Her Best Wasn't Good Enough with Danielle Henderson - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Her Best Wasn't Good Enough with Danielle Henderson.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
Hello and welcome to the Terrible Reading Club -- conversations with authors who wrote good books for terrible times.
Those of us with parents who were consistent and present, who gave us stability and love and who nurtured and cared for us … we sometimes don’t know how lucky we are, how lucky we were to have our needs met as kids. And maybe luck isn’t the right word, because this is actually our birthright; we are born deserving to be loved and prioritized and cared for -- not just physically but emotionally. We don’t know, when we’re telling our mother that she’s the worst mom in the world because she doesn’t want to take us to Target for body glitter after a long day of work, that actually, our mom is just tired and drawing a boundary, and the worst moms in the world don’t sit around waiting to hear the critiques of their children.
There are kids who have grown up without the kind of parents you see on ‘90s sitcoms, kids whose parents abdicated all responsibility, who walked off the job, who just didn’t do the one thing they were supposed to have done.
And the writer Danielle Henderson is one of those kids. She’s a grown-up now, a writer of TV and of her memoir, “The Ugly Cry,” a book that traces Danielle’s childhood as a Black girl in a very white town in upstate New York, with her brother, Cory, and a mother who is … distant and struggling with her own life’s disappointments.
At 10 years old, Danielle’s mother drops her and Cory off at their grandparents’ house for the weekend. But the weekend doesn’t end, and Danielle and her brother are raised by their grandmother, who … doesn’t let them win at Monopoly, lets them watch horror movies, and loves them both very dearly, even if she’s nothing like the other grandmas they know.
This book is, in a lot of ways, a love letter to a grandmother like no other, described on the opening page like this:
“I’ve never seen my grandmother bake a cookie, wear a shawl, give good advice, or hug a child unprompted. I have, however, heard her curse so intensely I swear she was making some of them up on the spot, watched her obsess over horror movies with an academic intensity, and listened to her frequent lectures about the reasons every woman should not only carry a knife at all times but be fully prepared to use it: ‘A man wants to put his hands on you? Carry a little secret knife. Cut his throat. Ask questions later.’”
Here is our episode with Danielle Henderson.
Nora: OK, so now we can talk about you. We can talk about your book. And also, here's what I like to, because I know you've been getting to slash having to talk about the book for so long, are there also things where you're like, “Here's something I really want to talk about that nobody asked me about the book or like people keep missing about it.”
Danielle: There really isn't anything that I feel like, “Nobody asked me about this.” But I think you already get the one thing that I'm kind of like, I wish they got it. Sometimes people go for either the comedy of the book or the tragedy of the book, and they do not mix the two. But I do not think that's going to be a problem here at all.
Nora: Yeah, I was also like, so, like, thrilled to see Augusten Burroughs blurbed it and that you, like, you know him obviously. Those books belong on a shelf next to his because they do the same thing so artfully, which is like, you find- and I wonder if you're just sort of like, naturally inclined towards this as a person. I believe I am. Like you're so observant that you are present for your suffering in such a way that you also naturally see the levity in those moments.
Danielle: It is like the number one thing I talk about in therapy, 100 percent, because my therapist is like, “Well, you always go to humor as a way to kind of talk about your trauma.” And I'm like, yeah, I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I wouldn't have survived that. Like, I need to look at the totality of the experience in order to just comprehend what I am experiencing. But I also really do think that there are some situations that are just both. They are just inherently funny and inherently awful. And it has never served me in my life to just focus on one side or the other. I think I feel like more of a whole person by looking at that experience. You know, having a full experiential duty to realizing that this is fucking weird.
Nora: Yeah, that it’s weird. And I think part of it is, it's not as if you can look at yourself and your work and be like, “These are all the ingredients that made it possible for me to do this.” I kind of feel like you can either do it or you can't. And I do think it's kind of a personality trait. And, you know, what I'm proposing is it might be genetic because your grandmother has both of those things, too. So, you know, the book opens and it's a description of everything that your grandmother is not. [laughs]
Danielle: Which is surprisingly a long list. [laughs]
Nora: OK! [laughs]
Danielle: Very thorough. [laughs]
Nora: It's a very thorough list. And so we know right away that you are not going to have the kind of grandma who makes like, homemade applesauce and, you know, and wears a shawl and bakes cookies and wants you to, like, sit on her lap while she tells you a fairy tale about how everything is going to be OK and assures you that you are a beautiful and special little creature, and she could never live without you. [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] It was so the opposite of that, that it was its own kind of abuse. [laughs] Like that is how much further she went to the other side. And she has truly always been that person where she was not going to- she was definitely not going to capitulate when it came to parenting or grandparenting. She's like, this is who I am. I'm showing up like this for every job I have and every relationship I have, whether it's at work, out in the world, with my friends, with my grandkids. She truly ... she does not bend. And she's very rigid about who she is. And she definitely is someone who uses humor to address any kind of situation happening in her life, whether it's just … just how many times did you hear someone call your own mother and her own child an asshole before you're like, is that OK? [laughs] I know I feel that way. But is that okay? We were driving past the park, because we now live in the same town again. I just moved home and I bought this house, and she's going to be moving in with me. And I took her out for a coffee the other morning. We were driving past the park. And now, public parks now are like the safest place in the world for children, to the point where I saw a baby on a zipline. Like someone put their kid in, like one of those little crotch cradles and like sent it down the zipline to the other parent all the way across the park. My grandmother and I looked at each other at a stop sign and she was like, “I wouldn't have put- there's no way. That kids should learn how to be a real kid. Put some concrete under there, get that baby out of that.” I'm like, oh, grandma, just never ends with her. Like, she even sees now things that are safe. And it's like an affront to her that there's safety in the world for children. [laughs]
Nora: Now we put kids in car seats, and they do have to wear seatbelts and they can't sit in the front seat. [laughs]
Danielle: Yeah, why? Just put them on your lap. Put them on the back seat. That's safe. [laughs] Had no use for it at all. And she always, in a very strange way, it is something that I do find as an adult I am having to address. And that I also had to address when I was writing this book. I never really stop to think: Is the way that I'm being raised by her abusive or traumatic? Because a lot of people have written to me and said like, “Oh my gosh, like between your mom and your grandma, I don't know how you did it.” And I always think, well, my grandma was the best and my mom was the worst and that's how I did it. But I can see how from the outside in when you don't grow up in that kind of cultural world as well, where I think that in Black culture, I found that it is very much like pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep going, which again, culturally had to do for a very long time. And she just folds that into her parenting. So I think that I never considered it. And when I started therapy like 20 years ago, I remember my first therapist was like, “Yeah, that's ... you really just weren't supported anywhere.” And that rubbed me the wrong way because I thought, no, I did receive a tremendous amount of support for my grandmother. It just didn't look the way that support looked for you. So her idea of supporting me and encouraging me wasn't to say, “Sky's the limit. You can do anything. You're beautiful, special, sunshiny flower.” Her support was more like, “Yeah, the world sucks. It's going to be hard for you. You're smart about certain things, and you should be independent and you should not rely on anybody. And your life will be happier day to day if you push more in that direction.” And that was supportive at the time because I grew up in a way where I felt very out of place, and I felt like I didn't belong in any capacity. And it was important for me to hear at that age that I could take care of myself or that I did have something to offer. So, yeah, she supports in a very different way, but she's also hilarious. And that was very evident to me from the time I was a kid. She has always made me laugh, and our house was filled with laughter. Like she just really is quite naturally funny.
Nora: Yes. That's evident. I didn't read your childhood with her as abusive. I read it as a respite, because the love is so evident and because it's also evident, if you are a person with some awareness too that, you know, you're getting parented by a grandmother who was parented by her mother, who was parented by her mother, who was like- you are just getting the sort of residue of everybody else's childhood and trauma and everybody is doing their best. And there's an awareness of who you are with your grandmother. Like, she does see you, and her telling you life is hard is really like a validation of what you're experiencing because- you know, tell us about the town that you lived in, too. Because you were, you were sort of like, in liminal space between, you know, every single person.
Danielle: Oh, one hundred percent. I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York where we were one of maybe 10 Black people, five of whom I was related to. And it was an idyllic childhood in so many senses and so many ways. You know, I got to go outside barefoot in the summer and kind of be feral and run around in the grass and you know, have that childhood. But it was also incredibly racist, and people would not hesitate to call me the N-word to my face or point out things about my hair or my face or my skin. And it didn't really stop with white people, either. That was something that I had to adjust to as I got older. I also wasn't the right kind of Black for most Black people. So I really didn't feel like I fit in anywhere. Well, if I'm not Black enough and I'm not white at all, where, where do I fit in? [laughs] And the town again, it's very- it's progressive now, I think in a way that it just wasn't when I was a kid. And I can see that. But I also have to honor the fact that there's just a throughline here, like a real foundational element here that is not about acceptance of any kind. So to be Black is one way that I was excluded. But also I was really weird, and I was super artistic. And I listened to heavy metal, and I just was my own person much earlier than most of the people that I knew. And they didn't know how to deal with it, like, my peer group didn't know how to deal with it. And then I went out in town and it was like a freak show. There was one- this didn't make it into the book. [laughs] But I used to have a purple backpack. And when I get bored in class, and I would kind of doodle on it with markers and acrylic paint and stuff. And then … [laughs] one day I decided to pop all the heads off of my Barbie dolls, and then I took a needle and thread and sewed them through the earring holes and attach them to my bag, so that when I was in class, I could braid their hair when I was bored. And when I tell you to be a 6-foot tall Black girl who listens to heavy metal walking around with doll heads attached to her bag ... when I tell you how many heads that turned. I would go into the bank and be like, “I'm here to deposit my very first paycheck.” And there were like, let's call the cops. Like, what is happening right now? I'm wearing black eyeliner as lipstick. Like, it was just truly wild that I didn't receive more bullying than I actually did. [laughs] But again, like I was encouraged to be that. I was encouraged to do that. Even when my grandmother was laughing at my outfits and laughing at the things that I did, she encouraged me to do that. And yeah, I had to find my place in the world so much earlier than so many people. And I had to really struggle to find, you know, how does my identity and how do my principles and how do the things that I believe in fit into this world that is really pretty, pretty racist? And to see that the extension of the racism that I experienced in my town as I got older, realizing, “oh, this is also part of the world,” was pretty terrifying. It was terrifying. So I needed some kind of structural support, and my grandmother gave me that.
We’ll be right back.
Nora: Your grandmother is this, you know, a true like a foundational relationship in your life, which not everybody has. Right? But she was the foundational relationship in your life because the other foundational relationship that is our birthright, that we all deserve, was missing. And there's ... I do want to say that you write about having a negligent, abusive, absent mother with a lot of compassion. And it felt like you were even sort of aware of that as a child. You mentioned, like, the freedom of the ‘80s and like how good that felt as a child. But you also had that freedom, that sort of feral childhood with, you know, because of what was missing at home.
Danielle: Right. Right. And I didn't realize until I started writing this book that I had any grace to give my mother. And I also didn't realize the extent to which I was really searching for her attention for my entire life. That's something I figured out. That was a puzzle piece that clicked into place for me as I was writing this. And it wasn't difficult for me to write about her with compassion, because prior to a very specific event, even though we struggled, you know, even though she was a single mom with two kids in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, even though she was on welfare, or we were on welfare, you know, it wasn't it wasn't horrible. It was not a horrible life. Like, we really did have a lot of friendship, a lot of support, a lot of love. And so that part was really beautiful to write about. And it wasn't difficult to find that grace with her. But I also think it was easy for me to realize now at 44 that she was like a 27-year-old Black woman who was struggling in a time where she wasn't given a lot of opportunities. So it was really surprising to me. You know, I tried to start having a relationship with her again after I wrote the book and asked her some questions and she said, “Yeah, you know, I really wanted, you know, there was an IBM plant in New Jersey and I really wanted to work there. I wanted to learn how to, like, build computers. And they just wouldn't hire me.” And to find out that kind of thing, like, you know, she was just a product of her time and her environment in a way that was always going to put her kind of behind the eight ball a little bit. And I've experienced that in my own life. So now that I think we've had some parallels in those ways, just simply being Black women in the world, that wasn't difficult for me to find that grace. But I also think that … that's kind of just the spirit of my heart. And the pain that comes with writing about my mother is that I can't share that generosity of spirit with her, because, you know, who she is. And you know, what I've learned away from her, what I've learned growing up with my grandparents, what I've learned, you know, as I went through the world as a young adult and an adult, I don't get to share that with her because we don't have a strong enough foundation where there was enough love that we could continue to grow together. So I don't get to share those things with her, but it's not difficult for me to see those things in her. And it makes me sad. It makes me sad to think of the ways that she's kind of sabotaged herself simply because she's not willing or able to really examine her own life. And I think that, you know, there are people who examine their own life to the point where they are stunted, and you're like, “Girl, you got to go to a movie or something. You gotta get out of your head.” [laughs]
Nora: Fucking read a book. [laughs]
Danielle: Go fucking read. [laughs]
Nora: But not Gabrielle Bernstein or whatever.
Danielle: Read like, “Bossy Pants.” Like, read a funny book. [laughs]
Nora: Even a kid's book. Read, “What Do People Do All Day?” [laughs] Just shut the fuck up. [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] And then there are also people who you're like, wow, you need to spend some time taking a dip in the river of yourself. [laughs] And she just really never did that. So I think the sadness that comes with realizing her lack of opportunity to grow as a person is what gave me some space to write about her in a different way in a way. And a way that I truly didn't expect. You know, the way I've always told stories of my life, and when I set out to write this book, I thought, yeah, my mom is the villain. And, you know, she is the person that I cannot write about positively, because there's really nothing positive about her impact on my life. But that's not the full story, and that's not the true story. So when I really sat down to think about it in that very surface level way, that was true. And that's how I got through a lot in my life, is to think of her in that way. But it didn't become more true as I evolved. So, yeah, I felt like I owed it to myself to write about the full range of that emotion and to really write about her in a way that didn't make her out to be anything that she wasn't. She's not an outright villain. You know, she's again, single mom who struggled and tried her best, but her best really wasn't good enough and her best really wasn't focused on us. And so it really, you know, I couldn't ... I had to be honest about that whole experience.
Nora: And her best hurt you, and it hurt your brothers. And like, there are ripple effects of that. And we had Elissa Altman on the podcast recently. And her mother situation is very different and also very similar. And she made this excellent point, which is like ... you don't spend a year or a year and a half -- really any amount of time -- writing about something that you don't care about.
Danielle: Yes. Oh, that was the “Motherland” episode. I loved that. I loved that. And I do, I think about that a lot. When she said that it really, really hit me in my heart because I've been asked, you know, are you going to write more about this relationship? And I keep thinking, like, why would I continue to write about my deepest hurt? Like, the reason I wrote this book to begin with is to get through that in a way that I hadn't been able to get through it before. But she's absolutely right. You don't spend all of that time with people that you don't like or with people that you distrust or that you … it's hard to spend that amount of creative or emotional effort to explain someone who is continuing to hurt you or continuing to harm you. So I think that it's … there is love there. And that's, again, like the tragedy of our relationship is that there will always be some level of love there. But we are absolutely incapable of expressing it to each other.
Nora: Yeah. You grew up with Cory being basically like, so close in age. So close in age. And so you two experience a lot of the same things. And also you experience things so differently, which is also the nature of life. Right? That, you know, two or three or four people can be in the same house and have a completely different experience, see things in a different way. I had this conversation with my brother recently where ... my dad died in 2014. I feel like just maybe two weeks ago I like, was like, oh, no, he loved me. I can move on, you know? Like I was like, oh yeah. Like he did what he could. I get it. He, you know, went to a war when he was 17. You know, just put all these pieces together. And my brother had said to me, like, “You have this you have this idea of what your relationship to dad was like. And I remember growing up and being so envious because you were really close or, I remember you guys having all this bonding time,” because, like, I could catch a baseball. [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] “Dad loves me. I can catch a baseball, but let's move on.” Therapy, done.
Nora: [laughs] He also used to like, throw it at my knees to teach me, like your grandma, oh, then it’ll come to your glove like, oh, OK, cool. Thank you. [laughs] Well, you just like, shattered my kneecap. [laughs] But thank you for the tough lesson. Pop fly, right to my face. Cool.
Danielle: [laughs] And then if your teeth break you don't get braces, because it's your fault.
Nora: You don't get braces. [laughs] What, am I made of money? That's what your glove was for. OK, I literally had to beg for braces at one point. And my dad was like you'll pay us back. Like my mom kept, like, receipts. [laughs] She has an envelope full of receipts for what I owe her.
Danielle: There is a book by Bernard Cooper I believe called “The Bill From My Father.” And I'm this is an absolutely hilarious premise because it’s true. You don't get braces at 44 if your parents like, actually care about you. Like they didn't want to. She’ll spend the money when she can afford it. [laughs]
Nora: [laughs] Yes. I mean I got them, but then also that was a resentment with my siblings. They’re like, oh she gets braces?
Danielle: [laughs] Exactly. Exactly. Changes the whole dynamic. Enough for your brother to say like I was envious of your relationship because you were...
Nora: “You played catch with him. You talked about books, whatever!” So as you're writing this book, you do reach out to your mom. Like, do you run things by Corey? What is Corey's recollection? How much of it, you know, matches yours? And what sort of different perspective does he have on growing up in these households?
Danielle: Yeah, I … as I was writing the book, I did not reach out to anyone. I did not want anyone's input. I wanted to remember and experience my own emotions with those times. But after I finished, I sent the book to my brother. And when I finished writing the book, I wasn't talking to my mother at that point. I hadn’t talked to her for about 20 years, and I kind of heard about her through other members of my family, but we just did not have a relationship. And so I sent it to Corey and he wrote back. He's a very laid back, very stoic, kind of like- he would just, you know, “I'll play Frisbee golf on a Sunday,” like, “Oh, I'm four hours late to pick up my kid. Oh, well, I was having fun.” Like he's that kind of guy. And so I didn't expect more than like, “Yeah, cool. That was fun to read about,” or “Oh, this sucks because I didn't like it,” but he sent me the most thoughtful text that resulted in my calling him and he said, “You know, this was really painful, because I wasn't there for you. And when I read this book, I realized that I wasn't there for you when we were kids. And I wish that I could have helped you more, and I wish we could have been closer to each other.”
And so when I called him, I said “we were both kids and we were doing our best with a horrible situation, but we had completely different experiences with the same monster. So there wasn't any way for you to help me because you didn't have the same experiences.” So he would chime in and say, like, “Oh, you should have included that story about the time I hid all those razor blades in the backseat of the car. Like I would cut open the cushion and put a bunch of razor blades in.” And I'm like, “I can't tell that story because I didn't do that. And I didn't know that until just now.” [laughs] Like what?
So we actually ended up having these really deep conversations about things that he experienced that I didn't know about or things that we experienced in totally similar situation but in very different ways. And we have grown closer. Our teen years were just knock down, drag out. But, you know, in our 20s and 30s, we've become incredibly close. And it's just been kind of enlightening to see his validation of the experience, even though he didn't experience so much of what I went through. And so, you know, I really don’t, I don't need that validation to write the story, but it's nice to get it when the story is done as a way to kind of, again, kind of solidify my own experience and my own my own heart. So it was nice for that.
Nora: I love that you didn't send it to them until you had already written it. That is for any writer listening to this very good advice. And I feel like ... I don't know where I got that from, but I also don't do that. Like, I'll send it when it's, like, done because ... you know, maybe I want you to hear it here first, but I also ...
Danielle: Yeah, yeah, it's like I don't want you to be surprised that there's going to be a book coming out with your name in it, but I also realized that while I did that with my family, I didn't do that for anyone else in the book. So now that I've moved back to my hometown, for example, I wrote about this woman that I was friends with as a kid who really hurt my feelings. And was very cruel to me. And I ended up punching her in the face, which terrified me. And I ran home crying, which caused my grandmother to say, “Either you go back out there and fight her or you're going to come back and fight me.” So this ultimate confusion of like, I just hit my friend in the face. I punched someone. Hitting people is bad. Wait, you want me to continue fighting? And I either have to fight her or you? Like, that's my option? [laughs]
Nora: Or I can elder abuse you? [laughs] OK.
Danielle: Yeah. These are my options? OK, fucking weird. [laughs] And then she sent me a message, and she said, “I read the book and it made me mad.” And I was like, oh fuck, and she's like, “But then I realized, you know, I was a bad friend and it made me so sad. And our childhoods were difficult.” And, you know, she's grown up and we've been able to process that experience separately, completely separately. But I didn't consider that when I was writing the book that, you know, the people who were also in that orbit of my family and of my own life might not really enjoy reading about themselves in this way. And I don't think it'll change the way that I write. You know, I still am not going to write to people and tell them, or I'm not going to contact people as I'm writing and tell them that I'm including them in anything. But I think I should do more outreach after the fact, so it's not a total surprise. I had to change the name of the kindergarten girl and her family who called me the N-word because she could be, as it was explained to me, she could be a civil rights lawyer right now, and it could be life ruining for her if I used her real name and then attached this hatefulness with her. I sincerely doubt that's how she turned out to be. [laughs]
Nora: [laughs] Yeah, did you do a light Google? Did anyone look into it? Did the legal team look into it?
Danielle: We did a light Google. Couldn't find anything. [laughs] But, you know, just to be safe, that's the only name that I changed. But I do think that for me, in terms of writing about my own life, I still wrote about these experience, but tried to process them through the lens of my own emotion. So it wasn't that this person is inherently bad or good, it's that this was my experience with them at this time, which adds to the fabric of all the rest of the emotional turmoil that I've experienced. So, yeah, it feels like as a writer, I don't think that it's helpful to me to kind of consider what someone else's opinion might be before I even finish a story. Like, I know myself well enough to know that will stop me in my tracks.
Nora: It will. It will. And it will, like, ruin you. And I have an uncle who's 87. He's very elderly. He doesn't have the Internet, thank God. You know, he goes to the public library, he writes and he submits to journals and you know, he types them up, the letters, and he sends them in, sends them in. He said he hasn't heard from his book agent, who I'm about to goddamn call. “Write back to my uncle's letters. You know he doesn't have email. Write back!”
Danielle: Write back. It takes a minute.
Nora: His book is still in print! Write back. But I, you know, I've got this uncle who's like, very Catholic, and he said, you know, “I read your books and … and oh my.” [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] The cursing alone.
Nora: “I don't agree with every jot and quibble.” It’s like, okay. I was like, why would you do that? Why would you read that? Like, why wouldn't I have warned you? Why wouldn’t I have, you know, bought out all the bookshelves in La Crosse, Wisconsin so that you could not read about my mother pulling my tampon out. Why? [laughs] But if I wrote books thinking that he would find them, I wouldn't write a word unless it were like, “Hail Mary full of grace.” [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] “The Lord is chaste and kind and so am I.”
Nora: So am I. Love, love Catholicism. And you know, the pope should be a man.
Danielle: No, it's not useful to us. [laughs]
Nora: It's not useful. It's not useful. And I think the format is like, storytelling. If you know how to tell a story, you can tell a story in any format. And also, when you write TV, your name pops up briefly before the episode, but no one is attaching it to you so personally as when you are writing a book with your name and face on the cover that is about you. Even though TV writers, we all know they pull from life, right? So every character that's on a screen exists somewhere, you know, out in the world as well.
Danielle: Yes. And that is something that really benefits me as a TV writer, especially since I started my career like, so much later in the game than most people did. I came to that career already having lived 10 lives. And so it's easier for me to sit in a room and kind of think about how would this character respond to this, or who is this character inherently? I worked with someone like that, or this is a situation I feel like you do pull from your personal life, but you can easily mask it. You can mask it in a way that nobody knows, like you said, or they do know, but you've changed just enough that they're not quite sure, or maybe you've split those personality traits between five different characters. So it's never focused on in one particular way that makes it so explicitly personal. And that's a way to add great layers to characters in a TV show. But it absolutely doesn't work for a book of your life. Like if you were to just kind of skirt over things and in a memoir and kind of lightly touch upon certain things, it doesn't really benefit the story and doesn't create a full picture.
And that's really kind of all I was trying to do. I think that, you know, when I originally set out to write this after years of just thinking, nobody cares what my life story, people have had it so much worse. This isn't unique or interesting. Like, who cares? And after a while, the point I had to come to to really get this book out of my heart was to say, “I care. I need it to explain myself to me sometimes. I need to understand the wealth of experiences I've had in order to understand where I am right now in life.” So I started writing this book at this time when I was having a big career shift and I was pivoting and all these different ways. And it helped to really center my own narrative. For me that was the best way to approach writing this book. And possibly any other memoir I might write is just centering your own experience and trying to figure out, you know, how much of this do I need to kind of expel in order to explain where I am now and keep a little history of your own, your own life and your own experiences
Nora: Yeah, and you do have to keep something for yourself. You have to keep something for yourself. And you are writing about really intensely personal things. And as you're writing, how do you decide, “This is something that I can share and this is something that will remain for me forever and that's OK.”
Danielle: It's really a process of figuring out what do I know to be true? So if I don't quite know, like I don't know how I fully feel about this yet, then I'm not going to write about it. You know, I think that I'm not really an exploratory writer in that way. And I'm kind of a toxically self-reliant person, so I don't want anyone to help me figure those things out either. So I think if it's something that I don't understand fully yet then I'm not putting it down on the page. And there are writers who are so skillful with that, in figuring it out as they go. But I kind of need the ending to make my stories make sense. So I think that that's one layer of it. That's one part of it. But I also think that there you know, I keep a lot of joy for myself. I try to lighten the load by sharing the pain. But I want to keep some of that joy just for me. There are things that, you know, I could write 17 books about my grandmother, because she says something wild and hilarious every day. But it's so, so much of what we say to each other and so much of our time together is me realizing that what we have is really special. And so I don't want to always share her with the world. Like I'm actually a pretty private person, weirdly like, yeah, I have an Instagram and a Twitter account, but, you know, you're never going to see the full inside of my house and you're never going to see the full inside of my brain or heart. You know, I look forward to my evolution, and so I need to keep things for myself in order to to fuel the tank to keep that going. So, yeah, I keep a lot of joy to myself and in that I only share intimately with people who are already in my world in a deep way. But I also think it's hard for me to share things that I think would hurt other people. So when I was writing about my own child abuse, I didn't consider that my great aunt, you know, who's 90, would read it and be devastated and call me and say, “I did not know any of this.” And I said, well, it's because no one knew any of it for a very long time. She's always been so proud of me. But she kind of was really hurt, that I think that she thought we were very close and she eventually knew those things, but she didn't know the depth of it. And I think that you can't tell every single detail of every single bad experience to the detriment of your own support system. And you can't tell every detail of your pain if it's not actually working to heal you in some way. So those are the kinds of things that I tend to keep to myself. Like I'm not interested in harming myself further or exploiting anything to harm myself further. And I also don't want to outwardly and purposefully hurt anyone else. If it happens by accident, I can’t do anything about it.
We’ll be right back.
Nora: You struck this balance really well where you do have to find the line between, like, what is what is the story, which is not just what happened, but why it matters, and what is just like, you know, reopening all of your wounds to, like, bleed out for, you know, the the entertainment of other people or for, you know, your own sort of catharsis. Which is, I suppose can be therapeutic, but is actually ... that's not how you tell a story. You don't tell a story by just repeating every single anecdote.
Danielle: Yes. You can't. You can't. [laughs] If I had written about my grandmother and just wrote down what she said, you would think she was a fucking monster. You have to put it- you know, the context was so important to me in writing this book. And that is the reason why, you know, my agent even said this to me at one point because I said I feel like I'm leaving stuff out and maybe I should put this story in and maybe I should include that. And he said, you're not a stenographer. You cannot do that. And it really hit me, where I thought, oh, this is the editing part of this book. Like, I can write as much as I want, but then I have to think about where does this fit into the narrative of what I'm trying to tell. Because when I look at my book now at the finished product, I can say, yeah, I can see the arc, I can see that from beginning to end, this is someone who was looking for something that she found in a really unexpected way. And I never set out to write books with that in mind. But that is how I have to write to get the story out, is to really think about what am I trying to say and what is the end point here. And it doesn't necessarily mean like I would- at the end of my book, I- spoiler alert, I end the book by going away to college and just getting in my car and driving. And that doesn't mean that my story ends there. But that was what made the most sense for me to tell that, again, that overarching story of what I was seeking and what I actually found. And so it's nice and it's helpful, I think, as a writer to not pen myself into having to tell a complete story. All I really need to do to make it feel good to me is really contextualize it and think about what I've learned. That to me is a more natural way to write, but it's also the kind of book I like to read. So I tend to veer towards that.
Nora: Your grandmother had such belief in you, and I think that comes through in just, you know, she was- she let you be like your weird self, you know? And and like, watch, watch a horror movie when you're seven and laugh at this part about how stupid, stupid the characters are. Which, by the way, reading that, I was like, I was not allowed to watch anything growing up. Literally anything. Nothing, nothing. Like I didn't see “Pretty Woman” until two summers ago. I was like, oh, I don't know. It's not really appropriate. I don't know. I didn't see “Dirty Dancing” till, like, high school or college. Even then I was like, I'm not allowed to watch this, guys. [laughs] I don't know. Like, if I was at a party in high school and I didn't feel comfortable, which was -- there were only two parties. I once told my dead husband, “There were only two parties in high school.” He was like, “That you knew of, nerd,” right? [laughs] Like, right. Well, I called my parents both times, I was like, “You gotta come get me. There's no parents home! There’s no parents here!” [laughs]
Danielle: [laughs] “I just cannot believe that people are living like this.”
Nora: [laughs] “I can't believe this. This is not appropriate.” But as a result, like I was afraid of things I didn't have to be afraid of it. And I think, just reading that scene, like, you know, a little version of you like, watching the scary movie and seeing your grandma laugh at it is like, you do not need to be afraid that a man with, you know, knives for fingers is going to break into your room in the middle of the night. Like you can laugh at that. Right. And your grandmother in the very beginning of the book gives you this piece of advice that makes no sense to a small child, which is to carry a switchblade in your pocket. And if any man tries to touch you, you stab him and ask a question later.
Danielle: Oh, yeah. Yeah. She's a big proponent of carry a little secret knife. And if anyone tries to put his hands on you, cut his throat and then you can answer questions later. Like not even just stab him a little. She wanted me to genuinely harm and slash someone open. [laughs] And it was- what's really wild when you think about what else I go on to say in this book, is for all of her advice about how to protect myself, for all of her showing me these horror movies and telling me that there were so many things in the world that I don't need to be afraid of, she wasn't able to protect me from the biggest horror or hurt or pain in my life. And it was the kind of thing that I think was unfathomable to her, that someone could hurt her child in that way. She was very innocent in that way, I guess, where she definitely knew that there were horrors in the world. But she couldn't prepare me for everything. And no parent can. No parent can prepare their children for every pain that they might experience in this world. So I think that her not-so-gentle way of giving me this advice was an attempt to do that, to say, you know, “There are so many things that I won't be able to control. I cannot control whether or not somebody is going to try to hurt you. But if they do, I can at least make you feel good about defending yourself or finding a way to talk about it.” And I think that that also made it very hard for me to finally talk to her in a real way about my abuse, because I was terrified. I was afraid that I had failed her in some way by not being able to protect myself from my stepfather. And it doesn't make any sense rationally, but that's that child mind that is trying to process everything that they've learned and known. And what I knew of my grandmother is that she always wanted me to protect myself. So I thought she's going to be mad at me that I wasn't able to fight him off, and I wasn't able to protect myself. And I didn't carry a little secret knife, and I didn't carry anything. And there's nothing I could have done to stop it. So when I was able to finally tell her, and I do write about that moment in the book, it was a release in more ways than one.
And the strongest part of that release was not what I expected. I expected to tell her and kind of brace myself for her anger, and when I received her love in its purest form what for me felt like the first time, because I knew she loved me. I did not know how much she loved me until that moment and when that happened and she was so loving and just kind of grabbed me and hugged me and told me it wasn't my fault. “It's going to be OK. I hate him. I'm going to kill him, and I'm going to kill your mother.” But she really got to that point where she was still very much herself, but so loving to me. And she was that grandma that she wasn't ever able to be or wanted to be. She was that that shawl-covered piece of mercy that I needed in that moment. And that was the real release for me. It wasn't finally talking about being abused. It was receiving the love and care and support from somebody who I knew wanted my recovery and wanted me to recover from that in a way that didn't dismantle my life. So it just felt really powerful in that way. I think that there's a lot of, you know, narratives out there about how, you know, talking about your abuse is you bring it up to the light and you reveal it. And that's where the healing comes in. But for me, the healing started with realizing that there are so many different ways that I can be loved. And I never knew that before. You know, my mom's love was fleeting and really anemic. [laughs] And my grandmother's love was really tough. My brother's love was like, to me, nonexistent. We just can't stand each other. And you know, revealing that to her, just really like helped shine a light on the fact that there are lots of different ways to love and that people can surprise the fuck out of you. And I think that I learned a lot about her in that moment. You know, I was definitely an observant child, but I wouldn't say that I was, like, incredibly emotionally. I didn't have, like, a big emotional reserve. And I am a triple Gemini. So even if I did, I wouldn't have worked. [laughs]
Nora: You're rare. You're very rare. [laughs]
Danielle: Oh yeah. I should be locked in a closet like a character in the movie. That is an ancient evil. Keep that one at bay. [laughs] But, I do think that, you know, it's definitely- I didn't have the emotional wherewithal to really examine the people around me as a kid, but I learned so much in that moment about not just how people can surprise you, but just how deep the well of emotions can can go. And it surprised me in the most delightful and positive way. And it helped me. It helped me move on and helped me talk about it more and more and help me go into therapy eventually. It kickstarted my life. It really did. It kickstarted my life. I think I was headed for either suicide or just some really dampened version of my life before before that moment.
Nora: Oh, a dampened version of your life. Write that down. That's beautiful, beautiful, horrible and beautiful. I truly think like the only unconditional love in the world, it flows from children up. Like every other kind of love, like, of course it comes with conditions because adults have, like, as they're raising children as they're like, you know, we have expectations and children have nothing. They just arrive in this world and look up and think like it's you. That's- I'll take it. I'll take it.
Danielle: Yes. We don't need the background story, like, this is great. This is great that you're here and you're smiling at me and you're in my face. This is what I have. And I think, again, that's where I really did have to go to kind of a deep emotional place to even write this book, because I wanted to remember what that felt like with my own mother, where there was a time where I was just so excited to see her and to be around her and to watch her get ready to go out. And just really that unconditional love that I had for her, which I think is something that I had never considered prior. Our relationship was always so imbalanced and focused on how does she love me? And I think in writing this, I was very much able to tap into that child mind and think about, well, how did I love her? And what did that feel like and what did it mean for me when that love went away? Because I can say right now and not proudly, but truthfully, I don't love my mother. I don't like my mother, you know? I don't get along with my mother, we don't speak, we tried. My aunt Renee, who I write about in the book as well, my aunt Renee died in March of breast cancer. She had stage four breast cancer. And, you know, I was with her for a lot of that last year of her life and at the end as well. And she asked me, we were talking about family, and we talked about my family a lot. Her relationship with my mom was pretty nonexistent because she never forgave my mom for giving us up. And that affected them in a deep way that I didn't even know, you know, I didn't know they had a very close and sisterly bond for most of their lives. And it was really hurtful for my aunt when she talked about it. She talked about a lot of pain that she didn't have a sister anymore. It didn't feel like that to her. So we were talking about it and she said, you know, I know you don't need a mother, but I just don't want you to go through your life carrying any extra pain, which I would- she said it is extra pain, but I would think of it as more like residual pain. And it kind of took me by surprise because I was like, oh, I've already solved my issues with Mom. I can't stand her. And that's it. [laughs] Yeah. What are you talking about? I'm done with that. Therapy, over. [laughs] And, you know, I think it was, it was more impactful to me because I knew that she was dying. So for her to kind of have that revelation at the end of her life felt like something I should sit up and pay attention to. So I said, yeah, you know, I can try this. And I asked her, do you want to see anybody before before the end? And, you know, she was planning to go into hospice care. And I said, you want to see my brother? Do you want to see Mom? I'll fly them out. And she did. So I flew up my brother, and then I flew my mom out with my little sister, who's also now in the picture, like she, she had another another child with this man, three in total. And I flew both of them out and they spent like a week with my aunt and went through their own healing or what they needed at least to heal a little bit.
And that kind of opened the floodgates a little bit for my mom to start talking to me again. And this is before the book came out. But after the book was written. And we started talking, we talked a little bit and we talked on the phone, and I was really open with her about the fact that I don't trust this relationship and that we have a lot of work to do. Then she asked to borrow some money from me, and I stupidly let her, and she stopped talking to me when the book came out. [laughs] So she borrowed the money. The book came out. And then she didn't talk to me anymore. [laughs] She stopped working on the relationship. And she's not emotionally resilient. She didn't have the wherewithal enough to say, “This hurts me.” She's someone who goes through the world feeling like the world kind of owes her a living. And that's an effect of her narcissism. So she's not able to say to me, “You hurt my feelings,” or, “I didn't like reading this.” So instead she just shuts down. And so I found out from my brother, I said, do you think Mom has read my book? And he said, I don't know, let me ask her. We were hanging out on my porch one day. And he sent her a text and asked her if she's read my book and she wrote back, I have nothing to say about it. What did she say? She says, “I have no comment, and that's all I'll say about that.” And again, doesn't say anything to me about how she feels about it, but now that I live here again, I'm hearing rumors that she's going to sue me, that she's angry, but she still will not talk to. And I didn't close that door. I didn't close that door. I actually kicked it wide open when we started talking again.
So the kind of strange side effect of writing about her with grace and remembering that part of our life is realizing that that part of our life together is truly over. That we are not going to have that, you know, that kind of mother-daughter bond. And we're not going to have that miraculous movie ending where, you know, like “Terms of Endearment” style or something like, we're just not going to have that. And I haven't had a mother for a very long time, but I only recently realized that I don't need one. And that I've done so much to mother myself, and I have found mothering that comes from other people and care that comes from other people that I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I wouldn't wish that people didn't have this relationship with the person that brought them onto the planet. But sometimes it ends up that way. And I'm not willing to sacrifice myself and all that I've learned and all the ways that I've grown in order to have that relationship with her. So it's just going to be ... this is just what it's going to be. And I think that, you know, writing the book helped me realize that, that I don't have to keep trying to have a relationship with someone who is so intent on hurting my heart. And it sucks that it's my mom. But if it were anyone else on the planet, I would have the same exact response.
Nora: Yes. If any other- if a romantic partner treated you this way, if you know, an uncle, a friend treated you this way, people would have no problem saying, yeah, that's they're gone. They're out. They, you know, betrayed a very sacred part of any relationship. And so they cannot be in your life. But there is this expectation specifically with mothers. Dads disappear all the time by the way. [laughs]
Danielle: Oh, yeah. Oh, mine did! [laughs] I never met the dude.
Nora: They just do. [laughs] They're like, you know. Yeah, yeah. I don't know. You got a shitty dad. What are you going to do about it. OK, like let it go. [laughs] But like, moms are expected to never be this bad. That it is an aberration, it is a disruption to the natural order of things. Moms cannot be this bad. I think that for moms who behave this way, for whatever reason, there's so much shame that in order to survive, you have to compartmentalize, pretend it was somebody else, pretend something else happened entirely. You mentioned the unexamined life. It has to remain unexamined, because you've broken every law of nature. And yet for children, the expectation is still, well, they are your mother. So they gave you this gift. You're here on the planet. You know, like you stretched out their stomach muscles, like you made their belly button weird. And now you owe them this. You owe them your life. And to hear you say like, you don't, I feel like that's just going to be so transformative for so many people.
Danielle: Thank you. No, I don't. And this is maybe the most the most feminist take I think I could even have about it is neither one of us owes each other anything. It's a shame that we weren't able to naturally build a relationship together, but I don't owe her anything as much as she doesn't owe me anything. And I think that she's not the villain of the story. There is no villain of the story. And I hope that is what comes through in my book more than anything is that she made a lot of really bad decisions and a lot of people make really bad decisions about themselves and their children and their families, but I don't think it should be a lifelong punishment for her. I think that she knows what she did and she’s felt the pain of what she's done in her own way. And so for me, it's not so much that I need her to be bad. It's just that I need to understand, what I needed to understand over all of these years is that I don't need her at all. And that is the hardest thing to rectify. I don't need you to be bad. I don't need you to be- I don't need you, at all. And you're supposed to. You're supposed to need your mom. So I think that in that mother, you know, in that child-mother dynamic, it goes both ways. And society does its damndest to make mothers feel guilty about everything they do, good or bad or in between, and is really intent on pushing this binary of good and bad.
I think people are more complicated than that. And I think that I can't deny her humanity as just a person on the planet any more than she can deny mine. So I think that it really, it works both ways. The power for me is not in persevering in some kind of weird way. It's just in realizing that my life's better when I don't need her, and my life is more my own when I'm not focused on the failures of that relationship from both of us.
Nora: And that somebody can be not a villain, and somebody can be also a person who hurt you, and they can be a person who is deserving of compassion. And that still doesn't give them a seat at your table.
Danielle: At all. At all. That's really, that is the sadness. I think when I talk with my friends about, you know, our lives or my life, that is the sadness for me, is that I don't get to share who I am with her. She doesn't know who I became. I could be sitting right next to her in a room and she cannot see me. She doesn't know who I am. So that makes me sad -- not that she can't see, it's sad that we can't share it. I can't change who she is or how she is. But again, like, she just doesn't have access to me. And I think that that's something I've dealt with and gotten through. And we'll find new and different ways to have to deal with and get through as time goes on. That's the other maybe the reason I left my book a little open ended is because I don't think you're ever done exploring these relationships or- they don't always hurt you the same way. But you're never like, well, all right, done with that now. I don't need to talk about Mom ever again. It's like, no, as we age and we're going through it now. We're going through it right now because I am taking care of her mother.
I think that one of the other things that I haven't really ever talked about before, but something that's very true about the side effect of having written this book is it is now abundantly clear to my mom that I love my grandma more than her. That we're closer, that we have a better relationship, that I would move heaven and earth to make sure that the end of her life is as comfortable and joyful as possible. And I will not do that for my mom. And I think that has to be painful to feel like you've been leapfrogged in your own relationship. So this is a book that's about me and my mother as much as it is about her and her mother. And like you said at the beginning, it's like these generational waves that we're all constantly addressing because we're constantly being raised by people who have carried this trauma or carried these personalities with them.
So I definitely, I can acknowledge that. And I know that can't be easy for her, but there's also nothing I can do about it. There's nothing I can do about it that wouldn't diminish my own life. And I'm just not willing to do that. And it's been wild to think about how selfish I don't feel. I think we're supposed to feel selfish when we choose our own happiness or when we choose anything in our life that we want that isn’t in line with what the culture says we should want or desire. And that's the primary thing I've learned in my time so far on this earth is that I tend not to sacrifice my own desires for the benefit of somebody else, especially if they're not painful, hurtful things. So, yeah, I just, I feel very resolute. And I feel like, you know, again, that the mother daughter dynamic that I started exploring in this book is one that just has a ripple effect across all of the women in my family. So it's been really interesting and cool to kind of dig into that from a very personal place.
Nora: And how did, how did your grandma feel about the book? Did she read it? Did she listen to it on audio? What did, what was her, did she leave a review? [laughs]
Danielle: She left a two-star review on Amazon. [laughs] She actually, the other day she said, you know, I keep trying to read it, but I get so tired and then like The Price Is Right is on. And like I just … so she listened to the audiobook. [laughs] Like, glad I could bore you to sleep. That's wonderful. But she listened to the audio book, and she loves it. She absolutely loved it. And one thing that was really touching in a moment that I didn't know I would get to have, because I've been talking to her about writing this book for so many years. I came home and I physically gave her a copy of my book, came out like a week or two after I moved back here, and she just hugged it and just started crying, and was just so overcome with emotion. And she said, you know, I'm just so, I'm just so proud of you and [crying] ... I know that she is ... [crying] but she has dementia now ... [crying] she has dementia. [crying] So she doesn't remember a lot in the short term. And so for her to remember that I wrote this book, it was really special. And for her to … when she was listening to it and hearing the stories, she always has such a good memory for things that happened so long ago. You know, she was listening to the book and then she would launch into the story of like, oh, I remember that. And, you know, why didn't you write about that time that we,you know, you grew so fast that we couldn't find the belt that fit you. So we just used a piece of rope and like, she'll just kind of like launch into these stories. And it's really [crying] I just am more aware of how ... [crying] how little of that I'm going to get in the future? Yeah, so. Yes, she read it, she listened to it, and it's been helpful to her to remember what she loved about raising her family.
Nora: And also, I'm going to cry now about how beautiful that like, parts of you that you forgot to store away are like still inside of her, like sustaining her, and like … [crying] just like that's, that's inside of her for like the long haul. And, like, she doesn't need to know what she ate for breakfast, like delete that. [laughs]
Danielle: It's true, because she doesn't remember. [laughs] She'll call me and say, like, were you here this morning and did I take my pills and did I eat and she really won't remember that. But when I walk in the door and her face lights up and she's just like, oh, you are here, I'm so happy to see you. Yeah, that's very important to me right now. And I want to keep- for as long as we have that, I want her to have as many good memories of her life as possible because she did impossible things to make my existence bearable and to make my life, you know, to help me take off and to help me launch and to, you know, give me that supportive hand as I threw myself off of several cliffs. And so, I'm glad that I was able to do this and release this book and have this experience with her while she's still at least aware enough to get it, because that wasn't a given.
We’ve done a lot of episodes about complicated parental relationships … a few that come to mind are:
“Motherland” -- that was very recent
“Thenedra” -- also recent
“Untying Knots” and “What’s Gonna Happen to Me?” -- a two-parter from 2020!
“Our Parents’ Debts”
That’s all that comes to mind now, but that should tide you over. The point is, all those episodes ... and Danielle is the first person I’ve heard say this:
Danielle: It's just in realizing that my life's better when I don't need her and my life is, is more my own when I'm not focused on the failures of that relationship from both of us.
It’s a big thing to get there, to a place where you don’t need a person you thought you couldn’t live without. That you don’t need them present, and you don’t need them to be the villain in your life.
I wish that for … anyone that resonates with.
Danielle Henderson’s book is called “The Ugly Cry,” and you can get it wherever you buy your books! We’ll link it in the show notes, too.
This has been an episode of the Terrible Reading Club. You’re listening to “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” Our team is Marcel and Jeyca and Jordan and Nora. That’s me! And our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson, and we make this show at APM Studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.