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The power of having a little hope

Writer James Brown's memoir of his troubled life illustrates what an achievement survival can be.

September 26, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

The disaster memoir is now an American literary genre all its own. There are the writers who tame their pasts with humor, such as Mary Karr, whose ribald account, "The Liar's Club," sent up a childhood in a swampy Texas oil town that would have stopped weaker spirits dead in their tracks. There are those who turn socially taboo ordeals -- Alice Sebold's "Lucky," an account of her rape as a teenager -- into high literature. Some, like Russell Baker in "Growing Up," write of hardscrabble childhoods as the prelude to great achievement.

Then there are the writers who have simply survived. In "The Los Angeles Diaries," James Brown shows what an achievement that can be.

Brown's nakedly brutal account of the ravaged childhood that leads him to a troubled adulthood is human, intimate and as painfully riveting as staring over a precipice Brown has thrown himself into and watching him crawl his way out. And for Brown, it's still a tough story to talk about.

"I was worried I'd be nervous," Brown says with a touch of apprehension, as he drives down the Hollywood streets where he drank and abused drugs as a child. Brown has lived a lot at 45, and he looks straight at you with watchful, intense eyes, as he begins the back story behind "The Los Angeles Diaries."

Some bleak facts dot the map. His mother goes to jail. His budding movie star brother shoots himself. His sister dives off a bridge into the bed of the L.A. River. Brown struggles through life as the promising young writer of such novels as "Lucky Town," while moonlighting as a raging alcoholic and drug abuser and wringing another generation of pain from his wife and young sons.

But Brown's still alive. He walks out of the restaurant and climbs into a big red pickup truck for a drive down Hollywood Boulevard, pointing out the Frolic Room, where he once drank himself into a stupor. He drives past the Pantages Theatre, past the racy lingerie shops and the sandwich board lady ("Date a Movie Star"), then turns down a side street and points out the dilapidated rooming house his brother was moving into before he killed himself.

"I think that faith is a type of strength, to understand that your life can be worth living," Brown said, adding, "even if it doesn't seem like it at the time."

Mother in prison

The story of Brown's childhood begins when he tags along with his volatile mother as she inexplicably lights an apartment building on fire near their house in San Jose. Brown is 5. He waits in the car. When his mother comes back, she takes him to San Francisco for shrimp cocktails at Fisherman's Wharf and buys him a folding foxhole shovel as a present.

The fire kills an elderly woman. Soon police appear on their doorstep. Authorities are never able to pin the fire on his mother. But they imprison her for tax evasion and Brown's father discovers she has bankrupted the family.

When his mother gets out of prison, she walks out on her husband and takes the children to Los Angeles. There the kids are left to fend for themselves on the streets of eastern Hollywood. At 9, Brown begins smoking marijuana. His older brother and sister are also drawn to drugs and alcohol.

He dabbles in heroin and burglary at 14, but it fails to provide much of an escape. One night, Brown's mother comes home with alcohol on her breath and he tells her he wants to go live with his father, a construction worker still in San Jose. For a few years, he experiences regular meals, school attendance and the camaraderie of working with his father. He loves to lie in bed at night and listen to his father's tales of laying railroad tracks and fishing for salmon in the Oregon wilderness.

This, Brown writes, "has much to do with why I am still here and my brother and sister are not."

"My father gave me something I never had before -- unconditional love," Brown said. "He also taught me a way to live where you could work and feel good about yourself, because you had earned it."

Brown launched a semblance of a normal life, going to college, marrying and having three boys. His sister, Marilyn, became a wife and mother. His brother, Barry, co-starred with Cybill Shepherd in the ill-fated "Daisy Miller," directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and had another starring role in "Bad Company," with Jeff Bridges and John Savage.

But Barry, faced with a career lull punctuated by roles in B movies, caved in to drinking and despair. Just before his final exams at San Francisco State University, Brown got a call from his stepmother: His brother, under the influence of alcohol, had shot himself.

"They don't think about the wreckage they leave behind," Brown said. "It's something you have to deal with the rest of your life. My sister saw my brother's death as a kind of betrayal. He was killing what we had, the love we had as siblings, when he killed himself."

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