Stephanie Wittels Wachs was changing her baby’s diaper in the bathroom of the Center for Hearing and Speech in Houston in February 2015 when she got a call from an unknown number in Los Angeles.
This is how Wachs learns her brother, comedian Harris Wittels, died of a heroin overdose at age 30. She relays the story, in painful detail, in the opening pages of her memoir, Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss.
Harris, writes Wachs, “was the success story every Jewish mother ached to brag about at her weekly mah-jongg game.” Sarah Silverman hired him at age 22 to write for her show, and he wrote for Parks and Recreation for six seasons. He invented the word “humblebrag” (and wrote a book about it), wrote jokes for President Obama on Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, and was scheduled to play a role that was written for him: Aziz Ansari’s best friend in Master of None.
In Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful, Wachs writes about her brother’s life, his struggle with addiction, and how her family coped with his death. But the book is more than a tale of grief; it’s about she navigates the world as a mom, a daughter, and a person who lost her brother.
The story of her daughter, Iris, 4 — who was born with permanent hearing loss — is told in parallel to the story of Harris. Five months after her brother died, Stephanie writes, “Every morning when I open my eyes, I think of Iris and I think of you. You two are so fused together in my mind. The year she was born, I worried so much about both of you.”
Kveller spoke with Wachs about her book, finding solace in Jewish rituals, and motherhood (she’s expecting her second child in May).
Since your book was such a personal, therapeutic project, what has the reaction been like for you?
It’s been amazing. I mean, I wrote it in a void. A really solitary void. I get messages constantly from people just pouring out their hearts and saying, “Thank you for writing about this,” and “I lived through this and nobody talks about this.” When I was two months in after Harris had passed away, somebody gave me The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. And I read it in a day and I was really comforted to know that someone else had experienced this kind of pain before. And when people write me, they say a lot, “I read this in a day.”
One bit in your book that made me cry was when you write about the unveiling ceremony, and reading the Kaddish with your family. Were you surprised that this type of Jewish ritual brought you comfort?
Definitely. I just had this really long conversation with my rabbi about this. We were raised very “ish” on the Jewish spectrum. But it is amazing to me how significant and critical these rituals have been to my grieving process. I think everything is just so chaotic and overwhelming, it’s just like this thing that you can cling to that can give you some sort of step to take.
The yahrzeit has [become] this really significant thing, too, that I didn’t expect. My rabbi pointed out this to me: every year I’ve written this piece on his yahrzeit. And [my rabbi] was really saying, after the first yahrzeit, that first year after somebody dies, you’re supposed to start living again. And I did that, innately. I had this epiphany around a year.
You write about how your daughter, Iris, is so important in helping you continue on. In your most recent post about his yahrzeit, you write about telling her about Harris. How do you talk to her about Harris and his death? Does she still have questions about him? How do you navigate that as a mom?
You know, it’s so fascinating. Because now that she knows he died, she talks about it all the time. She brings him up constantly. She constantly has to say, “your brother died.” She has to speak about it.
Does she ask questions about his life, or is it more just “I just want to talk about him”?
She’s not inquisitive about him. She’s just constantly naming it and she’s constantly saying how sad it is. That it makes mommy sad. And the other day, she was like pretending to watch a baseball game in the car, and she says, “Mommy, your favorite person is playing baseball.” And I said, “Who?” And she says, “Your brother, and he just won the game!” It’s really fascinating. I don’t know what psychological, developmental thing is there, but she talks about him dying all the time [laughs]. All the time!
And that’s great. I mean, he is really all over [our] house. His photos are everywhere. We have this giant portrait of Harris that we’re going to put in the baby’s room! And I was thinking, I bet some husbands would be like, “this is weird.” But [my husband] Mike is totally on board.
I’m curious about how you navigate social media as a mom and the crazy world of the internet?
I was a private for a long time. And it got really overwhelming for me to sift through the requests! [Laughs]. Like, who do I know and who do I not know!?
You know, here’s the thing: I have used my daughter. We passed this legislation in Texas for hearing aids, and I used this photo of her in her ballerina costume as a *poster child* for this issue. At some point, you have to accept that this is the world we live in. I can try to insulate her from that, but ultimately, you know, I’ve already put her out there. It’s unusual — it’s the exception — to stay anonymous. For me, I am very open about everything in my life. I, of course, am very cognizant of what I’m posting. I am very aware of that, and how I portray her. But the thing is, she is the center of my world. So she’s going to be in my feed! That’s what I am doing right now.
I also have a podcast where I talk about her constantly. Maybe she’ll hate me for it one day, but really, she’ll hate me for a number of things, so she could just add that to the list, you know? I don’t have the shpilkes about it that other people have. I kind of just accept that that’s where we are.
The public outpouring of grief after Harris’s death must have been strange in what should be a very private occurrence. How did you handle that? And how are you handling the book’s release?
As far as the publicity for the book goes, I was really dreading it. It was really weighing on me and I felt really ambivalent about it. But what is happening is kind of what happened when I went to the Emmys [in 2015]. It was the same sort of a thing, where I was really dreading it, and then it ended up being this really lovely thing because I ended up having an opportunity to celebrate Harris. And on the book tour, it really amounts to me just like getting to talk about how great my brother is. I’m happy to do that. I can do that all day long.
I mean, I can’t lie… there’s part of it is exhausting. I feel like I don’t want to talk about it anymore. On another level, when somebody dies and you love them so much, they’re always alive in you. So getting to talk about him and keeping him around in that way is kind of great. Because he’s still on people’s minds, he’s still relevant, and that’s really great.
The last sentence of your memoir is about how you would name a new baby after Harris. Now that you’re expecting a second child, what does naming a child after your brother mean to you and your family?
It brought up a lot of conversations. We’ve really gone back and forth about it, because on the one hand, you know, here’s a person who was the most incredible, phenomenal, spirited… just exceptional human being, anybody would be lucky to have this person as their namesake. On the other hand, there’s a lot of pain and tragedy that’s wrapped up in that name, and so it has been something we have talked a lot about.
I spoke to my old rabbi, who now lives in San Francisco, when I was on my book tour. She married us. And she said, “You don’t have to have an answer right now. You hold the baby and see what it says to you. It’s like: you love this person, he’s so important to you…. if you hold the baby and you feel like this is who this is, then do it! If you feel differently, then don’t. There’s no right or wrong here.”
I think the kid is going to be extremely fortunate to be named after Harris, whether or not we use his actual name. He was a phenomenal person, and I can only hope that [the baby] has some of those qualities. I always say, the end of Harris’s life, the last couple of years, were really tragic. But the first 28 were awesome! The first 28 years were the greatest! No one else had a better life. We don’t — I don’t — want him to be defined by the end. His legacy is not how he died; his legacy is how he lived.
Header image via Stephanie Wittels Wachs on Instagram.