“I waited in front of the building and used the extra time I had to pray. I didn’t pray that I would get the role. I prayed that whatever my life was supposed to be, whatever my path was, I would finally be on it. I was only twenty-four years old, but I was tired of fear. I was tired of running away from something I could see into something I couldn’t.”
To be perfectly frank, I don't make a habit of reading many celebrity memoirs. There are a few that I’m interested in, certainly -- Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are undeniably funny, even if I don't agree with every view they hold; Aziz Ansari is [2018 edit: was!] impossible to dislike, in my book. The only one I can remember liking recently is Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and that wasn't even recent, actually -- more like seven years ago. But when I saw that Gabby was writing a book, I knew I had to read her story. Based on what I'd seen of her acting, and the small glimpses she affords us of her off-screen persona, I had an inkling that this would be a literary experience not to miss. I was right.
A common complaint I feel as though I've been hearing expressed with much more vitriol of late is the reasoning behind young writers publishing memoirs. Below the age of forty, or fifty, what does anyone have to share that warrants a book deal? The implication is that years lived = wisdom gained, which makes sense, to a point. The benefit of aging is the steady accretion of experiences, hurts, breakthroughs, triumphs, failures. Each successive milestone teaches a lesson, large or small, and it is silly, critics argue, for someone who hasn't had the time for these lessons to coalesce into a greater awareness, or appreciation, for the many things life has to offer. But the problem with this sort of reductive thinking is that it attempts to delegitimize the wisdom of the younger generation. It prescribes a standard to which all writers should theoretically be held to, when in reality, the beauty of literature, particularly confessional or epistolary literature, communicates the strength and joy and pain of a creative mind, an experience that is not at all diminished by its age. There is a sort of tenderness to a young memoirist, someone willing to look deeply inward and share what they see, someone completely aware of their shortcomings and gifts alike, pausing to reflect on what they have lived, and then resuming once they feel they’ve done justice to the story. A chance to pause and reflect--why should that be relegated to only the latter decades of our lives? Isn’t a story a story?
Gabourey Sidibe tells a hell of a story.
She pulls no punches in these recollections--each chapter contains detail after vivid detail of the parts of her life that shaped her into the woman she is today. There are moments that made me cringe, and wince, and wonder, over and over again, how did she find the courage to write this down? Courage--that moment when fear becomes irrelevant, though no less loud; when taking action trumps remaining motionless--this book is a testament to that kind of courage. Through her shockingly candid reminiscences about her struggle with mental illness, body image, academia, financial security--the pace of her writing remains consistent, even as it feels, from time to time, to meander into tangents, expletive-laden jokes, and references to pop culture. It is the gift of a singularly talented storyteller, one whose writing mimics a spoken conversation, but does not lean into the conceit with the single-minded aggression of one obviously trying to be Funny with a capital f. Gabby’s voice is undeniably hysterical, but her heart, what comes shining through each anecdote and each painful realization, is the force that carries this story forward. It feels authentic and true, with little regard for decorum or hollow proclamations of strength found through adversity. Life isn’t perfect, but it goes on. She lived it, she continues to live it, and she’s going to tell it how it is--exactly how it is. Haters be damned.
This commitment to living and speaking her truth, in spite of every force at work against her, is not the main reason I admire this book, and her, so much. It is her utter honesty in scrutinizing her position as celebrity. She admits, time and again, that the fame, while certainly enjoyable, and beneficial, doesn’t mean much. I may be biased, but unlike many actors who espouse this party line, with Gabby, it feels genuine. She has no problem enjoying the many aspects of being a TV and movie star: the free gifts, first class service, preferential seating, adoring fans. But for someone with a background like hers, for someone who had to scrabble and clutch for steady footing at multiple points in her life, someone who suffered feelings of betrayal from her father for years--emerging from a place of pain to embrace a life of wealth and opportunity is not a convenient way out. The past is sticky. Hard lessons learned remain embedded. And recognizing, with clear eyes, the fickle ephemera of Hollywood, being exposed to the casual cruelty of the industry from a young age, sets Gabby up in a position of power and self-determination that I deeply respect. If one is smart, and wants to do justice to the hand they’ve been dealt, they don’t pretend their future is untouchable the moment they jump a tax bracket. Gabby drives this point home with the dispassionate surety of someone who understands the frailty of life in the public eye. And she lives with the aplomb of a beautiful black woman who acutely recognizes the voices of her demons, and makes the conscious choice, day after day, to remind them to shut the fuck up.
This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, Gabourey Sidibe, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2017.