Do the write thing: Rosie Perez reveals traumatic childhood in new memoir

Whole lotta Rosie: Brooklyn actress Rosie Perez will dicuss her new memoir at St. Joseph’s College on Feb. 26.
Photo by Eric Johnson

It is hard to keep Rosie Perez down — and more than a few have tried.

In her candid new memoir, “Handbook for an Unpredictable Life,” the Brooklyn-born and bred actress reveals her traumatic childhood in Bushwick and upstate New York, chronicling the poverty, racism, sexism, and abuse she overcame on the rocky road to stardom.

With a stoic sense of humor and more than a few expletives, Perez details how she was taken from her aunt’s care at a young age by her mentally ill mother, and put into an orphanage, where she was subject to regular beatings and humiliation by the resident nuns. The story continues through her meeting with another famous Brooklynite, Spike Lee, her film debut in “Do the Right Thing,” and her subsequent struggles with the media and life as a public figure.

But despite the often heavy content, the book remains an easy and enjoyable read, thanks to Perez’s colorful, conversational writing style and a cracking pace that doesn’t dwell long on even the darkest passages.

On Feb. 26, Perez will discuss her life and work in a conversation with New Yorker writer Hilton Als as part of Saint Joseph’s College’s “Brooklyn Voices” series. We caught up with Perez ahead of the event.

Ruth Brown: Was it difficult to relive all the hard parts of your childhood while writing the book?

Rosie Perez: It was difficult at times but also very enlightening and absolutely amusing. There were good times that made me laugh out loud. The absurdity made me laugh at times as well, and also allowed a safe distance to examine and feel good about all that I overcame.

RB: What was your intention in releasing your memoir — just to get your story out there, or are you hoping that it will have a greater impact?

RP: It was more about getting it out, to validate my experience and feelings about what had happened, and most importantly, to move on. If it inspires readers, that would be the icing on the cake — a true blessing.

RB: You have found success on both stage and screen as an actor, dancer, and director. Given your background is in visual mediums, was it a challenge to tell your story through the written word?

RP: I am secure and comfortable with who I am so it wasn’t an effort to find the correct prose in my writing. The difficulty was in editing. There was so much to tell. Deciding what stayed in was a challenge.

RB: You wrote about the things you both loved and hated about your childhood neighborhood of Bushwick. Do you go back much these days? Is it very different to how you remember it?

RP: I go back to Bushwick frequently, as well as Williamsburg. I still have family and friends who live there. Yes, the neighborhood is changing very quickly, but there are sections that have remained pretty much the same. Gentrification is a blessing and a curse. To watch people, who have lived and continue to live there, not able to participate in the “good” changes is heartbreaking. I hope the benefits are more evenly distributed. And that the residents that have been there forever garner the respect they deserve and not feared or looked at as being subpar.

Rosie Perez at St. Joseph’s College’s [245 Clinton Ave. between Dekalb and Willoughby avenues in Clinton Hill, (718) 940–5300, www.sjcny.edu]. Feb. 26 at 7:30 pm. Free.

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