Author Archives: thereinavictoria
In 2014, four years before we got the privilege to see Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” I was just a girl at a microphone on a Monday night.
It was at an open mic of all women in Tao Studio. This room was a warm and supporting place, filled with women sharing, women laughing, women cheering among the red walls. Above all, it was safe. Everyone in that room made me feel empowered, and I could explore my humor in the best ways possible.
I learned the basics of comedy there. You get about five minutes, give or take, depending on the venue. At one minute you get the light, so wrap it up. Speak slowly, as you’re dealing with a bunch of drunk people. Pay tribute to the house by buying something – a drink, a snack, etc. – and try to stay to the end and watch and support all the other comics (although most people don’t).
Here there were women of all races, shapes, sizes and sexualities. We also all had our own stories, not unlike Hannah Gadsby and “Nanette.” And each sense of humor was special and treated as such.
This women’s mic still occurs once a week (and I still love, even when I can’t make it out). But even in their mixed-gender mics, Tao has a code of ethics that rule over the studio and the people who come there; it makes this place one of a kind. When you left and went into “the real world,” there was a different set of rules.
Whereas I started in a room of all women, most of the venues for other open mics I went to were 75 percent straight white men. Their topics usually revolved around their penises, ranging from complaining about their penises in skinny jeans to seeing my boobs in a low-cut top and remarking how they would stick their penis between them. If they really wanted to appear edgy, they’d start telling rape jokes — something forbidden at Tao.
In the event there was a female comic, her appearance was often ballyhooed by the men. These women were often white, skinny and conventionally beautiful. They would often play into the same norm of hypersexuality, trying to be “one of the guys.” When I would talk to them during our shows together, the same story would come up: “My manager suggested that I try standup to diversify my portfolio as an actress.”
My jokes didn’t fit in here; sure, I talked about dating and sex, but I also joked about my mother’s breast cancer treatment, my family and leaving abuse. In comedy I sought to create and write, to tell funny stories, not necessarily to become an actor. The goal of standup was always to get to punchlines; that often meant sacrificing truths for the sake of the joke, glossing over the ugliness.
A fellow comedian committed suicide about five months into my fledgling standup career. I had known about his struggles with depression due to seeing his sets regularly. His death broke the hearts of everyone who knew him. But then, after a few weeks, I saw comedians joking casually about killing themselves. It was hard for me to continue after that; I ended up taking a hiatus.
I tried coming back several times. But although I could make people laugh onstage, there was something in me that couldn’t continue beyond those sputters. My comedy was skewing both political and personal, which isn’t often mainstream or appealing. It wasn’t the type that keeps bookers interested, and I certainly wasn’t pretty enough to get booked based on looks alone. There was no fulfillment in writing jokes simply for the sake of jokes. My heart needed to be in my jokes, and there wasn’t a place in for it in timed sets at drunken comedy clubs.
Instead of comedy, I decided to tackle storytelling; it seemed more of a fit for what I wanted to do as a written artist. It provided more challenges and a chance for something else that could help people feel not only laughter, but catharsis. I loved comedy, but I saw very few places at the table for someone like me.
Until Nanette came.
At first, 20 minutes in, I was getting bored. I stopped my Netflix and continued doing other things; after all, this was supposed to be comedy. John Mulaney, Ali Wong and other comedians had all graced my Netflix to deliver joke after joke, often loudly. This was a Tasmanian woman – not brash like Chris Rock, or beautiful like Iliza Schlesinger – who was just talking, and occasionally being funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. More like, “Oh, that’s funny” statement funny.
Several weeks later, I was getting ready to do my storytelling show with KPCC. It was nerve-wracking, as my words were about to make me bare my soul. I was dressed, putting on my eye makeup meticulously. It was quiet, so I turned on the TV for some background noise, figuring maybe I should give Nanette another chance.
That’s when Hannah Gadsby lifted a mirror.
“I’m quitting comedy,” she said. And with those words, and all the precious words after, soared anger, heartbreak and rage at the status quo of what comedy had become. She was funny, but more importantly, she had a heart.
She rejected the idea that we had to suffer for our art. Threw away the conventions that we have to be driven to constant punchlines and feeding intoxicated hedonism, and if we weren’t we were doing it wrong. Objected to the idea of the comedic persona versus the real her – because the real Hannah is good enough, and it’s not worth destroying for the sake of making others laugh.
And I cried, because all I was thinking about the piece I wrote was not the fact that in a few hours’ time I would be emotionally naked. It was that the wish buried inside of me was that when I told stories that I would be as funny as I am during a normal conversation.
So many female comedians I know suffered the way Hannah did, rejected comedy the way she did. We left because we felt the pressure to push the envelope, to follow the status quo of the comedy clubs. There was no space for us to simply be and to share. Nanette not only gave us a battle cry, but an open space to explore and make our own that could be loved and accepted as a new art.
It’s time for comedy to come into the new era, and I hope to find the right people along the way to restructure it. Because we are all Nanette.
In late April, my friend David and I decided to break away from our Jewish community bubble, heading to the Pico-Union Project in downtown Los Angeles. We were invited to an interfaith Iftar-Shabbat that one of his Muslim friends was attending.
This place was LA’s Sinai Temple in the 1920s, and it showed in the building. The stained glass windows reminded me of the colors of my childhood, underneath the golden bricks of the Sephardic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, the house my grandparents built. Bouncing around in the pews, the cantor’s voice soared, warm trilling music, a romantic dance of Spanish and Hebrew weaving through the room. My Nony’s kisses were accented with the praise of “Mashallah!” and the air lingered with scents of garlic, rosewater, cloves and strong, salty cheeses.
As David and I mingled, a large Pakistani Muslim man named Yaseen started talking to me. I introduced myself — Reina — Spanish for queen, named after my Nony, who was named for her grandmother and so on. Yaseen asked me about growing up Jewish. “Well, my family’s a bit different,” I said. “They’re Sephardic.”
Sephardic means that you are descended from Spanish Jews. My name dates back to the town of Cordoba, where we lived happily until 1492, before the Muslim Moors were overthrown, the Spanish Inquisition kicked us out and we migrated to the Ottoman Empire. But when I tell people I’m Sephardic, I usually get the same response: “But you’re so pale!”
It doesn’t matter that my great-grandfather Solomon was dark from working under the sun of the Port of Istanbul. Nor that my name can be traced back generations, or even that Cordoba is the same town that birthed Maimonides, possibly the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived. I’m just pale.
Growing up, except for Maimonides, there were no Sephardic stories in my studies. If there were Jewish characters on television or in movies, they were an Ashkenazi stereotype from Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews are rare here — most stayed in their adopted countries or went to Israel, not facing the persecution that Ashkenazis did. Yet when Solomon, a Young Turk and anarchist, tried to kill an Ottoman Sultan but instead ended up with a bounty on his head, he, his wife and their babies headed to America, singing old cantares, eventually heading to Los Angeles.
There was no one like my family. We were warm, loving and absolutely in your face at all times. My family spoke Ladino, or a dialect of Spanish and Hebrew not unlike Yiddish. The kitchen was Nony’s kingdom, where the radio would play and she would swoon over Julio Iglesias, and her cooking was accompanied by concerns over our marriageability.
But oh, the magic of the Sephardic foods that came out of there — flaky cheese borekas, browned hard-boiled eggs, spinach and squash frittadas, silky rose-flavored rice pudding and Turkish coffee. This was a place of dancing, laughter, passion and strong conversations. From postwar refugees to the handyman, everyone was welcome at Nony’s table, and no matter how little she had, she always found a way to share. There was no shortage of love here.
With a small Sephardic community here, being Jewish here meant a degree of assimilation. My mother married an Ashkenazi Jew, who happily gave up gefilte fish for borekas. We went to a non-Sephardic temple. Occasionally we would eat deli food. However, my mother rejected Ashkenazi culture. She would often recount her childhood walking through Hancock Park with Solomon, where religious Ashkenazi Jews would single them out, saying they weren’t really Jewish due to his dark skin.
When I got to college, away from my doting family, the Jewish kids dismissed my Sephardic roots. My paleness was always questioned, and my father’s Ashkenazi background caused them to scoff at me. I didn’t fit in, often preferring my Muslim friends. We spoke lovingly of our similar foods and lamented our meddling grandmothers trying to marry us off. But I was still Jewish, and wanted a Jewish life.
My college rabbi insisted that marriage meant giving up my culture and adopting my Ashkenazi husband’s. There were a few attempts, including a smelly failure in making gefilte fish that caused the pot to stink for days. I tried to adapt, but putting it on felt like an ill-fitting coat. During my divorce, the rabbi decided I didn’t exist anymore. It was like waking up in a desert alone, where all I can hear is “But you’re so PALE!!!” A place where because I don’t look like their definition of my people, there’s no way I can be my people.
After I tell Yaseen that I’m Sephardic, his eyes widen. “Oh!” he said excitedly. “Do you speak Ladino?” The first thing he said wasn’t a comment on my paleness. It was an excited question, and a knowledgable one at that. He asked me about something that I had grown up around my whole life.
As we ate dinner to break the Ramadan fast, Yaseen came to speak at the podium. He talked about growing up a gay Muslim man to immigrant parents. He explained how he began to challenge his own identity and study Jewish-Muslim relations. One of the most special topics for him was the Ottoman Empire.
“After the Spanish Inquisition, 250,000 Jews were taken in by the Ottomans,” he said. “And we have one of their descendants sitting here.”
In his words, I traced steps taken over hundreds of years, the steps of my people from Cordoba to Turkey to America, to finally Los Angeles, my beautiful home. It was in this room, where my story was being acknowledged; that no matter what I looked like, I was accepted as one of my people.
Afterwards I hugged him tightly, but it wasn’t only me who embraced him. It was my mother, grandparents, great-grandparents. All my ancestors who kept our culture alive and gave it to me to protect; they danced in my blood, and gave me the love to share with others. And all I could think in that moment was of my Nony’s voice, simply whispering, “Mashallah.”
Anyone who meets me would tell you that I’m one of the happiest people they know. It’s an overwhelming experience to see a 5’11 hurricane of joy coming at you, but my chipper attitude is a trademark (it’s also a turnoff for people when they first meet me, but when they get to know me, they know it’s genuine).
My mentality has been that after almost dying at 21, every extra day is a blessing. I love cracking jokes and having fun. Generally, I’m in love with life.
Except the days that I’m not.
Even those of us with clown faces struggle, even the happiest of people have a fight they’re trying to win. We see our visions of perfection and playfulness, like Kate Spade or even Robin Williams, and see them crumble. And although I love being warm, friendly and giving, the universe doesn’t always return those things. All of us seek to love and be loved; and when we don’t feel accepted, the burden of it can sometimes be dangerous. This is where the thoughts of suicide can come into play.
January was a low point, although it should have been the happiest of times. I finally had a full-time job after years of back-to-back contract work and uncertain bank statements. I was halfway through my business and management in entertainment certification at UCLA and acing every course. I had just moved into a dream apartment. My father was on the road to recovery after a fall; the doctors told me if I wasn’t there he probably would have died. And although my mother was gone, my life had seemed to come to a place where it was normal again.
Yet I was struggling at work with my ADHD and barely understanding my finance class. There was my post-breakup weight gain that I was trying to lose and my inability to get over my anxieties to go out and date. When it came to my writing, I was finding difficulties with my voice now that I wasn’t fighting for my daily survival. I missed my friends, who I hadn’t talked to in a while and weren’t reaching out. There was an overwhelming sense of emptiness creeping inside me. It felt like the rest of my life was going to be spent alone, and my heart was breaking.
Driving up Sunset Plaza Drive on the way to my dad’s place in North Hollywood, my eyes darted to a cliff near one of the giant Hollywood Hills mansions. And somewhere in my mind bubbled the idea: I should pitch myself off that cliff.
It shouldn’t come from me. I had lost people to suicide, took part in the heartbreak that comes with death, particularly death at a young age. The thought of doing that to anyone I loved was awful to me. Forcing my father to grieve for both me and my mother was inexcusable; I love him too much to cause him any extra pain. And there was the fear of a helpless 72-hour hold in a hospital, and a background that had the numbers 5150.
Yet I wanted to. I really wanted to.
I made it to my father’s place, spending the whole time crying on the trundle bed in his office. My life felt like it existed on the edge of a knife, and I was dreading returning to a world of food stamps and hopelessness. What would happen if I lost my job? How would my rent be paid, how would life go on? What would happen when my father died and I was left alone in the world? Would anyone really miss me if I pitched myself off of that cliff on Sunset Plaza Drive?
My father didn’t know what to do, so he ordered takeout and put on a movie. It comforted me for a split second, but the thought was still brewing in my head. Would anyone miss me?
He asked me about my therapist; I would see her in a few days. He asked me if he could help in any way, and deep down I knew no matter how much he loved me, he couldn’t defeat those thoughts in my head. I decided to go home, even though my dad was uncertain of letting me out of the house. He wanted to drive me to make sure I was safe, but there was work the next morning and I couldn’t leave my car in North Hollywood.
Heading down the 101, I couldn’t even see the downtown Los Angeles skyline, my favorite sight in all the world. Those spires of light climbing to the sky always let me know I was home, that I was safe. But in my eyes there was only my darkness.
I couldn’t hold on any longer; I needed a voice to talk me through this, but didn’t know who to call. In my pain, all I could think of was how friends in the past had left me for less than my depression. My agony felt like a burden, and it wasn’t one that my mouth was eager to share with people I cared about.
But I had to live. This was the only thing that was certain. So I begged Siri for the number for the National Suicide Hotline.
The woman on the line instructed me to pull over; it was too dangerous for me to drive while I was feeling this way. I pulled in front of an elementary school off of Vine Street south of Sunset, as wind rustled through the nearby trees.
We talked for 20 minutes, and I explained to her everything that was happening to me in that moment. It also meant going back yet again and unpacking over six years of agony. It was a journey that started with his threat: “If you leave me, I will kill myself,” followed by, “I don’t care if you love me or not, I’m never letting you go.”
In the years since I would face no end of struggles. Yet despite my difficulties there was perseverance inside to survive, to prove something to the world, to my past that said, “You could never live without me.” There was success, but something inside kept gnawing at my soul. Was this it?
“Do you have a therapist?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you taking medication for ADHD or depression?”
“No… but I had no health insurance per say, and no money to get it.”
“You have insurance now, what’s stopping you?”
The truth was I didn’t know. Helpless consumed me, left me praying, wishing someone would come find me. But on my phone, in the middle of Vine Street, there was a dim light to guide the way. And like so many times before, I was the captain of this journey, the one who was going to have to come to get me.
I ended the call, started the car and drove home. In the grace period between awake and sleep, it was like a flashback tape with the keyword “suicide.” I laughed with Alvin on black couches, then sat at his memorial. I laid next to Mark in bed again from back when we dated, fast-forwarding to staring at his green hat during mourning. I stood six years ago in a white-walled hospital, the words 5150 echoing my ears, feeling the anger pulse through me as I realized he used suicide as a way to manipulate me into staying in toxicity. Then I looked into myself… and wondered if I was better than any of them.
The next morning came and I took the baby steps back. I buckled down in work, school and therapy. I started looking for a psychiatrist, which as anyone knows is difficult in and of itself. It took time, but my circumstances got better. And I still retain that bubbliness and chipper, can-do attitude.
However, if you ask me if I’m okay now… well, the answer isn’t clear cut.
I have good days and bad days. I have days where life couldn’t get any better and days where I don’t want to move from my bed. Days where I have drive and determination and days where it seems like something isn’t right. Perhaps it’s the up and down of life, a roller coaster that sometimes is hard to ride. And sometimes we think we’re alone on it, when it truth it’s that we can’t always see our fellow riders when our peripheral vision is skewed.
But no matter what, even in the darkness, it’s nice to know that there is a light to lead us back. And it’s just a phone call away.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at (866) 273-TALK.
The rain was coming down in Costa Mesa as I ran through the drops, my emerald green dress bright among the gray. I’m sheltering my makeup with my mother’s purple shawl. I didn’t remember if I locked my car, heading back to make sure to lock my blue Honda, listening for that reassuring beep.
I look at the shape of it, standing next to the Paul Mitchell School. And I look at it and can’t help to say to myself, I used to get my hair cut here.
It was a time where that was my luxury; ten dollar haircuts and getting my eyebrows waxed. I was too busy walking on eggshells to enjoy the world. Too scared, too contained, too realistic.
My d’orsay shoes clicked against the wet pavement, staring at the school for just a moment. If myself from seven years ago were standing here now, she wouldn’t recognize me.
It took me a while to collect my bearings to remember the cross streets of my old apartment: Bristol and Sunflower, a giant complex with sprawling green grass fields and fake creeks, where if you looked up you could see the sleek high rises light up at night. I had picked out the apartment personally, much to the anger of my ex-husband. Yet he kept it during out divorce.
My compartmentalized brain that just got off of work three hours before had blacked out that corner. Like how I blacked out that when I lived down in Orange County that I was, in fact, born in Los Angeles. Where I made my home now.
I lived on the edge of South Coast Plaza, where the carousel horses at the entrances would greet capitalist consumerism. The fancy mainstream brands would light up the Orange County streets that were too fancy for sidewalks. There was the flirtation of counter-culture not too far away; the Japanese market; the artsy anti-malls with bohemian coffee shops and hipster restaurants; the organic grocer filled with various green drinks and health items.
I wanted to experience it all during those years ago. But my ex told me not to dream.
On a different Friday night, I left this place with a red duffel bag and whatever else I could carry away in a rickety silver Saturn. This was a girl with nothing but a dream, a prayer for a future — a safe future. But this Friday night, even my d’orsay shoes shone in a way that I never did here.
I walked into the Center, surrounded by artwork and warm light. My friends started arriving. I clutched onto my white handbag as my pearl and gold earrings swung from side to side. Glancing outside at the twinkle lights, I remembered this place. It didn’t look like this. I didn’t look like this.
Yet it didn’t bother me as we looked at the artwork. There was a photograph of an old phone that I couldn’t help but to bid on, called “Art Deco;” it would go perfectly in my hip Los Angeles apartment.
I laughed with my friends as we ate and talked about our lives. Sat together and rested our heads on each other’s shoulders. Drank wine and laughed. I talked expressively with my hands, no rings on my fingers.
My dress twirled as my body swished across the room with a strangely confident swagger. Yet as I met more and more people who lived in Orange County, there was something whispering at me: You don’t live here anymore.
I walked around the gallery with my friend Jen, studying all the different works of art. When I left Orange County she was one of my first friends when I moved away, meeting me right in the heart of my post-divorce wild child phase. She became the first family member in my new Los Angeles home.
I had mentioned to her during our walk around the gallery that I used to come here all the time. The tone of the statement was flippant, but I was hinting at something underneath the surface. It was a way of trying to show that there was another person looking out from inside of me.
She was a scared wife, unsure of a life without her husband because he always told her she could never live without him, who couldn’t even imagine the person she was at this moment. It was a person who had made it, despite the odds against her. I was the person who she always wanted to become.
I go to the bar to ask for water for my friend Tiffany and me. A young guy with a blonde pompadour approaches me.
“You enjoying the auction?” he asks.
“Sure, just grabbing some water for my friend,” I reply.
“I have the best water.”
“Yeah, this water was drunk by Chuck Jones.”
“It’s going up for auction!”
“I have the DNA of Chuck Jones!”
“That’s impressive, considering the fact he’s been dead for a while.”
As the rambling continued, I recognized that this was a guy trying to flirt and failing miserably. I eventually walked away; it felt good to be approached, but at the same time, I was tired.
I excused myself to go back to Los Angeles after that. I told Jen I was picking up a Coca-Cola and some cash for the Renaissance Faire tomorrow, and I would see her in the morning. I picked up my purchase from the silent auction and headed to my car. The ground was shining from the rain; walking away as my shoes clicked against it, I felt like I was living in a fantasy.
Yet looking at the Paul Mitchell School, the place where I once used to live, I knew what I had to do. I had known it all along: It was time to see my old home again. No matter how many times I had come back to Orange County over the years to visit my friends, I tried to avoid the corner of Bristol and Sunflower. It was time to face it.
I turned up the street, past South Coast Plaza and its quiet carousel horses. Drove down Sunflower past the art theater and the Vitamin Shoppe. And there it was, my old apartment building.
I looked over, and in my mind’s eye, there she was: The defeated suburban wife with the red duffel bag and a prayer. She was looking into a mirror and seeing the current version of herself, with bright ambitious eyes, a fancy green dress and d’Orsay shoes.
She was a ghost now. Gone, but never forgotten.
I turned onto the freeway, the rain making my car sparkle, “The Edge of Glory” causing the speakers to rumble along the 405. And I drove away, victory clasped in my hand, I sang and danced with the ghost of myself one last time before crossing the Los Angeles border to head home.
We speak the words: Shoah, Holocaust, the unforgettable fire that consumed six million Jews and five million others in unspeakable hatred. We look at ourselves in the waters of time, see those who came before us and watch the ripples that echo even 70 years after the fact, knowing there is no way to truly heal from the horror.
We just sit and talk; talk as if we can’t fully process that it actually happened. We talk about the relatives we lost and the older generations still living with numbers still on their arms. We say “Never Again,” although sometimes just as a catchphrase without questioning what it actually means. But there is a lot to say about the Holocaust that can’t be summed up in those two words. And we’re still trying.
I have felt the ripples of the Shoah my whole life. My mother catalogued testimonies at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation for almost seven years and suffered the trauma of hearing the terrible stories day after day, which she would share with us every day after she got home from work; some still haunt me.
As I got older the Holocaust was taught in a way that it was supposed to motivate my Judaism; again and again I was told I was a foil against Hitler’s plan of exterminating Jews, and therefore should conduct myself in that way. After so many years of having the tragedy of my people thrust upon me, I became numb to it.
I have many words about the Holocaust. But the one thing I can never leave out of my discussion is the night I heard a man roar.
It was July of 2005, and I was sitting in a classroom at Georgetown University. And there he was, my economics professor standing in front. He was a giant, even for me, and I stand at almost six feet; a portly Sicilian man who somehow had a thick Virginia accent and whose personality dominated any room. He was highly libertarian, distrustful of government and free market to an absurd degree. I loved to impersonate his classroom pacing in the courtyard of our apartment building, and how he ended almost all his arguments with, “And then you die. And… THAT… would be a tragedy.”
He was Catholic and talked about how much he loved his wife and kids. He graded on curves when he knew the material was difficult (then watched us all get mad at the guy who scored 100 percent, as he was an avowed communist and didn’t believe in the free market). When it came time for the final, he allowed us to explore unusual topics — mine was the Adam Smith water-to-diamonds paradox compared to wands and broomsticks in the Harry Potter universe.
But that night in July, he roared.
We were taking notes, scribbling as he talked, watching him pacing back and forth across the length of the room. He was going over how 170 million people had died at the hands of their own governments in the 20th century, 50 million of those from war.
He asked: If only 50 million of those were from war, where did the rest of those people come from? From governments who decimated their own for their own agendas, no matter how terrible they were.
“If you want proof, go to the Holocaust museum,” he said. “Walk through the room with the shoes. Smell the shoes, and remember that there were once people in them.”
Suddenly, there were girlish giggles from the corner; two students were whispering to one another. Whether it was related to his seriousness or some other topic, I will never be sure. But I remember the fury.
It was an explosion, a bomb of anger that they weren’t understanding the depths of what he was talking about. His personality that was so passionate about what he was teaching became a fire that would destroy anything in its path.
He began yelling about they couldn’t understand the horrors of people being slaughtered because they were comfortable sitting in a classroom. Millions of people died simply for being who they were; nothing more, nothing less. Each pair of shoes was a person who was snuffed out because of hatred. They couldn’t understand hate that way because they had never seen it, and by turning a blind eye to it makes it almost a guarantee that they’ll see it again.
The room was stunned into silence. He tried to continue on, but it had grown late. And as the class ended, this giant of a man dissolved into tears.
When a lot of the class left, I went to him. My presence was followed by several of my friends; they were all black. I sat with my professor, comforting him, listening to him as he was distressed at the ignorance of our fellow students. He looked up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.
“I’m not Jewish,” he said to me. “I can’t imagine what it was like for you.”
“People make Holocaust jokes all the time,” I replied. “I have to tune it out in order to survive.”
“We know,” one of my friends said. “We do it all the time with jokes about slavery.”
We all continued to talk together, and spent plenty of hours afterwards discussing. Our conversation awoke something inside of me. It was like we found a rotted tree and dug up its roots. In the tangled wood was all the hatred of the world, and it reached up to the sky with different branches – homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. They are all different, but the common ground is that hate can destroy everything around it, like a weed. But only if we let it.
So many years have passed since that night in July. We have all since left Georgetown and my classmates, professor and I have gone to our own corners of the world. But no matter where I go, I will never forget that night.
I have packed it and unpacked it millions of times. I have written about it time and again, when a larger-than-life Catholic man fought against hate for a people not his own, but deep down he knew all people were he is to embrace. When my black friends began to understand my struggle and I learned about theirs. It has manifested into my life in many different ways, from the pallbearers I chose for my mother’s funeral to my current job at a non-profit where we teach tolerance for all, as well as the history of the Holocaust, genocide and hate crimes to students and professionals throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
And my professor was right. We are seeing hate yet again. The roots of the tree are the same, but it’s almost like it’s adapted to a new climate and it is growing stronger with every passing minute. And the worst part is there are people out there defending it and helping it grow, suffocating voices who are calling for a better way.
As I am breathing deeply, as I am told “Never again” yet again, I wonder: Are we ready to do what it takes to heed those words? Are we going to giggle in fear of the task at hand? Are we going to dismiss it, say, “it’s not THAT bad”? Or are we going to roar like that July night, remind ourselves of the fight at hand and join each other in solidarity to make a better world?
My choice is to roar. What’s yours?
I sat in our counselor’s office, bouncing my 16-year-old sneakered toes on the floor of Westlake High School. My ratty red Jansport was on the floor, stuffed with textbooks, folders and my favorite notebook, where my poetry was written in my trademark black scribble with strange-looking “e’s.”
Why was I here? I looked around this tiny broom closet they called an office. My eyes darted to the bookshelves, stacked with various generic titles on how to help problem children. And if I was here, that meant I was one.
I hadn’t cheated on a test; I was too lazy for their boring classwork. I had never gotten involved in a fight at school; my numerous bullies were more likely to make me cry than have me attack them. Sure, I stood up to my teachers, but it wasn’t like my classmates were by being disruptive. It was challenging the so-called knowledge they were trying to throw at me, where I became known for writing five-paragraph essays about how ridiculous my essay topic was. If you really needed me, you’d find me in the back of the class, writing.
The counselor walked into the office, a swarthy-looking red haired woman whose name I lost to time. While she wore thin, wire-framed glasses, I opted for funky, thick-framed black eyewear, which in 1999 was ten years before its time, and a pixie cut.
I was odd for a suburban town like Thousand Oaks; I was a brown haired, tall and curvy latchkey kid hanging out at the Barnes & Noble after school, while most of the girls were blonde, petite and yelling at their mothers to get them coffees from a place called Beanscene. They all went to the same church on Sundays, whereas I went into Los Angeles for Hebrew school. We had nothing in common; I couldn’t bond with these girls.
Their mothers were always around volunteering with extracurriculars while their fathers worked; my parents both worked in the city. The only time my mother didn’t was when it was time to take me to the psychiatrist, where he would give me his latest cocktail of pharmaceuticals, musing how he was just like me while shoving them down my throat. The drugs would cause me everything from feeling so angry I could barely contain myself to developing huge breasts and stretch marks all over my body. When I complained, he shrugged and said, “Look on the bright side: You’re not lactating.”
As she sat across from me, all I could think was maybe they were right. Maybe I was a problem child.
“How are you today, Reina?” the counselor asked me.
“Good, but I’m kind of wondering what I’m doing here,” I responded.
“I just wanted to check if you were okay.”
The counselor then went on about my poetry notebook. Less than a month after Columbine, I had written a poem, and it was sympathetic to the shooters. They were bullied as badly as I was, pushed so hard to the point where they grabbed guns and shot.
She thought I would shoot, too.
I was puzzled by this. I had never seen this counselor before, and because of one poem, she thought I was going to be murderous. She did nothing when I stood in the middle of the classroom and the boys picked on me so hard I burst into tears while my teachers did nothing. She wasn’t there when the girls would pester me, or my choir teacher would yell at me or push kids into doors.
Yet now, because of one poem, one girl, because of Columbine, she thought I would shoot.
My innocent hands had only picked up water guns. The only weapon I knew was my pen. The only harm I ever thought of was self-harm, and even so, I never acted on it, partially because my mother told me that if I ever killed myself it would kill my grandparents. She didn’t know about my psychiatrist, my home life or my life in the halls of high school. But yet this one poem meant dead bodies.
She didn’t remember that there were dozens upon dozens of mass shootings before this point. My parents would let me read their Newsweeks, and I followed the timelines since 1996, seeing pictures of white boys in orange jumpsuits facing trials. I couldn’t understand why Columbine had everyone spooked, like they had never seen anything like that. Yet I was smart enough to know why they did it; guys bringing guns to school, trying to look cool or make up for some missing part of themselves. And there was a hunt afoot for the next one.
I knew what the counselor was looking for. I knew the boys in my classes who hunted in the hills already, who killed bunnies and maimed them for their own personal pleasures. She never asked about them; it was about me, the girl with the thick-framed glasses, pixie cut and ratty Jansport. Because I wrote a poem. Because she thought I would shoot.
I explained to her what it was like to be bullied, to be treated the way I was by the others. That there was no desire in me to pick up a gun; rather there was a desire to understand, to process, to feel. In them, I saw elements of myself, of the pain and hurt that was inflicted upon me as a growing person, and in them I also saw the path I would never take.
Later, when my mother found out about me being called into the counselor’s office, she called her. The counselor told my mother she had never met a student with as much empathy or courage as I had. It was a lovely thought, but all I can think now was that she probably never found the kids in my high school who loved to play with guns and showed signs of being problems. She would have rather gone after those who spoke their truth, who were trying to find a way to cope before moving forward and speaking out.
It takes adult eyes to see the adult mistakes, and hers was the same one as today; where you want to find that one person who would cause the chaos when in truth the problem is larger than that. A sweep under the rug was all she wanted, in the form of a girl who people thought was strange anyway. But the problem with that was that she was smart, not to be packaged in a box.
Since that day, countless children have died at the hands of hundreds of young boys with guns. They have ranged from elementary school children to high school students in Parkland. And calling me into the office that day in 1999, thinking that I would shoot because of a poem, did nothing to stop them.
Now my generation is the adults. And instead of pointing fingers at the children who are speaking their truth, maybe we should use double-sided mirrors instead.
On February 23, my Uncle Barnett Lewis died under suspicious circumstances. Today, I delivered this eulogy for him. For my favorite Lost Boy… this is for you.
His name was Peter Pan. Or it might as well have been.
Barry was the eternal child, our puckish playmate overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. His apartment on Cynthia Street might as well have been Neverland, with mirrored walls, elegant furniture and décor, alongside the greatest Mickey Mouse collection known to man. One of the first things I knew as a little girl was that we were Uncle B’s princesses. And I relished in it.
My eyes were the same color as his, and his grandma Ida: bright blue with a touch of green. His grin was that of a giant, larger than life yet gentle and warm. The smells of him – of cologne and old cigarettes – still makes me feel that the world is mine for the taking, that I am surrounded by the purest love. When he was around, I always felt like I belonged.
He was cosmopolitan and always chic, jet setting all over the world, climbing the ladder and living amongst the Hollywood stars. He loved driving through Coldwater Canyon because of the homes he worked on there. Barry was the perfect picture of ‘70s excess spilled over into later decades, with the disco flair of West Hollywood dancing behind every step.
He was the life of any party, the thrill in the boring day-to-day. This was alongside his band of Neverland companions, whether it was Barry goofing off about Dale’s beard, which Dale claimed he was “growing for the winter,” or wandering through the streets of New York with my mother in her white medical dress; Barry told everyone who passed them by, “She’s my nurse.” Their whimsy brightened our world and drove my dad crazy. Yet their anarchy was simply inspired.
I was always thrilled to come visit Los Angeles to see my grandparents and Uncle B. When Barry was around, there were frilly dresses, stuffed animals, laughter, balloons, outings in the city with him and Nanny. Something about him and his Technicolor universe made me want to aspire, want to grow up. Want to have that city life that he had, surrounded by palm trees and bustling streets.
One day, when I was seven, I said to my mother, “Mom, Barry’s so great. Why isn’t he married?” She really didn’t have an answer for me – probably because it would take another 20 years for it to be legal.
I figured it out when I was 14, listening to my father and him talking. Barry was discussing plans for my sister’s wedding with her first boyfriend. “Now, now, Barry,” my dad said. “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”
And naturally, Barry said, “Well, so do I.”
From there I began piecing the story of his life, of a community that I was only a part of by association. In his 20s was the liberation of Stonewall, his 50s the hanging of Matthew Shepherd on a fencepost, his 60s finally the right to marry. Barry was stuck in a time where, despite never really being in the closet, he didn’t get to be who he wanted to everyone, even to the woman that mattered most: His mother.
Growing up, I would think of Barry when the gay slurs echoed in my high school hallways and the evangelical kids were desperate to save my Jewish soul. Their ignorance clawed at me and lit a fire in my stomach. Barry gave me direction and purpose; he showed me that I didn’t have to embody hate. Standing up for what was right was much more important than fitting in. And when they try to come at us, that love and acceptance should be our creed.
As we get older, we find that it’s time to put aside our toys and leave the playground. We come into our own, remembering to see the world through different, mature eyes. That was not Barry. After all, Barry was Peter Pan. A lost boy who would never grow up.
I soon realized that Barry was not a fantasy to follow. He was a man, and a flawed one at that. He liked things his way, and was extremely meticulous. If something was the slightest bit off in his eyes, he would comment on it, sometimes brutally. If the spotlight went away from him for just a second, he would do anything in his power to reclaim it.
Underneath the surface of my childhood playmate was an unbelievable pain that no amount of earthly good could cure. But in Barry I learned something vital, and that is to truly love someone meant loving that person for all that they are and all they can never be.
I got older. I made mistakes in my life. And there was Barry in the background, with a hug, his lost boy laugh and strong opinions on interior decoration; in fact, when I got divorced, one of the first things he said to me was, “Get the furniture.”
His aesthetics clashed with mine, but he painted my universe with his sass and salty tongue. And from him, I learned to dish it too; when I wished him a happy birthday last year, he asked me if I knew how old he was. I responded, “Someone once told me that a lady never reveals her age.”
He had little to give, but what he gave was so much more than he thought it was. He didn’t shower us with money, but his love was worth diamonds. He encouraged my father in his theater dreams. In Dale, he found someone to both clash against and pull in close. In my mother and Aunt Cindy, he found a gang for gossip and ganja. He gave my sister an Auntie Mame, my cousin Amy the uncle she deserved, Beau a family member who really wanted to be there for him. And a month ago, when he said how proud my mother would be of me after helping my dad recover from his fall, he gave me the knowledge that I was becoming the woman I was always meant to be.
His worth was not in his toys, his gifts or his knick-knacks. It was in his one-of-a-kind, precious soul. And at the end of it all, Barry was human like anyone else. He just wanted to love and be loved, but he didn’t always know what it looked like, or how to embody it.
I had plans for Barry. I wanted him to taste my cooking and see my beautiful new city apartment. I wanted to host dinners with everyone to get together. With him, I saw the opportunity to begin a healing process, reuniting the family and creating something new from the pain and ashes. There was a future for us, and Barry was supposed to be a part of it. And now that the sun has set on Neverland, I’m not sure where we go from here.
He was Peter Pan. A lost boy. And I hope wherever he is now, he will find a way home.
To the 19-year-old friends of Blaze Bernstein: You will not sleep.
These are the nights where you will be tossing and turning in your bed. You might be crying, you might not; the tears may not be ready yet. Your arms could be clutching your pillow, huddled in close, or you could be staring at the ceiling, your arms open to the universe.
But you will be awake; awake now for your friend who sleeps.
In that tortured desperation there are questions that linger as you try to shut your eyes. They are simple, but they’re there. They are one-word questions: What? Why? How? Your eyes will dart or become unfocused as you scan your surroundings, looking for the answers. They’re not there. They may never come.
I know because I was once 19. And I lost my friend. And I wish I had answers even now.
True, the circumstances were different, and death does come for us all eventually. But it doesn’t compute in the minds of us who are just hitting our strides. Older generations die, as is the natural order of the universe.
We don’t die. We are young. Forever young.
These next few days will haunt you. There will be details that will never leave, even decades later. You will remember the candles. The flowers. The anguish. The agony. Every single emotion that will come from these days will now live inside of you.
I remember green rooms and sobbing, black dresses and carpools to a cemetery in Simi Valley, a woman with curly hair and a pink dress, shaking by an open grave on a bright May day, screaming at a bright blue sky. A mother doing the unnatural, the undoable, the unsurvivable.
If you pointed her out to me in a crowd now, I would never know her face. But she lives in me forever. And in Blaze’s mother’s face, I saw her again.
Sometimes, when I’m alone and quiet, driving in the car, I can still sense my friend in my passenger seat. His round glasses still shine and his widow’s peak is pronounced. He still wears a blue and white-checkered flannel and cowboy boots, and when he hugs you tight you can smell his cologne, an elegant musk. And he is 23. I’m in my 30s now, and no matter how many years I live on this earth, he will always be 23.
There is a price to pay for youth, and this is mine; growing old while he didn’t.
To this day, I imagine how our lives would have panned out. How we would have forgiven each other for our mistakes, then make up and find new levels to our friendship. We’d stand at each other’s weddings; hold each other’s children. He would bald and the laugh lines that were starting to show around his eyes would deepen. He would joke about my hair starting to turn gray like my mother’s, and getting a bottle of hair dye.
He’s been gone for so many years, and I have lived so much of my life without his presence. And yet these are the things I still wish for.
I have lost many people in my life since he left. I buried both of my beloved grandparents, cousins, my uncle, my aunt, my mother. My friends have died; lovers have taken their lives. I look at my life and realize the fact I have lived this long is a medical miracle. As a result, I enthusiastically treat every day as another that I can bring something good in the world.
But I don’t only do it for me. I do it for him, because through me he gets to do all the things he never lived to have. And he will live in me forever.
This is the journey you will face, and I cannot promise you that it will be easy, particularly under the circumstances Blaze died under. You are not the only ones you know who will be haunted by his death, but it will linger.
The years will pass, but you will remember him. You’ll know his smile, remember his favorite t-shirts, the songs he sang and the secrets that you kept from everyone else. You’ll remember what it felt like to hold him close, the smell of his favorite deodorant, the words of encouragement he said to you and only you. The minor little intricate details that everyone forgot you will never let go of, simply because there’s nothing left of him presently on this earth to hold on to.
And you will want to hold on. Because you still believe in this last little sliver of youthful innocence. It keeps you young. It keeps him alive.
Your days will continue. You will get married and raise your families. You will graduate with your college degrees and accomplish amazing things professionally. You will grow old, breathe deep and see wondrous miracles as you do.
But with each day you are given to live, carry Blaze Bernstein with you. He should be the fire in your soul to do right by others and to make this world better than you left it. He will be your candle in the darkness. He will be your comfort when things are falling apart. He will never die while your hearts keep beating; his soul will bang that drum as it moves forward.
I wish I could give you a lullaby, but instead you have been given a legacy. It doesn’t get easier, but it does get better. You will sleep eventually, but when you wake up know that you have to get up and do the impossible, which is to carry on despite the weight of loss. The world will not be the same, but we find ways to make life worth living, even in the unimaginable days to come.
In memory of Blaze Bernstein and Jason Todd Schneider
I am not pretty.
I have known this a good chunk of my life. I was a behemoth, an almost six-foot-tall plus sized monster. I never even got the “you have such a pretty face” as an argument to take off weight. I knew from a young age that if I was to get by in my existence, it wasn’t going to be on my looks.
I read books and stood up against my teachers. I got A’s and wrote incredible things. I told jokes and became funny. I became more independent, not relying on anyone else to do things for me. Because I wasn’t pretty, I had to find a way to be a woman without my looks or a boyfriend.
It didn’t stop me from trying, though. From a young age, I felt the pressure to be beautiful, eyeing beauty magazines and having girls make me over in the corridors of my junior high like a teen movie. Around 13 I even began stealing makeup from our local drugstores in the hopes that all these products would make me look better.
At 15 I got caught at the local Rite Aid and was driven home in the back of a police car along Thousand Oaks Boulevard, sobbing, wanting to die because I wasn’t pretty. I was never going to be pretty.
Through my teenage years I was forced to watch the other girls around me picked out by the boys at the school dances, held hands with politely, taken out on dates. They were quiet and didn’t really speak up. They allowed their boys to take the lead, be dominant. They were “good girls.”
Meanwhile, if a guy wanted to see me, it was the great secret. I was too “crazy” to date; rather I was relegated to fooling around in secret places or being a sidepiece. Maybe it was because I was overweight, or because I was too tall, too loud or too much. Either way I knew I wasn’t pretty, but to cope I had to adjust my way of thinking. I identified as a courtesan of 21st century life instead, and as an independent woman I took it and ran.
On a date the other night, the balding, portly guy across the table asked me how I ended up with my ex-husband. I told him bits here and there, but I didn’t tell him the full truth. That included that I am not pretty, and here was a guy who was willing to be my boyfriend in public and show me around, to not shame me into corners as a sidepiece. Although he never told me I was beautiful or pretty, I jumped at the chance to be with someone. I also didn’t tell him that when my best friend told me I didn’t have to marry him, I said, “This is my only chance. No one else is going to want me.”
That guy from that conversation eventually decided not to continue dating me, in part because I wasn’t physically attractive enough. (Although I told him after he wasn’t physically attractive enough either, but I was willing to put that aside.)
Living in Los Angeles since my divorce has given me some of the greatest pleasures in my life, as it has helped me have amazing friends, a great job and a busy and fun life. And yet I know I am still a misfit here because this is a city full of pretty people – something I know I’m not. Even though we are an enlightened, “liberal” place, we still fall into gender traps. When you’re a woman, simply being smart, funny and friendly doesn’t really get you as far here, particularly in dating where apps are more of a game of “hot or not” versus reaching an actual emotional connection.
When I told my co-worker about the portly guy above and how I wasn’t pretty, she said, “Wait, who tells you that you’re not pretty?”
I paused and shrugged. “I don’t know. Me?”
The truth was that I am self-aware and know myself. I would be the first to tell you of my smarts and cleverness. The first to argue that I’m funny, friendly and have a great personality, or that I’m talented and know how to write. And I also know that when people describe me, the word they probably don’t use is “pretty.”
There is a great argument that exists in my brain, going back and forth like a ping pong game. I have worked all my life to be a confident, independent, feminist woman that is more than her looks. I can be ambitious, successful and surrounded by wonderful people just by being myself.
Yet I also want to be pretty. I desperately want to be a pretty girl, the girl that guys chase and desperately pray will go out with them. Somewhere inside of me I’m still 15, stealing makeup from the Rite Aid off of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in the hopes that I will look different if I put it on. That I can hide who I am and finally, FINALLY, be pretty.
As this ping pong game is playing, I’m remembering the conversation I had with my cousin Karen at my sister’s wedding. She hadn’t seen me since my mother’s funeral, and I sat with her and really talked.
“Reina, you look stunning,” she said to me. I simply passed it off because I was fully dolled up with fake lashes and curls, but she shook her head. “Of course you look beautiful, but you are stunning. You’re glowing. You’re… happy.”
And I realized in that moment that’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be one side or the other of the ping pong game in my head, but rather somewhere in the middle; where my true self shines through and I am pretty simply by being in this moment. It’s the fear and anxieties that I have, day in and day out, that make the struggle come to life.
I wish I could tell you at the end of this that I have a greater self-worth; I don’t. I wish I could tell you that out there is a guy who secretly pines for me and is waiting for his turn to say I’m pretty; highly unlikely. I’m trying to work on it in therapy while adjusting my mentality in order to cope in the modern world; work hard, get ambitious, be the best person I can be for myself, because at the end of the day I have to live with me for the rest of my life.
But as I don my red lipstick and put on my cute dresses, I’m left wishing. Even as I put on a giant smile and walk through rooms as I charm people with stories and jokes, I’m wishing. As the cute boys wander the room and never come up to talk to me, I wish.
I wish, oh how I wish. How I wish I were pretty.
This is a public service announcement to those “shocked” at Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, whether you are a high-profile celebrity or on the board of the Weinstein Company: We knew.
Harvey Weinstein was probably the most well-known bully in Hollywood; he even had a character in Entourage created after him. His behavior wasn’t documented for the most part. Rather it was an aside, a mention, thrown around as you hung out with your friends at a bar waiting for a cocktail.
You could say it in private, away from your bosses and the higher-ups. You could talk about all the bad behavior that the People with Money were up to in the dark, on your own time. But you never said it aloud during the day. Not when others could hear you.
That’s because Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood was synonymous with power. During his peak years he had unbelievable sway, making run-of-the-mill movies like Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech able to win Oscars over masterpieces such as Saving Private Ryan and The Social Network. He controlled that little golden guy for decades.
The fact he went down now wasn’t a shock. He became more of a TV producer than a film producer. He hadn’t produced a real Oscar winner in years, only a nomination here and there, and his films were not exactly moneymakers. What did he have to offer Hollywood other than a shadow of his former self?
He was an easy target now. But for all those years before… we knew.
The legend of the Hollywood casting couch isn’t just a myth; it’s very real. Every actress in Hollywood has a story to tell you of being propositioned, every assistant a reason why they won’t work with X or Y, every female comedian a story about only being booked simply for being “hot.”
(Please note that it happens to men too, as well as children. This is not isolated only to women.)
We never said anything to those higher than us, though. Blackballing in Hollywood is something that happens, and we never know who will be our ally or our enemy if we speak up (which explains why so many high-profile people keep saying they had no idea). We stay silent because we can’t risk not having a job or being able to move up. Wouldn’t risk ruining our reputations over what we viewed in our minds as “one little thing.” It led us to dismiss ourselves, and in turn our personal validity.
There were many reasons why my father tried to keep me away from the entertainment industry, but this was definitely one of them. He worked with several notorious lotharios over the years and didn’t want his daughter exposed. He wanted me to work in an industry that was stable and safe. Like journalism.
It certainly wasn’t safe.
More women than men are journalism majors in college, yet working at a newspaper I found out why most of them don’t continue working in the field. The old boys’ club was firmly in place at this local paper, and my direct boss was the tyrant-in-chief. Every woman on the team was harassed by him in some way; my version was being cornered in a room day after day, being told that I was the worst writer he had ever seen and if it was up to him I would be fired.
One night I was hanging out with another girl from the team. She told me that she was being harassed because of her clothing choices as an education reporter. I thought it was just us. It wasn’t; it never is just two.
Later it turned out that the higher-ups were all protecting him, indulging in similar bad behavior with other female employees. It wasn’t until corporate and new management stepped in that they found out his long history of harassment with the majority of female employees, including sexual harassment, which he was eventually terminated for.
It was a victory, but with a catch: The only reason why there was an intervention in the first place was because our paper’s subscription numbers were down, and we weren’t making any money.
It wasn’t the first nor the last time I was harassed at a job. In fact, my first job at the local Target in Thousand Oaks was the first time I was sexually harassed by a co-worker, and it got so bad I quit without a two-week notice. He was defended by my manager, a woman, because he was “young” and “didn’t know better.” It didn’t hurt he was our number one in sales of discount cards, either.
The question for me, both with my boss at that newspaper and the co-worker at Target, is why they didn’t know better not to harass women. The same question I’m leveling at Hollywood right now.
I ask because I view my current workplace, which is full of respect, trust and truly noble people, as almost an anomaly. I ask the question because every woman has stories like mine, whether or not they have worked in entertainment. I ask because I am currently a student at UCLA, studying Business and Management in Entertainment, because I’ve always wanted to be a part of the dream factory. And I ask because I know Hollywood is, and can be, so much better than this.
If we are really “liberal Hollywood,” like we are labeled by so many people, then we can definitely translate our values to our workplaces. Those values will become a part of what we create onscreen, which can in turn influence greater society.
We can create equality in spaces that there wasn’t any, like writers’ rooms and directors’ chairs. We can allow women into the boardrooms and have them be the decision makers in addition to men. And yes, we can punish those who indulge in casting couch behavior and take advantage of others openly, not just whisper about them in fear of retaliation in our careers.
It’s really not much, but it’s the start of what could be an amazing new Hollywood that can lead the way for the rest of the world. After all, we create pop culture and influence attitudes worldwide. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, we can remind others in the world that women are worth more.