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Immaterial Girl : MY LIVES, By Roseanne Arnold (Ballantine Books: $23; 146 pp.)

March 06, 1994|Leah Rozen | Leah Rozen is an associate editor at People magazine in New York and a fan of Roseanne

Tired but true cliche: You cannot judge a book by its cover. Take, for example, the steamy dust jacket on "My Lives," Roseanne Arnold's second autobiography. (Her first, "Roseanne: My Life as a Woman," was published by Harper & Row in 1989.) It features Arnold swooning in the arms of her husband, Tom, both of them garbed in 18th-Century duds and making like the hero and heroine of a bodice-ripping romance. "My Lives," however, is anything but a conventional love story.

Although the book does tell the story of Roseanne's bumpy romance with Tom, an ardor complicated by the fact that she already had a husband and three children, and Tom was jamming half an ounce of coke up his nose daily and peddling the details of their affair to the National Enquirer, her real mission here is to tell how child abuse wrecked her life and how, by speaking out against it now, she is struggling to overcome it. Arnold wants us to know that despite being the star and producer of her own hit TV sitcom, "Roseanne," and making gadzillions of dollars, she is in a constant state of emotional chaos, for which she blames parents.

Her story, if it's true, is shocking. She claims that both of her parents sexually abused her. Her father, she says, routinely played with himself while watching television. Over the years, he molested her, her younger sister, and, more recently, one of Arnold's teen-age daughters.

She accuses her mother of mental cruelty, of threatening her with a knife and of beating her. (Her parents have denied these charges.) Arnold says the lingering effects of the abuse have made her an emotional mess. "Every day I teeter on a razor blade," she writes.

"My Lives" may be what the French call a crie de coeur (cry of the heart), but it is also a crie de spleen. Arnold is out to settle old scores and woe be unto those who have offended her. She is ruthless about her parents and nearly as nasty about her siblings, whom she portrays as money-sucking hangers-on. "I have had no contact with my family for almost four years now," writes Arnold, "an these four years have been the most productive, healing, and happy years of my life."

Others whom Arnold is out to slash and burn include Matt Williams, the original creator of "Roseanne," whom she dismisses as a "hack son of a bitch . . . ," and her ex-husband, Bill Pentland, whom she disses for his drinking and for being "dishonest, scheming, disloyal, and as big a coward that ever painted his ass black to hide in the night. . . ."

Arnold, both of TV and here, is an overwhelming and occasionally mesmerizing combination of smart and gross. She revels in bringing to television a truly subversive situation comedy in which a feminist agenda co-exists with a fierce working-class pride, but takes equal delight in wallowing in real life in in-your-face tackiness, profanity, tattoos and bad grammar. "Hey, class is for the schmucks who take life as a spectator sport anyway, so who needs it?" she writes. "Gimme pink and lime green a splatter pattern in the Formica, fat neckties, an honest belch, and a one-note cheek samba any day."

"My Lives" may be a book that Arnold had to write, but it is not one that her many fans necessarily have to read. Much of what she reveals here--she had sex for money, she smoked pot daily, she short-changed customers during her days as a waitress--she has already blabbed about on talk shows or in magazine interviews. The rest is often either so caustic or self-indulgent that you'd rather not know it anyway. I mean, c'mon, does anyone really need a 20-page explanation about why Roseanne sang the national anthem off key?

Helen Hayes, who lived into her 90s, wrote three sets of memoirs over the last several decades of her life. Only by the third book, written just a few years before her death, was she able to admit in print that her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, had been an alcoholic and had spent a decade, essentially, drinking himself to death following the untimely death of their daughter. What, one wonders after reading Arnold's latest volume, can she possibly be holding back for her third?

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