“You’re going to go into that final trial date in drag,” the famed Stormé DeLarverie tells Alice Anderson late in her memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away. “You gonna go as the most upright, pretty, perfectly Southern Republican mama they ever fuckin’ seen. And you gonna to play that part like you know how to play it, the best you’ve ever played it.”
It’s the first time in the book that dressing up and playing a part has been called what it is, but drag is all Anderson has been doing since its first pages. She buries the trauma she suffered at her father’s hands under the façade of a good daughter. She clothes herself as a model in Paris. She masks herself as a perfect wife to her terror of a husband. All of these identities are drag, and they serve as a wire that runs through the book, tensing until it snaps.
Some Bright Morning is an unusually constructed memoir. Anderson leaves out almost all description of the years between meeting her future husband, Liam, and the night he tries to kill her. She elects not to write about the publication of her first book of poetry, or the births of her children. She skips right from the unsettling first evening she spent with Liam to the days after his near-deadly attack on her, when she moves semi-illegally into a leftover FEMA trailer in a friend’s yard in a Mississippi coast town. And then, at last, she strips herself of her good-wife mask, she strips her “sweet three” of their good-children masks, and all that remains is joy.
[They] stood there eating their candy, each one to the last folding the wrapper into smaller after smaller tiny squares, not knowing what to do with their trash. Daddy noticed and laughed and said ‘What kinda crazy children are y’all? Just throw them wrappers down there on the heap with the hulls.’
They did, dropping the wrappers onto the hull pile as if they were dropping single long-stemmed roses into an open grave. And then it was silent. The children leaned in it seemed as one, like a gate listing toward muddy earth. You could hear their need to pick up the wrappers, feel the tension of their fear in the air. Tick-tick-tick, while we all stared at the pile of hulls and wrappers. And stared some more.
And then we laughed. Hard. We laughed and carried on until our sides nearly split and the kids had chocolate mustaches and chocolate fingertips and I’d nearly peed my panties and shed a bunch of crack-up tears that threatened to expose my two blue-black shiners.
Silence followed by laughter, makeup concealing proof of harm—these images make plain what all the visible threads of Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away have in common. Every moment deals with the construction or shedding of a false identity. As she confesses to Stormé, who knows all about drag,
Erased, that’s how I feel. Like the real me is wiped away and some unreasonable facsimile is standing in my place. I’m not a poet, I’m not a writer, not a person who loves people, knows how to sing, loves to laugh. To dance. That girl got pinned up to a board in the shed a long-ass time ago. In her place? A maid, a wife, a mama, a fuckin’ ghost without a past.
One by one, Anderson reclaims her true selves. She becomes again a poet, a writer, a person who loves people.
Appropriately, the glue of the book is Anderson’s voice—by turns lyrical, hilarious, scarily calm, and wise. From a modeling career that sponsored her college education to a torrid affair with the youngest son of Norman Mailer, Anderson’s life defies probability. But her character is so magnetic, her strength and charm so energetic, that understanding how she accumulated such a life is no challenge. On a day when she required character witnesses in a Mississippi court, “her side” drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Trauma memoirs always risk winning readers through sympathy and shock rather than craft and character. The trauma Anderson withstood is, indeed, shocking—it extends to her unsuccessful attempts to shield her children from their violent father, and a brain injury that stole her ability to write and walk (which she later regained). But Anderson turns her trauma into something truly beautiful.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.