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No laughing matter


By Patrice Gaines

Crown, $20

Reviewed by Erika N. Duckworth

My image of my friend was crumbling before me.

In my eyes, she seemed almost perfect. Beautiful, charming and vivacious, she was the kind of person who owned a room minutes after walking into it. I envied and admired her.

So I wasn't ready to hear that she couldn't quite break things off with a boyfriend who had abused her emotionally and physically for at least half of their three years together. She fretted more over their jeopardized wedding plans and the stigma of being single on a couple-oriented college campus than her well-being.

More heartbreaking was, that for all her obvious gifts, my friend saw herself as nothing without a man.

Laughing in the Dark, the first book from award-winning Washington Post writer Patrice Gaines, is a riveting story of her own search for love, wholeness and acceptance in relationships with the wrong men. Painting an unflinchingly honest portrait of her abused past, Gaines ultimately finds that the love she needs is inside herself.

Gaines learns to feel powerless as a young black girl growing up in the blatantly racist America of the 1950s and '60s. At the predominantly white schools she attends, she is all but invisible. As early as the first grade, she is relegated to cleanup duty by a white schoolteacher and ignored when she raises her hands to ask questions.

At home, she longs for some sign of affirmation from a detached Marine father who cannot show love. But as Gaines grows into a budding revolutionary, she begins to deeply resent her father and his patriotism, writing him off as an Uncle Tom. Her respect now is reserved for the young, defiant hustlers who skip school and make up their own rules.

"They defined what power was for them, and they exuded that power in their walk and in the way they thumbed their noses at traditional notions, like working for white people or going to school," Gaines says. "They were free and I was powerful when I was with them."

With Ben, a dropout who plays crap games in front of a 7-Eleven, Gaines begins to live out her self-destructive philosophy that "life was meaningless without a man." Pregnant by Ben at age 18, Gaines evolves into a heroin user with him. Barely in her twenties, she eventually lands in jail for possession.

She sees disturbing reflections of herself in her black female cell mates, whose convictions were usually related somehow to unhealthy relationships with unhealthy men.

"We were tied to each other by poor judgment, by bad decisions in love, which was what put most of us in jail," Gaines says. "Like me, the women there for drug charges had gotten them following behind some man."

Throughout, Gaines weaves a harrowing tale of the men who would follow in Ben's footsteps: J.B., an acquaintance who drugged and raped her. John, her mean-tempered, physically abusive third husband. Gabriel, a one-time pimp who beat her savagely with a horse whip and sexually assaulted her.

Reeling from one abuser to the next, Gaines remains blind to the fact that her chosen partners take power from her instead of offering it. She becomes the object of their misguided anger.

"I attracted black men already struggling to find a way to rid themselves of the rage they felt because they believed their choices in life were limited by their color," Gaines says. "It was easier to exert what power you could, to at least proclaim domain over something or someone. I was that kind of someone."

Anchored by the love of her young daughter, Andrea, Gaines miraculously survives her destructive past and begins to piece together her life. As she gradually becomes a professional writer, she discovers her own power in a talent for reporting and writing stories.

In one funny passage, she edits a love letter from her former boyfriend Jimmy, a sometime cocaine dealer.

"I was a woman who now needed a man like Jimmy less," Gaines writes. "Disinterested in what the letter was really saying, I read it, circling the grammatical errors and misspelled words with my red pen before crumpling it up and throwing it away.

"It was as if I had been living in the dark with all of my belongings piled in the middle of what I thought was a tiny room. Then someone turned on a light and I saw floor and space and windows and realized I didn't have to live in a heap, that there might even be other doors leading to rooms in the house. And these little hands could open those doors."

Through her compelling story, Gaines inspires women of all colors and circumstances to open some doors of their own.

Erika N. Duckworth is a staff writer for the Times.