“I realize that nothing is really normal. All it takes to alter normalcy is a death or a birth. Or just some misguided fear, love, or loneliness that never goes away.” In his memoir, A Common Pornography, Kevin Sampsell tears away the illusion cherished by most of us that our lives, especially our childhoods, are somehow “normal.” Through his fearless dissection of his own life, Sampsell destroys the false idols of upbringing that are common to the human experience.
A Common Pornography is a naked, shockingly pragmatic revelation of a complex, confused, troubled, and bizarre life. “In August 2008, I had a panic attack that forced me out of my home naked. It was three thirty in the morning.” This opening line to the introduction immediately yanks the reader into this slim volume with the unsavory title. What could drive someone out of a lonely apartment, naked, into the bowels of the night?
Sampsell’s father had died half a year before. “Maybe this, six months after the fact, was how I grieved for Dad. Maybe his ghost said, You haven’t grieved for me properly. He didn’t care that I didn’t want to grieve for him or that I felt like I didn’t have to. He was going to make me, even if it was against my will.” By any account, Sampsell’s father was not a sympathetic character. Emotionally and physically abusive to all but one favored son, he dismissed and derided his stepsons and raped his stepdaughter.
Given this family history – and other episodes of extreme dysfunction that are revealed – one would expect a bitter diatribe, a memoir exploding with violent passions. Instead, Sampsell has stripped away all of the common defenses: bluster, prevarication, evasion, snarkiness, and self-flagellation, and has instead crafted a series of simply, revealingly told vignettes.
The structure of A Common Pornography is narrative genius. The ultra-short chapters – the longest is seven pages, many are less than half a page – protect the reader from emotional overload and drive the narrative forward compelling one to continue reading even after the most repellent revelations. The vignette format also enhances the simplicity of Sampsell’s narrative voice. Each story is told with a fearless acceptance of fact. Equal weight is given to an adolescent infraction of trespassing in the school gymnasium as to an episode of homosexual masturbation in the movie booth of a seedy sex shop.
Note the implicit warning in the above paragraph. If you couldn’t tell from the title of the memoir, A Common Pornography is not for those with delicate sensibilities. Sampsell spares no one, least of all himself, in this stark quest for the truth. Abuse, incest, drug addiction, petty crime, sexual and emotional dysfunction, racism, adolescent embarrassments: everything is explored; nothing is taboo.
Sampsell’s language is stark, calm, matter-of-fact. With clean sentences and an absence of rhetorical flourish, Sampsell brings the reader into the world of his youth, a world in which the myriad extremes of dysfunction feel almost normal.
"Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it and give it to Mom as a birthday present. Later, they kept it in a drawer by the bed. Then, shortly after, they slept in separate beds."
The above is a single chapter that encapsulates the extraordinary weirdness of Sampsell’s childhood while demonstrating the sense of normalcy. It would have been very easy for Kevin Sampsell to use his memoir to excoriate his family, to crucify his father. Yet Sampsell faces the realities of memory and experience with a rare courage that embraces the pain and joy of reality. Ultimately, A Common Pornography is an honest and loving account of a flawed humanity.