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Literature

‘John Stamos: Redemption and Forgiveness’

December 4, 2023
By Michael G. Davros, PhD, Special to The National Herald

Even though readers of John Stamos’s autobiography, ‘If You Would Have Told Me: A Memoir’, know at the outset that John Stamos is still living, the opening pages are so dark with despair that a reader may well wonder whether Stamos survived. He writes: “It’s June 12, 2015. I am a fifty-one year old man behind the wheel of my silver Mercedes C 550 Coupe. I have no right to be behind any wheel” – he is quite drunk. The sense of deep foreboding may emerge from the dramatic strategy of Classical theater, where the audience knows the outcome of a drama but attends the theater to learn how this particular author will unfold the story, and Stamos holds the audience in suspense.

Although Hollywood and the 20th Century are replete with autobiographies, the form of the century, a reader might expect Stamos to be engaging in a tell-all autobiography, not unlike ‘Elia Kazan: A Life’, where he reveals as much as he could throughout his life, the association of Kazan with the Communist Party, the naming of names before the committee in Washington, the numerous affairs and the names of the women he bedded. Stamos’s book, however, is filled with generosity of spirit, love for the many people who helped him along the way, and honesty about his own life and struggles. Stamos’s book is not a tell-all autobiography, certainly not like Kazan’s, except that Stamos tells all about himself from his fame, his own self-destructive focus on retribution, and his final redemption through confession. There’s much to like in this book.

Readers don’t recognize St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ through the mist of Hollywood, but Stamos achieves almost the same purpose, the unburdening of a troubled soul.  Readers ought to understand that this screen idol who bears a Greek surname has been successful most of his teen and adult life, from the time of his boyish adulation of the Beach Boys and his forty-year deep connections with them, to his first daytime acting role as Blackie Parish on the ‘General Hospital’ soap, to his role in a stable family sitcom, ‘Full House’, to his numerous stage performances (‘Cabaret’, ‘Bye Bye Birdie’, ‘The Best Man’) and yet his boyish wonder at the glitz and glitter and his final successes, despite his honest revelation of alcoholism, invite the forgiveness of even the most moralistic of readers.

John Stamos and Caitlin McHugh (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File).
John Stamos, Caitlin McHugh

Although it would be a mistake to situate If You Would Have Told Me as an ethnic narrative, Stamos’s early life with his father and mother connects with many ethnics. Certainly, Stamos’ father, the owner of The Yellow Basket diner in Cypress, California, expected his son to go into the family business.  It’s so familiar a story as to be a stereotype of the ethnic hero who decides to part ways in order to make his own career. Stamos is torn between his desire to please his loving parents and his desire to establish himself as an actor and as a musician. We learn about his garage, and his home, and the bands that practiced there, and we as readers aspire with Stamos. We want him to succeed, and from the beginning of the narrative, readers may share the great fear that he won’t, that he may somehow be devoured by the alcohol, the lure of the stage, and yet again one more ambitious project.

If you’re an ethnic, you understand: rise above, be better than your parents, fit ten pounds of ambition into a five pound bag. And oh by the way, parents want success for their children, much as it may pain parents to see youngsters growing up and leaving the nest. Stamos doesn’t do that until he is earning a living wage from General Hospital. Eventually, Stamos’s father comes around and concedes that his most valuable Sunday morning cook has to branch out, even while the cook plays street punk Blackie Parrish.

While the father, William, is at first reluctant to grant that his son has talent, Stamos’s mother is there from the beginning, all the way. Stamos credits both parents, who by the time of If You Would Have Told Me, are deceased. Openly mourning both, the narrative is seasoned throughout with notes of love and inspiration from his mother. For example, she writes: “Don’t ever give the devil a ride because he will end up doing the driving” and “I’m the only person on Earth who has shared a heartbeat with you, my child.” Such and other similar notes are duplicated in facsimile form in his mother’s own handwriting. Towards the end of the memoir, in a chapter eulogizing his mother, Stamos writes, “those little letters of wisdom in pretty penmanship were always waiting for me and my sisters to find at the perfect moment when a revelation from beyond can save your soul”

Readers are moved by this open praise of child for the mother – perhaps in a time when people are jaded against sentiment, we need more of that kind of adulation.

Thus, both parents propel Stamos into fame. Stamos credits his father’s work ethic, and who in the food businesses does not know the long hours and often thankless customers? And his mother’s selfless devotion as a stay-at-home mom anchors Stamos. These family values, homespun from a Greek Orthodox father and an American born Irish Catholic mother, protect youngster and teenage Stamos from the ravages of teen drama, sex, drugs, and alcohol. But after having the Hollywood fame, Stamos is enveloped by all these enchantments, and the reader witnesses and winces at Stamos’s innocent but self-destructive decline.

Stamos pulls himself out of the tailspin, and that is partly because he remembers his upbringing. So, even though the narrative is not resoundingly ethnic – does not scream Greek ethnic – readers can appreciate how Stamos is able to rescue himself, his life, and build a new family. It is in this rescuing of himself that Stamos finds redemption and learns to forgive himself.

This is not a narrative that should be placed beside Tina Fey’s ‘Miss Bossy Pants’, any of David Sedaris’s autobiographical stories, or Elia Kazan’s often rather salacious and embarrassing narrative. A kind of purity informs Stamos’s book (perhaps because we see things through a child’s eyes), not only in the story of the kid who rises above, but also in the kid who falls from grace, his own grace, and that of the family that raised and anchored him in such a way that he could pull himself out of the bleak opening scenes of the narrative.

Not many self-life-writers have so charmed an existence as to be able to transform themselves. So, it may not be thanks to all the film credits and Beach Boy songs, and soap opera segments that John Stamos has ultimately come to know himself, but it could be that his latest, newest, and truest success is that he wrote a book about his forgiveness of himself and his own redemption.

As confessions go, If You Would Have Told Me rescues John Stamos’s soul.

The narrative is absolutely engaging. Perhaps it is the style, tone, and pace of this narrative that invites a reading. As a story in the genre of self-life writing, every enactment is sui generis. Much of the narrative bears the marks of elements of fiction, and indeed cinematic techniques like the ‘jump cut’, ‘flash back’ and ‘flash forward’ serve to structure the narrative, but it reads like a good story. The book is also structured by content, including the numerous generous homages he offers for the people who guided his success. Among whole chapters devoted to recognizing other talents are chapters on Sammy Davis, Jr., Don Rickles, Jack Klugman (“Jack becomes like a second father to me after my father dies”), the entire Beach Boys band (“Beach Boy Bingo, I Win!”), Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Page, and Garry Marshall. Of Sinatra, Stamos writes, “if you would have told me [an oft repeated phrase], back when I was having those animated discussions with my dad about whether Frank or Elvis was the cooler icon, that one day Sinatra would address me personally before an audience of twenty thousand and, most significantly, in front of my father, I would have told you that you must be smoking grass,”

It’s a kind of wide-eyed innocence that a reader would find endearing, as though Stamos were once again, a child. Stamos also displays the same wide-eyed innocence and a sensibility of forgiveness in his appreciation of Don Rickles:

“Jimmy [Kimmel] doesn’t want Don to come off as insensitive or unaware that those types of jokes [about Obama] are problematic in today’s climate. The thing is, Don can’t come off as insensitive because he isn’t. He’s above all the correctness because he’s always used humor to tease out the cruelest, darkest, most mean-spirited aspects of society and make people face their own bigotry and hatred. Don wasn’t making fun of President Obama; he was making fun of the racist a**hole who would put an African American in a subservient category.”

Thus, from the standpoint of both a comedian and an actor, and a musician, Stamos appreciates Rickles’ largeness of vision and social commentary despite the fact that Rickle’s routines today would be relegated to the trash bin by the ‘cancel culture’.

Throughout the book, as Stamos details his many resume credits, he also intersperses the traumas of his private life. His 10-year marriage to model and actor, Rebecca Romijn, whose career vaults from Stamos’s efforts, ends in a divorce that sends Stamos back into the comforts and ravages of the bottle. But even in the tragic circumstances of the dissolution of the marriage, Stamos finds that Romijn was not the sole cause, and as he progresses through the twelve step AA program, he understands his complicity in the destruction of the marriage, one of the two great heartbreaks of his life, partly because his goal had been the fairy-tale ending of home, family and children, but above all, children.

Of all the warm and tragic remembrances, Stamos reserves the last chapter for his friend and ‘brother’ of thirty-five years, Bob Saget , co-star from Full House, which originally aired in 1987.

Many of the mentors and friends have died by the time the book is written, and Stamos takes an elegiac stance in offering the best and humorous moments of his relationships with them. In the case of Bob Saget, who died January 9, 2022, Stamos has lost his best friend, and the anguish and shock suffered at his passing by all who knew him touches any reader. So the book is filled with both the successes Stamos experiences and the losses of loved ones. In the final analysis, despite the tragic losses, readers see a recovered Stamos unwilling to drop back into the depths of despair, and he has found new hope in his son Billy and wife Caitlin. Throughout the book, Stamos offers a generosity of spirit, tells of profound despair, and with love, rescues his soul.

Reviewer Biography: Michael G. Davros, PhD teaches in the English department of Northeastern Illinois University. Author of the photohistory, ‘Greeks in Chicago’, he has lectured widely on issues concerning Greeks and African Americans. He currently researches Greek-American literature and the historical problems of the Eastern Mediterranean.

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