for Halloween. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)

Searching and rueful in tone, Brother & Sister departs from many celebrity memoirs in its focus. Keaton’s acting career is rarely invoked, and when it is, it’s to contextualize her family’s life at a given time. Neither is the book a neat fit in the category of addiction memoir, as Randy, now 71, can no longer narrate his own experience of alcoholism. While her regret animates many parts of the book, Keaton also writes of Randy’s life with a sense of wonder. After Randy becomes ill, Keaton inherits his belongings, and she marvels at the magnitude and inscrutability of the artistic work he produced. “I became the sole possessor of his two published poetry books, 500 collages, 54 notebooks, and 70 random journals filled with his own brand of cartoons—including my brother’s entire collection of the intimate feelings, fantasies, and disappointments underlying the mystery of his life,” she writes. “I want to understand that mystery. Or at least try to understand the complexity of loving someone so different, so alone, and so hard to place.”

Keaton spends much of Brother & Sister appraising Randy’s collages and poems. Here, as in other parts of the book, her prose is meditative but not detached. (Brother & Sister is precise, for example, in its descriptions of the idyllic Southern California bubble that Randy and Diane inhabited as children.) Scrutinizing Randy’s creations, Keaton realized they actually composed her brother’s rare successes in life: “Randy did accomplish much of what he wanted in the sense of his writing and expressing himself,” she said. “And that fed him.” When we spoke, she read aloud a passage in which Randy reflects on a day from their youth:

Father is doing a handstand on the beach. His thin, muscular legs dangle backwards over his head. Once, a long time ago I studied the photograph. His face was not where it should be. Even after turning the picture upside down, something was wrong … Father upset nature. At least in my mind he did.

The scene captures the unique fear that their father, Jack, inspired in Randy—first as a boy and then as a man who didn’t meet Jack’s rigid expectations of masculinity. But it also gave Keaton insight into the way her brother saw the world around him. Where she experienced family trips to the beach as benign outings, Randy saw a threat. “Think about how he pictured Dad versus me seeing Dad doing the same thing—completely different,” she told me. “And where was I for Randy? I wasn’t really there. I wasn’t there to examine or think of how he pictured the world.”

One of Randy’s collages. (Courtesy of Diane Keaton)

Keaton tangles with her own guilt throughout Brother & Sister. Still, she doesn’t hesitate to name some of the more unpleasant parts of her family history, especially those which Randy’s journal entries, and their mother’s, have helped her better understand. Some of the book’s most wrenching passages are those in which Keaton grapples with Randy’s destructive, rather than simply eccentric, behavior. She describes a time when their frightened mother wrote to her about Randy’s having disappeared for weeks. Where this memory might have otherwise been lost in a blur of recollections from periods of Randy’s alcoholism, Keaton quotes an entry from his journal that reveals the intensity of her brother’s resentment toward Dorothy: “I have gone to the land of muted rage, spectral skirts, and disembodied voices. I would have preferred a bitch for a mother, someone solid and distasteful—at least there would be a center, a place I could leave.”

Lines like these can be difficult to read, especially because recollections of Dorothy’s warmth—and her fear for her son—recur throughout Brother & Sister. The book sometimes reads as a somber companion to parts of Then Again, Keaton’s first memoir, which focused on her relationship with her mother. Published nearly 10 years ago, Then Again also saw Keaton pulling heavily from her mother’s archives, often quoting lengthy excerpts from the letters that the two wrote to one another. But Then Again was a memoir steeped in familiarity; Brother & Sister is an excavation. “It was also an opportunity to look more at what Mom wrote about Randy,” Keaton said of writing her new book. “I think that Randy was really the love of her life, but also the concern of her life. She was just trying to find a path to somehow save Randy.”

Keaton, on the other hand, doesn’t try to save her brother. Instead, she affirms the sanctity of his imagination, even its darkest corners. After printing a disturbing confession Randy once sent her in a letter, which she’d never revealed to anyone prior, Keaton resists pathologizing her brother: “I felt he had a right to his fantasies,” she writes. “After all, I was someone who played parts, living out fantasies in the safe realm of movies.” The siblings’ respective dreams were quite different, of course, but such unlikely comparisons make up Brother & Sister’s most moving moments. Sibling relationships can be particularly hard to navigate without reliable social scripts. But Keaton seems to have arrived at these connections, and at the complicated tenderness required to conceive of such closeness, in part because she first looked outside herself—and her own memories of Randy—to better see him.