Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Review: "My Life as a Goddess: A Memoir through (Un)Popular Culture" by Guy Branum

"We talk about nature and nurture when analyzing a person's character. We see two ways that an identity is formed. One is biological, the mean of parents' traits passed down genetically. The other is environmental: How did the world around this person guide and encourage him? The problem is that by either of these methods, I shouldn't be me. I should be shorter and dumber and not at all concerned with what pairs well with star anise syrup in a cocktail." (BTW, it's notes of orange.)

At a young age, Guy Branum already knew he was different. Growing up in Yuba City, a farming town in Northern California, he was much larger (both taller and fatter) than his peers. Big boys were supposed to be fighters, but Guy didn't have it in him to fight. What he wanted to do was sit inside, read, and learn, find answers to the endless number of questions he had, about nearly everything in the world. But that met with disapproval from his parents, especially his father, who wanted his son to act "normal."

As Guy grew older, as he grew bigger and fatter, he indulged his father's wish and played high school football for four years. But he never had any passion for it. And as he realized he was gay, he knew that was another reason society would look down on him. What he wanted more than anything was to get out of Yuba City, go someplace more exciting, and be free of the expectations of those around him. And while he felt bad about himself, and tried to hide himself and who he really was in plain sight for so long, at some point he realized that he was worthy of love and success and praise, no matter what others might say or think.

"I'm not supposed to like myself, and I'm certainly not supposed to think that I should matter. The world has spent a lot of time telling me that, and in the past thirty or so years, I often listened, because we all listen. The world is mostly full of fine facts and good lessons, but some of those facts and lessons were built to keep you down. And I got kept down for decades. Then I remembered that I was a goddess. I may not always feel like it, but I have powers."

In My Life as a Goddess, a memoir/collection of essays, Branum shares his long journey to self-discovery, from his difficult relationship with his father to the love of movies he shared with his mother; his discovery of his sense of humor and his writing ability while attending Berkeley—which led to an interesting run-in with the Secret Service; what he believes to be society's struggles with both fat and gay people; finally feeling free enough to go to gay clubs; and the rise of his career as a stand-up comedian, comedy writer, and occasional actor.

Parts of this book were literally laugh-out-loud funny. (I got more than my share of odd looks when I read this book in public, and the one time I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe I realized I needed just to read it at home.) Branum's love of pop culture, television sitcoms, movies, and music felt so familiar to me. More than a few times I thought he and I could be great friends, or we'd try to out-funny each other, and he'd probably win, so I'd feel bitter.

But this is more than a comic memoir. My Life as a Goddess has real emotional heft to it as well, and I found myself nodding and even tearing up at times as I recognized situations which occurred in my own life. Branum is tremendously insightful but he doesn't feel sorry for himself; he recounts his life in a very matter-of-fact way. You may think that the difficulty of his journey helped turn him into the immensely funny man he has become, and certainly you see that with a lot of LGBT people, whose creativity was burnished amidst poor treatment.

Branum's childhood and his growth into adulthood was a difficult journey, but thankfully he has risen above it, and more thankfully for us, he is willing to share himself with us. At times he rambles a bit on unrelated topics (and he even recognizes it as he is doing it), but then his heart and his sense of humor shine through, and you realize this book, and this man, are truly special.

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