My Life in Ruins and Whacky Childhoods: The Highlights Reel

By Yona Harvey

doll heads

How often we take for granted our simple beginnings. We don’t come to terms with that until we are much older or threatened by accidents or fading health.

Cartoonist Allie Brosh and novelist Steven Millhauser immerse readers in the warped worlds of children. But after that, Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and Millhauser’s Edwin Millhouse part ways. At no point does Brosh declare herself a precocious genius or claim to tell a genius tale. Quite the opposite: “I was a horrible, mischievous child who lived in the backwoods of North Idaho and had very little to occupy myself outside of causing trouble. Also, I’m impulsive. I just seem to draw chaos toward myself,” Brosh explains on the Frequently Asked Questions page of her website. The website led to the publication of Hyperbole and a Half, which begins with a “Warning Sign,” and prepares readers for Brosh’s blunt sense of humor. The fact that the peculiar illustrations “suck” (her word), by the way, already gives us a clue that Brosh is against preciousness. There will be cussing. There will be political incorrectness. There will be self-deprecation. Bosh, her two dogs, and her friends and family are the central characters. But Brosh, unlike any writer I’ve read in a long time, doesn’t seem particularly concerned with extracting any deep meaning from her childhood to reveal the meaning of present life. Instead, she draws and narrates whacky stories she might just as easily tell at happy hour. Some make you laugh (she once ate an entire birthday cake) and others make you grow quiet (she struggles to explain her depression to well-meaning friend). But she never takes herself too seriously.

covercoverFor instance, when Brosh was 10 years old she wrote a letter to her future self and buried it in her yard. When she reads the letter as an adult she expects to find some wise insights into her personality. Instead, she finds the letter is actually scrawled crudely on the back of a utility bill. That wouldn’t be so bad, she explains, but she also states her name, and describes her hair color and eye color as if her future self wouldn’t know these things. How clueless could I have been, she wonders. She pretty much admits she was an awkward, babbling, idiot. No professions of hidden genius — just a peculiar, sugar-shocked kid who sometimes removed her clothes in public places. “Dear seven-year old,” she writes back to herself in jest, “You can’t take your clothes off and hide in the corner hoping no one notices.” I couldn’t help but hear the silent thud of a “duh” after that sentence.

But even though Brosh doesn’t take herself too seriously, she does engage her thoughts in a serious way. In the “Identity” stories, she investigates (kind of) her inability to pursue, say, heroic thoughts by taking some action (like the people revered in popular television). In these instances, the story is an internal one. But she somehow manages to make an adventure out of the thoughts many of us have, but are less likely to share. Some might call this confessional, but that’s not quite accurate because Brosh gives the impression she would share these thoughts with anyone who’d listen. Why don’t I volunteer more? Why do I procrastinate about everything? Why do so many thoughts take place before I do something loving (pay attention to my boyfriend)?  I love that Brosh’s struggles between thoughts and actions (or inactions) are the story. And that’s it.

The past three books have been pretty unusual — the tales or the telling.

coverCurious words abound in Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief: ruin (persistent problem), audit (counsel), blew (defected), Sea Organization or Sea Org (the church’s clergy), and apostates. The word “ruin” stuck with me. Maybe this was because I was raised as a Christian and saw lots of folks show up at the chapel door of my childhood church feeling some kind of way about the “ruin” in their life, and looking for help. Maybe they felt guilty or remorseful about the human experiences that often affect all of us — directly or indirectly — at some point in life (turbulent relationships, drinking, drugs, or simply performing at less-than-stellar levels at certain moments in life). But no one was ever harassed, forced to stay, or forced to pay in order to get to the next level of enlightenment.

Paul Haggis’s journey as told by Wright has another narrative. It is a wild one, which probably accounts for why many people view Scientology as a cult rather than a religion. Tall tales and religion (or, in literary circles, the suspension of disbelief) go hand in hand, as Wright notes in his epilogue: “Were these miracles or visions or lies? Would religion survive without them?” How many religions can you name that revolve around anything less than a miracle? But corruption, power, and deceiving members separate Scientology and other “religious” orders gone astray. Haggis’s ruin, by the way, was a “turbulent romance.”

As Allie Brosh blogged recently, “Power is intoxicating. Everyone loves having the ability to make their decisions into reality — to think ‘this should be something that happens,’ and then actually be able to make that thing happen.” Isn’t that L. Ron Hubbard in a nutshell? But what accounts for so many followers? How badly do people want to stay in these groups, and why do they contort and bend and amend what seem like obvious facts? Wright’s book goes in search of answers. I guess few people want to see their leaders fall or to question their long-held beliefs. If your leader is a fraud, after all, what does that say about your good judgment?  No one wants to feel duped or manipulated. Meanwhile, the women seem utterly powerless and at the mercy of a man’s inventions. Remember Tammy Faye standing by Jim Baker?

Timeout: What’s with the poor images of women in these books so far? I’ve noticed a few silenced wives, blind cheerleaders, and temptresses (and the ornery men who dismiss them).

In the end, Hubbard left such a mess of lost children, ruined congregants, forged documents, and incoherent “doctrine.” Given all those things, how could anyone still believe?

When I heard Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 was about the life of an 11-year-old boy, I felt dubious about reading the book. I remained skeptical, even after Rob emailed one day and said he was “loving” it. Loving it? What was there to say — even satirically, even with a wink and a nod — about the life of an eleven year old? And for more than 300 pages?

As I read the first few chapters, though, I was reminded of just how child-centric our lives as children were — especially when left to our own devices. And maybe in adulthood we forgot this? Millhauser detailed the varied friendships, habits, protocols, and conflicts Jeffrey and Edwin negotiated by the fifth grade. Hell, by the time I was in third grade one boy had already announced that he chose me and my friend as his girlfriends — he couldn’t only pick one — and we happily went along with this agreement. Another girl was terrorizing the rest of us — physically she was a wimp, but psychologically she was an Amazon. Anyone who crossed her was sure to be out in the cold for the entire school day — and those Ohio public school days with the same children in every class and at recess were long days. How was that any different from adulthood’s miseries — relationship dramas, water cooler gossip, and the feeling of being trapped in the same gloomy office building for endless hours?

That said, I hardly missed the Steelers these past few week. There were so many outrageous distractions — including little cataloged stats about Edwin. Edwin’s best friend, Jeffrey, worked hard to convince readers of Edwin’s curiosity and subsequent gifts: “Did he learn anything in kindergarten? Oh, everything. He learned Singing, Clapping, and Keeping Quiet. He learned Standing on Line and the Pledge Allegiance. He learned Giggling in the Coatroom, Opening Milk, and Raising Your Hand to Go to the Lavatory.” And weren’t those capital-A Accomplishments the epitome of kindergarten? And seeing those primary school activities collated was a reminder of how much we once had to learn. And, like Edwin, many of us took delight in learning. I thought how often we take for granted our simple beginnings. We don’t come to terms with that until we are much older or threatened by accidents or fading health.

There was the “elaborate system of gasps, purrs, chuckles, burbles, sniffs, smacks, snorts, burps, clicks, plops, clucks, yelps….” and the list went on and on. There was also the catalog of emotional sounds:

aaaaa (crying)
nnnnn (complaining)
kkkkk (giggling)
ggggg (giggling)

and so on until Millhauser arrived at my favorite: b-b-b-b-b (unknown). Without catalogs — those little bursts of joy — the novel would have been less interesting.

One of the best passages came in Part Two: The Middle Years (Aug. 2, 1949 – Aug. 1, 1952), which began: “Behind the blue luminous curtain, rippling the pale blue luminous letters ripple, mingling wit bright blue luminous melodies jingling in an odor of salt and cardboard, mingling with juiyfruits, jingling with jujubes, in the black-crow licorice dark.” It was the opening of a cartoon battle between a rabbit and a fox.

I was less enamored with the love stories. The girls were depicted as holy terrors like Rose Dorn, who made Edwin deathly sick with love. Edwin fell hard for Rose, a little blond girl with a black cat and a “witch for a mother,” whom Jeffrey despised. Jeffrey characterized Rose as a “bold little hussy.” Yikes. Needless to say, Jeffrey didn’t approve of Rose, who, much to everyone’s dismay, corrupted (in their eyes) Edwin’s speech. Edwin was seen as a bright child — worthy of a lengthy biography — but he supposedly went downhill with Rose who said, “thank a-you” instead of thank you and “prolly” instead of probably. Once Edwin recovers, Jeffrey spends an absurd amount of time keeping the same from happening with four others  — Margaret Riley, Anna Maria DellaDonna, May Flowers, and Rose Black.

The most interesting part of the plot was the strange appearance of Arnold Hasselstrom, who inspired Edwin’s “first faint feeling of contempt.” Before that, though, the two boys had become friends because they were so different from one another. Hasselstrom preferred Parcheesi over books or reading — so much so that he was baffled by “Edwin’s anger at the mutilated comic book” he finally returned after borrowing it. Meanwhile, Edwin enjoyed Arnold’s gruff ways. The friendship took a turn for the worse, like every storyline in this book that grew dimmer and dimmer by the end.

Image Credit: Flickr.

3 Comments on “My Life in Ruins and Whacky Childhoods: The Highlights Reel”

  1. I was wondering about that too. The girls’ images are all filtered through unreliable Jeffrey. Especially the ones who purportedly fall in love with him. Did that actually happen? Or was it all a fabrication? Something in between? Not enough evidence either way, but I’m skeptical.


  2. Pingback: One of Us: On ‘Hyperbole and a Half’ and Chicago Bears Mediocrity | FOOTBALL BOOK CLUB

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