A COMEDY & A TRAGEDY by Travis Hugh Culley


A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write
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The story of how writing became a means of healing.

Culley (The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, 2001) recounts his harrowing youth in a disquieting and sometimes self-serving memoir. His father beat him, his older brother bullied him, and a minister sexually abused him, an experience that shattered him. After the abuse, he became “a boy with secrets,” never telling anyone what had happened. In school, he writes, “I refused any attempt at reading or writing….I aimed at forgetting everything that I had learned before this summer, even the images of words I knew….I began using the wrong words for things.” Nevertheless, Culley somehow managed to pass from grade to grade and even to gain admission to an arts middle school, where he blossomed in a theater program. But when he was expelled for poor academic work, his family deemed him an “illiterate loser.” After his parents divorced, the author was spared his father’s beatings; but his mother, repeatedly exasperated with him, tried to get him diagnosed as so severely disturbed that he required hospitalization. Although Culley portrays her unsympathetically, it may be difficult for some readers to blame her for looking for an explanation for her son’s erratic, rebellious behavior, which included hearing voices. Along the way, Culley was recognized by a few teachers who praised his talents, especially at the New World School of Arts, where he completed his education. “Your thoughts are invaluable,” one teacher told him, encouraging him to learn to read and write. “You need to be literate so that there is no confusion about who you are, what you want, or where you are supposed to be going.” Culley graduated with a BFA and later earned an MFA; he became a playwright, founded a short-lived theater company, and devotes himself to writing.

A testimony to the liberating power of art.

Pub Date: July 14th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-345-50616-0
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2015


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