I love memoirs. I love the idea of moving into someone’s head temporarily and seeing through their eyes. A good memoir will do that for you. It pulls you in and you really feel as though you’re living it along with them. That’s how I felt when I read The Glass Castle or Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking or Felicia Days’ You’re Never Weird on the Internet and when I read Taraji P. Henson’s Around the Way Girl. And then there’s Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman and Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. Seriously. I love me some memoirs. And I especially loved Gabourey Sidibe’s.
Ms. Sidibe, as you probably remember, got all sorts of famous after her impressive performance in Precious. I say “impressive” because I’m sure it was. Everybody says it was. I, however, never saw it and I blame Toni Morrison for that. Years ago, I read The Bluest Eye, a book that truly gutted me. If you haven’t read it, the short version is that it’s about a young black girl who considers herself to be ugly. She is treated like she’s ugly and worthless, abused by family members and others physically, sexually, and emotionally. That book taught me so much about the depths of human depravity and cruelty and it remains the hardest book I’ve ever read. When I heard about Precious, I thought “That sounds like an amazing film but The Bluest Eye was hard enough” so there’s my bullshit reason for never seeing Precious.
Having proven herself as an actor with Precious, Ms. Sidibe was selected for a variety of other roles including her role as Queenie on American Horror Story: Coven (still one of the best seasons, in my opinion). I really knew I loved Gabourey when I saw the scene when Queenie made the disembodied head of Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), a notorious serial killer of black people, watch the entire eight hours of Roots.
Queenie: “Believe me, I’d love nothing more than to melt your ugly face right off your skull, but you are ignorant. And you’re not leaving this earth until I educate you about those people you tortured: my people. We’re gonna have ourselves a little film festival. You’re gonna watch Mandingo, The Color Purple, and then my personal favorite – B*A*P*S, starring Miss Halle Berry. But first, based on the bestselling novel by the great black writer Alex Haley – one family’s epic story, from slavery to freedom.”
Just when I thought Ms. Sidibe couldn’t possible be more dope, she was cast in Empire where she’s been killin’ it ever since. Her character, Becky, is a boss and I sure as hell hope Andre gives her the head of A&R job like she deserves next season. Her acting in Empire is great but the character of Becky is even more meaningful because, let’s be honest, larger black ladies are not often seen in powerful roles on television or, as fans of the show found out, in sexual situations. Becky had a sex scene last season that was awesome because, duh, plus sized ladies get down, too, and Gabourey responded in a classy AF kind of way to the criticism.
Yeah, Becky, you go, girl. I don’t know why you said people criticised your blonde Becky hair. I think you’re Becky with the good hair.
So, I’ve gone on about Ms. Sidibe’s acting chops for a while now but we’re here to talk about the book. Gabourey Sidibe wrote This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, a memoir about her life up until now. Let’s be real here for a minute about celebrity memoirs, they’re usually watered down. I’ve read plenty of them where you can tell they’ve either been ghost written or sanitized by an overly anxious publicist. That’s not the case with Ms. Sidibe’s book. You hear her voice in it. If you follow her on twitter, you know this is Gabourey. It’s positively glowing with Gaboureyness. And it’s funny. It’s downright hilarious. If you didn’t know how funny Ms. Sidibe is, you will after reading this book.
But even though there is a lot of humor in the book, Gabourey reveals a lot about her upbringing and her complicated family situation. I related powerfully to her story having grown up poor myself. Like her, I wasn’t “shelter poor” but it wasn’t great either. I remember vividly what it was like to always be wondering when the other shoe was going to drop because I was too privy to my mother’s financial struggles. When she spoke about feeling like she was responsible in some way for the electric bill, I was like “yessssss. I remember that anxiety”. When she talked about what it was like for latchkey kids coming home after school, I laughed out loud when she said she always was locked out and having to pee. I came home after school one day when my mom wasn’t home and I had forgotten the key (again). I had to pee so bad, I peed in one of those plastic Happy Meal buckets you got for Halloween at McDonald’s in the eighties. I feel like Ms. Sidibe knows the struggle.
Gabourey comments on some pretty deep topics in her memoir. One passage that really impressed me was her frank identification of rape culture without ever using those exact words. She describes how she and her mother are always talking about how they would get away from a rapist.
“Really it’s something that all mothers and daughters should discuss. The same way that all fathers and sons should discuss why no one should ever be raped in the first place. It’s my theory that not enough fathers and sons discuss rape, and so my mother and I have to discuss it just about every time I go see her.”
Well, ain’t that the truth? Women are always talking about it because men aren’t.
Gabourey explores her struggles with depression and eating disorders describing interactions with her family that many women have experienced. Parents sometimes minimize their children’s experiences with mental illness often because they have the best of intentions but that doesn’t make it any less painful.
“…my Mom’s first instinct was to tell me what I was feeling I actually wasn’t feeling–that I was just being dramatic. It felt like a slap in the face, but I realize now that she just wanted me not to feel like dying.”
One area of Ms. Sidibe’s book that I don’t relate so closely to is her struggle as a fat woman (a word which she uses so I will use). I have never been fat. I have written about my history of eating disorder so I definitely relate to that part of her history. But we don’t have to relate to everything in a memoir. In fact, it’s great when you don’t. I learned more about how fat women of color experience the world. In the Puerto Rican community (I’m Latina), I find the messages to be so counterintuitive sometimes about how curves are great and encouraged but only to a very specific limit. I was fascinated by Gabourey’s insights about weight and the way that our family’s reactions to our bodies can deeply affect our self image. It was heartbreaking to read how she thought that she was too fat for her father to even want to admit that he was her father.
Much like Taraji P. Henson’s memoir, you will be disappointed if you’re reading it because you want the inside scoop on celebrities. You won’t find out who’s a diva on the Empire set or who’s an asshole on the red carpet. In fact, Gabourey goes the extra mile to clarify that all those rumors about cattiness amongst women actors aren’t even true. This is no tell-all-tabloid-trash book and it’s not even really about the entertainment business and I’m glad because the most interest thing about Ms. Sidibe isn’t her celebrity, it’s her strength of character. I could go on all day about this book but then I don’t need to because you’re going to go buy it or get it from your library or borrow it from someone. Whatever. Just read it. You won’t regret it!