Alan Lightman departed his hometown of Memphis as a young man, settling in New England and establishing himself in two extraordinary careers, first as an astrophysicist and then as an acclaimed writer. The family he left back in the South was a smart, talented, temperamental clan once ruled over—and forever haunted by—M. A. Lightman, Alan’s grandfather, a movie-theater mogul who was both charming and tyrannical. In Screening Room, Lightman recounts the history of this remarkable family and the Memphis they helped to shape. He also takes an emotional journey through his own memories, seeking reconciliation with the place and people he once worked to escape.
Screening Room opens with a brief, fittingly cinematic vignette of the Memphis Cotton Carnival in 1955, seen through Lightman’s six-year-old eyes. A turn of the page returns the reader to twenty-first-century Memphis, where Lightman has come to gather with aging relatives for his uncle’s funeral. This episode, too, is vivid and filmic, with a distinctly Southern mise-en-scène: the screened porch of an old mansion at night, a scent of honeysuckle in the air, the mourners “dull from alcohol and the heat, sleepily staring at the curve of lights that wander from the porch through the sweltering garden to the pool.”
Distinctly grown-up talk turns to the formidable M.A., now long dead, and soon we’re again in one of Lightman’s childhood memories, with the great man doting on little Alan. The book continues this pattern in the several dozen short chapters that follow, traveling back and forth through time, blending the years in the seamless way of memory. In the process it explores key moments from Lightman’s youth, his parents’ courtship and troubled marriage, and his grandfather’s rise to success.
M.A. was the son of a Hungarian immigrant, Joseph Lightman, who settled in Nashville and prospered as a builder. M.A trained as an engineer at Vanderbilt, but he was drawn to the burgeoning motion-picture business and opened his first theater in Sheffield, Alabama, in 1916. It was the beginning of what would become the Malco cinema chain, with movie houses all over the South.
Lightman’s grandfather elected to run his empire from Memphis, where he built a grand house and became a leading figure in the community—“president of half a dozen philanthropic organizations and on the board of every institution that had a bank account,” as Lightman puts it. He and his wife, Celia, were part of the social circle of well-to-do Jewish families, who were barred from the country clubs where other affluent whites gathered. “M.A. was the person I wanted to be when I grew up,” writes Lightman. “He was the master of the universe, the undisputed king of the family.” He ran roughshod over almost everyone, including Lightman’s father, Richard, a sensitive, intelligent man who was remote from his own children. Lightman describes his rare moments of communion with his father as “scattered dim lights against a dark empty night.”
While M.A. was an overwhelming force in shaping the lives of the Lightman family, it is the relationship, or lack of one, between Richard and Alan Lightman that is the emotional core of Screening Room. As a child, Lightman was repelled by his father’s ineffectual, passive nature. “I vowed that I would never be like my father,” he writes. As an adult, regarding his father in old age, Lightman is remorseful for what seems to him, in retrospect, a cruel abandonment: “For fifty years I had sliced deeper his wounds. I had been a silent partner in his humiliation.” The scenes between father and son, particularly one in which Richard makes a wrenching confession, are painfully effective in their depiction of the hopeless yearning to be understood that often exists between parents and adult children.
Lightman delivers an equally vivid, if less heartbreaking, portrait of his mother, Jeanne, who was bright and charming but perpetually nervous and insecure. She and her reserved, bookish husband were a poor match, and their less-than-blissful marriage cast a shadow over an otherwise fortunate home. Jeanne’s relationship with the family’s housekeeper, Blanche Lee, gives a glimpse of the contradictory attitudes wealthy whites had toward their black help. Lee was a valued member of the household, but Jeanne would humiliate her with written grocery lists and recipes, knowing that Lee was unable to read them. A small brass bell was used to summon Lee away from her own dinner to wait on the family, who were oblivious to the indignity. “In my youth,” Lightman writes, “the sound of that bell was pure music. Now it cuts like a knife.”
The “family pictures” in Screening Room are set against a backdrop of Memphis in transition from the Boss Crump era to the upheaval of the civil-rights movement. Lightman sketches the city’s history, though his focus never wanders far from the immediate experience of the Lightman clan. It doesn’t need to: the family was, in fact, often at the center of Memphis’s cultural life. Richard Lightman, for example, collaborated with local civil-rights activists in the early 1960s to peacefully desegregate Malco theaters. Years earlier, M.A. did battle with Crump’s man Lloyd T. Binford, head of the Memphis Censor Board, to screen films that were deemed blasphemous or dangerously egalitarian on the race question.
Although this book is, in essence, a memoir, it contains fictional elements. In the acknowledgments and notes at the end of the book, Lightman frankly describes just what is and isn’t factual. Readers would do well to regard these revelations as spoilers, best avoided until the final page is turned. Screening Room deftly blends fact and fiction to achieve a fluid narrative and to convey emotional truth; reading with an eye to separating the two is bound to diminish the hypnotic power of Lightman’s storytelling.
And it is, indeed, hypnotic. Screening Room is written in the same elegant, precise style that makes Lightman’s novels so pleasurable to read, and the compelling concerns of his fiction—the slipperiness of memory, perception, and time, and the mystery at the heart of existence—are at the center of this book, as well. In Lightman’s hands, this story of a family becomes a meditation on the fleeting nature of our lives and the precious flashes of love and communion that illuminate them.
[This article appeared originally on February 12, 2015. It has been updated to reflect new event information.]
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis. She’s a freelance writer and editor, and currently lives in White Bluff.