Brian Broome Is His Own Man with Brian Broome | Crooked Media
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August 06, 2021
With Friends Like These
Brian Broome Is His Own Man with Brian Broome

In This Episode

Brian Broome’s dad used to threaten to hit him so hard he’d go to heaven — “punch him up to the gods” — if he didn’t conform to the ideal of Black masculinity. Broome joins to discuss his memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods, and rising above that threat, finding himself, and finding recovery. Then on this week’s Adorables segment, comedian (and fake judge) John Hodgman joins to tell us about his cat Lolo.





Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These. Brian Broome’s dad used to threaten to hit Brian so hard he’d fly into the atmosphere if Brian didn’t conform to his father’s ideal of Black masculinity. Brian is with us today to talk about the memoir that takes its title from that threat and turns it into something closer to a boast. It’s called “Punch Me Up to the Gods.” He’s here to talk about, among other things, growing up gay and Black, the pressure society puts on young Black men, getting sober, and following in the literal footsteps of James Baldwin. And then we have a wonderful way of closing the episode. A conversation with Judge John Hodgman about his gloriously empty-headed kitty, Lolo. Brian Broome coming right up.


Ana Marie Cox: Brian, welcome to the show.


Brian Broome: Hi, thank you for having me.


Ana Marie Cox: I was wondering if we could start off with a reading from the book.


Brian Broome: Sure, this is the very beginning of the book. It’s a story about a little boy, called the Initiation of Twan, and this is just a few paragraphs from that. [starts reading] I’m standing at the bus stop in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, on the Black end of town. It’s a hot but overcast summer day. To my left is a young man mesmerized by his cell phone, he laughs out loud periodically while staring into its depths and his thumbs fly like hummingbird wings over the keyboard. He’s dressed like all the other young men around here in the newest iteration of distressed jeans with dark white tennis shoes and a shirt with a sports logo emblazoned across the front. I notice him only because a little boy wearing an almost identical outfit in miniature is circling around and around his feet like a toy train, the toddler who is doing all the things toddlers do with their newly-found feet, pitches forward with full force onto the sidewalk, enormous toddler head first. The women around me gasp and so do I. Some of them take halting steps toward the boy. Pearls are clutched while we wait for the young man, who I assume is the boy’s father, to pick the boy up and tend to him. The boy’s wails are high-pitched and earsplitting. The child’s name is Twan. “Shake it off Twan” the young father says, glancing briefly down at the boy and then turning back to his phone. Twan sits down on the sidewalk, only to howl more loudly. The women around me shift their eyes from the child to the father and back again. Their worried looks are digging deep creases between their brows. They exchange disapproving glances with one another. The boy’s screams are now rattling his voice box and his mouth is open so wide that his little face appears to be tearing itself apart. As I watch the boy sitting on the sidewalk, I can remember what real crying feels like. I can’t remember what real crying feels like. I can only remember the tactics I employed to suppress it. Twan’s father picks the boy up off the ground and places him on the bus stop bench before turning back to the flickering lights inside his phone. Twan has no interest in shaking it off. “Be a man, Twan” the boy’s father says out of the corner of his mouth, eyes steady on his phone. Twan has no interest in being a man and his screaming continues. Twan’s father kneels down, grips the boy by the shoulders, and looks him straight in the eyes. “Stop crying, stop crying. Be a man Twan. Be a man.”


Ana Marie Cox: Thank you so much.


Brian Broome: You’re welcome. Thank you.


Ana Marie Cox: It’s a perfect place to start, it is the beginning of the book.


Brian Broome: It is.


Ana Marie Cox: And I wonder if maybe a good first question is to ask, what role does Twan play in this book?


Brian Broome: You know, Twan is a real person. You know, this really happened when I was catching a bus. And I think this real person out there somewhere doesn’t know that he became symbolic for me in terms of being a man in this culture, in terms of specifically being a Black man in this culture and the ideas around who you are supposed to be and how you are supposed to represent in public. The public-facing Black man is supposed to be strong and stoic and unemotional. You know, a tiger in bed, good at sports, you know—all these things that I grew up with these expectations, you know, that’s how to conduct yourself like a man. And I was none of those things. And so that’s kind of where the book jumps off is symbolic, I think a lot of Black boys in American culture who grew up with this idea that they are supposed to be masculine above all things, above all other things.


Ana Marie Cox: And this leads us right into another question, which is, why is the book called Punch Me Up to the Gods?


Brian Broome: This question, people ask me this question a lot. And, you know, having a memoir is very strange because people ask you, you know, people after they read it, they want to know, they want to dig deeper into, you know, who you are and why you wrote the book. And Punch Me Up to the Gods, and when people ask me this question, I have to tell them immediately, you know, no matter who they are, that my father used to punch me. You know, it’s a, it’s a strange thing. They think they’re asking like this sort of innocuous question, like, what does the title mean? And I’m like, well, you know, my dad used to used to punch me. You know, Punch Me Up to the Gods is kind of a, it’s a rewording of something that he used to say, which is like, I will punch you so hard as to send you back to God. And I think Punch Me Up to the Gods is kind of a challenge. Like, go ahead, do it, you know? And it’s not going to change anything. And I’m going to be right back, you know, the way I was before you punched me. So, yeah, that’s what the title means. I like to think of it as a defiant sort of challenge, you know. Punch me up to the gods.


Ana Marie Cox: In a way, to me, there’s sort of a triad of tension in the book. There’s you and your father, Antoine. Like these competing versions of Black masculinity, competing stages, all of you are in different stages and all of you are kind of in communication with each other.


Brian Broome: Mm hmm.


Ana Marie Cox: And I do want to talk a little bit about your dad. You know, his violence is a little extreme, let’s say. One thing I noticed is in his version of, you know what I guess gets called The Talk. You know in Ta Nahesi Coates’ memoir, he talks about his parents saying they were going to beat him so he doesn’t die: we’re going to beat you so that you understand, don’t behave that way because you’ll die. Your father says something different.


Brian Broome: Yeah, he says, you know, I would rather kill you myself than have a white person do it. And that was the message that I grew up with. And it was, you know, like Ta Nahesi Coates says, like it was this thing that I think a lot of Black children grow up with, like a strict and aggressive upbringing in order to keep you safe. You know, obviously, you don’t know that at the time. Like when you’re a child, you just think your parents are mean. But there is definitely a something in Black culture where, you know, I’m going to be as tough on you and as hard on you as you can because when you go out into the world, you know, white people are going to punish you for being Black, basically. So I’m going to teach you how not to fall outside the bounds of proper behavior because, you know, if you do the slightest thing wrong, you’re going to be punished for it.


Ana Marie Cox: It’s just the part, I’d rather kill you than see you—that’s the part that seems extreme.


Brian Broome: Yeah, I mean, my father, his version of masculinity was ownership. Like he didn’t love his children, he owned them. He didn’t love his wife, he owned her, you know? I mean, when he would say that it was usually in response to something that I had done, that was crossing that line of where I would be unsafe, you know. It was less of a threat and more of a warning, you know, because his belief was white people will kill you. And before I let that happen, I’ll kill you myself. So I really did take it. I mean, at the time when I was a kid, I took it as a threat. But as I, as I’ve grown older, I recognize that it was more of a warning.


Ana Marie Cox: The book does start off with you as a little kid at about Twan’s age, I’m guessing. No.


Brian Broome: I was older.


Ana Marie Cox: OK.


Brian Broome: I was older, like Twan was a toddler. You know, I think, I don’t, I don’t remember where I started off. I think I started off, I think I’m in, well, the first story starts off, I think, when I mean, like maybe the fifth or sixth grade.


Ana Marie Cox: And right away to me, you have an unusual sense of self-awareness. You’re just heightenedly aware of what everyone’s thinking about you and how you should behave.


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And you have a limited selection of models for that.


Brian Broome: Yeah. I mean, of I think that, you know. When you when you grow up, you know, African-American in this culture and I was being sent to a mostly white school, you do become hyper aware because you kind of like, you know, you’re aware of your blackness. And I was aware that I was different than, you know, many of my peers, my black peers. So I was just on the outside of an outside. So I was super aware of how I behaved. I was very self-conscious, like I just wanted to disappear into the background. But I found out I couldn’t do that just because of how, you know, because of racism doesn’t let you disappear at all. Homophobia doesn’t disappear. And I was just kind of weird on top all that. So I wasn’t able to disappear in even in my trying to disappear. I made myself a target in a lot of ways.


Ana Marie Cox: I think a story that that captures a lot of that is a story that you you have a chapter about being in a spelling bee.


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And then I want to ask you about this year’s spelling bee. But first, I want to hear about yours. I think it’d be good to get a sense of what has and hasn’t changed.


Brian Broome: Yeah, I was, I wasn’t very good at many things, I wasn’t very good at many things that people expected me to be good at, such as like sports. I was terrible. I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t I mean, there was nothing about me that was acceptable, except I was a really good speller, you know? I could see a word and I did a lot, I was a voracious reader, but I would see a word and it would just be implanted like in my head. And I sort of by accident, ended up, you know, in the school spelling bee. Well, I guess it wasn’t an accident. I thought, I thought it was an accident at the time. I wound up being in the spelling bee and I was nervous about it at first. But then as time went on, I was like, it was—I remember that story, the thing that sticks out to me about that story is that for just a moment in time, I felt like I deserve to be alive, like I deserve to take up space. Look at me spelling these words. And if you read the book, you find out how the spelling bee ends. But I remember, you know, being made fun of for being a good speller by my Black peers who thought that that was, that was, I was trying to be like white by engaging in spelling and writing and things like that, and also it didn’t fit in with the idea of what boys are supposed to do. You know? I think that idea is changing now but at the time, it was like boys are supposed to play sports. They’re supposed to be cool. They’re supposed to, you know, throw rocks and be little hellions. I wasn’t that. So the spelling bee was my time to shine. Like I was so, you know, proud of myself because I, you know, I had made it. And then, of course, you know, you know what happened. But that little girl, you know—young woman, I don’t know. How old is she? How old is she?


Ana Marie Cox: In the book?


Brian Broome: No, no, no.


Ana Marie Cox: Zaila her name is pronounced Zaila. And she’s 14.


Brian Broome: Zaila Avant-garde, 14 years old. Like that is, I jumped for joy when I, when I read that. I mean, and it’s not like she’s the first Black person to win a spelling bee, but she’s obviously this young woman who is like sure of herself. She’s also like a basketball star. She’s all the things that I couldn’t be, you know, growing up because I couldn’t play basketball—I desperately wanted to. And, you know, the spelling bee, obviously, you know, was my one moment to shine. I screwed it up. So I look at her and I feel tremendous pride. And I’m also jealous of her, like, so much. Like, yeah, I mean, she’s doing all the things that I wanted to do when I was a kid.


Ana Marie Cox: So I wanted to talk to you about how that particular story, again, sort of encapsulates a phenomenon that is attention throughout the book, which is that your own hyper self-consciousness, and then the white gaze on top of that, right? Like a line in that story that really stuck out to me was something you say about a teacher who looked at you so hard, was so sure you were cheating, you began to wonder if you were cheating yourself.


Brian Broome: Yeah. You know, I was I grew up in an environment where I wasn’t supposed to be smart. You know, smart was the last thing that anybody expected or wanted for me. And so this teacher was constantly accusing me of cheating and “who was doing my homework for me?” And, you know, and she said it so much, she said it so much that I really started to believe that, you know, studying was cheating. You know? I started to believe that I was somehow cheating and didn’t know it. And what’s interesting about that, too, is that, you know, I participated in a panel recently and there were other African-Americans on the panel and I found out, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard it, many, many Black students are accused of cheating. Just about everybody, you know, on this panel was like, yeah, that happened to me, too, you know? And I was you know, it’s, that was really kind of, like it was sad to hear but also I felt comforted to hear it, too, in that other people knew what I was going through, you know, at that time. So, yeah, I literally thought, like, what am I doing, like how am I, how am I cheating? Because she just said it to me so much and she grudgingly gave me, you know, good grades.


Ana Marie Cox: To me, one of the journeys in the book is you’re trying to find that self-definition, trying to find a way to see yourself that’s genuine, that’s authentic, that it is not just how people see you. Like you, you sort of keep looking at other people, Black people and white people, like, to help figure out how I should behave. Another line that I really loved was: I never knew what not to do.


Brian Broome: Yeah. I still don’t.


Ana Marie Cox: I was going to say, I mean, if you figured it out, like, please share.


Brian Broome: Yeah, I have, I have not I have not figured it out. But at that point in my life, you know, it was chronic. I’ve gotten less, I got a little less concerned about what people think I should be doing. But I mean, everybody I think everybody has that. You know, you, you want to please people to a degree, you know? I mean, there are some people that I know who just don’t give a damn. But I’m still looking for, you know, self-definition. And I, I try to find it through writing. I try to find it through other things that I enjoy. You know, after you go through, I think after you’ve been an addict or after you’ve got, after you’ve been in active addiction, right, you really do have to play catch up. You know? When you’ve spent so many, many years like just drowning, you know, your personality drowning, you know, who you are, trying to numb, you know? So you kind of have to, you have to figure out who you are and I’m still in that process. I don’t know that it ever ends.


Ana Marie Cox: Oh, I have so many thoughts on this, one is I’ll confess something, which is I tend to start in on Guest’s books cold. I like to just not know that much and just dive into the book. Um, it’s more of a journey of discovery for me that way, if you like. And I don’t have expectations or few expectations. So I was reading your book, and I was hearing you describe your childhood and I was like, I wonder if he’s sober [laughs] because you describe something that I’ve just heard a lot in the rooms, and I haven’t heard as much from other people, which is this everyone else got the textbook that I didn’t get.


Brian Broome: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I definitely felt that like growing up. I still feel it, you know, today, you know, like, how’s everybody else doing so well and I am just this complete fuckup, you know? Like how, how is that? You know, I really did believe like that I was somehow deficient because, you know, I mean, for many, for many reasons, but, yeah, it felt like how is everybody else so much, so able to handle life, you know? And it just all feels so overwhelming to me and I thought that there was something wrong with me. Come to find out that, you know, a lot of those people aren’t handling life as well as, you know, they presented, you know? And I’ve, and I’ve learned, you know, we are all, we’re all struggling to some degree. You know, life is not easy. It’s great, but it’s not easy. And, you know, but I always thought that everybody else was just like smooth sailing nd I was the one who was on rough seas all the time.


Ana Marie Cox: For me, I feel like it’s a combination of realizing that, yes, everyone has stuff and don’t compare your blooper reel to their highlight reel. Right?


Brian Broome: Right. Right.


Ana Marie Cox: But also, I remember having lunch one day with a group of people, a woman who kids were in treatment. And she was asking me questions about what it’s like and stuff, and I told the story about being sort of, a little bit similar to you, this crippling sense of not knowing what to do. Of feeling, I actually—and I think you may have say this, too—like literally there was a book I didn’t get. Like, and how crippling that was for me and how desperate I felt. And she said, oh, and then and someone else at the table said, oh, well, everyone feels that way. And this woman was like, no. The other person at the table actually started going to AA like two months later. [laughs]


Brian Broome: Wow.


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.


Brian Broome: Well, God bless her.


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.


Brian Broome: You know, because—


Ana Marie Cox: I mean, she has, I mean, everyone has problems, but I have discovered there are people who don’t think—and God, I mean, God, I literally mean God bless them—but there are people that don’t have that quirk of that self-consciousness being—I don’t want to say this for you, but for me, I mean, I think, um, paralyzing? I’m trying to think of the right word for it.


Brian Broome: It’s, there are roadblocks for me.


Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.


Brian Broome:: Like, you know, I have a friend, a very good friend. We’ve been friends since I was a kid. And she just has this uncanny ability to just get it done. Like, you know, she doesn’t seem to have like a lot of self-doubt. She doesn’t seem to have, like, self-esteem issues. She just is in the world exactly the way that she wants to be. You know? She’s not afraid to stand up for herself when the time calls for it. She is sensitive—I’m like, you’re perfect, how do you get this way? But she’s like, you know, I have my days. I have, you know—but I think for the addict, it’s you know, oftentimes we’re trying to drown trauma, you know, and there’s something about, there’s something that may have happened in our lives that made us feel just completely unworthy from the outset. And that may have been that trauma, or they may be two separate things. But I know that I have always felt like like I’m doing it wrong, you know, and if I’m doing it so wrong all the time, why do it at all, you know? And so that was when I, when I would pick up, you know,


Ana Marie Cox: I feel like the journey that I’ve had, is not that I’ve completely gotten rid of that hyper self-consciousness that is usually negative, but that it is also that I just know how to kind of walk through it a little more.


Brian Broome: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, my motto is just do it Brian. Just do the thing and deal with what happens, you know, later. Like, I, you know, I still have struggles with anxiety. I still struggle with depression. But now I know what they are, you know? They’re not life defining and that there is not, you can get to the other side of it. And those were the moments when I used to pick up as well, which was like what I just felt like when anxiety was tearing me apart or when I was so, you know, that was so low I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of a reason to go on. Like, now I know, now I know what that is, you know, and I know that they are not permanent conditions and I just need to get through them, like you say.


Ana Marie Cox: Usually when we’re engaging in some kind of self-harm, you know, what, it is, we’re always just trying to deal with what the world has put on us, you know, everyone’s just trying to cope the best they can. Some of us have healthy coping mechanisms, some of us have healthy coping mechanisms and some of us don’t.


Brian Broome: Some of us don’t. I’m trying to—


Ana Marie Cox: They work for a while. Like booze and drugs worked. They did. They were, it was great.


Brian Broome: Absolutely. I say that to people all the time. Like, you know, they’re like, are you, are you supposed to say that? And I’m like, no, I’m not supposed to say it. But they work. They worked until they didn’t, and then when they didn’t, I still kept doing it, you know? So yeah, they were, they were definitely effective for a time.


Ana Marie Cox: We wouldn’t do them. Come on. Like we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t helping in some way, at least at first. Right?


Brian Broome: Yeah. I recently had a conversation with somebody who was, who’s not an addict and doesn’t really know much about addiction, but, you know, he was saying like, oh, that must, you know, you were like high all the time, it must have been fun. Are you kidding me!? Like, being an addict is the least fun thing I can think of. Like, there’s nothing fun about it. I find that is a common, you know, thing that people do, they conflate drugs and alcohol with partying because that’s the only context in which they know it. You know? They go to Vegas and they do some drugs and they drink and they leave Vegas and they don’t do it anymore. But I’m like some of us are trying to stay in Vegas, you know, all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re partying in Vegas, you know.


Ana Marie Cox: I’m interested in talking about, you know, the ways we we deal with what the world has dealt us because you have some revelations about your father in the book. One line, I really, one line I really loved is you were talking about how, you know, the world must have dealt him, first of all, living under white supremacy, and then anxiety, probably depression—and the line I loved is “there is no thing on earth more dangerous than a man who refuses to accept he is carrying those loads—”


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: “because everyone else has to carry them for him one way or another.”


Brian Broome: Yeah, I believe that to be absolutely true. I think. You know, as men, you know, and we are just taught that anything that you feel other than maybe anger or lust are the wrong feelings. The tender feelings are for girls. And, you know, there’s a million names that we call each other when we step outside those lines: sissy, punk, pussy—you know, I mean, there’s a million. Men have a million ways to insult each other when we are not acting like men. But I find that one, when you keep pushing those emotions down, those hurt feelings, those, the sadness, the depression, the feelings of rejection, whatever—they are going to come out one way or another and they’re going to come out in a way that may affect you, but they always will affect somebody else, you know? Whether it be suicide, whether it be, you know, causing harm to someone else, you know? It’s not, it’s not natural, you know, this idea that we put out there for the way that men are supposed to behave. It’s not a natural thing. It is something that we’ve adopted for God knows what reason, and it is unhealthy. I also think that it is unhealthy because now, what kind of life is that? You know? When you’re not feeling things, you know? That’s to me that feels like, you know, somebody hands you a coloring book and you just do nothing with it, you know? You got crayons and a coloring book and like, you just do nothing, and your images all just end up black and white. You can be coloring in your life all the time with feelings and emotions and silliness and sadness and, you know, so many things, that our culture tells you not to touch the crayons. You know? It’s just it feels like an unfulfilling life to me.


Ana Marie Cox: And it may seem like a bit of a silly metaphor, but all you brought up so I’ll use it, which is if you don’t use those crayons, someone will take them away.


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And that’s sort of what happened with your father in terms of, like his emotional range, it feels like. Because you write some beautifully about him comforting you some, like when you were a kid.


Brian Broome: Yeah, I think that there was a window where I got to be, you know, precious to him. But then after at a certain point, like and very early, you know, it was time to start acting like a man. As I say, like with Twan, it’s time to start acting like a man. So, you know, and eventually, you know, life takes all of our crayons away. You know, nobody gets out, nobody gets out with crayons. So why not, why not try to leave the most, you know, embrace all of the feelings as opposed to, you know, just shunting the feelings off to point where they’re going to, at some point they’re going to affect you, you know, in one way or another. I remember one time I was walking down the street and there was a man and a woman having an argument. And she was like in the house and apparently she had, like, locked him out and it was like a big old situation, and he was just crying and he was begging her to, like, let him back in, like, they can talk it out. And I remember his friends had come over, like two or three of his friends, and the only thing they were focused on was to get him to stop crying. Shut up, you sound like a bitch, stop crying. Right? And he was, I mean, it was uncontrollable for him. Like I mean, he just, he loved this woman inside of this house and that’s, nobody was comforting him. Nobody was saying, like, you know, let’s go get a cup of coffee, come back to my house—they were all trying to get him to stop publicly crying. I remember that that stuck with me, that he’s not allowed to feel what he’s feeling right now. They’re going to shove it down to the point where he hurts himself or hurts her, you know?


Ana Marie Cox: And do you want to talk a little bit about what wound up happening with your father? With those Black and white crayons.


Brian Broome: Well, I just feel like my father, because of the roles that he thought he was supposed to play in this life did not experience much joy in life. And I feel like, he died—in some ways, by his own hand. His health started to fail and he didn’t do anything about it, you know? I think that’s because he was depressed. He didn’t have, you know, joie de vivre. He didn’t feel like, you know, there was anything really worth hanging around for. So I think that had he grabbed those crayons and had reached out to people and developed relationships that were deeper, you know, that that wouldn’t have happened, you know? He died pretty young.


Ana Marie Cox: There’s a scene when you’re by his deathbed that’s I’m going to say ironically affecting to me, because it’s a little bit about how you’re searching to feel something . . . for him.


Brian Broome: Mm hmm. You know, at the time, I didn’t feel anything for him because our relationship was very distant, right, and he didn’t really know me and I didn’t really know him, right? At the time my father died, I mean, he knew nothing about my life and I didn’t know him. But now I know, now I have a broader picture, you know? That I’m older, you know, now I know what he was going through, and it makes me feel incredible love for him. To many people, my father comes off as the villain in this story, but, you know, I think that he was afraid. I think that he was anxious. I think that he was depressed. I think that he didn’t know, he didn’t have the tool kit to work through those emotions. He wasn’t, he wasn’t allowed to access it, as many men aren’t, you know, are told they’re not allowed to access it. They’re not allowed to work through these feelings. But, you know, I, you know, I have cried for my father, you know, many, many, many years after his death, you know? In writing this book, I cried for my father, because he wasn’t a bad man. I think he was a man who was a victim of this culture of manliness, and how empty it is, you know? And I think a lot of, he had an incredibly abusive father, which I also found out while writing this book, you know, just violent and many, many, many, and emotionally abusive. So I think that having that knowledge helps me understand him a little bit more.


Ana Marie Cox: I don’t want to leave your mother out.


Brian Broome: My mom, first of all, is she’s doing well. She was with me at a book signing the other night, and she was like, oh, my God, she’s a celebrity. You know, my mother, I think is like a lot of women of her time, you know, was undone by patriarchy. You know, she, and as you say, like we find out things about our parents, you know, when we get older. And it was a, and it was a revelation to me to find out that my mom didn’t just spring into existence after I was born, you know? Like she was there for a while and she had hopes and she had dreams and she had things that she wanted to do with her life, and then she made one mistake, you know, and that just changed the course of everything for her. I think she handled it the only way she knew how. That’s the thing about parents. You know, we may resent them, but most of us—for most of us, not all of us—our parents are just doing the best they knew how, you know? And then you, then you like what happens is you reach that age, you know, when your parents were parenting you, you know, like and you realize, like, I don’t know what I’m doing, at 51. They couldn’t have known what they were doing. They were just winging it day by day, you know. And so my mother is an incredibly sweet and shy woman, but you don’t want to fuck with her either. You know. She’s very ladylike. The thing about my mother, she’s very gentle. She’s a, she’s a typical sort of churchgoing old Black lady, but she’s seen some stuff, you know, and she’s lived through some stuff and she’s lived through some heartbreak. And I, and, you know, the reason that I think I was so bookish when I was a kid was because she was constantly reading. She loved like Agatha Christie novels and Stephen King and Kean Koontz. She read all this really spooky stuff. I don’t know why, but she always was reading. And I was, I always wanted to be reading with her, too. So she’s just a really a great person.


Ana Marie Cox: I think this is a good place for us to take a quick break. We’ll be right back.


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: You’re a wonderful storyteller.


Brian Broome: Thank you.


Ana Marie Cox: A lot of the chapters in the book I can really hear, you know, and I wonder if you wouldn’t mind telling at least an abbreviated version of one of the most impactful—I hate using that word, that’s not really word—stories for me, really got to me, which is the story of you and basketball playing, or not playing, as it were.


Brian Broome: Yeah. You know, as I say, like if there was a strong sense growing up for me that I should be athletic. I think it’s one of the things that is put on Black boys. You know, if you are not a Black boy who is good in sports, what good are you? You know, I think our culture teaches that, where we’re not valued for our smarts and our creativity and our sensitivity or whatever. I think a lot of times when we’re talking about Black men and we’re talking about, you know, basketball, football, you know, and so I thought that I, there was something wrong with me, you know, and I ended up meeting a guy who I just thought was the bees knees. He was foreign, he was beautiful, he was, you know, all these things.  Like it’s like he walked out of, you know, the TV show Dynasty. Like, he had an accent and—


Ana Marie Cox: How old were you then. What, what’s . . .?


Brian Broome: This is like in my twenties, my early twenties. And I couldn’t believe that he was talking to me like he came up to me and he seemed interested and you know? And as I say, I avoided sports like the plague, and then I found out that really the only reason he was interested is me because he, you know, growing up in Switzerland or wherever he was from, like was fascinated by American basketball. He was turned on by Black athletes. And so he asked me if I played basketball and I just lied my ass off and told him I did and I was just sort of stringing him along for weeks and eventually, he just called me on it. He called me on, he brought a basketball to our date and took me to a playground and wanted me to play. And I realized he didn’t want to want to play with me, like he didn’t want to play basketball with me. He wanted me to sort of play basketball for him. And what happens? I think you have to buy the book to—[laughs]


Ana Marie Cox: Although I think people can sort of—this is not a fairy tale.


Brian Broome: It’s not a fairy tale. It’s real life stuff. Like, you know, what happens is, you know, I think that was the most interesting part of that story for me is that I literally thought that some sort of like basketball genii would spring to life inside of me like under pressure, you know? But what happens, you know, again, you have to get the book to get the full calamity of that situation. But, you know, it’s one of those things, and there are a lot of things in the book that, you know, that were sort of painful at the time but when I look back on them now, I mean, it’s hilarious. You know, I look back on that moment and I laugh, you know, but at the time, I thought I was going to die. And who can’t say that, you know? And I hope, I hope that I infuse the book with that, with that humor, as well as the more sort of poignant emotions.


Ana Marie Cox: And it’s so representative of your entire journey.


Brian Broome: It is. You know, I spent a lifetime just trying to be what everybody said I was. And I’m still am now in the process of trying to figure out, you know, who I am.


Ana Marie Cox: In the introduction to your book, the author says Broome doesn’t wait for the materialization of the perfect—sorry, I bumped the microphone—Broome doesn’t wait for the materialization of the perfect self. I thought about that while I was reading your book because I think there’s a lot of bravery in writing a memoir and being vulnerable at all. But to me, the bravest part of it is knowing you’re not done yet.


Brian Broome: I don’t think we’re ever done. I don’t. I think the greatest mystery you’ll encounter in your life is you. You know, and I don’t think, you know, I think that we get to the death bed or whatever, and we still haven’t figured it out. Like but it’s worth the journey. It’s worth, you know, trying to figure out what it is, the joy, trying to love people, you know, as hard as you can, you know, and just embracing it. You know, I think James Baldwin said something about like, you know, death is the only truth we have. And because of that, you know, we should be embracing our death in this way that embraces life, you know? So I try to do that. I’m not out here embracing life every day. Someday I just lay on the couch eating crackers, you know? But I try to keep that in mind, you know, and I hope that for me personally, it leads to a more fulfilling experience, you know?


Ana Marie Cox: Like I said, so for me, some of the bravery is knowing you’re not finished and yet putting a period on the last sentence anyway,


Brian Broome: Oh yeah. That book is not finished at all. I mean, I look at it now and I’m like, oh, my God, it’s a work in progress that happens to be out in the world, you know? Because I think as a writer, I mean, you know, it is like you just never finished. You can always be, you can always change it. You can always be—I avoid picking the book up now because I’m like, oh, why didn’t I do this or why didn’t I say this or whatever. I mean, but at some point you just have to go OK, you know, it’s done. Usually it’s your editor telling you you’re done.


Ana Marie Cox: Or a deadline. It’s a deadline really.


Brian Broome: It’s a deadline. Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: And the book does end before you really get into recovery. You talk about it some, but most of your journey in the book is before that.


Brian Broome: Yes, yes, yes.


Ana Marie Cox: So I wanted to talk a little bit about that. I mean, we’ve mentioned it a bit before. Can I ask you what your bottom was?


Brian Broome: Oh, God, um.


Ana Marie Cox: Sometimes there’s not a specific moment, you know.


Brian Broome: There were lots of them. There were lots of them. I mean, the one that comes to mind is that I woke up in a doghouse and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean an actual house that a dog lives in. And I went to my local favorite watering hole, I met this guy. We were both just completely blasted drunk. I had never had sex without being drunk and you know, we did that sort of drunken, disgusting, like oily make out thing at the bar, and then we were going to go back to his house and he said, I live within walking distance, which is a blessing, because if we got into a car at that point, that would have just been the end of it. But we were walking and we just kind of like fell into this person’s back yard and there was a dog. And the dog didn’t bark or anything, it was weird, it was very weird. I don’t, I mean, it’s all very fuzzy, but the next thing you know, I, like I blacked out and I woke up the next morning in, you know, in a state of undress, in this person’s backyard, in the doghouse. So bizarre, right? Now, that’s not the story. That’s part of the story. The story sort of, ends where I was telling a friend of mine about this and we were sitting at lunch and I was telling him the story, and I was telling it like, ha ha ha. Isn’t that ridiculous? Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that—and I remember his face. He didn’t laugh, like at all, you know. Because first of all, he’s a friend that I’ve told many stories like this over the years. He didn’t laugh at all. He didn’t think it was funny. And he said, you know, you’re a Black man and you were in a white neighborhood, and if somebody had looked out and seen you getting out of their doghouse and shot you, like, nobody would ever say boo about it. Like nobody would, like you’d be another, you know, thing that we’re marching about.  And I was like, ha ha. And he was like, it’s not funny, and he said, you know, if you don’t get help for this, like, we’re just not going to be friends anymore because you’re going to die, one way or another. If you don’t get help, like, that’s it for us. And I took that to heart, and that’s what got me, you know, it’s one of the things that got me into rehab. Because a lot of people, I was getting those messages from a lot of people. And so I thought, I’ll just go to rehab to shut everybody up. I’ll go for a week or two, whatever, and then I’ll come out and I’ll just drink normal, like normal people drink. You know, that was my plan. And it didn’t work out that way. But, you know, ending up in a doghouse, I think that was again, that was just one story of many sort of like bottoms that I hit that collectively came to me when I was sitting in rehab. You know, that how many bottoms there had been. And just what a horrible person I was, you know? I mean, being an addict is not ennobling. It doesn’t make you a good person. I was a liar. I was a thief. You know, I was many, many just unsavory things. I was using people as a means to an end. Like that all came to me in rehab. So, yeah, I just tell the dog house story because that’s the one, I think that just springs to mind. Both because of its ridiculousness and because of the look on my friend’s face when I told him that story.


[ad break]


Ana Marie Cox: I am not breaking news here: I also went to rehab. That’s not the breaking news, also not the breaking news. You know what? There are a lot of white people in rehab. Rehab tends to be . . .  unless you’re to some place that’s focused—I actually want to talk about mental health centers that are focused on the experience of Black people. But traditional rehabs, if you are there, they tend to be really white.


Brian Broome: Yeah. There were, I think, I’m trying to think, you know, I don’t remember how many people were in my rehab, but I think there were four, out of all of us, there were like four or five people of color. And that doesn’t mean all, that doesn’t mean Black people, you know, there were just four or five people of color in my rehab. Very white.


Ana Marie Cox: And I have talked to other people of color, their experience of getting sober sometimes, especially with the 12 steps, 12 step centered stuff is, I mean, they face some, they face the challenges you might expect in a program that was created by rich white people for, at the time, you know, other rich white people. Again, not breaking news. Bill Wilson was a rich white guy.


Brian Broome: Yeah. You know, I think that I was lucky, like in the, in my rehab, like I could, I could still feel, I just sort of ended up bonding with the other people of color there. It wasn’t as if we were like, OK, let’s stay away from white people. It just it just felt like their concerns were different, you know, and and also, there’s a thing about being in rehab where you’re all brought pretty low. You know, everybody kind of knows that they’re there for the same reason, so, you know some of the racist stuff like disappears. It was the, what’s really been astounding to me is the treatment of people of color versus white people. And if you look at it, I wrote a whole piece about it, about just how nationally we view addiction, you know? Crack was not a national health crisis, you know, but opioids are. And there is only one reason for that and that is because, you know, fresh-faced white children are getting addicted to opioids and, you know, nothing, it didn’t, when, you know, people of color were dying and cities were being ravaged by crack cocaine, that wasn’t a health crisis. That was just the bad character of Black people, you know. Now, when we talk about opioid addiction, we are talking about it with a new voice. You know, these people are victims, you know of, they’re suing the company that makes the, you know, the opioids. And like, you know, it’s just a different way that we view the value of life in this country. You know, in this country, unfortunately, there is a view that the life, the lives of white people are more meaningful and important than the lives of, particularly, specifically Black people.


Ana Marie Cox: You would really have to not pay attention to not see it on a policy level. But I’m also curious about the experience of those two states, of those two kinds of addicts, on a granular level, because you write a little bit about that in that Guardian piece.


Brian Broome: Yeah, I, in that piece, you know, I had a really great talk with the woman here in Pittsburgh who runs a mental health facility called Vision Towards Peace. Her name is Erica and she’s amazing. And, you know, she talked to me about how when she counsels white people, like they already know about how much more capital in the world they have, then she does. So she’s the one counseling them, but they kind of already, she can feel it. They already know that they are better than she is in the real world. I think that that happens, you know, a little bit in the rooms, like I’m very specific about what rooms I go to, I’m very particular about rooms I go to. You know, there are meetings where I know that as a Black person, I wouldn’t be welcome. In this city. You know, there are class divisions in meetings where there’s certain, there’s a certain neighborhood that’s near me and I wouldn’t touch that meeting with a ten-foot pole because it’s all, you know, sort of wealthy white people. So, yeah, you find the same things in the rooms that you find in society in general. There are people who like—you know, I remember going to a meeting one time and a young woman had brought her mother with her. This is a woman who was, you know, opioids were her drug of choice, and she brought her mother with her and we were sort of going around the room sharing and doing that whole thing. And her mother shared that her daughter wouldn’t be in the position she was if it weren’t for the Mexicans?


Ana Marie Cox: Well!


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: I wonder who she voted for.


Brian Broome: Yeah, so it was, I mean, and I just watched this thing unfold. Like she took all of the responsibility off of her, you know, little princess, you know. These are white people, she couldn’t believe that maybe her daughter, you know, had some responsibility for her addiction. But it was all, it was all the Mexicans who were bringing it into the country and her daughter was just, you know, an innocent bystander who got hooked on heroin, you know, because of the Mexicans. So there are people who still have these ideas about race and who is the good race and who is the bad race, you know? I see it all the time, and that’s why I say I’m very particular about what rooms I go into.


Ana Marie Cox: There is a conversation happening in the rooms of 12 step programs about race or at least in the room that I go to, thank God.


Brian Broome: Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: We are having those discussions.


Brian Broome: That’s good.


Ana Marie Cox: I personally believe that white supremacy is not compatible with sobriety.


Brian Broome: No. It is not.


Ana Marie Cox: But it’s really interesting to me to think about this idea that one group is victims, one group is criminals or despicable or whatever. And to me there’s sort of a problem there in that it’s very—if you’ll forgive me—black and white thinking. Because I know white people that have become addicted to opioids, rich white people who become addicted to opioids, and I will tell you that victim status is not helping them.


Brian Broome: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I think that—


Ana Marie Cox: I don’t think the other status helps, either. That’s the thing about black and white thinking. Right?


Brian Broome: Right, right. You know, for me, like, I, I don’t think, you know, I have friends who are still struggling as well nd I see that their thinking is what keeps, keeps them actively addicted. You know, it is somebody else’s fault, it is never their responsibility. And I don’t think I would have—and I’ve been sober now for eight 1/2 years—and I don’t think I ever would have gotten here, if I didn’t look at, take a good long look at myself and decide that I have some, I have some responsibility in this too. I could, I could blame a million different things. And it doesn’t make those things invalid, you know, but, it’s a, it’s now my problem, you know, and now I have to be the one to like to fix it. Life isn’t fair like that. I think that they, I think that they expect some sort of fairness.


Ana Marie Cox: Sorry. Excuse my out loud laughter. [laughs]


Brian Broome: Yeah. I mean, I think that the, at the heart of that sort of like mentality around addiction, you know, that they think that there’s some, there should be some sort of fairness and it’s just not fair. Like, yeah, you’re addicted, and there’s probably some really fucked up reasons why you are, but now you’re addicted. And what are you going to do about, you know?


Ana Marie Cox: The saying out of the big book of AA is: resentment is the number one offender. Resentment is what keeps us using, at the bottom, you know.


Brian Broome: Yeah. You know, and while I still resent plenty of people, don’t get me wrong.


Ana Marie Cox: Oh, you’re not supposed to stop entirely. At least that’s my understanding, or else I’m in trouble. [laughs] But you work through it better I think is the point. Anyway.


Brian Broome: But it’s a it’s an everyday thing. You know, I wake up every day and I say I’m not going to use today, and I’m going to find some stuff to do. I’m going to write something or I’m going to call a friend or, you know, whatever. Like I. I really do understand now what my friend is going through right now with their addiction, and I try to be there, but, you know, sometimes you have to distance yourself because you’re, you know, you’re trying to stay sober, too.


Ana Marie Cox: So, you know, speaking of resentment and addiction, one of the things that I think happens for a lot of us—and I’ll just bring it back to me—happened for me is the discovery of a new set of emotions, you know, like those colors. Like that I was playing with or coloring with the 16 box rather than 164 box. And my personal discovery was a lot about the stuff that was going on underneath my anger, and so it really resonated for me in your book, there’s a lot of anger in there. And justifiable. Anger at white supremacy, anger at how you’ve been treated—but I wonder for you what’s underneath the tip of the iceberg that is anger. What else is going on?


Brian Broome: Oh, boy, you know. I think that way down deep, like I do like myself, you know? Way down there somewhere, and I think that the anger comes when people are telling me that I shouldn’t for some reason. So I think what’s underneath the anger is just a desire to just become myself. And I hate it when people keep trying to prevent me from doing that, in whatever way they choose to do it. You know? But underneath, it is also shame, you know, I still feel a great deal of shame about things that I probably shouldn’t even be ashamed about, you know? It was a shame that was put in me, you know, by outside forces. There’s a lot going on underneath. I don’t think of myself as, I don’t think of myself as a particularly angry person—


Ana Marie Cox: Well, I want to maybe just give that some context. When I say there’s a lot of anger in the book, I feel like it pops up in places where it’s very, like I said, resonant for me. And a lot of it justified. Frustration, maybe also a better word for it.


Brian Broome: Frustration, I think is—


Ana Marie Cox: But there’s a there’s a feeling that I identified with it of like “what the fuck is going on! Why is this happening to me? Why did you do that?”


Brian Broome: Right. I think that, you know, in writing the book, I try to be, for the most part, I try to understand other people and their motivations, you know? I don’t always pull that off, but I try to understand other people and their motivations. And I think through doing that, I try to get to my own motivations as well. That helps me spread the anger out a little bit more so it’s not, you know, so concentrated on one person or one event or one circumstance, you know? So underneath is just this guy who’s just trying to life. I’m trying to get all of my crayons out of the box and like people keep putting them back in and I think that’s what makes me the angriest, and, er, the most frustrated, I’ll say. Yeah.


Ana Marie Cox: The book ends with you taking a journey in the footsteps of James Baldwin.


Brian Broome: Yeah. Oh, that was so great. I want to go back there so bad. You know, I think that one of the things about rehab is that it’s quiet. There are times when it’s quiet, and I think as addicts we don’t, we hate quiet or, you know, I don’t know, I can’t speak for everyone addict. I just speak for myself. Like I hated quiet.


Ana Marie Cox: You can speak for me too. [laughs]


Brian Broome: OK, good alright. I hated being alone, you know, I hated quiet. Because quiet is when your demons attack. You know, if you’re quiet and God forbid you don’t have access to drugs and alcohol, that’s really terrible, you know. But I always kept a constant fray around me of like noise and rehab took that away. Because, you know, at nighttime it’s quiet and you’re just there, there’s no TV to distract you. You’re just there, all strung out. It’s like you and your thoughts. And that journey was a lot like that, you know? I had never done anything like that before. I had never been anywhere—


Ana Marie Cox: Where did you go?


Brian Broome: I went all—I went to Europe, I went to France. I went to Germany. Yeah, France and Germany. But France was the destination. I went to a beautiful place on the French Riviera by myself. And there was noise, but I was by myself. There was nobody to, like, distract me. I was sort of looking at life, you know, and I remember thinking, this is a lot like rehab. Like here I am all strung out, you know, what am I going to do? Only this time I’m not you know, I’m not confined to a space. I could go anywhere. What do I want to do? It was very healing for me. And I hope to, I hope to go somewhere else by myself again. I’m never going to, I’m never going to go anywhere with anybody again. [laughs] Maybe. One day. But like, it was really very cathartic. And I wrote, I wrote a lot of the book, while I was there as well.


Ana Marie Cox: Did you find anything out about yourself?


Brian Broome: I found out that I’m capable. You know? That I’m not such a big, huge fuckup as I think I am. That I’m able to deal. I mean, you’re traveling by yourself. You know, lots of things can go wrong. You know, you meet some strange characters, like things don’t always work out. I learned that I am perfectly capable of handling things and I don’t have to fall to pieces when the least little thing goes wrong, and flog myself and self-immolate every time I do something wrong. I can just keep moving ahead. I can keep moving on. That’s what I learned.


Ana Marie Cox: You’ll hear my full interview with comedian John Hodgman in a few weeks. But he is so delightful, I wanted to treat you to his Adorables segment a little early. Stay tuned to hear more about his cat Lolo on this week’s With Adorables Like These.


Ana Marie Cox: John, thank you for sharing your Adorable with us.


John Hodgman: Thank you. I have one adorable. And one, and one pet, a cat. Though it is possible that I could have two cats, and only one adorable, as you well know.


Ana Marie Cox: Could you please give us the name of the animal adorable and describe?


John Hodgman: Our cat is named Margalo, which is not an anagram for Mar a Lago. She was named after the bird in Stuart Little. We call her Lolo. She is part Maine Coon cat, but beyond that, we don’t know. We know that she has that Maine cat in her because she’s got fur between her paws. And her primary quality is she’s really not very smart. And I’ve had a lot of cats in my time and they tend to be fairly clever, but what is so adorable about Lolo the dumb dumb cat, is she is really dull. She stares into space vacantly, and I have seen times when she will go sit under a coffee table and then stand up and hit her head on the coffee table. No cat I’ve ever witnessed has as this little spatial awareness as Lolo, the dumb dumb cat. It’s really, it’s really fun to be around.


Ana Marie Cox: How did your adorable come into your life?


John Hodgman: My wife, who is a whole human being in her own right, was getting her hair cut. And the person who cuts both of our hairs fosters rescue cats. And Holly showed Katherine, my wife, whose a whole person in her own right, a picture of this cat she was fostering. And it was just known to Katherine that we would be living with that cat for the rest of our lives. There was just an immediate iPhone connection. So we took we took the cat in.


Ana Marie Cox: What’s the most you’ve gone out of your way to cater or spoil your adorable?


John Hodgman: Um, I was the only one who bought Lolo a Christmas present this year. I, I am, we celebrate Christmas in a secular way and no one got her a present and I didn’t at first either. And then I noticed that she seemed a little annoyed by it, because she’s not intelligent, but she is spiteful. She’s a cat after all. And she just seemed annoyed that we were opening these presents. So I went and I got this little soft cat cup, like a little stuffed cat bed but it’s very high, high walled. It looks like a cup, fleece cup, from a from a cat store in Blue Hill, Maine, where we spent part of our time. And I brought it back and my whole family laughed and laughed and laughed at me, saying she doesn’t want a Christmas present and she’s too, too huge to fit into that thing, anyway. I said just you wait. And a week passed, nothing happened. And a week passed, nothing happened. And then one day I came back and I don’t know how she did it, but she got herself into that thing and was so happy. And both she and I had vengeance on our whole families. Is there anything better? Is there any better way to honor Christmas than that? Vengeance upon our whole family!


Ana Marie Cox: What is Lolo’s funniest or weirdest habit or behavior?


John Hodgman: We used to think that even though she’s not smart, that you had a secret genius quality because when she saw a bird outside, she would make a very special noise, which you probably know. Which is: [imitates a cat chattering at a bird] and we thought that she was the only cat who did that. And since then I’ve learned through Instagram and other sources that it is, it is actually a pretty common, though mysterious behavior, that when cats spot prey, particularly birds, they vocalize in a very distinct way, that is nothing like their regular meow.


Ana Marie Cox: And we here, of course, believe that all animals are emotional support animals.


John Hodgman: Yeah!


Ana Marie Cox: And how has Lolo in particular helped support your emotions, supported you?


John Hodgman: There’s I mean, we’ve all discussed it. You know, we, there are four of us in our family, Catherine, the human that I share my life with, and then two rapidly aging adults that live in our house and demand things from us, and we all agreed we could not have gotten through lockdown, which we all shared, or at least this phase of the pandemic, without being able to turn to Lolo at different times and just say: look at you, dummy, you’re so dumb. I don’t know why, it’s so it’s so terrible. She just looks at you so placidly back, and I’m like: you don’t even speak English, do you?


Ana Marie Cox: What cause would your adorable support?


John Hodgman: [blows a raspberry] I don’t even know, Ana. This is, you know, like you come across truly un-opinionated people, just bland, un-opinionated people—that’s what Lolo’s, she’s like: I don’t know. I think she would, I think she would support the cause of treats for her. That’s the one thing she cares most deeply about.


Ana Marie Cox: Could you possibly do her voice?


John Hodgman: [trills, chirps] “Me, me, me, now, now, now.” That’s, that’s our game. I say, when would you like these treats? She’ll go: now. And we laugh and laugh. It’s like: later or sooner, later or now, would you say? “Now.” [laughs] We have fun.


Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. We are production of Crooked Media, our senior producer is Alison Herrera, and Izzy Margulies is our booker. I lied last week when I said that episode was Jordan Waller’s last episode. This is her last episode. I continue to be very sad to see her go. Please take a moment to remember, if you haven’t recently, that we are all still in the middle of an ongoing long-term trauma, that humans aren’t built to endure. If you’re still tired all the time, that’s because you’re still doing a lot of work just to survive. Take care of the people around you if you can, and even more important, take care of yourself.