Rosanne Cash pens a rich memoir about her personal and musical journey

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010; E01

NEW YORK -- Rosanne Cash's parents didn't live to hear her side of the story. Not the official version, anyway. Not the smartly packaged, beautifully written memoir, "Composed," that arrives in stores Tuesday and serves up a rich, penetrating, often witty look at the life of the first daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash Distin.

Her parents won't read this unblinking examination of her father's lifelong battle with narcotics addiction, the pain and bitterness her mother carried with her, their eventual divorce, her own self-doubt and anxiety, her failed marriage to Rodney Crowell, a devastating miscarriage, the months-long loss of her voice and the extensive surgery to relieve pressure on her brain stem in 2007 that required a year's recovery. Nor will they read the loving eulogies she wrote for each of them or her descriptions of the enormous pride she has in her own children, her happy marriage to -- and musical partnership with -- John Leventhal, and the strength she found in overcoming the obstacles she faced.

Sitting down for an interview in the offices of her record label last week, Cash, who has a dozen albums and 11 No. 1 country singles to her credit, said the book is the work of which she is most proud. And that her parents are not around to read it, she says, "is heartbreaking." Of course, if they were still around, she admits, she probably would not have been able to write it at all. Her mother's deep sensitivity and her own reluctance to hurt either of them kept her pen in check.

A decade in gestation, the 245-page book does not simply chronicle her life as the offspring of a legendary musicmaker or her own journey as a musician, writer, sister, wife and mother. Rather, it is a tale of paths she took that can also serve as a road map for anyone who has faced struggles, disappointments, even tragedy. In other words, a road map for anyone.

But writing a memoir was something of an odd decision in the first place for Cash, now 55. Growing up in the shadow of fame, she guarded her privacy. And as she became a successful and critically acclaimed artist in her own right, she insisted on a "real sharp demarcation between private and public."

"It's an emotional paradox for me," she says of writing the book. "But I've seen my own story co-opted, and I didn't want it co-opted. And it was time to step into my family legacy, ancestry, the things that have been passed on, what's in my DNA. Also, I'm a pretty good writer. I knew I could do something poetic with it."

As she talks, Cash is the picture of serenity and ease, clearly comfortable in her skin and quick to make others feel the same way. She has a warm laugh and broad smile, and her answers to questions are thoughtful and carefully considered. Nothing about her feels rote. Nothing feels false.

* * *

In the book, there are areas of her life where she has chosen to reveal less rather than more. She does not delve into her breakup with Crowell, for instance, because she felt it would not be respectful to their children. And she studiously avoided taking shots at others, even when she was tempted to.

"Part of the power of the book is that it's not diluted by bitterness," she says. "I just couldn't. It went against everything that I think about integrity. . . . It's not that I don't harbor bitterness [laughs] or blame people, but to write about it publicly just seems cheap."

What Cash has left out, she says, doesn't change the big picture. And what she has left in is intimate and engaging.

She writes with a novelist's detail about her childhood, remembering herself "as a withdrawn, pudgy girl with a swollen face and a foggy head." And later she provides illuminating stories of her six-month sojourn to London as a young woman and about recording her various albums, including telling Crowell that the reworked version of her song "Real Woman," on "Interiors," sounded "like a [bleeping] Pepsi commercial."

But the memoir is sharpest and most moving when she returns to her family, specifically her parents. Her mother, a third-generation Italian American and a strict Catholic, is both lauded and lamented, an example to her daughter of how and how not to live. That her mother remarried and found happiness and fulfillment later in her life is clearly a great consolation.

Cash's father's presence is more keenly felt. After describing the agony of losing a baby, she includes the spiritually charged letter her father wrote following the miscarriage. After summoning his mother's spirit and a band of angels to console her, he concludes by writing: "You must start to gain strength now and somehow rise above the pain of all this. Your family loves you very much, and although the days and nights will be hard for a while you will persevere. All my love, Dad.

She writes, too, about telling her ailing father about the book she was writing, describing in detail one of the chapters, and how her father responded, quietly, "Just to think of you makes my heart swell with pride."

Reminded of that passage, Cash beams.

"He was so proud in that way that fathers are proud of their daughters," she says. "It was so much more simple than people would believe. He was just a proud dad. People would think he was removed or competitive. Not at all."

* * *

The death of her father in 2003 hit her hard. She fainted at the funeral home. In her eulogy, she made the key distinction between what the rest of the world felt and what his children felt:

I can almost live with the idea of a world without Johnny Cash, because in truth there will never BE a world without him. His voice, his songs, the image of him with his guitar slung over his back, all that he said and sang and strummed changed us and moved us and is in our collective memory and is documented for future generations. I cannot, however, even begin to imagine a world without Daddy.

She writes knowingly -- and cathartically -- about death and loss; the imprint it leaves, the shadow it casts, the binding universality of it all.

You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn't, he will. You recognize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrow and traces of great loss run through everyone's lives, and yet they let others step into the elevator first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember.

Although the deaths of her parents, and her treasured stepmother June Carter Cash, were overwhelming, it wasn't until she had to undergo and recover from brain surgery that Cash pushed hard to finish the book. "Everything felt urgent after that," she says. "I was really looking at my own mortality." Laughing, she adds: "You're in the green room for death. You're next. There's no wall between you and your own mortality, and it's a highly motivating situation."

So, no, Rosanne Cash's parents will not read her book. Johnny and Vivian are gone from this world. But perhaps a greater sense of herself has emerged in their absence.

"I guess that's the most liberating thing about losing your parents," she says. "You don't compare yourself to them anymore, so it frees you from having to compare yourself to anyone else. This is who I am."

Rosanne Cash will read from her memoir and sign copies at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

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