Identity Gap

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What are memoirs, really, but an invitation to rubberneck at the multicar pileups in someone else's life? Rebecca Walker's foray into the genre, Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead Books; 320 pages; $23.95), is plenty gapeworthy. Her book teems with childhood wreckage: premature sex, reckless drug experimentation, the end of her parents' interracial marriage, and her own consistently tenuous relationships born of desperation. Interwoven are heartrending but barbed recollections of absent, distracted parents--a self-absorbed mother, writer Alice Walker, who hires someone to take her daughter clothes shopping because she is "too busy to do it; too tired"; and a "checked out, sagging" father, civil rights attorney Mel Leventhal.

Walker skillfully depicts her tangled upbringing, full of disappointment and privilege, but she fails to weight those memories with the resonance of close, insightful scrutiny. Perhaps that's why there is no sustained consideration of race or religion as promised in the title; both seem largely incidental to the fallout from the ravages of a broken home.

As is true for others on the mainstream's margins, being born biracial is an invitation to view the world from the wondrous, troubling perspective of insider/outsider. Walker, now 31, employed her obvious intellect and political convictions several years ago in co-founding Third Wave, an activist organization for women ages 15 to 30, but in this book she seems too enmeshed in the raw emotions of her early years to take advantage of her birthright.