By GRACE L. WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
Actress, author and comedian Chelsea Handler is on “empathy overdrive” right now and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, Handler sat down for a talk with Budd Mishkin, anchor and correspondent for CBS Network News Radio, at a fundraiser for Succeed2Gether, a nonprofit that works to close the educational achievement gap.
A blended crowd filled most of the seats at the First Congregational Church, at 40 South Fullerton Ave., to hear her talk about life, progress, and the need to be empathetic. Handler’s new book, “Life Will Be the Death of Me,” is a New York Times bestseller.
A New Jersey native, Handler got the crowd laughing when she immediately admitted it
had been a long time since she’d set foot in a church or synagogue. She then said that she had wanted to leave the state from about age 9 and ultimately left “in a huff.”
“I was excited to get on with it,” she said.
Handler spoke candidly about what her life brought her in the days that followed her exodus from the state, including a colorful trip across the country with a stranger who, like her, was bound for California. After landing in California, Handler worked in Bel-Air as a nanny for relatives, tending their nine children, and as a waitress, while attempting to secure her place in showbiz. An unlikely encounter thrust her into the comedy spotlight: DUI school.
“In DUI school, you have to tell your DUI story,” she said, admitting that she avoided speaking in front of the class, but was called upon on the final day.
“I accused the cop of being racist,” she said. “But we were both white and the class laughed.” She’s been making people laugh ever since.
‘PAIN IS PAIN IS PAIN’
This has been a big year for Handler. In April, she published “Life Will Be the Death of Me,” and this month, Netflix launched the documentary “Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea.”
Handler can’t stop herself from cracking a joke, but her talk was mostly serious. She has suffered some hard times, she told the audience.
In 1984, the death of her older brother Chet in a hiking accident clouded her childhood. She was 9. Decades later, she found herself unpacking the pain of her past in therapy. “I needed someone to explain myself to me,” she says. “I like to overshare.”
In therapy, Handler learned that she was angry over the loss of her brother. “But you can’t be mad at people for dying. Go through it, don’t postpone it,” she said.
After examining her own pain, Handler is on a mission to help others avoid misconceptions about how to handle life’s lumps. “I want to put all the icky stuff out there so we can know we are not alone,” she said. “Pain is pain is pain and a lot of people are just trying to get by.”
After the 2016 election, Handler found herself in a dazed state, but realized that she wanted to be part of the solution rather than dwell on the problem. Part of that meant gaining a willingness to listen to others who did not share the same political views as her, and that meant taking a close look at the privileges she is naturally afforded as a white woman.
Here Mishkin pointed to a poignant moment in the Netflix documentary that he said left him “breathless.”
The scene that struck Mishkin is one where she visits with her former high school boyfriend, who is African American. The two had enjoyed smoking marijuana together, which ultimately earned him time behind bars. Handler realized that in society, “they are looking for him to screw up,” she said. “They give people like me a second chance.”
Having taken a trip through her own racial advantages, Handler said her goal now is to lean into discomfort where necessary.
“White people can afford to be more uncomfortable,” she said.
By working on herself more, Handler has also delved into issues that have come up regarding her own mental health, and how coping tools have helped her soften the blow. One outlet she turns to regularly is meditation.
She struggled with it at first. She was told to give it three months before quitting. Sticking it out was worth it, Handler said. She has learned valuable lessons, including the difference between reacting and responding to a situation. She said, “My mental health is an inside job.”