Zibby is joined by playwright and Emmy Award-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan to discuss her heartbreaking debut This is Not a Pity Memoir, which tells the story of how her partner Jacob woke up from a coma and didn’t believe she was the real Abi. She shares intimate details of the harrowing experience–from the hospital visits to her constant battle with the delusion that fractured her relationship. She also explains the origin of her memorable title (it started as something else!) and hints at her story’s most unexpected plot twist.


Zibby Owens: Hello.

Abi Morgan: Hello.

Zibby: Hi. How are you? I’m so sorry for being late.

Abi: No, no, do not worry. I’m just wondering if this is bright enough. I’m staying in a hotel. I’m in New York City at the moment.

Zibby: Oh, no way.

Abi: Oh, my god, I’m loving your book.

Zibby: I loved your book.

Abi: I love your book. It’s just exquisite. It’s exquisite. To be honest, I’m right where you’ve met Kyle. I’m really loving it, honestly. It’s just lovely. Well-done.

Zibby: Thank you.

Abi: It’s really amazing. It’s very moving and warm. I’ve been eating it up. Well-done.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you. That is so nice. I absolutely loved your book. To hear you say that is just the highest praise.

Abi: What an amazing career you’ve had.

Zibby: Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing anything right. There are those mornings. Thank you so much for saying all that. Let’s talk about your book because I am obsessed with your book and just over-the-moon excited about the — official welcome, Abi. Thank you for coming on for talking about This is Not a Pity Memoir, which I absolutely a hundred percent adored, posted about, loved, obsessed, anything, everything. It’s so good. Oh, my gosh. Welcome.

Abi: Thank you. Thank you. You know that feeling of a memoir. It’s both liberating and exposing. I’ve described it a little bit like when you’ve got slightly too drunk at a party and you tell too much. Then the next day, you wake up thinking, what have I said? I feel like that’s on repeat in my life at the moment. I’m sure you know it as well. It’s a great experience, but it’s also quite peculiar. It’s lovely to get that kind of response. It’s incredibly reassuring to get that kind of response because there are days when one wakes up thinking, gosh, I’ve really split onto the page here.

Zibby: That’s what makes it so good, especially because the way you tell your story — were you journaling the whole time? How do you remember? It feels like you’re so in the scenes so immediate as if you’re living through it as you’re writing it.

Abi: Actually, I think the structure of the book’s kind of interesting because I wrote a very essential journal for the first hundred days. I’m someone who keeps notes all the time. I record notes. I write little things. I record dialogue occasionally, when you’re in a room and think, this is amazing. I’d always had this kind of collage of extraordinary pieces of information my entire life. The nature of the kind of work I’ve done, it’s often got — one of the first things I did was about sex trafficking in Moldova. I did so much research. I love research. That was definitely the starting point. I talk about the structure of the book because I think the first hundred pages of the book has the energy of that journal. That was very much when I was in survival mode, whereas actually, I think the second half of the book was much more reflective and was based on the collage of notes and images and videos I had kept. It has a different pace for me. That’s also because it kind of marries all the different parts of the journey and of the experience. The first hundred days is very much about when myself and my family are thrust into this medical crisis. It has that energy and that adrenaline running through it. It’s very interesting. When I read that, those journals, I was very quickly starting to switch to the first-person, to the third-person the whole time. It was interesting, the shift I was finding. A lot of that started to actually inform the book, the final memoir.

Zibby: Wow. I should probably back up for listeners who don’t know much about your book. I, of course, wanted to jump right in because I’m like, let’s go deep. Maybe you could describe a little more, even how you got the title, which you write about in the book, and what happened to your, not even husband then, but — just tell the story of what this is about.

Abi: The memoir really opens on the morning of June 2018. I’ve lived with my partner, Jacob, for, at that point, god, nearly eighteen years. We have two teenagers. We have a very nice, quite normal existence living in North London in the UK. My husband’s an actor. I’m a screenwriter. Like any writer, we see everything through the prism of our medium. Certainly, screenwriting is the prism I saw my life through often. That morning, Jacob, who had an underlying condition of multiple sclerosis, which he’s had for about seven, eight years at the time and was very high-functioning — he’d been doing a movie that week. He’d been in a TV show that week. I’d been testing his lines only a couple of nights before. He was complaining of a headache. I had put it down to kind of rolling my eyes, man flu, but agreed to go off and pick up medication. It was really the morning everything changed because when I came back, I found Jacob collapsed on the bathroom floor. So ensued the start of a very different and cataclysmic backflip in our lives. Jacob, after a period of about two weeks as we watched him cognitively, psychiatrically, physically unravel, was placed into a medically induced coma. As he was going into that coma, it was recognized that he developed something called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, otherwise known as brain on fire.

The book, it’s about that period where Jacob goes into the coma. It’s about reflections on that time and how we as a family and my children and I survived. Also, as the journey goes on, it’s really about a reflection of how Jacob and I know each other and how we met and what makes up us. I suppose the key element is that when Jacob woke up from the coma whilst we were all punching the air that, my gosh, he’s alive, and although we could see there was a long way in terms of rehab for him to go — none of us had expected him to survive it. It very quickly became apparent that the age-old trope, which I’d even joked about with my friends — can you imagine if he wakes up and doesn’t know who you are? Careful what you wish for. It came true. Jacob, within the first couple of weeks, it became apparent that he couldn’t quite assess who I was. The book really is about the moment and thereafter where he has developed a very rare delusion called Capgras delusion, which is the belief in doubles or imposters. It’s often focused on someone close to you. It can be a dog. It can be a house. Actually, with his delusion, it was focused on me. It’s about the period as Jake recovers and comes home and goes through his rehab. We acclimatize as a family. All the while, Jacob doesn’t know who I am. It’s about how I reflect on the Jacob that I was with now versus the Jacob I knew and our life together as an exploration of my own identity, the identity of our relationship when we became both very challenged and the relationship became challenged.

The title comes out of the very first conversation I ever had with Jacob. In 2000, I met Jacob at a dinner party. At the time, I was a young writer. I could barely say I was writing. I’d been waitressing for so long. I was chasing the film rights on a really beautiful book called Before I Say Goodbye, which is a collection of essays and emails by a wonderful journalist called Ruth Picardie, who sadly died at a very young age of cancer. It’s really about the last few months of her life where she writes incredibly movingly but with huge spirit and wit about that period. I’d fallen into conversation with Jacob. “I’m trying to chase the rights on this book.” Not only had he read the book, but he was very intrigued by what I was doing. There was a very drunk girl next to him who I, at the time, was trying to navigate. She was like, “Oh, I can’t bear those pity memoirs.” The thing was, I noticed Jake went, “Really? I love them.” The book is a kind of homage to that first conversation. Also, at its heart, it’s about a moment where Jacob and I met. It’s been at the ethos of my relationship with Jacob. He has always been such an advocate for me to write about my truth, but also to be quite fearless about the way I interrogate my work and the lives of others that I write about. When this happened, it was one of those conversations that really resonated for me. As the title — in fact, it wasn’t my title. It was my book agent who said, “You’ve got to call it this.” I had one of those titles that when you scroll through, there’s about thirty different versions of that title.

Zibby: Wait, what was your title?

Abi: My title was What Remains. It was very much about me trying to think about what remains of a relationship when something is so radically broken and changed. I will be forever grateful that she found that title for me. It’s a little bit like the Arthur Miller line. He used to type what the play was about and stick it on his typewriter. For me, that was an unconscious mantra, certainly when I was living the experience of just — no one tells you. I think it’s something you capture so beautifully in your book. I felt this relief listening to your book. I’ve oscillated between reading and listening to it, as I often do. When it gets dark and I’m tired, I flip into audio. I find it very comforting that writing and the words become such a wonderful release. When I see it in other people’s work, I’m reminded. I guess I feel it’s okay to have done what I’ve done. There’s so much wit in it as well as pain. That is what life is made of, life and death, love and pain, tenderness, brutality. That’s also what I wanted to try and capture and understand. That’s a very long answer to your question.

Zibby: I loved it. I want to just sit here and listen to you talk all day, especially when you say nice things about my book, but mostly about your own journey. It’s not just that he didn’t remember you. It’s that he remembered that there was an Abi Morgan. He just didn’t think that it was you. He would say things like, oh, no, Abi Morgan did that. You’re like, I’m right here.

Abi: It’s Kafka-esque. That’s the thing. You’re absolutely right. In a way, it’s a writer’s dream. There was always this very mercenary part of me kind of thinking — part of me was always having that conversation with the Jacob I knew, which is, I cannot wait to tell you what you did. I can’t wait for you to know what you did. Then I think the other part is survival. As a writer, an essential remit in your life has been to be the observer. I found it very interesting the way you talked about alcohol in your book. I totally, totally identified with that. I found my voice, my personality — I felt like it turned me on. I felt like it brought me into the room. Essentially, what writing did for me was it allowed me to be that observer. It allowed me to communicate in the way that I could, which is quietly when no one was there. When it did happen — you’re right. When Jacob first woke up, it was this strange, comical navigation. When it really resonated, it was — I talk about it in the book. It was Valentine’s Day. I’d taken in a bright-red, cheesy heart. Jacob and I were very indifferent to Valentine’s Day. As I say, sometimes it was takeout and a movie. Other times, you just loathed each other. Other times, you might be extravagant. You could really test the temperature of the relationship.

I brought him this bright-red, cheesy heart. I tied it to the end of his bed. I went, “Hey, honey. Happy Valentine’s Day.” I saw two things in his face. I saw a mild horror and embarrassment for me. The very sweet nurse gave him a rose wrapped in cellophane, the kind of rose you get on holiday where they bring to you at a table in a restaurant. She said, “Give your wife the rose.” I remember he just looked at me and went, “She’s not my wife.” Even then, the bartering goes on inside. I was like, okay, he means, of course, I’m not married. He means his girlfriend. Actually, it was a real profound moment for me. I talk about shaking. I remember coming down the stairs and touching the walls going, it can’t be the underground. We’re four stories up. It felt like it was the subway underneath my feet. I think it was just shock. Very quickly, I started to — you navigate. You negotiate. You barter. You’re intrigued. You provoke. One of the things that became apparent was that when you started to question Jacob’s thinking — it’s called confabulation, they call it, which is when you confabulate this story. It often runs with brain injuries. Somebody who has an injured brain is trying to make sense of the world. Jacob’s brain had gone through this massive continual seizing period for six months. I knew there was a lot of rebuilding. The doctors were trying to work out where the damage was. In a way, part of conversations was trying to map out what was going on here. It became apparent quite quickly that he had devised this idea that — I’d say, “Where’s she gone?” He always referred to me as Abi and her as Abi Morgan. He would say, “She’s gone away. She’s got a new life with someone else.” At the time, I’m thinking, my god, I’d be so lucky right now.

When I dug deeper, he developed this idea that he now had a beautiful apartment. It was in Hampstead. This was somewhere that Jake and I often used to say, when the kids have flown the nest, we’re going to buy an apartment. It’s going to overlook — the Hampstead Heath is a beautiful part of North London. We live near it. We love to walk there. We’ll be able to look over the Heath. It was this strangely painful yet tender story he told himself. Over that time, it then very quickly evolved into him — he was very intrigued, sometimes concerned, why I was so interested in his children. I would say, “Look, they’re very nice children. They’re great kids.” For everyone around us, for his poor family, for my family, for our children, at first, no one could believe it because it was so absurd. Then he would obviously pull people aside and say, “How are you falling for it? She’s clearly not Abi Morgan.” There was a strange madness to it. I very quickly realized that there was a way to Jacob’s heart. It was cake and smoothies and The Guardian and The Sunday Times and the latest Netflix box set and company and making him laugh. Within the first few weeks, he suddenly said to me one day, “You must be working for the state.” I said yeah. He said, “So the state’s employed you to come and help me?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve been employed to come and help you and the children.” When that happened, there was a shift. He kind of started to accept that I was — I did feel like I was slightly treated like the hired help. There was a strange relationship. When other family members would arrive, he would ask me to wait outside. “Thank you very much. You can go outside now.”

As the book clearly captures, I’m navigating my way through moments of real insanity and rage and fury. Yet I think it’s something else that I also think you talk about in your book. In some ways, it’s something I referred to. I worried it was a platitude. When I heard it in your book, I was really reassured. All we are left with is love. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I call it a hum. Even when it was in the hardest moments with Jacob, I just had this huge hum of feeling for him. Even talking about it now, I can’t describe it. I think perhaps the only really unconditional love one has is for one’s children. I was reading recently, the Greek idea of seven kinds of love. They’re fascinating, from eros to agape. One of the loves they talk about is a love that’s been there for a long time that dissolves into something unconditional. I realized that there was something quite unconditional. It wasn’t just because Jacob was my partner or the father of my children. It was as a human being. I felt very profoundly connected. It became apparent to me that Jacob may not come back to me, but there was a way of getting him back to himself. That really became the focus and the drive. It was distilled for me once we brought Jacob home. Our home is very important. We always laugh because each floor of our house has been renovated based on a different movie. I’m a screenwriter, so based on a different movie that I’ve managed to finally get away. The book is built on a drama I did about the tsunami and how the tsunami happened. Then the ground floor was renovated because I managed to get The Iron Lady, which is a Margaret Thatcher film. We call it the suffragette wing, our bedroom. Different floors have different resonance.

It’s a house, very much, that Jake and I have built together, but really, he has. Coming back to the bones of our house, I was hoping that would start to help locate me in that world. Then there was a very clear moment within the first few weeks where we were standing in the hallway. I was taking Jacob back into hospital to see a consultant. At that point, it was very difficult for Jacob to physically move. I’d managed to prop him up against a wall. If you’ve raised a child, then when you deal with someone in his condition, there are lots of similarities. I propped him up. I managed to clear him of toast crumbs. I was getting him his coat. I saw him look at himself in the hallway mirror. I just saw this look. I pointed at his reflection. I said, “Who is that?” He just said, “I don’t know.” In that moment, it was like a penny drop. I thought, okay, it’s not that he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know himself. If he can find himself, then he’ll find me. That was the guiding light for me, the principle of the whole thing. The book is also about that. It’s certainly not a journey I do on my own. It’s a journey that — my gosh, we were very lucky. I’m not Jewish. Jake is Jewish. Again, something I loved in your book, the ish-ness, the ish that I’ve come to love in our life, actually, that we’re a bit ish. We were very helped by our families, our friends, and those people around us. It’s the journey of negotiation as I help and we help Jake negotiate and find himself. In finding himself, the hope was that he would find me again. That was that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. There was this one moment when he went out to lunch with a friend. He came back. The friend was like, “He’s a nice bloke. It’s not Jacob, but this man seems nice.” I feel like that’s how you all were treating him and yet still embracing everything. You talk about all the feelings of how you cope with this, from the unexpected moments where you were bored — you’re like, it’s boring; no one talks about this — and all the other things no one talks about. What I kept looking for is, where is the moment where she’s like, I can’t do this anymore? He thinks Abi Morgan already left. Let me just get out of here. There was none of that. I was like, is she ever going to reach the point where she’s like, I cannot do this? Any rational person reading this could be like, how? How can you do this? How can anybody in this situation not want to just melt down or leave or whatever? Of course, you stay. Even when he said early on, “Don’t ever let me be in this spot,” at first when I was reading it, I was like, oh, he’s just mad at her because he realizes that you didn’t listen when he said he didn’t ever want to be in a position where you would have to take care of him. I was like, that’s why he’s giving her this side-eye in the hospital. It’s not that he doesn’t remember her. Then of course, we quickly realize that it is what that is. Did you ever think, I’m just going to get out of here?

Abi: Oh, yeah. I’m sure it’s something that people have said to you. You’re so brave. You’re so strong. It’s very kind. The raging narcissist in me goes, yes. Actually, it’s not that I didn’t not. I definitely had my absolute breaking moments. In fact, there’s a long bit of the story still to go that I’m in now. No one tells you that there’s a continual renegotiation of the self and who you are as a couple when go through that and get to a better place. I felt like my kids weren’t quite cooked. I came from divorce. I have a very strong mother. I grew up with a lot of women around me. It’s not that I was ever or have been frightened of being on my own. Although, who isn’t at times frightened of being on their own? I wouldn’t want to sugarcoat that. I think it was so immediate that the need to try and bring Jake back — also, I think it was about my ego. I honestly think. I was a bit like a spurned lover who was like, you are going to walk out? You’ve made the most terrible mistake. I honestly do, I think there was this indignation in me. Also, I’ve got ADD. It’s really weird. I spend a lot of time trying to calm the voices in my head. I’m probably well-versed in how to negotiate those different voices.

What’s really interesting, Jacob has never read the book. I’ve written the book, in many ways, for him. I speak to him often. It’s often to you. On my worst days, I think, god, I wonder if he’s going to leave me when he finally reads this book because I do talk about those bleak moments, those dark moments, those days where I’m like — there are days when he looked like he was going to die. There are days when he lived, and I really questioned whether it was the right thing for him, it was the right thing for me, whether we were going to survive it. It’s not that there isn’t the most ugly, darkest parts of myself out there. I’m certainly not a saint. It’s what I said before. In a weird way, it’s that it was bigger than me. It’s an energy. You talk about it in your book, that superhero pa-ching. I can’t describe it. It’s something that I’m almost loath to tell my children because I think maybe it was just distinctive to me. When I first met Jake — I talk about it in the book — there was just this internal ping. It wasn’t just a ping of, here’s an attractive guy. Here’s somebody who I think is attracted to me. It was deeper than that. This was someone I just wanted to be around. This was a warmth. This was a spirit. This was good. I had been around and attracted to the other. I had thrown myself at narcissists and, mainly, men who really weren’t that interested in me. Actually, to be with someone who was warm and open-hearted, not just to me, but to the world, that was what I wanted to bring back. That’s the hum. It’s a bigger hum than him.

It’s something I think about a lot and I’ve had to think about and continue to think about because this survival story’s not over. Actually, it’s always been about making sure that he will carry on in the world, relationships that he had formed, be it with his children and his family, but also with me, will carry on, but it may not always be in the most traditional sense. When I slightly let go of needing him to come back for me and then really digging into what I felt about him, then I found my way back. There were tiny little moments with Jake the whole time, the dry sense of humor — Jake’s got the most beautiful sense of humor. I talk about it in the film. First date, we went to see a Bridget Jones film. I was so embarrassed because he laughed so loud. I was almost turning around and apologizing to people. I’m so sorry. Then I realized that, actually, what he was doing was he was triggering the laugher. Sometimes when we go to stand-up shows with Jake, I used to see that the comics would react to him. You could almost see them going — I can see they like it. He does something. Jake and I are in New York now, this weekend. We went to see Into the Woods last night, the Sondheim. He’s a massive Sondheim fan. He was up and cheering. I was just like, oh, my gosh. Actually, there is a joy given to him. He also has his many, many irritating traits, as everybody does, but that became the focus.

That feels like the great achievement, actually. The great achievement is that Jake is up now and standing and there and present. He said to me last night, “God, I’m here. You got us here.” That, to me, was like, yeah, there’s something bigger than our relationship. That is the conversation that I’m having now. The conversation I’m having now is, what now? It’s always been about trying to get him back. When something is so life and death — I talk about deadlines. You know more than anyone. I live with adrenalized deadlines. I’m terrible for deadlines. I’m always like, “It’s going really well. I’m really excited. I’m just on the last ten pages,” and I haven’t even started it. I’m always going, “Just give me until Monday.” I’m like, bam, bam, bam. I was used to deadlines, but I had forgotten the ultimate deadline, which is mortality. His mortality was threatened. Then I guess the other truly wobbly, what I would’ve plot twist, was that my own mortality hit the moment. Jacob had woken up in the end of January, beginning of February. Medically induced comas are interesting because you ebb and flow. You don’t come out. It’s not like, ting, I’m here. It’s the waking. It’s going to sleep and then waking and the process of bringing someone around. Then we went into the really of not quite knowing how he was. Then I got to about April, May, and I started to feel this incredible pain in my chest.

Zibby: Wait, I almost don’t want you to say it. When I read it, I was so shocked.

Abi: It’s so annoying.

Zibby: Then I could not believe what was going on. All of the things, it was the biggest plot twist. I try not to read the flap before I start reading. I don’t want to know what’s happening. I almost don’t want you to give it away. Just to say I could not believe it. There was one moment where you just said you looked as lopsided and as wobbly and exposed as you felt. That image of you and how you felt right then, oh, my gosh, it’s hard to read this without wanting to give you a massive hug.

Abi: I know. I think about that a lot. I agree. I am so acutely aware now — I’m sure you are — of people’s stories, people’s tragedies, people’s pain. I never feel like I want to totally colonize it. It’s interesting. Your book, every chapter has books that you’ve loved. Some, I’ve read. Most, I haven’t. Some, I pretend I’ve read. There’s millions . They’re stories. I came to realize that ours was another story. I really believe that. I mentor a lot of, particularly, young women coming up. One of the things I learned very early on is that you have to kind of kiss the joy and let it fly. There’s a desire when you mentor a person and when they become successful to go, I know, I taught her all I know. Actually, the joy with it is, let someone go and be their own thing. That’s what I feel like with this story. It’s one of the things I felt when I was writing it. I felt like, whatever the criticism is, whatever anyone says about it, it will just be another book on the shelf. It’ll be another great story to read. I can hide it between other stories.

When the story then got hit by these continual plot twists, I felt this very strange discomfort with it, actually, mainly because I just felt like I almost wanted to apologize to the reader and go, I am so sorry to have to tell you this bit. I didn’t want to seem greedy or like I was milking it. Then I think sometimes life happens like this, doesn’t it? You don’t just get these very neat — I think there’s a lot of boring gray, a lot of lovely, and then there’s suddenly explosions. You know. Then there’s the quiet period again. Once you’ve gone through that period, you never don’t look over your shoulder slightly thinking, when is it? When’s it coming again? I talk about chaos being my natural state. I definitely find that feeling sometimes where I’m like, today in this moment, everybody’s okay. We’re okay. I’m sure you’re counting heads. You’ve got four children. I spend most mornings I wake up going, okay, Mabel’s there. Jesse’s there. Jake’s okay. It still feels quite new.

Zibby: I feel like we only scratched the surface. I had eight thousand more parts of your book I wanted to talk about. This is the time I allot to podcasts because people stop listening after a half an hour. I would very much love to continue this. Thank you so much for coming on.

Abi: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. Lovely.



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