November 07, 1994 12:00 PM

SALT LAKE CITY IN THE 1960S was no hotbed of comic anarchy. But that never discouraged vacuum-cleaner salesman Jerry Barr and his madcap family from trying to shake things up. One of their favorite stunts was to don Wild West-style bandannas and “rob” the local grocer. While his wife, Helen, kept the Chevy revved up, Jerry and their children, Roseanne, Geraldine, Ben and Stephanie, would ransack the aisles in a hail of cap-gun fire, then make their getaway, usually speeding off for a picnic in the park. Later, Helen would always return to pay the tolerant proprietor, so no one saw any jail time. “Cheap entertainment,” recalls Geraldine Barr, now 37. “I thought it was tremendous fun.”

Good, clean fun—well, sometimes. Such was the childhood Barr portrays in My Sister Roseanne: The True Story of Roseanne Barr Arnold (written with Ted Schwarz), a memoir of life in the ample shadow of her celebrated, and now estranged, older sibling. No scenes of Mom pressing a pillow to baby Rosey’s face. No sign of Dad menacing his eldest daughter with handfuls of his own excrement. In short, none of the ghastly abuse that Roseanne, 42, claims came rushing back to her three years ago in a flood of long-repressed memory. Says Geraldine: “I don’t think there’s ever been any other sexual object for my father except my mother.”

My Sister Roseanne is considerably more than a rebuttal of what Geraldine calls “the incest s—t.” The book also charts the sisters’ once symbiotic relationship as they grew up Jewish in the seat of Mormonism and imagined Roseanne’s unlikely ascent. “She would be a famous performer,” recalls Geraldine, “and I would be the rich, behind-the-scenes producer.” Half that dream had been realized by 1990, when Roseanne, by then the toast of the tube, unceremoniously fired Geraldine as her business manager. Three weeks later, the star hired herself a producer—one Tom Arnold. Says Geraldine of her ex-brother-in-law: “He is an evil man.”

Barr might, of course, be vulnerable to charges that her book is just another mercenary tell-all. But in fact, her initial payments totaled less than $10,000. “It. wasn’t about the money,” she says in the amiably cluttered San Francisco flat she shares with psychotherapist Maxine Epstein, 37, her lover of eight years. “It was an opportunity to tell my family’s story from my point of view.” And as far as her family is concerned, she got it right. Helen, 60, calls My Sister Roseanne “an accurate and revealing description” of life with the Barrs. “We laughed and we cried,” adds Jerry, 65. “Her sense of honesty and humor are clearly evident.”

In the Barr household, as Geraldine remembers it, comedy was king. A devotee of Johnny Carson’s, her father would shout. “Comedian!” whenever a Redd Foxx or a Joan Rivers burst through the Tonight Show curtain, whereupon the family would race to the living room and watch “enraptured.” Geraldine writes that Jerry, himself a frustrated comic, “loved to gross us out with body-function jokes.” He also did visuals. “Dad sat around the house in his underwear, completely covered, yet looking like a slob,” she reports. “Every once in a while, he would scratch his crotch.” Such displays, Geraldine maintains, profoundly influenced her sister’s comedy, which is rife with raunchy physical material. “Roseanne had become just like our Dad,” she writes. “She was doing Jerry Barr shtick.”

As children, Roseanne and Geraldine were inseparable. “I adored Rosey” Geraldine writes. “She dominated my world and could get me to do anything she desired”—that is, make beds, do dishes and perform any other tedious chores. Foreshadowing their future, the girls put on neighborhood variety shows, with Rosey lip-synching Beatles tunes and Geraldine orchestrating the stage effects.

In 1968, Geraldine says, their lives changed forever. Roseanne was struck by a car while crossing the street and nearly died from internal bleeding and injuries to her head. Thereafter, Rosey seemed to spin out of control, experimenting with a hippie lifestyle and bearing an illegitimate daughter, Brandi, whom she gave up for adoption. Roseanne also spent several months in a psychiatric hospital (whether voluntarily or not is a matter of some dispute), and Geraldine went on to study accounting and anthropology at the University of Utah.

The sisters hooked up again in the late ’70s in Denver, where Roseanne was living in a trailer with her first husband, motel clerk Bill Pentland. It was in Denver that Roseanne and Geraldine became habitués of the feminist Woman to Woman Bookshop and of the local comedy clubs where Geraldine says they shaped Roseanne’s profane “domestic goddess” persona. Then began a “10-year plan” that would carry Roseanne to the Carson show, an HBO special and Roseanne. “I believed we would create this dynasty,” says Geraldine, who served as her sister’s “booking agent, contact person, marketer, chauffeur, navigator, hand holder and critic” and also claims to have written much of Roseanne’s material. “The whole career,” Geraldine says, “was time frame, goals, objectives—boom, boom, boom.”

Then along came Tom Arnold. “The most ambitious man I have ever met,” Geraldine says. “Roseanne is very smart, very strategic—but there’s part of her that’s easily manipulated.” After being fired, Geraldine appealed to Roseanne to honor what she claims was a verbal agreement to split all profits generated from the “domestic goddess” character. “Sorry, you don’t get any money,” she quotes Rosey as replying. Her big sister then took Geraldine for a spin in her new $75,000 Mercedes. “We drive around and people see her and are waving and she makes everybody happy,” Geraldine remembers. “[Then] she takes me back to the hotel, and I, like, vomit for two hours. I go, ‘Oh, my God, I am going to have to sue her.’ ”

In 1992, Geraldine filed an unsuccessful $70.3 million breach-of-contract suit against her big sister. “When you’re dealing with a bully,” Geraldine says, “you have to stand up.” The sisters haven’t spoken in four years, and now Geraldine follows Rosey’s turbulent life only through the media. “I’m watching this woman I knew and love,” she says. “And all of a sudden she gets her breasts cut off. Then she gets her nose cut off. And I’m like, ‘Oh, this is so scary to see.’ ”

Since leaving Roseanne, Geraldine has worked at various jobs but has largely been supported by Epstein, whom she met at summer camp at age 12 and saw occasionally over the years. “It’s more emotional than sexual with Maxine—though she’ll kick my ass for saying this!” laughs Geraldine, who adds that she has had many “sexually fulfilling” encounters with men. At first, says Geraldine, the liaison aroused jealousy in Roseanne, who at the time, she adds, was extremely dependent on her sister. “We never clicked,” says Epstein of the TV star. “I knew her to be gracious, and then other times I knew her to be cruel.”

By far Rosey’s crudest cuts, in Geraldine’s view, were the incest allegations. “Her words,” Barr writes in My Sister Roseanne, “were like knives meant to maim for life.” Jerry Barr, now retired and ailing, “is devastated—I don’t think he’s going to be able to go beyond it.” Helen, meanwhile, takes solace in prayer. “But we’ve still maintained a sense of humor,” says Geraldine, who tells her parents, ” ‘I know it sucks, there’s no justice, but you are VIPs—very important pedophiles.’ ” Sometimes they still muster a laugh.

In the dedication to My Life as a Woman, her first autobiography, Roseanne wrote “For my Sister, Geraldine…for creating a large part of me, my career, the world. Where do you end, where do I begin?…Many of the words in this book come from you, and I look forward to your book, your film…”

Geraldine looks on that passage wistfully now. “Truth is, I miss the wonderful aspects of our relationship,” she says. “The part of her that’s endearing and charming and great fun to be with.”

RICHARD JEROME

KAREN BRAILSIFORD in San Francisco

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