Stephanie Wittels Wachs on writing a memoir about her beloved brother's death
Harris Wittels, who wrote for such acclaimed sitcoms as Parks and Recreation and The Sarah Silverman Program by the time he was 24, was one of comedy’s hottest names before his death at age 30 from a drug overdose. Now his sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, 37, has written a memoir revisiting the period that followed Wittels’ death in 2015.
Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful recounts the grieving process with unbearable frankness. The loss of a TV wunderkind, so beloved by so many, created an unhealthy social media cycle of remembrance and backlash which Stephanie had to grapple with. His experiences with addiction had deeply hurt the family long before he passed. And though a year has gone by, and much of the world has moved on, his family is forever changed. Wittels Wachs discusses all of this and more in an interview with EW about the book — and about how she’s feeling, now that her story is out there for all to absorb. Read on below, and in case you missed it, preview an excerpt here.
Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You dig deep in this book, and it’s very personal. Did you struggle with telling this story?
STEPHANIE WITTELS WACHS: I didn’t really decide [to tell it]; it was decided for me. I never would have made a decision like that, because you’re right: Now that I’m less grief-stricken in such an acute way, and I see people holding the book, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s my diary you’re holding!” At the time, I just truly needed to get all of that stuff out. I can only describe it as like an exorcist type of thing, where I was full of this darkness and sadness and confusion and anger — all the bad stuff. The only way I could move forward was to write about it.
Particularly, you really explore the effects of addiction on a family. What was it like to unpeel that?
That was really tied into it at the time for me. I talk in the book about the manic investigative phase. When something happens that doesn’t make any sense at all, there’s this need to figure out why it happened or how it happened. There’s this detective thing that took over. I needed to try to make sense of this senseless tragedy. The addiction rollercoaster that we were on was so tied into it. The story doesn’t start the day Harris died; the story starts the day he told me he was an addict. That was its own emotional grieving process. The feeling of being out of control and feeling this crippling anxiety constantly, and just worrying — these really negative feelings that are part of grieving were also part of loving an addict. It’s a different kind of a feeling, but it lives in the same place. A big part of my process, of moving forward, was to try to backtrack and figure out how we had gotten to this point.
How would you describe Harris’ comic legacy?
Oh, he’s the genius. He’s the genius. I think it was Sarah Silverman who said he was the funniest boy in the world. He was the comedian that all of the comedians that everyone loved went to for punch-ups. He just was revered and respected by so many people for his talent. When you go back and read through even his Twitter, no other brain worked like his brain. He saw the world in this completely unique way and was able to spin anything into a joke. Even when you see the emails he sent me from rehab, they’re all funny. He never stopped being funny. He was an asshole at times, but he never stopped being funny. I’m going to L.A. next week, and I shot Sarah Silverman an email a few weeks back where I was like, “Hey, I’m coming in, does anybody have any interest in doing some sort of a Harris-centric show?” She got right on it. She’s booking an entire show; they’re doing a big comedy show at UCB for him next week. That’s the kind of pull that he had. People loved him. Justifiably so — I think he’s the funniest guy that ever lived. I’m on that train.
A lot of A-list comedians were right behind you on that, grieving in this very public and high-profile way.
We’d had the privilege of meeting those people over the years — they were Harris’ friends, they were part of his social circle and community. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, this is so crazy!” It was like, these are his people. Our experience of them, and his experience of them, is that they’re amazing, incredible, human people. The 48 hours after we found out that Harris died, it was horrific. The first time we all smiled and laughed was me reading that blog post [I wrote shortly after his death] out loud to my parents. It was this moment of relief where we could just stop crying for 10 minutes. It’s comforting to read about how special he was to these people. My mom’s talked about this a lot. She does a lot of outreach now about addiction. She speaks at schools and really wants to fight the epidemic; she says there’s a lot of shame, obviously, around drug addiction and when you die in that way. So having people revere him still and put him on this platform is really comforting. We don’t want him to be defined by the way that he died; we want him to be remembered for the way that he lived. It’s great that he’s still in their minds and in their thoughts. He hasn’t been forgotten.
The social media aspect, again given that Harris was a public figure, was difficult to read in the book at times.
My birthday is today, actually. My birthday coincides with Harris’ death day: He died yesterday three years ago. Facebook in particular, I couldn’t — this was the first year, on the third anniversary, that I was able to look at any of these birthday messages without wanting to vomit, without having this visceral response. That first year, I remember it being so insane that my brother had died 12 hours before, and then people were posting “Happy birthday!” on my Facebook timeline, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The dissonance of that was sickening to me. I just was like, I don’t ever want to celebrate my birthday again, much less see exploding balloon graphics when I log on.
What was it like having so many fans mourn with you?
Initially it was cool, like you’re grieving, and you’re in it, and everyone’s in it with you. Everyone on in the internet was in it with me; we were all grieving Harris. And then they moved on, because that’s what happens with social media. And they moved on pretty quickly, because that’s what also happens with social media. That was like a second bomb dropped on me. Like, “Not only is he dead now, but now none of you care anymore? I’m still totally crippled over here.” I just remember Leonard Nimoy died shortly after — and it was, “Now we’re going to talk about him dying.” [Laughs] Everybody moved on! It was weird. Then there are the hashtags of Harris Wittels — the trending topic part of it. It’s not trending for the people who are experiencing it; it’s just where we are forever. Never going to be a trending topic. This is how we live now, like we have an arm cut off. So yeah, it was a really difficult layer for me to navigate and deal with.
But then on the other hand, I found my voice as a writer really through publishing things on Medium and having this other kind of social media interaction with people, where I wrote this essay that poured out of my soul and then I had hundreds of people commenting: “Oh my God, I know exactly how that feels,” “I went through this too,” “Nobody’s talking about this,” “You voiced something that I never could.” That felt okay — everybody relating to where I was, that I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced this before. So that was a really positive experience. And frankly, my agent found me through an essay on Medium. I didn’t even look for it, I didn’t even try.
Now that you’ve written the book, you’re almost reliving it again by promoting it and discussing it. Has that given you new perspective on the book and your story?
Having to promote the book, at first, felt like the worst nightmare I could ever conjure: “Now I have to promote this?” What it has gotten me to do is think about why I wrote it and reflect on where I was, and how far we’ve all come. When I was in the middle of writing it, I was in the middle of some really intense, powerful emotions. I was really, really angry and sad. I was purely guided by emotion. Now that that has subsided, I can intellectually look at all of this and see what a journey it’s been. I have changed completely. My life has changed completely since Harris passed away; I’m a completely different human being in every way. I joke, “Listen, if you want to change your life or reinvent yourself, have the most terrible shit happen to you, and then you’ll be forced to rebuild into a new person.” This is my recipe for changing your life.
I was really scared to take action before Harris passed away, like everybody is. We talk ourselves out of things and we fret about little things, and once your world kind of explodes, you don’t have any room to do that. I just didn’t care anymore — like, “Okay, I don’t want to do this job anymore, I’m quitting” or “Okay, I want to do this new thing, I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to write this book. I don’t care what happens.” It’s a freeing positive existentialism. It’s like a positive version of #NothingMatters — nothing matters so we’re all going to die, so let’s live! When I look back on it, I’m grateful that I wrote the book because I do not think I’d be where I am right now in my own human development without having gotten all of that out. Processing all of that freed me to move forward. I really think I excised some demons, and now I’m here on the other side, not only grateful that it’s over, but I’m a total cynic. I’m a pessimist at heart. But I do feel in some way strong. My perception of myself has changed because I lived through this terrible thing, and I’m okay. This resilience of the human spirit is true. People do live through terrible things and then come out stronger on the other side. I feel a rebirth — not to get too heebie-jeebie, but it’s a strangely more positive feeling than I expected that it would be.