“For those who have had to shape-shift, code switch and camouflage just to survive, this one is for us.” So reads the dedication page in Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton’s debut memoir, BLACK CHAMELEON: Memory, Womanhood, and Myth (Holt, 308 pp., $27.99). Growing up in late-20th-century America, Mouton navigates rites of passage as a Black female whose body and spirit bear the force of multigenerational trauma, racism and misogyny.
But this is no typical reckoning, such as we’ve come to expect from contemporary coming-of-age memoirs. Employing “Black mythology,” Mouton aims to “fill in the gaps in literature that colonization has tried to steal,” reclaiming a cultural history and personal heritage. Not all of her stories are real, she writes on Page 1. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t true.”
When a menacing lech objectifies her 10-year-old body in a fast-food restaurant, Mouton — in a fantastical scene that satisfies even as it disorients — seamlessly morphs him into the diabolical warrior spirit Acirema (“America” spelled backward). The “star-spangled spitfire soul slayer” attempts to consume her; she fights back with a handful of sunflower seeds. “I machine-gun spat every last seed from the barrel of my mouth.” The seeds take root. She breaks Acirema’s body, releasing a plague of “doubts like a horde of horseflies” that invade her body, weighing her down. There are penalties for fighting back.
Mouton, a poet and performance artist, is at her best when she slips into rhythmic prose poetry. Her gift for lyricism, though, is at times undermined by overwrought language and distracting affectations (a “looking glass” rather than a mirror; “15-year-aged” instead of 15-year-old). Nevertheless, her homage to Black womanhood has resulted in a work of art that defies categorization. Freed from facts by the transcendence of truth, Mouton has created an inventive genre-amalgamating form of myth, memoir and metaphor that sings when it succeeds.
Does the world really need another addiction memoir? STASH: My Life in Hiding (Atria, 278 pp., $27.99) answers persuasively: Yes.
Such memoirs proliferate in part because they offer blueprints for rebuilding collapsed lives, reminding addicts and their loved ones that they’re not alone. Yet Laura Cathcart Robbins, who is Black, came up empty when she combed bookstore shelves “desperate for stories like mine, written by women who looked like me.”
In her early 20s, Robbins, a high school dropout, was newly sober following her recovery from a cocaine habit. Weary of waitressing at a Marriott in a polyester uniform and driven by “the burden of representing Black excellence,” she moved to Los Angeles and worked her way from assistant to publicist, determined to “be a boss like Clair Huxtable.” She married a successful actor turned director. She spent weekends at their Malibu beach house, employed a full-time housekeeper and wore Louboutins (among other status symbols she name-drops throughout).
But after giving birth twice in 21 months, Robbins sank into a likely case of postpartum depression. Dismissed by her obstetrician, she began a yearslong addiction to the prescription sleep aid Ambien — taking at least 12 pills per day, boosted by alcohol when her tolerance built up. Robbins hit rock bottom after suffering a grand mal seizure at her son’s basketball tournament.
Despite sometimes hackneyed language (“a.k.a.,” “literally,” “It’s crazy how”), Robbins’s deft narrative is an emotionally absorbing and swiftly paced multisensory experience. She invites readers to taste the bitter pill on her tongue; feel the “warm golden oil” coating her body as the pills take effect; smell the ammonia scent when she wets her bed after blacking out; hear the earthquake roar through her doctor’s office when he denies her refills; see the X-Acto knife slice tiny holes in the wrappers of unopened tampons she’ll use to smuggle pills into rehab. The author’s pending divorce and desperation to retain custody of her sons raise the stakes for her sobriety, heightening suspense.
“I’m a Black drug addict mother going to treatment,” she laments from the depths. “I’m a cliché.” But “Stash” proves her to be anything but. Robbins courageously wrote the memoir her recovering self craved — the book she knows others need, too.
The story is familiar: An “effervescent dewy girl” arrives in New York with big dreams and little money, determined to earn a spot among the elite in her field. In THIRD GIRL FROM THE LEFT: A Memoir (Delphinium, 334 pp., $28), the field is dance and the girl is Christine Barker, whose heart-rending debut infuses a graceful personal narrative with cultural history, choreographed on the stage of 1970s-80s New York City as AIDS took hold.
Barker had no Broadway aspirations until her teacher, Alvin Ailey himself, told her that’s where she belonged. After many small roles and years of struggling to stay afloat in a patriarchal system that didn’t grant credit cards to young unmarried women (among other injustices), Barker caught the break of a lifetime when the director Michael Bennett cast her in his new show, “A Chorus Line,” about dancers auditioning for a musical.
The play became a sensation, winning the 1976 Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony Awards, and broke ground by addressing topics including homosexuality and adolescent desire. It would run for 15 years, featuring Barker through 1985.
But as the mid-80s approach, Barker’s skillful foreshadowing builds a sickening sense of dread. Her ascent to the pinnacle is followed by the devastating collapse of a world she built alongside an endearing cast of characters, the people she calls “family,” most of whom are gay men. Among them are her beloved brother, Laughlin, and his partner, the hot young fashion designer Perry Ellis. Laughlin, “a clever lawyer turned businessman,” helped grow Ellis’s brand into a nearly $750 million enterprise. He confides his AIDS diagnosis, swearing his sister to secrecy. If word spread that he was gay — let alone infected with what Pat Buchanan called nature’s “awful retribution” — everything he and Ellis had worked for could be ruined, and hundreds could lose their jobs.
“Third Girl From the Left” is a timely chronicle of vulnerable people who are marginalized by their government, ignored by the media and maligned by a “moral majority” whose echoes reverberate in today’s “Don’t Say Gay” era. In amplifying those stories without upstaging her own, Barker’s memoir becomes an elegy — for the third girl on the left, and for the men she loved so well.
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