The Day Dad Was Arrested 

For Jane Vandenburgh's bohemian parents, the '50s weren't I Love Lucy.

Growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1950s, Jane Vandenburgh and her two brothers were "blond, tan, tousle-haired beach rats," as Point Richmond author Vandenburgh remembers now. Taking eager advantage of their house's proximity to the sand and surf, they wandered free as birds for hours on end and rode their bikes to the local pier, where they spent sunny days fishing — all well beyond the purview of a Disney-illustrator mother and architect father whose parenting skills were described by one aunt as "benign neglect." Other straitlaced, patrician kinfolk declared that the three kids were being reared not by their bohemian parents — ex-rich kids who met while attending UC Berkeley during World War II — but by God, because no one else was there: "Other families seem less ambiguous about what you're supposed to do. You get this job. You buy that house. You raise your children. You build a foursquare life, you go forever to live in it." Not this family. Vandenburgh's mother used to say that she'd rather move away than do housework — and she said this in an upper-class accent that the author remembers all too vividly, pronouncing "and" as "awwwwnd."

Vandenburgh presents a deeply personal firsthand look at how postwar America wasn't all I Love Lucy and backyard barbecues in her new memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, which she discusses at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland) on March 12. With the same wry eloquence that earned critical raves for her previous books Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, here the author captures the bewilderment of children striving to comprehend a strange and complex adult world-within-a-world: "Our grandparents tell my brothers and me over and over again that what is wrong with our parents is that they've always indulged their artistic natures, that they chose the wrong friends at Cal, friends who were funny looking and leftist," reads an early passage. "We were very small when the chorus began speaking to us like this, in a tone of diagnosis, the ominous shadow of penalty hanging over our uncombed heads."

As the offspring of these two bohemians, Vandenburgh and her brothers "endure a double dose of what is wrong with each of them: their promise, their brilliance, their high IQs, their complete lack of common sense." Unsurprisingly, crisis after crisis unfolds. Vandenburgh's attractive, wildly promiscuous father — "charming, winning, cultivated," with bright blue eyes and a winsome space between his incisors — was arrested for frequenting gay bars. After undergoing a so-called "cure" for his "problem," he killed himself when Vandenburgh was only nine. Her hard-drinking, talented, increasingly paranoid mother left home for a mental hospital, losing custody of the three children. And then came the '60s. 7 p.m.


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