- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
For a book reviewer who has been vocal about his distaste for memoirs, I’m also aware that a powerful mysterious force draws me to this literary form. I searched the websites where my reviews appear and I discovered that I’ve read and reviewed many memoirs. Maybe the reviewer doth protest too much!
I missed Jeannette Walls’ bestselling 2005 memoir, “The Glass Castle,” partially set in southern West Virginia. Perhaps my dislike of the literary form was in reaction to the faked memoirs of James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces” published in 2003) and Margaret B. Jones — really Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman from the San Fernando Valley pretending to be a mixed-race L.A. ghetto dweller in “Love and Consequences” (2008). For a list of the top 10 fake memoirs — including these two — click: http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs/. The site includes at least two fake Holocaust memoirs and gives a capsule account of each book. The Wikipedia entry on faked memoirs —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_memoirs — uses the phrase “misery lit” to describe this literary genre.
In a telephone conversation from her cabin in New York state’s Catskill Mountains Kambri Crews, author of “Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir” (Villard Books, 352 pages, $25.00, available in a Kindle eBook) told me that Walls’ memoir was one of the inspirations for her book. Kambri Crews and Jeannette Walls both managed to find their new lives and careers in New York City.
Despite my reservations about ooks about people escaping from dysfunctional families (with a nod to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, aren’t all families dysfunctional in some ways?), not to mention doubts about the “truthiness” of the events in the books, I was drawn into Crews’ account of growing up a CODA — a Child of Deaf Adults — along with her older brother David. CODA Inc. — Children of Deaf Adults — is an actual organization, formed in 1983 (website: http://coda-international.org/blog/about/) but CODA is used informally to refer to people like Kambri and David, the hearing children of Ted and Christy Crews.
Kambri Crews was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1971 but grew up in an industrial section of Houston, Texas and in rural Montgomery County, north of Houston, where her dad, Theodore R. Crews Jr. owned acreage. He cleared it of snakes and vermin by setting it on fire in a slash and burn operation common to Texas. Hence the title of the book, which also reflects the tumult of the family’s life. Ted Crews was an Oklahoman, educated in a school for the deaf and proficient in American Sign Language (ASL). Both Kambri and David became adept at signing and in her readings Karmbri uses ASL to make the sessions comfortable to the Deaf.
The memoir opens with Kambri visiting Ted in the maximum security prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he’s serving a twenty-year sentence for attempting to murder his girlfriend in 2002. Kambri is smuggling him his favorite chewing gum, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit. She’s the only member of the Crews family who visits Ted, who’s up for parole this summer.
I could try to describe the mixture of humor and drop-dead terror in the book, but instead I’m including a passage from the book’s first chapter — after the prologue at Huntsville — to give readers an idea of how Kambri Crews has turned her performance pieces into a memoir that I highly recommend (I know, I know! I’m not supposed to like them, but this one knocked me overI I celebrate my contradictions, a la Walt Whitman):
I tugged on the belt loop of Mom’s skintight jeans, and waited for her to look down and acknowledge me. I wanted money to play Space Invaders in the bowling alley arcade, but she was concentrating on reading the lips of a balding deaf man who had two hooks for hands. Despite having no ﬁngers, he tried to communicate with American Sign Language (ASL), scraping the curved metal claws against each other as if he were giving a Ginsu knife demonstration. My mother was an expert lip reader and kept her eyes focused on his mouth to make sense of the ﬂurried ﬂashes of metal; she bobbed her head up and down to let him know that she understood.
I stared at the beige plastic attachments that encased each wrist and wondered how they stayed connected to his ﬂeshy stubs. Did he take them off at night? Were they suction cups or drilled into his arms? I shuddered at the thought and watched how he made the hooks open and close.
Was he born that way or did he have an accident? After contemplating both scenarios, I decided it would be better if he were born without hands. That way he wouldn’t know the difference. I couldn’t imagine that the world would be so cruel as to take the hands of a grown deaf man.
As I stared at his signing, his hooks brushed perilously close to my face, causing me to reel back in fear. I had a brief horrifying image of running for my life being chased by him, with his grunts and wheezing breath hot on my neck. But Mom, who made fast friends with everyone she met, was perfectly at ease.
I yanked harder and smacked her round bottom. “MAAAA- MMMMAA!!!”
“What?” Mom signed by waving her hand with the palm side up, exasperated at my persistence. “Can’t you see I’m talking?”
“Need quarter,” I signed back.
Mom could partially hear when she wore powerful hearing aids—one of which was always on the fritz, in need of a battery or screeching like brakes crying for new pads—but they were useless in the din of crashing bowling pins. For all practical purposes, she was as deaf as every other grown-up gathered in the dingy Tulsa bowling alley smelling of fried food, cigarettes, and beer. They had traveled here from all parts of the country to compete in the 1978 National Deaf Bowling Tournament, where Mom was scheduled to defend her title as women’s singles champion.
This event was the type of activity the Deaf community created so that members could mingle. In the days before the Internet and mobile gadgets, the best way for the Deaf to socialize was old-fashioned face-to-face time through clubs, travel groups, cruises, and sporting events like ﬁshing and bowling tournaments. While some fathers may have gravitated toward ﬁshing and hunting, mine liked bowling because he could smoke, drink, and carouse between rounds. Mom liked it because she was damned good, with a 164 average. Usually her winnings were enough to pay for our trips with a little proﬁt to boot.
The National Deaf Bowling Association was founded in 1964, but the women’s singles had only been around for four years and Mom was already a force to be reckoned with. She loved to brag about how she was knocking down pins while knocked up with me. She’d bowled three days prior to my birth and was back in the alley three days later.
The wooden lanes and alley lights may as well have been the stage and footlights of Broadway. She was a star and I was proud to say she was my mother.
Mom answered my plea for a quarter by pantomiming empty front pockets and signing, “I’m out. Go ask your daddy.”
Without hesitation, I turned on my heels and skipped to the bowling alley lounge, where I found my father leaning against the pool table holding court among a small gathering of onlookers. He held a cold can of Coors Light and a lit Kool in one hand and was signing with his free hand.
“Two deaf people get married. The ﬁrst week of living together they ﬁnd it hard to talk in the bedroom after they turn off the lights.”
I caught Dad’s eye and he gave me a quick wink as he gave the ASL sign for “wait” by wiggling his slim ﬁngers palm side up, revealing the calluses from his years as a construction worker. Unlike my mother, Dad didn’t speak at all other than an occa- sional shout of a name or profanity aimed at a Dallas Cowboys game. When he did, his voice came out in an oddly high pitch with too much air behind it. He couldn’t read lips as well as Mom and didn’t move his mouth much when he signed.
I let him ﬁnish the joke that he didn’t bother censoring, even though I was nearby. I had watched him tell it at least a dozen times. As he signed, the ash on his cigarette grew longer.
“After several nights of misunderstandings, the wife comes up with a solution. ‘Honey, we need simple signals in the bedroom at night. If you want to have sex, just reach over and squeeze my breast once; and if you don’t want to have sex, squeeze it twice.’
“The husband replies, ‘Great idea. If you want to have sex, pull my dick once. If you don’t want to have sex, pull it a hundred and
ﬁfty times.’ ”
His audience erupted into a variety of loud grunts and squeals of laughter. One waved his hands, while another signed ASL let- ters, “H-A-H-A-H-A.” Dad chuckled at himself with a slight curl of his upper lip, making a dimple appear in his right cheek. He took a drag of his cigarette and the long, crooked ash ﬁnally broke off, landing on the worn, booze-stained carpet. A few ﬂakes ﬂoated onto his dark blue jeans and he sent them ﬂying with one forceful burst of breath. He inspected his appearance and brushed off the remaining ashes before he asked, “What’s wrong?”
I signed back, “Need money.”
* * *
Ted Crews was a genius at woodworking and building anything with his hands. When he worked in construction in booming Houston, he often served as foreman for a construction crew. His lack of hearing was an advantage in an environment of jackhammers and screaming saws and pounding hammers and he was in demand. When his drinking didn’t get in the way, Kambri Crews notes. In between bouts with serious drinking he turned their five and a half acres in Montgomery into a homestead with electricity and running water for their mobile home. Kambri and David had to walk to the road leading into Boars Head, as the tract was called. There wasn’t a school-bus-worthy bridge over the stream where the bus stopped, so Ted constructed one that, with improvements, is still in use today.
As adept Ted Crews was with working with his hands, his mishaps with motor vehicles were part of the family’s lore:
“Time and distance helped me forget the wounds,” she writes (Page 276) when she was living in Ohio with her first husband, Bob, and climbing the corporate ladder at a bank. She married Bob, a naval officer, at 17 to escape the destructive family environment. The marriage didn’t last, but Kambri Crews is grateful that Bob rescued her from a profoundly dysfunctional family. “Besides, there was one law Dad couldn’t escape: Murphy’s. He’d send one letter with news consisting of one broken-down, vehicle, car wreck, failed relationship, and just overall bad luck. Dad shrugged off the misfortunes and said if it had tits or tires it was bound to cause him trouble.”
In our telephone conversation, I praised her for her ability to forgive and forget — not only for her father’s abusive behavior with his wife, Christy, but also her brother’s taunting and often dangerous behavior, including pointing a loaded rifle at her. She said her nearly 44-year old brother David has been clean and sober for many years. Kambri commented that hanging out with the wrong people — in her case her friend Marie — led her to sample the drug culture of the 80s. She tells groups that addiction to drugs and alcohol is as much a life-style decision as a disease. If you hang with drug users, you’ll become a drug user, pure and simple. My view completely! Avoid the bad people and chances are you won’t become one yourself.
The takeaway from “Burn Down the Ground”: Read it and rejoice. It’s a marvelous book by a gifted storyteller. To the best of my knowledge, it’s a true account, at least as true as any memoir can be. But i have to remember that more famous book reviewers than I — including the top New York Times reviewer — have been fooled in the past, as the two fake memoirs sites at the beginning of this review reveal.
About the author
Kambri Crews owns her own PR and production company specializing in comedy. A renowned storyteller and public speaker, she has appeared at the Moth, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and SXSW Interactive. She splits her time between Astoria, Queens, and Cochecton, New York, with her husband, comedian Christian Finnegan.
Visit www.kambricrews.com for more. Crews’ memoir includes prose versions of many of her performance pieces. She also provides updates about her father in her blog, LoveDaddy.org, The photo of Kambri with her dad at Huntsville is from that blog.