In her upcoming memoir, Burn Down the Ground (Villard/Random House), author Kambri Crews looks back on her unconventional childhood with deaf parents in rural Texas while trying to reconcile her present life—in which her father is serving a twenty-year sentence in a maximum-security prison.
CBSDFW.com talks to the author (who lived in Arlington and Grand Prairie and is now based in New York) about her book, her memories of Texas, and what she hopes readers will take from her compelling and brutally honest memoir.
CBSDFW.com: You write about your family’s chaotic past, was it difficult writing this book and sharing the details of your life?
Kambri Crews: If by “difficult” you mean was I sitting alone, grimy and unkempt, drinking gallons of Pinot Grigio while talking to no one for days on end except my Chihuahua? Then, yes, it was very, very difficult.
Writing is isolating, and I am not a solitary person. I love being out and about, attending or producing shows, and hosting parties. So to shut myself in for a year to write and edit was a shock to my system. I had to force myself to shower, go outside and mingle with people again!
After I delivered the manuscript, I went through what I can only describe as a writer’s version of postpartum depression. I had given birth to this thing –my book– and afterwards felt a tremendous amount of sadness and loneliness. I had to re-live some of the most harrowing times in my life. Opening the old wounds and extracting their poison was both cathartic and painful, like self-imposed therapy sessions without a psychiatrist.
CBSDFW.com: As a comedy publicist, did you feel it was important to write with some humor even when retelling heartbreaking moments?
KC: It is often noted that people in comedy usually have the most disturbing, messed up lives. As Carrie Fisher once said, “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” On stage, I definitely make fun of the bleakest moments in my life. I can’t help myself. You don’t grow up with deaf, pot smoking parents and take refuge in a shed without getting at least one bizarrely funny story out of it. Humor definitely helps people get through difficult times and there are moments of levity throughout the memoir. However, the book isn’t a barrel of laughs. If I were sarcastic and treated my father’s crimes with gallows humor, it would be disrespectful to my father’s victims and dismissive of his wrongdoings. Examining my childhood and how my father became who he is today –an incarcerated deaf man disowned by nearly everyone in his family—allowed me to be more reflective.
CBSDFW.com: What do you hope readers get from the book?
KC: Forgiving others and making peace with the cards you have been dealt is within all of us. Generally speaking, people aren’t purely evil or good. Life is much more complicated than that. My father didn’t wake up one day and become a criminal. He was on a path that was aided by the legal system, his deafness, his family background, and many other factors that had a tumbleweed effect. Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It exists in every race and class. So I hope the book increases awareness, but that it also spurs thoughtful dialogue about prisons, crime and punishment in this country.
My memoir also touches on what it’s like to live as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). Throughout there are some things that most hearing people don’t think about, like deaf humor, party games, and odd quirks. I hope the reader walks away with some knowledge about Deaf culture and American Sign Language that inspires them to learn more. It’s a rich and fascinating society and beautiful language.
At the very least, the reader will get some good tips on smuggling a pack of Juicy Fruit into the clink.
CBSDFW.com: What was your father’s reaction to you writing the book?
KC: My father knows I’m telling my story from my point of view and that I am sharing some good and some not-so-good parts of our lives. Talking through pain and trauma is a great step towards healing. Hopefully, he will see that he is loved unconditionally by me and my brother and be compelled to become a better man, a better father, and a better citizen upon his release. And if he doesn’t like the book, maybe he can use it to hide a chisel.
CBSDFW.com: You had an unusual, challenging upbringing in Texas, living in a tent, a shed, a trailer, do you have any happy memories of Texas?
KC: They’re almost all happy memories! As a child, you don’t know what “normal” is. And, well, what is “normal” anyway? While traveling in Peru, I remember seeing a babysitting in the dirt, wearing only a diaper, surrounded by filth and chickens. My heart broke as I thought, “That poor child.” And the kid was probably thinking, “I love my chickens!”
I must sound like Tom Sawyer when I recount stories of growing up in the woods. It was like a southern fried Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t until later when I saw how the “other half” lived and ventured out into the world that I realized the opportunities I missed and the hardships I endured. But I was loved. I was fortunate to inherit my mother’s joy of reading and to receive a fantastic education by some of the finest teachers in Montgomery (outside of Houston) and at Richland High School in North Richland Hills. You can do a lot in life with a solid foundation of reading, writing and arithmetic. Sorry, kids, but it’s true. Now go do your homework.
Burn Down the Ground (Villard) by Kambri Crews will be published on February 28, 2012.