Burn Down the Ground: A Memoirby Kambri Crews
In this powerful, affecting, and unflinching memoir, a daughter looks back on her unconventional childhood with deaf parents in rural Texas while trying to reconcile it to her present life—one in which her father is serving a twenty-year sentence in a maximum-security prison. As a child, Kambri Crews wished that she’d been born deaf so that she,… See more details below
In this powerful, affecting, and unflinching memoir, a daughter looks back on her unconventional childhood with deaf parents in rural Texas while trying to reconcile it to her present life—one in which her father is serving a twenty-year sentence in a maximum-security prison. As a child, Kambri Crews wished that she’d been born deaf so that she, too, could fully belong to the tight-knit Deaf community that embraced her parents. Her beautiful mother was a saint who would swiftly correct anyone’s notion that deaf equaled dumb. Her handsome father, on the other hand, was more likely to be found hanging out with the sinners. Strong, gregarious, and hardworking, he managed to turn a wild plot of land into a family homestead complete with running water and electricity. To Kambri, he was Daniel Boone, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ben Franklin, and Elvis Presley all rolled into one. But if Kambri’s dad was Superman, then the hearing world was his kryptonite. The isolation that accompanied his deafness unlocked a fierce temper—a rage that a teenage Kambri witnessed when he attacked her mother, and that culminated fourteen years later in his conviction for another violent crime. With a smart mix of brutal honesty and blunt humor, Kambri Crews explores her complicated bond with her father—which begins with adoration, moves to fear, and finally arrives at understanding—as she tries to forge a new connection between them while he lives behind bars. Burn Down the Ground is a brilliant portrait of living in two worlds—one hearing, the other deaf; one under the laid-back Texas sun, the other within the energetic pulse of New York City; one mired in violence, the other rife with possibility—and heralds the arrival of a captivating new voice.
“Kambri Crews is an exceptional writer. Her voice is fresh, fearless, and singular—with an ability to craft a story you will never be able to forget, but also won’t be able to stop talking about.”—Mandy Stadtmiller, columnist, New York Post
“A riveting American tale, delivered with clear eyes and great love. In the face of incredible hardship, Crews endures.”—Jane Borden, author of I Totally Meant to Do That
“Addictive and heartbreaking, Kambri’s memoir demonstrates both true grit and a sense of humor that exists only among the very sharpest of those who have survived extraordinary childhoods.”—Julie Klausner, author of I Don’t Care About Your Band
“Imagine living in a tin shed, growing up as the hearing child of deaf parents, seeing your father attack your mother, or sneaking gum into prison. Those are just half of the challenges Kambri Crews faced growing up. Burn Down the Ground is a story of triumph in the face of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and, worst of all, heartbreakingly powerful love.”—Annabelle Gurwitch, co-author of You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up
“In my eyes, Kambri Crews is a heroine. It takes a person—a survivor—with a miraculous magnitude of strength to be able to see the human side of her father in spite of what he did.”—Julie Rems-Smario, executive director, DeafHope
“Kambri Crews is a survivor, and a fiercely witty one. Her memories of growing up with two volatile deaf parents in the backwoods of Texas will inspire, delight, horrify, and amaze you. The matter-of-fact way in which she describes traumatic and painful events puts me in mind of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’. Read this unforgettable account of an American family’s tragic explosion and the tough-as-nails young woman who walked out of the ashes to tell her tale.”—Sara Benincasa, author of Agorafabulous
"As well-paced and stirring as a novel. In her fluid narrative … Crews neither wallows in self-pity nor plays for cheap black-comedic yuks. Instead, this book stands out for what matters most: Crews’ story, bluntly told.” —Elle Magazine
“[An] unsparing yet compassionate account of [Crews’] dysfunctional childhood and the father who both charmed and victimized her family… Poignant and unsettling.” —Kirkus
“Harrowing…What Kambri has done is face the truth with an unflinching eye… a remarkable odyssey of scorched earth, collateral damage, and survival… intensely readable.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] vivid and affectionate depiction of life with two deaf parents.. like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Burn Down the Ground interweaves the toughness and laughter of an impoverished Texan childhood… Her story is a testament to her resilience, and to the power of recognition and forgiveness to heal childhood wounds.” —BookPage
“[Crews] renders a compelling testament to the strength of the human spirit.”
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Read an Excerpt
KINGPIN tugged on the belt loop of Mom’s skintight jeans, and waited for her to look down and acknowledge me. I wanted money to play Space Invaders in the bowling alley arcade, but she was con- centrating on reading the lips of a balding deaf man who had two hooks for hands. Despite having no ﬁngers, he tried to communicate with American Sign Language (ASL), scraping the curved metal claws against each other as if he were giving a Ginsu knife demonstration. My mother was an expert lip reader and kept her eyes focused on his mouth to make sense of the ﬂurried ﬂashes of metal; she bobbed her head up and down to let him know that she understood.
I stared at the beige plastic attachments that encased each wrist and wondered how they stayed connected to his ﬂeshy stubs. Did he take them off at night? Were they suction cups or drilled into his arms? I shuddered at the thought and watched how he made the hooks open and close.
Was he born that way or did he have an accident? After con- templating both scenarios, I decided it would be better if he were born without hands. That way he wouldn’t know the difference. I couldn’t imagine that the world would be so cruel as to take the hands of a grown deaf man.
As I stared at his signing, his hooks brushed perilously close to my face, causing me to reel back in fear. I had a brief horrify- ing image of running for my life being chased by him, with his grunts and wheezing breath hot on my neck. But Mom, who made fast friends with everyone she met, was perfectly at ease.
I yanked harder and smacked her round bottom. “MAAAA- MMMMAA!!!”
“What?” Mom signed by waving her hand with the palm side up, exasperated at my persistence. “Can’t you see I’m talking?”
“Need quarter,” I signed back.
Mom could partially hear when she wore powerful hearing aids—one of which was always on the fritz, in need of a battery or screeching like brakes crying for new pads—but they were useless in the din of crashing bowling pins. For all practical purposes, she was as deaf as every other grown-up gathered in the dingy Tulsa bowling alley smelling of fried food, cigarettes, and beer. They had traveled here from all parts of the country to com- pete in the 1978 National Deaf Bowling Tournament, where Mom was scheduled to defend her title as women’s singles champion.
This event was the type of activity the Deaf community cre- ated so that members could mingle. In the days before the Inter- net and mobile gadgets, the best way for the Deaf to socialize was old-fashioned face-to-face time through clubs, travel groups, cruises, and sporting events like ﬁshing and bowling tourna- ments. While some fathers may have gravitated toward ﬁshing and hunting, mine liked bowling because he could smoke, drink, and carouse between rounds. Mom liked it because she was damned good, with a 164 average. Usually her winnings were enough to pay for our trips with a little proﬁt to boot.
The National Deaf Bowling Association was founded in 1964, but the women’s singles had only been around for four years and Mom was already a force to be reckoned with. She loved to brag about how she was knocking down pins while knocked up with me. She’d bowled three days prior to my birth and was back in the alley three days later.
The wooden lanes and alley lights may as well have been the stage and footlights of Broadway. She was a star and I was proud to say she was my mother.
Mom answered my plea for a quarter by pantomiming empty front pockets and signing, “I’m out. Go ask your daddy.”
Without hesitation, I turned on my heels and skipped to the bowling alley lounge, where I found my father leaning against the pool table holding court among a small gathering of onlookers. He held a cold can of Coors Light and a lit Kool in one hand and was signing with his free hand.
“Two deaf people get married. The ﬁrst week of living together they ﬁnd it hard to talk in the bedroom after they turn off the lights.”
I caught Dad’s eye and he gave me a quick wink as he gave the ASL sign for “wait” by wiggling his slim ﬁngers palm side up, revealing the calluses from his years as a construction worker. Unlike my mother, Dad didn’t speak at all other than an occa- sional shout of a name or profanity aimed at a Dallas Cowboys game. When he did, his voice came out in an oddly high pitch with too much air behind it. He couldn’t read lips as well as Mom and didn’t move his mouth much when he signed.
I let him ﬁnish the joke that he didn’t bother censoring, even though I was nearby. I had watched him tell it at least a dozen times. As he signed, the ash on his cigarette grew longer.
“After several nights of misunderstandings, the wife comes up with a solution. ‘Honey, we need simple signals in the bed- room at night. If you want to have sex, just reach over and squeeze my breast once; and if you don’t want to have sex, squeeze it twice.’
“The husband replies, ‘Great idea. If you want to have sex, pull my dick once. If you don’t want to have sex, pull it a hundred and
ﬁfty times.’ ”
His audience erupted into a variety of loud grunts and squeals of laughter. One waved his hands, while another signed ASL let- ters, “H-A-H-A-H-A.” Dad chuckled at himself with a slight curl of his upper lip, making a dimple appear in his right cheek. He took a drag of his cigarette and the long, crooked ash ﬁnally broke off, landing on the worn, booze-stained carpet. A few ﬂakes ﬂoated onto his dark blue jeans and he sent them ﬂying with one forceful burst of breath. He inspected his appearance and brushed off the remaining ashes before he asked, “What’s wrong?”
I signed back, “Need money.”
“Okay, but don’t waste,” he warned before making a big pro- duction out of retrieving his wallet and ﬁshing through its con- tents. I’d always thought of my father like a deaf Elvis. Tall, muscular, and handsome with dark hair combed back into a modern pompadour, he could charm the skin off a snake. His friends were caught in his magnetic spell and kept their eyes trained on our exchange. Dad seized the opportunity to remain in the spotlight. He grabbed my shoulder and whisked me around to face his fans.
“Do you know my daughter? Her name K-A-M-B-R-I.” In ASL, it is customary to introduce someone by ﬁrst spelling out the name letter by letter followed up with a shorthand sign, a “Name Sign,” to refer to that person. A person’s Name Sign often uses the ﬁrst letter of their name in ASL incorporated with the sign that indicates a physical or personal characteristic, such as a big smile or a goatee or, in my case, my temperament as a baby.
Dad signed each letter slowly so they had time to soak in my unusual name. He then drew a tear on each of his cheeks using the middle ﬁnger of the ASL letter “K” to show them the sign he and Mom had created for me.
“Why tears with a ‘K’? Because when she was a baby she never cried. No. Never. Always laugh, laugh, laugh.”
He patted my head and smiled. I looked back at the adult faces staring at me and forced my lips into a smile—not quite the hyena Dad was describing—as I waited for the money. As was always the case when I was introduced to deaf people, the ﬁrst question was, “Hearing?”
Dad signed, “Yes, hearing.”
I sensed a twinge of disappointment in their expressions, a typical reaction when deaf friends learned I wasn’t one of them. I understand it now, but as a seven-year-old kid I found myself wishing I had been born deaf, too. Then I would belong to the tight-knit Deaf community instead of being just an honorary member.
“Very smart,” Dad bragged. “Good girl. Nickname ‘Motor
You know you talk a lot when your deaf family nicknames you Motor Mouth.
Dad passed me a crisp bill, and my eyes widened when I saw it was a ﬁve. Five bucks would get me an icy Dr Pepper, greasy crinkle fries, and plenty of games in the arcade.
“Share with your brother,” he signed with a warning raise of his brow.
David could fend for himself. Besides, I reasoned, he was three and a half years older than me and better at most video games. One quarter lasted him a hell of a long time; surely he didn’t need any more money. After a quick thank-you to Dad and a half-assed wave to his friends, I left the dark, smoky hideaway and headed straight for the snack bar.
In the game room, I found David dominating Space Invaders, as usual. He swayed and ducked, jerked the joystick, and repeat- edly bashed the ﬁre button as a crowd of admiring onlookers grew around him. He must have been within reach of the ma- chine’s high score, a feat I’d witnessed him achieve once before.
“Totally rad!” a kid shouted, giving David a slap on the back.
“Yeah, totally!” said another with a high-ﬁve. My brother ac- cepted the accolades from his minions, who always ﬂitted be- hind him, with a smug smirk.
“That was so neat, man!”
A freckle-faced kid challenged, “Yeah, but can you reach the
“Video games don’t end,” another kid stated with certainty. “Oh yeah? Well then how far does it go?”
We weren’t totally sure. Each round became progressively harder so it was difﬁcult imagining a game lasting forever. But if you were winning, why would a game just quit? David seemed in line to be our exploratory leader, a twentieth-century Christopher Columbus.
I smacked down a quarter on the glass screen with a crack, claiming my place as the next player in line, and waited for him to lose.
“Go away,” he demanded. “You’re gonna fuck me up.”
David was skinnier than a dried stick of spaghetti and, at ten years old, already as tall as many adults. Like me, his hair was as white as hotel sheets with skin browned from frolicking every day in the blazing South Texas heat without a drop of sunscreen. David returned to concentrating on his game, so I ignored his command and lingered long enough to see him lose a turn.
“See!” he yelled as he gave a quick jab to my arm. “Look at what you made me do!”
I yelped in pain and poked the lump where he had knuckle- punched me.
“I told you to go away,” he hissed. “Stop watching me.”
The End was apparently not in sight as long as I was present. David’s cronies sneered at me. I was jeopardizing my brother’s attempt at immortality, so I retreated to the Pong machine. When I ran out of quarters, I sprinted back to the lanes, where the hook-handed man was stepping up to bowl. He had replaced his right hook with a special contraption that gripped his bowling ball. As he charged down the alley, he used his left hook to whack some lever or button that sent his ball barreling toward the pins. I had no idea how many he knocked down or if his aim was any good. Did it matter? A deaf man with hooks for hands was bowling.
When the bowling was ﬁnished, my parents’ night was just getting warmed up. Every night out to a Deaf event ended the same way. My mom and dad stood gathered in a circle of deaf family and friends for what seemed like an eternity while I did absolutely nothing, waiting impatiently to go home. Drink after drink crossed the bar—more Coors Light for Dad, Seven & Sev- ens for Mom—as Deaf community gossip was dished with a
ﬂurry of hands.
Unlike other kids absorbing adult chatter, my “listening in” required eyes and dedicated attention. I was tired and desper- ately wanted to go, but getting a deaf person to leave any social engagement was harder than eating spaghetti with a knife.
Hoping my parents would notice, I made a dramatic produc- tion of pushing together three plastic chairs to serve as a make- shift bed. I draped Dad’s denim blazer over me and waited for them to call it a night. I almost wanted to walk up to the alley manager and tell him to ﬂick the lights on and off, the best way of telling a group of deaf people it was closing time. Although I was too big to be carried around like a baby, when my father roused me, I pretended to be fast asleep. He scooped me up and carried me to the car. I buried my face in his neck and breathed in his trademark scent of Jovan Musk and beer and nicotine. My parents, never extravagant with accommodations, unloaded us at a roadside motel for the night.
The next afternoon, a local news reporter arrived at the bowl- ing alley to cover the ﬁnal day of the tournament, creating a buzz. A slim strawberry blonde, my mother was easy on the eyes. For the ﬁrst few years of her life, she could hear without the help of hearing aids. This meant she could speak more clearly than most of her hearing-impaired peers, making her the unofﬁcial ambas- sador to the hearing world. Naturally, the reporter chose to inter- view her.
Mom was scheduled to close the annual ceremony by per- forming several songs in ASL, accompanied by a live band. More thrillingly, however, the concert was going to be shown on televi- sion.
There weren’t many occasions for Mom to get gussied up, so when the opportunity presented itself she went full glitz. Seeing her leave the motel room dressed in three-inch heels and a shiny, short-sleeved maroon wrap dress that clung to her tan skin and showcased her enormous breasts, you’d have thought she was headed to New York’s Studio 54 instead of a run-down bowling alley. At thirty-one, she was in the prime of her life and the center of attention. She loved every minute of it.
The reporter chatted with my mother, who was standing near the band, two guitarists and a drummer, who were setting up their instruments at the far end of the establishment. The cam- eraman turned on the bright spotlight and with a quick toss of her head and ﬂash of a smile, Mom was “on.” Before the reporter could even ask a question, Mom declared, “We are deaf not dumb.”
To this day, the phrase “deaf and dumb” is the most offensive insult to a deaf person. Mom wanted to make it clear that just because a person couldn’t hear didn’t mean they lacked intelli- gence.
I stood directly behind the cameraman and admired how proudly she stood, with both shoulders back. Even now, as a woman in her sixties, she carries herself with the same poise and grace at a backyard barbecue as at a wedding. She gestured to a table of merchandise like a TV game show model presenting an item up for bid. The table had items available for purchase, as- sorted T-shirts and handcrafted buttons proclaiming, “Deaf and dumb SMART.” They rested alongside an abundance of cro- cheted knickknacks, jewelry, and assorted keepsakes decorated with hands in the shape of the ASL sign for “I love you.”
The reporter nodded politely. “You are performing a concert tonight. How can deaf people enjoy music?”
“Even though we can’t hear, we can feel the vibration.” She simultaneously signed as she spoke. “We dance to the beat of our own drummer.” She ﬂashed a wide smile that revealed two rows of straight, white teeth, perfect except for a chip in the front from a childhood spill on a tricycle.
“Deaf people enjoy music. They just don’t hear the lyrics,” Mom explained. That’s where she came in.
My mother loved music and incorporated it into every aspect of her life. Deafness ran in her family. She was born to two pro- foundly deaf parents, and had a younger deaf sister named Carly and a few deaf aunts and uncles. By having some hearing ability, it was as if she were determined to hear enough music for all of them and listened to it with a junkie’s fervor. Anything would do. Hard-rocking Led Zeppelin played alongside the kooky, light pop of Captain & Tennille.
Mom collected hundreds of vinyl records. She also subscribed to Billboard’s Hot 100 and music magazines that published lyrics so she could understand the words. Every Sunday afternoon, she piled a thick stack of 45s onto the hi-ﬁ console turntable, the most impressive piece of furniture we ever owned, cranked the volume, and cleaned house while singing to her favorite songs. Mom couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But it didn’t matter: Our weekend ritual was so much fun with Mom vacuuming and David and me sharing the dusting duties.
I plopped down cross-legged, front row and center, in the crowd that formed in a semicircle around Mom and the band. I slapped my hand over my puffed-up chest as they began to play the national anthem.
I mouthed along with her signing as the song swelled to its triumphant end, majestically demonstrated by Mom’s sweeping movements, “. . . and the home . . . of the . . . BRAVE!” I ap- plauded wildly while the Deaf showed their approval by raising their arms and wiggling their ﬁngers as if they were tickling God’s belly. No one could sign a song in ASL like Mom could.
Mom accepted the praise with a curtsy and thank-you before she continued. “This next song is my favorite. It’s called ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac.” The music started and stirred within her. She grooved in place to the opening chords.
Now here you go again,
You say you want your freedom . . .
Mom was ﬂushed from the heat of the spotlight, the thrill of performing, and the few cocktails she’d been drinking. Dad leaned against a wall in the back of the crowd, sipping a fresh Coors Light. He smiled with a slight smirk as his wife relished the limelight. I shared his thought: She was beautiful.
From where I sat, my mother was the envy of anyone in that stale Tulsa bowling alley. But the truth was, this trip to Oklahoma should have been our last as a family. Dad had cheated on Mom again—this time on New Year’s Eve—and pretty much everyone there knew it except for David and me. Fed up with his philan- dering, Mom was leaving him. She’d hastily packed everything we owned into a rented storage space and in the days before we set off for Tulsa, she had checked us into an apartment in the bad part of Houston that charged by the week.
David and I didn’t know the purpose of our trip to Tulsa. We were unaware that Mom was going to break the news to her par- ents about her plans to divorce Dad. By participating in the bowl- ing tournament, she was also fulﬁlling her obligations to the Deaf community. She was the reigning women’s singles cham- pion, after all.
My father was just along for the ride to see his friends and keep up appearances for Mom, though he had a hard time stay- ing on the straight and narrow. He couldn’t help but party hard and ﬂirt, assuring anyone who questioned his antics that he was going to be single soon.
“Christy left me,” he told one woman. “She wants a divorce,” he told another. He wasn’t lying, but his comments resulted in something Dad hadn’t anticipated. He had set the rumor mill swirling and several women approached Mom with the same blunt question: “Are you and Ted getting a divorce?” One thing Mom passed down to me was her disdain for the malicious gos- sip that seemed to infect their circle of friends in the Deaf com- munity, as if there was some sort of perverse satisfaction in circulating the misery of another. Being married to my father made her hypersensitive to the damage that whispers could cause.
“Who told you that?” Mom deﬁantly responded. “Ted,” they answered.
She confronted Dad with the gossip. “Why did they ask me that?”
“They’re jealous of you,” he signed. “They don’t want to see us together.”
“But they said you told them I left you.”
“No! They lie. They’re trying to break us up and cause prob- lems.” My father could spin shit into gold. Once he told a lie, he committed to it, and with each retelling it became his truth. He grabbed Mom by her waist and smothered her neck and cheeks with kisses, smiling as he cooed in his softest voice, “I luh yooo, Chrisseee. I luh yooo.” There was his dimple again.
Some kids might have been embarrassed at seeing their par- ents be affectionate, but I never was. I loved watching them kiss and cuddle. I was too young to understand my father’s motives and see that he was playing upon Mom’s weakness: her determi- nation to appear strong, in control, and poised like the woman her fans adored. That night, her pride got in the way—she knew he was a cheater, but by staying with him she could prove the nay-saying gossips wrong. So she took him back, on one condi- tion.
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