storytelling, women

My dad was rich and we were poor.

He abandoned us — and then he went and bought a mercedes and a big sailboat —

My mother and my sister and I didn’t have enough — my mother worked hard, all the time. She was always stressed, miserable. She hated her job as a secretary. She was always working and yet we didn’t have enough — the lights were always getting cut off, or the phone, or the credit cards were maxed —

There was never enough. We were always catching up.

And then there was our father mocking us, the way we lived — making little digs at our poverty —

We would go spend the weekend with him on his yacht — and he was so stingy at heart, he wouldn’t feed us. Or when I would complain that I was hungry, he would make comments about how I was too fat and needed to lose weight — I was just like my mother —

My father suffered from poverty of the heart — he starved and starved his children —

He was aloof and had a distant model girlfriend (then wife) and cared more about money than he did about us — he made that clear. He would go on and on about how much he resented paying our mother — when it was obvious to anyone observing that we were struggling to get by and he was living like a millionaire. His parents (our grandparents) didn’t want to have anything to do with us because they saw us as leeches taking their son’s money.

I grew up as working-class poor with my mother and my sister, and the message was clear — men have money, get money, deserve money. Women don’t.

Now I work in the arts — in publishing and in Hollywood, where I see that pattern repeat itself — men get and women don’t. I wonder if I see it because it’s in my head and I’m destined to see it everywhere, or because the world I grew up in is the world we live in. I’m making a generalization, and I believe there are a lot of exceptions. I believe I’m going to be an exception, and I’m on my way. But I do think it’s taken me longer, and it’s been harder, than if I had been a man.

But maybe it would have been different if I hadn’t grown up in poverty, if I hadn’t grown up with the message that I deserved to barely get by, that I deserved the least, the minimum.

I think we find our level, our comfort zone, and mine has been poverty —

I’ve been poor all this time, when I went to an Ivy League school and I’m such a great writer and I’m sharp and bright and warm and I’ve got so much going for me —

I think my poverty starts in my heart —

I starved to a point beyond which I can’t recover from.

Until I was 11, my sister and I visited our father every other weekend. Then he vanished. We got a call three months later from him — he was sailing his boat around the world. I couldn’t speak, I was crying so hard. Until that call, I didn’t even know if he was alive. I didn’t tell any of my friends what had happened, I was so ashamed.

He stopped paying our mother, so if we were struggling before, now we were fucked. Money became terrifying, at the age of 11.

Now my father is very rich. Sloughing us off was very good for his bottom line. He owns airplanes and boats and a Ferrari and a gaudy Versace mansion on the water in South Florida. He fucks his 29-year-old maid/fiancee and still pays her to clean the house.

He tries to talk about the amount of money we’re going to inherit, and I’m like — fuck you. From the bottom of my heart, fuck you.

This entire process of trying to make it as a writer, first as a novelist then as a T.V. writer — has been nothing but difficult — and every time I thought it couldn’t get more difficult it did —

Putting aside the fact that he could have helped me the entire time and never ever did — he hurt me in this. He criticized me the entire way through for trying it, criticized me for how long it was taking to make it, when I was working soul-sucking day jobs —

And I have this sense that how he hurt me the most was by raising me trapped in the dark cold box of poverty. By molding my head within those limits, he set an upper-limit for the most I could ever make or have — so that I would never stray too far, never feel independent, never get powerful.

My mother was a secretary and my father was rich. And when I was struggling to finish my first novel, I wound up having to get a job as a receptionist to support myself while I finished it. That was painful, because the reason I went to Princeton was so I would never wind up like my mother. It was just going to be for six months until I sold the book — and then the book never sold, and I would up staying there for two long, painful years. With my father criticizing and deriding my choices the entire time.

Now I want to let go of poverty — tell myself it’s okay for me to make money, that it’s not siding with my father against my mother, it’s not turning my back on women. It’s good for me to make money, because then I can help other people like me (or unlike me). The way I grew up has no bearing on the way I want to live now, and I want to feel safe and comfortable and secure, and most of all, powerful now. Making money now isn’t turning my back on working people — instead, it’s empowering me so I can give working people a voice.

I’m working on it. I’ll keep you posted.

You Blow Stuff Up


Before my dad disappeared to sail around the world when I was 11, I spent every other weekend with him. All he wanted to watch was war movies. I HATED war movies — I was a little girl. A girly-girl. Before my world exploded.

Now, all I watch is war footage — documentaries, YouTube videos, movies about Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s because I’m completing a pilot about Iraq — and thinking about turning the pilot’s cut file into a feature. But the fact remains, that I’m watching my dad’s movies now. I am awake to symmetries in my life. Motifs. There are no accidents.

My dad loved watching people blow stuff up. I love watching what happens to people when they get blown up. War thrusts our worst inwards outward. I am compelled by people losing that much, that quickly.

I posted this story on Twitter a few days ago, in which Capt. Alexander Allan discusses pictures from his new book Afghanistan: A Tour of Duty. One of his comrades had his leg blown off. His buddies found the leg some time later, wrapped in a sheet. They made sure it wasn’t booby-trapped and took it back to camp. They burned it, manning the fire in shifts. Each took his turn to say goodbye. They let go.

I can’t stop thinking of these soldiers burning the leg. Can’t stop thinking of what I’ve left behind, that needs burning.

My Worst Secret

drama, storytelling

I am abandoned. That’s my worst secret. The secret that gave birth to the rest.

That was the secret behind those two football players in college —

I am abandoned.

That was the secret behind every relationship I’ve ever had —

I am abandoned.

That is the secret that made me a writer —

I am abandoned.

I’ve made it my life’s work to protect this secret like a child, nurture it and let it grow. I understood early that no one could know the worst thing about me — this was mine. I should keep this secret locked inside, never to see the light of day, never to get out and converse in public and come back changed. I would never abandon it — it was me. I couldn’t abandon myself.

I was five the day my dad left. He sat me down, alone, and said “I’m leaving and I’m never coming back.” Fat tears rolled down my cheeks, and I fought to hold them in. He said “don’t cry.” Later that day, as he packed all his stuff in a moving truck, I got stung by a bee. And I was glad — I could scream.

My mom used to play Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock” and say to me “That’s you, Julie.” Because — a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.

This week I told my dad — in a text — that I wasn’t going to speak to him anymore. It was the most cowardly way possible to do it. By text. In the middle of the night. After dodging his calls for a few days. I wrote “Our last conversation was extremely upsetting to me, so I’m not going to speak to you anymore for a while.” I added the “for a while” to soften it for him. And for me. Because I’m too cowardly to just end it here and now.

He didn’t respond.

Since leaving that first time when I was five, my dad has found colorful and newer ways to abandon me again and again. When I was 11, he disappeared off the face of the earth — only to call from South America a few months later to say he was sailing around the world with his then-wife. And to say how much fun he was having. Once, he admitted he loved my sister but not me. He once said to me “no man has ever loved you, and no man ever will.”

When I remind him of these things — and more — he asks me why I can’t just get over it. Because we both did wrong.

I never did anything wrong. The only thing I’ve done wrong is stay too long in a losing fight.

John August says the villain doesn’t always know he’s the villain. That’s part of what’s kept me swinging in the mud this long — I am an empathic person. I see myself in my father. We give to others what we want them to give us. Consciously and unconsciously. All my life I’ve tried to nurture him, and counsel him, and care for him, and empathize with him, and help him, and have compassion for him. I see in him the wounded, abused, abandoned creature I see in myself. I have tried hard to show him how to love that person. To do it for both of us. I have pursued him like a lover. I have been rebuffed.

Choosing no longer to speak to him is big and terrible and freeing and sad for me. It means giving up on my lifelong dream, the goal I’ve spent my life chasing — to get that man to love me. I know cutting him off now is just a gesture — no doubt I’ll continue this pursuit in various forms until I find a way to put it to rest. Still, this was very difficult for me. People have been telling me for years I needed to do it, and I resisted. I told them I felt it would be a heavier psychic burden to deal with the fact of not speaking to him — of having cut him off — than to have to live with that cloud hanging above my head.

Because now I have abandoned him.

In the hours and days after I did it, I watched my phone. Afraid a raging, wailing, screaming child would rise up from that phone to recriminate me — the child I see in the mirror. I relaxed as I realized — nothing was going to happen.

So long as I needed to keep this secret, he had power over me. He had me in his thrall.

I am abandoned.

And I loved him. I love him. I love him the way you do a child you’ve raised, who doesn’t love you back. The way you love a person who doesn’t want your love. I have a long history of loving men who don’t love me back. It started here. I know it’s not enough to just end it with him and expect my lifelong patterns to fall away. But it’s a signal. Instead of busying myself, anxiously chasing relationships and sidestepping the truth within the heart that wants them — I now say —

I am abandoned.

And I thank those football players in college, because, while it was hell living across the hall from them for an entire year, I now see they were on my team. As painful as that night, and the following morning, and the following year was — they were there to show me what I am —

I am abandoned.

As painful as it is to love someone who doesn’t love me back — and know I’m doing this to myself — I’m glad and I thank you — because your not loving me opens my eyes to the place where I live —

I am abandoned.

Keeping secrets is resistance. Resisting what’s true. Resisting moving forward. Resisting the opening of the space the secret takes inside you. Revealing secrets releases resistance, allows you to say —

I am abandoned.

Stories are secrets revealed bit by bit. You can start with the secret and take the long road to reveal how it happened. Or you can start with the consequences of the secret — what just happened because of your character’s secret? What happened before that to cause it? How did The Secret cause these things to happen, and how can you invest these events with a sense of depth, gravity, significance, reality, purpose and comedy, because you know what The Secret is — and we don’t? Most importantly, what happens next? How does The Secret inform what happens next? Does anyone know The Secret, including the character it’s about? The Secret doesn’t have to be some big hairy deal. Entire lives can be built around a secret as simple as —

I am abandoned.

Find the secret, and you’ll find your story.