Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat By Patricia Williams, with Jeannine Amber; Dey St./HarperCollins, 240 pages, $25.99
“Comedy and selling drugs have a lot in common. You need to be quick, work hard, and give people what they want.”
-- Patricia Williams, aka “Ms. Pat”
“Hustle and humor” were once all Patricia Williams knew – and, when she gave up the former for the latter, people kept asking how she did it, how she traded dealing drugs on the street for a life in stand-up comedy.
“It felt like they wanted me to give them some kind of secret tip,” the comedian and podcast celebrity says. “I wish I had a simple answer. But the truth is, it’s a long story.”
“Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat” is that long story – told by Williams, with journalist Jeannine Amber.
“I know a lot of people think they know what it’s like to grow up in the hood,” Williams notes. “Like maybe they watched a couple seasons of the ‘The Wire’ and think they got (that stuff) all figured out. But TV…doesn’t show what it’s like for girls like me; how one thing can lead to another so that one minute you’re a twelve-year-old looking for attention, then suddenly you end up pregnant at thirteen, with nobody to turn to for help. Folks don’t know about that kind of life because girls who grew up like me are invisible…”
Dickensian both in subject and detail, Williams’ story is one of courage and cunning coupled with an unflagging determination to do better, to achieve in some measure the sort of family life Williams, as an African-American child, saw depicted in white sitcoms on TV.
“Compared to how we were living, life on ‘Leave It to Beaver’ looked like heaven,” she recalls. “What I liked most was how Mrs. Cleaver would walk around grinning at her kids like she couldn’t believe her good luck. In my house, my mother would get drunk off her gin, whoop me with an extension cord, call me ugly, and tell me to take my ass to bed (at 10 o’clock in the morning)…”
Even in the grim telling of a childhood steeped in abuse and neglect, Williams finds pockets of the humor found only in retrospect – how her beloved Granddaddy, keeper of an illicit “liquor house” and the provider of everyone’s food and lodging, lost everything the day Miss Betty, a “full-time drunk and sometime ho,” interrupted his favorite TV show, requiring him to shoot her – and how Williams’ mother, Mildred, upon learning that churches offer needy congregants free food and clothing, had herself and her five children baptized at nearly every church in town.
It was Curtis, her mother’s kind, protective boyfriend of the time, who first called Patricia “Rabbit” – after coming upon her eating a carrot. Later, it was “Mr. John" who brought the family groceries but, in turn, molested young Rabbit and her sister Sweetie in a nearby cemetery – for years.
“Sweetie and I never talked about what Mr. John did to us in the front seat of his El Camino,” Williams recalls, “but I always wondered if Mama noticed what was going on.”
Dysfunctional as she was, Williams’ mother Mildred somehow managed to get her children from point A to point B and beyond – with perseverance rather than love – teaching Rabbit how to roll drunks while shooting up the house with her .22 whenever she was mad (which was often).
Mildred Williams is vivid here, herself an obvious victim of circumstance, an alcoholic who didn’t step in when Rabbit, at 12, began “dating” a 20-year-old named Derrick who (unbeknownst to Rabbit) had a wife and children at home. When Rabbit became pregnant, at 13, and was about to deliver – her mother simply called an ambulance, telling the frightened Rabbit, “No use in both of us going to the hospital.”
If this memoir is dizzying, it is also grounded by a grown Williams, looking back not only on a chaotic upbringing – during which she was shot twice – but also upon a handful of caring adults including a teacher Rabbit had in an early grade, Ms. Troup.
“Miss Troup was badass and beautiful,” Williams says. “She was like an angel to me.”
Miss Troup taught young Rabbit to read, and how to groom herself and pay attention so she could go on in school, eventually becoming “anything you want.”
There were also social workers along the way, who instilled hope in Rabbit who, “by the time I hit sixth grade, I’d found my secret talent: I had a lot of mouth.” Mother of two by the time she was 15, it took a while before Williams could use that mouth in a good way. Derrick was a drug dealer and, following his lead, Rabbit dropped out of school to become one too, raking in astonishing amounts of money selling crack – and giving her children the kind of home and niceties she had dreamt of as a child herself.
At one point, after adding Sweetie’s four children to her own, she found herself teaching the girls how to conceal dime sacks of crack in their panties, then selling the sacks from the street corner.
“Once in a while I got a nagging feeling I was doing something wrong,” she confides. “It nagged me like a mosquito buzzing in my ear, but mostly I tried not to think about it. I was teaching the girls to survive, just like my mama taught me.
"Rabbit’s turf was on a mean street in 1980s Atlanta and the job ended with an arrest followed, in time, by jail. To tell more, however, would betray the main thrust of Williams’ book: How she got out of a risky, illegal, dead-end life and into one of meaning and, of course, humor.
It is a transformation she views today with real depth of feeling for her late mother Mildred, who died in her sleep at 39 (when Rabbit was 16) and whose shining moment had been the day she appeared in a TV news story about crime in her neighborhood:
“When most folks think about the problems of growing up in the hood, they think about what it must feel like to be poor, or hungry, or have your lights turned off,” Williams says.
“The struggle nobody talks about is what it feels like to be invisible, what it’s like when you know in your heart nobody cares. Mama didn’t want to be famous; she wanted to be seen. All those years I thought we were so different, but when I got onstage and saw all those faces smiling back at me, I realized Mama and I craved the same thing.”
This is, in short, a humdinger of a memoir – mesmerizing but disturbing, a reader ever aware that Williams’ early life was not unlike others’, most of those others never finding a way out of their life-perpetuating mires.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist and veteran News book reviewer.