Joanie Laurer, the former professional wrestler better known as Chyna, published her autobiography If They Only Knew in 2001—fifteen years before she died.
The book, the title of which is partly a reference to the various snide remarks then being made about Laurer's biological sex, was just one of many WWE-sanctioned autobiographies that emerged in the wake of Mick Foley's best-selling memoir Have a Nice Day, the flashpoint that elevated wrestler tell-alls into a big business.
Foley's book was sui generis; he wrote it himself and because of that it had an appealingly gritty authenticity, much like the prison memoirs and pimp memoirs that had sold well in previous decades. Prior to the book's release, there was little mainstream demand for the shaggy-dog stories of old wrestlers. But Have a Nice Day arrived at precisely the right moment, with public interest in the sport at its zenith, and the floodgates opened. "As told to" accounts of the lives of the WWE's top stars began appearing, most sorely lacking in detail or candor. (Tangled Ropes, "Superstar" Billy Graham's gripping story of his multiple recoveries from drug addiction, is a notable exception). Still, lay readers flocked to the genre for the same reason why Iceberg Slim's Pimp became a sensation in 1967: they have heard the story is gripping and the prose possesses a certan literary merit or entertainment value.
Hardcore fans, on the other hand, often left feeling hollow. Instead, they turned to non-WWE sanctioned titles, which mix a didactic tone with ferocious criticism of the current fallen state of the sport. Former Four Horseman Ole Anderson's Inside Out: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling is a fine example of this sort of thing, with Anderson's evident egotism set alongside a brutal critique of Ric Flair for always wrestling the same match (Bret Hart's Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling echoes that, calling Flair a "routine man" who never deviated from his handful of moves and spots). The Cowboy and the Cross, the autobiography of notorious tough guy and innovative promoter "Cowboy" Bill Watts, is another unacknowledged classic.
Like the many titles that bore the WWE's stamp of approval, Laurer's fell into the softer category. The book, which was produced in cooperation with freelance writer Michael Angeli, contained scant criticism of Vince McMahon or his federation. Nothing in Laurer's memoir -- even the story of her breast implants exploding or the discussion of how she helped spur production of the enormous, custom-made "Chyna implant" -- compares to Watts boasting about ripping off and then eating a man's ear while also periodically pausing to talk about how his acceptance of Christianity has "saved" him. Watts, though important in the business for a variety of reasons, didn't achieve his peak stardom in the same kind of fishbowl Laurer did, and his book emerged much later, so it wound up consigned to a small corner of the market.
And that, at least in some respects, is a terrible shame. Wrestlers are liars, both by inclination and profession, and the stories they tell themselves, about themselves, are fundamentally untrue. Of course, as Plato noted, poets are liars too, and perhaps because of this, much writing by wrestlers boasts a certain literary cachet, however crude. The most professionally produced memoirs, those done by Chris Jericho, Bob Backlund, and Bret Hart, are certainly no less readable than Foley's first few works. And the more personal and idiosyncratic accounts must be studied to be believed, such as Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer's tremendous third-person examination of his storied career in sports, "Hardcore" Bob Holly's down-and-dirty tale of drug use and injuries, or Stan "The Lariat" Hansen's comprehensive breakdown of how the various wrestling promotions in Japan operated.
"I've been telling stories my whole career," explained "Cowboy" Johnny Mantell, a former wrestler and current president of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. "Wrestling is always about linking up the past with the present. We keep each other's stories alive: telling stories, giving interviews, and now, in part thanks to Mick--who gave his original handwritten manuscript to the Hall of Fame--writing this stuff down so our fans can have it."
That's where Laurer's book provides the most value. For whatever it lacked in salacious details about the wrestling business, If Only They Knew offers readers a great deal about its author's state of mind. Joanie Laurer's tragic death wouldn't come for another decade-and-a-half but even then, her life had been fraught with trauma. She dated abusive men, finished last in fitness pageants, spent hours staring in the mirror and obsessing about her jutting jaw, got scammed out of a bodybuilding trophy, and couldn't even complete her stint in the Peace Corps. Her mother was vicious and controlling, her father a feckless con artist who sent her to college primarily so he could steal $40,000 of her student loans.
Wrestling, at first, was less a calling than a life preserver, a way for her to become something after a lifetime of feeling like less than nothing. Chyna went where no one has gone before or since, working credible matches against the likes of Jeff Jarrett and Chris Jericho. As the years pass, and even with the development of a WWE women's division now comprised of competent wrestlers such as Charlotte and Becky Lynch, her accomplishment remains singular.
Knowing and understanding the prologue to that rise offers a reminder of how hellish her life had already been, and helps contextualize what it became after her WWE career was abruptly yanked from her. She didn't crash and burn because she had achieved too much too soon. No, she was always hurting, and her brief career in wrestling allowed her to temporarily replace those emotional aches and pains with physical ones.
Laurer had beaten some of the men at their own game. If They Only Knew captures her standing toe-to-toe with the male giants of her sport, a feat that will only become more impressive with the passage of time. We didn't need to read a book to learn any of that. But a couple hundred WWE-produced pages may offer the best way to understand why her life ended far sooner than it should have.