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I Was a Teenage Gangbanger

Comedian Moshe Kasher's new memoir tells the hilarious, hellish journey of his journey from teenage delinquent to sober role model—all before the age of 16.

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Kasher out of the rye Photo via

By Nina Emkin

04/23/12

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Moshe Kasher is a stand-up comedian. He’s been on Conan and Chelsea Lately, and he even shot his very own special on Comedy Central. His memoir, Kasher in the Rye, is an alternately gut-busting and devastating journey from his early days in the “vaginaquarium” (his words) to young adulthood. Along the way, he racks up a $1,500 bill for calling phone sex operators in the Philippines, gets sent to a school for mentally disabled kids, and starts a street gang. Here, Kasher talks to The Fix about the book, his sobriety, and his feelings on masturbation.

How did the book come about? 

I wrote a one-man show. I turned it into my manager, and he suggested I turn it into a book. It took a painful and intense year-and-a-half. I’ve described it as an experiment in memory: I was swimming around in there, finding stuff. I had so many memories that I hadn’t examined. It was like reliving a lot of the story.

The primary relationship you describe in the book is the one with your mother, who is alternately your greatest nemesis and the one person who doesn’t give up on you. You’re pretty unflinching in describing the traumas you enacted upon each other. What’s your relationship with her like now, and how has she responded to the book?

She’s pretty stoked. It’s cool to have a book coming out, because my mom is [finally] able to interact with a piece of media that I’ve done in its original form. She’s getting it unadulterated. [But] she doesn’t like the implication that she kidnapped me, which is just an implication. She was never indicted. She did a thing that, in hindsight, we [my brother and I] both looked at and realized...she took us on vacation and never came back. That today would be called kidnapping. There isn’t truth in memory, though; there’s only perspective. Her interpretation might be correct. She thinks she saved us from an abusive family situation. Our interpretation is that she did that in a way was unethical. But who knows what the truth is?

"It’s my secret hope that my book is the kind of book that kids who are too young to read it will steal from the bookstore and secretly read under the covers at night."

What differentiates your book from the spate of addiction/recovery memoirs that have been released over the past several years, besides the fact that it’s pee-in-your-pants funny?

I think it’s an unusual story. I wasn’t trying to write a story about how hardcore of a drug addict I was; I was a hardcore dysfunctional child. People say to me, “You were a teenage drug addict, what were you doing?” I’m talking about what it was like when it was 14. But it isn’t a story about sobriety. The story of a journey through recovery has been told already, and told well. This is a snapshot of a chaotic, disturbed, addicted childhood that ends in a beautiful place. I wasn’t attempting to write a book that would describe the process of getting sober. It was a snapshot of a fragmented, fucked up life, but with laughs. That was my primary goal. That’s a skill I learned in 12-step groups: the ability to laugh at stuff that’s dark. This book reads differently to different people. People in the program get a lot of laughs out of it. People with more sensitive palates think of it as a really kind of difficult and tragic book. I think it’s both. The book is bleak, but my life was bleak. I had planned on writing a book that was only funny. But to honor the story, it required that kind of emotional payoff. And look, I’ve been gifted this great life. None of that would exist if it weren’t for the things I’ve gone through, and my sobriety. But I wasn’t trying to talk about the agony of addiction; I was trying to talk about the absurdity of an addicted life. Very few people get sober young and stay sober. People who get sober young question whether they were just going through a phase. I’m 32. I believe almost nothing now that I believed when I was 15. I don’t have the same relationship with anything—other than masturbation. I thought that the story of a person getting and staying sober at 15 was unusual.  

How has your perspective on your recovery changed in the past 17 years?

Now that I’m a lot older, I realize that some of that [childhood] damage is definitely still enacting itself in my life today. But it doesn’t seem to be a manifestation of a disease; it’s like, I have these trauma weights that are still on me, and to a great degree, they’re a lot better, but [certain issues] I can still trace back to this damaged childhood that I had. [My perspective] has become more complicated. I am very proud of having the story. And to some degree I’m very sad that I have it. And to some degree I’m embarrassed. I used to lead with it when I would date. Now I don’t want that to be my definitive thing. It’s so weird that I’ve been sober this long. It doesn’t make sense. It’s become complex. I used to have a simple understanding of things. As I’ve gotten older and more neurotic, I just think of things differently.

Speaking of dating, do you think that now you’re going to have a ton of groupies because you’re a fancy published author?

This is the ultimate using story. I go into a lot of details. It doesn’t paint me as an attractive picture, unless you’re a woman who’s interested in fixing a man. I don’t think there’s going to be a huge tidal wave of vagina coming at me.  

Bummer. Who should read this book?  

I want everybody that’s reading this interview to go out and get the book. I finally made something that’s close to art. I’ve never been trying to do “art,” but I think for the first time [in my career], this thing has real depth and weight to it. [When I was around 12], I found a copy of The Basketball Diaries, and I would secretly read it. It gave me a lot of hope, and probably set me up for a lot of failure. But I felt like, here’s this guy, and he’s all fucked up and broken and damaged like me. It’s my secret hope that my book is the kind of book that kids who are too young to read it will steal from the bookstore and secretly read under the covers at night and will feel okay for a bit because I turned out to be a suave 32-year old man who is now facing a tidal wave of vaginas. It’s also a book about the 90s.  It very much exists in that nostalgic world of gangsta rap and divorced kids. It’s a book about Oakland, which was a particular and peculiar place, especially at that time.  

So, what’s the next step for you, career-wise?  

I’m going on a crazy book tour all over the west coast and Midwest. I’m trying to develop this book into a TV show or a movie. I have a one-hour special that I taped in Oakland. It was like an amends to Oakland. When I go up there to do the book tour, I’m going to do a reading at Claremont Middle School [which I attended].  The whole Oakland Public School District got eviscerated in the book, but I have a lot of love for the whole situation.

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence and has written for The Fix about relapse and coming out as an alcoholic, among many other topics. She lives in Los Angeles.

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