Book Review: Freak of Nurture by Kelli Dunham

“Have you read my dead girlfriend’s book?” I heard near the end of the NYC Dyke March while a flyer for a book I’ve read (and reviewed on my blog) was thrust at me from behind, followed by the familiar meaty arm and dolphin tattoo of my friend Kelli Dunham. She had made fliers for her deceased girlfriend’s book as well as her own book on a reversible cardstock. It was really good looking and didn’t seem at all like it used any graphics software from Vista Print, one of Kelli’s favorite design aesthetics.

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An example of this design aesthetic from my archives.

Kelli continued her pitch, “Cheryl was my second girlfriend who died in five years. They both died of cancer.” At this point I was laughing hysterically, which is something Kelli has always been able to do to me, make me laugh uncontrollably. Once I threw her a birthday party potluck and I encouraged everyone to bring dishes named for her comedy. Mine was Spotted Owl Casserole, from her joke about not being invited to any more lesbian potlucks.

Probably most people wouldn’t be able to make seamless jokes about something so awful–the opposite of a miracle, she says, in her book Freak of Nurture. But that’s Kelli, she’s somehow got an incredible sense of humor and an incredible sense of humility, both are huge themes in the book.

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Kelli is very good at being from the Midwest and makes great casseroles.

Kelli’s book is a collection of essays from the life of an ex-Catholic nun, butch lesbian who is often mistaken for a boy of varying ages, a working stand-up comic with a penchant for misadventure, someone who readily and often talks to strangers, who had a really tender D/s partnership with a burlesque queen and legend of her time who passed in 2007 using Oregon’s right to die laws, who, against all odds, found love again and her girlfriend died of an incredibly curable form of cancer, who speaks Haitian Creyol and used those skills to go to Haiti to help after the earthquake and is left with little patience for hipster problems in New York City. And who once peed on the B train and makes comedy about it.

Kelli told a friend at the Dyke March, “Bevin and I have known each other for about a million years.” Which is almost true, where a million years is 12. I’ve found it really hard to “review” Kelli’s book. It’s amazing. It’s my friend who is hysterical and whose dysfunctional family stories alone are book-worthy. It’s a lot of stories I know because I was in Kelli’s life while they happened but still made me so wrapped up in them that I missed my subway stop two different times while reading it.

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Kelli and Cheryl at the Dyke March in 2009. Cheryl loved the Dyke March. You should totally read Cheryl’s book, too, if you haven’t.

I cried a lot, multiple times, especially at the chapter about her Queen, Heather MacAllister. It’s so clear how much they loved each other and what a beautiful and rich relationship they had until Heather passed.

Kelli is sarcastic and has great timing. There’s a chapter where she teaches a nun how to masturbate and a really endearing story about how she was working at a school for kids with disabilities in Haiti and they kept teaching her really lewd terms in Kreyol and she, to this day, has to tell people “I’m sorry, I learned Kreyol from children, is there a more polite way to say that?”

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Little known fact about Kelli: She will almost always say yes to a dare, especially when on stage. This is from the NO PANTS NO PROBLEM Rebel Cupcake. Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

I guess I keep waiting to have the “perfect” thing to say about Kelli’s book but I can’t so I will just say she is incredible at making very difficult things to hear easy to absorb. She speaks from a place of compassion for anyone who has felt like a freak in mainstream society (i.e. just about anyone). You should totally get her book from Topside Press! It makes a great gift for the lesbians, ex-nuns and intense nerds in your life or people who just like to laugh.

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