The Spring of 2002 found me fresh out of NYU with a theater degree and an unfinished women’s-studies minor. Ready to take on the world! I wasn’t too worried that I didn’t have a job because I was 100 percent certain that fame of an epic proportion was just around the corner. A celebrity so debilitating that I felt I should savor these last anonymous days. But in the mean and between time, I needed money.
A steady employment ship sailed into harbor in the form of a very thin, manic, reflexive documentary filmmaker named Barbara Monette, who’d never made one film. She “needed” a personal assistant, and her main requirement was that I feel comfortable “cheering her on” via speakerphone while she ran on a treadmill at Equinox. Jackpot.
It became immediately clear to me that Barbara had an issue with food. I wouldn’t see her eat anything for days at a time. She would drink six cups of coffee, which made her jittery and aggressive and frankly mean. She regularly accused me of stealing, which I would never do. I told her I only ever stole hearts! She would pace and ramble around the office, her lower jaw jutting in and out almost violently when she talked. This is when she would come in at all. She found me dim, and I don’t blame her; I can’t say I was the most motivated employee.
At this time, my best friend from college, the actress and writer June Diane Raphael, and I had begun performing a two-woman comedy show, which we’d named Rode Hard and Put Away Wet at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. I was brazenly running the promotional campaign for it out of Barbara’s office. Barbara was always finding flyers I’d left in the copier, hot-pink 8.5-by-11s with an image of June and me splayed out sexily in a Manhattan street and licking lollipops. The caption read: “Sketch comedy by girls who aren’t ugly!” (As you can imagine, we ingratiated ourselves immediately with the women at the theater. Just kidding! They hated us. To be clear, none of them were ugly; this was just our attempt to highlight and challenge the inherent misogyny of the sketch world! No one saw it that way. So that was a misstep.) I also answered Barbara’s phone, so it felt only fair that the number should double as the reservations line for our show.
Barbara was, as many people with eating disorders are, obsessed with my weight. Skinny I was not. But not overweight, either. I was cute enough and just couldn’t get it up to care about a few extra pounds. My passivity surrounding my body seemed to ENRAGE Barbara, though. INFURIATE her. She’d peek between the crack in the walls that separated our cubicles when I returned from my daily trip to Balthazar with a focaccia sandwich, giant cookie, and can of Coca-Cola she paid for. You heard me. I didn’t even have the self-respect or dignity to get a Diet Coke. I think I’m the only actress in history who has ever tasted the Real Thing.
One day she asked me to come into her office because she wanted to talk about “all this.” She gestured up and down my frame.
ME: Come again?
BARBARA: I’d like to offer you a gift. I’d like for you to leave the office immediately —
ME: For a paid personal day?!
BARBARA: And attend a 12-step program meeting in the Village.
ME: I’m sorry?
BARBARA: For food addiction.
ME: But I don’t think I sdkndnfihfdi???
BARBARA: Please swallow your focaccia bread before you speak. It’s a wonderful program for people like you who binge-eat and struggle with or obsess over food. Or under-eat, although that doesn’t seem to be your … affliction.
She looked at her computer.
BARBARA: Tom D. is leading today’s meeting in the basement of a church next door to Bobst Library at NYU. He’s excellent. Used to put on diapers so he wouldn’t have to stop eating when he needed to shit, and now he looks terrific. I’ll pay you for the hour if you’ll just go. You want to be an actress, and I’m telling you, it won’t work out for you if you don’t go.
ME (brightly): Great!
And off I went. To grab a vanilla Frappuccino with whip and a blueberry scone from Starbucks, which is one of the great underrated bakeries America has to offer. I wasn’t hurt by Barbara’s words so much as confused. I loved food, sure. I just wasn’t quite sure I had a problem with food per se, beyond loving it so.
After all, I’d seen this particular problem close up. My mom struggled with her weight, most of the struggle being in her mind, and it was painful to watch. She’d routinely collapse after coming home from her full-time job as director of a preschool in our town and wrapping up her second gig as “Kathy I’ll Do Anything for My Daughter” (as my friends embarrassingly but accurately dubbed her). She would settle in and order two large pizzas, then polish them off with two bags of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos and her own liter of the Real Thing. Afterward, she’d fall into what seemed to be a food coma in the den/bedroom. Every month or two, things got darker and she would retreat to her bedroom/den for a few days at a time. Then she would be back full steam and raring to go. I was never really sure what was going on, but it didn’t seem … healthy?
That said, however unbothered I was by my own attitude toward food, I pretended to go to meetings for the entire year I worked with Barbara. It became an amazing excuse to run out midday for a great audition, like a Zelnorm bloated-stomach campaign. Which, side bar, I booked. Much like Carrie from Sex and the City, my stomach was on a bus!
Barbara would periodically ask me how it was going, how my sponsor (Linda R., entirely made up) and I were jelling. “GREAT,” I’d assure her. “Linda is there for me day or night. She was really in the food this week.”
One day when I was near the 12-month mark with Barbara, I felt a quarter hit my head and realized she wanted to see me. (She’d routinely throw pennies at my head when she needed me and either of us was on the phone. It would drive her crazy when I wouldn’t realize the source of the pennies and put them in my desk or purse, assuming they fell from Heaven.)
I entered Barbara’s cubicle and found her in tears. She told me the landlord (her ex-husband she had recently left for a woman who then immediately left her) was evicting her from the office, effective immediately. He had finally had it with her and with funding her whims. Barbara was livid. How could he expect her to leave now??? She had JUST come back from a three-week research trip to France, where she’d stayed at the Four Seasons to feel the energy of Truffaut and tinkered with a first draft of an erotic short film she was thinking about possibly toying with the idea of shooting with his money. “This is outrageous,” I reassured her. “One cannot disrupt an artist at work.”
Her ex-husband was working in London for the next two weeks, but he wanted us gone by the end of the day. As she cried, I frantically wondered how I’d reroute the RSVPs to my comedy show, then started packing my things.
Barbara, ever defiant, had a plan. “We just simply … won’t leave. No one will be the wiser,” she told me with crazy-eyed resolve. “If we don’t open the door, they can’t kick us out! We just have to avoid the super, use the fire escape, and once we’re inside, lock the door. What are they gonna do? Break the door down and drag us out?”
And so, each morning for the next two weeks, we waited in the neighboring deli to make sure the super wasn’t in the lobby, then scurried in like little mice. Then one afternoon, we heard a knock at the door. “FedEx!” a guy yelled from the other side. Barbara froze. Then she did what she would do when anyone came to the door during this period: She got into the freestanding wardrobe and hid behind the coats. She whisper-shouted at me to look through the peephole and answer the door ONLY if the delivery man didn’t seem suspicious. I’ll admit that when I peered out, I saw that he was neither in uniform nor carrying a package, but I opened it anyway. He promptly served us with papers.
I’m not quite sure why I opened the door. Maybe it was just instinctive — I had signed exclusively for non-work-related packages for Barbara over the year — but maybe it was a cry for help. A way out.
Either way, the jig was up for Barbara, and for me. She screamed at me for over 20 minutes for opening the door, and I let loose a torrent of rage you only dream you will ever get to yell at an abusive boss. I said the kinds of things you normally kick yourself for not saying after the fact. I called her a “creative succubus garbage-y talentless fuck.” I’d had enough of this unhinged wreck of a human. I got in her face — close enough that I could smell her 40th cup of coffee — and yelled, “WRITE ME MY LAST CHECK NOW, YOU FUCKING GODDAMN BITCH!!!” It was alarming to both of us. Hands shaking, she wrote out my final check. Then I emptied my desk of all the loose change that had been thrown at my melon and walked out, assuming I’d never see her again. Bridge burned.
Months and months later, June and I were backstage at UCB, changing out of our costumes after one of our last performances of Rode Hard. The show had been chosen for the Aspen HBO Comedy Festival, a dream we’d had for it since the very beginning. That festival would ultimately start our careers and solidify a lifelong creative partnership and even deeper friendship between my touchstone, June, and me. It was in Aspen that we met an executive named Heidi Sherman Grey, who tapped us to write a movie for Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway called Bride Wars. After we got over our devastation that someone saw us as writers rather than STARS OF STAGE AND SCREEN, that single job led to more and more, and eventually we got our gorgeous mugs in front of the camera. As God intended. But on this particular night, we were having a laugh as we took off our makeup. We were wearing quite a bit of it because the final sketch had been a fantasy about what would happen if Joan Crawford and Bette Davis met in the present day as their characters from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and started to physically fight each other; June played Joan, and I was Bette.
There was a knock at the door. It was Barbara. What ever happened to baby Barbara, indeed? She had come to the show, alone. Funny, June hadn’t gotten her RSVP on the landline of the antiques business where she worked, which was now our central headquarters. June may not have known Barbara would be attending even if she had gotten an RSVP because since I’d last seen her, Barbara had legally changed her last name from Monette to Monet. An employee of her ex-husband told me this was to seem related to the painter Claude Monet and hopefully impress people. Dark stuff.
I was shocked to see her. I had gotten into therapy because of her. Well, not entirely because of her but because the way she treated me activated events from my past I had been comfortable burying but were now comin’ to the old surface as they are wont to do. I also went because I was in my early 20s and, much like Barbara, was also an unhinged wreck of a person. I said hello and thanked her for coming. She had an expression on her face I’d never seen before. She looked awestruck. She looked alive. She looked inspired and … friendly.
Barbara grabbed my hand and said, “You are so good, Casey.” She had tears in her eyes. “You are so talented. I knew it. I just knew you would be, and that’s why I … why I always …” She trailed off. I could feel she wanted to say, “That’s why I wanted you to lose weight.” Why she’d pushed me.
I was taken aback. I had spent so much of my post-college life on her life. But now I saw it as absolutely ass-backward as it was: She really believed in me and always had. I still didn’t quite understand why she equated weight loss with success.
But the manager who signed me after the Aspen Comedy Festival echoed Barbara. I needed to lose weight. Not a lot but enough to look on-camera like I looked in real life. I did as I was told, which coincidentally coincided with my beginning to get work as an actress.
In 2007, I auditioned for Julie & Julia in the morning for Nora Ephron and for Saturday Night Live in the afternoon for Lorne Michaels. I got both jobs. A miracle. But I’m not sure if I would have gotten them if I hadn’t lost the weight. I’d like to think so. There is a dark adage that floats around SNL — you either have to lose weight or gain it to be on the show, but you can’t be “in between.” In the year and a half of utter madness I was there, I began taking antidepressants to lift myself up from rock bottom, and I gained back all the weight I’d lost, and some more, while still grieving my mom and trying to handle the Barbaras of 30 Rock. (She had prepared me well in that regard.) When I was not asked back for what would have been my third season, I felt a rush of relief and utter disappointment in myself. I had the chance, and I didn’t take my shot. But I never cried. The relief outweighed the regret.
However, a week later, an article ran in The Hollywood Reporter saying that I was fired for being fat. Which was false! But clearly someone felt that could have been the reason. It was on the CNN ticker, too. My father had to see that. (Although it is his favorite source for news … it wasn’t what you want.) Though it had been a week since I was let go, that was the night I cried. I wailed. I’ve never been more humiliated or felt more exposed. I wanted to hide in my own freestanding wardrobe. The murmurs and directives I had received from managers and bosses alike were one thing, but to hear this on a national scale … I was crushed. And angry that my grief over the loss of my mom had contributed to another trauma. I hadn’t been able to keep all the balls in the air, and now everyone could see it. That’s the thing about weight; it can’t be hidden.
I flashed on a scene from my childhood. My brother, Fletcher, and I and a couple of my girlfriends have settled in to watch Ally McBeal with my mom. We can’t find the remote, but my mom spots it across the room in front of the TV. She has to bend down very low in order to grab it, and her pants split. And I laugh. It happens so quickly and is so unexpected. Tears spring to her eyes, and she runs upstairs. I follow her and stand helplessly while she wails from the bed, “You laughed at me. You were all laughing at me.” I’ll never forget the look on her face. I’ve made peace with most of my regrets, including being let go from Saturday Night Live. But not this one.
It occurs to me now that Barbara had been trying to protect me from the world that had been so cruel to her. As a self-loathing woman, she could only act on her urge to love and shelter me by being cruel about my perceived vulnerabilities, which were actually her vulnerabilities. She didn’t want me to be sitting in the moment I was currently in. She knew what I didn’t yet know, which was that the world is cruel to overweight people.
When people shame you for your size, they succeed in reducing you to the smallest version of yourself emotionally. And I collapsed under that scrutiny. And made a decision. I realized if I wanted to do what I loved — perform and make people laugh — I needed to lose some weight. So I did. But not for them. For me. To protect myself. I chose to become a less visible target in order to shine. (Note: This choice was made because I am on-camera. If I were a teacher, I would sit my happy ass down, knowing I look FOINE!)
I am a millennial. Granted, one on the absolute cusp, but as proud as I am of my mill status, I wish to God I were part of the body-positive generation. Lord love ’em. I’m inspired by these young upstarts who celebrate their bodies and don’t give a good goddamn fuck what anyone else thinks. I’m so envious. Because I started off that way. In middle school and even high school, I had confidence for days. But as I got older, I was swiftly taught by the Barbaras of the world that not only should I not feel confident but I should in fact feel embarrassed about my body. Apologetic. Ashamed of the wreckage I carried around with me. And ever eager to please, I fell in line. Which makes me sad.
But I try to forgive myself. I hope my mom has forgiven me for laughing. As I’ve forgiven Barbara. And I hope younger women will forgive me. And even younger women will forgive them. And so on. And so forth.
However, when Barbara sent me a friend request on Facebook, I hit “ignore” so hard I almost broke my hand.
From the book The Wreckage of My Presence, by Casey Wilson. Copyright © 2021 by Casey Wilson. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.