A Challenging Life Retold in 'Piece of Cake'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And now from the politics of the nation to a much more personal story. Cupcake Brown is a lawyer in one of America's largest firms. But her story begins with the death of her mother, a harrowing journey through the foster care system, life on the streets as a runaway, and drug addiction. Her new memoir, titled ‘A Piece of Cake' follows Brown's life through painful loss, addiction, rehab and finally a stable life of her own. Here is Brown reading us an excerpt from her book.
Ms. CUPCAKE BROWN (Lawyer and Author): (Reading) “A couple of days after mama's funeral, we had to go back to the judge's office. The tall, black man was there again and he was wearing the same suit. The two white lawyers were also there. The judge finally introduced the tall black man to me and Larry. Children, this is Mr. Burns, your father. He said it so nonchalantly, as if he were reacquainting us with an old familiar friend. My father. If I didn't know this white man was crazy before, I sure knew it then.”
CHIDEYA: So, let's go to the moment that you were just reading from in your book. When you mother died, the man that you called daddy couldn't keep you. Why was that?
Ms. BROWN: Because he wasn't my biological father. He was my step dad. He had been my daddy since I was two years old. And there's a law in California that gives the biological parent first choice of custody of the children when a parent dies.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about the death of your mother, which was a pivotal experience in your life.
Ms. BROWN: Correct. When I was 11 years old, I woke up and I found her dead. She had had a seizure, and during the seizure she had dislodged her tongue and suffocated on it.
CHIDEYA: What happened to you after that?
Ms. BROWN: Well, I was given to my biological father who, like I just read, was introduced to me within a week after my mom dying, and he put me in foster care. And in foster care I was beaten and raped, and so I ran away.
CHIDEYA: Now, once you had run, you met a woman you called Candy in the book. What did she teach you?
Ms. BROWN: Candy was a prostitute, and she taught me how to hook, how to turn tricks for survival.
CHIDEYA: And how long did you do that?
Ms. BROWN: I did that on a regular basis until I got clean and sober at the age of 25.
CHIDEYA: Along that way you also were involved with the Crips gang. What did you learn from gang life?
Ms. BROWN: I joined the gang because of the camaraderie and the devotion. To this day, I have not experienced that level of unconditional love. It wasn't until I got shot in a drive-by shooting that I realized that I didn't want to die for a color that nobody owned or for a territory that nobody owned.
CHIDEYA: Now, you say all of this so matter of factly. And the tone in your book, A Piece of Cake is very matter of fact. You are talking about extremely harsh emotional things, rape in the foster home when you were still only 11, I believe; and going on to use almost every drug in the book. What allowed you to take a step back from your life, first of all, to get clean and sober, and secondly, to write this memoir?
Ms. BROWN: I got clean and sober, I was on the end of a four-day crack run, and I was actually going to turn another trick to get more crack. I was living behind a dumpster. And on my way to turn the trick, I just happened to pass a plate glass window, and what I saw stopped me in my tracks. What I saw was an addict looking back at me.
That was the epiphany that made me decide that I didn't want to die like that. So I put myself in the rehab and was able to get clean and sober.
CHIDEYA: Who was the most responsible for helping you turn your life around? Who helped you out on your journey to sobriety?
Ms. BROWN: That would be Venita(ph), my sponsor. She taught me a lesson in accepting ourselves the way we are. What she also taught me was unconditional love, about loving myself. She helped me peel away the onions, we worked in a 12-step program.
CHIDEYA: So, you went from being on the streets to going into rehab, and then you went to law school. How and when and why did you do that?
Ms. BROWN: Well, I had about a year sober and I began to get bored. And I told Venita I was bored with sobriety. And she asked me what was a dream I had that drugs and alcohol stole from me? And when I was a little girl, my daddy had convinced me to be a lawyer. I had cross-examined him so tough that I made him tell me there was no Santa Claus. So ever since then he told me I should be a lawyer.
But I told Venita about the dream of being lawyer, and she told me to steal it back. And so I signed up for community college and started a community college and just continued taking small bites out of the apple until I finally graduated community, and then San Diego State, and the law school.
CHIDEYA: So tell us about what your life is like today. How different is it from your life 10, 15, 20 years ago?
Ms. BROWN: Well, it's very different. Last October, I celebrated 16 years clean and sober, and during these 16 years, I've done quite a bit of work on Cupcake. I've done work on forgiving myself and others in my past. I'm a lawyer today. I still don't have a high school diploma or a GED, but it's on my to-do list.
CHIDEYA: So you say, taking care of Cupcake. How did you get your name?
Ms. BROWN: My mom craved cupcakes when she was pregnant with me. She had three a day, everyday for nine and a half months. When she had me she was heavily sedated. They said to her she had a girl and asked her if she knew what she wanted to name her, and she said Cupcake, and passed out. So that's what they put down. But it was later discovered that she was asking for a cupcake. She wasn't naming me. And she told me that when my daddy came to the hospital he didn't like Cupcake. He wanted to name me L'Vette. So to make my daddy happy, she changed it to L'Vette.
Fast forward 12 years and I'm actually in the back of a van being molested by my foster father. And during that molest--during one of those molest sessions, it occurred to me that when my mama told me that my daddy had changed my name, she couldn't meant the daddy that I knew and always thought she had meant. She had to mean my biological father, because my daddy didn't come along until I was two years old.
My biological father disappeared when I was two months old. And so I decided that because it was my biological father who caused me to be in the back of a van being molested, he was no father and he didn't have the right to change my name. So I decided to take back my original birth name of Cupcake.
CHIDEYA: If you could talk to your mom right now and tell her what you've been through and what you got from it, what would you say to her?
Ms. BROWN: At first I would tell her I missed her and I loved her. And I would tell her that life has been a challenge, but that with willingness, prayer and hard work I've been able to overcome all of the challenges; and hopefully with those qualities will be able to continue to overcome challenges that come. Because you know life is full of challenges; they don't just stop because you're clean and sober.
CHIDEYA: One more thing, if you could go back in time and talk to the eleven year old Cupcake Brown, what would you say to her?
Ms. BROWN: I would tell her to spend more time with her mom. When you read the book you will see that the night before my mom died, we were having a little party. We were dancing and singing and doing each other's hair. At the time I didn't know it was a goodbye party. Had I known that I would have cherished it more and spent more time with her, made sure I told her that I loved her.
So I don't believe in redoing the past. If I could go back that would be the only thing I would tell her is to cherish that precious time with her mom more. Because that is the only thing that can't be redone, or fixed, or repaired.
CHIDEYA: Cupcake Brown is now an attorney at Bingham McCutchen, one of America's largest law firms. Her memoir is titled A Piece of Cake. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. BROWN: Thank you for having me.
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CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.
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CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya this is NEWS AND NOTES.