Holding Life Lightly: Crybaby Will Dry Our Tears
Cheryl Klein’s memoir, Crybaby (Brown Paper), opens with the narrator receiving a diagnosis for breast cancer shortly after returning home from a writing residency. In these few prologue pages, we also learn that Cheryl wants to have a baby with her partner C.C., something that has riddled her with longing and anxiety for quite some time. The reader understands that Cheryl and C.C. have objectively good lives—solidly middle-class and educated professionals living in Los Angeles—a reality not lost on the narrator, despite her desire: “I lived in America and had health insurance and my parents never hit me and my dad gave me generously loaded American Express cards most Christmases. But the things I wanted—love, health, a baby—didn’t seem like such first-world things to want. Fairness was a fraught concept, but I could still wish for it.”
We soon realize that this opening prologue of sorts drops us in the middle of the memoir’s timeline, while the rest of the book observes a more traditional chronology, exploring Cheryl’s early years as a baby lesbian, the loss of her own mother to cancer, meeting her partner C.C., and then the three main acts of the story: her desperate quest to get pregnant, her cancer diagnosis, the couple’s eventual adoption process, and the impact these experiences had on their relationship and Cheryl’s self-knowledge. The chapters are presented with clear, deliberate prose, exhibiting Klein’s honesty and delightful powers of observation and reflection.
There have been many narratives about the body—cancer narratives, fertility struggles, and certainly the way the queer and female body is objectified and politicized in our society. They are necessary and all deserve a place at the literary table. In fact, we need more of them, since female-identified and queer bodies remain subjected to abuse within all institutions, most notably the medical industry.
What I particularly love about Klein’s iteration of this oeuvre, however, is her deft ability to juxtapose seemingly innocuous pop culture references and mundane experiences with the body narrative, usually invoking levity where the book could easily grow maudlin. In one passage the narrator and her partner are watching the cult horror film The Babadook and Klein uses it as a way to relate to her own spectrum of grief. In another quite hilarious passage, Klein recounts recurring arguments over neoliberal politics with her father, and then connects these to systemic privilege and its effect on the socialized female body. These juxtapositions are not rendered with a heavy hand. They weave throughout the narrative with remarkable ease, like having a tipsy life-chat over rosé with a bestie, albeit a very well-read and poetic bestie.
Although Klein explores many circumstances of the female body in this memoir—not limited to cancer, fertility, eating disorder and queer desire—it is the exploration of Cheryl’s relationship to self that absorbed me most. She reveals early on that she held a rigid conception of who she was and how to make oneself. “The myth of self-creation—of the possibility of rebirth around any corner—sustained me.” This late-capitalist drive to design the self as if it were an art project leads to Klein’s perpetual disappointment in life, resulting in lots of tears, hence the book’s title. Yet, she remained vigilant that she could control this development of self by employing some rather half-baked insight. “[A]s my own life zigged and zagged and failed to unfold as I’d hoped, I would keep myself going by thinking Maybe this is my chance to live a really different kind of life.” This mantra sounds opportunistic, or at least optimistic.
After experiencing the back-to-back hardships of fertility woes and cancer, Klein emerges with an altogether different outlook, one that embraces allowance more than creation, which is quite exciting for the reader. Klein writes, “I always thought that giving something my all was to give it my greatest effort. To apply the weight of every cell in my body. But hadn’t I learned—and I know I’m mixing metaphors here—that some cells are cancer? What if, instead, I cupped my hands and let The Thing I Cared Most About perch there? What if I let it breathe and rest its wings?” What of this idea—softening the grip of this life that we shape? Will it permit more chances to pivot when faced with unwanted change? The sentiment appears simple, easy to adopt, but if it was then we wouldn’t read Klein’s memoir and feel the catharsis that I guarantee will impact many who pick it up.
The theme of allowance certainly resonates with the most compelling aspect of the memoir: Klein’s relationship with her partner, C.C.. Saddled with Klein’s anxiety about having a baby and later negotiating cancer, and C.C.’s fear of being closed off from the vitality of the world, their relationship faces significant challenges throughout the memoir. Klein profiles this struggle with admirable candidness and clarity. After several hiccups, Klein experiments with a new way of thinking—that of allowance—as a way to save her and C.C.’s relationship. “We entwined our bodies without totally understanding each other. We lay there in the stew of our respective selves and held hands across the bed.” This line is gorgeous, and the action described is so difficult for many of us—certainly our narrator—as it requires one to relinquish control, to trust how the story must unfold.
The honesty of Cheryl’s recounting, her ability to admit to herself when paranoid or self-absorbed—like when she was genuinely surprised by a friend’s sadness at a funeral—bares a deep vulnerability, the stuff of wonderful and insightful nonfiction, when we can see ourselves inhabiting the life of the writer as much as the writer does. And in her discoveries, Klein can’t help but use the metaphor of storytelling as a means to understand her own growth. “I’m trying to describe the arc of this experience. I think there was an arc. I wanted to live in a happy story, not a tragic one, but even a tragic one seemed preferable to no story at all. Still, there are stories within stories. Ripples within waves.” This is Klein discovering that the best way for her to live this life is to “hold it lightly,” to recognize that life is indeed not as tidy and neat as a story she would write. Yes, it might have a beginning and an end, but that’s where the similarities end. Life is not designed, it is not crafted. Emotional resonance and reversal of fortune are present—the stuff of all good tales—but aren’t handily positioned like in the body of a story. “Joy and heartbreak, joy and heartbreak. Life resists tidy arcs.” This may seem like such an uncomplicated slice of wisdom, but think about it, dear reader: how often have you forgotten this wisdom, if you’ve possessed it at all? I know I have often unheeded my own painstakingly accrued insight. Isn’t that one of the great purposes of art, to remind us of the verities humanity has cultivated along its zig-zagging journey on this planet? We obviously need the reminder, and Klein offers this book to us with generosity and optimism—because, at the end of the day, she too believes that we can be better people if we share what we learn from our own struggles.
Miah Jeffra is author of THE FIRST CHURCH OF WHAT’S HAPPENING (Nomadic, 2017), The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! (Sibling Rivalry, 2020), and THE VIOLENCE ALMANAC (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). They have been awarded the New Millennium Prize for fiction, the Sidney Lanier Fiction Prize, The Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, the Alice Judson Hayes Fellowship, and Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. Residencies include Ragdale and The Hub City Writers Project. Recent publications include The North American Review, Fourteen Hills Review, The Atticus Review, The Nervous Breakdown and Fifth Wednesday. Miah is founding editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.