Southern roots produce some northern comfort
Where others write self-help books, Annabelle Gurwitch writes “self-hurt” ones, she says, definitely not intended to inspire imitation. “As a rule, don’t do what actors and writers do,” she said at a recent appearance in Maplewood.
But that’s just her shtick. Speaking at [words] Bookstore, the writer/actor/stand-up comic confessed that underlying her drive to write about her life and, in doing so, risk alienating her family is a serious goal: to encourage others to do the same. “It will help you see your story in perspective,” she said. “It’s a way to redeem the past and parts of yourself you might have lost.”
Hopefully, most of us have nearest and dearest with less salacious stuff to hide than her Southern-based clan of gamblers, bootleggers, and philanderers. On the other hand, those people have given her wonderful material. “I had so many stories,” she declared. She coalesced them into her new memoir, “Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To.”
She calls them her “Shalom, y’all” tribe of “Jewish atheists.” For the most part, they lived with a blend of Yiddishkeit and non-observance, perpetrators of incidents like her father’s effort to smuggle bacon into his kosher retirement home. They had chosen such a place because her mother declared a desire “to be back with my people,” hearing Friday night prayers “in a language she never learned,” according to her daughter.
With a delivery that flickered from funny to very moving, Gurwitch described the chaos that made her want to be anywhere her relatives weren’t. That didn’t mean she wanted isolation. The Los Angeles-based wife and mother, now 55, said she — like many of us — has sought out alternative families-of-choice, through marriage, work, and community.
“No matter what you do to escape your crazy family, you end up with another crazy family,” she said. Her book embraces those dysfunctional “relatives” as well.
Much of that companionship came to her through performing. Gurwitch’s credits include appearances on “Seinfeld,” “Boston Legal,” and, as an anchor, on HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News,” and in the movies “Melvin Goes to Dinner” and “The Shaggy Dog.” Her previous books include “You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up: A Love Story,” written with her husband, comedian Jeff Kahn; and “I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories From the Edge of 50.” She is also a contributor to numerous publications, and her essays have been included in various anthologies.
Writing is lonely, she commented, like many other endeavors in the “gig economy,” with people working independently. She works now out of a shared office space, by way of replacing “a work family.”
Gurwitch, for all her jokes, remains attached to her kin. Take, for instance, when it came to choosing a retirement venue for her parents. She didn’t just take them to see the options and settle them in; she moved in with them. Together, she and her mother revamped the music offered in the fitness class. “We got them playing ‘Shake Your Booty!’” Gurwitch recalled with a grin.
Her father features prominently in her stories, with his charm and unreliability and his endless failed ventures. Her attitude toward him is like a matrix for the whole: “He brought so much tsuris into our lives, but also so much joie de vivre.”
Many of her family’s secrets revolve around money and efforts to get it. Gurwitch believes many others suffer from that same conflict. Speaking seriously, she said, “There is a lot of shame in American culture around the pursuit of wealth. People feel shame when they’re not in that [moneyed] class, and it can destroy a family.”
As serious and vulnerable as she can be, Gurwitch finds gold in trauma. Perhaps her most lucrative disaster was being fired by Woody Allen back in 2005. He cast her in a stage production of his play “Writer’s Block” and fired her a few days later, telling her she looked “retarded.” She said she cried for about 12 hours. Then she turned the experience into fuel for a book of essays about being fired, a documentary, a website, and a series of staged readings at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.
And that brought her back to this new book: “Why do we excavate the past? My reason for telling these stories is because I believe secrets create isolation. And I offer this book as a way to encourage you to tell your secrets.” n