I was completely in shock and awe throughout Rosie Perez’s memoir Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother, and Still Came Out Smiling (with Great Hair).
I knew Perez as a sassy Nuyorican dancer, choreographer and actress, and was not prepared for what she shared about her childhood and her unlikely path to success. The memoir is aptly titled, so we might as well deconstruct it.
Rosie and several of her half siblings grew up in Catholic children’s home run by strict and abusive nuns. Prior to landing at the home, from the age of a baby to three of four Rosie was raised by her aunt, whom she believed to be her mother. Lydia, Rosie’s biological mother, was married when she met and had an affair with Rosie’s father. For unknown reasons, Lydia chose to remove Rosie from Tia’s home and dropped her off in the upstate New York children’s home, where she would remain until moving into a group home.
My Crazy Mother
While many people may refer to their mothers as crazy because they drive them crazy, Lydia was indeed mentally ill. It was not uncommon for Rosie or her siblings to catch their mother talking to the kitchen cabinets and exhibiting other erratic behavior, such as carrying a handgun in a plastic bag to the corner store. As if that weren’t traumatizing enough, Lydia unabashedly treated Rosie differently than her older and younger half siblings, clearly playing favorites by requesting they leave the children’s home to visit her on holidays and weekends, leaving behind Rosie. The physical abuse was widespread, but Rosie felt like a pariah even amongst her siblings. She never bonded with them as she did with her cousins, whom she originally thought were his sisters and refers to them as her cousin-sisters.
Rosie’s smiles and laughter are hard earned and well-deserved. Through her distress she always knew she’d eventually have a better life, but she never imagined having stints as a dancer on Soul Train, her first acting role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, being a choreographer for the likes of Bobby Brown and LL Cool J and the show In Living Color. She was even Oscar-nominated for a role that flopped stateside but did well overseas.
I purchased Handbook for an Unpredictable Life as an audiobook, which was read by the author herself. Anybody remotely familiar with Rosie Perez knows that she’s a fiery and passionate person who brought all of that to the reading. There was also her thick New York and Spanish-tinged accent. Plenty of times, sentences were punctuated with “Come on, people!” when trying to get the audience to see her side of things. I wonder if these were included in the print version of the book or if she was ad libbing. I also wondered if during the recounting of especially emotional times if she was acting or actually choking back sobs and tears.
Rosie Perez’s story is the epitome of overcoming a difficult past, none of which was her own fault. Her career path was not planned, but with each twist and turn she adjusted and became stronger, wiser, and eventually the successful and creative person she is today. This one of the those memoirs in which you truly see and believe that if someone else was able to make it through, then so can you.