Brian Broome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods

At its heart, poet and writer Brian Broome’s debut memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods is a coming-of-age story about a boy navigating fraught family and social expectations in search of himself. For Broome, however, the stakes are exceptionally high, as he grapples with the nested complexities and threats of growing up Black, gay, and poor in Ohio during the 1970s and 80s. 

Each of the eight lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ spare poem, “We Real Cool,” provides the structure for Broome’s retelling of his childhood and adolescence, his emergence as a gay man, and ultimately, his drug addiction and rehabilitation. Within this framing, Broome resists a linear progression of his personal narrative. Instead, the book reads as a series of essays in which voice, time, and even point of view shift in service of evocative, unflinching storytelling.

The single narrative thread involves Broome’s description of a long bus ride across the “Black end of town” in which he observes a small boy, his father, and their interactions with the other bus riders. Through the toddler named Tuan, Broome confronts the tragedy of expectations facing Black males: “Stop crying. Be a man.” While Broome’s mother and other Black women save him time and again, it’s the specter of his broken father, as well as his definition of Black masculinity, that haunts him. Looking back through the long lens of time and experience, he recognizes his father’s abuse as a badly misplaced effort to toughen him up in order to protect him from the looming threats to Black men by white America—prejudices that leave no room for vulnerability. 

The impact of these prejudices is made manifest through his interactions with other Black men—from his abusive father to his childhood best friend Corey, who bullies 10-year-old Broome into a sexual encounter with a neighborhood girl while surrounded by his male classmates in order to prove his manhood. Later, living as a gay man in Pittsburgh, he has a violent sexual encounter with the beautiful-but-closeted Jason, whose self-loathing triggers a violent attack, the genesis of which Broome understands all too well. 

Broome deftly weaves humor and heartbreak, as in the terrifying scene where his father catches him playing an elaborate game of pretend with his sister’s dolls. Broome gives each doll a name and backstory—Miss Lynette and Miss Melissa, who fight over who is prettier, and another doll, Steve. “I hope they will work it out one day,” he thinks to himself, just as his father attacks him from behind. In the vicious beating that follows, he hears the refrain that defines his young life: “You. Is. A BOY.”

Trapped between the expectations of his family and community, and the disregard and contempt of white classmates, educators, and strangers, Broome presents a life adrift. As an adult, he escapes to Pittsburgh only to discover that prejudice is not isolated to suburbia. Addiction finds him easily in the big city, though we learn little of his life as an addict and even less about his eventual rehabilitation and life as a writer; this may be the one area that is too tender, too new for Broome to face head-on.

As story after story unfolds, we see Broome construct a self-image based entirely on how others perceive him: his teachers, his mother, his father, even the white men he sleeps with who fetishize him. Then, as the memoir nears its close, Broome’s self-perception makes a critical shift as he recalls a seminal encounter. During a once-a-year shopping trip to Hill’s Department Store for school clothes, he finds himself in a stand-off with a poor white boy named Joe, as each has laid claim to a silky, “pink-ass” blouse in a bargain bin. 

“Joe and I had more in common than I, even then, could stomach. Poor and queer. I hated him in that way we sometimes learn early to hate ourselves when we’re different.” For the first time, Broome sees himself in another’s eyes, not through them, a life-altering experience. 

Ultimately, such bare-knuckled self-awareness—and therapy—enable Broome to find redemption and write a memoir that sings with compassion for the self and others. While Broome’s lived experiences are uniquely his, Punch Me Up to the Gods is a compelling and consequential read for anyone who has ever felt deeply different and alone.