If truth be told, I simply wasn’t prepared for my reality to shift. My perspective, my worldview, suited me just fine. Yet, upon encountering I’ll Tell You in Person, a collection of essays by Chloe Caldwell, which appears deceptively unassuming at first glance, I rediscovered a lushness within the human experience that had somehow slipped from my grasp over the course of four decades plus three intentionally subdued years with hopes of merely staying afloat.
Indeed, Caldwell is the first to examine the strengths and pitfalls of writing memoir in the midst of one’s twenties:
The liberating thing about publishing an essay collection before you are a fully formed person is that there is nothing to fear. You have no readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds. The bad thing about publishing an essay collection at twenty-five, when the frontal lobe has barely finished developing, is there is nothing to fear. No readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds.
Yet, what could be more refreshing or more enlightening than words penned during that time of life when risks are worth taking and the resulting consequences are endured by a heart that is as raw and resilient as it will ever be?
From the should-have-known-better antics played out in “Prime Meats” (e.g. posting an ad on Craiglist that reads, “Hey sexy bros, who wants to buy some prime bitches some prime meat and drink obscene amounts of liquor?”) to acknowledgement of the inherently addictive personality so eloquently captured in “Yodels,” Caldwell, in Part 1, offers up her early devil-may-care years in a manner that begs the question, “Why the hell not live life to its fullest?”
Moving into Part 2, the reader is given pause with “Soul Killer” as Caldwell recounts her battles with depression, heroin addiction, and cystic acne. If you’re anything like me, it’s worth taking a moment (or a drink) or two here to process what I consider the second strongest piece of the collection before moving on. However, once soothed and centered, the reader will find the landscape to brighten palpably within “Sisterless” as Caldwell shares rapid-fire anecdotes from her stints babysitting Cheryl Strayed’s wildly precocious children. Without exaggeration, the journey from the depths of self-loathing to the laugh-out-loud joys of meaningful connection left me utterly in awe of what it means to be alive.
Caldwell recounts a handful of her sexual experiences with a much appreciated shoulder-shrug view on bisexuality within Part 3. Interestingly enough, in spite of her nonchalance, she presents some of the most insightful perspectives on the matter I’ve encountered within or beyond the academic texts. This is also the section that contains, far and away, my favorite piece, “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” about her burgeoning friendship with Maggie Estep during the spoken-word legend’s last couple years of life.
Throughout the entirety of the collection, Caldwell provides a pacing to her narrative which renders it impossible to put down; and, with a truth as fanciful as any fiction, there’s no lack of plot twisting to drive each story home. All the while, Caldwell tempers any sentimentality that might slip into the most harrowing or heartbreaking of circumstances with a self-deprecating sense of humor that could keep even the heaviest heart from going under.
Regardless of one’s capacity for adventure, Caldwell’s essays are destined to inspire within her reader a desire to fully embrace life in all of its guises. Sure, there are the highs of a well-executed urban adventure, the tenderness of recognizing precisely who loves you through it all and the unbearable weight of whichever monkey finds its way onto your back; yet, I’ll Tell You in Person elevates the journey to its most profound, all the while making each step, each humble footfall, as accessible as though it were every bit one’s own.