Cea Sunrise Person revisits unorthodox wilderness upbringing in 'Nearly Normal'

Author Cea Sunrise Person is shown during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto, Thursday, Feb.2, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Author Cea Sunrise Person is shown during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto, Thursday, Feb.2, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO — Cea Sunrise Person recounted her unlikely journey from the wilds of Western Canada to the worlds of high fashion in her bestselling memoir "North of Normal," but she wasn't ready to close the book on her unorthodox upbringing.

In "Nearly Normal" (HarperCollins), the Vancouver-based author shares anecdotes left untold in her debut memoir, in which she chronicled childhood years with her pot-growing, free-loving family living in a teepee.

Eighteen months after her birth to her teen mom Michelle in 1969, Person's anti-establishment grandfather known as Papa Dick decided to relocate the free-spirited family of hippies from California to Canada.

Until she was five, Person lived in Kootenay Plains and Morley, Alta., where her family hunted and gathered their food, and created a stove dubbed the Guzzler out of a rusty, old barrel.

Person recounts stories of working as a model from age 13 to 30, jetsetting to picturesque locales and also experiencing the less glitzy side of the industry.

In each chapter of "Nearly Normal," she revisits seminal moments of her past balanced with reflections of her adult life as she strives to achieve a sense of stability often lacking in her earlier years.

"From about (the ages of) 30 to 40, I was in this awful place in my life where I can't believe I'd built this normal life I'd always wanted, but it's totally fake and it's totally falling apart," Person, 47, said in a recent interview in Toronto, recalling the crumbling of her second marriage.

"I knew there were consequences and that I hadn't dealt with my past, so it had caught up with me. But I couldn't see the really obvious connection until I started writing."

Person writes of how her grandparents had shunned boundaries, discipline and formal education, leaving their four kids uneducated and with "few life skills." In addition to engaging in drug use and sex with various partners, they also struggled with mental illness.

She also candidly recounts some of the more harrowing experiences of her upbringing, including being sexually abused.

"It was emotional, but not in the way that you would think," Person recalled. "I didn't get upset in writing about it — especially towards people that might have hurt me.

"I got more upset at my family for kind of putting the blinders on and not really wanting to know because to them, it was just like, 'Well, Cea, you know, that's life — don't be so uptight.'

"I really realized how much harm that had done me, but I also realized in some ways I'd had some great examples from my family, and so I needed to take those away from the situation, too."

Person also delves into her complex relationship with her late mother, who died in 2007. She recalls her mom's series of topsy-turvy relationships, and reflected upon the impact on her own life and romantic partnerships.

Despite the challenges within their mother-daughter dynamic, Person paints a warm portrait of her mom as a grandmother who formed an "amazing bond" with her eldest son.

"My mother was not the pattern-breaker in her family. She raised me the way that she was raised and for her, that was totally fine. She loved that lifestyle.... It could have gone both ways. I could have been like her. I could be living my life and repeating whatever she did — but I just wasn't that person," Person said.

"I wanted something completely different. I'm not angry at her. I forgive her."

Person said she was initially nervous about sharing her story, one that she had once carefully guarded and felt had been "a source of shame."

Those pangs eased after receiving warm feedback from readers, some of whom had known her family or related to her story. Others spoke of their desire to live life off the grid, expressed fascination with the hippie movement, or shared their own struggles to find acceptance.

"I think there was just a lot of curiosity of how I was able to overcome all of that craziness, and so I felt like my book helped quite a few people — and I wanted that to continue.

"That's my mission: to try to help people if I can."


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