From a young age, Guy Branum always felt as if he were on the outside looking in.
Self-taught, introspective, and from a stiflingly boring farm town, he couldn’t relate to his neighbors. While other boys played outside, he stayed indoors reading Greek mythology. And being gay and overweight, he got used to diminishing himself. But little by little, he started learning from all the sad, strange, lonely outcasts in history who had come before him, and he started to feel hope.
In this collection of personal essays, Guy talks about finding a sense of belonging at Berkeley—and stirring up controversy in a newspaper column that led to a run‑in with the Secret Service. He recounts the pitfalls of being typecast as the “Sassy Gay Friend,” and how, after taking a wrong turn in life (i.e. law school), he found stand‑up comedy and artistic freedom. He analyzes society’s calculated deprivation of personhood from fat people, and how, though it’s taken him a while to accept who he is, he has learned that with a little patience and a lot of humor, self-acceptance is possible.
Written with Guy’s characteristic blend of wit, guile, and rumination, My Life as a Goddess is an unforgettable and deeply moving book by one of today’s most endearing and galvanizing voices in comedy.
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My Life as a Goddess
LETO AND THE LYCIAN PEASANTS
IN MY EIGHTH YEAR, my attentions turned to Greek mythology.
This is hardly unusual for children of that age, which is somewhat strange when you consider how much of Greek myth centers on rape, sexual kidnappings, and adulterous rendezvous between princesses and gods in the form of farm animals. Somehow our culture has decided Greek myths are cool for third-graders, but safe and reliable birth control is too much for a sixteen-year-old to learn about. That said, I am not here to challenge America’s educational morality. I’m here to write a collection of humorous personal essays.
Like most people who write collections of humorous personal essays, I was a bookish child. Other boys my age focused most of their time on yelling, trying to fart on each other, and generally not obeying rules. The vast majority of male eight-year-olds love to break rules. It is their greatest passion. Mashing their food together in the cafeteria and pretending it’s barf. Yelling “boobs” during a nice assembly where we learn about Irish step dancing. Maiming beauty. They love it. Their fierce defiance of what moms and teachers want out of them is what fuels their spirits. I have never understood these creatures.
A small but resolute minority of eight-year-old boys love the rules. Rules are our only protection from the senseless engines of chaos we share classrooms with. They are that quiet, obedient opposition who would like silence and beauty and assemblies about Irish step dancing to be preserved. I was one of those boys. Third grade is a difficult place for us, so we seek the safety of a world where systems work and laws are obeyed: age-appropriate adventure books.
I grew up in a town where absolutely nothing happened. It’s a farm town in California, but not the good part of California. We will get to that later. What you need to know is that it was a place devoid of importance—political, economic, or philosophical—and any story that happened there centered on alcoholism and/or domestic violence. No one went to college, no one started a business, no one traveled anywhere but Disneyland or a lake. I grew up in a place with no dreams.
As a little kid in a little town where very little happened, Greek myths made me feel connected to the important stuff. There were kings, sorceresses, and human embodiments of abstract concepts: people who were in charge of things. If I was never going to meet any sophisticated folks in my real life, maybe I could learn how they operated from a book.
And Greek myths were full of people performing tasks I was too scared and fat and indoorsy to do myself. I wasn’t like those idiots I went to school with. If one day I planned to do stuff that required being brave and bold, I would have to do a lot of research and planning first.
In the sad, poor portable building that passed for a sad, poor library at my sad, poor public elementary school, I found a series of books. They were adaptations of stories from Greek mythology by a woman named Doris Gates; they had titles like Lord of the Sky: Zeus and The Warrior Goddess: Athena. They were full of shortish episodes from The Odyssey, or Theogony, or Metamorphoses, made palatable for children. I consumed them with an enthusiasm I normally reserved for meatballs or banana pudding.
The Golden God: Apollo was yellow, naturally, and on its cover was a man of preternatural beauty, a 1970s decadence of oranges and yellows and black. One of the first stories in it told of the birth of the sun god, Apollo, and his sister, Artemis, the moon. I will now tell you that story to the best of my recollection.
So Zeus had sex with Leto, who was one of his sisters, as was his wife, Hera, but Hera was jealous. That was what Hera did: She got mad at Zeus about the women he fucked. She couldn’t stop him, because he was the king of the gods, and she couldn’t punish him. Hera got the throne and the diadem and all the perks of being the wifey, but she knew he never really loved her. This was the cruelest of tortures for one of the fairest and finest goddesses, so she did her part to spread the punishment around to the women he had sex with and the children he impregnated them with.
So Hera, regally pissed, banished Leto from Mount Olympus and placed the following curse on her sister: Not a place on earth, nor in the sea, nor under the sun, could give Leto shelter lest it be subjected to Hera’s powerful wrath.
For nine months, Leto walked the earth. Slowly, she grew great with child, but no place would give her food or drink or a safe place to stay. In the hot sun of Attica, she paced and she paced, begging hills and meadows for comfort, and each one chased her away in some manner.
Finally, in the height of summer, giant with twins, she came to a pond where some peasants were washing clothes. Leto knelt down by the pond and asked if she could drink from it. The peasants noticed that she was pregnant and asked where her husband was. Leto had no answer, so the peasants mocked her for being an unwed mother and kicked around the water in the pond until it got muddy and would be gross to drink.
Leto, hot, thirsty, pregnant, tired, all of it—all of the kinds of DONE—got up and started to walk again. Where? She had no answer. How was she going to have these kids when no one would even let her sit down? Her spirit was broken.
Then she remembered that she was a goddess.
It was the most beautiful, wonderful sentence I’d ever read: Then she remembered that she was a goddess.
She turned around, raised her hands to the sky, and turned the peasants into frogs. “Kick in the mud forever, you basic amphibious bitches,” she cursed.
That story changed me.
It isn’t that Leto turned those asshole peasants into frogs; the frog part is an afterthought. The important part is that she remembered she was a goddess. She had been too caught up in the dirty, base realities of the life she was leading to realize the audacity of the situation. She was a goddess being condescended to by peasants. The peasants didn’t know who she was, but more important, she had forgotten who she was. I didn’t know you could be a goddess and forget it.
I am not supposed to be a goddess. I am very fat. I am bald. I have a faggy voice. My family is poor. My parents are uneducated. I dress like a wet three-year-old. My handwriting is bad. I sweat a lot. My parallel parking is amateurish. I’m wholly devoid of the skills required to make any ball go into any goal, hoop, or pocket.
I’m not supposed to like myself, and I’m certainly not supposed to think that I should matter. The world has spent a lot of time telling me that, and in the past thirty or so years, I often listened, because we all listen. The world is mostly full of fine facts and good lessons, but some of those facts and lessons were built to keep you down.
And I got kept down for decades. Then I remembered that I was a goddess. I may not always feel like it, but I have powers.
I am an amazing dancer. I’m quite ridiculously smart. I’m strong. I’m funny. Babies like me. I have very strong research skills. I make passingly good Punjabi okra. I have a law degree. I sparkle on panel shows. I’m very good at listening when I try.
It’s not amazing. It’s not lightning bolts or control of the seas, I can’t turn myself into a swan and have my way with whatever man I like,1 but it’s enough for me.
And Doris Gates gave me my most important power—the power to see myself. I can’t control what people see when they look at me. Most people see a weird, fat, unsexy guy who is wearing cargo shorts even though he should know better. I can’t decide if you think I’m beautiful, but I do get to decide if I’m going to feel beautiful, and from the moment I first tried it, I’ve been addicted.
So that’s what this book is about, the life I was supposed to lead as a sad, fat, closeted bumpkin, and my decision to be something thoroughly more fabulous. My life has not been practical, it has not been meaningful, and it has been only periodically profitable, but it has at least stayed interesting. Because a goddess’s job isn’t to be good, it’s to have compelling stories lyre players can tell about her at the courts of kings and princes.
Oh, and a goddess needs worshippers. You don’t need a lot; in a pinch, just one will do. On that Lycian field, Leto was just about the only person who believed in Leto, but it got the job done. There have been numerous occasions when I was the only person who believed in me, but I made it through.
Thus, if you are at all interested in being a goddess, may I suggest starting this book by believing in yourself. If you’re nice enough to read my book, I at least owe you enough to believe in you, too.
1. In addition to not having the power to shift my shape, I also just don’t want to have to deal with all the think pieces such an act would prompt.
Table of Contents
A Poor Fit 7
A Vocabulary Lesson 19
Bothered and Bewildered 30
Camouflage and Plumage 42
The Man Who Watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 53
Shoulder to Hip 70
Undefended Border 79
The Rage of Caliban 112
Joan Didion Slept Here 125
What Is Easy-Bake Oven? 142
This Monstrosity 158
The Disco Round 177
Babette Can Cook 195
The Rules of Enchantment 207
Three Women and a Multinational Corporation 232
It Never Rains in Southern California 256