That’s a shame, because Love, Pamela is at its most engaging when we see Anderson at her most human, first as a rambunctious child (acrobatics class flyer! Ice Capades skater! schoolhouse smart aleck!) and later as a mother raising two sons on her own while modeling for magazine covers and assisting the magician Hans Klok in Las Vegas. In these passages, Anderson is winsome and specific. She sketches out familial routines — TV dinners at 5:00 p.m., off-roading through the woods with her father, “seminude clambakes” populated by “lanky men in soggy, stretched-out underpants” and “pretty girls squealing in nothing but brassieres and high-waisted shorts” — and carefully describes the flora and fauna around her childhood home in Ladysmith, British Columbia. Her anecdotes bring to mind the smudgy naturalism of Claude Monet, wistfully rendering the oceanside tranquility of Anderson’s youth without succumbing to nostalgia.
Domestic violence is another familial routine Anderson describes meticulously. “Things were heating up at home,” she intones dryly. “Dad sent Mom’s new Electrolux vacuum flying over her head.” Two pages later: “I knew I was in big trouble, but I had started to get used to the belt.” Her mother eventually takes the kids and absconds to Kamloops; one day, her father calls and Pamela furtively reports their new address. “Mom was surprised when he showed up […] but underneath the shock was a sense of relief, like she’d been waiting for him all this time.” He’s changed, at least until he regresses, and the family returns to Vancouver Island. Her father stops drinking, but Anderson demurs. “I was starting to think I liked my dad better when he drank?” she recounts. “This was less interesting, being ‘normal.’ I wasn’t comfortable being comfortable.”
The idea of being more comfortable with chaos than order crops up again and again, through the abusive boyfriends of her youth and Anderson’s tumultuous relationship with Tommy Lee as an adult. But Anderson doesn’t tease out the thread or offer any unified theories of why she’s drawn to these men, perhaps because she herself isn’t quite sure. “I felt I did everything to try to get them to love me,” she writes, “by being accommodating, generous, or by just being the comedian.” Anderson refuses to self-victimize or pathologize, approaching her history with an equanimity that shirks sound-bite narratives. In high school, her father attempts to “hold [her] mom’s face to an element on the stove.” Anderson punches him in the jaw, demanding, “Get out of MY house now!” Even so, she leads with grace, delicately tracing the patrilineage of abuse: “[W]hen my dad was growing up, my grandfather was a nasty drunk. […] Later on, I could appreciate the full story.”
Anderson describes sexual violation from a young age, first at the hands of a female babysitter and then, at the age of 12, a rape by a 25-year-old man. Her first high school boyfriend is violent: he kicks her out of a moving car. The brief depiction of her next relationship ends in a gang rape by “at least four, maybe six boys.”
The first and last of these abuses are presented plainly, with minimal detail; it’s hard to tell if that’s by design, to preserve Anderson’s privacy, or by default, the way trauma blunts memory. Anderson doesn’t quite gloss over the incidents, but she doesn’t linger on them either, leaving the reader with unanswered questions about the ongoing emotional impact — if any — they have had on Anderson. Relitigating the past might offer readers paltry catharsis, but Anderson refuses to reopen scar tissue for our voyeurism. This is true, also, of the oblique connections she draws between her parents’ romance (“My shining example — / What I’ve aspired to / my whole human life”) and her own love life. Speaking to Variety earlier this year, Anderson said, “Those kinds of things really color the rest of your life. You block things out or you’re gonna deal with it later — and I’m dealing with it now.” But in Love, Pamela, whatever conclusions she’s drawn are kept in a black box, as if the way she feels is simply beside the point. These things happened — isn’t that enough?
This reticence can be frustrating, especially as Anderson enters adulthood. Her career as a model and actress spans much of the book but paradoxically offers up the least insight into the mind of the author. In interviews, Anderson has levied measured criticism against the producers of Baywatch. But here, the TV show is like “family,” no qualifiers to be found. And while Anderson is more than willing to depict her loved ones in shades of gray, one figure is conspicuously free of contradiction: Hugh Hefner, who was accused last year, in the A&E series Secrets of Playboy, of drugging and coercing women into sex and more. It isn’t Anderson’s responsibility to explore Hefner’s character failings, but the unequivocal support feels rooted in a learned defensiveness about her own time as a Playmate, as opposed to the nuanced depictions she offers of her father or Tommy Lee.
So, about Tommy. While Anderson’s Netflix documentary Pamela: A Love Story (2023) is a clear response to last year’s Pam & Tommy miniseries (on Hulu), the couple’s sex-tape scandal is relegated here to a single chapter: six pages describing the events and three describing the fallout and dissolution of the couple’s marriage. “It’s unforgivable that people, still to this day, think they can profit from such a terrible experience, let alone a crime,” she writes.
By collapsing her career’s biggest scandal to bare facts and emphasizing the psychological toll on herself and her family, Anderson reframes what external biographers would likely make the climax of her story as merely another in a series of obstacles to be navigated. Indeed, the sex tape’s humiliation seems insignificant next to her divorce and being forced to raise her children as a separated parent: “My relationship with Tommy may have been the only time I was ever truly in love. […] There was no replacement. I felt like a failure.”
Still, there are unsettled questions about the tape’s professional repercussions. Anderson writes that, while she was not “overly ambitious for a career as a serious actress,” she understood that the scandal had stamped out that possibility for good. There is little discussion of Barb Wire, her 1996 superhero film, or of the unreleased 1997 autobiography Pandemonium, co-written with Todd Gold; no reappraisals of her appearances on Jay Leno before or after the tape’s release. In Mötley Crüe’s 2001 autobiography The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, Lee largely describes the same events Anderson does here (meeting, consummating, his riotous 33rd birthday party, the sex tape, the divorce) with extra color and panache, albeit with discrepancies and omissions. He mentions her hospital stint after surviving a suicide attempt but conveniently leaves out ramming his car into the Barb Wire makeup trailer the day before, and he remembers the particulars of his February 1998 arrest somewhat differently than Anderson does.
It’s easy to understand why Lee is able to speak more freely about this time in their lives; as Anderson wryly notes, “Tommy was a rock star […] this was only going to add a little color to his legendary career.” Although the emotions his account evokes are mostly love bordering on obsession and anger bordering on fury, there is also a lucidity, an acknowledgment that “the miscommunication between Pamela and me […] all boiled down to nothing but my own insecurity, neediness and fear.” For Lee, the sex tape is an act of war by the outside world against his family. In Love, Pamela, that same violation is merely a brutal fissure in Anderson’s relationships with those she cares about the most.
Anderson’s stoic approach to the events of her life is underscored by the book’s meditative rhythms; the effect is a dreamlike haze that recalls Fellini’s mid-career, Jungian works. Love, Pamela originated as an epic poem — 50 pages, then hundreds. The book opens with several pages of verse, as if Anderson is speaking directly to the reader, and chapters are broken up by stanzas that she deploys as narrative ellipses, further emphasizing the memoir’s soft-focus surrealism. “Poetry touches the vulnerable spots but doesn’t call anyone out,” Anderson writes in the acknowledgments. “It’s poignant but also a shield.” Her poetic voice is unvarnished, suggestive of her fondness for Anaïs Nin, more direct and conversational than the works of Pablo Neruda or Kahlil Gibran she admires. This helps establish Anderson as an uncomplicated narrator, telling you her life just as it is, with no metaphor or embellishment.
The brightest spots in her prose appear when the poetic images leap onto the page from the real world: a scene from childhood where her father drowns a litter of kittens in the ocean, another where she’s nearly trampled by wild horses while mid-coitus with Mario Van Peebles under the Hollywood Sign. A chance encounter with a school minister at Pepperdine University blossoms into a friendship that lasts the rest of his life. Later on, photo shoots with Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld, and Vivienne Westwood offer a muse’s-eye view of the aesthete at work. There are other celebrity mentions, enough to keep news aggregators fat for at least a couple of weeks, but these encounters are less interesting for their high-profile names than for their artistic and soulful connections: Werner Herzog tells her never to audition for anyone (“a waste of time”), while Jane Fonda says, “Don’t let them do to you what they did to me.”
Early on, Anderson writes, “The relationships / I’ve had / are not my life’s work — / Well …” The story is hers but the nucleus is family, highlighted first by sending her sons to a boarding school on Vancouver Island and later by her desire to return to Ladysmith, the home of her youth: “A mist of imperfect thoughts and dreams. This is my sanctuary.” Love, Pamela feels like climbing up “the steep slope through the garden gates once again,” sitting in a white Adirondack chair facing the ocean while someone tells you the story of their extraordinary life as if it happened to a stranger. As if it could have happened to anyone.
Vivian Medithi is a culture writer and critic with bylines at No Bells, HipHopDX, Pitchfork, and Guardian US, among other publications.