Growing up in Trumbull County helped shape Brian Broome into the writer he is today.
That’s probably not something the tourism bureau will brag about in its marketing campaign.
In his memoir, “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” the 1988 LaBrae High School graduate chronicles a fraught childhood where he felt ostracized from his white classmates in Braceville / Warren Township because of his dark skin and poor family. He felt just as out of place in the African-American community as a boy attracted to other boys and unable to grasp how to be black and cool, something the other boys seemed to understand innately. And he lived in fear of an abusive father determined to toughen him up for what the future held for him as a black man.
Broome recounts the blatant and subtle racism and homophobia he encountered growing up and how it fueled a self-loathing in adulthood that led to drug and alcohol abuse and a search for a serious relationship that only found fleeting sexual encounters.
Nearly 35 years after fleeing Ohio for Pittsburgh, Broome now is approaching 10 years of sobriety, and his memoir won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction (and the $50,000 check that comes with it).
The man who dropped out of the University of Akron weeks into his freshman year because his roommates didn’t want to live with a gay man now has a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and recently finished a stint as a writer-in-residence at St. Mary’s College in California.
He is a contributing columnist to the Washington Post; he has a second book in the works and he’s involved with television and film projects he’s not allowed to discuss.
Broome credited his mother with fostering his love of reading and, now, writing.
“She didn’t read to us, but she always had a book,” he said. “She loved Agatha Christie mysteries, she used to love Dean Koontz and she read a lot of fiction. Sometimes I would pick up her books and read them.
“She introduced me to a really thick, old volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, those fairy tales where none ever ended happily, and I loved them so much. I would read them over and over again … I started reading then and loving stories, how they were crafted and took you away from your reality, because in a lot of ways my reality wasn’t that great.”
But while reading let him escape, it also became one more thing that set him apart.
“Because of the kind of ways that boys were supposed to behave at that time and still today, various peers of mine told me that walking about with a book wasn’t cool, that I looked like a sissy when I was writing in my little journal. You get talked out of things as a kid, you get talked out of who you are in order to better fit in, so I stopped reading pretty much and I stopped writing completely.”
Broome didn’t start writing again until he was in rehab, and he only started writing then because his roommate snored “like a John Deere tractor” and it was impossible to sleep.
That’s when he first started writing about his childhood, about his experiences in the bathhouses and gay clubs in Pittsburgh and about how racism still was prevalent in the urban, more ethnically diverse steel city, it just took on different forms.
After he left rehab, he decided to go back to college — not to be a writer, just to get a better job than the ones he’d had before, which ranged from working at a call center to getting paid to let students training to be physician’s assistants practice giving hernia exams and prostate checks.
“I started off at the Community College of Allegheny County and I had a really wonderful counselor there. Her name was Evelyn Kitchens-Stephens, a black woman who at one point said to me, ‘Your writing is actually pretty good, maybe you should do that.’ I thought, no, I’m not going to do that, but she kept encouraging me. So I just started writing and other people took notice.
“I was writing a lot on Facebook, and a friend said I should try to get my writing published. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know someone could make a living doing that.”
The first thing he sent off was published. He didn’t get paid, but he was a published writer. He decided to go back to the community college and tell Kitchens-Stephens about his success only to discover she had died.
“It was very upsetting,” Broome said. “In that moment, I decided, this is one of the few people in my life who ever told me I was good at something, so I’m going to keep writing to honor her.”
Broome was accepted into the graduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and started doing open mic readings, and he got an agent at one of those readings.
“She asked, ‘What are you writing?’ I told her about the stories I had been writing in rehab and had been working on ever since and those stories are ultimately what became the book.”
Since “Punch Me Up to the Gods” was published last fall, the book has received rave reviews and is nominated for an 2022 Ohioana Award for best book about Ohio or an Ohioan. But Broome also knew the stories he’d been working on for years, that he’d been telling at open mic events in Pittsburgh now would have a much larger audience and could be read by family members, by those he grew up with and maybe even by his tormentors.
“Certainly some people are not happy with me about their depictions,” he said. “I also have the added advantage of being old, and a lot of those people are dead. The night before the book came out, I thought about calling the publisher and asking, ‘Can’t we just call this whole thing off?’”
“It hasn’t been easy, but at the same time I feel a bit more unburdened about the past. When I teach non-fiction workshops, I tell students, ‘If you’re going to reveal the truth, it kind of comes at a cost’ … When you put out a memoir, it’s not all hunky dory. There are people who will probably never speak to me again, and that’s fine. They’re people I don’t deserve having speak to me again.”
While he doesn’t cast Trumbull County in the best light, Broome still comes back to the area to visit family, and the book makes clear that he believes the attitudes he encountered growing up exist everywhere. They just may be more on the surface in his hometown.
“If you’re different growing up than everyone around you, wherever you are, you take a lot of teasing, a lot of bullying, and it leaves you feeling disdain for the place you grew up in,” Broome said. “My relationship with Warren and Braceville and Newton Falls is shaped by that. I know they weren’t bad places in and of themselves, but it was a bad time to be different, and I think it still is to some extent.
“It doesn’t come off well in the book because of the anger I still have for it at times. At the same time, a lot of really wonderful things happened there, a lot of really formative things. If it wasn’t for that experience, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
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