On the first page of her calamity-packed addiction memoir, Cupcake Brown explains how the name Cupcake wound up on her birth certificate. For some people, being named Cupcake by a mother still woozy from childbirth might rank as life's most delirious moment.
Not for her. Brown looks like the new James Frey, with a rough, lurid, not entirely verifiable story to tell. In A Piece of Cake, she piles on layer after layer of degradation and pain, in ways that make Frey sound like a vanilla wafer. Then comes the inevitable icing on the cake: sobriety and redemption. Eventually, she gets 12-step help and finds a mentor who leaves inspirational Post-its all over the author's apartment. "Cup, you're perfect," reads one. "Love, God."
As will soon become well known on the talk-show circuit, Brown did succeed in turning her life around -- all the way around, to the point where she now practices law and delivers motivational speeches based on her shocking past. In a book that makes a needless point of genuflecting to Oprah Winfrey, Brown radiates polish and celebrity of her own. So she brings strategic skill to the trick of describing moments during which she was not quite conscious -- including her own wedding. She is lawyer enough to have changed all but one name (her husband's) in the part of the book devoted to criminal abandon.
With the oversimplification that is her book's biggest shortcoming, as well as the confessional bluntness that is its biggest lure, Brown describes discovering her mother's dead body as an eight-year-old. She traces every terrible thing that later happened back to this catastrophic loss. The man she called Daddy turned out not to be her biological father, so he lost custody of Cupcake. The man she called Sperm Donor handed her over to foster care in California. Bounced from place to place, she was abused not only by Cinderella's wicked stepmother but by yet another father figure, a man who took her to the parking lot of a Kmart for sexual assignations at 12. She never made it to cheerleading practice.
She was on the road to ruin by the age of 11. She ran away, hitchhiked and turned tricks. She found adults happy to help her buy liquor. She was pregnant by 13, was beaten so badly that she miscarried and then wafted off to the relative safety of South Central Los Angeles.
There, she joined the Crips and ran afoul of the "po-pos," as her friends referred to the police. She witnessed death. She got hurt. She wound up in the hospital, having her first serious conversation with God. "Look here, I know you don't know me," she says she said. "It's not like we be kickin' it or anything. But if you can hear me I could really use some help down here."
Eat your heart out, Frey: that's not even the first third of her story.
Outfitted in spandex and 12cm heels, armed with a forged resume, she started landing office jobs while also dealing drugs and sampling the merchandise. Here A Piece of Cake has a bit of Pygmalion, although Cupcake's transformation was partial at best. She learned to purge ethnicity and slang from her business voice ("She been watching Tom Brokaw!" she says somebody exclaimed about her new sound), but she was still no model employee. She showed up drunk or high on crack or speed. She scammed anybody who could help her. She even exploited employee benefits like bereavement leave. "What could the firm do," she asks, about lying to wangle so many days off, "tell my family not to die?"