Despite the bad publicity of a few memoirs by people who were later determined to be less than truthful, the genre is still flourishing. I recently reviewed The Kids Are All Right, the story of the four Welch siblings, who were left orphaned after their father's death in a car accident and their mother's death by cancer a short time later.
The four siblings took turns writing about their memories in short, one and two page sections. It has been said that each child in a family grows up with different parents, and their story illustrates that point.
Kevin Sampsell's memoir A Common Pornography is written in a similar style. His one-and-two page mini-essays read like diary entries. Reading them is like sitting with Sampsell while he is looking at a family photo album, each page a picture triggering a memory. The pictures add up to a life lived in a family that is deeply troubled.
Sampsell has two older half-brothers who were pretty much out of the house by the time he could remember. His half-sister spent ten years in a psychiatric hospital, and while there gave birth to a child who was taken from her. She later married an abusive man who pimped her out for sex to other men. She again got pregnant and again gave up her baby. She was impregnated once more, this time by her stepfather, Kevin's father.
Two other brothers lived with Kevin, one of whom was black. Matt was the product of an affair that Kevin's mother had with an African man when she and Kevin's father had been estranged. Kevin describes a beautiful story Matt told him about going to Africa and meeting his father's relatives. He had several mannerisms of his father, and they were mesmerized by this young man who looked and acted so much like their deceased relative.
Out of this sad, violent, strange family, Kevin managed to grow up. His stories of loneliness, isolation and attempts to connect with girls are heartbreaking, and yet familiar to many. His description of working at a donut shop and the friends he made there had me flashing back to my first job working at a movie theater.
His stories about his his father's funeral and the feelings it triggers in him and his siblings almost hurt to read. His brother Mark, the one who stayed behind to care for his ill father, seems almost totally unable to function as an adult. Following the funeral, Kevin's mother attempts to share all of the secrets that she had been keeping, answers to questions the children were never allowed to ask.
A Common Pornography is heartbreakingly sad, speared with humor, yet above all it is honest. Sampsell speaks truth to the difficulty of finding oneself in this lonely world, made all the more frightening by the horrible dysfunction he grew up in. It is not for everyone, there is rough language and tough situations, and it is not written like a conventional memoir, but many will find it comforting to know that there are people out there who share their struggles.
Rating 3.5 stars of 5
Thanks to Harper Perennial for providing me with a copy for review.