I doubt that Kristen Johnston set out to write a political manifesto when she wrote her first memoir Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster. Yet, as I read the book, all I could think about was how fucked up this country is with its lack of national healthcare and unhealthy obsession with celebrity.
I’ve been on a memoir kick lately. In the wake of Michael Ian Black’s first memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, I was excited to read Guts. Another heartfelt and brutally honest celebrity memoir? Bring it on! Another tale of a person persevering through anxiety and addiction? Yes, please! A book about someone who survived this city and lived to tell the tale? Woah.
Johnston is from Milwaukee, the city in which I currently live. She’s from an upper middle-class background. She was also the tallest girl of all the girls she knew (and many of the boys) growing up. In high school, she began to call herself The Freak. As expected with any memoir, there’s quite a bit about “how I got here” in the first three chapters of Guts. Johnston shares with readers the formative moments from her youth, including a dry-heave-inducing story about hearing her older brother shrieking whilst getting his ass kicked in high school. Just as with Black’s memoir, there’s also an anecdote about the moment in which she learned that she wanted to be funny.
When I shared Johnston’s “Amy moment” with my freshmen college students at UWM, many of them were relieved. Quite a few of them had grown up in Milwaukee and faced situations similar to Johnston’s. In class, we talked at length about what it means for individuals to seize their power back from bullies, and how difficult (yet gratifying!) it is to face challenges with grace. This is just one powerful moment in the text, and one I believe will resonate with audiences of all demographics.
After the back story, the memoir takes a turn for the strange. Just as I’m expecting to read all about Johnston’s climb to the top of stardom status on 3rd Rock, and just as I’m expecting to hear juicy stories about Lithgow and JGL, the book sinks into a quagmire.
Structurally, the book’s form follows its content: childhood and adolescence in the memoir are represented by the wandering, often intense bursts of story-telling that mirror memory-recall. This style segues into the illogical, hazy story-telling that mimics drug abuse. Then the narrative stops (see “quagmire” above), and the reader is catapulted deep into the mind of Johnston as she experiences and recovers from an intense, life-threatening medical accident .
In short: her guts blew up. From an ulcer aggravated by smoking and aspirin abuse.
This is where the political becomes pressing for this reader. As Johnston describes her experiences as a long-term inpatient in London, I can’t rip my mind away from three important ideas:
- Addiction is an equal-opportunity annihilator.
- Shit happens, and shit happens to everyone.
- If shit happens to me, I hope I’m in London.
Johnston doesn’t set out to write a harrowing account of the state of health care in the United States. This isn’t a book meant to persuade people that we need universal health care in the US. However, I challenge anyone to read about “life” from the perspective of Johnston’s hospital bed and then argue against national health care.
Of course some people will argue that the federal government shouldn’t be paying for addicts to live through the kind of harrowing experience Johnston survived to share with the public. Well, what if you take the view than many modern diseases (including addiction, folks!) are the product of pollution of all kinds…pollution subsidized and produced and distributed by the federal government? As one example: why do athletes get paid more than organic farmers (and this question asked in a leading way to begin a discussion about cancer…)? But I digress. Let’s get back to the memoir, and to Johnston, recovering in her hospital bed.
In addition to the political subtext, Guts is a book about addiction. Johnston is clear to acknowledge this from the onset, which I appreciate. However, instead of the intense rock-bottom moment I expect from celebrity rehab stories, Johnston shares with her readers the feeling she earns when she finally learns to be honest with herself. I applaud her for this: often, this crucial moment in a person’s development is glossed over or forgotten. And the moment is particularly powerful coming from a celebrity, from someone the faceless pop culture consuming masses forget is–at the end of the day–just another person trying to figure out this crazy thing called life.
She’s absolutely right. It is both liberating and strange to learn to tell the truth after years of lying to yourself and everyone around you. As she hints, people in the US are encouraged to lie to themselves. For example: accidents won’t happen to me, but if they do, I’ll find the money for health care. In another example: if I just pretend to be who everyone wants me to be, I’ll be happy in this life, for the rest of this life (i. e. “happily ever after,” usually involving lady-like behavior and a Prince Charming figure (to which I retort with a hearty “fuck THAT”)).
I admire this aspect of her memoir. I’m all for brutal honesty, especially with the self. I also applaud Johnston for the guts it took to write this memoir. Many would be reluctant to share the tale of how they almost went out like Elvis, and how the people who rescued them were absolutely disgusted with their job that day. Her description of the paramedics’ faces as they opened the door to her apartment bathroom and discovered her pitiful, soiled figure writhing on the tiles is enough to keep me away from pills for the rest of my life.
And this coming from a former fat kid who almost went out like Hendrix once. I’m pretty sure I saw some of that look on my sister’s face when she rolled me back to salvation after I started choking on a remixed combo of Doritos, cantaloupe, and more than a few peanut butter and syrup sandwiches.
Finally, I applaud Kristen Johnston for creating a positive feed-back loop with her first book. I hope this memoir finds its way into the hands of those who need to know how important it is to speak the truth, and to people who lack encouragement to speak in the first place. This is the reason I chose to share her early chapters with my college freshmen. Drawing up on the dawn of LGBTAI activism, Johnston reaffirms the truth that “silence equals death.” And that goes for addicts as well as people of all kinds who have lied–out of fear–to themselves and the ones they love.
From a personal perspective, I enjoy Johnston’s rough edges. She’s gorgeous. I often wish I could be as tall as she is. I like her raspy voice and rough nature and loud laugh. Probably because I’m rough around the edges, too. So from one of your band of Freaks, Ms. Johnston: thank you.
For anyone who needs a reality check: this is the book for you. Don’t make someone you love roll you away from sudden death on the family couch or make complete strangers scrape you from a pile of excrement in a foreign apartment. Shell over the $25 bucks and invest the five hours of reading now, lest you spend the remainder of your days in debt due to medical bills or wasting away in a London hospital or Arizona rehab facility.