We're not safe from Big Wellness
Annabelle Gurwich remembers the moment that she felt like she'd lost control. She was looking in her purse, and found a crystal. She'd bought it somehow, somewhere, in an effort to feel better — fully knowing that the idea that a crystal would ward off evil was pseudoscience.
"How did that piece of jasper get there?" Gurwich recalls asking herself as she rifled through her handbag. "I must have picked it up. Was I in a fugue state? I don't know."
You may know Annabelle Gurwich from the TBS show "Dinner And a Movie," and the books "I See You Made an Effort" and "Wherever You Go, There They Are." Now, the New York Times best-selling author, activist and actress has a new book, "You're Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility," which is out now in paperback — which, true to its title, explores the actress' life as she moved down the socioeconomic ladder after a series of struggles.
In our conversation about the book, Gurwich talks about how "Big Wellness" took over her friends' lives, and came for hers, too — resulting in that crystal in her purse. But she also has a few words to say about cancer, divorce and why life isn't like a Nancy Meyers movie.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
COVID had a unique effect on you, Annabelle. Tell me about how COVID may have saved your life.
I went in for a COVID test and came out with lung cancer. It was completely unexpected. I got this diagnosis at an urgent care. When they suggested that I have a scan because I had a tiny little cough, I was like, "This is like an upsell at a cosmetic counter. Were you just like trying to sell me something here?"
Unbelievably, this random suggestion led to a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. I'm so grateful that I went in for that test, because the earlier you can detect something, the better or longer your chances are for survival. I've been doing this very high tech gene treatment for a year now and I'm very stable. I'm super, super lucky, but I urge everyone to continue to get their healthcare during these times because there's a cognitive dissonance to how we look and feel. Who knew?
I got this diagnosis while I was in the last stages of editing this book. It was too soon to write about it. I always need a certain amount of detachment when I'm writing about experiences because I've been doing, and I hate this word, "life chapters." I want to punch someone when they say, "It's this journey of blah, blah." But it's true. I had enough detachment to write this book, which is also about adapting to new normals and enormous changes. I couldn't write about this new experience, but it is funny. It does fit into the sort of milieu of things I'm writing about in this book, which takes place in my life after divorce, loss of parents, a domino effect of immutable changes.
I make this distinction in the book of adaptability. Resilience has its limits. You really have to think about changing things entirely when you are no longer a daughter or a son or a child of someone and you are the adult in your life. I write about the book of, "I'm on my way to becoming a family elder. What does that mean?" And then divorce, my kid going off to college. I'm also the mother of someone five years in recovery from drugs and alcohol. I'm also the mother of a non-binary person.
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These are really big changes. This was the perspective of where this book starts. Each of the essays is about some form of downward mobility, emotional or financial. I write about the roller coaster ride that you can find yourself on. I had no idea, of course, with COVID coming that so many people would find themselves wondering about their financial futures and how they were going to adapt to that. The book became more pertinent to our times than I had ever imagined when I started writing.
Shifting fortunes is something that a lot of women find themselves in, where it's, "The parents are dying and the kids are going off to school and we are getting sick." You put a pandemic on top of it and it feels like a little too much.
It can just feel like too much, but it's a funny thing how norms can change so quickly. When I was handed the artwork for this book, I loved it. What says downward mobility more than a couch in a yard? Having your indoor furniture outdoors says, This is not the upswing. By the time this book comes out, with COVID, to be able to have furniture in your yard is like, "I have outdoor space." That's actually the good thing. I love that because even the book cover has multiple meanings.
My challenge for myself as a writer was to say, "Can I write about these things and have it not be a weeper?" I hope, and the response has been that, yes, you can find a way to, I don't want to say laugh at these experiences, but to find humor in the situations.
One of the things that I, as a fellow traveler in the land of metastatic cancer, really appreciated was when you talk about the fact that if you don't look sick, people don't necessarily understand how to talk to you or how to deal with you. What did you discover along the way, whether it was cancer or divorce or anything else, about what maybe we need to be thinking about when we look at others?
I have learned much through the course of the experience of this cancer diagnosis. What we think we know about people, and how we look at people, and even how we look at our own lives, really does speak to our expectations and our misconceptions about reality versus the way things really are. My very dear friend, Bill Maher, had me on his show. Right before I went on, we hadn't seen each other, but we had been talking, and knew about this diagnosis. When I did the appearance, we focused on the story about my opening my home to youth experiencing homelessness. But as we greeted each other, Bill said, "You look so great. I didn't know if it was going to be, 'Here comes Baldy.'"
I hadn't actually seen anyone since this had happened, because we were so isolated with Covid. It was so shocking. I laughed so hard, because he said the thing that you don't say out loud, and I appreciated that. This to me is actually the theme of the book, the cognitive dissonance between the thing we don't say out loud, the thing we think is true, and what's actually true.
We have in our society now, because of these new, amazing drugs, people living in a chronic disease management with really difficult things. That means we're seeing people, we're walking past people in and out of our lives who we don't know what they're going through, in terms of disease. But it's the truth about so many things in life.
"I'm really writing about life in the middle. As we know, the rich have gotten richer in this country. The poor have gotten poorer, and the people in the middle were like, 'What is my future?'"
The centerpiece of this book is about expectations and reality, and our assumptions. Several stories are about what happened after my divorce, which is sudden financial changes. This book is written from a certain amount of privilege, and I think all of us who are living through this time know and are so much more keenly aware of this now. Particularly with what's happening in Ukraine, every single day I feel so happy to be clothed, and have a roof over my head, and have food to eat. I'm really writing about life in the middle. As we know, the rich have gotten richer in this country. The poor have gotten poorer, and the people in the middle were like, "What is my future?"
This is the perspective right after divorce, which also meant the loss of my healthcare coverage through my union, all these sudden things. Doing the numbers, selling my house didn't seem to be a good option, but how was I going to afford my mortgage? And this opened me up to this home sharing, which is a very old world tradition, or multi-generational living, or "Golden Girls" living, or even thinking of like a roommate. In my fifties, I thought, "This is going to kill me. Also, what does this mean?" I had an idea of, "Am I going to be renting out rooms like a landlady in the Depression era, with the blousy house dress, and the cigarette and slippers? Is this going to ruin my life?" I really felt like this was potentially this terrible thing.
In reality, it changed my life, and just added so much more love to my life. Everyone in Los Angeles has the key to my house now, I think. A slew of itinerant writers, and young people, and students come and live with me, and it's actually been this wonderful infusion of love and cash that helped me to bridge this time in my life.
In particular, one of the stories in this book is about when a last minute tenant canceled, and I heard about something on the radio where you could open your home to young people who were unhoused. I thought that meant exchange students. I didn't know it meant people experiencing homelessness. There was a small stipend, so I did it for the money, because of this last minute cancellation. I had so many ideas of who was unhoused in this country. I consider myself far left liberal. I think I know these things, but in fact, I didn't.
When I met the young people who ended up being my house guests, first of all, they had face tats, and I thought, "Gang members. They're going to kill me. Anyone but them." That didn't turn out to be true. And the first thing they did when they moved into my home was call their mothers. That blew my mind. It's the same thing of, "You have Stage 4 cancer? But you don't look that way."
What I realized is that all day long, if you are being served by someone in a restaurant, when you accept a home delivery of food, or any kind of good you are ordering, if you get into an Uber or a Lyft, you are encountering people every day, very likely, who are experiencing homelessness in this country. We don't know what we're looking at. It has become this big theme in my life, and in this writing right now that I've done about this, looking at what we know and what we think we know.
I always say when I went into the arts, my goal wasn't to become rich. That was a mistake. I didn't realize what was coming was the disappearance of the middle class. My goal was to do really interesting work, and earn a good living doing it. In the arts, as in every profession, this middle has become so tenuous to hold onto.
"When people are stressed, people spend money because you feel like, 'Well, I'm never going to buy a house. I can't afford the really big savings, so why not buy this homeopathic fakey-fake cure?' There is a difference between actual things that we know have scientific value."
I somehow had internalized this idea of the Diane Keaton in "Something's Gotta Give." She's in the most beautiful home in the Hamptons, on a stretch of beach that human feet have never trod, and she's got both Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves vying for her attention. Obviously these are aspirational comedies, but somehow I thought there would be just a little bit of coasting. For most of us, there is no coasting.
You use a phrase, "Big Wellness." We are all in this world of big wellness. A lot of us have been seduced by, "I'm going to get that life-changing pillow, and then I will be okay. It will fix the dead parent hole in my life. It will fix the cancer part and make me feel good for a little bit." Talk to me about why we fall for that, why you fell for that, why I fall for that.
These things creep up on you. I mean, we're smart people. We all know better, but it becomes internalized. You see things long enough, and it just starts to become something that becomes part of our lives.
All of these things, getting your chart done, crystals ... The crazy thing is many of us don't have so much disposable income. But we know when people are stressed, people spend money because you feel like, "Well, I'm never going to buy a house. I can't afford the really big savings, so why not buy this homeopathic fakey-fake cure?" There is a difference between actual things that we know have scientific value.
We don't think of Big Wellness as something, because it's not like Big Pharma or Big Tobacco. Big Wellness is not organized in that way, but it's a billion-dollar industry. The name of the chapter that I wrote about this in is "The ___ That Will Change Everything." We are targeted this idea that there's the bra, the brow, the bag, that will change everything. And who amongst us doesn't need something like that?
The tipping point for me of realizing how much this had, like a virus, infected our psychology was that I was invited to a housewarming of a very good friend who is an intellectual, a critical thinker. She had invited a friend who was formerly an investigative journalist who has left her career behind to pursue a career doing astrology and reading charts and offering these goddess parties.
My friend and all of our friends gathered, thought it'd be really fun. She does your chart and gives you a reading. And the thing was, it was really fun. But this is how the big wellness goes. It's not so much money that you feel it's going to break you, but then you buy the crystal.
The market for crystals has exploded. What is it really tapping into? It's tapping into this feeling that we are given in media, in Instagrams, that things will help. These crystal things just kill me. There's no science to this. Then again, they're pretty, and it makes you feel a little bit better. Somehow or another, as I'm railing against this, I notice that I had a crystal in the bottom of one of my handbags. How did that piece of jasper get there? I must have picked it up. Was I in a fugue state? I don't know.
When my home emptied and after the divorce, I'm feeling very vulnerable, I saw this beautiful a pouf. It's like an ottoman, but it's fuzzy. I saw it in the window of a Roche Bobois store. I never found out how much it is because you know they don't have prices. That's the store that has those very low pieces of furniture that look like every crayon in the world has been melted. They're so low to the ground you know that people who have those in their homes, they don't have to get up to go to work. It can take an hour to stand up from one of those chairs.
This pouf must have been so expensive, but okay, I'll get the cheaper one. So I ended up with so many of these fake fur pillows, it's like a herd of alpaca are grazing in my living room. It just seemed so comforting to me. It's a little crazy now. There's no end to it. Resistance is futile. Somehow they will get you with a juice or a cleanse or a crystal or a fuzzy blanket or a pillow. There is no escape for a minute. We are not safe from Big Wellness.
When you talk about comfort, I think back to when I used to watch you on "Dinner and a Movie," and the comfort of watching regular people make regular food. You talk a lot in the book about how are not a fancy cook. Here we are, a generation later, watching people on TikTok, or these shows where it's just regular people, making regular food. What do you think that says about what we're looking for in terms of maybe comfort food for our eyes?
People have followed me from "Dinner and a Movie" to my writing. The feedback has told me what I think is the appeal. We weren't chefs. We had a chef with us, but we were ordinary people, comedians bumbling in the kitchen making food, making mistakes at times and learning how to cook. Sometimes we'd make a BLT. This was not Julia Child. We've seen a resurgence in that. I think the popularity is the approachability, and it's also just having company, people who feel like they're talking to you. People have said was, "We watched you on Friday night. This was our tradition," because we're using our own names and it was so direct to the camera and personable. It's very comforting. I think that's why we seek out things that we feel comfortable with and why we get attached to certain people's personalities; we get used to seeing them appear on our screens in our home.
At the beginning of the pandemic, and this went on for six months, I did a daily Zoom where I invited not only writers that I knew, but I put it out on the internet on Facebook and Twitter. I said, it's a writing room. We don't talk. We just sit there and we write. Te idea was to create something that would be comforting in a very particular way, not in a way that we're talking together as friends or intimates, but like a coffee shop with strangers, strangers that you see and you sort of feel become your neighborhood.
That's a kind of intimacy that I think we all missed so much when we were isolated. I missed not only the comfort of friends, but the comfort of strangers, just seeing strangers' faces. It was such a funny, unexpected thing. I didn't ask people what they were writing or what level writers they were. If you said you were a writer, you came. And the thing I didn't expect was that with people writing on their computer, everyone's faces were revealed. Everyone's writer's face. It was absolutely fascinating, and unexpected. What is more intimate than watching someone think?
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