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Jaime Pressly: ‘Not Necessarily Not the Truth’

In her memoir, “It's Not Necessarily Not the Truth," the Emmy Award-winning actress of "My Name Is Earl" writes about her Southern upbringing, her drive to succeed in entertainment and how she finally found her way. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In her memoir, “It's Not Necessarily Not the Truth,” Jaime Pressly, the Emmy Award-winning actress of “My Name Is Earl,” writes a refreshingly honest and hilarious account about her Southern upbringing, her drive to succeed in entertainment and how she finally found her way. An excerpt:

In the beginning was the word
Where I’m from, the knowledge and acceptance of that basic fact is a given. So much so I think it could be considered an unofficial slogan for the South. Not only because of religion and the role it plays in places like North Carolina, where I was born and raised — that would be way too obvious and literal, especially for a group of folk who subsist on subtext. In the South, when people talk about the power of the word, they could be making reference to God and any of the gospels in the Bible. But then again, they could be alluding to folklore, pure and simple, or any other type of tale with a sage message hidden deep inside of it. After all, we’re a people who believe in the sort of salvation that comes from a well-told story. And it doesn’t matter who’s doing the telling — could be a deacon or the Devil himself — just as long as he does it right.

Storytelling is as common a pastime in the South as eating a plate of collard greens or fried green tomatoes. That’s probably because people from the South lead such complicated lives, and talking is another form of untangling, figuring out how, where, and why things fit together. Or maybe it’s because we just like living out loud, taking our everyday experiences and turning them into a song, or a prayer, or an anecdote to be shared during supper. I can’t really speak to the reasons why, but what I do know for sure is that already, throughout history, we’ve sung new musical genres into creation and written volumes of prose based on nothing more than all the actions and interactions that take place underneath the gentle, unassuming façade of our run-of-the-mill, small-town lives.

It makes sense then that what I remember most about my youth is the stories I was told, stories about the people around me — friends, family members, and the array of neighbors I’d known since the day I was born. They were a proverbial motley crew, these people, a cast of the most comical, quietly controversial, and unadulterated characters anyone could ever imagine. I learned to lose myself in their stories, absorbing the complexities of their choices and the intricacies of their secrets. I would sit, drop-jawed, taking it all in until I became far too intimate with their sorrows and regrets and overly invested in their quests for happiness.

Some people look back and measure their growth in years or with events. When they tell you about their first kiss or the first time somebody asked them to dance, they might recall that it was on a balmy November night in 1984, or that it was during the school dance which took place the first Friday after Ronald Reagan won the presidential election. More often than not, I tend to measure my growth with stories, with all the words that swirled around each significant achievement, each new awareness, as it was happening.

I remember, for instance, when and where I first gained a sense of myself as an individual, a person with wants and needs that were specifically her own. It was after I’d heard about my grandmother’s penchant for bargain-hunting, especially twofers — except, in her case, “fourfers” would be the more appropriate word — four for the price of one. With four young boys and one girl at her feet, my Grandmamma Pressly, as the story was told, was a firm believer in the “one fell swoop” philosophy. She kept all of her boys in buzz cuts, because it was easier, and when one of them needed a trim, she’d gather the whole bunch and march them right down to the barbershop, even if their hair hadn’t grown an inch since their last cut.

The same applied to appointments with doctors and dentists, as well as trips to the department store. When one of her boys needed to have his wisdom teeth removed, she piled the rest of them into the car too, figuring that even though they weren’t having problems now, they’d eventually have to have a tooth pulled, wisdom or other, so now was as good a time as any, since she’d more than likely get a discount for bringing in that many patients.

I’ll never forget how grateful I was, after hearing that story, to be the only girl and also to have a brother who was nine and a half years older than me. I’d always been somebody with a strong personality and an unflinching knowledge of her likes and dislikes as well as her needs and wants. But I’d never before appreciated that having them met was a privilege, not until I considered the existence of an alternative. I couldn’t even begin to imagine being made to wear the same haircut or style as somebody else just because we were siblings, or having to go to the doctor and get poked and prodded just because somebody else was sick.

It might seem like a negligible piece of enlightenment, but when you’re six or seven, as I was, it’s actually a major revelation. It’s like having a thin layer of film lifted off your world, a film you never even knew was there, which allows you to see things a little bit clearer. That’s the effect each and every one of those stories my family members told me had; they altered my impressions of places, of people and things. They gave me insight.

As of right now, I’ve spent exactly as many years living away from my hometown as I did living in it. No matter how far away I’ve moved from my past, in miles or in memory, I’ve always carried those stories with me. Even though I return every year to visit, I’ve never, as the saying goes, been able to go home again. So much has changed. Some people have died. Others, like me, have moved far away. And those who have chosen to remain have been in constant motion — gaining weight or losing hair, giving birth or getting divorced. Nothing has stood still in time, except, of course, those stories, all those words and the voices that spoke them.

For several weeks I’d been thinking a lot about those words, those voices. I’d been going over the stories again and again, using them to map my maturity, to gauge how far I’ve come. I’d been surrounding myself with an assortment of voices, from my Granddaddy and Grandmamma Presslys’ to my parents’ and my uncles’ and aunts’. It was like a chorus, a warm tapestry of sound. The voices greeted me with soft chants every morning when I awoke, their free rhythms fluttered around me like butterfly wings as I went through my day, and their melodies serenaded me as I drifted into sleep.

It all started when I found out I was pregnant. I went out and bought every book on pregnancy and childbirth on the market. It was my first time and I wanted a step-by-step manual, something to explain what I should expect, what I might experience. Page by page, I pored through those books, reading them first in their entirety and then referring back to certain sections when I reached crucial stages in every week of each trimester. And then one day I read something that pulled my past into sharp focus, made me start going over my life’s stories.

What I read was that my fetus — every fetus, in fact — was able to hear, and hear quite well, from the second trimester on. The author of the book where I’d read that went on to encourage parents to speak or sing to their unborn babies. “Start reading them books, or telling them stories,” she suggested. It wasn’t as if I didn’t already know this. I’d heard about expectant parents placing headphones on the mother’s protruding belly and playing classical music for their babies, or fathers kneeling every night in front of their pregnant wives and speaking straight into their navel as if it were a microphone.

I’d even already started talking to my own unborn son, telling him that I love him, giving him colorful descriptions of my activities, and preparing him for uncomfortable situations. “Okay, Dezi,” I’d say to him before lunch. “I’m going to order a Caesar salad and a tall glass of water for us.” “Hold on, little one,” I’d warn him as I was driving. “This road is kinda bumpy.” And always, always, throughout each day, I’d let him know that he is the best thing to ever happen in my life.

So, you see, what I read wasn’t surprising in any way, shape, or form. But it did make me think, especially the part about telling stories. It was still early in my pregnancy. I hadn’t even officially announced it to the world. All I’d been doing in those initial weeks was holding conversations with Dezi, telling him about how I felt, what I was doing, giving him clues about the here and now. But after reading what I read, I realized it was probably time to move on to more.

So came the tough questions. What stories would I share with Dezi? Nursery rhymes and picture books were all well and good but if sound was going to be my baby’s introduction to the outside world, then I wanted it to be the sound of a story being told Pressly-style, with all the inflections and dramatic pauses, the eyebrow-lifting irony and thunderous laughter which mark every tale we tell. I wanted to relate those stories to him in the tradition of our family, again and again, until they seeped from my skin right into his skin, and settled into his soul.

That’s when I summoned the voices, started recounting the stories — all of them. There were my all-time favorites and some that I didn’t care for at all. There were the ones that I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, were real and true, and some that I wasn’t so sure about—the ones that were not necessarily flat-out fibs but not necessarily not the truth. I started collecting them, carefully organizing them the way people organize photographs in an album, for posterity.

I never used to think of myself as much of a storyteller. Not an original one, anyway. For a long time, when it came to stories, I was more of a repeater than a teller. I suppose that was as it should have been, because I was young. There was nothing to look back on. All the elements and events were just coming together. Whatever stories I could one day tell, stories that were distinctly my own, were still being shaped, but that didn’t stop me from telling other people’s stories every chance I got, repeating them like they were mine.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then my family knows how much I love them, ’cause by the time I was old enough to ride my bike, I had each one of them down pat. I knew how to hold court like my Granddaddy Pressly, to sit in the center of a circle with all eyes and ears focused on me to get the story started right. I also knew how to crescendo like Uncle Pruitt did as the plot was reaching its climactic parts; how to use my hands for added expression like my Uncle Ezra did; or use my eyes to speak for me whenever I grew silent, like my Aunt Careen did. Each of them contributed something to what soon became my repertoire of storytelling skills. However, the one lesson I didn’t learn until much later is that stories, like scars, are earned. They’re reminders not so much of the storms we’ve weathered but of the wonder that we survived.

It takes a whole heck of a lot of courage to speak your own story, to stand there naked in front of everybody, displaying your scars. I didn’t realize that until the first time I tried and came up silent. The pain was still too raw for me to turn it into laughter, and everybody knows a good story has to have at least a smidgen of humor in it, even if it’s only to help tease along the tears.

So I started to write it all down. Not for the sake of the story but for the sake of the healing. Each of those early words was a balm. I would lay them down, ink on paper, for their ability to soothe. Later, I would fold those sheets of paper, my little testimonies, into halves, and then quarters, and I would hide them in a secret mementos box for safekeeping, for the time being.

It’d been years since I’d touched that box or thought about those stories I’d written down, all of them still in the beginning stages, not fully developed. For weeks, my family’s voices had kept me company. I’d grown used to the companionship, used to hearing them in my head recounting the stories I’d heard throughout my youth. But one day they just stopped as suddenly as they had started.

I was sitting in my rocking chair, holding a copy of “Goodnight Moon” in my hand. I’d just finished reading it aloud. It made me all nostalgic, got me thinking about the Carolina sky, and that, of course, made me think of my Granddaddy Pressly. And that, of course, made me want to share one of his stories with Dezi, who was wide-awake, practicing karate kicks in my womb.

I closed my eyes and tried to summon my granddaddy’s voice, so that I could listen to him telling the story, but I couldn’t hear a thing. I tried summoning another voice, my Grandmamma Pressly’s. Now, she was somebody who always had something to say. Still nothing, not a single word. The only thing that came to me was an image of that dusty ole box in the back of my closet. I was getting worried, wondering why I couldn’t hear them anymore then the craziest thought started running through my head: what if I shared one of my own stories with Dezi instead?

I considered getting up to go get the box but I was comfortable in that chair. Pregnancy can wear a woman out, make her stay put in one place. Anyway, there was really no point in expending that energy because I knew every word on those sheets by heart. And to prove it to myself, I started reciting one of the stories in my head, confidently, effortlessly. It felt so natural to me that I didn’t even bother to spend a moment or a breath worrying about the fact that none of those stories in that box had endings. I had left them all unfinished. For some reason that didn’t matter. I felt sure that if I kept going like I was, the story would find its own path, know when to bend, when to break, and when to come to a complete stop.

So I opened my mouth, suddenly very sure of myself, and started to speak. “Settle down now, Dezi,” I said. “Mama’s gonna tell you a story.”

Excerpted from “It’s Not Necessarily Not the Truth” by Jaime Pressly. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from William Morrow/HarperCollins.