April 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Dark at the Roots: A Memoir by Sarah Thyre

Sarah Thyre’s Dark at the Roots: A Memoir lends credence to that trite and often-recited observation that comics generally possess trauma-filled backstories. Thyre might find that summation cringe-inducing because none of the chapters of her memoir, beginning in childhood and ending shortly after her 18th birthday, invite pity. Set predominately in Louisiana, the world Thyre describes is littered with white trash, Jesus freaks (including Thyre’s own lovely mother, a disappointed nun), shag carpeting, cut-offs, “Poor Barbie,” babysitting, mold infested homes, and rigid class delineations.

The memoir is brutally incisive, shining a light on the foibles and inadequacies of every person appearing in its pages without turning any of them -- her sickly sisters, ignorant teachers, or her faith-gripped mother -- into grotesques. In fact, Thyre glories in exposing her own desperate, wholly unsuccessful quest for popularity and social acceptance. She details her self-absorption and jockeying for attention and approval unstintingly. Poverty, a vivid imagination, and penchant for theatrics seem enough to isolate her as a child and young adult.

Thyre’s writing ably alternates between ironic, vicious humor and delicate observation. Her description of her mother demonstrates this ability beautifully: “As we hosed off under the carport, Mom inspected us, sniffing and fingering us in the manner of the village crone haggling over wares in a medieval market.” Her mother’s unshakeable, superstition-tinged faith in the Church causes her to forecast rare and chronic diseases looming at every corner, and issuance of edicts such as the refusal to allow Thyre to shave her legs until she is fifteen are all painstakingly detailed. But somehow none of these peculiarities or the others exhaustively catalogued by Thyre keep her from conveying her mother’s steeliness in loving, nurturing and protecting her children.

Thyre’s father may be the only figure who reappears throughout the narrative and is evoked with little irony or humor. He looms as a grim figure -- violent, unpredictable and elusive. One of the most chilling instances in the memoir revisits a fishing trip on which Thyre accompanied her father as a child. “Dad slipped his arm across my shoulders and drew me close, his lips almost brushing the top of my head. I felt more alive than I ever had. That evening Dad and I were driving home, giddy from sun and teasing each other about my already legendary haul. 'You didn’t catch any-thing, I caught it a-all,' I sang, sticking my tongue out at him. The next thing I knew, my head hit the passenger side window from the force of his slap.”

I mention the passage above because Dark at the Roots cannot be described as light reading. Thyre’s memoir is filled with pain and heartbreak: a remote, violent father and the subtler brutalities we visit on each other. Her aspirations to apply to Sarah Lawrence and Yale are summarily dismissed by a college counselor who concedes her intelligence even as she discourages Thyre. The suggestion seems to be that ambitions often are paired down by context and by poverty. Earlier in the memoir, Thyre describes her genuine childhood confusion and the self-doubt that follows her being dubbed the “family liar” and the arbitrary, unfounded abuse that follows.

Thyre’s memoir transfixes, amuses and occasionally horrifies. She manages to provoke all of these reactions with the casual intimacy of a well-spoken confidant.

Dark at the Roots: A Memoir by Sarah Thyre
Counterpoint
ISBN: 1582433593
256 pages