Traveling Through 'KooKooLand': A Memoir of Childhood, Trauma, and Escape

Screenwriter Gloria Norris grew up poor, with an abusive father in rural New Hampshire. In her new book, Norris describes the extreme violence she was exposed to as a child and how she has come to terms with that trauma today.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Jan 6 2016, 5:30pm

Cover of "KooKooLand," by Gloria Norris. Photos courtesy of Regan Arts

When she was nine years old, screenwriter Gloria Norris's criminal father Jimmy chose her as his sidekick. He taught her how to sell stolen TVs, gamble at racetracks, and shoot animals. He also abused Gloria's mother and hung out with a hunter named Hank, whose daughter, Susan, loved little Gloria. When Hank murdered Susan's mother, he dragged Gloria's family into a years-long drama that Calvin Trillin chronicled in the New Yorker. The story ends with Susan committing her own act of violence. It was, as Gloria's new memoir is titled, KooKooLand.

While the other characters' lives have descended into death or poverty, Gloria has overcome the tragedies of her childhood. She studied at Bennington College and Sarah Lawrence College; worked for Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese; and wrote screenplays. (Although she says many scripts sold, few went into production, which is typical in Hollywood where studios spend millions on scripts they will never make.) KooKooLand recounts how she survived.

The book is the first 2016 release from the publisher Regan Arts, launched by the company's namesake CEO Judith Regan last year. While Regan is known for her sex books and controversial celebrity memoirs—like Ronda Rousey's autobiography and Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof's—but her outfit sells books from a variety of genres. The real link among her titles is their stories: Women become warrior figures who overcome trauma without viewing themselves as victims. Rousey fights to become the first female UFC star, a teenage Mariel Hemingway escapes drug-addicted parents, and middle-aged sex worker Air Force Amy returns from being kidnapped to make a fortune at the Bunny Ranch.

You think about the 60s as the peace and love times, but for us back in New Hampshire it wasn't like that.

Gloria sees herself in this vein. "I do see myself [as a warrior figure]," she says. "That's the picture on the cover of the book: a little girl power posing." When we meet at Thyme Cafe in Santa Monica, though, she looks more like a Hollywood hippie. She drinks a decaf cappuccino and lets her long brown hair hang over her shoulder in a messy but stylish way. The only sign of Gloria's past is her beat-up leather jacket reminiscent of a biker's uniform.

"[Jimmy was] good experience for Hollywood," Gloria jokes. "You don't want a father who is going to try to shoot you, but it's good to have some toughening up."

Photo by S. Beth Atkin

The book opens on the other side of the country in New Hampshire, where Gloria's family lives in public housing. Gloria accompanies Jimmy, her father, on a car ride. Jimmy had served in the merchant marines. He always wanted a son, a mini-me, so Gloria behaved like a boy, accompanying Jimmy at racetracks and on trips to the movies. Although Jimmy showed her gangster movies, he also loved Doctor Zhivago and films by Italian neo-realists. "[Jimmy had] a sensitive artistic core," Gloria explains. "I have sympathy for him having challenges growing up: He was a sensitive man who had to be a macho man."

Read More: Ghostwriter Maya Sloan Gives Life to Celebrities' Stories

KooKooLand presents a nuanced portrait of Jimmy, but goes into detail about how he abused women. At home, Gloria saw her father's drinking increase; he began beating her mother and threatening to kill people."It dovetailed with him being such a big drinker," Gloria says. "Domestic violence and drinking often go hand in hand. People have good stuff, and they've got bad stuff. On balance [Jimmy] went in a bad direction."

In her memoir, Gloria finds humor in her father's violence. "He's not crazy," a young Gloria tells someone who calls Jimmy crazy. "He just gets mad when he loses at the track." Writing her story, Gloria says, forced her to reexamine the terrors she watched her mother endure. Through first drafts and revisions, her views on her mom evolved. She says she grew to understand why her mom stayed with Jimmy: He would have killed her if she hadn't.

"I have gratitude for having escaped it," Gloria says. "Growing up in the projects, you really do feel [that] for most people there's never a shot of getting out of there. I was aware of that even as a kid. I would look around and see girls three years older than me who already had three kids."

There's a tremendous amount of violence against women.

Although the media portrays gun violence as a phenomenon of the last 20 years, Gloria believes it has existed in America for decades. She claims authorities arrested her father's friend, Hank, multiple times for gun violations and "nobody thought twice about it." "You think about the 60s as the peace and love times, but for us back in New Hampshire it wasn't like that," Gloria says. While she had thought that was "all over," recent news stories have made Gloria reconsider her story as a more timely tale.

"There's a tremendous amount of violence against women all over," Gloria says.

At Bennington College, Gloria's past ostracized from her wealthy classmates. "Everyone was like a product," she says. "They had famous last names." Over time, however, she also saw how rich parents often failed children. "Truthfully, a lot of them had issues, too," Gloria says. "Having rich parents doesn't give you a get-out-of-a-mess card."

While a student at Sarah Lawrence College, where she transferred from Bennington, Gloria learned to appreciate her background. There she also connected with the director (and Sarah Lawrence alum) Brian De Palma. The auteur would toss students' scripts aside, sometimes on the floor, Gloria says, and tell kids his treatment would prepare them for Hollywood. While Gloria's peers freaked out over his behavior, she felt she could handle it because Jimmy had toughened her up as a child. A few years later, De Palma recommended Scorsese hire his former student as an assistant on the set of a boxing movie. She scored the job, and it launched her career in Hollywood. Gloria knew the root of her grit.

"I got Jimmy's genes," Gloria says. "I owe my whole career to him."