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A Stunning New Memoir Confronts A Complicated Legacy Of Addiction, Love, And Loss

Culture

Talking with ‘My Dead Parents’ author Anya Yurchyshyn

"The experience of losing our parents is going to be universal regardless of what our relationship is with them," Anya Yurchyshyn says to me over the phone. "There's a process of going through someone's most personal belongings that will always reveal something about them that you didn't know, or will force you to see them in a new way. And that both can be very jarring, particularly when you think you know them well, and also really wonderful."

Yurchyshyn knows well of what she speaks. By the age of 32, she had lost both her parents—first her father in a car accident when she was just 16, and then, 16 years later, her mother, of chronic alcoholism, following a long period of addiction and illness. Yurchyshyn had a complicated, tumultuous relationship with her parents—individually, and as a unit—but it was one that she couldn't help but explore in the period following her mother's death, as she sorted through the chaos of her family's once-treasure-filled house, and found photos and letters indicating that there was much more to her parents' lives than she had ever realized.

The result of this exploration is the searing memoir, My Dead Parents, in which Yurchyshyn grapples with the legacy she inherited from her mother and father, uncovering long-held secrets, and confronting a truth that so many of us refuse to acknowledge for much of our lives: Our parents are people too, separate from their relationship to us.

Below, I speak with Yurchyshyn about the memoir, the difficulties of having a family member struggling with addiction, and how to avoid getting trapped in the past, no matter how compelling it is. 

One thing that really impressed itself upon me when reading My Dead Parents was how honest you were about yourself and your own emotions and sometimes your lack of, not emotions, but the kind of emotions that other people thought you should be having, like when you weren't filled with grief [after each of your parents died]. Was it difficult to be honest about that? 
The short answer is, it was very difficult. It was really important for me to be honest, but I knew that certain things I was saying—for example, what you pointed out, not only was I not sad when my father died, I was relieved... [But] I had begun working on an anonymous blog of the same name, and the anonymity really let me say whatever I wanted, and I didn't have to worry about my family finding it or strangers tracking me down to tell me that they thought what I said was offensive or that it was messed up or, you know, that I needed more therapy. And the next step from that was writing this BuzzFeed essay, that ended up getting a lot of attention and leading to the book deal, and publishing that essay and attaching my name to it for the first time was really terrifying but also ended up being really wonderful because I did own those feelings, and it did give people a chance to track me down and a lot of people said, "The same thing happened to me." Or, "I didn't feel the exact same way or had the exact same relationship with my parents, but I also wasn't overcome with grief." 

Especially with the case with my mother... anyone suffering from addiction like that, the process is so painful, and you just feel so helpless, and I was constantly overcome with anxiety and worried that it was going to be even more terrible. I can't speak with authority about what it's like to lose someone from a terminal illness—which I'm sure is incredibly heartbreaking, and also has the same amount of helplessness—but I can imagine, eventually, when someone isn't getting better, and you kind of give up that kind of hope or optimism. I think [relief] is a kind of understandable response because it's not only the end of your suffering but the end of someone else's suffering. 

Saying that out loud or putting that on paper still felt scary, but it was really important to me to be honest about my experience, because, without that, the rest of the book really would not be so significant. It was a huge change for me to go from being relieved that these people had exited my life to me suddenly becoming interested in them, because I find these artifacts from their life, and then going on this kind of an epic journey, traveling around to meet people, spending time where they lived, getting more details of their personalities and their lives, but also more context, both physically and geographically, and eventually be able to find compassion for them. 

That radical change is really profoundly affecting in that it really offers a chance for anyone reading to understand that redemptive feelings toward loved ones, or getting to a place of grace or understanding, is really complicated. I found it particularly affecting when dealing with your relationship with your mother. I think we're so used to hearing about how selfless the loved ones of addicts are supposed to be, no matter how difficult the addict's behavior, and you were able to really beautifully deviate from that script—including, while visiting your mother at the Betty Ford Clinic—and demonstrate just what an impossible task that can sometimes be.
I can't stand scripts, and I had all this anger that flowed out... and it felt really important to talk about that in the book, and I did struggle until the end, to understand my mom's disease and have compassion for it, and I just can't imagine that I'm the only one who found it so heartbreaking to watch someone succumb to that disease. If you haven't spent a lot of time with an addict, the problem with addicts is that it's just a roller coaster with them. There's the narcissism, there's the abuse and the terrible self-esteem; sometimes they don't feel guilty at all, and they refuse to acknowledge what they've put you through. And that's what really came out of Betty Ford. I really had never confronted my anger before and, while it maybe wasn't the right time for it to come out, it was great that it did—not that it made any difference for my mother, but I think it was important for me to be able to say, "Hey, this sucked, and has been affecting my life. This is not just something that you're doing alone." Even if she never intended to hurt my sister and me, I'm sure it broke her heart to see that, but it was really important for me to be able to say, "This has been my experience, and if I'm not honest about that with you, then no healing will happen." 

When addicts do successfully kind of beat their disease—which is so wonderful to me, especially because my mother was incapable of doing it for whatever reason—I just admire those people, because I understand what a daily painful struggle it is for them to stay sober and deny themselves their drug or vice of choice. But, also, if someone gets better, you're left with the experience of like, I'm glad you're better, but this was a shitty decade. And I think it's important for people who have been affected by addiction to be able to talk about that, both with the person who has caused them that pain and then with other people, to just say that this is hard, and this has affected me and my relationships, and it's an important experience to go through.

One thing being close to an addict will do is make you very aware of behavioral patterns, and I think it's clear from your book that it was really important to you to take an active role in your life, and not repeat any destructive patterns. Your independence really stands out, but even though it seems reactive at first, in contradiction to your parents, as you acknowledge in the book, you also realized so much of that nature was replicative of them, and their own love of adventure. Did realizing these similarities make you feel closer to them?
Absolutely, and going back to this thing I keep harping on about being honest—even though it was hard and embarrassing to be really honest about negative things, the negative narrative of my parents was one I was really attached to so, in a lot of ways, that was a lot easier to write about than the positive things. Like, the positive realizations were really at odds with what I had been telling myself about my parents, and this fantasy that I had emerged from them totally independent, and I just so happen to share these qualities of theirs, but I didn't wanna give them any credit for it. It was really difficult, realizing and admitting the positive things, but it, ultimately, felt really wonderful and absolutely made me feel closer to them. I mean, I definitely inherited their love of travel and desire to see the world, and how I managed to get away with telling myself that somehow I had nothing to do with them is absurd. 

One of the most difficult realizations, that was ultimately incredibly comforting, was learning that I actually had a lot in common with my father, and that was a realization that I would not have been open to even a few years before because I only had negative thoughts about him. All of these wonderful qualities of his I eventually discovered, I could only see them in a negative light, saying like, "Oh, this is a person who was willing to pursue their dreams to the end, even at the expense of other things in their life." For a long time, I saw that as purely selfish as opposed to recognizing like, Oh, it's a complicated quality and being that kind of person can mean that you hurt other people. When I was working on this book, I realized that I am a person who prioritizes their dreams above their relationships and values their freedom and the ability to make crazy decisions or decisions that other people don't understand. Watching their lives—I didn't realize it at the time—really gave me permission to live the kind of life I wanted, and that gave me a lot of mobility, a lot of freedom, and I still actively make those choices now.

Did you ever worry that you might get trapped in trying to go deeper and deeper and find out more about your parents' lives and it would be bottomless?
I did worry about that... I realized at the end of it that, like, Well, I just wanna know everything. And I did find out so much and so many things that I had no idea were just parts of my parents' lives, but I didn't anticipate how painful that would be or how draining it would be to sit through these hours and days and months of conversations—especially when they were on topics that were upsetting. Or even if they weren't upsetting, hearing these wonderful stories about my parents' adventures, you know, those were wonderful conversations, but when the conversation ended, I would be left with, Well, I still know how that story ended, so how happy can I really even be about this? It almost makes the end of their lives worse, or makes me even more sad about what happened to them. So the research was just like this constant, unearthing excavation of painful material. But, of course, the deadline approached, and I was like, "Alright, you really have to switch your research to writing," and what I then realized was that that actually opened a whole new investigation, and that was when the investigation of myself started happening; the investigation of my parents ended, but the self-investigation and really looking at my life is what started when I sat down to write the book and I thought, Where do I fit into this? How does my childhood fit in? What are the memories that are gonna help me tell this story? And that allowed me to shift the foundation to this larger narrative. 

My Dead Parents is available for purchase here.

Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images

Sounds fake, but okay

In a new interview for Australian Vogue, Kendall Jenner makes the claim that being associated with the Kardashian name was a setback in her modeling career. Hmmm, that's funny, because power and influence usually works in their holder's favor.

In the interview, Jenner addresses skeptics who doubted that she would make it as a professional model. "A lot of people assumed that because I came from a 'name' that it was a lot easier for me to get to where I got, but actually it's the completely opposite," she says.

"I've always been the person to prove [critics] wrong, even when I was younger," she says. "I've always been a hard worker: that's in my blood. My parents raised me and my little sister to be that way and the rest of my sisters, too." In the profile, it's revealed that Jenner used to attend castings "simply as 'K' or 'Kendall' to distinguish herself from her famous family."

But keeping her name off her portfolio wasn't going to fool anyone, really. Her face has been on television for years, and it seems unlikely that a casting agent wouldn't know who she was even if Kendall didn't come out and say it. Perhaps Jenner was more closely examined and more readily criticized by people who doubted her, but I'm not sure I believe that she had a harder time gaining a modeling platform or booking big jobs, even if she didn't use her last name.

After all, Jenner was likely able to get into those big casting rooms right away because of her family's connections, and she was able to devote her time to pursuing that career because of the wealth they have. She would've had a much harder time making a name for herself if she didn't come from an influential family. She probably wouldn't get to be so selective about which shows she walks, and she definitely wouldn't be the highest paid model in the world.

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Screenshot via Hulu

Introspection is not a bad thing

In Look Back at It, we revisit pop culture gems of the past and see if they're still relevant and worthy of their designated icon status in our now wildly different world.

"It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something, for no reason. Just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it's even you?"

Iconic '90s show My So-Called Life is filled with existential questions and observations like this, with many, if not all of them, voiced by high school sophomore Angela Chase (Claire Danes). They're delivered with a familiarly annoyed tone, as if Angela can't believe things are the way they are, and that they're unlikely to change.

Angela lives with her parents and sister in a comfortable home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and spends her time navigating the social scene of Liberty High School. She's undergoing a big change, having switched friend groups and fallen in with a cooler crew, namely Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). Thanks to them, Angela dyed her hair from blonde to a "Crimson Glow," and is encouraged to indulge in her obsession with Jordan Catalano (a pre-Gucci Jared Leto), the kind of guy who's constantly applying Visine and has a limited chance of actively graduating.

From the first moment of the first episode, Angela's voice is pure, unadulterated teen angst. The melodrama can, when watching as an adult, feel like it's too much. And then there's other times, like when Angela talks about the agony of Sunday evenings, that it feels unnerving to relate so much to a 15-year-old:

"There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself, especially if you've just been totally made a fool of by the only person you'll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday, which you still haven't studied for because you can't, because Brian Krakow has your textbook, and you're too embarrassed to even deal with it. And your little sister's completely finished with her homework, which is just, like, so simple and mindless a child could do it. And that creepy 60 Minutes watch that sounds like your whole life ticking away."

Angela is nothing if not an over-thinker, preoccupied with very teenage problems like zits and gossip and who to talk to at parties; her thoughts on the most simple of relationships are extreme, like when she thinks about how she felt before she became friends with Rayanne and Rickie: "it seemed like if I didn't, I would die or something."

Sometimes, her melodrama feels suffocating—particularly when related to Jordan Catalano (it's imperative to say both his names). Angela wonders: "Huge events take place on this earth every day. Earthquakes, hurricanes... even glaciers move. So why couldn't he just look at me?"

As an adult, it's easy to think that, of course, Jordan should look at her: She's smart, witty, open-hearted, pretty, has good taste in music. But then, there's no way to make sense of how crushes work. As a sophomore in high school, I also pined after guys who I felt were out of my league, and after the only girls who were out... but who were dating each other. My thoughts probably (definitely) sounded a lot like Angela's, and I was similarly dissatisfied with my life.

At the time, that dissatisfaction felt oppressive—and I wouldn't want to relive it entirely. But that introspection was also what saved me. By questioning what was around me and interrogating how I really felt, I was able to reject the trappings of my conservative town, figure out my own politics, and accept my own queerness. My teenage dissatisfaction with the way things actually are made me grow as a person, and it shaped me into who I am. Thinking about Angela now, and how her angst fueled her, reminds me that I should also let myself indulge in some teen angst—even as an adult.

In one of the show's final episodes, Angela pauses to reflect on the value of her overthinking. She's ringing in the New Year with her friends and decides her resolution could be "to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, because I'm like way too introspective… I think." But she decides against that idea, because "what if not thinking turns me into this really shallow person?" Same, Angela. Same.

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Courtesy of HBO

Thanks, I hate it

In an interview today with The Cut, Vanderpump Rules star Stassi Schroeder blessed readers with some of her thoughts on HBO's Game of Thrones, and since we can't get enough GoT talk, we were excited to see what Schroeder had to say.

And, in case you're wondering if Schroeder is a fan of GoT, don't: She's actually such a massive fan that she refers to her fans Khaleesis, and they call her Khaleesi right back. So!

Anyway, after the wide range of responses to Daenerys' fiery mayhem in the show's penultimate episode, The Cut wanted to check in to see how Schroeder was faring, and ask what she thought of it all. While Schroeder's opinion on Dany is mixed (she found the Dragon Queen's "crazy" actions to be relatable, but she didn't think it followed Dany's character arc), it wasn't, like, a bad opinion, just a bit muddled, if not so different than those of the majority of viewers.

Schroeder's real hot take, though—what we feel comfortable calling the worst GoT opinion we've heard—is about another character altogether: Arya Stark. Here's what Schroeder had to say about our favorite blacksmith-banging, Night King-killing, proposal-denying assassin in all the Seven Kingdoms: "Arya, I feel like she probably should have just married whats-his-name [Ed. note: Gendry! His name is Gendry!!]. What's wrong with being a lady and a badass at the same time? You don't have to choose just one."

And, like, sure, you don't have to choose just one, but Arya would never choose to be a lady. That's not her! So, if we're still talking about characters behaving inconsistently, Arya saying yes to a proposal (a rushed one at that) would have been absolutely bonkers. Arya's not about to change her entire personality just because some dude drops down on one knee and proposes, and to want her to do so would be like wanting Dany to act like a sheep, instead of a dragon.

All to say, you know nothing, Stassi Schroeder.

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hoto by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Civic Entertainment Group

Our favorite grouchy girl died today

Today is a sad day, because it is the day Grumpy Cat died. Also known as my personal favorite feline celebrity, Grumpy Cat died from complications following a urinary tract infection. The super relatable cat—real name, Tardar Sauce—was only seven years old.

Grumpy Cat was first introduced to the world in 2011, back when LOLcats were everywhere. Grumpy Cat's downturned face (the result of feline dwarfism, according to her owners) was the subject of a huge amount of memes—she was even the 2013 Meme of the Year at the Webby Awards—and was the subject of her own Lifetime movie, in which she was voiced by the Grumpy Cat of actresses, Aubrey Plaza. But, though we loved her for the memes, we loved her even more because we related to her mood.

Grumpy Cat was so relatable because, like us, she was completely over everyone's bullshit. Unlike us, Grumpy Cat didn't hide her feelings with a smile. And while that was because Grumpy Cat literally couldn't do that, we like to think that she also just didn't want to do the emotional labor. Which is why, in honor of Grumpy Cat, have the courage to roll your eyes at someone today, instead of forcing a fake grin. And just think about how Grumpy Cat's probably frowning at us from some sort of kitty afterlife, utterly annoyed that everyone is mourning her death.

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Screenshot via YouTube

And I need to see the rest ASAP

As excited as we already are for Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, to hit theaters next week, we just got even more desperate to see it. Why? Well, the first six minutes of the film were just released, and every minute is incredible.

The film opens on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) meditating and listening to a motivational tape telling her she's better than everyone else, and to "fuck those losers." Her room is decorated with pictures of Michelle Obama and RBG, so we know her head is in the right place. We learn she's the class president when she arrives at school with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever).

It's there that we get a glimpse of the social hierarchy in which Molly and Amy exist—but somewhere down near the bottom, way below the popular kids, the theater nerds, the stoners, and even the annoying class clown.

The film officially hits theaters on May 23, but Annapurna Pictures is holding advanced screenings across the country today, May 17—we're actually holding two of them! So, if you're in L.A. or New York, check them out.

But also, you can watch the first six minutes of the film, below, and prepare yourself to watch the whole movie in a week.

BOOKSMART | Uncut First 6 Minutes www.youtube.com

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