Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir
By Adam Cayton-Holland
Touchstone, hardcover, $26.00; available this Tuesday, August 21
Adam Cayton-Holland, the nationally touring comedian, writes about the funny, unbreakable, and heart wrenching relationship with his younger sister and the depression that took her life in Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir, which Patton Oswalt called“heartfelt and brilliant."
Adam grew up in a close-knit family deemed “The Magnificent Cayton-Hollands” in Denver, Colorado. His father, a civil rights lawyer, and his mother, an investigative journalist, taught Adam and his two sisters to feel the pain of the world deeply and to combat it any way necessary.
"If you weren't outraged, you weren't paying attention," writes Adam. "So you better channel that outrage to help fix things. That was the pervasive mind-set at Case de Cayton-Holland anyway, one that my parents were proud of. Were we to produce a family crest it would be a picture of a child sobbing while he stabs the hegemon in the heart."
Adam writes of what school was like for him, "I grew up on the wrong side of Sixth Avenue from Graland Country Day School. Though my neighborhood of Park Hill was decidedly upper middle class, at least on the south side, it was treated as the lefty ghetto to their Country Club right. I was never out-and-out bullied because I was good at sports - my flag football contract was a king-sized Twix on Fridays - but I was different there, an outsider, a quiet weirdo from the wrong neighborhood. Until one fateful morning in the ninth grade.
"On Fridays every student in the upper school - grades seven through nine - was required to attend a weekly assembly. And at the end of every assembly, a different ninth-grade student was made to deliver a two-minute speech on the subject of their choosing. The administration figured it would behoove the FBLA Hitler Youth to get some public speaking under their belts. Ninth graders lived in perpetual fear of their turn at the podium...
"Dave Letterman was my own personal Jesus at the time. I had negotiated my bedtime to after the Top Ten List, which allowed me to watch Dave's opening monologue, whatever bat-shit opening sketch the writer's room had concocted that evening, then the Top Ten List. The Top Tens were my favorite - so dry, so precise, so joyously and deliberately odd. So when it came time for me to speak in front of the upper school, I decided this was my opportunity to write my own.
"Graland underwent a massive renovation that year, a seemingly endless construction job that left an enormous hole in the middle of the school. They walled off the crater so we wouldn't topple into it, but it still loomed there mysteriously, noisy and dusty, like a meteor crash site in the middle of our otherwise pristine campus.
"So I wrote a Top Ten about it.
"I took to the podium, all thirteen years, four feet eleven inches of me, and cleared my throat.
"'It's time for tonight's Top Ten!'
"Tonight! It was 8:00 a.m.! The irreverence! The entire audience immediately perked up.
"'Top Ten Things the School Plans to Do with That Giant Hole in the Middle of Campus.'
"I removed a note card from my pocket on which I had written my Top Ten and proceeded to tick them off, one after another. And it fucking destroyed. Crushed. Showtime at the Apollo, the little rich, white asshole version. People couldn't believe what was happening. It was unlike anything they had seen all school year. This was not some painful experience to be omitted from our collective memory. This was noteworthy! This was funny. I savored every second. I ad-libbed and shook my head in delighted disappointment at the joke, just like Dave. I watched the waves of laughter roll over the audience, waited for them to subside, and then hit them with the next joke. It was the single most electric moment of my childhood up until that point."
Adam eventually went into stand-up comedy and was named one of Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch." His older sister, Anna, pursued law; and their youngest sister, Lydia, struggled to find her place in the world.
When Adam sank into a deep depression in college, it was Lydia who was able to reach him and pull him out.
Years later as Adam’s career took off, Lydia’s own depression overtook her, and, though he tried, Adam couldn’t return the favor and was left to grapple with the trauma while simultaneously having to focus on his budding career in comedy.
Revelatory and darkly funny, Tragedy Plus Time is both a poignant tribute to a lost sibling and an inspiring meditation on mental illness, grief, and recovery.