Carrie Hamilton, the first of the three daughters Carol Burnett had during her marriage to Carol Burnett Show producer Joe Hamilton, died of cancer in 2002, at age 38. Carrie Hamilton earned her own modest share of fame as an actress—she was a regular on the TV series Fame, was in the national touring company of Rent, and guest-starred in an episode of The X-Files—but was trying to transition to writing when she got sick. She and Burnett co-wrote a play, Hollywood Arms, based on Burnett’s memoir of her childhood, which opened in a production directed by Hal Prince two months after Hamilton’s death. She also left behind an unfinished short story, “Sunrise In Memphis,” which takes up the last quarter of Burnett’s Carrie And Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story. The book, a mother’s tribute to her daughter, seems to exist largely as a means to get that last piece of writing in print, so the world can see a trace of the promise that went unfulfilled when Hamilton’s life was cut short.
Sadly, Hamilton was probably best known to the world at large as a troubled teenager whose substance-abuse problems went public when Burnett decided to make the talk-show rounds and discuss what the family had been through. (Burnett and her husband both had problems with alcohol in their family histories, and at one point, the stress of dealing with their daughter’s problems contributed to Joe Hamilton falling off the wagon himself. This in turn led to the end of the marriage, after 21 years. At one point, when Joe Hamilton was in a rehab center and Carrie was AWOL, she called home, asking for money; Burnett was able to trick her into returning to rehab by sending word that she’d have to go get it from her father.)
Burnett is far removed from the popular, cynical image of the megalomaniacal star who exploits her personal problems for media attention. For fans, the book provides some insight into how a levelheaded famous person who guards her privacy—and her children’s—comes to the conclusion that it would be worth risking public embarrassment to share her troubles, in the hope that it might do some good for people in similar situations. In those talk-show appearances, she refused to wallow in self-pity or self-recrimination, telling Phil Donahue she wished she could have had herself for a mother. Anyone who’s read her autobiography, with its marrow-chilling portrait of her own mom, will see this as a reasonable attitude. Her biggest regret is that sometimes, magazines she had no control over went that extra mile for her: When People put her and Carrie on the cover, the accompanying headline was “Carol Burnett’s Nightmare.” “Carrie laughed about it,” she writes, “calling herself ‘Mama’s Little Nightmare.’”
The first 40 pages or so of this slim book are full of touching, funny stories that are all the more enjoyable for reflecting the author’s sensibility and voice—they sound like Carol Burnett. At a certain point, it turns into an anthology of Carrie’s e-mails, collected with a bare minimum of connective tissue. This must have served a dual purpose for Burnett: It preserves that much more of her daughter’s writing, while sparing her from having to fill those pages with her own detailed account of Hamilton’s physical decline. Carrie And Me is barely a book, but it probably isn’t meant to be a memoir so much as a memorial scrapbook, and the fulfillment of a promise. (Carrie asked her mother to finish “Sunrise In Memphis” for her; this is the next best thing.) For its author, it might also be an act of closure. It’s hard for anyone on the outside to know whether it succeeds in its true goals, but it’s easy to hope it does.