Her parents were both alcoholics, and Carolyn See begins her autobiography with a description of the way her mother beat her when she was a child of about 7. "I stand in the back yard holding my skirt up so she can get easy access to my legs. She crouches down in front of me, pulling switch after switch off a convenient hedge and using them until they break. She's breathing heavily and her cheeks are pink. She's smiling. She's beautiful."

How fascinating that the author chose to mention her mother's beauty at this point in the story. Perhaps she's only being accurate, recounting precisely her childhood memory of the incident. But somehow, even more sad than the beating, is the knowledge that this little child was admiring her mother even as she tried not to cry.See's viewpoint can only be described as "fair." And it is this, the author's detached approach, that makes "Dreaming" such a bleak story.

See came to Salt Lake City on a book tour. She spoke with the Deseret News about how she approached writing this piece of nonfiction. In light of her previously successful career as a novelist (See is an adjunct professor of English at UCLA and a book reviewer for the Washington Post), it is not surprising that she views herself and her family members as characters in a novel, with strengths and weaknesses to be explored, not railed against.

Well, characters they certainly are. Call it substance abuse or call it partying, alcohol and drugs define this family. Her parents, her aunt and uncle and most of their previous and subsequent spouses were alcoholics. See herself drank too much for many years. Her two husbands had problems with alcohol. Her sister, Rose, was a heroin addict who lived on the streets for 20 years.

See says it took about two years to write the first draft of this book. "It was hard work because the memories were less than sweet." She showed her publisher 700 pages and was told to cut it in half. She set about trimming it, the way she reworks her novels. "Cleaning out the junk that was clogging the prose. I could see them as characters, these people that before I'd thought of as my mother, my father, my aunt. The more I cut out, the more they came into focus."

The writing shines, but the characters don't. See hopes, by describing her own family's addictions and depression, to reveal some patterns that run deep in America's culture. She does this. Also, in some ways hers is a story of triumph. She is a person who did better by her own children than her parents did by her. Thus See's well-written autobiography is not without purpose.

But mostly See's book is tragic.

In the last chapter she writes about her young half-brother showing up with a bruise on his forehead, and she says she hopes he got it falling down drunk. The reader is confused and saddened by this remark. Getting drunk is a family pattern See somehow thinks is jaunty, even after writing 350 pages about how awful it is. She says, "I do have very ambivalent feelings about it. I know that in many instances it is a terrible curse - but in our family, as I say in the book, there is something to be said for the wild life. It ruined us, but it helped save us too. It has given us our stories. We were a very poor family. We needed our funny stories."

See once told another reporter, "The more you tell a story, the funnier and less painful it gets." Readers might find "Dreaming" more painful than funny on first reading. My advice: Keep focusing on how happy See is now. She lives with a man she loves. Her daughters (who don't drink) have a warm relationship with their mother. And, she points out, she and her two ex-husbands and their two wives have all obtained Ph.Ds and find education a way to learn new patterns for living.

See says, "You can't change the past. But maybe you can get a handle on. Maybe you can look at it without these incredible feelings of heartbreak."