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'Diary of a Misfit' blends reportage, research and memoir

Diary of a Misfit, Casey Parks
Knopf

Lineages are complex. Some people can trace theirs back centuries; others can only go so far back before wars, genocides, the transatlantic slave trade, and other horrors interrupt recorded history; still others don't know their origins at all.

But not all lineages are familial, and not all ancestors are related by blood or marriage. Sometimes, we find or go searching for figures from the past because we're seeking to recognize some part of ourselves that we don't see mirrored in our families or communities.

For Casey Parks, a journalist for the Washington Post, Roy Hudgins was that person. And her first book, Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery, follows her attempts to uncover his story while rediscovering her own along the way.

The book opens with the anecdote that launched a thousand questions. Parks, home for the summer in West Monroe, Louisiana after her first year of college, is trying to comfort her inconsolable mother by promising not to be gay anymore. It doesn't work; after all, her mother is under the impression that her daughter's soul is with Satan, and only months before the family's preacher prayed that God would "save her and take her life immediately so she can make Heaven her home." Finally, Parks' grandmother comes in. "Rhonda Jean," she tells Parks' mother, "She likes women, and you need to get the f*** over it."

Parks and her grandmother were never particularly close — and she's surprised by the strongly worded defense of her sexuality. But the surprises aren't over. Later in the day, her grandmother tells Parks that she "grew up across the street from a woman who lived like a man." Immediately, Parks' mind begins to race with questions: Was he a trans man? Did anyone else know he wasn't cisgender? How did people accept him, especially in the South? "Everyone loved Roy, because he was a good, Christian person," her grandmother says. But how is that possible when Parks was just recently condemned by her own preacher?

Years later, in 2009, when Parks returns to Louisiana for the first time since that single college visit, she has an agenda: Find out more about Roy. But this proves to be difficult. While many people in Delhi (pronounced dell-high) knew and remember Roy, who has since died, they all have slightly different recollections of his identity and history. Parks' grandmother's recollection was that Roy was born into a family that abused him terribly until a neighbor, Jewel Ellis, kidnapped and raised him. Other folks tell Parks that Roy was left at an orphanage as a baby and that Jewel adopted him from there. Some people tell Parks that Jewel put Roy in pants to disguise him, others say it was because she couldn't afford dresses, and another version has it that John Ellis simply wanted a boy and so the couple worked with what they had.

But the search for Roy's story — which eventually becomes a film project that Parks works on with the help of friends and family alike — is really only part of what's going on. In trying to learn about him, Parks has an excuse to keep coming back to her family, to Louisiana, to the "funky stank of home," as Rhonda Jean calls it, which Parks describes more poetically as the scent of "honeysuckle and fish, like afternoon rain evaporating off hot pavement into a haze of cigarette smoke."

At the same time, she's also starting to make herself a home in Portland, where she works for The Oregonian. While Portland feels safer in some ways due to its large queer population, Parks also feels immensely alone there. As she strives to become a better journalist and continues pursuing information about Roy over the course of more than a decade, she begins to face her own past, too, from the heartbreak of losing church once she came out to her tumultuous and complex relationship with her mother.

She does so with remarkable empathy for her family members, Roy's acquaintances (even those who abandoned him in his later years), and her own younger self. "Now that a decade has passed," Parks writes, "now that I know how everything turns out, I'm tempted to go back and tinker with the meaning of everything. I want to give myself a motive where it's possible I felt none [...] but the truth is, most days, I didn't know why I did anything."

Not knowing — not being able to understand or access the full extent of something like Roy's story, her mother's drug use, the truth of her grandmother's stories — can be maddening. But the beauty of Diary of a Misfit is that it sits in that space, allowing Parks to unfold her family's history, her understanding of herself, and her obsession with Roy slowly and methodically.

In the process, she also beautifully portrays her interview subjects in the South and what she both loves and finds painful about home. This blend of reportage, research, and memoir has been blooming recently, with books like The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland exemplifying the interconnectedness of the personal, political, historical, and academic realms. Parks' book is a wonderful addition to the genre.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

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