It comes as a shock to learn that in private Roseanne is heavily dependent on tea served in porcelain cups, dresses like Barbara Bush, behaves like Letitia Baldrige, is wild about the novels of Sarah Orne Jewett, and has been romantically linked with members of the Republican National Committee. Okay, I’m kidding, but now that Roseanne’s private life is a national institution, generating two TV movies just last month and sustaining the supermarket- tabloid and daytime-talk-show sectors of the economy, what else about it could be shocking? Geraldine Barr, her estranged younger sister and former business manager, does her best to tell us in My Sister Roseanne: the True Story of Roseanne Barr Arnold (Birch Lane, $19.95, written with Ted Schwarz). It presents itself as a painfully sincere effort to set the record — which she claims is twisted by Roseanne and the compliant media — straight. At the very least, the book offers new insights. Roseanne’s fascination with serial killers was public knowledge, but now we have her alleged sadistic reveries on the subject. Geraldine omits nothing in the rich tapestry of what she mildly calls Roseanne’s ”dark side” — egoism, manipulation, negligent motherhood, lies she believes after she utters them, and a tendency to ”destroy property when angry or having what she sometimes considered fun.” Fans of the earthy and funny TV Roseanne won’t like it, but a ruthless comic emerges from this book as if she had stepped out of the grotesque and malignant Hollywood cast of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.
The plot is simple. Two young and innocent Jewish sisters in Salt Lake City make their separate ways out of the Valley of the Shadow of the Mormons to Denver, a feminist bookstore, goddess worship, and freedom. Together, one performing, the other plotting, they conceive a 10-year plan to conquer Hollywood on behalf of working women and goddesses everywhere. But once in Hollywood, the older sister is corrupted by wealth and power. Behind her phalanx of lawyers, she falls under the spell of a wicked lout named Tom, cuts her sister off without a cent, tries to destroy her parents, and winds up ”surrounded by pure evil.” (A little too simple, since Geraldine also aimed at ”real power and money” from the start.)
The best parts of the book are the ones without Roseanne in them. There are good, ambivalent passages on family and Mormons, and a funny deadpan account of Hollywood lunch rituals. Hollywood can be blamed for its lunches and much else, but it probably doesn’t deserve the credit Geraldine gives it for Roseanne’s misdemeanors. It makes far more sense to blame them on Roseanne’s notion that she’s an artist. After her crotch-grabbing performance of the national anthem in 1990, Geraldine claims, Roseanne said it was ”the greatest art I ever created.” This seems to me a fair enough assessment of her accomplishments, and now it’s up to the major art museums around the country to compete for the privilege of hanging her. Until then, Roseanne the exhibitionist work of art will have to settle for the exhibit she gets in her sister’s no doubt honest but opportunistic book. C