Can An Abuse Memoir Be Funny, Too?
Samantha Matthews’s powerful story of sibling abuse is memorable not just for what she endured, but the wry clarity and humor she recalls it with.
In the introduction of That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, writer David Shields poses a question to his cousin, actress Samantha Matthews, “How and to what degree is it possible to get beyond early trauma?”
The book, an extended monologue of Matthews’s fraught sexual history, is published today. It was initially supposed to be about Matthews’s side job dubbing Italian porn into English.
But Shields and Matthews’s year-and-a-half email correspondence yielded something more emotionally complex for Matthews—a kind of sexual autobiography and self-analysis.
Matthews puts herself on Freud’s couch—she talks and talks and talks, rather evocatively—about her sexual desires and self-destructive tendencies.
It’s a story of abuse and how early trauma “formatted” her life, as she puts it. But this is no misery memoir: Matthews delivers a poignant, darkly humorous, and relentlessly unsentimental narrative about the consequences of intimacy.
Matthews, a pseudonym, confesses to Shields that she’s “always liked that dark, perverse stare, the dangerous, mysterious-looking guy, almost mean-looking, the 9½ Weeks Mickey Rourke. Even the way he treats her badly makes her want him more—that’s sexy to me, just like Carl, my oldest half brother, handsome and mysterious and scary.”
Now in her 40s, Matthews takes Shields and readers on a visceral tour of her sexual experiences: losing her virginity at 15 was like “giving birth the other way around”; going on a road trip with a boyfriend of two years and being “bent over naked in a divey hotel room with a paper bag over my head, my hands bound together, and him photographing me with our Polaroid camera.”
She writes with self-deprecating humor about her insatiable sexual desire for William, her current partner, who doesn’t reciprocate her physical neediness (“He’s rationing. I’m in the sex breadline.”) and urges her to “take up painting again. Why can’t I be horny for painting?”
Theirs is a relatively healthy relationship compared to others from her past, but Matthews is attracted to the “darkness,” the same qualities in William that she has sought out in other men—“the damaged, the wounded, the ones with very little if any empathy.”
We’re halfway through the book when Matthews finally talks about being abused from the age of 2 to 5 by her half-brothers, Carl and Jesse.
Carl would “hang me by my feet over the railing from the third landing of the staircase, or put a plastic bag over my head—like a killer whale with a sea lion.” Jesse, she recalls, would “lick me down there like a dog would lick a wound, asking me if I liked it,” and how, after he made her touch him, she “asked my mom why white stuff came out of his penis.”
She remembers watching Carl beat up her mother, Carol, who was pregnant at the time and miscarried not long afterwards.
Later, after the boys had moved away, Carol encouraged her 8-year-old daughter to tell friends what she’d been through. “I knew how to talk about what had happened but felt nothing; they did,” Matthews writes. “I’d observe people’s expressions when I told the story. It was as if it had happened to someone else.”
But Matthews’s mother also made her feel guilty for sexual behaviors that manifested after the abuse: masturbating when she was 5, for example, and being caught naked under the covers of her bed with her “five-year-old boyfriend.”
Carol, an alcoholic, was “the repressed post-1950s mother…leaving me newspaper clippings about prim-and-proper young ladies dying from AIDS upon losing their virginity,” Matthews writes.
But her drunk alter-ego would “talk about how sexy she really was, how she and my dad used to have sex constantly.”
What makes Matthews’s stream-of-consciousness narrative so powerful and novelistic is that she shows more than she tells when relaying these experiences, always from the perspective of however old she was at the time.
She doesn’t interrupt her stories to tell us how she feels about them now, years later. And she doesn’t use the language of trauma to describe her trauma. She doesn’t write about “triggers” or refer to herself as a “victim” or a “survivor,” not because this language isn’t valid but because she sees herself as so much more than a victim.
“I hate that woe-is-me stuff,” Matthews told The Daily Beast. “Everyone has suffered. Our garbage is different but our shame and pain and loneliness is all the same. I’m more interested in that than the details of what happened to me.”
Indeed, many of Matthews’s intimacy issues—her emotional immaturity and sexual neediness—will resonate with people who weren’t sexually abused when they were 3 years old.
Matthews said she doesn’t like to think that, in one way or another, all of her sexual impulses stem from her abuse. But she said it’s hard to separate the two—that “your first experiences mark you. It’s a familiarity, maybe.”
Toward the end of the book, Matthews writes that she’ll “never forgive Jesse or Carl,” but she doesn’t blame them for her self-destructive tendencies. Nor does she blame her mother. (“Before my mother came her mother,” she writes. “And before Ava comes me.”) She doesn’t blame or shame anyone, really, for the fact that she’s a self-loathing, emotionally needy “intimacy junkie.”
Instead, she quotes a “line I came across on a bathroom stall in grad school: ‘Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf.’”
Many readers will recognize this line from what is arguably the most beloved (and oft-quoted) English poem of the late 20th century: “This Be the Verse,” by the late, cantankerous poet Philip Larkin.
It’s a famously dark and funny and frank epitaph that begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do”; and ends by advising readers to “Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.”
Matthews wasn’t familiar with Larkin’s poem, but that line on the bathroom wall resonated. “So much of the book is about that,” she said. “We all have our own stuff. My mother comes from her own pain and from another generation of women who weren’t as equipped as we are to handle it.”
She doesn’t cite Amy Fusselman’s abuse memoir, 8: All True: Unbelievable, in her book. But much like that line in Larkin’s poem, Fusselman’s memoir resonates.
“There’s this moment when she thanks her pedophile because he made her who she is in a way. I feel similarly,” she tells me. “I don’t forgive [my half-brothers] but they definitely put me on a certain path. It informed so many different choices in my life. I feel like I’m kind of a big kid. We’re all kind of crazy, and that’s just fine.”