Ryan Chartrand

Today, fame is no longer a prerequisite for writing an autobiography. All you need is to be able to make your life sound more interesting than the other six billion people in the world. Journalist Kevin Sessums does just that in his memoir “Mississippi Sissy,” a heartbreaking account of growing up gay in Mississippi.

It’s the early 1960s, and conservative Mississippi is being turned upside down.

If it isn’t the newly segregated school system, it’s that troublesomely liberal President Johnson. Meanwhile, young Sessums is dealing with his own set of problems, from childhood molestation to the death of his parents at an early age.

Instead of complaining along with his relatives, Sessums prefers reading “Valley of the Dolls,” dressing up as the Wicked Witch of the West for Halloween, and orchestrating a Little Miss Goldwater pageant at his school. This behavior becomes increasingly worrisome to his teachers and relatives. After all, his grandmother states in the book, “This is Mississippi. We don’t stand for no nonsense down here.”

In addition to his own narrative, Sessum’s book reflects a changing South, a fact he registers even as a child. In one chapter, his grandmother encourages him to pick cotton on a friend’s plantation to toughen him up. He agrees, knowing it is most likely one of the “last chances to participate in such a Southern tradition because manual labor for such backbreaking work (is) being phased out.”

The name “Sissy” links an otherwise random string of memories; it becomes a source of strength for the boy who feels he doesn’t belong anywhere. His mother says, “Even a word we think of as a mean one can be pretty if you listen to it in the right way … Meaning has no meaning if you train your ear to listen to how lovely language is.”

However, don’t look for a heartwarming “coming-of age” story here. Sessums doesn’t search for general significance in the events of his youth in the book. Instead, death, confusion and fear crowd its pages. Despite a nightmarish childhood, every obstacle Sessums faces simply makes him more determined to shape his own identity instead of conforming to society’s expectations.

While “Mississippi Sissy” is a compelling look at gender and sexuality, the book lacks the “aha!” factor that many memoirs incorporate as a means of tying a series of events together and adding meaning to their experiences. Though Sessums invites his reader into a different 1960s from the one commonly depicted, at the end, the reader is neither left with a memorable glimpse into another life nor a profound lesson to take away from the experience.

Without this, the book, while entertaining, is just a series of stories that jump around in chronology. Although Sessums portrays his youth in clear-eyed honesty, the reader is never able to break the invisible fourth wall between the author and the audience.

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