Cameron Esposito is no stranger to public life. With a successful stand-up comedy career and forays into television as an actor, writer and producer, she is one of the few queer women in comedy to have maintained a large mainstream platform. In her new memoir, “Save Yourself,” Esposito writes with her signature deadpan humor, but her story is much more nuanced than your typical celebrity memoir.
Some of the stories here will be familiar to longtime Esposito fans, but those stories make up only the smallest fraction of what is a refreshingly honest and moving account of Esposito’s childhood and young adulthood. During these crucial years, she moves from an absolute embrace of Roman Catholicism to staunch rejection, from a “cross-eyed” kid with an eye patch to popular high schooler to a woman reveling in her queer identity while building a comedy career.
The middle sister in a line of three, Esposito writes lovingly of her relationship with her siblings throughout her life. As they each grew up and inhabited different spaces within their family and their gender, the reader gets a sense that they were all integral to each other’s becoming.
The story of “Little Gay Kid-oweens … when you can dress exactly as you feel comfy with no backlash” most resonates through the rest of the book. The idea of dressing up is central to the queerness of this narrative. Queer kids, who become queer adults, dress up in all kinds of ways, as experimentation and expression, and often as a way to hide.
Esposito recounts the way she “dressed up” as a good Catholic girl in high school, wearing femme clothes and dating a jock. She developed an eating disorder at age 11 as a tool of control over a body she couldn’t understand. After the “dirt-smudged boygirl zone of my youth,” she writes, “Eleven was the age my self-hatred became sentient.” Later, Esposito recalls, “Nothing about my body felt right to me, even after all the massively unhealthy steps I’d taken to transform my body type from rectangle to stick.”
“Save Yourself” also chronicles a series of romantic relationships, and the ways the relationships and sex itself helped Esposito learn about herself and the world.
Learning more about her body spurred a self-understanding in Esposito that led to healing. But “Save Yourself” doesn’t rely on easy resolutions, relegating all problems to the past, and She is unafraid to examine her own mistakes and flaws: the time she cheated on her girlfriend, the desire for adoration. She does this with striking empathy for herself, and allows emotion to flow on the page. “I basically always feel at some deep, deep level that I am a burden and my emotions are a burden and everyone would prefer I joke from a distance than be a nearby soft slug with feelings,” Esposito writes of her career. “I thought shininess would get me adoration and that adoration would feel like intimacy without risk. Comedy made me feel shiny.”
But perhaps most compelling is the story of Esposito’s breaking point with the Catholic Church. Previously devoted to the “left-wing part of Catholicism — liberation theology — that’s all about justice and Cool Jesus,” Esposito believed in the good parts of the church, even as she was realizing how much her queer identity was demonized by it. When, as a student at Boston College — which, until a year after Esposito’s graduation, had a nondiscrimination policy that did not cover sexual orientation, and which failed to prohibit discrimination due to sexual orientation in a 2005 revision — she heard about the sexual-assault scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, she began to feel disgusted.
“It broke my heart, seeing the church the way it really is,” Esposito writes. “As an abuser. … As a bulldozer that decimates and has decimated communities, cultures, and countries for the duration of its existence.” And yet, she notes, “Catholics can do good in the world. … I was trying to be one of those people. Until I wasn’t.”
When describing a trip to Rome with a girlfriend, Esposito comes full circle, writing tenderly about intimate sex just steps from Vatican City. It “kind of sounds like an active [screw]-you to Catholicism, but it wasn’t like that. I honestly wasn’t thinking too much about the Pope.”
And in the end, this is perhaps the book’s main thesis: Whatever a true sense of God is, and whatever you want to call it, it’s not about pain and oppression. It’s about connection with other people. As the global community hurtles through a particularly painful period, this is perhaps the most important thing to remember.
“Save Yourself” by Cameron Esposito, Grand Central Publishing, 240 pp., $27