Jumping for Her Life: Talking with Veronica Chambers

By Lise Funderburg

New York Newsday

No wonder people approach Veronica Chambers at book signings to talk about jump ropes. Chambers opens her memoir, “Mama’s Girl” (Riverhead, $22.95), with a reminiscence of jumping double dutch that is just poetry. “There is a space,” she writes, “between the concrete and heaven where the air is sweeter and your heart beats faster.”

The lyrical first chapter, a set piece on childhood in East Flatbush during the 1980s, teems with double-dutch etiquette and detail: which rhymes were recited, who got to be in charge (the rope’s owner). The specifics are so engaging that you don’t expect what’s coming, the book’s true theme: Young Veronica sees her mother coming home at the end of the day and pleads with her to watch the new jumping moves she’s learned: “But she wouldn’t even turn around. She’d be carrying a plastic shopping bag that held her work shoes and the Daily News.

” ‘Some other time,’ she’d say, closing the gate behind her.

“There’s so much I can do. So much stuff she doesn’t know. But it’s always some other time with her.”

“Mama’s Girl” grew out of a 1991 Essence magazine essay that Chambers began: “I’ve become the woman my mother wanted to be, but she can’t deal with it.” At the time, Chambers had put herself through college, graduating at 20, and had won internships at Sassy, Seventeen and Essence. Her achievements went unrecognized while her brother, three years younger, commanded the family spotlight whether his behavior was good or bad. Mostly, it was bad.

“A lot of people are jealous of a sibling who’s really successful, academically or athletically,” Chambers says with a wry laugh. “But to me, my brother always had it sewn up. If I did good, nobody noticed. If I did better, nobody noticed.” Worse, as Veronica’s successes mounted, her mother called her an Oreo and a buppie.

The response to Chambers’ essay was enormous. “I got mail from mothers and I got mail from daughters and I got pictures and I think it was the first time my mother and I realized that our situation wasn’t unique.” Chambers’ agent realized it, too, and asked her to consider writing a memoir. Chambers hesitated — she was only 22 at the time — but couldn’t resist the offer of a contract from Riverhead Books. So she set out to write her story. Her book, actually, is less about her own life than it is an exploration of the twists and turns in her relationships to her emotionally distant mother and rebellious brother, all of them in the shadow of her abusive, disappointing father.

Almost immediately, the book questions why Chambers and her brother have taken such different paths. “That’s something I really tried to sort out,” she says. “Why my brother; why not me?” Both witnessed — and experienced — their father’s unpredictable wrath, mostly released upon their mother. In one chilling passage, Chambers recalls his hitting her mother in the head with a hammer. Chambers chronicles years of her father’s broken promises: to take them places, to give them things, to be there for them.

And yet her brother was, and remains, his staunch defender. When Chambers sent her brother the manuscript (he was in prison at the time), he told her he threw it away once he saw how she depicted their father. He claims not to remember any of the violence she recorded. “They say you can give ten people a camera and tell them to take a picture of the same flower,” Chambers says, “but it’ll be ten different pictures. My brother’s camera was focused somewhere else completely and, I think, quite purposefully.”

Two days later, however, her brother called to say he’d fished the book out of the trash, read it…and loved it. “He felt like he understood my mother more,” Chambers explains.

The book centers on Chambers’ oft-disrupted high school years. She went to her father’s after she and her stepfather reached the limits of mutual intolerance, but when she left her mother’s home, no one got up to see her out. Chambers writes of that departure: ” ‘Leave your keys,’ my mother said. ‘I’ll lock the door.'”

Chambers moved in with her father and a stepmother who regularly called Veronica ugly and refused to let her eat off her dishes. Veronica had to beg money from her father to buy food she could store in her room. Her escape route was Simon’s Rock College in Massachusetts, which was willing to take her at age 16.

The pressures of her adolescence peaked the summer after her junior year. She sank into a depression so deep that even her mother couldn’t ignore it. Inquiry led to argument, and finally Veronica spoke her heart: ” ‘Worry about me, Mom,’ I said. ‘Start worrying about me.’ ” Then they talked for hours, taking the first steps toward a relationship Chambers now treasures.

Chambers continues to collect success. Just before her book came out in June, she finished a year-long Freedom Forum fellowship (based at Columbia University), researching how media images affect the relationship between black and Asian communities. To take the fellowship, she resigned from a story-editor position at The New York Times Magazine. Out of her cheery studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights, she is now working on a young-adult novel and adapting “Mama’s Girl” into a teleplay for Oprah Winfrey’s production company.

It bears emphasizing at this point: She is only 25 years old. Perhaps this explains why, interspersed with stretches of clear and gripping prose, there are the callow notes that demonstrate why most people wait another 20 years or so before reflecting on their lives. But where there are occasional lapses in perspective, there are none in the “emotional veracity” that Chambers had hoped for.

On the other hand, her combination of youth and achievement is simply impressive. She is clearly driven, but also disarmingly modest. “I have an element of wanting success,” she concedes, “but I would have been less inclined to cling to that if it weren’t for the fact that there just wasn’t space in my house for two people to . . . [mess up] like my brother did. That’s what it boils down to more than anything.”