The Facts: Geri’s Memoir is a Jewel

Posted: June 27, 2011 in Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, Literature, Nightlife, Performance, Uncategorized

Since the late 1970s, Geri Jewell has established herself as both legendary and miraculous. It’s not just because of a life spent afflicted with cerebral palsy and overcoming its obstacles, or the fact that she managed to become the first breakout star on network television with an obvious disability (as Blair’s cousin Geri Warner on The Facts of Life for four seasons), but because her life has been a roller coaster as rocky as any of the involuntary physical movements that are a part of her daily existence. And her recently-published autobiography, I’m Walking As Straight As I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond (written with Ted Nichelson), takes the reader on a roller coaster of our own. Which, though often wracked with sorrowful tales and stories of abject disappointment, also transforms us into an indefatigable squad of cheerleaders as we witness her triumphs and stupendous growth, from a long-suffering tomboy-child into a woman in complete control of her past, her present, her future, and her sexuality above all else.

Jewell’s story begins in the mid-1950s in a sleepy suburb of Buffalo, New York, where her mother was injured in a car accident during mid-stage pregnancy, and which led to the child’s early delivery and subsequent three-month incubation period before her CP diagnosis. After the family’s relocation to Southern California (including older brothers Fred and David, prior to the birth of baby sister Gloria) to seek special educational and medical resources for the girl, Jewell never ceases to entertain with such tales of her youth as her unexplained aptitude for skateboarding, getting into trouble in school for an attempt to shampoo the hair of another student (it defies description here and would give it away to say anything more), or her family’s battles with evil next-door neighbor Mrs. Bismuth. And her anecdotes of the red tape involved with trying to be a student with disabilities in both high school and junior college are alternately riotous and regretful. But by the time her career officially kicks off in the late 1970s, both as a standup comedian at the very start of the comedy boom and in her first television appearance in a memorable spot on the PBS series The Righteous Apples, we who are reading this impossible-to-put-down memoir are not merely riveted, but positively jubilant and thrilled for her success, and even more so when The Facts of Life places her firmly and forever on the international cultural landscape.

Unfortunately, and this is by no means a reflection on Jewell’s marvelous abilities as a raconteuse, the story is at times so fraught with sadness and bad choices on the lady’s part through a mix of professional and personal innocence and insecurity, as well as sexual ambivalence, that the reader may actually find themselves internally screaming at the pages, “Geri, no!! No!! Oh, honey, WHY did you do THAT??” These include her first manager and his butchery of her finances, her friendship with two women who managed to completely pull the wool over her eyes in different ways, and her extremely stormy marriage to Richard Pimentel, a man so volatile as to make the Marquis de Sade look like Little Boy Blue. We’re also taken through the agony of her eventual addiction to both the sleep-aid Restoril and the painkiller Soma, and her harrowing rehabilitation period. And of course, the unconscionable way she was dismissed from The Facts of Life hangs over the entire story like an ominous black cloud, waiting to explode with soaking rain. Plus, the accounts of the passing of her mother is truly heartbreaking, followed by the death of her father some years later after remarrying and distancing himself from his children, not to mention the spectre of the infamous “orgasm joke” that got her into such hot water with mainstream America. However, whenever Jewell manages to score a success within the telling of her life, and especially those involving her interactions with such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli, Patty Duke, David Cassidy, Robert Goulet, Flip Wilson and Steve Allen, or such colleagues from the comedy world as Robert Schimmel and Bob Nelson, it becomes a moment brimming with satisfaction to see her live in a way that most people, aspiring entertainers or otherwise and with or without disabilities, can only dream of.  Equally joyous are the chance to learn about her close and refreshing friendship with Facts of Life co-star Lisa Whelchel and fellow disabled comedian Kathy Buckley, among many others. And by the time she stumbles onto a chance meeting at a pharmacy with television powerhouse David Milch and he offers her the chance to make a comeback, on HBO’s hit Western series Deadwood in the character of Jewel, one literally wants to applaud.

It should also be noted, if it wasn’t already pointedly clear, that another lifelong struggle for Jewell, and much more of a secret, has been with defining herself as a gay woman or even bisexual. This is complicated not only by a sexual molestation at the hands of a male while younger, or a much more severe assault by a perfectly odious actor named Jack King when she was a young standup comedian, but by both her guilt and the possibility of being even more different than previously thought. An invitation to a dinner party at the home of Rita Mae Brown nearly gives her a much-needed breakthrough towards coming out of the closet, but it isn’t until nearly the very end of the story that Jewell is finally granted the serenity to accept something ELSE that she cannot change. And her palpable relief at that fact absolutely bursts off the page.

Ergo, I’m Walking As Straight As I Can is one of those rare nonfiction reads that can evoke every emotion under the sun from the first page to the last. It exists to be savored. And then shared. And then savored again. By all means, get thee to an online bookseller and order a copy as soon as possible.

  1. dj says:

    Great article on a great book!

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