When she was selling crack as a 16-year-old on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, the future wasn’t looking so bright for Patricia Williams.
Growing up as one of five kids to a single, alcoholic mother and a moonshine-selling granddad, Williams—whose nickname is Rabbit—learned how to steal and started committing petty crimes to survive at a young age. She had her first child months after she turned 14, followed by her second at 15, to an older man in his 20s who was dealing drugs in the neighbourhood. Their relationship was abusive (one on occasion, he hit her with a gun that went off, and it wounded her skull) and after he got arrested for selling dope, Williams needed to find a way to support her kids alone. As an eighth-grade dropout during the height of the crack epidemic, she started selling drugs.
Working on the streets, Williams was shot at, hit by a dump truck and ultimately found herself in jail at 18. Soon after she finished serving her year-long sentence, she stopped selling crack, met her now-husband Garrett and got her GED. The couple had two kids together, but Williams had a hard time finding stable work as a convicted felon. It wasn’t until a social worker told her how funny she was and suggested stand-up that Williams even considered comedy as a career.
That was 13 years ago. Today Williams—who now goes by the nickname Ms. Pat—has been working as a comedian. She has been featured on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central’s This is Not Happening and Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Her stand-up material is based on her unconventional upbringing, where she makes fun of her missing nipple (it was shot off) and living off of ketchup sandwiches. Most recently, it was announced that Williams is working with director Lee Daniels on a Fox sitcom based on her life.
In her new memoir, Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat (HarperCollins, $32), the 45-year-old shares how she turned a life of poverty and crime into a comedic career. Rabbit is a heartbreaking and hilarious story about survival, one that will make you laugh the second you think you’re about to cry. FLARE chatted with the inspiring and funny AF Ms. Pat about overcoming an abusive childhood, being a teen mom and how comedy saved her life.
When you were a kid, your mom taught you how to steal money from the drunks passed out at your grandad’s “liquor house” where he sold moonshine. She also made you and your sister dance for the patrons for cash. Was there ever a point where you were like, this doesn’t seem normal?
When I really realized that these people were different was when I grew up and I started to step outside this box—this comfort zone, the ghetto, the hood—and I started to experience other things in life. That’s when reality really kicked in, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re not supposed to raise a baby like this.’ Growing up in that environment is a cycle. Whatever was given to you, nine times out of 10 you’re going to give it to your kids. My granddaddy was a bootlegger, and I started to steal, and everything they taught me I started to do in life. I dropped out of school, had kids young. I started to open my eyes and realize, ‘Shit I gotta save my kids.’
In your book you write how you’d watch Leave It to Beaver as a kid and wanted a family just like the Cleavers. Was it isolating not having a family like yours reflected on TV?
Yeah, as a kid, you think TV is real, so I’m thinking like, ‘Why aren’t my family acting like these people?’ And at the time, I didn’t even realize what white and Black people were; I didn’t see colour. I just knew we should’ve been acting like the Cleavers. There was no struggle with the Cleavers; no one was ever hungry and [Mrs. Cleaver] had a dinner ready every day. I wanted to know how I got stuck in my house.
After you got pregnant as a young teen, you started selling drugs. Was dealing the only way you knew how to survive?
Yeah, that’s what was in my community. Drugs destroyed the working class Black people—people that you never thought they’d be smoking anything. You see Black women and men leaving their kids and stuff, so yeah, it was the only way I could survive. The people who were getting money—they were the ones dealing drugs. I was 15 with two kids, and an eighth grade education—what else could I do? Sell crack or sell pussy, and the price of pussy ain’t worth as much as the crack [laughs]. That sounded like some hard work, so I said I think I’m going to do the drug thing to get some milk.
Well when you put it that way…
Do you want to run from the police or do you want to be on your knees all day? [Laughs.]
You were eventually arrested. After you got out of jail, how did you rebuild your life?
With me, I had to change my environment. You cannot say what you’re going to do [to change] and go back into the same environment. You have to change your environment because if you don’t, whatever you were doing before, you’re going to fall back in that same shit. The only way I got out is that I changed relationships, environment, everything.
How did all of your struggles and experiences growing up shape who you’ve become as an adult?
Any time you have bumps in the road, it should only make you grow up. Motherhood really helped my survival skills. Not only was I trying to provide for myself, but I was 14 and trying to feed a baby. It made me grow up really fast. With what I learned from growing up so fast, now I have no tolerance for people who say they can’t do it. I have no tolerance for my kids who say they have a hard life. Trying breastfeeding a baby and stealing a can of milk at the same time. That’s a hard life. My kids don’t know how good they got it.
Do you think that what you’ve gone through affects how your kids view life?
I really do. I had a daughter that graduated high school this year, and she’s going off to college. She said, ‘I don’t wanna go to the prom, but I’m going to go for you because you didn’t have that opportunity.’ That touched me to the core, because my kids know I didn’t graduate. They know I didn’t have an opportunity to go to the prom. They know I didn’t get to experience high school the way they did, so when they don’t want to do something, they say, ‘I’ll do it because you didn’t have the experience.’
In your memoir, you disclose that you and your sister were sexually abused as kids by a man your family knew. What was it like writing about that painful experience?
I never told this story before, and my husband didn’t even know until he read it. Telling that story really relieved a lot of pain off me because I never told what happened to me as a kid. When my brother reads it, he’s going to be shocked. Only me and my sister knew about that. I live by the motto, don’t dwell on shit you don’t have control over, keep it moving. I’m that type of person. I don’t have a problem pushing pain back and moving forward, but you can only push it back so far. So when I started writing this book and I started opening all these closets in my life, I did a lot of crying. But I’m so glad I told the story.
Now that you’ve told the story, do you hope that other people who have had similar experiences might tell someone?
I really do. I tell people when I’m on stage, ‘You know, nobody wants to be handed bullshit. A lot of us are handed pain and bullshit in our lives. Find a way to laugh at it.’ The [abuse] is the only thing I never make a joke about—because I never told the story—but believe me, eventually I will get a joke somewhere. Just laugh at the bullshit in your life because when you can take your pain and you can laugh at it, then you’ve got control of that situation. I do hope people will stop feeling shame around what they’ve been through, and speak out about it because it’s healing to talk. You never know who is listening.
Do you feel that comedy is a way of healing for you?
I tell people all the time, comedy saved my life. With all of these walls built up inside, and all the pain that I had, I was able to forgive a lot of people through comedy: my mom, my first kids’ father, who was so much older than me. I was able to move on. Comedy allowed me to laugh at what used to keep me down. I’m so glad I found comedy. I never thought about being a comedian, but it’s the best damn job I ever had. You know, I’m a convicted felon. Nobody checks your background; they just give you a mic and tell you to be funny.
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