A Sister Shares 'Horrible And Wonderful' Memories Of Her Brother's Life And Death | KUOW News and Information

A Sister Shares 'Horrible And Wonderful' Memories Of Her Brother's Life And Death

Mar 4, 2018
Originally published on March 3, 2018 10:41 pm

Writer Stephanie Wittels Wachs got a phone call from her loving and accomplished brother Harris just three days before her wedding, in which he shared some surprising news.

What was it? "He told me he was a drug addict," Wachs says. He died two years later, of an overdose. Harris Wittels was a hilarious and respected Hollywood comic writer, who had become co-executive producer of NBC's Parks and Recreation by the time he was 30, and worked on award-winning shows like Master of None.

Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful is Wachs' memoir of his life, her loss, and the lessons to be shared. "It poured out of me, in a sort of way that I can only describe as exorcising demons," she says. "I was consumed with every possible negative emotion you could be consumed with. It was a terrible place to be, and I desperately wanted to talk to him."


Interview Highlights

On what happened to her brother

I think that's part of why I wrote the book. In the book, I call it a manic investigative phase — after something terribly senseless happens, the people who are left here are tasked with making sense of it. I think he had a propensity for excess. He was pleasure-driven, as a person. He wanted to have everything in the buffet line, not just one thing. I also think that he had a mind that never stopped working. He was constantly crafting jokes, and making observations of the world, as a comic does, and I think that was probably exhausting ... and he needed to relax and shut down. So I think the combination of those is why we're here.

On his rehab attempts

I think a 30-day program can turn into another sort of high. It's the high of feeling great again. You feel back to yourself, you feel in your body, you feel in your mind, you feel in control again, and you think, OK, I can do this just one more time. I'm in a good place, I'll just use one more time and it'll be OK. And the people that ran one of the rehabs, who we met with after he died, explained to us that that's often what kills addicts, the "just one more time" mentality.

On the question of whether "sister" is a noun or a verb

I can tell you that since he's died, I have just really done nothing but think about, and process, and write about, and honor my brother. I've been very verb-like since he died. I guess I think it's both. I think I'll always be his sister.

On how her mother and father are coping

When a child dies, it does a number on the family. Parents don't expect to bury their children. I think for our family, because we had this basis of laughter and fun, and, you know, we were a strange family who likes each other, genuinely, it's been really difficult. A lot of our attention is now on grief. My mom is very active in her grief. She is speaking in high schools, she's created a support group in Houston for other families who've lost family members to overdoses. My dad is 100 percent on the opposite side of the spectrum — he is very sort of solitary in his grief, and I think it's harder for him. I think when you are not able to talk about it and express how it feels, it eats you up ... it's like every family, you keep going, you know?

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Stephanie Wittels Wachs got a phone call from her loving and accomplished brother just three days before her wedding, in which he shared some surprising news.

STEPHANIE WITTELS WACHS: He told me he was a drug addict.

SIMON: Harris Wittels died two years later of an overdose. He was a hilarious and respected Hollywood comic writer, who had become co-executive producer of NBC's "Parks And Recreation." By the time he was 30, he was working on award-winning shows like "Master Of None."

His sister has written a memoir of his life, her loss, and the lessons to be shared, "Everything Is Horrible And Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir Of Genius, Heroine, Love, And Loss." Stephanie Wittels Wachs, a writer, theater artist, and educator in Houston, joins us from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

WACHS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is a book that is written to your brother. Why phrase it that way?

WACHS: You know, it poured out of me in a sort of way that I can only describe as exorcising demons. I mean, I just was consumed with every negative emotion you could possibly be consumed with. It was a terrible place to be, and I desperately wanted to talk to him. I wanted to ask him questions, and I wanted to yell at him for doing this. And I wanted to tell him how sad I was. It came out of me that way and was therapeutic in a way.

SIMON: Recognizing there's no real answer to this, what happened to your brother? How did it happen?

WACHS: You know, I think that's part of why I wrote the book. In the book, I call it a manic investigative phase. After something terribly senseless happens, the people who are left here are tasked with making sense of it.

I think he had a propensity for excess. He was pleasure-driven as a person. He wanted to have everything in the buffet line, not just one thing. And I also think that he had a mind that never stopped working, and he was constantly crafting jokes and making observations of the world and - you know, as a comic does. And I think that was probably exhausting in a way as well, and he needed to relax and shut down. And so I think the combination of those is why we're here.

SIMON: He tried - it was three different rehab programs?

WACHS: Yes.

SIMON: And went into it with high expectations and even a feeling of maybe this one will make a difference. Given your family's experience, why don't so many rehab programs work?

WACHS: I think a 30-day program can turn into another sort of high. It's the high of feeling great again. You feel back to yourself. You feel in your body. You feel in your mind. You feel in control again, and you think, OK, I can do this just one more time. You know, I'm in a good place. I'll just use one more time, and it'll be OK. And Harris's - the people who ran one of the rehabs who we met with after he died explained to us that that's often what kills addicts, is the just-one-more-time mentality.

SIMON: Your brother was just 30 and yet, he had made, at the age of 30, detailed provisions about his passing.

WACHS: Yeah.

SIMON: Was he just being meticulous, or was there a part of him that kind of knew this could always happen?

WACHS: He's not a meticulous person, no. That is not what it was. He was a mess. He was so disorganized as a human being. He didn't eat with silverware. I mean, he was, you know, very much 10 years old in a lot of ways.

So I have to - I have to assume that he understood that he was playing with fire. He knew that he was taking a risk and that he was doing something that could kill him.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a line in the book. Is sister a noun or a verb? Wonder how you feel about that?

WACHS: I can tell you that since he's died, I have just really done nothing but think about and process and write about and honor my brother. I've been very verb-like since he died. I guess, I think it's both. You know, I think I'll always be his sister.

SIMON: You really do fall in love with your family in this book.

WACHS: Thank you.

SIMON: How are your mother and father?

WACHS: Well, when a child dies, it does a number on the family. Parents don't expect to bury their children. I think for our family, because we had this basis of laughter and fun and, you know, we were a strange family who likes each other genuinely, it's been really difficult.

A lot of our attention is now on grief. My mom is very active in her grief. She is speaking at high schools. She's created a support group in Houston for other families who have lost family members to drug overdoses.

My dad is 100 percent on the opposite side of the spectrum. He is very sort of solitary in his grief, and I think it's hard - I think it's harder for him. I think when you are not able to talk about it and express how it feels, it eats you up. And he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, too, so we have been dealing with that as a family. You know, we - it's like every family. You keep going, you know.

SIMON: As the book ends, you mention that you're trying to add to your family.

WACHS: Yeah I'm 6 1/2 months pregnant right now with a boy.

SIMON: Oh, my word, I think I know the name.

WACHS: Well, in Judaism, we're not supposed to say it before they're born, so we'll keep it on the down-low for now.

SIMON: Stephanie Wittels Wachs, her book, "Everything Is Horrible And Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir Of Genius, Heroine, Love, And Loss." Thanks so much for being with us.

WACHS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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