A Common Pornography is a memoir, but one that breaks the mold of what a memoir should be. Told in a series of vignettes, at the heart of the story is Sampsell’s relationship with his father, an angry and brutal man. While stories of his father bookend the narrative of the memoir, what makes up the meat of this story is vignette after vignette of Sampsell relating memories from his adolescence and young adult. They are not often connected, but underneath each story runs a current of trauma.
It’s true that Sampsell’s father was a despicable man, who does some absolutely horrible, unforgivable things. But nothing is every so simple, no person is truly evil, and Sampsell does not paint his father in a child’s unambiguous terms. His father is the kind of man that can abuse his children, but lovingly bury a family pet with tears in his eyes. Does Sampsell ever connect the ways in which he struggled, with finding direction and his relationships with women? Not explicitly, but that is the suggestion.
If the title is any kind of hint, this memoir is not necessarily for the faint of heart. Sampsell leaves no stone unturned, from tales of his first experiences with sex and pornography to drug use to the abuse he witnessed as a child. The structure of this memoir serves the heavy topics well, because the reader never dwells for very long in a certain memory, and Sampsell’s pacing is perfect. He keeps the tragedy of his life from outweighing the good memories, even in the structure of his memoir.
Here are just a few examples of the writing I loved so much in A Common Pornography:
“The next day, I called her and listened as she described to me what had happened. I felt hollowed out and light-headed. I pulled the suitcase out of the closet and locked my door as I heard her tell her side of things. I wanted to interrupt her and tell her about the suitcase [of pornography], to make her jealous of the photos and how much I liked them. About how fantasy was sometimes better than reality, which was how I wanted to feel when the heartache went away.” (120)
“I remember being really impressed about how the husband ran the family business with such an easygoing nature. He was always telling his wife that he loved her and called his son honey or sweetie. It was the first time I heard a dad call his son names like that and it caught me off guard, especially because I thought the son would protest or be embarrassed. But he wasn’t. They were a close family. Whenever I saw a family like that anywhere, I would watch them carefully, as if they were a rare species of animal. I would want to go and join them. Feel that unbreakable bond.
I remember thinking that if I had a son, I would call him honey.” (172)
“Even though they were never affectionate with each other when I was growing up and in the twenty years since I left the Tri-Cities, I guess they formed some kind of bond, or a truce that would keep them together forever. Maybe it was formed out of mutual stubbornness, or perhaps they were used to each other, even though terrible things had happened between them. Unforgiveable things. But maybe the unforgivable things were forgivable after all, for the sake of not being alone.” (215)
In a lot of ways, though perhaps Sampsell has more sadnesses in his life than most, it is perfectly ordinary. Sampsell’s story is not necessarily unique, but it is one that deserves to be told, and one I’m so glad I read. Reflective and emotional, but also fragmented, I don’t think this is a memoir that will appeal to everyone. But for me? I couldn’t stop reading it.
So go read this!: now| tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR
Special thanks to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.