The mystery of dad, the madness of mom
Raised by a sociopath, local author Cori Crooks uses uncovered scraps, edged photos and the blogosphere to rediscover her life story
Call it fate.
For local writer Cori Crooks, the intersection of a lie she felt compelled to share and the discovery of how to blog made a world’s difference. She’d been told by her late mother that the man she thought was her dad wasn’t, in fact, her biological father. Devastating. So she started a blog, A Gag Reflex, which chronicled her efforts to uncover the truth—and attempts to get her alleged father to agree to a DNA test.
Now, it’s a book.
But Sweet Charlotte’s Seventh Mistake, recently published by Seal Press, is far more than just a blog transplanted to the page; it’s a chronicle of family dysfunction that is to memoir what sculpture is to Play-Doh. Crooks has pieced together a pastiche from documents, family photos, poem fragments, letters and her own memory. “It’s really the anti-scrapbook,” Crooks says, revealing that the “Charlotte” of the title is Crooks’ mother and the “seventh mistake” is Crooks herself.
And the story is pure pulp fiction.
Crooks’ mother was a woman of many aliases, husbands, children and misadventures. A grifter, jailbird, go-go dancer, junkie. A free spirit. An artist.
“She was a con. But you never know where the truth is with a con, because they’ve generally got a nugget of truth buried somewhere in the story,” Crooks says plainly of her mom’s deceitfulness.
Crooks blog and subsequent book sifts out the nuggets, starting with her siblings: Greg, Peter, Marcia, Jan, Bobby and Cindy—in the book. “I realized that all the siblings, the nieces and nephews, even their grandkids might prefer some privacy. So I decided to give them pseudonyms, and the kids from The Brady Bunch were just perfect,” she explains.
The oldest, Greg, was raised by his father. Marcia and Jan, twins born while Crooks’ mother was in jail, were adopted and raised by a foster family, who later also adopted Peter. Bobby and Cindy lived back and forth with Crooks’ mother and great-grandmother.
But Crooks, except for a short stint in a foster home, mostly lived with her mother.
“She always tried to keep me with her. That might have been because of the Social Security checks I received,” Crooks says. These payments arrived on behalf of a man cited as “father” on Crooks’ birth certificate; he had died when she was an infant. “I was tied to money,” she reveals.
The roller-coaster ride came to a crashing halt when Crooks was 21. Her mother overdosed in the bathtub in Crooks’ apartment. “She died leaving a lot of questions that she could have answered. That’s a cruel thing. But she didn’t know who her father was either,” she notes.
Crooks and her mother shared a rootless life, Charlotte rambling from job to job, husband to husband. Crooks was along for the ride, always noticing that not everyone seemed to behave as her mother did: The cons. The stories. Having been in the Beach Blanket movies. Being under the protection of Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels.
“It was really strange coming of age to realize that it wasn’t OK just because Mom was doing it,” Crooks says. She’s still digging into her mother’s life, but bit by bit, as she’s ready. For example, she hasn’t yet retrieved her mother’s criminal record.
“I know she was in prison in Oregon and California,” Crooks says. And then there was that robbery gone bad in Florida, where her mom’s boyfriend killed a man and Charlotte helped hide the body. Crooks can’t bring herself to examine the police records.
“She would tell me stories of being basically a child, a very young woman in prison, and being raped,” Crooks says, shuddering lightly. “Some bedtime story.”
But Crooks has compassion. She’s come to grips with her mother’s struggle as a woman on her own in the ’50s and ’60s with little in the way of education and skills and nothing at all in the way of support. “It was pre-Roe v. Wade. She was a Catholic. She had no access to birth control, but she wanted to be in control of her life,” Crooks says. “There’s an opportunity for everyone to be in a situation beyond their control and to make bad decisions.”
There’s also, always, a chance to do something different.
Crooks was 14 when her mother told her that David Crooks wasn’t her father. Then, after she became a mother herself, she decided to find out for sure. That led to the blog, which led to the book. And the memories were sorted, sifted, pasted together. Each fragment picked up, examined. “Lack of memory is a defense mechanism. It saves kids. Reinterpreting memories so that they protect you is what saves you,” she says.
In the book, Crooks has designed and decorated the fragments, like the borders of children’s literature. Or the illuminated edges of medieval manuscripts. And she took the pieces of stories, regardless of whether they were true or made up. She used documents’ shards and ripple-edged photos. “What I got from this book was making something solid out of all those bits of memory. Now it’s something that makes sense. And I can put it on the shelf,” she says.
Crooks knows where her DNA came from. She still calls David her “spiritual father,” because his memory—and the money to raise her—were two of the few things she could count on.
“That’s who I am. That’s who I grew up being. I’m lucky. I’m the plane-crash survivor. I’m appreciative,” she says.
Call it fate.