The following is an excerpt from Ghostbuster’s Daughter: Life With My Dad, Harold Ramis by Violet Ramis Stiel, out today.
One afternoon in September of 1985, in the midst of my parents’ separation and the official beginning of his relationship with Erica, my dad picked me up from school and told me we were going to visit a friend of his, Amy, at the hospital.
“Who is she?” I asked, knowing the name sounded familiar but not able to place it.
“Amy’s a friend from work,” he said. “She directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
“Oh yeah,” I giggled, waggling my eyebrows and making kissy faces. “I liked that one. Is she sick?”
“Nope, she just had a baby.”
“Oooh, can I hold it?” I asked, still enamored with all things reproductive.
“Probably not,” he said. “She’s brand‑new and very tiny and we’re just going to say hi and then leave.”
“Can we go to McDonald’s after?”
When we got to the hospital, I remember seeing Amy, pale and exhausted, looking down at me from the bed and a tiny baby sleeping in a bassinet by her side. After a couple minutes, the nurse came to take the baby to the nursery and the three of us walked down the hall together to look at the other babies in the unit. All the infants were crying, and it distressed me. “Isn’t anyone coming to pick them up?” I asked my dad and Amy. “Doesn’t anybody care?” There was uncomfortable silence. I was only eight, but I could tell that something weird was in the air. Amy was nice enough but did not seem particularly happy to see us, and my dad was definitely in a hurry to get out of there. About a year later, I was snooping around in Dad and Erica’s room — The Joy of Sex in the nightstand drawer? Check! — and, opening Erica’s diary to a random page, I came across the following sentence: “We just found out that Amy Heckerling’s baby is Harold’s baby, too.” Say what now? Harold’s baby? I was Harold’s baby. How could there possibly be another? Despite my shock, I didn’t say anything to my dad or Erica about it. I did bring it up to my mom, however, over our respective breakfasts of Grape‑Nuts with four sugar cubes (me) and half a watermelon (her) when I was ten or so. I don’t know if I was compelled by genuine curiosity and a need to process or if I was just being my usual troublemaking self, but all of a sudden, I just blurted out of nowhere, “Did you know about Dad and Amy Heckerling?”
“Yes,” she said carefully, “I knew. They had an affair, and she was really in love with him but then he and Erica got together and … why do you ask?” She looked at me unwaveringly with her clear green eyes but swallowed audibly. I remember hoping she wouldn’t cry.
“Did you know they have a baby together?” I asked sharply.
“Oh … I thought he wasn’t sure.” She looked away. “He told you?”
“No, I overheard him talking to Erica about it. Don’t tell him I told you.”
She agreed, we both hastily dropped the subject, and I tried as best I could to put the whole thing out of my mind. For all my precociousness, I was confused by the whole situation. How could my dad have another baby but not be with it? Did that mean he wasn’t really its dad? Was the baby part of our family? Why didn’t he tell me it was his baby when we were at the hospital? Why did my mom seem so sad? I could have asked these questions but I didn’t. I preferred being in the dark, scared of whatever the answers might reveal. I figured as long as everyone else was keeping the secret, I would too.
When I was about twelve, my mom and I went to a good friend’s performance art show and party in downtown L.A. As soon as we walked into the courtyard of the theater, my mom said, “Violet! Amy Heckerling is here … with the girl.” Oh great, I thought, this is the last thing I want to deal with right now. Visiting Amy and the baby in the hospital and then talking to my mom about the situation had been enough of this Other Daughter to last me a lifetime. I was already annoyed about being at the show in the first place, and this encounter threatened to push me over the edge. “Can we leave? Please?” I moaned. “I didn’t even want to come.” My mom completely ignored me, too curious to care that I was not in the mood.
The girl, who was probably around five, had a mop of fiery red hair and danced around among the partygoers. I could barely look at her.
“Ooh, she looks just like Harold, doesn’t she?” my mom whispered conspiratorially.
“I don’t know, maybe,” I said sulkily.
It was true but I didn’t want to accept it. My dad and I were fighting a lot during that time and here was this sweet little sprite who could just dance into his life at any time. It worried me, but I couldn’t admit it. I don’t know if I was also somehow ashamed of this mess he’d made, but I had emotionally distanced myself so much from the issue that it didn’t sink in at all that this little girl was my half sister. I was at the height of my preteen angst and just didn’t want to think about or deal with anyone else’s drama when I had so much of my own going on internally at all times.
After that close encounter, I managed to put this little mystery sister out of my mind for the most part. She had her life and I had mine. It seemed strange to leave such an important loose end flapping around in the breeze, but I had no control over the situation and no interest in sharing my dad with anyone else. If all of the adults in the situation were fine with ignoring it, who was I to stir the pot? Nothing to see here, just move along …
Un Bon Voyage (Etvérité)
In June of 1999, my dad told me to pick any place in the world, and he would take me there for a father‑daughter postgrad travel adventure.
I suggested Portugal or Tokyo and he said, “Well, yeahhhhh. That would be cool. How about northern France?” A road trip through the picturesque French countryside wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I knew that we would have a great time wherever we went. So we spent a few days in Paris, drinking café au lait and eating pâté and croissants, and then rented a car and took off for Normandy. Dad drove and I tried to navigate as we passed through Vernon, Rouen, Deauville, Etretat, and Saint‑Lô. Dad’s accent was so good that when we asked people for directions, they would respond in such rapid‑fire French that we were left more confused than when we started. Meanwhile, he laughed at my complete lack of French comprehension when I noticed yet another street sign for Hôtel de Ville, and said, “What is that? Like a Best Western or something?” We visited Mont Saint‑Michel, stayed in a sixteenth‑century castle for a night, drank calvados at every opportunity, and laughed and laughed and laughed. We spent an afternoon looking at the Bayeux Tapestry and Dad bought a kit to embroider a throw pillow with the image of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who later became the king of England. We ate the most amazing meal at the Ferme Saint Siméon in Honfleur, and then went back the next night and ate the exact same thing again (lobster salad with avocado and citrus dressing, and a steak with morel mushrooms and fois gras, if you must know). We also ate really bad ham steaks in Caen at what seemed like a French Denny’s.
During that trip, while driving to yet another crumbling abbey, my dad said he had something important to tell me.
“I know this sounds crazy … but you have a sister.” He looked over quickly to gauge my reaction.
“Amy Heckerling’s kid?” I asked. He nodded, looking confused. “I know. I’ve known forever.”
“But — wha? How?” he sputtered.
“Well,” I said slowly, “I knew that you and Mom had an …understanding. Then, when I was a kid, you took me to the hospital to meet this random woman and her baby.”
“You remember that?”
“Um, yeah! It didn’t seem like a happy visit, even to a seven‑year‑old. What were you thinking? Why did you bring me there? Was I like your human shield?”
“Something like that.” He laughed.
“I think I also overheard you and Erica talking about it once,” I lied, not wanting to tell him that I’d read her journal. “And then, when I was about twelve, Mom and I saw the girl and Amy at a performance art thing and Mom was like, ‘Ooh, she looks just like Harold,’ so I pretty much figured it out. You dirty dawg!”
“I’m so sorry, my baby.”
“It had to be a girl,” I teased. “Brothers I’m okay with, but a sister? Come on. I’m supposed to be the only Daddy’s girl.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem. She doesn’t even know.”
“How is that possible?”
“Oh boy.” He took a deep breath. “Well, Amy and I were having an affair and she got pregnant. She was married at the time but had had a few miscarriages and really wanted a child so she said she was going to have it even though she wasn’t sure who the father was. I think she was hoping that I’d leave Anne to be with her, but I knew it wouldn’t work out between us. I was just getting involved with Erica … it was a mess.
She had the baby and she never told her husband that there was any question of paternity.”
“Ouch.” I cringed.
“Yeah, ouch. Eventually they got divorced. I suppose he was always suspicious, because he did a DNA test and found out that Mollie wasn’t his biological child. He made Amy swear never to tell Mollie but he called me, pretty pissed off, and told me. I feel like such a jerk.”
“You’re not a jerk, Daddy.”
“Well, I’m sure Amy thinks I am. Have you ever seen Look Who’s Talking?”
“Well, you know that married asshole that gets Kirstie Alley’s character pregnant and then won’t leave his wife?”
“That’s me.” Le sigh.
Looking back, I wasn’t particularly freaked out by our conversation. I was in a great place in my life, so the discomfort I felt when I saw Mollie at the art show was long gone. If anything, I felt happy that my dad had trusted me enough to talk to me and I figured that as long as I was number one, maybe it didn’t matter if I wasn’t the only one.
As the trip came to an end, we spent one last night in Paris before flying out. We had dinner at Brasserie Lipp and talked about what the upcoming year might have in store for both of us. As we walked back to the hotel, a light rain fell and I held on tight to him under the doorman‑size umbrella he always seemed to have handy.
“Thank you for a great trip, Daddy,” I said, suddenly fighting back tears.
“You are so welcome, Daughtie. Don’t cry. I loved every minute of it, too.”
In a way, our trip to France felt like a reward for surviving the turmoil of the previous fifteen years. We’d made it through the divorce, his remarriage, and my rebellion intact; I’d graduated from college with honors, and he was coming off the success of Analyze This, so it was a perfect celebration of our individual successes, along with the strength and resiliency of our relationship. The next morning, we flew back to Los Angeles and our separate lives. I prepared for my next move and he started pre‑production for his next project, Bedazzled. To this day, that trip remains one of my most cherished memories of time spent with my dad.
One day in the spring of 2004, my dad called. His voice sounded slightly off, maybe a little forced, as he broke the news. “I heard from Amy Heckerling.”
“Oh, really?” I made sure to keep my tone casual and calm even though my stomach lurched a little. “What did she say?”
“She said that Mollie knows everything and wants to meet me.”
“Really? Wow. How do you feel about that?”
“Oy, I don’t know. Nervous. Excited.”
“She goes to NYU and they have an apartment on the Upper West Side.”
“That’s crazy. What if she’s, like, my next‑door neighbor?”
“Well, we’ll find out. I’m thinking I’ll meet her when we’re in town next month on the way to the Vineyard.”
“I’m going to talk to her on the phone later this week. Are you okay with this? Does it freak you out?”
“Not really. I thought it would but … ”
“Erica is kind of freaked out.”
“Ohhh, I think she’s worried about the potential for disaster.” “What’s new?” I laughed. “They don’t want anything from you though, right? It’s not going to be a big dramatic scene, is it? She just wants to meet?”
“I think so. That’s what Amy said. We’ll see. Oh my God. I hope it isn’t a total disaster.”
“It won’t be,” I reassured him. In truth, I had no idea if it would be a disaster or not, but I wasn’t used to seeing my dad so out of sorts and I wanted to give him the same comfort and confidence that he’d always given me.
Phone calls happened, arrangements were made. The plan was for all of us to meet her and say hi and then Mollie and Dad would go alone to have coffee and talk while Amy, Erica, Julian (then fourteen), Daniel (then ten), toddler Keon, and I would have lunch and wait for them. If things went well, we could all go back to my apartment. If they didn’t, we’d go our separate ways. Dad was so nervous — blinky and compulsively adjusting his shirt. Erica kept squeezing my arm and saying, “I can’t believe this is happening.” I can only imagine the excitement, worry, and anticipation they were feeling because I felt nothing, disassociated — in other words, my default mode for when other people are emotional.
Mollie and Amy walked up to us on Broadway and introductions were made. I greeted Mollie warmly and we awkwardly embraced. She was eighteen, in a flowery dress and army jacket, with long red hair and my dad’s face. Amy was petite and pale and looked like a rock star who had just rolled out of bed. Dad and Mollie went off to French Roast while the rest of us went to Artie’s Deli. Amy and Erica chatted and drank iced tea while the boys ate bagels and I wrangled Keon. After about an hour, Dad and Mollie walked in smiling and we all went back to my apartment to hang out. What I remember most about that first day is how Mollie seemed so similar to us and yet so different at the same time. Physically, there was an undeniable resemblance. I mean, she looked even more like my dad than I did, fiery red hair notwithstanding. In fact, seeing her made me realize how much of my looks had come from my mother. But where nature ends and nurture takes over, Mollie was like a stranger. Her vibe, cadence, and timing were so different from ours. Granted, it was an overwhelming day for her, but she seemed shy and hesitant in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I could tell she was funny, and we kept trying to connect, but I felt like we were always just a beat off from really clicking. Mostly, though, I was just relieved that it seemed to be a drama‑free encounter. As we wrapped up the evening, she and I exchanged phone numbers and said we’d get together soon.
Of course, after Mollie and Amy left, we grilled my dad on how their conversation had gone.
“I think it was good,” he vocal‑fried. “It all just feels so big.” “Okay, just give us the nutshell,” I nudged.
“Well, she wanted to know the story from my perspective. I told her and she seemed okay with it. She told me how it was for her to find out. I don’t know. I apologized.”
“For not having been there for her. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time but … who knows? Right for me, but maybe not for her.” “It seems like she turned out pretty well in spite of it all though, no?” “Oh yeah, she did just fine without me. She’s smart. She’s funny. She writes … But still. It’s big, my baby. Big, big, big!”
A few months later, Dad was in New York alone and asked me if I wanted to go to Mollie’s birthday party with him. We went to someone’s apartment downtown and smoked pot with some people on the roof. I, not knowing who knew what, mistakenly introduced myself to a young woman as Mollie’s sister. She was immediately taken aback. “What? I’m her cousin. How is that possible?” Oops. Mollie was tough to read but tried to reassure me it was okay. I felt bad about possibly messing things up for Mollie with her family, but I was also confused. Now that we all knew each other, weren’t things going to be out in the open? Apparently not, as there were still strong feelings and issues to be resolved in this complicated situation.
Mollie and I didn’t talk for almost two years after that. Not because we didn’t want to, just because we were both lazy flakes. She and my dad spoke and emailed from time to time but didn’t seem to develop a steady rhythm with each other. He always spoke about her with a kind of wistfulness that I found heartbreaking. I know he was the bad guy in their scenario; that wasn’t a position he often was in, and it weighed on him.
About five years after our initial meeting, Mollie came over to my apartment. We got stoned, clicked (hallelujah!), and started to have a real relationship of our own. She was hilarious and creative and ballsy and we were amazed at all of the overlap in our personalities and upbringings despite the differences. Now, I may be partial to oddly neurotic Jewish girls who say “fuck” a lot and aren’t afraid of a good Holocaust joke, but she was like a dream come true. Actually, I had never met anyone like her, and I was kind of in love. She came over every Tuesday night for the next year and we became really close. My kids loved her because she made dirty jokes and laughed at their shenanigans. One night, as she watched me wage full‑scale bedtime warfare against my two little rebels, she laughed into her beer bottle as I finally closed their bedroom door and tiptoed back into the living room. We’d just started talking when, out of nowhere, she flipped me the bird.
“Did you just give me the finger?” I asked mock incredulously. “No, Keon is behind you making faces and being a little shit,” she laughed.
“Oh,” I said, grinning from ear to ear, “well then, that’s fine.”
The parallels and contrasts between Mollie and myself would make for a great psychological study, or at the very least, an interesting episode of Separated at Birth. We grew up in similarly unusual Hollywood families, so our frames of reference line up almost identically; however, whereas I am confident but shy, she struggles with low self‑esteem but is very brave. She was the lead singer in a rock band for several years and is now writing scripts, making puppets, and doing stand‑up comedy. Badass, right? Our mutual admiration for each other (“You’re amazing!” “No, you’re amazing!”) allowed us to get close without it ever feeling competitive.
Ironically, in 2004, another sister joined the family when Ayda Wondemu came from Ethiopia to stay with Dad & Co. and attend Julian and Daniel’s private school. Ayda, fifteen and entering her sophomore year, had researched schools and contacted the admissions department on her own, outside of any established exchange program. They, in turn, reached out to my family, who agreed to host her. For the first year she lived with Dad and Erica, Ayda pretty much ate only meat and chocolate (separately, of course) and read romance novels obsessively. I think she clung to these familiar things because the adjustment to a totally new life was so overwhelming. Over time, she expanded her tastes — in both food and reading — and she thrived socially and academically at school. Amazingly, despite the differences in background, she fit right in with the family and all of our mishigas.
Ayda, Julian, and Daniel lived as siblings and were very close. Ayda and I liked each other from the start but both felt a little threatened nonetheless. She stayed in what had originally been “my” room in the Glencoe house and seemed to fulfill all of my dad’s daughterly requirements — funny, sweet, intellectual, creative. Was this the other daughter I should have been worrying about instead of Mollie? Thankfully, no. As it turned out, whatever concerns I had were totally unfounded. My dad adored Ayda (and Mollie) but there was plenty of love to go around.
What was supposed to have been a one‑year stay stretched into two, then three, and Ayda graduated from North Shore Country Day in 2007. She then went on to Tufts, where she double‑majored in international affairs and French literature, receiving her BA, with honors, in 2011. We remained her home base through college — Dad, Erica, and the boys in Chicago, and me and my brood in New York. Ayda did a few rotations of relief work in the Philippines and Uganda before eventually getting her master’s in international affairs from Johns Hopkins. She is now working at an NGO refugee camp in South Sudan. We all talk to her regularly and are hopeful that she will be able to return to her second home and us, her second family, soon.
Far from where I started as a lonely only child, the big, jumbled mess of our family now includes five siblings connected in various ways by DNA, shared history, choice, and, most important, love. Julian, Daniel, Mollie, Ayda, and I may not all share the traditional bonds of parentage or the experience of growing up under the same roof, but we are deeply and undeniably connected, and I value the relationships I have with all of them beyond anything I could ever have imagined. Even though he’s not here with us, I know that my dad, always the proud patriarch, is beaming at us — his beautiful mess of a family — from wherever he is.
From GHOSTBUSTER’S DAUGHTER by Violet Ramis Stiel, published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Violet Ramis Stiel.