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Annabelle Gurwitch's Mid-Life Maelstrom: Divorce, Cancer, 'Downward Mobility'

Mar 7, 2021
Originally published on March 7, 2021 6:33 am

"It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times." Author Annabelle Gurwitch now scoffs at those opening lines of her new memoir — she had no idea just how bad it would get.

In You're Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility, Gurwitch finds herself divorced after a 22-year marriage, an empty-nester with no retirement plan. After losing her union-sponsored health insurance, her payments balloon from $600 a year to $1,200 a month. Her parents have died. Then the pandemic hits. And her cat dies. But wait — there's more.

As she was editing the book last summer, Gurwitch quarantined with her child Ezra, who'd boomeranged home after college. They went for a COVID-19 test together because Gurwitch had a bit of a cough. She wasn't worried — after all, she exercises every day and doesn't smoke — but the doctor took an X-ray, and then informed her ... over her car's speakerphone ... that she had stage IV lung cancer.

"Lung cancer, what?" She still is incredulous. "It's a silent killer. So, yes, COVID has saved my life," she says. "It's just this ... crazy irony that because of this pandemic, I found out that I have this life-threatening disease. When I say this, by the way, it still sounds like I'm talking about someone else. This can't be me. My life is very, very surreal. It's surreal on top of surreal. You just gotta laugh about it."

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Dealing with cancer in a witty way could be Gurwitch's next book. The former actor and TV host has written other comedic memoirs — about her marriage, about getting fired, about getting older. In this new book, she writes about parenting her non-binary child who's in recovery from addiction. And she talks about inching toward 60 with an uncertain financial future. She realized her life was not going to look anything like, say, Diane Keaton's fabulous character in the movie Something's Gotta Give.

"My goodness, she's a middle-aged woman. She just happens to be the most successful playwright on Broadway. And she lives in a house at the Hamptons," Gurwitch enthuses. "This is when I actually started thinking about this book, thinking this is not the future that a lot of us thought in mid-life. I mean, honestly, I never thought I'd have that kind of lavish future, but just the stability, that basic stability."

She found that like a lot of people her age — on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation X — she was not prepared for "retirement." To help pay the mortgage, Gurwitch started taking in boarders. She rented out a room in her home in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood.

"I think of myself as an acquired taste, you know, like I'm not for everybody," she says. "So the idea of having roommates at like ... my 50s, I just ... you know, I always had this image, like: landlady, cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She's in a blousy house dress and stockings falling down."

In her book, she writes about her first tenant, "a French gentleman. He taught me that ennui is just another word for 'you're a bummer to be around.' However, aside from that guy, I've had the best experiences bringing people into my life, sharing my home."

That includes inviting in an endearing young couple she met through a program for homeless at-risk youth. Also their pet bunny. She says she's learned many lessons from this.

"There have been so many experiences that come with downward mobility," she says. "I'm not saying financial insecurity is good or desirable, but there are silver linings, things that I have found that have been so redemptive. My fantasy was that I could have this little, like, my own little arts colony, and in a sense, I do."

At first, Gurwitch worried that her book wouldn't be relatable, but, "this pandemic has turned us all into one big financial insecurity," she says.

Her friend, actor Andie MacDowell, says she admires Gurwitch's sense of humor: "She's original and her writing is very endearing, and funny, and charming. People will take the journey with her and reflect on themselves as well."

These days, like everyone, Gurwitch is adapting to her new normal. While she's still got a chronic disease, she says her health is stable. She's taking gene-targeted medication and getting regular scans. She recently filmed a role in a Jake Gyllenhaal movie. She continues to host a virtual writer's room from her home, and she co-hosts a weekly podcast, "Tiny Victories," that celebrates small triumphs.

To cope with her new reality, she's comforted by a pair of kittens she adopted during COVID-19. And with two friends online, she's taken up the ukulele. Annabelle Gurwitch is reinventing herself and finding her own tiny victories every day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Author Annabelle Gurwitch is funny and optimistic about coping with her many struggles. NPR's Mandalit del Barco talked to the Los Angeles actress-turned-writer about her new book, "You're Leaving When? Adventures In Downward Mobility."

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: As her witty new memoir opens, Annabelle Gurwitch finds herself divorced after a 22-year marriage, an empty-nester with no retirement plan. She loses her union-sponsored health insurance, so her payments balloon from $600 a year to 1,200 a month. Her parents have died. Then the pandemic hit. And her cat dies.

ANNABELLE GURWITCH: It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.

DEL BARCO: She now scoffs at the opening lines of her book.

GURWITCH: Actually, lady, I said to myself, (laughter) what - you had no idea how much worse it could get.

DEL BARCO: After writing her book, Gurwitch quarantined last summer with her child Ezra, who had boomeranged home after college. They went for a COVID-19 test together because Annabelle had a bit of a cough. She wasn't worried since she exercises every day and doesn't smoke. But the doctor took an X-ray. Then he informed her over her car's speakerphone that she has stage 4 lung cancer.

GURWITCH: Lung cancer - what? It's a silent killer. So yes, COVID has saved my life. It's just this crazy irony that because of this pandemic, I found out that I have this life-threatening disease. When I say this, by the way, it still sounds like I'm talking about someone else.

DEL BARCO: Dealing with that through humor could be Gurwitch's next book. The former actress and TV host has written other comical memoirs about her marriage, about getting fired, about getting older. In this new book, she talks about inching toward 60 with an uncertain financial future. She realized her life was not going to look anything like Diane Keaton's fabulous character in the movie "Something's Gotta Give."

GURWITCH: My goodness. She's a middle-aged woman. She just happens to be the most successful playwright on Broadway. And she lives in a house at the Hamptons. This is when I actually started thinking about this book. You know, this is not the future that a lot of us thought in midlife. I mean, honestly, I never thought I'd have that kind of lavish future but just the stability.

DEL BARCO: She found that like a lot of people her age, on the cusp between baby boomers and Generation X, she was not prepared for retirement. To help pay the mortgage, Gurwitch decided to take in boarders. She rented out a room in her home.

GURWITCH: I think of myself as an acquired taste. You know, like, I'm not for everybody. So the idea of having roommates, you know (laughter), like at - you know, my 50s, I just - you know, I always had this image, like landlady, cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She's in a blousy house dress and stockings falling down and - you know?

The crazy thing is I do have a story in the book about my first tenant, a French gentleman. He taught me that ennui is just another word for, you're a bummer to be around. However (laughter), aside from that guy, I've had the best experiences bringing people into my life, sharing my home.

DEL BARCO: That includes an endearing young couple she met through a program for homeless at-risk youth, also their pet bunny. In addition, Gurwitch writes about parenting her nonbinary child who's in recovery from addiction.

GURWITCH: There have been so many experience that have come with downward mobility. And I'm not saying financial insecurity is good or desirable, but there are silver linings.

DEL BARCO: Actress Andie MacDowell says she admires her friend Annabelle Gurwitch's sense of humor.

ANDIE MACDOWELL: She's original. And I think her writing is very endearing and funny and charming.

DEL BARCO: These days, Gurwitch says her health is stable. She's taking gene-targeted medication and getting regular scans. She recently filmed a role in a Jake Gyllenhaal movie. She continues to host a virtual writers room. And she co-hosts a weekly podcast that celebrates small triumphs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: In the latest episode of "Tiny Victories," one caller said she lost a button on her jacket.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TINY VICTORIES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I sewed that button back on.

DEL BARCO: To cope with her new reality...

(SOUNDBITE OF MEOWING)

DEL BARCO: ...Gurwitch is comforted by a pair of kittens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEOWING)

DEL BARCO: And with friends online, she's taken up the ukulele.

GURWITCH: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

DEL BARCO: Annabelle Gurwitch is reinventing herself and finding her own tiny victories every day.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

GURWITCH: (Singing) Please don't take my sunshine away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.