One big unhappy 

Atlantic Monthly writer Stephen Zanichkowsky was born in 1952 and grew up exposed to the era's image of the picture-perfect nuclear family, with two smiling parents and their equally happy offspring. But as he shows in Fourteen: Growing Up Alone in a Crowd, Zanichkowsky's own family life had little in common with Donna Reed's brood. As the eighth child of a family that eventually numbered 16 people under one roof, Zanichkowsky found himself saddled with questions that haunted him since he left home at the age of 18. Zanichkowsky's unique and often painful childhood experiences make for compelling reading, especially for anyone who has wondered at the logistics of growing up in a family the size of a sports team. Fourteen isn't a fuzzy, feel-good story, however, as his upbringing was rooted in the strict Catholic faith and parental values of an earlier era.

Zanichkowsky's childhood had barely begun when he was burdened with responsibilities, as the older children were charged with looking after younger siblings. Discipline meant physical punishment and no child escaped without psychological stress: One of his brothers was committed to a mental hospital for several years for mysterious reasons.

Zanichkowsky attempts to examine the situation from his parents' point of view, comparing his own childhood memories with his siblings'. He learns after the fact that his mother did stand up for her children occasionally, but often found herself completely overwhelmed by her offspring. To gain some "down time," she would sometimes lock the children in their rooms.

Fourteen is dominated by the author's efforts to understand the factors that motivated his parents to have so many children, and then grasp the lack of parent-child connection. Often, it reads as if he were transcribing journal entries inspired by one of the therapy sessions he occasionally cites. The navel-gazing is not without merit, but often stalls the narrative. Fourteen still makes for absorbing reading even as Zanichkowsky circles around the same questions that have preoccupied him since his youth. Fourteen: Growing Up Along in a Crowd. By Stephen Zanichkowsky. Basic Books. 261 pages. $24.95.

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