Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Mother, Stranger: Cris Beam

Written by Jesse Sposato
motherstranger.jpgI first learned of Cris Beam at a Happy Endings reading about four and a half years ago. She read from her Holly Hobby journal—the evening’s theme was to take one public risk—and while reading Mother Stranger, Beam’s recent memoir about her fragile and often dark childhood, I found myself once again reunited with the very same diary. It was one of the four items Beam took with her when she left her mother’s home at age fourteen to go live with her dad. (The other things were a big bag of clothes, her mother’s eyelash curler, and a photo of her childhood crossing guard, which appears in the book.) Encountering Beam’s diary for the second time, I realized something I couldn’t have the first time. The little girl Beam allowed us a glimpse of that night in 2007 wasn’t just writing in her journal about an annoying classmate or a bad day at the playground—she had so much more to say. In the fourteen one-page chapters of Beam’s “short” memoir, she does exactly that. And beautifully.
motherstranger.jpgI first learned of Cris Beam at a Happy Endings reading about four and a half years ago. She read from her Holly Hobby journal—the evening’s theme was to take one public risk—and while reading Mother, Stranger, Beam’s recent memoir about her fragile and often dark childhood, I found myself once again reunited with the very same diary. It was one of the four items Beam took with her when she left her mother’s home at age fourteen to go live with her dad. (The other things were a big bag of clothes, her mother’s eyelash curler, and a photo of her childhood crossing guard, which appears in the book.) Encountering Beam’s diary for the second time, I realized something I couldn’t have the first time. The little girl Beam allowed us a glimpse of that night in 2007 wasn’t just writing in her journal about an annoying classmate or a bad day at the playground—she had so much more to say. In the fourteen one-page chapters of Beam’s “short” memoir, she does exactly that. And beautifully.

Cris Beam is a natural born writer. One way I know this is because an early chapter in Mother, Stranger reveals the book young Cristie Beam writes about San Francisco when her dad tells her the family is moving to California. Throughout Mother, Stranger, Beam constantly refers to journals she kept as a child. She even includes a page from one (perhaps the Holly Hobby one) in the book where she confesses, as a seven-year-old, that she is a fan of the year 1979. But further proof comes in the most obvious way: through her current writing.

Mother, Stranger is filled with all kinds of lines that made me wish I had a better understanding of how to copy and paste text from e-books so I could savor my favorite lines without having to rely on a notebook and pen. (This was my first experience reading a book on an iPad and it was a bit rocky in the beginning.) Beam waxes poetic about even the most mundane details: “My mom cooked dinners with macaroni and meat then. She didn’t have a job, so she vacuumed.” And she writes so deeply, exposing her rawest of emotions, that goose bumps cover your arms before you’ve had time to fully take in what she’s saying: “I knew, somewhere in my stitched-together gut, that I had just made a choice that would haunt me forever—I had chosen to amputate my mom, and without my lifeblood she would be too sick to love me again.”

Beam tells the story of her twisted childhood—her helpless mother who became increasingly sick as a result of her own demons—and Beam’s eventual escape, but she never asks for pity or even necessarily empathy. This is her own journey, her way of saying goodbye to a mother she didn’t get to say goodbye to. Beam never saw her mother again after she left as a teenager, and by the time she died, the two were estranged. Beam was informed of her mother’s death by a lawyer fifty-three days after it happened.

As it turns out, Beam’s natural way with words might not be a coincidence after all. She eventually discovers that she’s a distant relative of William Faulkner. (She’s the first person in her immediate family to make this connection.) Perhaps the linear themes she had previously sensed between her mother’s experiences growing up and some of Faulkner’s popular writing arcs—mainly those of incest, and the “once grand Southern dame” that eventually became haggard and hobbled—were also not a coincidence.

The book ends with Beam reconnecting while her brother, an artist and musician also living in New York City. While the end is satisfying to the reader and clearly ties up some loose ends for Beam, the book ends with one lingering elephant in the room: who is Beam’s dad? At the end of the book, a.k.a. in Beam's life now, and after she left her mother’s house at fourteen. Though I can only imagine Beam was well aware of his mere cameo role in the story, and I trust that she had her reasons for largely leaving him out, I felt like I was missing an integral piece of the puzzle.

When Mother, Stranger ended, I did wipe away a few tears, but by then, they were more of relief. That Beam came to terms with her mother’s life and death in her own way, that she and her brother, despite all of their hardships, turned out to be successful artists doing well in one of the toughest cities in the world, and that Beam’s short memoir turned out so beautifully and I was lucky enough to read it.

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