“Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start this book with the line ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,’” Annabelle Gurwitch says in the middle of a recent phone conversation—she, in L.A.; I, in New York—marked by the writer and actor’s trademark wit.
As Gurwitch writes in You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, publishing this week to raves, juggling the coronavirus was just the start of a year spent renting a room to strangers, mothering her four-and-a-half-years-sober, non-binary college kid, acting, writing, and hosting a podcast.
“The original first line of the book was going to be ‘There are times in our lives when the stories we tell ourselves about who we are don’t match up to the story we are living,’” Gurwitch tells me. What was initially meant to be a broad reference to the economic travails of post-baby-boomer generations took on a far more personal significance for the writer one day last September.
When I e-mailed Gurwitch a few months ago to schedule an interview, I didn’t expect the additional news her brief response would contain.
Her forthcoming book was, unsurprisingly, generating buzz. Barbara Ehrenreich described her as “sharp-eyed, un-foolable and hilarious.” Its “wit, wisdom, and inimitable weirdness (that’s a compliment) will get us through the madness,” said Meghan Daum. And, with her friend Bill Maher, Gurwitch would be writing a pilot based on the book.
Gurwitch, 59, has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker, appeared on several 90s sitcoms, and might be best remembered as the longtime co-host of the television series Dinner and a Movie. Her books—Wherever You Go, There They Are (2017), about the wacky family of “Jewish grifters” she happens to belong to, and the best-selling I See You Made an Effort (2014), about what it’s like as a woman to turn 50 in Hollywood (Gurwitch gleefully told Judith Newman, in The New York Times, that she could now commit a felony because she was suddenly “invisible”)—combine memoir with wry social commentary, humor, and humanity.
When she responded to my request for an interview, Gurwitch mentioned that she had recently been diagnosed with stage-four metastatic lung cancer.
“There are times in our lives when the stories we tell ourselves about who we are don’t match up to the story we are living.”
Amazingly, while shouldering this private news and starting chemo and then radiation, Gurwitch managed to finish her new book and launch the hopeful podcast Tiny Victories, all while quarantining with her child, 23-year-old Ezra, who, because Gurwitch’s cancer qualified as a pre-existing condition, stayed masked even inside their Los Feliz house.
As she wrote in a recent essay for The New York Times, last summer doctors discovered a malignant tumor the size of a clementine, with cancerous nodes in both lungs. “When something goes citrus,” Gurwitch wrote, “that’s a bad sign.”
The decision to reveal her illness was not an easy one. “I was terrified about ‘coming out,’” she says. Her producers knew, but “I did not tell HBO about this when they made the [adaptation] offer.” But, eventually, “it was getting hard to remember who I told and who I didn’t.”
“When something goes citrus, that’s a bad sign.”
Readers were riveted by Gurwitch’s honesty and humor. “People sent me fleecy blankets,” which, she wrote, she preferred to juicers. “I got a proposal of marriage from a female nurse in New York who said she’s got a great health-care plan—hey, I’m holding her to that. And I heard from every guy I made out with at my Bat Mitzvah.”
When deciding on a doctor, Gurwitch’s older sister, Lisa, the C.E.O. of the nonprofit Delivering Good, “went through all my records, noticed I was behind on my mammograms and colonoscopy, and asked the first oncologist we met whether I should schedule those soon.” The sisters translated his answer—that she need not worry about those now—to mean: “We already know the cancer’s going to kill her.” She went for a second opinion. This doctor recommended that she schedule her routine exams. “That’s the doctor I picked,” she says.
“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”
Gurwitch’s observations in the realm of downward mobility are deliciously sardonic. Her discomfort with the dreary, perennially salmon-frying French tenant, for instance, made her long for a renter who never cooked and was never home. “An anorexic who sleeps around,” she says. “Perfect!” And about her long-culled habit, as a touring actor, of snarfing up hotel rooms’ cosmetic freebies: “I once called down 17 times for Le Labo Rose 31 body lotion—that was the pilfering mentality I grew up with. I am now down to one half-filled free bottle!”
Gurwitch is cautiously optimistic. “My doctor is a researcher, and he is very hopeful. But one of the reasons I feel I’ve been hit by a bus is, at the moment, there is no beating this—it’s an ongoing condition.” She’s taking pragmatic lessons from her friend the Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, who has stage-four breast cancer. “Bill [Maher] reminded me to call her,” she says, “and Caitlin’s been my cancer guru. She said, ‘You don’t have to juice, you don’t have to eat raw food. You don’t have to take a pilgrimage somewhere. You don’t have to sacrifice virgins. Just show up at the appointments and take the fucking pills.’”
“People say, ‘You’re a warrior,’” Gurwitch says. “But I’m going to have fun and say something more pretentious: ‘I’m in a conversation with cancer.’”
More than being a warrior, or being a wit, Gurwitch is just extraordinarily strong, forward-marching, and un-self-pitying. During our conversation she mentioned that, on some level, she feels vulnerable “every minute of the day.” Many of us, with much less reason, feel the same, yet she has not let it get in the way.
There’s a second meaning to You’re Leaving When? Beyond the nudge to overstaying houseguests or sleeve-tugging intimates, the title says, “Get good and lost,” to obsession and fear.
You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, by Annabelle Gurwitch, is out now
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge