In the past month Beaumont, Texas, native Jamie Brickhouse has been coast to coast promoting the release of the paperback version of his best-selling memoir Dangerous When Wet. Between an interview with Rumpus, a reading at a Trinity University alumni chapter in New York, and a performance and talk at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, he took time out to be interviewed by LSLL.
Two decades in New York publishing taught him how to get his story out, and a life with his mother, Mama Jean, taught him how to do it with flair. Here’s what he says about it all.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: For our readers not familiar with Dangerous When Wet, how would describe the book in your own words?
JAMIE BRICKHOUSE: The subtitle added for the new paperback edition paints a succinct picture: booze, sex, and my mother. Essentially, it’s about the two most defining relationships of my life—alcohol and my mother, Mama Jean—one of which almost killed me; the other saved me. Guess which one. It’s a darkly comic tale, since my sense of humor is the only way I know how to process the world, told episodically. Most chapters can almost stand alone. I take readers on my journey into alcoholism and away from Mama Jean’s all-consuming love (it was the crack cocaine of mother love) with comedic and poignant adventures in Texas and New York City.
As Texans, it seems like we all have someone like Mama Jean in our lives—sometimes they're our mamas, or they could be a favorite aunt or family friend. What's the one thing you want our readers to know about your mother?
Mama Jean was as over-the-top as a Texas oil gusher with her Cadillacs, big hair, and unfiltered remarks (she never had a thought she didn’t speak), but underneath the thick makeup (perfectly applied) and bluster, she loved her family and friends fiercely. She’d do anything for the ones she loved, even give you the fur coat off her back. And then she’d give you a piece of her mind.
Besides Mama Jean, what was memorable about your growing up times in Beaumont?
For restless teenagers with big-city stars in our eye, as my best friend Nicole and I were, Beaumont could be a bit, shall we say, quiet. However, it forced us to use our creativity to generate our own fun. At night we used to put on impromptu shows for our friends at the Belle of Beaumont, a reproduction showboat banked on the Neches River downtown. Or we’d go to the Holidome on I-10 and deliver fake singing telegrams to the hotel guests. You know, the usual stuff teenagers did.
When did you know you were gay, and how did you deal with it? What advice would you have for people struggling to come out?
I knew from a very early age. I couldn’t articulate that I was gay, but I knew I was different from most of the other boys and had more in common with the girls. I actually had an easy time accepting myself as gay when I hit puberty, and like any other teenager, followed my blossoming sex drive with gusto. But like all things in my life, I was concerned with WWMJT? (What would Mama Jean think?) I was convinced it would crush her. It did for a little while, but she came to prefer it. When she first met my partner Michahaze, she gave me her seal of approval and said, “It’s better that you’re gay. I never could have shared you with another woman.” My advice to those struggling to come out: if you don’t feel like you have a safe network of family or friends, find the nearest support group. Most large towns have a gay community center. And find at least one other person in whom you can confide, so you can be who you are. It’s important to be honest and open about your sexual identity with someone else, because leading a false life produces crushing shame.
After college you moved to New York. What were your early days in New York like?
I was pinching myself for the first ten years that I actually lived in New York City, I was so thrilled to be here. Those first years were filled with early successes in love (I met my common-law husband Michahaze in my sixth week in town), in work (my career in publishing took off quickly), and fun (in those early days the drinking and parties were about what drinking and parties are supposed to be: joy). When I started in publishing in New York City in the early 1990s, there was a proclamation that the three-martini lunch was dead. I determinedly brought it back. Maybe my troubles began when I introduced the four-martini lunch.
What attracted you to the publishing industry?
I had majored in communication/journalism at Trinity in San Antonio, and had vague notions of becoming a writer. Mama Jean heard about the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course), which is a six-week post-graduate course in magazine and book publishing that helps place pupils in jobs, which are mostly in New York, the center of publishing. “That’s what you need to do!” Mama Jean said with pure conviction. “And with your lifestyle, you need to be in New York.” She was right. I took the course and moved to New York, where I worked in publishing for over two decades.
Then, you spiraled into alcohol addiction. What advice would you have for those struggling with addiction and recovery?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you think you have a problem with substance abuse, you probably do. If you know of some sober people, talk to them. They will probably be happy to help and tell you their story and how they stay sober. Call the local alcohol and substance abuse hotlines and find a sober meeting to attend. You won’t find judgment. You’ll find other people who have gone through or are going through what you are. Also find a therapist who specializes in treating addiction. As they say, the first step is admitting you have a problem, but the next most important step is admitting it to another person, because addiction is a problem that can’t be fought solo.
Would you say you made your peace with Mama Jean before she died, and how did that occur?
Yes. For much of my life I was trying to prove I loved her as much as she loved me and trying to outrun her love; trying to clear a balance sheet. Once I realized that it was a losing battle—that I could never out-Mama Jean Mama Jean; that her love would always be bigger than me—I relaxed and accepted her on her own terms. For much of my life she tried to change me or control me, but eventually her acceptance of me became as unconditional as was her love for me. That’s what a parent is supposed to do. It should be a two-way street. The child eventually has to accept the parent with the same unconditional love. For me, that came after she got me into rehab and didn’t judge me for my alcoholism. She accepted it and did everything in her power to help me overcome it. After that I knew that any petty grievances I had against her were just that: petty.
What's the best thing about having a national best-selling memoir?
Being able to work on the next one.
What's next for Jamie Brickhouse?
I was a frustrated comedian, but the book changed that. Since it came out, I’ve been performing stories adapted from the book, and I’m doing my first solo show based on Dangerous When Wet in New York, July 15th. I’m working on my next memoir, which is about my father, Earl, or Daddy Poo as I called him. I’m a mix of both Mama Jean and Daddy Poo, but I’m the full-blown version of my father, for better and worse. After he died folks in Beaumont would offer their condolences and then say, “You favor your daddy, you know?” The working title is I Favor My Daddy.
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Selected reviews of Jamie Brickhouse’s DANGEROUS WHEN WET
“Glamorously tragic and howlingly funny in equal measure.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“There’s never a shortage of drama ― or humor ― as Brickhouse chronicles his early years running behind his mother’s (high) heels, his wild days in Manhattan and his struggle with addiction.” ―The Washington Post
“A chronicle of [Brickhouse’s] often tumultuous but deeply loving relationship with his mother that’s as multifaceted as Mama Jean herself.” ―Entertainment Weekly
“Jamie Brickhouse plunges into his dark days of boozing in Dangerous When Wet.” ―Vanity Fair
“Compelling and funny. . . Dangerous When Wet [is as] as tightly constructed as a well-crafted novel and as funny as an evening with Carrie Fisher.” ―Interview magazine
“The outrageously bold and bawdy Mama Jean teaches more about life in a single one-liner than a shelf full of self-help books. Brickhouse's memoir is as revealing as it is riotous . . . a dark journey studded with gems of hilarity.” ―Josh Kilmer-Purcell, co-star of The Fabulous Beekman Boys, and author of I Am Not Myself These Days
“Laugh-out-loud read. . . It’s about a rather outlandish gay man and his co-dependent relationship with his larger-than-life Texas mom. She’s got big hair and a big personality. It’s really funny, but also heart-warming too.” ―John Searles, Weekend Today Show