Actor-writer couple Jessica St. Clair and Dan O'Brien on the TV shows (and more) they turn to for comfort
Jessica St. Clair and Dan O'Brien spend a lot of time creating content to soothe other people — St. Clair with her USA show Playing House and podcast The Deep Dive, and O'Brien with his award-winning poetry and plays. His newest work, Our Cancers, is a collection of poems that reflect on the 18 months in 2015 and 2016 during which both he and St. Clair, who are married, were diagnosed with the disease (he: colon; she: breast).
"I kept calling it my People magazine moment," St. Clair says of the time. "Because it's like one of the stories you would only read about and think, 'I can't believe that happened to that person.'"
The book ruminates on commitment, partnership, and finding meaning in life's devastations — but upliftingly so! Like the third season of Playing House, which saw St. Clair's character receive her diagnosis, Our Cancers translates off-the-page pain into something therapeutic. "For artists, this is a coping mechanism," OBrien says. "Creating art and seeking out patterns is a way to feel control over the chaos."
As devotees of the art-as-security-blanket school of thought, St. Clair and O'Brien put their heads together to offer up the pop culture they've turned to for comfort over the years.
Escape to the Chateau
St. Clair: "During the early days of the pandemic, this was my comfort watch. I would watch maybe 15 minutes a night, and it was my little treat. The moment that theme song plays, Dan instantly falls asleep. It's like old literature in that way, but I like the idea of escaping. I daydream about selling everything and living in the countryside."
St. Clair: "During the Big C, I became obsessed with audiobooks. I would go walking constantly because sitting felt too passive, so I would walk for three to four hours sometimes. Rising Strong by Brené Brown was very important to me. Also, Amy Poehler's audiobook of Yes Please."
O'Brien: "I would call her to find out where she was, and she'd find her way all the way out to Malibu."
Super Soul Sunday
St. Clair: "I would binge Oprah's Super Soul Sunday because I needed to hear other people talking about going through hard times themselves, and how they recovered. I think it's part of why Dan and I both wanted to write about our story, because we obsessively searched for cancer happy endings and there aren't many — there are a lot of scary stories. I had to go back to microfiche times to find an old Parade magazine article about Robin Roberts surviving breast cancer."
O'Brien: "I also went back in time [laughs]. During Jessica's treatment I became obsessed with radio dramas. I was going back to the '30s. Like, shows with the organ music where people were having melodramatic affairs or solving murders. This only lasted as long as Jessica's treatment, but then during the beginning of COVID, I did pop back into old movies from the 1930s and '40s. I'm talking bad movies. I was combing through Youtube to find movies nobody has the rights to anymore. But I think I liked that it took me to a place so far back it felt safe…? I feel that way about books, too — that they're frozen in time, and if our present life feels out of control we can go back to a place that's already fixed."
St. Clair: "I kept wondering if Dan was really craving the idea of a man coming home with a briefcase. These movies are so traditional — the woman was always a Scarsdale housewife."
O'Brien: "It makes me think about the way styles and norms change. What will Playing House look like to people 100 years from now? How bizarre will it be?"
O'Brien: "During my treatment I found comfort in British comedy, like Toast of London, and also the Midsomer Murders. It's kind of a mix of Murder, She Wrote and Law & Order. Each week they solve another mystery, and it takes place in this idyllic, fictional county in England. There's satisfaction in the control of the mystery being solved. It seems scary, but it's not really because it's all tied up at the end."
St. Clair: "Like on my Escape to the Chateau — I just want to see somebody in a 14th-century chateau have a septic problem, and then they solve it, and by the end of the episode they have a working toilet. That is what I want."
The Property Brothers
O'Brien: "During Jess' treatment and then mine, I didn't have as much time to write as I would have liked. I couldn't read to escape, because that felt too passive, so I turned to home makeover shows."
St. Clair: "He was recovering from one of his surgeries, and let's just say I made a mistake on the dosing of some of the medications, and he was on the verge of a panic attack. The only thing that calmed him was The Property Brothers. He was like, 'Listen to me, I need you to sit here, and I need you to watch 13 hours of the Property Brothers with me.' He couldn't sleep, and it wasn't enough that he watch it — I also had to watch it. I wound up writing it into a scene on Playing House, where Lennon had a sex dream about one of the brothers. Now even the sound of their voice or seeing them on the cover of a magazine is enough to send Dan back into that day of panic."
World War II Novels
St. Clair: "I've said this on my podcast, but I'm deep into these novels — and I'm sure there's a huge market for this type of book — about two girls who, like, get through the Blitz. My friend [actress-writer] Danielle Schneider is always recommending books to me, and anytime she does you know the war or the Holocaust is going to sneak into that plot. But I'm like, 'What can we learn from these people who went through this?'"
Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
O'Brien: "I couldn't write about what we were going through at the beginning of treatment, and I had no interest in books about cancer, but I did read Susan Sontag's  book about her experience with breast cancer — she also relates it to AIDS. It's called Illness as Metaphor. But for the most part I couldn't quite handle the topic, and I still cannot read many memoirs about having cancer."
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
St. Clair: "One book I did love and that I always recommend to people having their own People magazine moment is Option B. It seems like it would be too sad, but it is hopeful. It's actually crazy optimistic because what happens is her husband dies suddenly and then Sheryl contacts her friend, who is a psychologist, and inquires about what makes somebody emerge from a trauma with growth as opposed to PTSD. There are five or so things that contribute to somebody emerging better from something terrible. I read it and thought, 'Oh, somebody can go through something like this and have a better life.' My friends tell me not to say this in interviews [laughs], but I always say I think everybody should have just a tiny bit of cancer because then you know that the secret to life is it's not permanent. And that we should grab any chance at joy. "
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