In 1985, iO Tillett Wright entered the world as a girl, named after one of Jupiter’s moons. At age 6, Wright declared: “My name is Ricky. And I’m not your daughter anymore. I’m your son.”
In the poignant memoir “Darling Days,” Wright, an artist, activist, former child actor and a co-host of the MTV reality series “Suspect,” delves into his tumultuous upbringing and struggles with identity. Wright grew up in a chaotic downtown Manhattan apartment, a place that “stood out for the refinement of its violence, for its kaleidoscopic intensity.” Raised by a single mother — a dancer whose drug and alcohol use contributed to some erratic behavior — Wright developed a survivalist’s grit.
Wright pushed through school, mostly with his head down: “I’ve escaped any brutality by generally being nice.” In one memorable scene, Wright describes making a mess while waiting for the boys’ bathroom to be empty so he could use it without fear. It’s humiliating, Wright comments, but “there is no off-duty me who isn’t a boy, there is only this, that doesn’t match up with my anatomy.”
Home life presents a host of other challenges. As Wright grows older, Rhonna becomes increasingly unpredictable — full of love for her child but prone to outbursts, partly a side effect of mixing alcohol with the drug Desoxyn. The fridge is full of inedible, expired food, and the apartment is disheveled and unclean. In one of the photographs scattered through the book, a skinny Wright lies tangled in blankets and sheets on a bed surrounded by moving boxes; in another, Wright stares sadly at the camera, an arm in a sling.
Eventually, Wright seeks the guidance of a school counselor and ends up in child welfare protection; then Wright’s father, who lives in Europe, takes custody. But that living situation turns out to be less than ideal, too, and Wright is sent to a boarding school in England. It’s there that the author experiences the all-consuming passion of first love (with a young woman) before being expelled for standing up for his rights. Back in New York with his mother — “for all her crazy, she’s always had a roof to put over my head” — these days are anything but darling as Wright grapples with family tensions and romantic entanglements.
Written in the present tense, “Darling Days” has a compelling immediacy. Wright is flinty and outspoken, offering a clear-eyed perspective on gender identity. He’s a narrator you want to root for, a person who is defiantly not defined by circumstances: “I don’t want to wear my tragedies on my skin, in my teeth, in my walk. I want something different than what I’m inheriting, but I’m going to have to make that happen for myself.”
Wright has a dramatic flair that matches the dramatic subject but occasionally falls into some odd sentences that detract from the story: “The hot mozzarella ball that precedes tears coagulates in my chest”; describing rain as “drooling raindrops.”
Wright is currently at work on an art project called “Self Evident Truths,” photographing 10,000 people who fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. Once he reaches that goal (he has more than 9,000 photos at the moment), the portraits will be displayed in front of the Washington Monument. “Human beings start putting each other into boxes the second that they see each other,” Wright says in the opening of the TedxWomen talk “Fifty Shades of Gay.” His art — and this book — compellingly shows the folly of that.
Michele Filgate is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Brooklyn.
By iO Tillet Wright
Ecco. 380 pp. $26.99