Don’t Go Crazy With­out Me: A Tragi­com­ic Memoir

  • Review
By – August 25, 2020

Read­ing Deb­o­rah Lott’s mem­oir of her dys­func­tion­al upbring­ing feels like the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of rub­ber­neck­ing: her child­hood was a series of train­wrecks, but some­how you can’t stop turn­ing around to watch. Lott was the youngest of three chil­dren; her moth­er was sta­ble, but her father, Ira, was exces­sive. A hypochon­dri­ac, a fan­ta­sist, a nar­cis­sist – the man knew no bound­aries, nei­ther phys­i­cal nor men­tal. And he made Deb­o­rah his side­kick, his con­fi­dante, his ally against his wife’s attempts to nor­mal­ize him.

When her sto­ry starts, Deb­o­rah is four and the coun­ter­man at the post office has just died, and Ira is insist­ing that since this is her first death,” she should try to remem­ber it for­ev­er. Then she’s in bed with her par­ents, feel­ing cozy with her daddy’s hairy chest and his big bel­ly and his fun­ny” poke-his-moles games, and yes, you feel an instinc­tive eeeuw” ris­ing up. But not only is young Deb­o­rah not both­ered by her father’s casu­al undress, she is intrigued by prob­lem­at­ic aspects of his physique — his deformed fin­gers and his uneven legs. Before long, you’re in the kitchen with this man, who has decid­ed to cre­ate a buf­fet from canned spaghet­ti, Hormel tamales, and tinned sar­dines, which brings up his bot­u­lism the­o­ries, and before long he’s throw­ing out one can after anoth­er because it doesn’t make a lit­tle pffft” sound when it’s pierced. Even worse, he’s roped Deborah’s old­er broth­er into inspect­ing all the cans, and soon you won­der if they will ever get any­thing to eat. Actu­al­ly, not only does Ira eat con­tin­u­al­ly, there’s a ter­ri­fy­ing scene in a Las Vegas restau­rant, when the rest of the fam­i­ly wants to leave after break­fast so they can explore the casi­nos, but Ira talks his daugh­ter into eat­ing a sec­ond full break­fast with him, just to fore­stall the family’s foray.

All this mishegoss is set in a mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry WASPy Cal­i­for­nia town, which only refracts Ira’s strange­ness. So when he ruins Deborah’s birth­day par­ty by sashay­ing out in his Lit­tle Lord Fauntleroy cos­tume and harass­ing the kids with his shtick, it’s grotesque, but it’s not as if any­one was going to find her fam­i­ly accept­able any­way. If things were ten­u­ous­ly hang­ing togeth­er, they col­lapse when Ira’s moth­er dies. Even­tu­al­ly, his para­noid calls to the FBI and his all-night rants land him in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal, giv­ing Deb­o­rah and every­one else a breather. It’s unclear if she will be able to right her­self or if she’ll go for match­ing straight­jack­ets” with Ira, as her moth­er dry­ly suggests.

All these bizarre tales, while enter­tain­ing, are not the point. The deep­er sto­ry, of Lott tak­ing con­trol of her body and thoughts and find­ing her voice, is what makes this mem­oir impor­tant. Any­one can have a pecu­liar child­hood, and many can even tell amus­ing sto­ries about it, but how many find their voic­es, and write” themselves?

Try it, you won’t put it down.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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