"The Ugly Cry" reveals the pain and humor of growing up "Black and weird"

Debut author Danielle Henderson appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss her memoir as an ode to her grandmother

Published July 22, 2021 7:01PM (EDT)

The Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson (Photo illustration by Salon/Viking)
The Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson (Photo illustration by Salon/Viking)

Released in June, "The Ugly Cry" isn't a light beach read, but that doesn't make it any less compelling or easy to read. At times devastating, but always brilliant, the new memoir by first-time author Danielle Henderson effortlessly achieves the authenticity every writer strives so hard for. 

Framed by pathos and abuse, the book elegantly balances the author's experience growing up Black in a mostly white town, and her very funny take on how her unforgettable and fiercely protective grandmother raised her when her mother left. In fact, the entire story is really an ode to Henderson's grandmother, who made Henderson who she is today. "Thank you for saving me. Thank you for teaching me how to save myself," Henderson writes in the book's acknowledgements. 

When you read her story, you can see why. As a child Danielle was, "Black and weird (before weird was cool)," according to the blurb. And though it took a long time and lots of therapy, Henderson realized being "weird" and surviving trauma and explicit racism helped her develop the kind of worldview and humor against the odds.

Her journey might have also have enabled her ability to successfully write difficult fictional television relationships. A former Los Angeles TV writer whose credits include "Maniac," "Divorce" and "Difficult People," Henderson recently returned to her home town of Warwick, New York. There, she says, she bought a farm with a host of creatures "not paying rent" that she's learning to deal with, and is retrofitting her house with elder-accessible features so she can look after her elderly grandmother. 

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Danielle Henderson here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

This book was really touching and special. This is an ode to your grandmother who raised you. You say in the book that she was no kind of storybook elder though, which means the type who bakes cookies, gives advice, gives hugs, right? Yet, you credit her for making you who you are today. You wrote in your acknowledgements, "Thank you for saving me. Thank you for teaching me how to save myself." Please tell us about her and why you choose to frame your narrative story this way?

I chose to frame it this way because it's just the truth of who she is and who I am. I think that when I kind of credit her for shaping me, it's because even though her love was very tough and sometimes brutal, her goal was always to make me an independent, kind of fiercely independent person who made her own decisions and trusted her own opinions. She succeeded in that way. I don't know what my life would have been like without her because as I write in the book, my mother wasn't present in the same way. I wasn't getting that kind of guidance in my life from anywhere else.

You have so many wonderful, I don't even want to call them anecdotes, that's weird, like real life great moments with your grandmother and your brother Cory. Her take on horror movies and her tough love. I think even one time your brother burned himself and she blamed him because it was past his bedtime. Which were one or two that really stuck out to you so people can get a real feel for the types of things in the book if they haven't read it?

I feel like her response to my emotions when I ran home after I had punched my friend in the face because she was changing the rules while we were playing kickball. I was so frustrated with her and I popped her in the face and her nose started bleeding and I ran home crying. My grandma was like, "Go back out there and finish the fight. What are you doing in here?" That is her to a T, "Why are you crying? Why didn't you finish?"

But then on the flip side, I think that her response to when I was a teenager and I told her, not only that I was depressed, but that the reason I was depressed was rooted in the sexual abuse I had suffered, I didn't really know how she would respond to that. Her fierce love really came through in that moment. Her kind of collecting me and hugging me and telling it was okay and it wasn't my fault. She was the first person to kind of set me on that path of healing. I think those are two of the most prevalent examples to me of who my grandmother is as a person.

Wow. She's still alive today. Tell us about her now?

She's still alive. She's 88 years old. I just purchased a house in my hometown and the reason is that she's going to be moving in with me. She does have dementia and she's still pretty with it, but she kind of gets stuck in her repetitive loop sometimes. Her short-term memory isn't so great. She's very quickly getting to a point where she can't live on her own anymore. No one else in my family is really equipped to take care of her so I thought, "Okay. I'll come back to New York and you can live with me." That's how I ended up back in my hometown because she's still here.

Feels very full circle in a way now. Did you have that feeling? Elder care, especially for an elder with dementia, is exceedingly difficult, which I'm sure you already know. What was it that made you feel like this is the time to do that?

Well, I had hired an in-home care aid for her last year. Actually, it's been almost a year and a half now. It's just this wonderful woman who comes and hangs out with her every day for a few hours, make sure she has her medication and kind of is okay for most of the day. But my grandma again, is so independent that she's like, "I don't want somebody here all day, every day. I want family or nobody else." Just kind of seeing the position that she was in and trying to help her navigate her independence, while realizing that that's not going to be realistic for too much longer, that really helped prompt the decision. The pandemic helped. Being away from her for a year and a half was awful. It was terrible. 

I was just ready to get out of LA. LA is a great place for a lot of different people. I never quite fit in. I lived there for almost five years and I just felt like a total loser the whole time. All I did was work. That's all I did. I had no personal life there. It's very hard to have a personal life there. When you're in your 40s, it's difficult. I felt like most of the people I met there were very transactional. They instantly wanted me to help them get them work in television once they found out what I did. That's not the basis of a long-lasting friendship for me. I really shut down, because I'm like, "I'm sick of people asking me to get them work," because one, I'm not powerful enough to do that. I'm just a writer. I can't hire anybody. But also, I just want a friend. Can we just get a cup of coffee and not have it be so transactional? It was time for me to leave for lots of reasons. I'll still have my jobs there. I'll probably still have to go to LA quite a bit for work, but I feel much better not living there. I already, in the last three weeks I've been here, have a better social life than I had for the last five years.

I also started out as a freelance writer. More recently, obviously you had success in television where you created these emotionally complex characters. What made you feel ready at 44, you've shared your age so I don't feel bad, or 40s, to write a memoir? 

I'm exactly the age I am. There's no getting around it and I'm proud of it. I don't mind at all. I asked myself that a lot and I've been asked that a couple of times. I think the most realistic answer is that I've done so much work in therapy and I've done so much work on myself to get to a point where I wasn't really denigrating my story, which I did for a long time. I kind of felt like people have it worse, people go through other things that are so much more complicated than this. This doesn't matter. I got through it. I'm over it. I did that for a long time and thought, "This wasn't something that people needed to read or waste their time on," right?

Then as I got older and as I got more self-esteem and kind of decided to really approach my life with intention, I realized that the way I was raised was so unique and completely the reason why I am the way I am now. When people ask, "How did you get here?" I now have a book I can hand them and say, "This was the start. If you grow up like this, then you might get where I am. This is one pathway to where I am." I wrote it as an explanation for myself, as a way to kind of, really just come to terms with where I am in my life. I wrote it at a point where I was evolving and I thought that that evolution needed to be kind of marked in some way.

Writing about that evolution in long form feels very different I'm sure than writing scripted television and feature pieces for media outlets. How did you experience that?

Writing a book is wild. It is wild. I thought, "I'm a writer. I know how to do this. I've written so many things." Even the process of it is so different. I think that's what took me the longest time to adjust to, not just because I'm accustomed to writing in a solitary way. I'm accustomed to being edited. But the format of the book, it was overwhelming at times to think about putting so much information out there, the structure of it and how to make it make sense.

I'm extraordinarily grateful to my editor and truly my entire team at Penguin and Viking because they helped tremendously. My editor is Andrea Schulz. After I sold the book, we sat down right away and she said, "Just tell me what stories you're interested in telling." I gave her a few stories and she was like, "This is great. This is great. This is great. Maybe we should structure it this way." She didn't change anything that I wanted to write. She just kind of helped me figure out the path, and that is what I needed more than anything. I'm really glad that we have that kind of relationship where I could call her and say, "I'm having a lot of trouble with this. I don't know if this is the right story to tell." Then we would talk it through and figure out some of the stuff, but it was more collaborative than I thought it would be, but it was also much more solitary at times than I thought it would be.

I'm really good at just kind of banging stuff out. I'm not really the kind of writer who sits and noodles too much. I try not to be too painstaking about it. If it's not happening, it's not happening. I'll just go do something else and come back to it. I really felt at times that I had to be that kind of writer. I had to do these edits. I had to figure out the story. It helped me grow as a writer to write this kind of long form book. It removed the fear of the process, which is again, something that comes very easily to me to be freaked out about something and decide that I'm not going to be good at it. I was really happy to get through it and realize that, "Oh yeah, this is a different process, but I can do this."

A lot of this stuff is framed with humor. That is one of the hardest things to write, so I really admire it, but it is very sad and very difficult. Some of these experiences, you mentioned sexual abuse, abandonment, things that you wisely have pursued so much therapy for over the years, are very difficult. Was it difficult to sit down at that 4AM space and write, even though you had prepared yourself and this was the time to do it?

No. I was gentle with myself during those more difficult parts. It wasn't hard to sit down and write it, only because I've had so much practice over the years, just telling my story to friends and family members and therapists. It felt more like I was reporting the things that were happening then I was reliving them. It felt actually very empowering to be able to do that because I didn't know what was going to happen when it came time to writing these more difficult parts of my life. I was prepared to be devastated, but I was happy that I just kind of reported it and got through it.

The thing that I was worried about in terms of the structure of the narrative tone is I didn't want it to feel like I was removing myself from the process because so much of the book I'm writing with such deep emotion and remembering the emotions that I felt, which is what kind of has always helped me bolster my memories. I didn't want these parts to feel like I was robotic or I wasn't telling something with as much passion or an artistic voice. I was kind of pleased with how it came out, that I was able to still tap into those emotions, but not be leveled by them. It wasn't really cathartic because I think again, I've kind of dealt with the emotions already. It felt more like just an acknowledgement of a time that was formative for me, but wasn't the only thing that formed me.

I didn't write chronologically all the time. I kind of would jump around a little bit because I had a really great outline. Again, my editor is fantastic. I had a great outline that I was working from. That's kind of how I prefer to write everything I write. I do longhand first. I'll take my longhand notes, and then I'll jump in and start writing. If I wasn't feeling it that day, I would kind of dip around and do something else, but I didn't push it. I didn't push it too hard.

There were actually quite a few months where I couldn't write at all because I was going through the motions of trying to heal and trying to prepare myself to write these chapters. I was generous with myself, but I think that my publisher was also very generous with me. Viking was really thoughtful about not pushing those hard deadlines when I felt like, I just really can't today. This is a time when I can do this. I think that being able to communicate that is what I also feel proud about for myself because I haven't always been able to communicate my needs or my feelings. It was just a really good relationship overall and it just helped me get through those times when I was writing about really intense stuff.

My therapist, she kind of constantly, when we first met, she said, "I realize that you're someone who uses humor to mask a lot of her pain," and I laughed and then I immediately burst into tears. I was like, "Oh my gosh, she's a witch. What is going on?" I think that was also the thing that I wanted to make sure hit well in tone of the book, is that I do gravitate towards humor. That purely comes from my grandmother as well. She always would say like, "If we don't laugh about it, we'll cry about it and nobody wants to be doing that." I do gravitate towards humor, but I didn't want that to detract from the intensity of what everything else that was happening. It was a balance that was kind of hard to strike for the book, but the only way that I could do it was just to write in my own voice and see if it would work.

I'm sure that your publicist and your publisher are proud of how this came out. The book is doing well, and your grandmother, she must be proud. Did she ever know that you wanted to be a writer? Has she ever said anything to you about that?

Oh, completely. She used to constantly tell me when I was a kid, "Somebody should write about this family." She would say in her moments of deepest frustration because I think she's a creative person who never really had that kind of outlet. She would crochet and do kind of handiwork kind of things and craft work. She never tried to express herself in another way, and I think she would have been brilliant at it. Instead, she kind of saw that I had that spark and she really pushed me towards it. She's so proud. She's so proud. That's something that just fills me with joy.

For a lot of women in America, particularly woman of color, their grandmother is their mom, as was the case for you for a variety of reasons. It was that experience, there was a lot of that in my family, that really grabbed my attention as well, your experience of growing up with a family of color in America, especially in a predominantly white town. How important was it for you to convey this piece, that part, that element of your life to the readers?

It was very important because I think that the friction I've always felt as a kid and as a person in the world, was born here. The handful of Black kids who were in my school didn't accept me. The white kids didn't accept me. I was kind of widely shunned, let's just say. It was a huge part of my foundational process of learning who I was because I think that culturally, I didn't necessarily fit in my family. I knew I was Black. I didn't deny it. I didn't want to deny it. I just didn't want to be Black only in one way. I think that exploring art and exploring Black culture in a deeper way as I got older and as I became a teenager was crucial to me understanding how I would be perceived in this world and finding my place in my own culture and finding my place in any culture.

I think the other thing that was important about writing this is that, two different things. One, is that the racism that I experienced was often so subtle. I think that when people think racism, they think of nooses and white supremacists groups. Sometimes it's as subtle as your teacher saying that they didn't think you would be that smart to understand a book. It's very subtle. That was really important for me to convey, but also that I'm kind of weird anyway. I was always gonna be into heavy metal and I was always gonna be into classical music and art and Caravaggio and all these things. I'm just a curious person. That was more important for me to convey, that in telling my own story, helping people recognize that Blackness is not monolithic. There are so many different ways to experience Blackness and to be Black. That was incredibly important to me, because it took me too long to understand that in my own life.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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