By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:57 PM
Scott Brown's life could have veered horribly wrong so many times, as he amply demonstrates in his disquieting memoir, "Against All Odds." Instead of ending up as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts - the famed Republican who snatched the seat long held by the late Democrat Ted Kennedy - he could have spent stretches of his life in the lockup or badly injured from the violence in his childhood home.
What saved him, Brown reveals, was good luck, good looks and a reflex to stand his ground when threatened. In unsentimental prose, he describes a Dickensian childhood of poverty, sexual predators and brutal stepfathers. His mother, who married four times, was often the sole provider for Brown and his sister; though his mother worked hard, sometimes at several jobs, her boy had to resort to stealing food.
"I was . . . ravenously hungry, to the point where my stomach would often ache, and I would sit on the couch with my knees drawn up to my chest, as if I could physically shrink the space between my lungs and my abdomen," Brown writes in the memoir, which is to be released next week. The Washington Post obtained a copy early.
When the men in his mother's life terrorized her, Brown had to step forward to protect her. Her third husband had been injured in an industrial explosion that blew off his fingers, leaving his hands with nothing but sharp stubs that, Brown writes, "had almost no sensation [and] were brutal in their efficiency, in their ability to maim and bruise deep beneath the surface of the skin."
One night, when the future senator was in college and was "185 pounds of solid muscle from lifting with the Nautilus machines," he pinned the abuser against the wall, "the bone of my forearm against his chest, my left fist pulled back and balled . . . and I told him, 'You . . . touch my mother again, you . . . touch my sister again, and I will kill you." This husband was eventually taken away by police.
Brown also learned to protect himself. As a youngster at Christian camp, he screamed when one of his counselors fondled him in the bathroom, bringing an abrupt end to the attack. At 7, he was walking with a teenage friend in the woods when his companion suddenly smacked him and revealed a knife. The teenager "undid his belt, and soon his pants were down. He had a look in his eye that I had never seen before," Brown writes. To fend off this attack, he stealthily picked up a rock and, catching the teenager off guard, drove it into his face and ran.
Restless and unsupervised, Brown made trouble of his own. His home life was unstable - by 18, he had moved 17 times and lived in at least 12 homes, including those of his grandparents, his aunt and his mother's husbands. "I was angry, angry all the time," he writes. "I was always in trouble, at home, at school. I seemed to gravitate to it, as if it had tentacles that it could unfurl and draw me in." He was attracted to the power and danger of a lighted match and once set the woods on fire near his home, a blaze that took firefighters an hour to extinguish.
The only bright spot in his life - the one activity that took him away from the "swallowed-up emptiness" he felt - was basketball. Brown excelled at the sport and took his basketball to bed with him. "I would lie in the dark, sometimes crying, sometimes thinking, but most of the time just talking to my basketball, and I would fall asleep with it in the crook of my arm," he writes.
His life reached a bleak turning point when he was hauled before a judge for stealing music albums. But luck intervened. The straight-talking judge awakened the kid and set him on a proper path. He "did something few adults ever seemed to do," Brown recalls. "He listened." And he gave the kid a break - no incarceration. Instead, Brown was required to write an essay on how he had disappointed people.
What the judge and several tough mentors recognized was that Brown - despite the long hair and the penchant for running away from home - was at heart a responsible, competitive, intelligent boy. Once, when a key figure in his life, social studies teacher Judy Patterson, overheard him making a cutting remark to an unpopular girl in the hallway, she grabbed him by the hair and dragged him into her classroom.
"You know what?" she said. "You've got everything in the world going for you. You're tall, you're good-looking, you're athletic. You could be smart if you put your mind to it. But you're a jerk. How dare you say that to that poor girl? How do you think she's going to feel now for the rest of her life?" Brown was stunned. "I was the kid who always felt like a loser, who felt I had nothing going for me," he writes, "and Judy said I had everything in the world going for me."
Thanks to the guiding hands of a few teachers and coaches, Brown was able to demonstrate his remarkable skills on the basketball court and in the classroom. He became team captain. And his proficiency in Latin sent him to the national Junior Classical League convention representing Massachusetts students. His grades and athletics earned him a full basketball scholarship to Tufts University.
Brown's early life was so horrible, it seems a marvel that he surmounted it. No matter your political affiliation, a reader will get an everything's-finally-right-with-the-world thrill from his success in life: his selection as "America's Sexiest Man," his lucrative modeling career, his studies at Boston College Law School, his happy marriage and family, his stint as a practicing lawyer and his terms in the Massachusetts legislature.
The narrative, which sometimes lapses into repetition, is at its best in recounting the dramatic U.S. Senate campaign; the story is poignant in its reflections on the Democrats' hubris. You can't help but root for the underdog, dismissed by the competition and by the media, yet unrelenting in his pursuit of the prize.
By the end of the tale, we've been drawn right up to the present and understand why today Republicans and Democrats are wary of Scott Brown. His life has demanded that he think for himself. As a survivor, he answers to his own blunt ideology of self-preservation. Or as he puts it: "If you're looking for someone who is going to be a full-on ideologue always marching in lockstep with his party, I'm probably not your guy."
Levingston is the nonfiction editor of Book World.