A Tell-All of the Soul
Actress Mary-Louise Parker gracefully illuminates her personal and artistic growth in “Dear Mr. You”
By Bliss Bowen
An enduring maxim suggests that people enter our lives to enlighten us with lessons we need to learn, like unconsciously summoned guides through the universe and our own psyches. It springs to mind while reading actress Mary-Louise Parker’s surprising book “Dear Mr. You,” published last month by Scribner.
Parker’s writing is sculpted with the same edgy emotional acuity and humor that distinguishes her performances. A typical “celebrity memoir” would reveal feuds or romances behind the scenes of shows like “Weeds” and HBO’s “Angels in America” (for which Parker earned Emmy and Golden Globe Awards; in 2001 she also won a Tony for her star turn in David Auburn’s “Proof”). But this ain’t that, not by a refreshing long shot.
To be clear, Parker details sexy episodes in her past with relish, and she unloads about men in her life. But she declines to name them. “Dear Mr. You” is only a “tell-all” in how it illuminates Parker’s prickly, soulful evolution as an individual and artist. (In that respect, it is second cousin to Rosanne Cash’s “Composed,” which similarly eschewed dishing on famous loved ones to instead focus on the challenges and rewards of an artist’s life.)
Parker, 51, adopts an epistolary format, writing 34 chapters or “letters” to correspondents who are not all readily identifiable. Some are even imaginary, like the object of “Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter”: “If she has given you children remind yourself every day of the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth words in this sentence. … Take her hand. Notice how like a piece of art that is.”
“Dear Risk Taker” vividly evokes hearing her own teenage “congenital melancholy” and yearning in the (Springsteenean?) music of a leather-jacketed loner who drives a banged-up car to abandoned amusement parks.
“Dear Movement Teacher” thoughtfully traces the shame, anger and grudging growth spurred by a disliked teacher: “The drama faculty wanted us to find artistic ‘neutrality.’ … I tried but couldn’t even fake it. It’s a speed I don’t offer on my gearshift. I was not issued the particular tool kit of middle.”
There are many laugh-out-loud moments, like when Parker wistfully recalls a carnally aroused “Renaissance Fair stud” with a hot technique for delivering a cold drink (“Dear Popeye”).
More soberly, she calls herself on the carpet while apologizing to a stranger she cursed out (“Dear Mr. Cabdriver”), and imagines reconnecting with a loincloth-wearing fruitarian coworker whose unforced honesty compelled her to question her own emotional authenticity (“Dear Blue”).
“Dear Uncle” touchingly recalls the cross-cultural awkwardness of meeting her adopted daughter’s uncle (“I watched the nurses at the orphanage make a ballet of their soothing”), and the flood of humility she experiences as he insists, “We are all a family now.”
The literary grace of Parker’s sentences is matched by the insights she mines from her stories. Women readers are most likely to relate to her self-esteem-challenging relationship struggles; the scene where she sticks a fork in the hand of a boyfriend who doesn’t realize he’s just made himself “a former and not a current” is a metaphorical beaut. (“There was such a fog around me that I felt like I had entered a Whitesnake video.”)
All the “recipients” of her letters are men — even the surreal “Dear Cerberus,” which analyzes the mean behavior of past lovers in the guise of a three-headed dog (“You were the worst of those I called darling”) as well as her own acceptance and eventual defiance of it (“This is addressed to you, yes, but also to myself, because guess who stood for it?”).
“She went to the bodega to buy tangerines and an atlas. She strolled home at her own pace and checked on her pet geode. Turning up the volume on Sinatra, she bounced on the trampoline.
“Look at that. She’d come to her own rescue. …
“She called out and you lifted your head wearily, laid it back down between your paws. You were ashamed and she was too. She’d done enough bad things to be the beast in someone else’s story.”
The most significant man is Parker’s father, a fascinating, complicated character whose PTSD episodes and depression scarred her childhood, yet whose love presented a steadfast if rocky haven. His story braids with hers from first chapter to last. “We all miss you something fierce, those of us who wouldn’t exist had you not kept walking when an ordinary person would have fallen to his knees [in a WWII battle zone]. To convey in any existing language how I miss you isn’t possible. It would be like blue trying to describe the ocean.”
Even her eloquent closing letter, “Dear Oyster Picker,” to an unknown Pacific Northwest laborer, is, at its heart, about her supportive father and their relationship. Because of what she has previously revealed of herself, some of his final, encouraging words to her are unavoidably tear-jerking — and hopeful: “Just write, keep writing, promise me that you will.”
Mary Louise Parker and memoirist Mary Karr discuss “Dear Mr. You” during a Live Talks L.A. event at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, in the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $95. Visit livetalksla.org.