Burn Down the Ground, Kambri Crews’ moving new memoir, in part tells the story of her coming of age as the hearing child of deaf parents. Early on, Crews became her mother and father’s “interpreter,” their voice in the wider world, and in many ways she’s expanded on this role as the literary chronicler of their experience. Among the finest aspects of her book is its depiction of Texas’ insular deaf community of the ’70s and ’80s. In those pre-Internet days, that keen and hearty subculture possessed its own “language, arts, churches, and universities” and mostly socialized face to face “through clubs, travel groups, cruises, and sporting events.”
Many members, including Crews’ cheery mother, Christy, considered their deafness a rare blessing, and rejected as prejudice the suggestion that they were “handicapped.” A bowling champ and occasional performer in a rock ’n’ roll cover band composed of deaf musicians, Christy defiantly signed the lyrics to popular hits. She was a shining star of a colorful world, as was her bedroom-eyed husband, the Byronic Theodore. With his easy charm and fetching form, Theodore was a suave scamp whose fondness for the ladies wasn’t impeded by his marriage vows. He steals center stage in Burn Down the Ground.
As a young girl, the author believed her father to be “Daniel Boone, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Franklin, and Elvis Presley all rolled into one.” A gifted carpenter, he crafted a rural paradise for his wife and children deep in the Piney Woods. But he was also a self-loathing alcoholic incapable of accepting his “damned deafness,” and paranoid that “people were talking about him or keeping secrets.” When drunk, this fear, insecurity and sense of alienation frequently inspired violence. In the Crews’ working-class, East Texas idyll, Theodore’s rage was the serpent in the garden, a hissing, malevolent force that would result in their fall from grace. As he grew incapable of holding a steady job, the family’s beloved house in the forest was repossessed.
Perhaps Crews’ most impressive literary feat is the way she exhibits how her father’s wrath and addiction gradually ruined lives. By the book’s end, in the aftermath of Theodore’s ultimate explosion, she’s retraced the steps of his history of violence, exposing its steady and predictable pattern: “Dad hadn’t just woken up one day and turned into a criminal,” she writes. “Society, our family, and the criminal justice system had colluded to give Dad the keys to a warship.” In a particularly harrowing scene that presages all that follows, Crews recounts the night a knife-wielding Theodore held his wife and daughter hostage, beating berating and torturing them. Fearing for her mother’s life, she called the cops. Their lackadaisical response, Crews emphasizes, was all too typical of police officers prior to the country’s consciousness-raising about domestic abuse in the ’90s. Inevitably, Theodore’s violence extended beyond the family. After more than 20 years of marriage, Christy finally pried herself loose from her tormented, tormenting husband, starting a new life that would eventually bring her romance and relative affluence. Theodore’s descent, on the other hand, had just begun.
In the wake of her parents’ divorce, the author’s family splintered. At 17, Kambri Crews married a Galahad in a naval uniform, and promptly left the Lone Star State, trading her dreams of college and a career on the stage for a fantasy of safety and “normalcy.” Her drug-addled brother flickered in and out of contact and sobriety. In 2002, Theodore landed in prison in Huntsville for nearly decapitating an adoring new girlfriend.
By that time, Crews had come into her own; happily divorced, she was a theatrical producer and elite event planner in New York City. On the night of her father’s crime, she was hanging out with billionaire Mark Cuban. Needless to say, the scene with Cuban was strikingly at odds with that of the Huntsville prison, where, during a Christmas visit, Crews struggled to reconcile the conflicting aspects of her father’s wounded, wicked and scintillating character. While attempting to coax fresh life from the scorched earth of their relationship, she realizes something. “Despite everything,” she writes, “I loved him.”
Her father’s 20-year sentence, ironically, has provided father and daughter the chance to begin again. “We can sort the details out later,” she writes. “The one thing we have now is time.”