Danielle Henderson, THE UGLY CRY

Danielle Henderson, THE UGLY CRY

Danielle Henderson talks with Zibby about her incredibly moving new memoir, The Ugly Cry. She details how reading helped her cope, shares her present-day family dynamics, and explains the roundabout way she ended up writing for television.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Danielle. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Ugly Cry: A Memoir.

Danielle Henderson: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I read this book over the long weekend with my kids around. As these things kept happening, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, now her stepfather — now this is happening.” I didn’t tell them all of it. Then after a while, they were like, “Mom, this poor woman.” Then finally, my daughter’s like, “Can you stop telling us what’s happening in this book?” I kept being like, “, and now this.” They were like, “Is it fiction or nonfiction?” They don’t really know what that means. I was like, “No, it’s nonfiction. This is her life. It’s not just a story.” We were all empathizing with you so much from various points of our development.

Danielle: Please, please tell them that I turned out totally rad.

Zibby: I will. I will tell them that. I already told them. I was like, “No, it’s fine. She’s a TV writer. She wrote a book. Everything’s good.” Oh, my gosh. Danielle, tell listeners what your book is about even though that’s a really hard question given that it’s your life. What is this book about? Why did you decide to even write a memoir? Why did you decide to be open about everything that happened and put it all out there?

Danielle: This is a book about my life up to age eighteen. The reason I decided to write this memoir and write my story is that for years, I just thought, well, everyone’s got a story. Things happen in their life. I’m not any more special than anyone else. I still think that, but I think that what my childhood experiences were were definitely quite different from most people I’ve met. I was talking with a few friends. They said, “You know, you should really just write this down. You should just write this down. You are a writer.” The timing of it is that I really just reached a point in my current life, in my adulthood where it didn’t feel like I was mining the experience as a sort of therapy for myself. It felt like, oh, yeah, that’s a thing that happened that I can now explain, so I probably should. That’s where it came from for me.

Zibby: There was so much in here from your mom — the fact that your mom decided to leave at one point and follow her boyfriend, who was horrific, that alone would’ve been enough. There’s this whole thing, dayenu, it would’ve been enough. Had she left you to not have any plans during the day, dayenu. One thing that struck me — I feel terrible making light of this, but I guess humor, as you show in your book, humor is one way to get through the worst of times, really. Your unburdening, which in part is by writing this book too, getting it even more out there was so helpful when you finally confessed to your grandmother what had been going on with your — not even your stepfather. What do you call him? Step-boyfriend? Step-whatever?

Danielle: Exactly. My mom’s boyfriend.

Zibby: Your mom’s boyfriend. Your grandmother’s cursing, by the way, was hilarious. Then you said, “My depression still came back in waves, poking holes in moments that should have felt happier, but it felt less like I was carrying the weight of a secret and more that I was part of a family. Unburdening myself didn’t cure me, and it would be another five years before I knew that I was suffering from depression or that I would be in a relationship with it for the rest of my life. I didn’t yet know that I would take almost a dozen different anti-depressants before I found the combination that worked best. I wouldn’t learn to think about depression as something that occasionally happened to me as a part of my wiring, not a bomb waiting to go off all the time until I was thirty-nine years old.” One more sentence. “And it wasn’t until my forties when I learned in therapy how to integrate my thoughts in order to avoid sinking to the bottom of the depression well, learned how to notice warning signs and actions I could take before things got too bad. The first time I felt confident and happy again at the same time, I was forty-three years old.” Take us through a little bit about when all of the events came to the fore, when you felt at your lowest point ever, and how you coped with it.

Danielle: My lowest point ever was certainly in my teens when I had a tremendous amount of suicidal ideation. What that means is that I constantly wanted to die, but I didn’t actually know how to do it. I would try these little things. I wrote about one of them in the book where I took the point of a compass and thought maybe I would cut my wrists, but I just couldn’t do it. It hurt. It hurt really bad. My brain is not always my friend, but in those moments it certainly was. It felt like my lowest moment because those are the moments that pushed me more to action where I thought about not wanting to be here. Crippling depression is pretty low in and of itself, whether you have suicidal ideation or not. Throughout my life and throughout my adulthood, there would be moments where I couldn’t get out of bed or where it was hard for me to drag myself to work, which I constantly had to do. I didn’t have the kind of support that allowed me to rest and sit with my feelings. I had to work, and usually work a lot. I usually had more than one job. I would drag myself to work, get through it, and then just come home and cry and collapse. I had horrible insomnia for most of my life. There have been a lot of low moments, unfortunately. There have been a lot of low moments. The way that I wrote about it in the book in relation to telegraphing a little bit of what my life was like as an adult is that you can unburden yourself. You can tell people the things that are hurting you as a way to get some kind of immediate relief. There is immediate relief in that, but it doesn’t cure you.

I think that when I stopped looking for a cure is when I actually started feeling better more often. When I say in the book that it wasn’t until I was forty-three years old that I figured it out is because it’s true. It really wasn’t until the last year as I was finishing writing this book that I realized, oh, I’ve actually dealt with a lot of this. I’ve actually come pretty far in this. My therapy is helping. Over the past few years, it’s helped me really recognize some patterns that are destructive to me that I can recognize enough to stop and to change. I never felt like that was possible. I thought for a very, very, very long time that this is just how I am. In a lot of ways, it is. It is just how I am. I do get affected more deeply than some people because of my wiring and because of the things that happened to me. I get affected very deeply by certain things. What’s changed is my ability to react to them in a way that’s more positive and to react to them in a way that doesn’t destabilize me completely. A lot of that is really just finding a support system outside of myself, which never felt like it was possible to do when I was younger. That’s also a reason that I wanted to write this book. I think that it would be somewhat false for me to say that I wrote it for my younger self because I feel like that kid did not have the tools to process a book like this. I did write it with the knowledge that there will be people who are going through similar things. Maybe there’s something I can say that they haven’t heard that’ll set them off on a path to their own healing.

Zibby: I think we need to give your therapist a standing ovation at this point. You’re going to have to share his or her phone number wide and large. I feel like so often, nobody ever says, wow, my therapy’s really working. Everyone’s just like, ugh. It’s great when it actually works.

Danielle: I know. I had a friend recently who started therapy for the very first time. We were talking. We were having coffee. She said, “I’ve got a choice. I’m kind of interviewing some therapists. There’s one that I feel like I can go to, and she’ll just listen to me. This other one is really challenging, and it kind of freaks me out.” I gripped the chair. I was like, “Go for the challenging one.” Go for the one that challenges you. You have people in your life to talk to who will just listen to you. You want therapy to be something that puts you on a path to healing and that helps you recognize things about yourself that you don’t even know yet. At least for me, that’s what I needed. I definitely give major props to therapy constantly. I even thank my therapist in the book, both of my therapists. I had a therapist that I was working with in New York when I started the book and a therapist that I’m working with now. I thanked them both.

Zibby: You also mention in the book how one way you coped, at least at the time with everything, was through reading and staying inside and reading everything you can get your hands on. Is that still a way that you cope? Did that follow you forever? Is that just one of the things you love to do?

Danielle: One hundred percent, especially in this past year and not being able to travel and really being housebound. I did not really leave my apartment very much during the pandemic. I miss traveling. That was something that was a gift I was able to give to myself eventually. I found ways to travel in my twenties when I was super broke. Then I also found ways to start traveling internationally when I started my TV writing career. I miss it. I would take myself to different places for my birthday every year. A couple years ago, I took two friends with me. We went to Amsterdam and rented a houseboat. I miss that kind of thing. Reading helped get me back into a place where I could travel without moving. Thank you, Jamiroquai. It really did. I never forgot that. I’ve always been an avid and voracious reader, but I think I took for granted how much I got from books until I was stuck in my house for a year. Absolutely, that has followed me. It started so simply. I remember vividly, reading The Secret Garden. I didn’t have a garden growing up. I barely had a yard. Just reading about these little places that people would go and that you could find this new — I remember the description of the key going in the lock, and the wonder. The sense of absolute wonder has just never left me.

Zibby: It’s funny because even now when you say Secret Garden, in my head, I have the image of what I first put there when I read that book. I have vines all over and a door. I can see it as if I’m reliving it just by you mentioning it. It’s amazing how we can all do that. It’s so cool.

Danielle: It’s so cool. It’s a great trick of the brain. It’s a gift. I do think it’s a gift because I realized, again, much later in life, that a lot of people don’t like to read, which I never really understood. I thought everyone reads something sometime. No, there are a lot of people who flat out do not read.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. My daughter, even, who’s almost eight, I was reading before bed and she was like, “Why do you read that? Why don’t you read books with pictures?” I was like, “Because this is even better. The pictures are in my brain.” It did not work. That did not work.

Danielle: She’s like, “Mom, you’re constantly telling me not to live in –”

Zibby: She’s like, “Whatever,” and went back to reading about dragons.

Danielle: Which is its own kind of escape. I applaud that. Read about those dragons.

Zibby: Exactly. I’m really curious what your relationship is like now with the cast of characters in the book, but I don’t mean for you to give anything away. I don’t know what kind of suspense — you don’t know, necessarily, how things are going as you’re reading. Can you talk at all about your relationship with your mom? I know, unfortunately, your grandmother’s dementia and all of that, oh, my gosh. You did mention in the acknowledgments that it was some sort of coming together with your mom again. I was wondering what that was about.

Danielle: I just purchased a home. I just purchased my first house. I moved back to my hometown.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Danielle: Thank you. The reason I did that was for my grandmother. She is developing dementia. Her mother, my great-grandmother, had Alzheimer’s, so it’s not a total shock. I just feel like she’s going to very quickly be getting to a point where she can’t live on her own or doesn’t want to live on her own. I bought this house pretty much for her. Our relationship is great. It’s as great as it’s always been. She came over on Saturday with my brother and his partner. She was dancing to Stevie Wonder in the kitchen. She was making fun of all the stuff in my house. I showed her her room. She was like, “Oh, boy. I love your house, but I don’t know if I need all this room. I don’t know if I want to move in here with you.” I’m like, “You’re moving in because I bought it for you.” We are very tight. We’re very close. I just love her to death. I love her to bits. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I know that it’s such a gift to have my grandmother still in my life when I’m in my mid-forties. I feel very lucky that we’ve known each other for so long and developed such a great relationship, that it’s only gotten better as I’ve gotten older and better. I’m grateful for that.

My brother and I are tremendously close. We had a very rocky childhood and teenage relationship. We talked about it, actually, after I wrote the book. I sent him the finished PDF before the hardcover even came out. I wanted him to read it. What was strange is that — I don’t let people read things as I’m writing it. I don’t want the interference of their thought process in my story. There’s a lot in this book that I didn’t or couldn’t write because it wasn’t my story, especially a lot of stuff with my brother and his side of what happened to us as kids. I did send it to him after, though. He’s such a sweetheart of a person. He sent me the nicest text. Then we started talking on the phone. He felt guilt. He felt really guilty. He said, “I feel like I wasn’t there for you when you were a kid. You were really going through a lot. You were processing a lot. I didn’t see that.” I said, “Yeah, but we were both kids. We were both figuring it out. Neither one of us knew how to do that.” It got us talking, basically. Again, looking back now at our relationship in our forties, I feel really grateful that starting in our late teens, early twenties, we really started to like each other as people. That was a blessing, actually, because it doesn’t always have to go that way. I know a lot of families are quite literally torn apart by this kind of thing. We kept each other close. I feel good about that.

With my mom, slightly more complicated. I truly did not speak to my mom for about twenty years. I would hear about her through my grandmother or my brother because they all kind of live in the area still. They would report back to me about her. I personally didn’t talk to her. It wasn’t until this past March. My aunt Rene, who I mention in the book, she died of breast cancer. She had stage four breast cancer. I was with her a lot during the last year of her life because she lived in California. She said to me at one point, she’s like, “I’ll never forgive your mom for what she did to you kids.” She just couldn’t get over it. It really affected their relationship. She said, “I know you don’t need a mom, but I want you to try to just talk to her and see if there’s anything there worth keeping.” I think she was worried that I would be kind of hardening my heart in a way that she didn’t want me to. She said, “I think you should try.” Oh, my cat’s visiting. I said, “You know what? Okay.” Typical Henderson move, your dying wish is a shitty one that is forcing me to do something I might not want to do. Great. That’s my family to a T. I gave it a shot.

My way into that and the way I started bridging that gap was I called my mom and I said, “Your sister’s dying of cancer. She wants to see you. Do you want to come out?” She did. I flew my mom and my brother out to see my aunt. She was eager to talk. She says, “I know we have a lot to discuss.” She seemed, more so than any other time in my life, like she wanted to build a relationship. I stayed open to that. I’m still staying open to it. She was here on Saturday night too. She came over. I think it’s going to be different because I’m approaching this from the point of view of someone who really doesn’t need parenting and doesn’t need that mother connection. I have found that outside of myself. I have found that in other ways in my life. I’m personally trying to figure out, what is this relationship even going to be? Is it going to be a friendship? Is it going to be looser than that? Is it going to be more civil and not necessarily as close? I’m still figuring it out, but I’m open to her in a way that I haven’t been in twenty years. That’s something that I can see as net positive while I still try to protect myself because she’s still exactly who she’s always been. All the things that led her to abandoning us and not being there for us, it’s still very much a part of who she is.

Zibby: Wow, talk about something that’s really big of somebody. That is really big and generous and open-hearted of you. Whatever comes of it, you’ve already done the good thing. Good for you. It’s amazing. Wait, tell me two seconds about your TV writing career. How are you doing that? How did that all even get started? That’s amazing.

Danielle: Great question. Absolutely great question. I always say that my résumé reads like I’ve been on the run from the law. The only thing I’ve ever done intentionally is say yes to work because I needed money. That’s all I’ve ever done is say, yes, I’ll do this. I’ll try it. TV writing was never in the cards for me because I didn’t go to school to study it. I didn’t have a family member working in the business. I couldn’t find the door, let alone the doorknob. I couldn’t find the door to walk through. I left my PhD program. I was studying in Seattle. I got divorced, moved back to New York, left my PhD program, and started freelance writing. I had been freelance writing during my master’s degree. It was an escape into pop culture. I wrote about the Real Housewives and did TV recaps for Vulture. That’s how my agent found me, my TV agent. She really liked the way I wrote about television. She reached out and said, “Have you ever considered writing for television?” I was like, “Who is this? What?” What are you talking about? Without that nudge, I wouldn’t be doing this. We worked for a year. I taught myself how to write TV scripts. I learned how to do that by reading a lot of TV scripts. When I started to see the rhythm of it and the pattern, I thought, oh, this is already how I think. I think in dialogue, so this is not difficult. I think in descriptors.

It’s not to say that writing a show isn’t difficult, but it wasn’t hard for me to make the transition. I wrote a script. I wrote an on spec for free for nobody. Because of my Feminist Ryan Gosling book, I had met Julie Klausner. I was a guest on her podcast. We became actual friends when I moved to New York. When Difficult People was being made and I told her, “Hey, this lady reached out to me and asked if I wanted to write for television,” she was like, “You should come to the room. Come to the Difficult People room for a week or two. Just see if you like it, just to see what it’s like.” I’m so grateful to her for that. What I got from that was realizing, okay, my writing career is incredibly solitary. I sit in a room by myself. There’s lots of tears. There’s lots of snacks. It just happens. Doing collaborative writing was something I’d never done before. To be in a room with smart people just saying funny things and jokes and ideas was revelatory to me. I loved it. I loved it for that reason from the beginning, that I got to actually sit and talk with people about writing before we wrote anything. That’s how my TV writing career started. I was hired on Divorce after that. My agent was like, “All right, let’s get you working.” It went from there.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s a really cool story. What shows are you working on now? Any shows? What are you doing?

Danielle: Right now, I’ve leveled up a little bit. I’m actually running my first show. As a showrunner, you’re still a writer, but you’re handling all the moving parts. You’re kind of a manager. You’re doing all the budget stuff over here, but then you’re doing all the writing and craft of story over here. I’m working on a show for Lena Waithe for Amazon. It hasn’t been announced yet, so I won’t talk about it. It’s incredibly fun. It’s a great progression for me at this point in my life. Also, at this point in my career, I am ready for this. It’s been wonderful. We’re just developing a story around an idea right now. If they like it, then it will get picked up for a full series and I’ll get to do it ten more times.

Zibby: Wow, I’m so excited for you. That is amazing. The book is amazing. All of it, your whole life is just a super inspiring story of perseverance and knowing who you are and getting through stuff. You’re so bright, obviously. It’s really awesome to see you applying these gifts and then entertaining, teaching, and inspiring other people. It’s very cool.

Danielle: Thank you so much. That’s nice to hear because I don’t ever think of it that way. Usually, it’s the panic when I wake up. Okay, what do I have to do today? How many things do I have to do today? That’s very nice to hear. Thank you.

Zibby: I wake up in a panic too. Sometimes it takes the other person to see that all the little things and all the emails, there’s a greater purpose. It’s great. It’s really great.

Danielle: The panic adds up.

Zibby: Yeah, the panic adds up. It goes somewhere for a reason. What final advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Danielle: I don’t know if I’m good at giving this kind of advice because I’m not lofty about it at all. I come from a very practical place. One thing that I am very proud of myself for having done, which I would recommend to anyone who’s an aspiring writer or author, is to write every day. I’ve always kept journals. I’ve always kept blogs. I’ve always written even if I was just writing for myself, even without knowing where it was going, if it would ever be seen, if it would ever be published. I wrote for myself. I think that helps you develop your own voice. I like to read people who are writing in their own voice when they’re writing nonfiction work. Even if you’re writing fiction, you’re developing a style. It’s important for you to know not just what you want to say, but how you want to say it and how you want to convey it. That’s my first bit of advice, is to write every day and to write for yourself. Also, eyes on your own plate. It’s so easy to look at what other people have and what other people have done and to say, I could’ve done that better. I wish that was me. Keep your head down, blinders on. Don’t look at what anyone else is doing. There are so many pathways into publishing. There are so many pathways into connecting to people through the written word that how you do it is no longer as important as the fact that you do it. Don’t worry about the fact that this person might have had it easier. Their parents are the actual owners of a publishing company, so they got a book when they were seventeen. It doesn’t matter. Don’t put those time restrictions on yourself. Don’t put those limits on yourself. Develop your voice. Write about what’s important to you. See what’s important to you and know what’s important to you before you start really looking to put it out there in the world.

Zibby: That was great advice. What are you talking about?

Danielle: I guess I always feel like people are looking — here’s how you find an agent. Here’s how you find a manager. I don’t know. I lucked into all of that.

Zibby: No, people are not looking for that, necessarily. This is great. That was great. Eyes on your own plate. Meanwhile, I wrote my whole college thesis about how what we notice about what other people eat beside us tells us about ourselves, the application of social comparison theory to eating situations. My eyes are never on my own plate, at least in literal terms, but perhaps in other terms.

Danielle: That’s applicable. That’s still applicable in a very different way. When it comes to writing, eyes on your own plate. I think it’s helpful, too, because, for example, writing for Vulture and being a freelance writer for all these different publications, that helped get my name out there in a way that I didn’t plan. I literally did it because I’m like, I need a job. I want to write for a living. That’s how I did it. I think that that helped me in retrospect. I think it is useful.

Zibby: Just say yes, your other advice.

Danielle: Just say yes.

Zibby: Do anything for money.

Danielle: What’s the worst thing that could happen? That, I want emblazoned on my tombstone. Do anything for money. Then I’ll be sued well into the afterlife.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. Danielle, such a pleasure. Congratulations on your book. I wish you all the best.

Danielle: Thank you so much. This is lovely. Again, thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Danielle: Bye.

Danielle Henderson, THE UGLY CRY

THE UGLY CRY by Danielle Henderson

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