New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens his memoir, “Fire Up In My Bones,” with a face full of tears.
“I had never thought myself capable of killing,” he wrote. “I was a twenty-year-old college student. But I was about to kill a man. My own cousin, Chester.”
The murderous impulse is triggered by a brief, casual phone call from his older cousin, who molested Blow when he was a young boy. The brief event splits his life into two. “Trauma stays alive and stays with you,” Blow, 44, told Mother Jones. “You relive it every day, so those scenes are incredibly fresh.”
Blow ultimately changed his mind and returned to his dorm, cleansed of the anger that he carried for more than a decade. That betrayal informed his perception of the world and his place in it. As a child, he took pains to adapt to his new reality, first immersing himself in religion and finding solace in the arms of his first girlfriend, then throwing himself into his schoolwork with vigor.
Like many sexual abuse survivors, Blow never spoke of the abuse to his mother, Billie, with whom he had a particularly close relationship. As the youngest of five boys, he is her shadow, accompanying her through most of his waking moments. It is this reluctance to leave his mother’s side that caused his first label to stick: Mama’s boy.
“Daddy’s boy,” not so much. His parents’ tumultuous relationship led to the couple calling it quits when Blow was young; his father only made sporadic visits thereafter. “The only time I ever saw a person actually shoot a gun at another, I was five years old, and it was my mother shooting at my father,” Blow wrote.
His life in small-town Louisiana changed drastically as Billie worked at a nearby chicken factory to provide for her sons. Among their new pastimes: hunting for treasure at the local dump, eating clay dirt from a roadside ditch, and scouring wreckage on the interstate. But, Blow noted, no matter how tight money became, his mother never cancelled her subscription to the local paper.
His father’s absence created an “emotional, spiritual loneliness,” Blow admitted. He looked to relatives, neighborhood boys and schoolmates to show him how to be. That thread of masculinity—how you define it and live it on a daily basis—permeates Blow’s musings from adolescence to adulthood. Childhood friends are defined by where they fall on the sexuality spectrum. An early sexual encounter with a girlfriend leaves him shaken after he realizes he doesn’t know how to perform “as a man should.” The yearning to belong pushes him to pledge during his freshman year at nearby Grambling State University in Louisana. Blow, plagued all his life by accusations of being “soft,” earns respect from his fraternity brothers for being able to endure the most pain during hazing.
He entered college as a pre-law major, a stepping stone to his then-career aspiration of becoming Louisana’s first African-American governor. But it was an English professor who, after Blow submitted a particularly strong essay, convinced him to focus on a journalism career. He landed at the New York Times as a graphics intern (a position created especially for him) where he rose up the ranks to become the paper’s visual op-ed columnist.
The ending is abrupt—he fast-forwards through college and on to the present day in roughly half a chapter—but it’s a credit to his storytelling that you still want 50 or more pages. He ends with a message of self-acceptance, a vow to “accept myself joyfully, fully, as the amalgamation of both the gifts and the tragedies of fate, as the person destiny had chosen me to be — gloriously rendered, deeply scarred, magnificently made, naturally flawed — a human being, my own man.”