What's That Lady Doing? by Lou Sanders | Book review by Steve Bennett
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What's That Lady Doing? by Lou Sanders

Book review by Steve Bennett

Shame is a complex emotion. A useful break against bad behaviour, perhaps, for without shame where would we be? (A: Pushing conspiracy theories on Rumble). But too much of it and it becomes toxic, burning through your self-worth like acid.

As detailed in her new 'alarmingly truthful' memoirs focussing on all the mistakes she’s made, Lou Sanders had plenty of shame in her troubled youth. Misunderstood at home, especially by a stepfather who appears to hold her in utter contempt, she sought escape in getting blackout​ drunk in her teens. Describing herself as ‘headstrong and wild with incredibly low self-esteem and penchant for excitement’, her chaotic young life buffeted between bad behaviours.

Plenty of men took advantage of this and there are some horrific tales here. ‘When you are lost and broken people know they can use and abuse you,’ she notes sadly – and such dehumanising treatment only exacerbates the downward spiral. Yet in her writing, Saunders strikes a fine balance, giving her account straightforwardly, rather than seeking pity, allowing the reader to have their own reaction.

For someone who can come across as ditzy in her comedy, Sanders is very astute about her emotional state in her lowest ebbs. ‘Shame makes you feel like you are infected and there’s nothing you can do so, she writes.  ‘You are destined to destroy everything.’

Then later: ‘Shame doesn’t motivate change, quite the opposite. You think that is who you are so you double down, a lost cause.  It’s much healthier to see yourself as a loveable person capable of good and bad decisions. Then you can more likely correct your path and make better choices.’

For her flaws, Sanders’ mum did recognise this, and tried to see her wayward daughter as more that the sum of her dreadful decisions. 

After a lot of those failures, Sanders eventually started to find worth in herself, too. Some of that was down to starting stand-up. After a promising start, her career stalled, and she became frustrated to find herself overtaken by those entering the business behind her. She came to learn that she was seen as a liability - too flaky and unpredictable, thanks to her boozing, to be entrusted with the big gigs.

She portrays it as quite a simple equation, that once she stopped drinking and taking her career seriously with plenty of gigging (and learning from her on-stage deaths) good things started to happen. There are probably plenty of sober(ish) hard workers on the comedy circuit waiting for their break who think there must be more to it than that, but this is Sanders’ experience.

Without mentioning them by name, she gives huge credit to Alcoholics Anonymous for putting her on the straight and narrow, as well as a book by self-help guru Allen Carr. She has a few more out-there new agey beliefs too, but wisely keeps mention of them to a minimum, aware that not everyone wants to hear them.

Sanders doesn’t shy away from the grimmer side of comedy, either, with certain men exploiting power imbalances and the insecurities of those new to the business. ‘One producer has date-raped so many women doing drugs and he doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong’, she records - although he was eventually outed when several women came forward to The Guardian with their stories. Where’s the shame he ought to have?

For a book with so much trauma, What's That Lady Doing? is a much lighter read than you might expect. Perhaps we can thank fellow comic John Robins for some of that. In a story related here, she asked him to read a draft  then queried why he hadn’t laughed for five minutes, to be told: ‘Well, I am on my fourth rape story, m’love’. So for all the devastating incidents, this is the cheery version.

It’s absolutely written in the same scattergun voice as her stand-up, peppered with bonkers aside and cheesy knob/vagina/Carol (as she nicknames her whole below-the-belt caboodle) jokes. Chapters are very short – the whole book can even be dispatched in one decent sitting – and authenticity of voice is prized over more formal expectations of storytelling or writing.

Her account will surely help those struggling with their own shame and self-worth issues see that there can be a way through. And for every other reader, the memoirs are entertaining, shocking, funny and grim in equal measure – yet with remarkably little grinding of gears between these wild tonal shifts.

• What's That Lady Doing?: False Starts And Happy Endings Lou Sanders  is available from Amazon, priced £17.05, or from Bookshop.org, which helps independent bookstores, below:

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Published: 28 Sep 2023

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