It is not in spite of the grit, irreverence and sordid encounters that Cheryl B.’s life serves as an inspiration; rather, it is because of the rawness and honesty with which she relays each and every detail. Without apologies, Cheryl B. within her posthumously published memoir, My Awesome Place, recounts the most tragic and triumphant moments of her life, cut short by complications from the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A legendary spoken-word poet, performance artist, writer and member of the queer community, Cheryl B.’s story continues to spur creative souls to live their truth and express it boldly.
Growing up in a working class family amid both emotional and physical abuse, Cheryl B.’s childhood was no age of innocence. The stories are heartbreaking, even as she tells them with her characteristic irony and cynicism. While Cheryl B.’s home life was a barrage of high-conflict drama and emotional neglect, school proved an exercise in invalidation as she was discouraged from the pursuit of higher education. Seeking direction with the college application process, she remembers, her guidance counselor even suggested that “someone like her” should set her sights on a career as a toll taker on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Undaunted, Cheryl B. moved to New York to attend NYU and later The New School, where she found herself surrounded by a plethora of kindred spirits and opportunities to create her art. She collaborated with one of her closest friends on her foray into performance art and began participating in the poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which ultimately led to a legendary career amid what was later recognized as the heyday of spoken-word performance.
Thrust in the hub of New York’s arts culture, Cheryl initially declined the offers of cocaine, opting for a few drinks and bong hits, until one of her girlfriends persuaded her to give it a try. Impressed with its ability to “cut the drunk,” she let go of her resistance. Before long, all-nighters, lost memories and foggy interludes had become the norm as she grieved her father’s death and the loss of what never was while he was alive. Relationships ended, one of her dearest friends became very ill and her loneliness grew.
After he died, I slipped into an angry depression, what I later identified as a breakdown that lasted years. I drank to excess, turning mean and paranoid. I was incredibly needy but turned everyone away. I trusted no one, not even Chris, with whom I was in love. I was prone to crying fits. I once tried to punch out a store window in the East Village. The window won. I couldn’t concentrate on my writing; instead I spent my creative energy putting together slutty outfits from $10 store offerings. I broke up with my best friend and was sure my other friends were all talking about how crazy I was behind my back. Basically, the world was conspiring against me. I was drowning in self-pity, cocaine and tequila. My self-diagnosed existential crisis was nothing more than a drug-fueled alcoholic rampage.
The momentum continued to build until she awakened one Sunday morning to the realization that “not only had I been blacking out, acquiring facial rashes, neglecting my cat and sleeping with men I barely knew and rarely remembered, there was also a bad conceptual art factory beneath my bed” comprised of a Snapple bottle half-filled with tequila, a constellation of cat hair, Ziploc bags, pretzel parts and discarded condoms among other treasures. Flushing the drugs down the toilet and pouring the alcohol down the kitchen drain, Cheryl B. decided that the time was ripe for change and committed to sobriety for 30 days, which became 10 years shortly after her diagnosis.
Cheryl B. left a working draft of this memoir upon her death in June of 2011. As a tribute to her life and her work, her partner, Kelli Dunham, and members of her writing group made use of notes and emails to pull together the completed work. The writing is often far from clean, verb tense inconsistencies abound and typos crop up more than a time or two; but, these apparent flaws only serve as a reminder that in the end Cheryl B. was robbed of the opportunity to edit the manuscript herself.
More information about Cheryl B.’s literary accomplishments can be found in a piece entitled “Remembering Cheryl B.” at www.lambdaliterary.org. Video footage of her readings can be accessed at www.youtube.com.