I tend to think of memoir as a somewhat serious genre, lending itself toward the charting of a life via chronology, with moments of intimacy and confession along the way. There are exceptions to this gravitas, of course, such as Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, but it is rare that I set down a memoir and remark on its vitality. Comedian Cameron Esposito’s new book Save Yourself has landed on my shortlist of memoirs that blend interiority and laugh-out-loud wit. Her writing is insightful and generously open, and her voice leaps from the page.
The book has its weaknesses, most of which appear in the early chapters. Primarily, there is a sense that Esposito is not confident in how she wants to tell her story, and it takes some time for her style to settle into a groove. There are occasional gimmicky lines, sentences that land with a ba dum tss of the snares and cymbals. When describing a childhood eye problem that left her with one eye rolled completely to the side so that all you could see was the white, for example, Esposito writes, “When my dad got home I was blissfully running in circles in the front yard…AND I HAVEN’T BEEN STRAIGHT SINCE.” (Esposito is a lesbian.) Another early chapter has a greatest hits compilation of childhood Halloween photos that, while amusing, has no counterpart later in the book once she enters her teenage or adult years.
Yet, even in these early chapters, when the jokes came in all caps with a hint of a “gotcha!” I found myself laughing. Esposito is an excellent comedian, and that natural humor is effective even when it’s hitting the reader over the head. The prose, thankfully, smooths itself out over the course of the book. Esposito remains an energetic writer throughout, but the humor is subtler and she delivers it with fewer capital letters. As a reader, I preferred this more vulnerable and reflective version of Esposito. It is also in these chapters that she explores her realization that she is a lesbian, dates her first girlfriend, comes out to her parents, and builds her comedy career. She is open about the mistakes and fumbles she makes along the way.
The book is imbued with the stress, anxiety, joy, and revelation that come with discovering oneself, especially when one’s identity is at odds with the surrounding systems, as was the case for Esposito. She was raised in a strict Catholic family, attended a Catholic private school, and went to a Catholic university, Boston College, where she majored in theology and feared the discovery of her queerness. “I didn’t witness anyone being expelled for being gay, but I also knew zero openly queer students among the school’s more than fourteen thousand undergraduates and graduates,” she writes. Sexual orientation was a notable exception to the school’s non-discrimination protections.
Esposito’s journey from unaware to closeted to out is messy and it is strong. She comes out to her college best friend, who tells her she will go to hell for being gay. She comes out to her parents who try to convince her to take a break from college and its corrupting influences and take her to a therapist whose approach verges on conversion therapy. But Esposito marches on. She returns to college and joins an improv group. At the end of her senior year, Massachusetts becomes the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and Esposito and her first girlfriend are there at the city hall to watch queer couples marry.
Many storylines have happy endings in this book: Esposito finds professional success in a field she loves; some of the people who rejected or feared her queerness evolve in their thinking and apologize. But the path is complicated, a credit to Esposito’s willingness to show her own flaws. Even after coming out to her parents and distancing herself from the church, Esposito attends pro-life protests. After graduating from college, Esposito cheats on her first girlfriend with another woman, hiding both relationships from the other, and then another in a one-night stand at a friend’s wedding. “I learned how to hide and lie as a survival mechanism,” Esposito writes. If not for therapy, The L Word, internet porn, and a number of other influences, she adds, “I might still be making the same mistakes. Now, instead, I get to make different ones.”
Esposito also writes about the event at the heart of her excellent comedy special “Rape Jokes”: date rape. This literary telling is a rare joke-less chapter in the memoir, which packs a particular punch given that, for years, Esposito tried to pass the story off as a funny thing that happened. And for years, her college friends had laughed at it. It was only when she told the story to her fellow comics, a less cloistered audience, that Esposito realized what was so very not funny about that night. While there is a particular pain to naming it as rape, there is also clarity and a sense of relief that comes with finally seeing the assault for what it was.
A question lingered throughout my reading: When a comedian writes a memoir, whom is it for? The people who have already seen her special, or the people who are not yet privy to her story? In the case of Save Yourself, long-time fans will find many stories they’re already familiar with from watching “Rape Jokes” or other shows. Some might wish for fewer repeats, but for others, perhaps revisiting the stories in a broader, longer chronological context will be a welcome deep dive. For those who don’t know Esposito’s comedy work, it is all new and interesting and relevant.