I confess I didn’t know Cheryl B. But I heard about her death while I was across the country last summer, as news of what happened went viral on Facebook. I read memorials and remember being shocked at one, I didn’t know who this talented and beloved person was beforehand and two, she died such an untimely death.
For those who don’t know, Cheryl Burke, or Cheryl B. as she named herself, is a writer, a spoken word performance artist, a poet, and a playwright – one who took the underbelly of her world and channeled it through a microphone and a stage.
A girl from New Jersey, who struggled with her weight, her toxic and mostly abusive family and alcoholism, Cheryl B. presented herself without shame, without blame for her fucked up circumstances and with a shitload of grit. Her book, “My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl B” published by Topside Signature, is a glimpse into her life and her unflappable will to cultivate her voice in the 1990s East Village art scene.
Cheryl B. is a storyteller and that becomes apparent on the first page of her book, this beautifully written, dark-humored, wit-infused version of her life. I found myself holding my chin in my hand staring at my computer screen (the draft came to me in PDF form) and then, laughing out loud. I did this repeatedly throughout the whole book – going from disbelief and horror to adoration for her sarcasm.
In a chapter named Jersey Shore, Cheryl B. announces to her family that she got into NYU. This is what ensues:
She asked my father, “Aren’t you going to congratulate your daughter? She just got into NYU.”
My mother’s question prompted the kind of instantaneous and uncalled for violent response my father was known for, the way the alcoholic father in the TV movie goes crazy after drinking, my father would go crazy without any substances at all. He lifted up his dinner plate and hit me on the head, “you want to go to college? Look at you, you’re 21, as fat as a house!”
“That was completely uncalled for,” my mother said in a typically ineffectual plea with my father.
The plate shattered around me. I didn’t know if it was from the impact with my head or when it later slammed into the wall behind me. But in a brief second of shocked delirium, I was surprised that it broke: I was pretty sure it was a Correlle plate and had grown up thinking they were unbreakable.
Thirteen chapters were put together by members of her close-knit writing group – who had met continuously for nine years. They compiled her drafts, essays and emails cultivating a completed manuscript, which eventually synthesized into its final form by Cheryl B.’s close friend and literary executor, Sarah Schulman. Schulman writes the foreword to the book and Kelli Dunham, Cheryl B’s partner, wrote the afterword.
The book is due out officially on Oct 23, two years to the month that Cheryl was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After complications from the chemotherapy, she died on June 18, 2011. She was 38.
I caught up with Dunham (no easy feat) at Joyce Bakery in Prospect Heights, where she was kind enough to answer a few questions.
How did the book come to be?
A couple of days before Cheryl died, she didn’t want to talk a lot about after death stuff but her good friend Sarah Schulman came to visit and said I’ll be Cheryl’s executor. That was the one thing Cheryl said, ‘yes yes yes’ to. That is the one thing we know Cheryl wanted. Cheryl had a writing group and they came up to me at the Staten Island funeral (that her mother organized) and said we really want to make sure that Cheryl’s work gets published. I said, ‘Well, this is perfect because Sarah Schulman is interested in editing something. Cheryl died on Saturday. By Friday, they had all the writing files and by a month or so later they had put it all together, along with e-mails that had shown some progression that wasn’t clear from the drafts. Then they met with Sarah. She did the editing and turned it into the book. She then contacted Tom Leger [of Topside] because she thought that would be the best way to get it out quickly.
How involved were you in the process?
The nice thing is I didn’t have to be super involved. I sent out the files, they would ask me things occasionally. They’d ask me, ‘Oh do you know about the history behind this quote or this quote,’ there would be a lot of, ‘Hey do you know if this exists anywhere?’ and I’d go through Cheryl’s stuff and say, ‘Oh yes.’ I pulled a lot of the photos that will be used for the website and talked about the design stuff. The nice thing was it was a very loving gift from the people who really knew her well.
How is the process of the book and its release for you in terms of your grieving process?
Someone told me something wise – that you know you’re a real New Yorker if something triggers you on every block. I don’t like to use the word trigger lightly, but what it does is create a little grief button at times that I don’t have control. [It’s like] I have to do the interview now so I have to talk about Cheryl now so in that way … but often you don’t have any control about grief anyway, it can come from any reason. It just means I talk about Cheryl in a more structured way. One thing, after the first year of grief, is that people – not people who love Cheryl – but people, in general, are like, ‘Aren’t you over talking about it yet?’
People really say that?
Well, people don’t say that to me because I think they know better. But it’s interesting – I’m in a lot of online grief forums, well, not a lot, but one primarily, and especially young women have that problem, like aren’t you over that yet – when their husbands die in their 30s. It makes people more uncomfortable, it doesn’t have anything to do with the person. They are like, ‘I would like you to be over that.’ People just want to be comfortable, even though we know, discomfort is what creates growth. In that way, working with the book has given me a forum and an outlet to talk about Cheryl in a really positive way and in a way that I know she wanted. It was one of the few things that I know she wanted. That, she was really, really clear about. And it was sort of the last thing I can do for her. I can’t do anything more for her but I can do this for her.
What do you think of the outcome of the book?
I’m so pleased. Certainly, I read bits of the book as she was working on it and talked about it in all its different forms but to see it all come together … and with her community. One of the things we talked about was how Cheryl was looking for her community, looking for her awesome place. And not only did she find it when she was alive, it still exists for her after her death and I think that’s pretty amazing. There are a lot of stories that you hear of people fighting with each other – ‘No, I own the legacy, no I own the legacy,’ even if there’s no money involved. What I love is that there’s been this massive outpouring of people wanting to help with the book and of course people feel torn – they’re angry that this didn’t happen while Cheryl was alive but also glad they can do something for her. The outcome is just amazing.
How did you settle on a publisher?
Sarah talked to different folks and just decided – she had some other possibilities but decided it would be the best way to get the book out quickly. Also, who usually does the marketing for the book? The author – so we had to have somebody really willing to work and Tom’s willing to do that. He had her street team over for muffins and coffee and brainstormed about what we needed to do and how to make it happen. The idea of community sourcing a book is really interesting to me and I actually think in a way it might be a cutting edge idea just because of that.
Was there anything in the book that you were surprised by?
I did know most of the stories but there were things I was surprised by. One of the things that I was really struck by when Cheryl was very ill was that I kept trying to get her to drink Ensure, which is a chemical-based drink, and for a vegetarian who mostly eats really healthy [she wasn’t about], ‘Here, have a bottle of chemicals.’ I struggled to get her to drink Ensure because it was really hard for her to eat. When I read the book in galley form I hadn’t noticed until then, that when she talked about her father when he had cancer and all he had left at the end was Ensure. I was like, I wish she had told me that. And my therapist was like, ‘Kelli, do you think she actually knew that and put that connection together? She just knew it smelled and tasted terrible.’ Those kinds of things …
How did the title get decided?
That was Cheryl’s idea. The book has had different titles, at one point it was called ‘When I Knew Everyone on Avenue A,’ but it’s not really so much about that, and then it was ‘All the Wrong Pills,’ but pills weren’t her thing. So when Sarah was going through it and we were talking about the themes what it really was is a search for her community. One of the things that was most striking about her memorial service was that 400 people on a Saturday afternoon showed up. What Sarah said afterward is that the memorial service showed her life was a success because it proved she had those people in her life and that she created that. Searching for community was a central theme, which I think is an interesting theme. The search for community wound around this substance abuse, which is like tearing at the fabric of the community and trying to connect while disconnected.
Well, when you use substances, it’s a specific kind of connecting.
Tom somehow, Tom is like Superman, found this video – somebody made a documentary about the spoken word movement and it’s the only video I’ve seen of her from that time period and she’s performing onstage with a drink in her right hand and she’s so much less present. And I never knew her at that point – she was seven years sober when I met her so I never had that experience. It’s so interesting. I have a video of her in the last month in the hospital when she was very ill and she was so much more present even in that advanced stage of illness than when she was drinking. It’s like a complete difference in the quality of presence in those two videos.
She is so tough throughout the book but there were certain lines that made me see how vulnerable she was, wanting connection. For example, the part where she showed up to the hospital to see her father and said, “Where’s Daddy?” That was such a touching part of the book for me. Here’s this person who has been abusive, hostile, and she shows up and says that.
She kept his sweatshirt; I always thought that was interesting. I think it speaks to the complicated relationship that all of us have with our parents. Especially as you get older, it’s the weighing of what happened and how they did with the resources they had. I think for her it was acknowledging the pain and the craziness that was there. I remember she told me once that, ‘I think would my mom would have liked to have written books.’ But there was nothing in her life that ever said she could do anything like that. All the people where she lived after she had Cheryl essentially pressured her not to go back to work. She was working on Wall Street. I think it speaks to how few choices they had. And her dad even, how few choices he had. Did anyone teach him how to talk about his feelings when they were all down at the docks?
It didn’t seem like she blamed her parents.
Yeah. It’s interesting, that’s true. She definitely thought they were horrible but she doesn’t blame them. It’s almost like, ‘She’s like it’s fate, I was born into this insane family.’ She would tell this story about her mom – all her mom knew was that she was staying in a youth hostel in the country of Australia and her mom, pre-Internet, found her.
What else do you want people to know about the book?
One thing that is really amazing about the book is that it has these intertwining themes. It’s not only about community but it’s created by community, which is something amazing. People are really emotionally affected by reading this book because of having had this community process. One of the things we talked about is that there is a teenager with black nail polish who needs this book. And that is one of the reasons we wanted to get it out. There are other kids who are suffering in their circumstances who think they are never going to find anyone who is like them. Cheryl may not have found a perfect place but she found a place where she could be at home.
An official book launch party at Bluestockings has been set for Oct. 23. Expect a celebration of 90s East Village art and spirit and appearances of some very special guests. My Awesome Place: The Autobiography of Cheryl Burke will be available on Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.