February 23, 2006
Books of The Times | 'A Piece of Cake'
Annals of Addiction and Recovery, Chapter Umpteen
By JANET MASLIN
On the first page of her calamity-packed addiction memoir, Cupcake Brown explains how the name Cupcake wound up on her birth certificate. For some people, being named Cupcake by a mother still woozy from childbirth might rank as life's most delirious moment.
Not for her. Ms. Brown looks like the new James Frey, with a rough, lurid, not entirely verifiable story to tell. In "A Piece of Cake," she piles on layer after layer of degradation and pain, in ways that make Mr. Frey sound like a vanilla wafer. Then comes the inevitable icing on the cake: sobriety and redemption. Eventually, she gets 12-step help and finds a mentor who leaves inspirational Post-its all over the author's apartment. "Cup, you're perfect," reads one. "Love, God."
As will soon become well known on the talk-show circuit, Ms. Brown did succeed in turning her life around — all the way around, to the point where she now practices law and delivers motivational speeches based on her shocking past. In a book that makes a needless point of genuflecting to Oprah Winfrey, Ms. Brown radiates polish and celebrity of her own. So she brings strategic skill to the trick of describing moments during which she was not quite conscious — including her own wedding. She is lawyer enough to have changed all but one name (her husband's) in the part of the book devoted to criminal abandon.
With the oversimplification that is her book's biggest shortcoming, as well as the confessional bluntness that is its biggest lure, Ms. Brown describes discovering her mother's dead body as an 8-year-old. She traces every terrible thing that later happened back to this catastrophic loss. The man she called Daddy turned out not to be her biological father, and so he lost custody of Cupcake. The man she called Sperm Donor handed her over to foster care in California. Bounced from place to place, she was abused not only by Cinderella's wicked stepmother but by yet another father figure, a man who took her to the parking lot of a Kmart for sexual assignations at 12. She never made it to cheerleading practice.
She was on the road to ruin by the age of 11. She ran away, hitchhiked and turned tricks. She found adults happy to help her buy liquor. She was pregnant by 13, was beaten so badly that she miscarried and then wafted off to the relative safety of South Central Los Angeles.
There, she joined the Crips and ran afoul of the "po-pos," as her friends referred to the police. She witnessed death. She got hurt. She wound up in the hospital, having her first serious conversation with God. "Look here, I know you don't know me," she says she said. "It's not like we be kickin' it or anything. But if you can hear me I could really use some help down here."
Eat your heart out, Mr. Frey: that's not even the first third of her story.
Outfitted in spandex and five-inch heels, armed with a forged résumé, she started landing office jobs while also dealing drugs and sampling the merchandise. Here "A Piece of Cake" has a bit of "Pygmalion," although Cupcake's transformation was partial at best. She learned to purge ethnicity and slang from her business voice ("She been watching Tom Brokaw!" she says somebody exclaimed about her new sound), but she was still no model employee. She showed up drunk or high on crack or speed. She scammed anybody who could help her. She even exploited such employee benefits as bereavement leave. "What could the firm do," she asks, about lying to wangle so many days off, "tell my family not to die?"
The battle for Ms. Brown's soul shows up in her prose as well as in the events she describes. Most of "A Piece of Cake" is written straightforwardly, in the articulate language of her latter-day life. She also slings the occasional, incongruous burst of jive: "They may have suspected they were getting to me, but I sho' as hell wasn't gon' show it." Instead of recapturing her earlier self, this language gives the book an air of calculation, as does its heavy foreshadowing. For instance: "There was no way I could have known of the horrible tragedy that lay ahead."
After 300-odd pages of smelly, scrappy, shame-inducing experiences, Ms. Brown describes hitting bottom. Though her book is longish and repetitive, she does not share Mr. Frey's gift for milking melodrama out of rehab. She just hallucinates spiders that sing "We Will Rock You," and in a few days the ugly part is over. Then comes uplift. Somehow the late part of the book manages to be both humbly devout and richly narcissistic, with big whoops of joy for each of Ms. Brown's victories. "I asked God if He could somehow get me some bedroom furniture and some dishes," she writes. Always fulfilling her exact wishes, God provides.
Given the specificity with which Ms. Brown describes her trespasses, the story's upbeat section is perfunctory. "Recovery wasn't all bad," she writes. "Quite the contrary, it was (and is) all good." Although the book has been a voyeur's delight in describing her life's low points, Ms. Brown compresses the eight and a half years of education (on top of full-time employment) that led to her law degree. Suddenly it's as if all the trouble had happened to someone else.
Prepublication copies of "A Piece of Cake" had cover art depicting a cigarette stubbed out in a chocolate cupcake. Now the jacket features candy-colored sprinkles and good cheer. The first image is more accurate about the book, the second one truer to a culture that almost made a hero out of Mr. Frey. It sells a trip to hell and back as a tasty treat.