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Late Bloomer

With a celebrated memoir, actress Mary-Louise Parker triumphs on a whole new stage

Mary-Louise Parker

Tom Corbett

Mary-Louise Parker got her start in a role on the soap opera 'Ryan's Hope.'

Mary-Louise Parker has earned a fistful of plaudits for her acting — she's won an Emmy, a Tony and two Golden Globes, most recently for playing the pot-dealing suburban mom in Showtime's Weeds. Now she's getting acclaim for a very different performance: her literary debut, Dear Mr. You. An unflinchingly honest confessional/cri de coeurDear Mr. You takes the form of letters addressed to a series of unnamed men: Parker's late father and grandfather, an acting teacher who threatened to kick her out of class and a brace of former boyfriends, good and bad (and incredibly bad).

From them, she learns about self-delusion and forgiveness, grace and love. Mostly, she learns about herself. "Sometimes I thought, Oh my God, should I put that in?" says the 51-year-old actress. "Then I thought, No, I'm putting that in. That's exactly what it is. It's true."

But don't expect the typical celebrity tell-all. "I really wanted it to be a book about gratitude," Parker says. "There's one mean sentence in the entire book. I didn't cut it because it's funny." (Here's the line: "Having sex with you was like making snow angels under a rhino.") Some of her most fervent admiration is directed at a man she's never met, a certain New Jersey-born rock icon whose take-no-prisoners performing style may have helped inspire her own.

Dear Risk Taker, By the time I found you, I was still devoted to the Beatles, but I was in high school and ready for something else. My brother brought me your records one by one. We'd sit in his room and listen to each track, with him jumping up and diving into air guitar or stopping to move the needle back so we could re-listen to a lyric. Sometimes he'd lend me a record overnight so I could listen as I fell asleep, and when it ended, I'd tiptoe over in my nightgown and start the whole thing over with the volume lower. You were showing up on my porch when I listened to your records, driving me away in your banged-up car. This was better than my actual life and the metallic taste of rage on my tongue that I couldn't even locate or explain to anyone. You were a loner in a small town, too, isolated and branded weird. I put on your records and imagined the two of us finding each other, both alienated and starving for affection. I snuck out my bedroom window to meet you in abandoned amusement parks and garages; I could feel your leather jacket against my cheek and see the relief in your face when I showed up, someone who never accused you of sulking or being strange. For the whole length of your song we ran through alleys and whispered on pay phones. I nursed you after brawls in the parking lot, sneaking home your white T-shirt and scrubbing the blood out of it in secret, all the while defending you to my imaginary friends who worried about me for dating a monosyllabic hoodlum with a broken muffler.

No one wants to hear about the congenital melancholy that gnaws at the soul of a teenaged girl, and there was no one for me to tell. Skulking through life as a loser was oddly shaming, though, and has continued to trail me through realities that flat out contradicted it. At 16, I only wanted to be worth the level of beseeching I felt in the wail of your harmonica. It went inside me, that sound. It crept up and under my skirt and made my skin beg back. There had to be someone as lonely as I was who needed to be kissed and infuriated in just the right way. I know how to do all that is what I thought.

The last time I saw you in concert, I stood on the stage by the soundboard. The fact that you seem to know who I am is still confounding, but someone told you it was my birthday, and you sang a song for me. I was about as close to detonation as I get.

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