“All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy”

Online confession queen Spike Gillespie dishes on bad boys and reveals her true love -- her son.

Topics: Alcoholism,

At 35, my friend Spike (nee Jacqueline) Gillespie is only a couple of
years older than I. We met more than a decade ago while we were both
waitressing in Knoxville, Tenn., at a nightclub called Ella Gurus. For two years, we lived in the same dilapidated neighborhood, ran around with overlapping circles of
slacker friends and passed a boyfriend or two back and forth. We both
went on to become mothers who write, we share an agent and we even both
have sons named Henry — born within a year of one another. But that’s where
the similarity ends. Reading her just-released memoir — “All the Wrong Men
and One Perfect Boy” — I found myself offering up a silent prayer of thanks
for the relatively dull soccer-mom existence that I have lived since
Spike and I last resided in the same city. Her first-person account of her
own adult life is a harrowing chronicle that includes too much alcohol, a vast array of relationships gone horribly wrong, miscarriage, cancer, intermittent periods of poverty and spells of near-suicidal depression. Yet, as alien as most of her actual experiences
are to me, I — and every other mother I know who has read this book — found
myself identifying very strongly with the tale she has to tell.

As a highly accomplished freelance writer, Spike Gillespie’s work has
appeared in Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Texas Monthly and other national
publications. But it is in the world of online journalism where she has made
her greatest mark. Gillespie came online at the urging of writer friends who
encouraged her to become “the Madonna of the Infobahn.” Immediately seduced by the false intimacy of
online communication, Gillespie — always prone to long, soul-baring
personal correspondence and essays — began writing an e-mail column, soon
syndicated worldwide by Prodigy, in which, as one reviewer noted, she
“pioneered the art of the online confessional.” Her Web work has also
appeared in Word, Tripod, Salon and Bust. As her column subscriber numbers grew during the latter half of the ’90s, so did her acclaim, leading USA Today to dub her one of the first “cyber-celebrities.” In her weekly
chronicles of both the ordinary and extraordinary happenings of her life
– everything from the death of her son’s guinea pig to the termination of her
own pregnancy — she developed a loyal fan base of readers, mostly women,
who follow her to this day. Although Prodigy eventually canceled her
column, it was these essays that formed the seed material for her
autobiography.



In the book, Gillespie recounts her personal history in an unflinching
straight line — starting with her childhood as the daughter of working-class
New Jersey Catholics, moving on to her teenage summers at the gritty, 1970s
Atlantic seashore of Bruce Springsteen and finally wrapping up with her
current status as one of the arty elite in arty Austin, Texas.

The theme running throughout the entire narrative is the writer’s search for
the love and attention she never received from her remote, cold father.
Unlike so many other modern tales of dysfunctional families, this
isn’t one of overt abuse. Gillespie wasn’t beaten, molested or starved by
her parents. Instead she paints a picture of a severe, oddball father — a man
who required that his children peel his sweaty socks off his feet each
evening and who drove his brood of eight mortified offspring around
town in a huge clunker of a car plastered with crudely hand-lettered
pro-life slogans. Gillespie’s father was apparently never willing and
perhaps unable to demonstrate any love for his child, or to accept the mouthy,
tattooed, literary feminista she became.

At 18, never having left the greater New Jersey area,
Gillespie fled south to Florida for college, becoming the first member of
her family to seek a university education. Free from her father’s iron
grasp, Gillespie shaved her Breck-girl hair into one of the first spiky punk
coiffures at the University of South Florida (hence the nickname “Spike”)
and began a lifetime of looking for love with “all the wrong men.” Over the years, Gillespie worked her way across the country by involving herself — usually intimately — with a parade of literally dozens of guys.

And a more motley crew was likely never assembled. From the college honey who assaulted her to her son’s father — a man with a drinking problem so severe that he suffers repeated grand mal seizures — Gillespie’s penchant for hooking up with inappropriate and
unavailable lovers takes on epic proportions. In the book, she refers to
many of her problems being “penis-related” — a deadly accurate assessment. Near the end of the book, Gillespie chronicles perhaps the very worst of her entanglements: a brief, destructive marriage to a man she met via e-mail. In the course of only a year, her semi-sociopathic bridegroom manages to reduce Gillespie to a depressed, insecure, unemployed
shadow of her former self.

Despite the bleak specifics of Gillespie’s story, at its heart it is both
uplifting and inspiring. This is because Gillespie’s retelling of the
redemptive experience of mothering her only child, Henry — her “perfect boy”
– serves as a powerful counterpoint to the chaos swirling around her. Her
unfettered joy in her son and in her relationship with him shines through on
every page.

In typically dramatic Gillespie fashion, Henry entered the world
in a violent homebirth (this will probably be the only book you
will ever read in which a woman refers to the “blood-spattered walls” of the
room in which she gives birth). His early years were spent in a variety of
seedy apartments with a mother who was waitressing by day and writing term
papers for students at the University of Texas by night. Those with
preconceived notions about how a young child should be parented may find
themselves disturbed reading about Henry Mowgli Gillespie’s unconventional
early home life. But parents from all walks will relate to Spike Gillespie’s
powerful struggle to effectively mother her child with no model upon which
to base her own parenting. Her recounting of her failures and successes as a
mother is graphically honest and very moving. In one passage she
describes feeling out of sync with the other young mothers at her local
playground:

Compared to the vast majority of the other mothers — with their snappy diaper bags, clean clothes, and healthy snacks — I felt like an alien. I was
disheveled at all times, hung over often enough, my son rarely clad in more
than a drooping diaper.

Gillespie does eventually encounter another mother at the park with whom she
becomes fast friends, but in the beginning of their relationship, she is
frightened to reveal the realities of her daily life — a filthy apartment,
alcoholic partner and unstable finances. For months she will only meet her
new pal at the park or a restaurant. Eventually, however, the two women grow
close enough that Gillespie opens up, and begins the process of creating the
chosen family of close friends that she and Henry enjoy today.

Gillespie must have been tempted to end her book with a tidy, “I’m all better now” wrap-up in which she admits having learned from her mistakes and vows never to repeat them. In fact, the book ends on an ambiguous note. Gillespie still drinks, still dates some of the wrong men and still struggles with depression. While her growth as a person, an artist and a mother is
self-evident, she doesn’t shrink from the clear fact that she has miles yet
to go before she shakes the pain that has driven her to flights of terrible
judgment all her life. At a recent reading of her work, Gillespie suggested
that her book serve as a sort of apology to her son, as well as an
explanation for what she has done. Although the highly sexual nature of much
of the material in this memoir means that Henry — now a self-assured,
articulate third-grader with a mop of hair he has recently dyed green —
likely won’t read it for years, when he does he will have something that few
children can claim — a deep, searing glimpse into the soul of his mother.

Katie Allison Granju lives in Tennessee with her three children and is the author of "Attachment Parenting." Her website is www.locoparentis.blogspot.com.

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