Betty Gilpin on battling "implanted patriarchy" and the exhaustion of women "cycling through selves"

On "Salon Talks" the "GLOW" star discusses her reassuring memoir "All the Women in My Brain" and mental health

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 17, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

US actress Betty Gilpin (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
US actress Betty Gilpin (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Sisterhood may be powerful, but it sounds like Betty Gilpin's latest TV role is taking that phrase to violent extremes. When I catch her to discuss her book  "All the Women in My Brain: And Other Concerns," she deadpans that her recent days have been spent running around in a nun's habit, sobbing her eyes out. Compared to that, chatting about her publishing debut sounds like vacation.

Gilpin is used to running herself into the red, a point that arises time and again in a collection of essays that contemplate her upbringing and road down which she's steamed, one that earned her an Emmy nomination along with notoriety for roles in such acclaimed dramas series as "Masters of Sex," "Nurse Jackie" and "GLOW," the gone-too-soon story of women wrestlers in the 1980s. The nun role she references in passing, "Mrs. Davis," is an upcoming drama from Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez that's set to air on Peacock.

These are roles others have written for her. The identities explained through the book's title are parts she came up with herself, and long ago, who help her navigate the world. We all have those characters, after all. In explaining their purpose Gilpin makes the reader feel better about their relationship with those inner voices, alongside ruminations about feminism, self-image, mental health, the Hollywood industry machine and a host of other, as she calls them, concerns.

The fact that she cranked it out during the pandemic lockdown and after having a baby should earn her extra respect, considering the average person was struggling to simply sit upright every day. But she's also very humble about that, and the cleverness of book's lyrical tone. "I don't know, I just processed what was happening through a silly winky metaphor," she told Salon, adding, "That's how I process things in general."

In this "Salon Talks," Gilpin discusses the way we create characters for ourselves to help us cope with the world, along with her own efforts to balance a crazed work schedule and her own health.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How long did it take you to write the book?

I would say I wrote it in a month and then edited it over the course of maybe two months. I had just had a baby and was in the throes of the kind of hormones where you feel like you're on MDMA in a meadow all the time before the other hormones come, which feel like the opposite. And I had always wanted to write this book, but I think that I was just . . . I don't know. When I used to be a big stoner, I smoked weed all day, but was never a good joint roller because I was like, "Why not only let the best joint roller in the room roll the joint?" And I felt that way about writing a book. I was like, "Well, I'm not Joan Didion, so why not let Joan Didion roll the joint?" But I think that it took quarantine and post-baby MDMA hormones to be like, "Just sit down on your living room floor and write it."

Throughout this entire book, your facility with metaphor is wonderful. Let's talk about that: Can you explain the origin story behind the book's title?

Well, that was from an essay that I wrote a couple years ago for Lenny Letter. There's maybe two essays in the book that had been published previously, and I wrote about this weird physical thing that happened to me where in a time of basically intense stress and life events intersecting. I had this crazy full body muscle spasm that felt like a lie, and a joke, and a dramatic exaggeration, and lasted for six days. It was a really confusing convergence of what was happening emotionally in my physical body basically. And the only way that I could make sense of it was I thought about the women in my brain, the metaphorical different characters in my brain that take turns at the wheel. And basically I felt like I had lived my life as a beta person suddenly living an alpha life and it felt opposite of my identity.

I wonder if a lot of women can relate to that concept. But I also wonder, do you think it's something that's unique to women or do you think that it's universal, that everybody feels that way?

"My job is to cycle through selves to give whoever is in front of me the girl they want. And I think that probably a female lawyer in Ohio feels that way."

I'm sure it's not unique to women. I think that I tried to write in general about things that I feel as a woman, as a person that for a long time I had felt was my weird curse alone. And then the more I would say them out loud to my friends, or therapists. or different women really, I realized, oh, a lot of people feel this way. And I think even though different brain women are maybe different brain women, but that there's probably a sameness there, that feeling in general.

That was a great way of putting it. It's like, "Oh, I'm not crazy." I think there's a reason that we have these coping mechanisms that if we're in unfamiliar situations, the way I had it put to me was to "step into your hero" in any given situation. But the "brain women" thing makes a lot of sense.

And that's what I also tried to write about. I didn't want it to be a typical actor memoir because, A, there are so many billion actresses nowadays that I don't expect anyone to know who I am or care. I just think that, weirdly, being an actress is the perfect allegory for what we're talking about. My job is to cycle through selves to give whoever is in front of me the girl they want. And I think that probably a female lawyer in Ohio feels that way. You don't necessarily have to care about the entertainment business to relate to that feeling. And it's been a strange gift and romp and sometimes heartbreak to have that feeling be the way that I pay my bills. And I try to make fun of it all and laugh at it all and roll my eyes at it and also be honest about the fact that I'm very passionate about it, but I think I've commodified cycling through the brain women in a strange way.

I think we all do. I think anybody who has to leave their house and be anything other than the person that lets their hair down and takes their bra off in the world, you have to.

Totally. And I also try to talk about the difference and vacillation between presented self and authentic self [using] yet another metaphor: Salem versus Barbie. And I think that basically Salem being the churning id within us, your basic most authentic self, and then the Barbie self is the learned presented self that you filter that id through. And typically as women, there's just more of the latter to slather on before you present yourself to the world. And my job as an actor, I get to do a lot of the churning id stuff, but only after I go through two hours of the patriarchy car wash of hair and makeup. So it's like I have to check the Barbie boxes in order to do the Salem stuff, and, again, for a job that is mostly silly and wonderful.

Well, let's get into that part of it. . . . You talk about that idea of running yourself ragged that in order for you to be successful, and for actors to be successful you have to keep booking until these things start hitting and there's awards and all these jobs. How has writing this book changed the way that you've looked at making a career for yourself?

In the book, I try to talk about how probably in any industry it can feel like this, where your childhood dream and passion and feeling of, "Oh, I have this specific thing buried in me that, maybe, wouldn't it be so incredible if I got the opportunity one day for that to float out of me into the world in whatever capacity, if I did the thing that I've always wanted to do?"

"Being an actress and a woman now, it feels like we are trying to sell the merch of a feminist victory before having the victory itself."

And then a different thing is societal success and claps in the town square. And it's very easy to confuse those two things of basically your childhood dream and public validation. They're not the same thing. And when I did off-off-Broadway theater for 10 years, there was no confusing the two. It was very obvious that I was just doing the childhood dream thing and that society slash the town square didn't really care.

But as I started to get a little more success as an actor, that had more to do with public validation or trying for the Internet's approval, it was easier to muddy the two things . . . I try to talk about all of that comedically, but I think a lot of the lessons that I learn in the book is about checking my own ego through the various successes and failures, and realizing your own actualization is always going to be more powerful but quieter than society telling you you're the prettiest princess at the dance. Even though that feels good, it's going to go away in a second. So maybe enjoy the actualization and look at the horizon and have a glass of water.

I would love for you to talk about your experience of looking, finding the proper treatment for you in Los Angeles and how time consuming and expensive that was. And I'm wondering after that experience, what did that teach you about how our health care system falls short when it comes to taking care of women's mental health?

Well, I think that for me, my mental health converged at a time where I was doing three jobs at once, I was filming "GLOW" and "Masters of Sex" and . . . the other job was my wedding. I was in on the West Coast planning my East Coast wedding and flying back and forth every weekend. And it felt like this panic of, "I have to do all of this right now because time is running out and I've been unemployed and waiting for the phone to ring for so long that I'd be an idiot to stop and take a deep breath right now because it's all going to go away," a fear mindset of "I have to seize this opportunity." And I think it's strange because my depression and anxiety and the darker parts of me connect me to the parts of acting that I like.

. . . It was like I had almost monetized a part of me that was hurting me and now I wasn't letting it have a deep breath at all, because I was just go, go, go, go, go. And I think that we're just so result-based and I think our health care system is like that too. Where it's like, "OK, here's the Band-Aid, go, go, go. You're out the door, you're ready." It took me finding basically a witch in a dirty apartment to be like, "We're just going to do some weirdo, scarfy, deep breath, shaking you, some very not western medicine stuff." And it just calmed my nervous system down, but I'm also in normal people therapy, which I recommend.

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I think this is a good time to talk the the chapter called "Options or Paralysis." And that's a concept I first read about in [terms of] explaining the millennial brain, but the way that you talk about it is that it really comes into play when it comes to how we live our feminism. You wrote, "We're living in a time where women are refurbishing shackles as novelty earrings. We take things built to control us and treat them as option pieces of flair." Can you talk about what you mean by that?

I try to talk about how being an actress and a woman now, it feels like we are trying to sell the merch of a feminist victory before having the victory itself. We're so quick to be like, "Everything's ticked, everything's fine." And it's not. We're not there yet, obviously. And particularly being an actress in the public eye to whatever degree that I am or am not, it feels like it's this mash-up of pretending we're in 2053 and also being in 1953 still, that as we also get some producer credits and fart jokes so rise the smoke and mirrors demands of the way you're supposed to look and be.

[In] "Options or Paralysis," I try to talk about how it's like, OK, if we're the generation that is supposed to live with a perfect feminist scorecard, there's only so many hours in the day and days in your life. Do you spend it finding the perfect career or finding your own actualization as a sexual independent being? Or can you find a partner in a family in a way that still checks all the woke boxes? Or can you do all three at once? Which is, I think, what I'm trying to do. And it sometimes feels impossible.

There are so many parts of this book that I think every woman can relate to. I also got the impression, and I'd love for you to confirm this, but I wonder if this is almost like a life manual for your daughter. Was that what you were thinking about when you wrote it?

Yeah. Something I talk about in the book is that I think one of the many ways that they've implanted patriarchy calls coming from inside the brain house still is that we are quick to judge other women and assign an identity to them if we feel threatened first or something and roll our eyes at each other.

It's easy to be a blanket feminist, but then roll your eyes at the women sitting right next to you, which I totally do all the time. And I don't want to do that to my own daughter, especially because she has no presented self yet. She's only pure s****ing-in-her-diaper, laughing-at-the-sky id right now. And I think it's easy to honestly feel threatened by that. And I guess, yes, part of the reason being for this book is to give her a manual to my insanity and say, "This is all of me and I want all of you."

But I wrote it in a book for claps in the town square, so how much progress have I really made? I don't know.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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All The Women In My Brain Betty Gilpin Books Glow Mental Health Salon Talks