Performer and memoirist Kambri Crews fillets family truths
Kambri Crews, 40, of Long Island City, grew up as the hearing daughter of a violent, deaf alcoholic who abused her deaf mother and who is now serving a 20-year sentence for all but killing his girlfriend. Crews will read from her new memoir, "Burn Down the Ground," at McNally Jackson, 52 Prince St., 7 p.m. Wednesday and at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., in Fort Greene at 7:30 p.m. April 19.
Q Your dad beat your mother and nearly murdered his girlfriend. Yet, I see on your Facebook page you're asking for help to get him dental care in a Texas prison. What gives?
A At his core, my dad is a very deviant, hard-core person who does not live by the rules of the land. He's said he finds it easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. I will always love him, but I'm not sure I could have a relationship with him out of prison. It's because he's in prison, I can have a relationship with him. I laugh when I read about all the "great free care" people supposedly get in prison. I look at his teeth and - oh my goodness - the back ones have all been pulled and he uses the front ones to chew so they're all ground down. He takes a lot of time and energy, but I look at his teeth and realize 'if I don't help to get him dentures, who will?' He desperately needs anger management classes and some kind of drug and alcohol rehab. He doesn't know how to use a computer. We have to help these people not for their sake, but for ours - one day they'll get out.
Q How do you feel about the possibility of his release?
A He's up for parole in June. He's asking for my support. I can't honestly give him my support because he's not ready and he shouldn't be out.
Q Why are so many relatives of criminals unable to acknowledge the complicated truth about family members and people they love?
A I don't understand what the impulse is not to see the truth in cases like Casey Anthony and Scott Peterson. When family members staunchly defend defendants who are obviously guilty, it really aggravates the public anger and increases vigilantism. The impulse just baffles me. Are they delusional? When you ignore the truth, you're partially culpable.
Q What do you think saved you from falling into the poverty and hopelessness?
A My mother and I were really, really close. She was an avid reader and entered me in the Book of the Month Club. Reading for kids is a lifesaver. Also, I had really good teachers and I wanted desperately to get straight As and to please them. I got theater arts when we moved to Ft. Worth when I was about 15 and it definitely saved my life - 100%. None of those kids drank or smoked. There are lines to learn and you have to attend long rehearsals. And the deaf community is a story telling community. I grew up watching my friends and families telling stories - what they'd do to get that laugh!
Q Growing up with deaf parents seems not unlike growing up in the U.S. with parents who don't speak English: You get adultified early and recruited to serve as a translator between your parents and the outside world. Do you identify with children of parents who don't speak English?
A I identify more with kids whose parents are in jail. I'm starting now to work with an organization called Hour Children - they mentor children whose parents are in prison. One in four black children has had a parent in jail by the time they're 14 and for white children it's one in 25. Even that is a lot. It's so unfair for children to be left without any parental guidance. But I hear more from other CODAs - Children of Deaf Adults - just because they're such an active community on line. I'm getting a text from my mother: Technology has really changed the world for deaf people. My mother is constantly texting! She's so used to typing out her commands! She doesn't always understand I might be having a conversation with someone else.
Q Is growing up as you did a net positive or net negative?
A From a deaf family point of view and interpreting for my family, it's definitely a positive: My mother quit her day job to raise me and I had the benefit of both ASL (American Sign Language) and oral methods. By 18 months, I was speaking in full sentences. My brother was exposed only to ASL, though, and it did affect his development. As a CODA - Children of Deaf Adults - I never doubted my ability to get things done. I became very confident because I was making plane reservations and doctor's appointments for my parents from an early age. The poverty and abuse is kind of a wash: No kid should have to grow up that way. We were at risk and pretty isolated, without a lot of resources.
Q There's a culture war in the deaf community, with some folks insisting on ASL only and other people favoring mainstreaming deaf folks, often by implantation with cochlear implants. Where do you stand?
A Why does it have to be so stark - just one way or another? I believe in a blending. It's really rich to have both ASL - it's a second language! - and oral methods.
Q Do you worry about not having enough great material in the future now that your life is comparatively sane?
A There is a fear of that. I cried and cried when I finished the book - about 18 months ago. It was like post partum depression. But if my dad very gets out, there could be a interesting story there. I'm adapting the book to do a one-person show. It will have either an interpreter or live captioning. I'm not able to sign through the whole thing because it's amazing how tired your hands and arms get.