Chelsea Handler opens up about long-buried grief: "I'm not fully fixed or complete"

"My reaction to the election was not healthy": The author/comedian tells Salon how she got her life back from Trump

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 16, 2019 6:01PM (EDT)

Chelsea Handler. Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at
Chelsea Handler. Photography by Jill Greenberg, Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at

We love Chelsea Handler because she has no filter. She says and does whatever she pleases, unapologetically, blessing us with gut-busting, tears-inducing laughter even when she pisses us off. Her new book "Life Will Be the Death of Me: ... And You Too!" delivers more of that same crass wit that has earned her millions of fans through her TV and comedy work, but she also delves into the danger of avoiding confronting trauma and offers keen insights on dealing with pain.

Though laughter can be therapeutic, I don’t think most Handler fans normally consume her work in search of therapy recommendations or spiritual guidance. However, in "Life Will Be the Death of Me," the 44-year-old comedian writes frankly about her older brother Chet, who died on a hiking trip in 1984. Like many who have experienced that type of loss at a young age, Handler left her grief unresolved for years, thinking that hard work, success and money would remedy the pain. They didn't.

I lost my brother, my best friend and my grandma — literally all of the people I spoke to daily — in a one-year span, right before I was supposed to enter college. Experiencing lossin a world where everybody experiences loss all of the time doesn’t make it feel normal, but it can kind of force you to downplay something as life-altering as the death of a loved one. How do you publicly mourn one brother when you have a friend who has lost two or three siblings? Like Handler, I dug deeper into work, alcohol and anything else that allowed me to ignore that dark cloud of death that followed me everywhere for years: my home, the streets, more death, functions, school, galas and award ceremonies, more death, out to dinner, off to work, paydays, to the gym and then back home, and more death. I promised myself that I would do more to combat the pain attached to mass loss, and have broken that promise many times.

Friends and family always recommend therapy. Even though I’ve yet to try, it seems to have worked wonders for Handler. In the book, she writes about her life changing sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel, the importance of family and why we should face trauma head-on.

Handler joined me recently in Salon's studio to discuss her new book, how she reclaimed her time from Donald Trump, and adventures in cannabis and ayahuasca.

Let's start with the title. Why'd you choose to name it that?

Well, first you have a life and then you die, so it's like life and then death in that order. And once I thought that way I was like, "You know what? This life is going to lead to my death. And then I decided to write a book about the kind of death that was in my life. And as I was writing it more and more people kept dying and I went into my psychiatrist one day and said, "People are dropping like flies." I said, "Everyone's dying, this whole book is gonna be about death." And oh, I said it to my book editor Julie Grau and she was like, "That's OK. It's funny. Your death stories are funny."

And it happens to people sometimes.

And yeah, it happens to people sometimes. It's a great point. So it's something that a lot of people can experience and I wanted to do it with levity and humor instead ... because I think the conversation is so important. I don't want everybody to go through life the way that I did from nine to 40, completely blocking out any sort of trauma that I had when I was nine years old. I didn't want to address it, I didn't want to talk about it. And that's not the way you should go through life. So I think I finally had something that I could share that I thought would be important.

I think it's very important. I've written a lot about death myself. I lost a sibling too and people always ask me, "Was it therapeutic? Are you changed after it?" And I kind of still feel bad. So I wonder, am I doing something wrong? Did you feel a release when you spoke on some of those issues, especially dealing with your brother?

Well, yes I did. I felt a big catharsis. But it was also coupled with the therapy, the year long therapy that I went to, which is what led to the book. And I think by saying it out loud and by writing it down, I had never said out loud to anyone what my brother said to me before he died. I had never uttered it. It was like a dirty secret, even though it was too painful that he would come back, that he would never leave me with these people. And when I started talking about that stuff and admitting the conversation that did happen and how painful that was. And then writing it down, I feel like I really kind of helped that injury repair. And I'm not fully fixed or complete. But the biggest, deepest injury I had is now putting itself back together.

Has society become desensitized to death? We see it so much. It's like, 50 people [killed] with this mass shooting, 40 people with this thing.

Yeah. We've become desensitized to shootings and yeah, we don't value life like we used to. If we don't value children's lives, then whose lives do we value? I mean what's the point of that future?

So one of the things that's extremely funny is how you open the book, how you start it.

You mean the dedication?

It was the best dedication I ever read: So I was eating cereal. I was eating cereal and I was just enjoying my life and it was a beautiful day and it was nice and sweet and then I found out Donald Trump was elected.

And then everything just went. The cereal went soggy and plants started dying. And what was your day like?

It was rough. I had to do a TV show that day and I did it with my best friend, Mary McCormick, and Barbara Boxer came on as a special guest, because we thought we were going to be celebrating Hilary Clinton winning, so that was a bad day. We had to be on TV. I think I cried publicly for the first time, well maybe not the first but it was definitely crying on TV about the presidential election. So while it was probably a comfort to a lot of other people, I just made the term snowflake become a reality in my world anyway. I was like, my reaction to the election was not healthy, and my outrage was so high that I had to get my shit together.

So in the beginning I didn't think he had a shot and then towards the end the rallies got bigger and bigger and bigger and I was like ... Then when I went to Ohio, I was in Ohio around the same time as the [Republican National] Convention, and just even that scene was like, you've never seen anything like it. Cowboys, white men with confederate suits twerking. It was the weirdest shit I ever saw in my life.

Such a nightmare.

Yeah. But it was a real thing. So now that we're a couple of years in, how do you feel about it?

I feel that I wanted my life back. They robbed me, Trump and this administration robbed me of a year of my life and I wanted to be in a place of positivity and hopefulness and not wanting to leave the country every day. And I didn't want them to rob me again of any of my time. And I wanted it back and I wanted to harness that outrage and I wanted to take this presidency and turn it into something powerful for me because otherwise I will get cancer.

And so going to a psychiatrist was about healing myself. And what I realized through that in talking with someone was that my injuries ran much deeper than Donald Trump. Donald Trump is nothing in my world. He's a blip on all of our radars. And giving him this amount of attention isn't working and I don't need to do that with my day. So it was about me getting healthy. And also about really being thoughtful about my life moving forward. Like, what am I doing? I'm in my 40s. What is my identity? How tied to fame am I? Is this the most important thing? Is this the only thing I'm gonna be known for is having a television show? That's not gonna be good enough for me and I wanted to contribute in other ways. So I needed to really take a time out and just become a little bit more like self-aware.

That's also a journey. Like, you grow. And what meant the world to you five years ago probably doesn't mean the world to you now.

No, of course not. I mean you know, five years ago I wasn't open to even taking ... you know the great thing about a psychiatrist is you're paying them to tell you what's wrong with you and I like that exchange. I like paying for a service like that. I get a lot out of ... then I take the person seriously. So what was your question? I don't know. I'm just answering random questions.

Well, just the whole idea of we grow. So maybe at one point a show was the biggest thing in the world, but then you get that and you experience that and then it becomes different things. What are the biggest things for you now?

I love to ski now. I love to actually meditate now, which is something that helps me so much. Like I always was like, "Oh, meditation." You hear words like gratitude and universe and meditation all the time in LA, so sometimes as a cynical person like me, I don't have time ... like I don't take that stuff seriously. And then you find out about it and you experience it on your own and you're like, "Oh."

Cannabis has opened up my mind. I rediscovered cannabis because I couldn't drink when I was that angry because I would just get crazy. So I was like, "Okay, maybe it's time to pivot." I discovered cannabis, it allowed me to quiet down long enough to meditate. So that was my gateway drug to meditation, was cannabis. And now I meditate and I've just changed a lot in the last couple of years and I owe that to this president for sure.

That's big business now. Everybody's smoking everywhere. But it should have been legal. Like I would rather be at a party full of people who are smoking weed than at a party full of people who are drinking too much alcohol. Because alcohol people want to fight. Weed people, they might hold hands and take a nap.

And it's alcohol — drunk is just not a hot look. It's never hot. And after a certain age, it's certainly not hot. So cannabis is where it's at. I mean, we have medicine growing out of the ground that we made illegal. Like Mother Earth put this here and we're saying ... we let a bunch of guys say, "No, you can't smoke that. That's illegal. Let's lock up every person who gets caught with a dime bag." And yet we have an opioid industry and a pharmaceutical industry, so it's really imbalanced.

So I have a line of weed coming out in the summer and it is gonna be a brand that de-stigmatizes ... first of all women need to be emboldened and empowered to use weed the way that men do. It is a medicinal thing, cannabis, and people, now that there's an educational component that was missing for so many years, we're able to now know you're not taking an edible at a party and end up in the bathroom for four hours vomiting. You're actually gonna micro-dose and just have a great night and totally remember every single thing, and hopefully not drink as much. It's definitely cut my drinking in half, which is also a sentence I never thought I'd say.

One of the things that stuck out to me in this book is when you were writing about Trump supporters and how your upbringing and your rise to fame and power was kind of like you escaping that so you were able to look at ... and then you said that you're dad's like Trump, but not as successful. Could you explain that?

Can I explain my dad what?

Your upbringing in relation to the reality of a Trump supporter, and why you said your dad was kind of like Trump but not as successful.

Well, my dad was a used car dealer, so he was not powerful in any way, which is a good thing, 'cause he was a shyster and he lied and he cheated and he wasn't an upright citizen. He wasn't a hard core criminal, but he was shifty and shady and I saw that growing up. And I think Trump was such a trigger for me because my dad is so much like him. And those guys being in control is not a world I want to live in.

Is it easy to write about your family?

Yeah. It's really easy to write about my family. And luckily they've given me ... well, they've given me an entire career about them. So that's helpful and they're good sports about it. And they like it now. Now that I'm growing up and they like coming on press tours with me. My sister was with me yesterday and my family likes ... I think they're happier that I've finally calmed down a little bit.

They're like, "Thank God for weed."

They're like, "We never think this is gonna happen." It's like I'm speaking Japanese all of a sudden. They're like, "Wait a minute. Is this another one of your trends like you're gonna be into this for two years and then be out?" I'm, "Yeah maybe. Maybe it is a trend." I don't know but it's what's happening right now.

Did you ever say anything on stage or on television that pissed off somebody in your family?

Yeah. I've had all my family members not speak to me at some point. But in this book I focus on my brother's wife because she's a Russian. And so I have a problem with Russians in general, and she is a focus of that attention. And I said to my brother, "Is Olga?" Like he goes, "She reads all your books." I go, "Well, I'm gonna talk a little bit of shit about her, so I hope she's down with that." And there's literally a chapter about me and my dog traveling to Spain and how annoying Olga was on the trip and that I had to take a sleeping pill to get out of it, because I couldn't hang out with my family anymore. I was so annoyed on vacation that I just had to drug myself. So I said to my brother, "If I write about Olga ..." He's like, "Yeah. Yeah. She reads all your books, but I think you've made fun of her a bunch already." I was like, "Okay, great."

But that's what families should be. You should be able to poke fun at it. I think we're just living in a time now where PC culture is just trying to suck the life out of comedy. Do you see that?

Yeah. Yeah. I think everyone's really frustrated and confused. And there's an overcorrection happening right now, but it's necessary. Everybody got a little out of hand, so now we have to overcorrect and then hopefully end up somewhere in the middle where people can act normal, and if you want to ask somebody out at work you can do that.

 I'm almost like ... I almost feel like that balance might not happen because there's big money in overcorrecting stuff. There's big industries in business plans, things being created for people who are the masters of overcorrecting. It's a new industry.

Right. But there's going to be another new industry in five years, and another one in five years. So like that doesn't define something's existence, I think. But you're right. There will be a bunch of industries that are like, "Oh, we're gonna train your employees how not to sexually harass somebody at work." 'Cause you need training to do that.

So if I make you feel racist will you buy me a car?


Okay. All right.

I mean I'm trying not to do that anymore, buy people cars, because I've done that a lot. And I'm trying to be more reasonable with my approach to everything and have balance. So I would have to really offend you. But to buy you off with a car seems cheap anyway. I'll get you a plane.

 Thank you.

You're welcome.

 I don't know how to make people feel racist. I think it would just be like ...

"If I make you feel racist" is a great opener. It's like, "Oh shit, I'm sorry. Did I do something already?"

Well, actually ... no I was just ... I could use a jet. So you got really, really, really vulnerable in this book and I know it can be extremely difficult. What now, so what's the next step now? Do you start like a rebirth? Is it like ...

No, it's not a rebirth. This is just me ... I've been making a career for my life about just talking and sharing and oversharing. And this is something that happened to me in my life that's real and authentic, so this is another opportunity for me to overshare and all the stuff that I'm gonna do moving forward is gonna have this kind of tone in it.

I did a documentary for Netflix that comes out in September on white privilege, my own specifically and that is ... these two things I've been working on for the last year and they're important. Because that's what I want to do moving forward is have a little more thought behind what I do rather than just cashing a check and becoming more famous or more successful. Really thinking about strategically what is the right thing for me to do and what feels right. This book feels right. The documentary felt right and I think it's going to be stuff like that from now on. I feel like I have a sense of responsibility at this time of my life.

You have projects that you can look back on and say that I'm really glad I worked on that?

Everything I've done I'm proud of. I mean, I think. Maybe a couple of things I wish I hadn't done. But for the most part I'm really happy that I've taken so many risks and that I'm ... I look back at my career and I go, "Oh my God, I can't believe you did that and that." And I feel so fearless when I look at myself. And then I'm like, "Wait, that's you. You could do that."

I think you're fearless.

I'm not fearless.

Sometimes I feel like when you talk about yourself, it seems like you downplay some of your talent. I heard you say something about you failed up before, like you made a mistake and failed up, and then I saw something else where you said you have success because you're blonde. But you're a great interviewer. You're funny and you're a great writer. These things are valuable. People want this.

Thank you.

You ever feel like you have to downplay yourself?

Yeah. You're right. I think we all do. I think women in general just do that because you don't want to act like you deserve what you have. You don't want to be like, "Of course I got this. Look at my writing."

But you know everyone can't do this so there's a value in that.

Yeah. This book I feel like, yes, I feel like I wrote a book. The other books I would say, and I don't want to diminish again that, because you're right, that's bad juju, I shouldn't be doing that because I have accomplishments and I should be proud of them. Thank you for this pep talk.

Well, the next thing I want you to do is create an app where we can all purchase white privilege.


Since you brought privilege up.

That's a great way to end the film.

Make an app where I can just say, "You know what? I'm traveling to Utah this weekend. I probably need about $3700 worth of white privilege. So I can go out and get into all ...

Totally. Wouldn't that be something. An app for white privilege. All right. I gotta get my wheels turning on that one. God, it would be hard to equate how much you get for what. I mean who's going to decide that stuff? But it's a great idea. One that should be pursued.

Yeah. Let's work on it. So what's next? So you have the new documentary coming out.

I'm nine months pregnant, so I'm going to have a baby any day now.


Thank you. Thank you very much. And after the baby is born, I will probably ... I have my cannabis line, my book, my documentary. Nothing. I don't know what I'm going to do after that. No plans. I'm going to see what the world throws at me.

Do I also feel like you've accomplished a lot with the documentary series that you have. I thought the one on drugs was really funny. I thought the one about race was funny, sitting there with Reverend Al [Sharpton] and all that. I always got a funny story about him because when I was in grad school, this one kid — 

Where'd you go to school?

Johns Hopkins. And this kid was like, "Well, you know, I wanna have a real conversation about race with you, but all you guys wanna do is go get Reverend Al." And I'm like, "I don't know him. How am I gonna get a hold of Reverend Al Sharpton?" First of all he has the softest hair I ever saw. You can't be a regular person and have that type of access. I mean it's sort of reverend, like you know what I mean? Is he really a Reverend?

Yeah. He is. I think you have to be to be called one, no?

No. I mean, you can get all of these different things.

No. Reverend I think ... I don't wanna ... I'm probably wrong. I don't know anything about it. Maybe he's not. Maybe he's not a Reverend.

Your show about drugs is the one that I want to ask about. 

Ayahuasca. I did ayahuasca for a show. I get more questions about that than dating 50 Cent. I had a great ayahuasca experience because I went to Peru. I wrote about it in the book, because I went to Peru and did it for my Netflix special. But I wrote about it because so many people ask constantly ask me about ayahuasca and people are so curious about this plant that they grow in Peru and then they brew it into tea and then you drink it. Have you done it?

 I haven't done it, but I heard it was extremely disgusting.

Yeah. People go to the bathroom, number two, and they vomit back and forth. And so they tell you get ready for that kind of night.

So even if you do it around your friends, it's still bad 'cause you don't wanna be around your friends while they're throwing up.

Nobody wants to be doing both of those things ever, with their friends or without them. So the shaman, I didn't have to go the bathroom, but I vomited. And it's like a purging. But it's an incredible experience and one that I'll never forget. And it's fun to do a drug and then have it be a concentrated like two hour experience. And the images, it's psychedelic. So you get imagery and you see your childhood play out before your eyes. And you see yourself outside of your own body as a little girl, and then as an older girl and you're like oh my God. And your sisters or whoever comes to you. And most people it's somebody they really love and it kind of deepens the relationship with that person and reminds them of what real love is.

Is this something you think everyone should try?

No. No. Most people probably shouldn't try it. It's about ... A, you have to be okay with drugs and getting really high.

But it's like a tea, so it's not like we're doing lines of ayahuasca.

Well, you might wish you were after you take that tea because you could explode. You could have a huge explosion and then if you're not wearing your diaper, what would happen? It would be everywhere.

So is it something you would try again? You feel like ...


Is it in the plans or ...

Ah, no. I don't have it in the plans, but I'm open to always doing drugs. I'll try anything. Like if it's a drug that has like a spiritual correlation or can open your mind like micro-dosing with mushrooms is interesting to me. I do that a lot. I like ... they're doing micro-dosing with LSD now. I've never done that but I would do it. I like anything that makes you start ... accesses a part of your brain that's kind of sleeping.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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