‘Freak of Nurture’ by Kelli Dunham
There’s something you’ll get from Kelli Dunham’s book of essays that other comedians’ books don’t always include: heart. In Freak of Nurture (Topside Signature), Dunham offers a wide array of comedy, storytelling, observations and advice. Having spent portions of her life as a nun, a house boi, a volunteer childcare provider in Haiti, an emcee, and a registered nurse, there’s no shortage of life experience to spill on the page.
Some of her essays will read like her stand-up comedy material. In “The ABCs of Adventure in Gender,” she shares dozens of episodes of confounding people’s love of the gender binary, getting mistaken for a prepubescent boy, a drowning boy scout, a lost child, and Clay Aiken. Her punchlines are sweet and humble. When she discovers an internet meme using her photo and the caption “Dave Matthews with boobs,” she Googles a picture of Dave Matthews and has to concur: she does kind of look like Dave Matthews with boobs. Her comebacks are always noteworthy and hilarious: when rescued on a white water rafting trip by a boy scout troop and forced to spend the rest of the river run on their raft, one boy ventures to ask her which troop she’s from. “A drag troupe, okay?” Dunham huffs.
Many of Dunham’s essays read like transcripts of a comedy routine—you can practically hear the pauses for laughter—and others read like those hilarious, tell-it-again-please stories that some people have. While an entire collection of these choppy anecdotes would be one thing, the strength of Dunham’s collection is the diversity of its essays. She’s partial to themed lists and short pieces, and some of the writing is cute satire: Dunham parodies the children’s book Alexander and the No Good Terrible Very Bad Day, retelling it from the perspective of a repressed, kinky queer nun. Other essays slip easily into memoir-like long form, and these are where Dunham and her big heart shine.
In her romantic life, Dunham falls in love with a fabulous queer woman who happened to have a fatal bout with cancer. A few years later, Dunham falls in love with another fabulous queer woman, the late Cheryl Burke, and loses her to complications from Burke’s cancer treatment. It’s a kind of show-stopping tragedy that many writers—and most comedians—would clamp tight about, but when Dunham gets real, it’s the most eloquent and effective writing of the whole collection.
In “Pudding Day,” she narrates the whole chronology of her relationship with Heather, who died after a long battle with cancer through assisted suicide, with Dunham and a host of loving queers and partners and friends and family present. “Lulu The Cat Says Screw You” is equally as wrenching, sharing her loss of Cheryl Burke through the only inheritance she gets in the wake of her death—Burke’s stubborn cat Lulu. Comedic relief is never far from Dunham’s reach, though. It’s her teenage nephew who wryly observes about the cat-inheritance, “That’s the most lesbian thing in the world.”
It’s one thing to be funny, to share anecdotes and jokes about being a gender queer in the world, about how appalling the media coverage of the 2009 earthquake in Haiti was, or what it’s like to navigate being a big ol’ homo at Thanksgiving dinner. But Dunham’s gift is that she goes beyond funny. Her writing can be dynamic, generous and sharp, especially in the longer essays where she stretches her anecdotes into whole scenes, where the human heart of her experiences beats strongly. Dunham’s conversational tone will welcome any reader, whether they come for the laughs, the loss, the queerness or the altruism that Dunham shares. The book’s title comes from some hate mail Dunham receives, calling her a freak of nature. “You don’t know me,” Dunham writes, “you don’t know my family, or you would know I am a freak of nurture.” She means it as a pun on the nature/nurture debate, but its meaning multiplies throughout the collection. No one can nurture life, love, queers, friends, jokes or family the way Dunham can. She’s freakishly outstanding.
Freak of Nurture
By Kelli Dunham
Paperback, 9781627290012, 202 pp.