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  • Written by Kambri Crews
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  • Written by Kambri Crews
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Burn Down the Ground

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A Memoir

Written by Kambri CrewsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kambri Crews

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List Price: $14.99

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On Sale: February 28, 2012
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-345-53220-6
Published by : Villard Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this powerful, affecting, and unflinching memoir, a daughter looks back on her unconventional childhood with deaf parents in rural Texas while trying to reconcile it to her present life—one in which her father is serving a twenty-year sentence in a maximum-security prison.
 
As a child, Kambri Crews wished that she’d been born deaf so that she, too, could fully belong to the tight-knit Deaf community that embraced her parents. Her beautiful mother was a saint who would swiftly correct anyone’s notion that deaf equaled dumb. Her handsome father, on the other hand, was more likely to be found hanging out with the sinners. Strong, gregarious, and hardworking, he managed to turn a wild plot of land into a family homestead complete with running water and electricity. To Kambri, he was Daniel Boone, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Franklin, and Elvis Presley all rolled into one.
 
But if Kambri’s dad was Superman, then the hearing world was his kryptonite. The isolation that accompanied his deafness unlocked a fierce temper—a rage that a teenage Kambri witnessed when he attacked her mother, and that culminated fourteen years later in his conviction for another violent crime. 
 
With a smart mix of brutal honesty and blunt humor, Kambri Crews explores her complicated bond with her father—which begins with adoration, moves to fear, and finally arrives at understanding—as she tries to forge a new connection between them while he lives behind bars. Burn Down the Ground is a brilliant portrait of living in two worlds—one hearing, the other deaf; one under the laid-back Texas sun, the other within the energetic pulse of New York City; one mired in violence, the other rife with possibility—and heralds the arrival of a captivating new voice.

Excerpt

Chapter One


KINGPIN tugged on the belt loop of Mom’s skintight jeans,  and waited for her to look down and acknowledge me. I wanted money to play Space Invaders in the bowling alley arcade, but she was con- centrating on reading the lips of a balding  deaf man who had two hooks for hands. Despite having no fingers, he tried to communicate with  American  Sign Language (ASL), scraping the curved metal  claws  against  each other  as if he were giving a Ginsu knife demonstration.  My mother was an expert lip reader and kept her eyes focused on his mouth  to make sense of the flurried flashes of metal;  she bobbed her  head up and down to let him know that she understood.
I stared  at the  beige plastic   attachments   that  encased each wrist and  wondered  how  they  stayed  connected to  his  fleshy stubs. Did he take them off at night?  Were they suction  cups or drilled into his arms? I shuddered  at the thought  and watched how he made the hooks  open and close.
Was  he born  that way or did he have an accident? After  con- templating both scenarios, I decided it would  be better if he were born without  hands. That  way he wouldn’t know the difference. I couldn’t imagine  that the world  would  be so cruel as to take the hands  of a grown  deaf man.
As I stared  at his signing, his hooks brushed perilously  close to my  face, causing  me to reel  back in fear. I had a brief  horrify- ing image of running for my life being chased by him, with his grunts and wheezing  breath hot on my neck. But Mom, who made fast friends with everyone she met, was perfectly at ease.
I yanked harder  and smacked her round  bottom. “MAAAA- MMMMAA!!!”
“What?” Mom signed by waving her hand with the palm side up, exasperated at my persistence. “Can’t you  see I’m talking?”
“Need quarter,” I signed  back.
Mom could partially  hear when she wore powerful  hearing aids—one of which was always on the fritz, in need of a battery or screeching like brakes crying  for new pads—but  they were useless in the din of crashing bowling pins. For all practical purposes, she was as deaf as every other grown-up  gathered in the dingy Tulsa bowling alley smelling  of fried food, cigarettes, and beer. They  had traveled here from  all parts of the country  to com- pete  in  the  1978 National  Deaf  Bowling Tournament,  where Mom was  scheduled  to  defend  her title as  women’s  singles champion.
This  event was the type of activity the Deaf community  cre- ated so that members could mingle.  In the days before the Inter- net and mobile  gadgets, the best way for the Deaf to socialize was old-fashioned  face-to-face   time through  clubs, travel groups, cruises, and sporting   events like fishing and bowling  tourna- ments. While some  fathers  may have gravitated toward fishing and hunting, mine liked bowling because he could smoke, drink, and carouse between rounds.   Mom liked it because  she was damned  good, with a  164 average. Usually her winnings were enough  to pay for our trips with  a little profit  to boot.
The National Deaf Bowling Association was founded in 1964, but the women’s singles had only been around for four  years and Mom  was already a force to be reckoned with.  She loved to brag about how she was knocking  down pins while  knocked up with me.   She’d bowled three days prior to my birth and was back in the alley three days later.
The wooden lanes and alley lights may as well  have been the stage and footlights  of Broadway. She was a star  and I was proud to say she was my mother.
Mom  answered my plea for a quarter by pantomiming  empty front  pockets and signing, “I’m out. Go ask your daddy.”
Without hesitation, I turned  on my heels and skipped to the bowling  alley lounge, where I found my father leaning against the pool table holding  court among a small  gathering of onlookers. He held  a cold can of Coors Light and  a lit Kool in one hand and was signing with his free hand.
“Two deaf people get married. The first week of living together they find it hard to talk  in the bedroom after they turn off the lights.”
I caught Dad’s eye and  he  gave me  a quick wink as he gave the ASL sign for “wait”  by wiggling  his slim fingers palm side up, revealing the calluses  from his years  as  a construction worker. Unlike my mother,  Dad didn’t speak  at all other  than  an occa- sional shout of a name  or profanity  aimed at  a Dallas Cowboys game. When  he did, his voice came out  in an oddly high  pitch with  too much air behind it. He couldn’t read lips as well as Mom and didn’t move his mouth much when he signed.
I let him finish the joke that he didn’t bother censoring,  even though I was nearby. I had watched him tell it at least  a dozen times. As he signed, the ash on his cigarette grew longer.
“After  several nights of misunderstandings,  the wife comes up with a solution. ‘Honey, we need simple signals in the bed- room at night. If you want to have sex, just reach over and squeeze my breast  once; and if you don’t  want  to  have sex, squeeze it twice.’
“The husband replies, ‘Great idea. If you want to have sex, pull my dick once. If you don’t want to have sex, pull it a hundred and
fifty times.’ ”
His audience erupted into  a variety of loud grunts  and squeals of laughter. One waved his hands, while another signed ASL let- ters, “H-A-H-A-H-A.” Dad chuckled  at himself with  a slight curl of his upper lip, making a dimple appear in his right cheek. He took   a drag  of his cigarette and the  long,  crooked  ash finally broke  off, landing  on the  worn, booze-stained   carpet.  A few flakes floated onto his dark blue jeans and he sent them flying with one forceful  burst of breath. He inspected his appearance and brushed  off the remaining  ashes before he asked, “What’s wrong?”
I signed back,  “Need money.”
“Okay, but don’t waste,” he warned before making  a big  pro- duction out of retrieving his wallet and fishing through its con- tents.  I’d   always thought  of my father  like a  deaf   Elvis.  Tall, muscular,   and handsome  with dark  hair combed  back  into a modern  pompadour, he could charm the skin off a snake.   His friends were  caught in his magnetic spell and kept  their eyes trained on our exchange. Dad seized the opportunity to remain in  the  spotlight.   He  grabbed  my shoulder   and whisked  me around to face his fans.
“Do you know my daughter? Her name K-A-M-B-R-I.” In ASL, it is customary  to introduce someone by first spelling  out the name letter by letter followed up with a shorthand sign, a “Name Sign,” to refer  to that person.  A person’s Name Sign often uses the first letter of their name in ASL incorporated with the sign that indicates  a physical  or personal characteristic, such as a big smile or a goatee or,  in my  case, my temperament as a baby.
Dad signed  each letter slowly so they had time  to soak in my unusual  name. He then  drew  a tear on each of his cheeks using the middle finger of the ASL letter “K” to show them the sign  he and Mom  had created for me.
“Why tears with a ‘K’? Because  when  she  was  a baby she never cried. No. Never. Always laugh, laugh, laugh.”
He patted my head and smiled. I looked back at the adult faces staring   at me and  forced  my lips into a  smile—not  quite the hyena Dad was describing—as  I waited for the money. As was always the case when  I was introduced  to deaf people, the first question was, “Hearing?”
Dad signed, “Yes, hearing.”
I sensed   a twinge   of disappointment in their expressions, a typical reaction when deaf friends  learned I wasn’t one of them. I understand it now,  but  as a seven-year-old  kid I found myself wishing I had been born  deaf, too. Then I would belong to the tight-knit Deaf community   instead  of being  just an honorary member.
“Very  smart,”   Dad   bragged.    “Good girl.  Nickname  ‘Motor
Mouth.’ ”
You know you talk a lot when  your  deaf family nicknames you Motor Mouth.
Dad passed me a crisp  bill, and my eyes widened when I saw it was  a five. Five bucks  would  get me an icy Dr Pepper, greasy crinkle fries, and plenty of games in the arcade.
“Share with your brother,” he signed with a warning raise of his brow.
David  could fend  for himself. Besides, I reasoned, he was three   and  a half years  older  than  me and better at most  video games. One quarter lasted him a  hell of a long  time;   surely he didn’t need any more money. After  a quick thank-you  to Dad and a half-assed  wave to his friends, I left the dark, smoky  hideaway and headed straight for the snack bar.
In the game room,  I found David dominating Space Invaders, as usual. He swayed and ducked, jerked  the joystick,  and repeat- edly  bashed the  fire button   as  a crowd  of admiring onlookers grew around him. He must have been within reach of the ma- chine’s high  score, a feat I’d witnessed him achieve once before.
“Totally rad!” a kid shouted,  giving  David  a slap on the back.
 
“Yeah, totally!”  said another with a  high-five. My brother   ac- cepted the  accolades from his minions, who always flitted  be- hind him, with  a smug smirk.
“That was so neat, man!”
A freckle-faced kid challenged,   “Yeah, but can you reach the
end?”
“Video games  don’t end,” another kid stated with  certainty. “Oh yeah?  Well then how far does it go?”
We  weren’t  totally  sure. Each  round became  progressively harder so it was difficult  imagining a game  lasting forever. But if you were winning, why would a game  just quit? David seemed in line  to be our exploratory leader, a twentieth-century Christopher Columbus.
I smacked  down  a quarter  on the glass screen with a  crack, claiming my place as the next player in line, and waited for him to lose.
“Go away,” he demanded. “You’re gonna fuck  me up.”
David was skinnier than  a dried stick  of spaghetti and, at ten years old, already as tall as many adults. Like me, his hair was as white  as hotel sheets with skin browned from frolicking  every day in the blazing South Texas heat without a drop of sunscreen. David returned  to concentrating on his game, so I ignored his command and lingered  long enough to see him lose  a turn.
“See!”  he yelled  as he gave a quick  jab to my arm.  “Look at what  you  made me do!”
I yelped in pain and poked the lump  where he had knuckle- punched me.
“I told  you  to go away,” he hissed. “Stop watching  me.”
The End was apparently not in sight  as long as I was present. David’s cronies  sneered at me. I was jeopardizing my brother’s attempt at immortality, so I retreated to the Pong machine. When I ran out of quarters, I sprinted   back to the lanes,  where  the hook-handed man was stepping up to bowl. He had replaced his right hook with a special  contraption   that  gripped  his bowling ball. As he charged down the alley, he used his left hook to whack some lever or button that sent his ball barreling  toward the pins. I had no idea how many he knocked down or if his aim was any good. Did it matter? A deaf man with  hooks for hands was bowling.
When  the bowling was finished, my parents’ night  was just getting warmed up. Every night  out to a  Deaf event ended the same  way. My mom  and dad stood  gathered in a circle   of deaf family  and friends  for what seemed like an eternity while  I did absolutely nothing,  waiting  impatiently  to go home. Drink after drink crossed the bar—more Coors Light for Dad, Seven & Sev- ens for Mom—as  Deaf community  gossip  was dished with a
flurry of hands.
Unlike other kids absorbing  adult chatter, my “listening in” required   eyes and dedicated attention.   I was tired  and desper- ately wanted to go, but  getting  a deaf person  to leave any social engagement was harder  than eating spaghetti  with  a knife.
Hoping my parents would notice, I made  a dramatic produc- tion of pushing  together three plastic chairs to serve as a make- shift bed. I draped  Dad’s denim  blazer over me and waited for them  to call it a  night. I almost  wanted to walk  up to the alley manager and tell him to flick the lights on and off, the best way of telling a group  of deaf people it was closing time. Although I was  too big  to be carried  around  like a baby,  when   my father roused me, I pretended to be fast asleep. He scooped me up and carried me to the car. I buried my face in his neck and breathed in his trademark  scent of Jovan Musk and beer and nicotine.  My parents,  never extravagant with  accommodations,  unloaded us at a roadside  motel  for the night.
The next  afternoon,  a local news reporter arrived at the bowl- ing alley to cover the final day of the tournament,  creating a buzz. A slim strawberry  blonde, my mother  was easy on the eyes. For the first few years of her life, she could hear without  the help of hearing aids. This meant she could speak more clearly than most of her hearing-impaired peers, making her the unofficial ambas- sador to the hearing world. Naturally,  the reporter chose to inter- view her.
Mom was scheduled to close the annual  ceremony by per- forming  several songs in ASL, accompanied  by a live  band. More thrillingly, however, the concert was going to be shown on televi- sion.
There weren’t many occasions for Mom  to get gussied  up, so when the opportunity  presented itself she went full glitz. Seeing her  leave the motel  room  dressed  in three-inch  heels and a shiny, short-sleeved maroon wrap dress  that clung to her tan skin and showcased her enormous  breasts, you’d have thought  she was headed to New York’s Studio 54 instead of a run-down bowling alley. At thirty-one, she was in the prime of her life and the center of attention. She loved every minute  of it.
The reporter chatted with my mother, who was standing near the  band, two guitarists and  a drummer,  who were setting  up their instruments at the far end of the establishment.  The cam- eraman turned on the bright  spotlight  and with a quick   toss of her  head and flash of a smile,  Mom was “on.” Before the reporter could  even  ask a  question,  Mom declared,   “We are   deaf  not dumb.”
To this day, the phrase “deaf and dumb” is the most offensive insult to a deaf person.   Mom   wanted to make  it clear that just because a person   couldn’t hear didn’t mean they lacked intelli- gence.
I stood  directly  behind  the  cameraman and admired  how proudly she stood,  with both shoulders   back. Even now, as a woman in her sixties, she carries herself with the same poise and grace at a backyard barbecue as at a wedding.  She  gestured  to a table of merchandise  like a TV game show model presenting an item up for bid. The table had items  available for purchase, as- sorted T-shirts and handcrafted buttons proclaiming, “Deaf and dumb  SMART.”  They rested  alongside  an  abundance of cro- cheted knickknacks, jewelry, and assorted keepsakes decorated with hands in the shape of the ASL sign for “I love  you.”
The reporter  nodded politely.  “You are  performing a  concert tonight. How can deaf people enjoy  music?”
“Even though  we can’t hear,  we can feel  the  vibration.” She simultaneously  signed as she spoke. “We dance  to the  beat of  our own drummer.” She flashed a wide  smile that revealed two rows of straight, white teeth, perfect except for  a chip  in the front from a childhood  spill on  a tricycle.
“Deaf people  enjoy   music. They just don’t  hear  the  lyrics,” Mom  explained. That’s where  she  came in.
My mother  loved music  and incorporated it into  every aspect of her life. Deafness ran in her family.  She was born to two pro- foundly deaf parents,  and had a younger  deaf sister named Carly and a few deaf aunts  and uncles. By having some hearing ability, it was as if she were determined to hear enough music  for all of them and listened  to it with a junkie’s  fervor. Anything would do. Hard-rocking Led Zeppelin played alongside  the kooky,  light pop of Captain & Tennille.
 
Mom  collected hundreds of vinyl records. She also subscribed to Billboard’s Hot 100 and music  magazines  that published  lyrics so she could understand  the  words.  Every Sunday  afternoon, she piled  a thick  stack of 45s onto the hi-fi console turntable, the most impressive piece of furniture we ever owned, cranked the volume,  and cleaned house while singing  to her favorite songs. Mom couldn’t carry  a tune  in a bucket.   But it didn’t matter: Our weekend  ritual was  so much  fun with Mom vacuuming  and David and me sharing  the dusting  duties.
I plopped down  cross-legged,  front row and  center,  in the crowd that formed in a semicircle  around Mom  and the band. I slapped my  hand over my  puffed-up  chest as they began to play the national anthem.
I mouthed  along with her signing  as the song swelled to its triumphant end, majestically  demonstrated by Mom’s sweeping movements,  “. . . and the  home . . . of the . . . BRAVE!”  I ap- plauded wildly  while  the Deaf showed their approval by raising their arms and wiggling  their fingers as  if  they  were  tickling God’s belly. No one could sign a song  in ASL like Mom could.
Mom accepted the praise with a curtsy  and thank-you  before she continued. “This next song is my favorite. It’s called  ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood  Mac.”  The music started  and stirred within her. She  grooved in place to the opening  chords.


Now  here you go again,
You say you want your freedom . . .


Mom was flushed from the heat of the spotlight,  the thrill of performing,   and the  few  cocktails  she’d been   drinking. Dad leaned against  a wall  in the  back of the crowd, sipping  a  fresh Coors Light. He smiled with a slight smirk as his wife relished the limelight.  I shared his thought: She was beautiful.
From where I sat, my mother  was the envy of anyone in that stale Tulsa bowling alley. But the truth was, this trip to Oklahoma should have been our  last  as a family. Dad had cheated on Mom again—this time on New Year’s Eve—and pretty much everyone there knew it except for David and me. Fed up with his philan- dering, Mom  was leaving him. She’d hastily packed everything we owned into  a rented  storage space and in the days before we set off for Tulsa, she had checked us into an apartment in the bad part of Houston that charged by the week.
David and I didn’t know the purpose of our trip to Tulsa. We were unaware that Mom  was going to break the news to her par- ents about her plans to divorce Dad. By participating in the bowl- ing tournament, she was also  fulfilling  her obligations   to the Deaf community.  She was the reigning  women’s singles  cham- pion, after all.
My father was just along for the ride to see his friends and keep up appearances for Mom,  though he had a hard time stay- ing on the straight  and narrow.  He couldn’t help but party hard and flirt, assuring anyone who questioned his antics that he was going to be single  soon.
“Christy left me,” he told one woman. “She wants  a divorce,” he told another. He wasn’t lying, but his comments resulted in something  Dad hadn’t anticipated. He had set the rumor mill swirling and several  women  approached Mom with the same blunt question: “Are you and Ted getting   a divorce?” One  thing Mom  passed down to me was her disdain  for the malicious  gos- sip that seemed to infect their  circle of friends  in the Deaf com- munity, as  if  there  was  some  sort of perverse satisfaction  in circulating  the misery of another. Being  married  to my father made  her hypersensitive  to  the  damage that  whispers could cause.
“Who told  you  that?” Mom defiantly responded. “Ted,” they answered.
She confronted  Dad with the gossip.  “Why did they ask me that?”
“They’re jealous of you,” he signed. “They don’t want to see us together.”
“But they said you told them  I left  you.”
“No! They lie. They’re trying  to break us up and cause prob- lems.” My  father could spin shit into  gold. Once he told a lie, he committed to it, and with  each retelling it became his truth. He grabbed Mom  by her waist and smothered her neck and cheeks with kisses, smiling as he cooed in his softest  voice, “I luh yooo, Chrisseee. I luh yooo.” There was his dimple again.
Some kids might  have been embarrassed  at seeing  their par- ents be affectionate, but I never was. I loved watching them kiss and cuddle. I was too young to understand  my father’s motives and see that he was playing upon Mom’s weakness: her determi- nation  to appear strong, in control,  and poised like the woman her fans  adored. That  night,  her pride got in the way—she knew he was  a cheater, but  by staying   with him she  could prove the nay-saying gossips wrong. So she took him back, on one condi- tion.
Kambri Crews

About Kambri Crews

Kambri Crews - Burn Down the Ground
Kambri Crews owns her own PR and production company specializing in comedy. A renowned storyteller and public speaker, she has appeared at the Moth, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and SXSW Interactive. She splits her time between Astoria, Queens, and Cochecton, New York, with her husband, comedian Christian Finnegan.
Praise

Praise

“Surprisingly funny and uplifting, this touching account of a deaf family living on the edge is raw and candid. Crews writes beautifully, honestly, and with deep affection about her conflicted relationship with her father and her love for her family, in good times and bad.”—Paula Froelich, author of the New York Times bestseller Mercury in Retrograde

“Kambri Crews is an exceptional writer. Her voice is fresh, fearless, and singular—with an ability to craft a story you will never be able to forget, but also won’t be able to stop talking about.”—Mandy Stadtmiller, columnist, New York Post

“A riveting American tale, delivered with clear eyes and great love. In the face of incredible hardship, Crews endures.”—Jane Borden, author of I Totally Meant to Do That

“Addictive and heartbreaking, Kambri’s memoir demonstrates both true grit and a sense of humor that exists only among the very sharpest of those who have survived extraordinary childhoods.”—Julie Klausner, author of I Don’t Care About Your Band

“Imagine living in a tin shed, growing up as the hearing child of deaf parents, seeing your father attack your mother, or sneaking gum into prison. Those are just half of the challenges Kambri Crews faced growing up. Burn Down the Ground is a story of triumph in the face of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and, worst of all, heartbreakingly powerful love.”—Annabelle Gurwitch, co-author of You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up

“In my eyes, Kambri Crews is a heroine. It takes a person—a survivor—with a miraculous magnitude of strength to be able to see the human side of her father in spite of what he did.”—Julie Rems-Smario, executive director, DeafHope

“Kambri Crews is a survivor, and a fiercely witty one. Her memories of growing up with two volatile deaf parents in the backwoods of Texas will inspire, delight, horrify, and amaze you. The matter-of-fact way in which she describes traumatic and painful events puts me in mind of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. Read this unforgettable account of an American family’s tragic explosion and the tough-as-nails young woman who walked out of the ashes to tell her tale.”—Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous

"As well-paced and stirring as a novel.  In her fluid narrative … Crews neither wallows in self-pity nor plays for cheap black-comedic yuks.  Instead, this book stands out for what matters most: Crews’ story, bluntly told.” —Elle Magazine
 
“[An] unsparing yet compassionate account of [Crews’] dysfunctional childhood and the father who both charmed and victimized her family… Poignant and unsettling.” —Kirkus
 
Harrowing…What Kambri has done is face the truth with an unflinching eye… a remarkable odyssey of scorched earth, collateral damage, and survival… intensely readable.” —Publishers Weekly
 
“[A] vivid and affectionate depiction of life with two deaf parents.. like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Burn Down the Ground interweaves the toughness and laughter of an impoverished Texan childhood… Her story is a testament to her resilience, and to the power of recognition and forgiveness to heal childhood wounds.” —BookPage
 
 
“[Crews] renders a compelling testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
—Booklist
 

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