Uneasy memoir/history lesson from a quirky comedian.
Fans of Poundstone’s wry, ironic observational humor were shocked by allegations made in 2001 that the standup comedian had endangered and sexually abused her three adopted children (the charges were later dropped). The specter of that scandal hangs over this collection of ostensibly whimsical essays on the accomplishments of historical figures as contrasted with the quotidian struggles of the author. Poundstone is legally enjoined from discussing the particulars of the case, but her many references to the pain and humiliation she suffered in its wake are charged with a profound anger and emotional rawness that make for an awkward mix with the determinedly breezy tone of the prose. Her descriptions of the bureaucratic nightmare of court dates and mandated therapy sessions, and of her love for her adopted children (some of whom have severe physical and emotional problems) are in fact the most compelling aspects of the book, to the point that the historical material becomes an unwelcome distraction. It’s as if she set out to write a lighthearted monologue with an amusing conceit (Beethoven composed great symphonies despite being deaf, while Poundstone can’t get her daughter to practice piano; rinse, lather, repeat), but her personal trauma keeps bubbling to the surface. This tension has turned a slight and forgettable book into an interesting, if uncomfortable and unsatisfying, one. Poundstone is never less than clever and likable, even as a decidedly odd self-portrait slowly emerges: She portrays herself, with endearingly reflexive self-deprecation, as an alcoholic, completely disengaged from sex, maniacally compulsive about housework, anxious about money and something of an alienated, morbidly private underachiever. It’s this character, rather than Sitting Bull or Joan of Arc, that here commands the reader’s sympathy and interest. A narrative dealing head-on with her legal problems and embattled family would have made for a gripping reading experience indeed.
A wounded and affecting memoir lurks beneath the surface here; pity if it stays buried.