“It was all about finding the right voice,” Gloria Norris said at a recent book party celebrating her new memoir “KooKooLand,” published this month by Regan Arts. It’s a dazzling feat of writing, a riveting personal history and an impressive story about overcoming long odds.
For a long time, it was her father’s voice that echoed in her head. Jimmy was the domineering force in her life, her mother’s (Shirley) and her half-sister’s (Virginia). A misogynist, bigot, anti-Semite, anti-anything that wasn’t of Greek heritage, he was physically, emotionally and psychologically abusive.
Equally hard and violent, his best friend Hank murdered his own wife. Later, Hank’s daughter Susan — who was Gloria’s idol — murdered Hank. That’s a lot to experience, absorb and emerge from.
But Gloria did.
Raised in the projects of Manchester, New Hampshire, Norris is a 20-year Santa Monica resident who’s had a successful career as a screenwriter and filmmaker, working with such luminaries as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma. And when she set out to write her life story, the voice she finally found belonged to her 9-year-old self.
Gloria tried hard to prove she was tough.
She introduces Jimmy in the opening chapter of “KooKooLand,” as he’s taking “his girls” to see “Blood Feast,” a brutally gory slice-and-dice film, his favorite genre. She writes that he reached behind the driver’s seat with his right hand, “the Hairy Claw” to grasp at “any part of us that it could get.” So Gloria “lunged forward and chomped down hard on the Hairy Claw,” and Jimmy responded proudly, “Get a loada that kid. She’s got a lotta frickin’ moxie for a nine-year-old.”
Writing the memoir “was like channeling how I thought as a kid,” Gloria told me during an interview at her Sunset Park home. “I was able to access that in a deep way. I remember how I thought about things, my sense of humor, my way of speaking like Jimmy. The thing that makes me happiest about the book is that I was able to grow the voice, and take the whole journey to find my own voice and thoughts and overcome his dominating influence.”
“KooKooLand” is Jimmy-speak for California, “’cause all the people out there were surfing ding-dongs,” she writes. A blue-collar laborer, he trimmed trees for rich folks but wanted more, so he also trafficked in black-market goods, bet on horses, peddled porn and even drugs. No matter how shady his dealings, however, he held the females in his family to a strict standard.
“There’s such a separation between what’s acceptable for men and what’s acceptable for women,” Gloria told me. “Growing up in the Greek culture felt very much like what I’ve read about women growing up under the Taliban; wearing your clothes below your knee, the women always standing the corner, feeding the men first, the yayas with their head scarves on, that feeling that you must always cover yourself.”
Jimmy particularly kept Shirley under his thumb.
Virginia was Jimmy’s daughter from his first marriage, but when she left him he made sure they never saw each other again. Shirley was a naïve Canadian farm girl on a boat trip to Massachusetts, the one Jimmy worked on. When they first met, she was nearing spinster age, he was newly divorced with a child and on the hunt for a wife to take care of her. He wooed her with his charismatic side; she chalked up his rougher side as a characteristic of American men.
But it only got worse after marriage. Jimmy bullied Shirley. Gloria said of her, “I don’t think with these kinds of men that there was any great choice. His first wife left and she paid the price. If Shirley had left, there was a very good chance the same thing would happen to her. She was afraid of what that would do to me, so that made it her only choice, to stay.”
Gloria credits her mother with giving her the drive to get out. “I always knew that my mother loved me, so it gave me a core of strength that, even if she missed me, I knew she really wanted the best for me and that meant to get away from Jimmy.”
But Jimmy gets credit too. He tried to stop her from going to college, and she went despite him. Yet at her lowest moment, questioning whether she’d ever belong (“I didn’t even know what a bagel was”), Jimmy came and told her she was as good as any of the people around her.
“He was instrumental in getting me out of that bed, otherwise I was feeling like I would drop out. That’s the part I got from him. He taught me how to be tough and roll with the punches.”
Even if he was doing the punching.
“The part of it I can’t believe,” she said to me, “is that usually people who’ve had a father like mine would not have made such a wonderful choice in a husband.” She’s speaking of respected journalist and author James Greenberg, editor of DGA Quarterly at the Directors Guild of America. “We’ve been married for 19 years, and he’s so supportive and kind.”
Gloria Norris’ prose is straightforward, clean, visually and verbally vibrant, and yes, cinematic. There are incantatory moments that heighten the impact of her hard-charging story. She writes about the drama of the murders, Virginia’s difficult life choices, Susan’s rise, fall and demise, Jimmy’s psychiatry, her family, her own success and Shirley’s ultimate release.
The book is a triumph of will over circumstance. All the main characters have died, so Gloria Norris now stands alone, paying tribute in her own unique voice.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications.