Book review: Believe Me, by Eddie Izzard
“I was a bit bonkers. But good bonkers. There is a difference.”
Eddie Izzard is a beloved British comedian, actor, activist and marathon runner. He’s also known, for better or for worse, for being a proud transvestite. I say for better or for worse because as he explains in his new memoir Believe Me, whatever he chooses to wear is only a simple, inherent facet of his inborn personality and shouldn’t detract from his art whatsoever, or force him to be identified by it. He puts it all quite simply, clearly and helpfully, I would imagine, for anyone who’s faced similar troubles.
“The wish to express my feminine side has been in me since I was four. And if any woman or teenage girl has ever thought, ‘I want to wear high heels,’ that is the exact feeling that I have. There is no difference in the feelings.” He likens his right to wear traditionally feminine clothing to the women’s fashion revolution started by Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn, who began wearing pants while women were still firmly clad in skirts and were likewise attacked for dressing outside their gender.
It’s worth a read if you’ve wondered where he stands on the gender and sexuality spectrums and how he’s using his place in the LGBTQ community to help others. Wonderful, admirable work he’s doing. “I just keep going, trying to find a space for myself, and for anyone else, who is on the same path.”
He describes how hard it is to merely be in public when he’s in “girl mode” (wearing female clothes) and that he’s harshly confronted with others’ negative reactions. He tells anecdotes of peacefully confronting people who harass him. “If you confront aggression – sometimes just standing your ground or even with cheeriness or politeness – sometimes you can shut it down. It’s not a perfect science, but it feels better than being scared.”
Izzard was born in Yemen, where his father worked for BP and his mother was a nurse. They moved around Britain and Ireland after that, and the pivotal event in his life was tragically losing his mother when he was six. He describes a happy childhood up to that point, and then his mostly innocent, sometimes humorous boarding school exploits. His father, although loving and later accepting of Eddie’s gender identity, couldn’t care for them on his own while working.
His mother’s death is partly what led him to performance and to pushing himself to extreme or far-reaching accomplishments – he lived with an underlying hope that somehow he could get her back, do enough astounding, amazing things that she’d come back. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and yet it does.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure an editor worked on this book. It’s 350 pages of Izzard’s often rambling thoughts, interspersed with some worthwhile, meaningful messages that he’s extracted from his hard career work and life experiences: “Who the hell cares if you get somewhere very fast? The only person who cares is you…Don’t get somewhere as fast as possible. Get somewhere as good as possible.”
Sometimes his familiar comedy style comes through, but his standup act doesn’t translate to the page. Without all the footnotes, addresses of places he lived or worked, sassy but empty asides or sentences that rambled and said nothing at all, it could’ve and should’ve been significantly cut down.
Maybe a diehard fan would want to read every word about his grades in school, juvenile soccer career and how far he advanced in playing the clarinet as a child. Otherwise, it’s maddeningly boring coming from someone with so much creative potential.
But I am a fan, I love his brand of standup, where he incorporates straight-up history that would normally be dry into this hilariously woven and lively storytelling endeavor. He writes often of wanting to be taken seriously as an actor instead of only a comedian, that he hesitated to star in comedies for fear of blowing his chances at serious acting roles, and since he does often handle weighty social, political and historical issues in his comedy, I didn’t expect the book to be a nonstop laughfest.
He makes a joke that lands here and there, my favorite – “America had a war of independence (I just noticed that as I was passing a history book)”, others are attempts that don’t work on paper, and the rest is too much information about nothing I needed to know. It saddens me to say that.
The best chapters are in the section “Wilderness Years” (a nice concept borrowed from Winston Churchill historians, referencing the period of time in life when you get a little lost) and his “coming out” regarding his alternative sexuality. It’s meaningful and I’m sure it could be very helpful to those struggling in similar situations.
I’ve yet to see his documentary, Believe, but the book proved that his style is absolutely not meant for the written word, so I’d wager a guess that’s a better look at his life. I’m sorry, Eddie. There are beautiful, hopeful, uplifting moments, which is exactly what the author intended. But like Tim Gunn would say, it needed an editing eye.
He closes the book with some sweet hopefulness, the same that led him to run 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa in honor of Nelson Mandela, and even if it’s a very flawed, not always enjoyable book, he’s inarguably an empathetic, caring person who’s making the world better just by being around in it.
“If you care about humanity, I encourage you all to do more than you think you can do.”
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens
by Eddie Izzard, with Laura Zigman
published June 13, 2017 by Penguin Blue Rider Press & Plume
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.