I’ll begin on a personal note. I don’t know about anyone else, but whether I enjoy a book rarely depends upon how much I can relate to the writer or to the story. I read because I love language and because I want to understand how other people think and why they act the way they do. I read because I want to experience new perspectives and voices. If the story happens to make me feel less alone in the world, well, that’s a plus.
What distinguishes the memoirs featured in this month’s Across the Page is that they are both enlightening and relatable: Country music singer Chely Wright’s Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer; New York Times food writer Kim Severson’s Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life; and Beth Greenfield’s Ten Minutes from Home, the story of the car accident that killed her brother and best friend.
Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer written by Chely Wright (Pantheon)
Chely Wright’s tender memoir, Like Me, opens with the moment she considered killing herself after years of trying to hide her sexuality. The prose is raw, direct and brutally realistic: “I picked up the gun and put the end of it in my mouth. It was cold. I held it steady and got my right thumb on the trigger and prepared to pull it by pushing it outward.”
Wright did not pull the trigger — obviously, thankfully — but what follows is the story of what led her to that depth of despair and how she managed to climb out of it. As a child, Wright evoked the same prayer each day: “Dear god, please don’t let me be gay.” She had good reason. Growing up in small town Kansas, she knew from a very young age that she was different — and after crushes on her third grade teacher and second cousin, she quickly figured out that this difference “was my homosexuality.”
Wright was motivated to keep her developing sexuality a secret not only because of what she was learning in church and because she understood that part of her would exacerbate the bullying she was already experiencing at school, but also because of the one other thing she knew about herself from a young age: she wanted to be a country music singer.
Despite promising God that she would deny herself affection in order to achieve her dream, Wright entered into her first relationship with a woman when she was nineteen-years-old and working as a singer at Opryland. The experience was exciting but terrifying: “I had graduated from hiding my feelings of homosexuality to now having to hide my actions of homosexuality.”
When the relationship ended — on a violent note — Wright returned to her original promise to choose career over love. However, just as Wright’s career was taking off, she met another woman, named Julia in the book, who would become her partner for the next twelve years. Wright chronicles the strain that being closeted placed on her personally and on the relationship: “[Julia] was forced, out of necessity, to become invisible. This very issue started out as a tiny little splinter under the skin of our relationship, but as the months and years went by, it began to fester.”
During that time, when things with Julia weren’t working out, Wright tried to date fellow musician Brad Paisley. She was long past praying that she could change her sexuality, but rather “I decided that if I was going to be unhappy and unfulfilled anyway, why not just try to be with a man.” It is a minor part of the story (one that has received more attention by the media than by the book), but Wright thoughtfully uses her relationship with Paisley to show the collateral damage that living in the closet can have on other people’s lives.
After Wright and Julia ended their relationship, Wright began dating a woman named Kristin. When things failed with Kristin, who was also closeted and struggling with other issues including alcoholism, Wright finally hit the wall that brought her to point where we meet her in the opening of the book. Part of what saves Wright in this moment is the insight that she is finished hiding.
One particularly moving and poignantly placed chapter comes toward the end of the book. “Run, Jeny, Run” tells the childhood story of Wright’s mother’s attempt to get Wright’s sister, Jeny, to lose weight. The scene is heartbreaking not only because Jeny has emerged as a genuinely positive light and a source of relief in the book, but also because it reminds the reader of what is at stake for Wright as she considers coming out.
Though Wright’s celebrity adds a compelling layer to her struggle and story, what makes Like Me such an engaging read is Wright’s affecting ability to capture what it means to hide such an essential part of oneself. It is a physical, emotional and spiritual burden. Wright’s decision to come out ultimately leads her to a place where she is working to relieve that burden — a place this book will hopefully guide others towards. Highly recommended.