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Sometimes amusing, frequently painful
on January 5, 2012
"I Know I Am, But What Are You?" is an intermittently comic, hopefully exaggerated memoir of Sam Bee's childhood and young adulthood. The blurb on the back cover promises "candid, outspoken, laugh-out-loud funny essays," and while they are certainly candid and outspoken, I never laughed out loud. In fact, I found the in-your-face sexuality and crudeness in many of the essays rather icky and sad. The overall effect was the one you might have when an acquaintance decides to overshare: too much information, thank you!
You might need a stronger stomach or a different sense of humor than I have to really enjoy this book. I could see the absurdity in Bee's recollections (her crush on Jesus, for instance, or her work at what she calls a "penis clinic"), but her graphic descriptions of strangers' genitals and her pets' sexual aggressiveness and her much older lover's poop problems all grossed me out, and the story of how a friend's stripper boyfriend "entertained" her was squirm-inducing.
Especially grim are her memories of the desperately poor parenting she received from her mother. The woman attempted to enlighten her daughter by giving her sex manuals and showing her porn and letting her gay friends regale her with tales of fisting, autoerotic asphyxiation, and other things one should not share with an eight-year-old. This goes a long way toward explaining how neurotic and caustic Bee became as she grew up and why she found refuge and healing in comedy.
If you enjoy Bee's work on the Daily Show and would like to learn more about her personal background, this book will fill you in. Indeed, it may well tell you more than you'd like to know. She was a victim of emotional abuse by people who exposed her to vulgarity of the worst kind, left her to her own devices most of the time, and gave her endless opportunities for weirdness, misadventure, and overdoses of pop culture.
Congratulations, Sam. You survived your youth, prospered as an adult, and extracted comedy from catastrophe. But reading about it was often an uncomfortable experience.