Little Black Sheep: A Memoir

Little Black Sheep: A Memoir

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by Ashley Cleveland

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“This is the story of the groundwork that paved the way to my faith. It is not an easy story to tell….”
This powerful memoir from Grammy Award winner Ashley Cleveland reminds us that even in the lowest times of our lives, beauty can shine through.
As a young woman from a deeply flawed family, Ashley had little…  See more details below


“This is the story of the groundwork that paved the way to my faith. It is not an easy story to tell….”
This powerful memoir from Grammy Award winner Ashley Cleveland reminds us that even in the lowest times of our lives, beauty can shine through.
As a young woman from a deeply flawed family, Ashley had little hope she would amount to anything. If there was trouble, near or far, she found it. Yet, in her destructive days of drugs, alcohol, and sex, she encountered a forgiving God who was relentlessly faithful.
Change did not come quickly. The brokenness did not disappear. But little by little, Ashley allowed God to heal her, to transform her desires, to bring courage to others through her journey. Little by little, she saw that it was her brokenness itself that God wanted to use.
This beautifully told story will take you from the back rooms of Nashville to the churches of the San Francisco Bay area to a tender new life where one woman discovers that God can work in broken places.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Grammy-winner Cleveland recounts her troubled history and long romance with alcohol and drugs. Her parents were alcoholics who didn’t stay married long because her father was a closeted homosexual living in the South. Cleveland grew up shuttling back and forth between Tennessee and California, learning to get in trouble but also learning music, beginning with dancing to 45 rpm records in her bedroom. Both her music career and her addictions develop in California, until she becomes pregnant, an event that is life- and soul-saving. It takes a long time—most of the story—for her recovery to stick, which makes for a fairly dark story. The account also suffers from a lack of dialogue, turning the narrative voice into something of a monotone. Cleveland’s métier is music—she is a seriously underrated singer—so if this soulful memoir helps draw attention to her music, so much the better. Agent: Kathleen Davis Niendorff. (Sept. 1)

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Cook, David C
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5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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David C. Cook

Copyright © 2013 Ashley Cleveland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7814-1087-8


Seven Arts and Sorrow


I wonder if my mother had any clue that she was marrying a man who had little or no interest in her substance, a man whose desire for her was fully satisfied in the superficial gloss of her Seven Arts skills. The Seven Arts, claiming that "To be poised, lovely, and well-groomed is the inherent right of every woman," was a local finishing school that offered a social navigation compass in manners and feminine wiles. My mother taught classes with such titles as "Gracious Physical Comportment," "Personality Development," "Basic Rules for a Pleasant Speaking Voice," "Hair," "Make-up," and "Wardrobe and Figure Control" to newly minted young society women at Rich's Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee—the city where I was born.

My mother is not a classic beauty. She complains of small eyes, skimpy lashes, and too much fullness in her face. These days she says that when she smiles, her eyes disappear and she looks like a boiled egg. She has thick wavy hair, a full mouth, a fine figure, and great legs. But her secret weapon, developed over a long history in fashion and modeling, is an enviable understanding of how to put herself together so that her liabilities retreat into the shadow of her assets. My husband, Kenny, likes to say that when he met my mother for the first time, he realized he'd hit the jackpot by marrying into a family where the women continue to bloom well into their twilight. Now approaching eighty, she was and is quite a package.

I wonder if my father ever considered the utter futility of a dual, duplicitous lifestyle. He was a brilliant, complicated man, the product of a Southern matriarchal family with a domineering mother and a silent specter of a father. He escaped the small-town confines of Sweetwater, Tennessee, and earned a degree in Architecture at Yale and then a second degree in Interior Design at the University of Tennessee. He served as a second lieutenant in World War II, an event that he spoke little about except to say that he was in Patton's army. He was handsome, accomplished, charming—and gay. He met my mother in church, found her to be his equal in style and form, and married her, dreaming, I'm sure, of all the gracious living and fabulous parties that awaited them. He was not looking for intimacy with my mother; he was a man who viewed women as accessories or lapel pins: connected at the surface but meant only for display. When he fell for my mother, it was her presentation skills that won his heart. But he reserved the most honest, accessible part of himself for a secret male world fueled by good gin, where sex, glamour, gossip, and luxury fabrics were what mattered most.

Fortunately for my sister Windsor and me, my father's view of the perfect marriage included children, and we unwittingly came tumbling, two years apart, into a well-designed household that had already begun to reek of alcohol and silence. My parents were highly visual and reverentially partial to physical and material beauty, which resulted in two pairs of fiercely critical eyes shining brightly in equal parts devotion and expectation on us. We were dressed to match, and I'm sure that plans for our debuts into society were hatching while we were still toddlers. We felt the weight of their attentions and also a darker calling, because though we knew nothing of the psychology of family systems, those dynamics were firmly in place, and we stepped neatly into our roles. Windsor was as good as gold in pursuit of their approval and became the family hero. I took the low road reserved for the scapegoat and provided plenty of ongoing distraction from the issues at hand by acting out our collective pain and dysfunction.

I have a friend who describes her family as "... all alcoholics except my brother, who's a Baptist." Mine was a similar drinking dynasty with legendary stories, such as the Halloween when one relative came to the door drunk and naked to greet the trick-or-treaters. She eventually left the candy bowl to her husband and retired to the bedroom where she would call for him repeatedly to come and attend to her. When he failed to answer, she set the house on fire.

My parents were both alcoholics; both were extraordinarily functional for the better part of their drinking careers. I understood the importance of the cocktail hour at an early age, and I have a snapshot memory of tasting my mother's Budweiser as she sat at her dressing table, preparing—in more ways than one—to go out for the evening.

I know that faith and the Presbyterian Church were a central part of our lives, but I have only the dimmest recollection of these things in my early childhood. In the South, nearly everyone attends church because it is an indication of good breeding and social standing. A genuine encounter and subsequent relationship with Jesus is not only unnecessary, but it is often considered overwrought and even a bit common. My mother had experienced that very genuine encounter as a child, though, and carried her faith into adulthood, passing it on to us in such a way that it never occurred to me to doubt the gospel, and I was particularly drawn to the Baby Jesus cradled in the crèche. But I viewed God the Father as a slightly larger and more impersonal version of my parents, carrying a measuring stick that quickly turned into a rod of reproof. The idea of an Abba who loved me and had plans of a future and a hope for me was utterly alien, and I assumed that if He knew my name at all, it was because He had heard that my behavior was so bad my mother had resorted to having me cut my own switches.

Inevitably, my parents' marriage collapsed. My mother made a valiant effort to keep it alive by insisting on marriage counseling, but she was urging my father to places he had no intention of going, and although he was physically present for the sessions, he refused to participate or even to speak. This pattern continued nearly to the end of his life; he had still waters running deep, but he wasn't able to access them and confined himself to the shallows that swirled around him like party chatter and never rose above his ankles.

They divorced when I was in kindergarten; their final argument was precipitated by some mischief I had gotten into early one morning. I had collected my mother's liquid makeup and lotions and mixed them all together into a pinky-beige mess. My father got up and came into the spare bathroom where I was occupied to take a shower but didn't notice the telltale bowl or empty containers, because I had hidden them behind a large box of laundry detergent. My mother discovered it all fairly quickly when she awoke and accused my father of avoidance—a path he regularly took throughout their marriage and a source of tension and resentment for my mother. They fought briefly and my father left, returning only once to pack his belongings.

My mother punished me severely that morning, spanking me and shoving me under my bed to retrieve the caps to the smeared, empty bottles that littered the bathroom. Windsor retreated to the farthest corner of the conflict. She was silent, watchful, and good as gold. After the furor, my mother came to me with a tearful apology, but though I have understood for many years that her grief and rage had little or nothing to do with my part in the whole event, I continue to carry the weight of responsibility for their divorce in the earliest, most fragile images of my childhood. The head is no match for the heart in these formative experiences, and if there was a jumping-off place for me into shame and self-destruction, this was it.

My mother went to work as a traveling saleswoman in the fashion industry and brought in a succession of caregivers, most of them African-American. Some of these women were loving and nurturing to me, and in many ways, they became my other mothers. I particularly loved a handsome woman named Eva who worked for my grandparents, and once in a while, she would take Windsor and me home with her to spend the weekend. We would help her husband, George, in his garden, play with the neighborhood children until after dark, and then collapse in a giant four-poster in Eva's front bedroom. It was a world away from the trouble and confusion in my own home, and I pestered her often to let us go with her when she left for the day.

My grandfather was a devoted fly fisherman and had, as a young man, won the money in a poker game to purchase a cabin in a little community called Elkmont, located in the Great Smoky Mountains about an hour from Knoxville. He and my step-grandmother spent the better part of their summers in Elkmont, and I found another refuge there on the Little River, which roared beside our cabin. My sister and I, and our friends, rode the water like rainbow trout, shivering with the cold and thrill. Near the banks, away from the current, we would stack stones to create tranquil, glittering pools where we bathed and washed our hair. Then we would lie on a flat, warm rock in the middle of the river, breathing in the sulfur-soaked air, feeling the flick of the spray and dreaming.

In Knoxville, we were surrounded by the love and support of extended family and friends, and my mother provided as much stability as she could for us. But the upheaval of our lives and the inattention that often accompanies a focus on survival was reflected in the fates of our pets, all of which came to a bad end. Our first dog, Richard, ran away, and our next dog, Grover, was hit and killed by a car. He was lying in the road at the bottom of our driveway when I came home from school one day while my mother was out of town. Then there were the baby chicks that we got for Easter one year that were promptly eaten by the one- eyed, three-legged dog, Spunky, who lived next door. I hated that dog.

My father continued building his career as a designer and simultaneously became a partner in a local furniture store that he referred to as his shop. He was faithful and constant in his own way to Windsor and me. He spent his Wednesdays and every other weekend with us, showered us with gifts, and never missed a child-support payment. He had an iron will bent toward propriety, seeking and finding his safe footing in doing the right thing, which is similar to modern political correctness—a polite framework but, by itself, disingenuous and ultimately meaningless. So although he was impeccably mannered and tended to the smallest social obligation with the confidence of a man who intrinsically understands the written and unwritten rules, the emotional truth that creates intimacy was nowhere to be found, making him distant and ultimately unknowable.

But then I was just a little girl, and he was my daddy, handsome and on time. He smelled good and took me to the Golden Arches anytime I wanted. He let me get black-licorice ice cream at Dipper Dan's and played his show-tune records for me over and over again. And though my first few years of life were equal parts love and chaos, Knoxville was in many ways a safe haven for me. It was a small world where I could run away from home in my mother's high heels and clatter down the street to my friend Leslie's house, where I would be taken in and given lunch. It was a place where every landmark and every kid in my neighborhood was familiar to me, where there was an awareness of the ache within my family and an extended community that responded as they were able. Those days offered the closest thing to normal that I would experience for a very long time, but just as I was beginning to have a sense of place and belonging, the twig of stability I was clinging to snapped, and we moved.


A Black-and-White Raincoat in a Strange Land


My mother worked for a company called Shu-Mak-Up. They manufactured small jars of paint, glitter, and luster powder formulas that were meant to transform shoes, handbags, and even gloves into color-matching wardrobe accessories. The idea was that a woman could add ongoing fashion excitement to her ensemble by painting and repainting the same items according to the outfit or occasion. Their slogan was: "One, two, color your shoe with Shu-Mak-Up."

She covered the state of Tennessee, and her sales record with department stores and boutiques was so impressive that the company, in a grassroots expansion effort, offered to relocate her anywhere in the continental United States she cared to go. She chose San Francisco and left for six weeks to find a place for us to live. She returned home with stories of the ocean—which we had never seen— cable cars, and the Golden Gate Bridge, hoping to spark tiny flames of curiosity and anticipation in us. But her job began on the second of January, and she had calculated that in order to arrive in San Francisco on time but still spend as much of the holiday season as possible in Knoxville, we would need to leave on Christmas morning as soon as the last present had been opened. Upon hearing this news, whatever excitement I might have felt quickly turned to alarm. "Christmas?! Christmas Day??!! Mommy, no!"

Nevertheless, on December 25, 1964, in the middle of my third-grade year, my mother, my sister, our maid, Dorothy, and I all piled into our gray Chevy Nova. Dorothy heaved herself into the backseat, showing everything but her agility. She expressed her own extreme anxiety over leaving Tennessee in outbursts of flatulence resulting in daily skirmishes between Windsor and me over who would ride next to her.

Dorothy had good reason for concern. Soon after we crossed the state line into Little Rock, Arkansas, we stopped at a diner to eat and were refused service because we were in the company of a black woman. Dorothy retreated with me to the restroom, crying and shaking so badly she couldn't get a grip on the faucet to wash her hands. My mother, on the other hand, had a firm grasp on her Southern charm and powers of persuasion, and she eventually shamed the waitstaff into serving us. But Dorothy's trembling continued unchecked, and she left the restaurant wearing most of her meal on her uniform.

Despite the inhospitable start, we kept going day after day, crossing time zones, crossing cultures, driving over plains and deserts and through a sudden flash flood, until we finally reached the mysterious city with its Spanish name and bridge made of gold.

When we arrived in San Francisco, my initial disappointment in discovering that the Golden Gate Bridge was actually red was consumed in the excitement of being in a big city. While waiting to move into our new house, we had an extended stay at the Cable Car Motel on Lombard Street. Lombard itself is somewhat magical, having the distinction of being one of the world's curviest roads. We wandered around different areas of the city, like Fisherman's Wharf, expanding our Southern "meat and three" palates with cracked crab and sourdough bread, and landed at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Manufactory, where the ice-cream sundaes were the size of my head. I was mesmerized by the spectacle of it all and would have been content to continue there indefinitely, diverted and enticed by the endless pleasures of the moment with nothing before and nothing beyond, like a perpetual vacation bubble. But reality led out of the city and a few miles up Highway 101.

We settled in Marin County just north of San Francisco on an island called Belvedere, which lies between the Tiburon Peninsula and Richardson Bay. The house my mother leased was a landmark called the Pagoda House in a nod to its shape. It was old and creaky with an overhang that jutted out like the bridge to nowhere. It seemed as if it was clinging to the island solely by its notoriety, and when the wind blew or earthquake tremors shook the ground, I waited for the inevitable slide. The house had better foundations than I did, though, and held firmly to its place in the world.

In January, I started at the local elementary school as a person of interest with my East Tennessee accent and innocence. But I was a brokenhearted child, and a dislocated one at that, with no idea how to stake a claim in this strange, beautiful place. Children have keen eyes for weakness and my classmates quickly spotted my vulnerability and lack of confidence. When the initial attention faded to disinterest and ultimately disdain, I accepted the rejection and formed proximity friendships with neighbors and other kids who occupied the social margins.


Excerpted from LITTLE BLACK SHEEP by ASHLEY CLEVELAND. Copyright © 2013 Ashley Cleveland. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Since her debut on Atlantic Records in 1991, Ashley Cleveland has released nine critically acclaimed albums and received two Dove Awards and three Grammy Awards. She was the first woman to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Gospel Album and the only person to ever win the award three times. Ashley is also a writer and essayist who has contributed to books including The Dance of Heaven and The Art of Being. She lives in Nashville with her husband, Kenny Greenberg, and their three children, Rebecca, Henry, and Lily.

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Little Black Sheep: A Memoir 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Becky_D More than 1 year ago
Little Black Sheep is one of the few non-fiction books I've read this year, and perhaps only the second memoir I've read in 2013. My reason for reading very little non-fiction is simply personal preference--I prefer my books to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. My reason for reading even fewer memoirs is a bit more controversial.... I believe we all have stories to tell, but that our lives (and therefore, our life stories, our memoirs) need to be mile-marker signs that point to Jesus, that give Him glory. Otherwise, my story, your story, his or her story often becomes a self-indulgent act of vainglory, of airing dirty laundry, of unforgiveness. This is especially true now that self-publishing is fingertip-available to anyone who believes the have something to say. I've read far too many memoirs in my lifetime to be convinced otherwise, and although I'm sure there are vast quantities of exceptions to my blanket statement, I've yet to see evidence for myself. But every once in a while, I'll stumble upon one written by a person I highly respect, not because of their accomplishments or because of they're notoriety, but because of the way they present Jesus to the world. Usually these people are fighters, scrappers, brawlers, down-and-outers, who have experienced the healing that can only come by turning and facing the ONE who pursues, the ONE who isn't afraid of dark alleys and dirty ditches, Jesus. Ashley Cleveland is one such woman. She periodically shares her music and her heart at our church, and every time she stands on stage, I know she's not up there alone. And so, when I learned that she was putting out her memoir, I signed up to be on the list to help spread the word. Ashley's story is raw, painful, wretched; the pages filled with the straight-forward talk of a woman who's walked too long down a dead-end road. But between the lines, between the falls, between the blisters and tears, Ashley keeps breathing in that "little bit of hope" she mentions in the above trailer, and that little bit of hope is the story of her redemption. "I don't understand why He cares, why He wouldn't spend His time on a more worthy individual; I don't understand it at all. And yet He relentlessly pursues me with such tenderness and love, that ultimately, I can't say 'no.'" I read Little Black Sheep in one sitting, then I couldn't stop thinking about it - and talking about it! Ashley's story is the kind of story we NEED to hear, we NEED to share. It's the kind of story that can bring that little bit of hope to a world of people who believe there is NO hope. Ashley's book is truly "Hope Through Storytelling" and I'm thrilled to be able to share it with you, to be able to help her promote this book. Thank you, Ashley, for entrusting me with this beautiful picture of you. Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ashley is an old, high school friend; however, she is also a new friend...this woman has been changed in her adult life, and reflects her awkward path to her new being. The book mirrors her innermost thoughts and outermost personality throughout her life. However much I've always admired her honesty and talent, Little Black Sheep brings it all the more to the surface. She is an eloquent writer, of music and book. Read this book, and then listen to all of the CDs of hers you can get your hands on and ears to! You, too, will be changed for the better. I am, for having known her during most of her creativeness. And, to know that she credits God for it all!---it's an overwhelming read. Praise God for her gifts we can all enjoy and be a part of.
JerseyLou More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed Ashley Cleveland's music since "Big Town" came out in 1991.  There is a vulnerability and an authenticity to her music that is compelling to me.  I hoped her memoir would reflect these as well, and it does.  For anyone who feels like they struggle with habitual sin or addictions of any kind, let this story be an encouragement that as many times as we stumble or simply fail to comprehend all of who God is for us, He is still faithful, He is still offering us much-needed grace, and His mercies are new every single day.  This is a great read - full of hope and encouragement.  I read it in just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.  You don't have to be a follower of Jesus to enjoy this book, but if you are, your faith will be encouraged reading it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be honest, funny, heartbreaking, and real. I would recommend this book to anyone who is less than perfect and wonders if they are still loved.
dgregoryburns More than 1 year ago
I have long been a fan of Ashley Cleveland's music.  However, I have also been drawn to her authenticity, her no holds barred nature.   She has always been a musician that puts all she has and lay sit out on the stage.  "Little Black Sheep" is Cleveland's memoir and she has done the same thing with her pen.  This book is honest - painfully honest.  If her drug abuse, promiscuity and rocky childhood prominent experiences in her life, it is her drive and never ending love for music which keep propelling her forward.  In the middle of it  all is God, grace, and redemption.  A great read.