Columbia Forum

Open House

Those who follow Jenny Slate ’04’s acting career won’t be surprised to earn that she has long been preoccupied with the idea of hanging on to her childhood self. From her viral YouTube video series (and Penguin book) Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, to her roles in Obvious Child and Landline, Slate’s on-screen characters often seem comically immature.

Line drawing of a woman holding a vase of flowers

Illustrations by Karl Stevens

Now, after a notably grown-up level of achievement (appearing on Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation and Girls), Slate has chosen to dive into her past. The result is a memoir, co-written with her father, poet Ron Slate, About the House (Concord Free Press, 2016). While it’s nominally an account of the Slate family’s unusual home — a haunted 1898 colonial in the Boston suburbs — the book also serves as a kind of origin story for Slate herself. Like her floral-walled bedroom, or the closet in which she scribbled teenage grudges, the house has been both a laboratory and a much-needed refuge for Slate: a place where she could experiment with ways of being, and a space where she could heal herself when things went catastrophically wrong.

About the House cover image

About the House was conceived with the help of Concord Free Press co-founders Stona and Ann Fitch. (Ron Slate has been on the press’ board since its beginning.) An innovative charity, Concord Free Press publishes a small list of limited-edition titles — a typical print run is 3,000 copies. Each book is given away for free, and the recipient is asked to contribute to a charity of their choice. About the House has produced more donations than almost any other on its 11-book list, raising more than $150,000 for causes including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

The Slates’ Victorian house “meant a lot to the family,” Stona Fitch points out, in describing the book’s conception. Unairconditioned and rambling, with a ghost who might appear and disappear on the staircase, the home seems both “scary and loving,” more like a person than an abode. In a December 2016 NPR interview, Jenny Slate muses that the place might be somehow “a little bit alive. Like, if you ripped up the basement floor, you might find … a big red lit-up heart or something.”

In the following excerpt, Slate examines the ways in which her childhood bedroom was the perfect chrysalis for her still-shifting identity — and her acting career.

— Rose Kernochan BC’82

In my memory, my room still has two beds with rounded bedposts and a desk that smells like varnish. My mother and I stained it and sealed it together, the shellac smelling so strong that when I hid a box of Junior Mints in one of its little drawers, the melty candies tasted only of chemicals and I was pissed and afraid to eat them. I love little secrets and little drawers. I love secrets that are sweet and not rough. I love gentle treasures. My room, in my mind, has a big, comfy white arm chair that I begged for in high school because I also had a phone and lots of reading to do, and I wanted to seem like I was so grown up that I could do my homework even if I wasn’t sitting at a desk. I loved to drape myself across the chair, my legs hanging over one arm, my head resting on the other. Teenagers don’t need to sit on chairs in the normal way! I also had a big yellow Victorian dollhouse on a rotating platform. Its front lawn had a little pond and a gazebo. The inside of the house was painstakingly decorated. There was a woodburning stove in the kitchen. The people who lived there were from the past.

I have always loved the past, and loved that the house was so old. I wanted to blend in perfectly with the decades that descended behind us. My dresser was from my grandmother’s bedroom when she was a girl, so it was incredibly special to me. And I was a sentimental young person, in a different way than I am now. These days, I sit in my bedroom and reflect but I don’t feel a yearning for a part of my life that I haven’t gotten to yet. But back then, as a teenager, I was aware of two things — two thoughts that were so alive that I wasn’t sure if they were part of me, or if they were my companions.

One: I had always, for my whole life, from my first workable thought, wanted to be an adult woman-actress. There was no start to this desire. It came with me, and I was forced to be with it while it moaned and groaned about not being able to be itself yet. I didn’t want to be Shirley Temple. I wanted to be Amy Irving, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner, Judy Garland, and one day, Ruth Gordon.

The second thing I was aware of and tried to be smart about, an idea drilled in by my mother, and then by Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, was that I would be an idiot and a walking tragedy if I somehow let the child inside myself die away. That I would be the most successful actress and adult if I could somehow preserve it, if I could find delight in my younger self and her innocent and odd preferences. And this is how I became sentimental even as a child and a teen. I knew to value my childhood while I was in it. To plant it and grow it and keep it living, so that I wouldn’t have to make a terrible decision or a painful compromise. Do you want to be an adult or a child? I want to be both. Is there an area for that? There is, because I used my bedroom as a lab for this process.

My room had flowers on the walls, and flowers on the rug, and flowers on the quilt and bed linens and dust ruffles and on the curtains too. In the closet were sweaters, skirts and dresses. Party shoes. Scraps of fabric from embroidery, pillow making, and doll clothes projects. Empty duffel bags. At the appropriate point, I really leaned into being a teenager. I would shut myself in the closet with my flashlight from camp, a handful of colored pencils, and write my secrets and grievances on the walls.

During this time, I read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye like it was my bible. It was about a woman whose whole thing was that she ended up being fine, a full person, and she eventually got to have sex, and an adulthood in which she painted in strong oil paints, and she was a successful artist, but she was ultimately formed by the abuse that she went through while being bullied in her teens. She was bullied viciously by the girl who was supposed to be her best friend. Her bully was Cordelia. There were several bullies for me, including a girl named Jessica, who was my best friend and then made a freezing cold, heartless exit out of my life. But the bully who I still have active rage toward was (and is) Sarah, a wispy-haired, thin-lipped blonde whose heart probably beat once a minute and who probably had minnows swimming in her stomach. A little girl whose cold, blue blood made her seem like an undertaker’s sour protégé. I hear she’s some sort of yoga teacher now and the idea that she’s telling people how to be peaceful while not offering the disclaimer that she caused deep, acid-like suffering makes me want to rip a roof off of a house. She was very good at being cruel, knowing just how to do it. And I, good at nothing but secret things that I didn’t know how to express because they were for the future and a deserving audience.

Yes, I’m still upset about it, even though it’s too much to still carry this anger. Even though the specific rejections that I experienced unearthed a joyful and heartbreaking resilience in me. I’m still upset about it even though that unchosen pain made me into the person who I am and who I love to be. But this daily emotional pummeling made me ill and disoriented with rage and sadness. And that’s why the closet had writing on the walls, hidden scribbles, just a little bit of disobedience, because writing on a wall is not allowed usually, although I’m sure my mother wouldn’t have cared. She would have seen, “I hate Jessica, she deserves NO MERCY!” and probably agreed with me. My mother hated Jessica’s mother. So did I. Their family was like a cluster of golden retrievers, but not as gregarious or innocent at all. Just open mouthed and blonde. Her mother wore long denim skirts and giant Christian-y cardigans and had such non-square shoulders that she actually looked like a zucchini in a little outfit.

line drawing of a dresser

My mother read Cat’s Eye in a book club with the other mothers in my class. She came away from the meeting incredulous and agog at the stupidity and emotional wastefulness of the women in the group. She said that they were all complaining about their own mothers, and when they’d looked to her to add in her own motherbased rage, she had declined. Because her mother is Nana Connie, and honestly, Nana Connie really is kind of perfect. My mother never went back to the group, but she did give me the book to read. In my opinion, my mother gave me this book and it saved myself and my life, and I knew it. If I were home right now, I’d get into the closet and write that myself. “My mother’s high standards and good taste and warm heart and a book she gave me saved my life and made me who I am right now.”

I studied in that bedroom. I studied enough so that I could go to the college of my choice and leave high school behind, even though there were some bright spots at the end. My walls were pinned with pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio, his gentle Nordic features mixing really well with the floral Laura Ashley walls. In one especially adored picture, he stared into the camera, intense and present, with a real goose around his neck.

line drawing of Leonardo DiCaprio and a swan

The goose neck was draped around his own neck. I loved it. It made me crazy with love. I remember thinking, I wish I could be that goose.

One summer, I came back from my sophomore year of college, my heart thoroughly shredded by a boy named Russell who claimed that we should break up for the summer because we’d both be going home. “But we’re both from Boston!” I screamed at him. He was very timid and didn’t like being yelled at, plus he just wasn’t over his last girlfriend, who had a wide face like a dinner plate and wore ugly clogs, but who had been mean to him, so he became obsessed with her. I was devastated and limped back home to my childhood bedroom where there was now only one twin bed. My plan was to cut my hair like Amélie, work in a chocolate shop in Harvard Square, and get over Russell. Being rejected by him seemed like some sort of major hint thrown my way, something that said that I was really not there yet, really not on my way to becoming an actress or even a woman who could be loved.

There is no air conditioning in our house in Milton. I’ve never wanted it. I love the open windows, the very loud bugs, and the fans that we take out of the attic when it gets too hot. We bring them down from the third floor and we put them on in our rooms, and they wave their heads from side to side and help us go to sleep with their breeze and humming rhythm. I bought new sheets for my bed, sort of matching with the Laura Ashley extravaganza that never died, but also to assert that I was interesting and worth it. The bottom sheet was light pink. The top sheet was a deep raspberry. I kept the bed as it was, by the window, but I put the sheets on backwards. I slept on the wrong end of the bed, with my head right by the window, in mismatching sheets, not sure if I was awake or asleep because I smoked so much weed that my brain felt like a melted caramel. Fuck you, Russell. This right here is what a dream girl looks like. I had some other boyfriends that summer. I relaxed in that bedroom, not knowing it would be my last full summer as myself alone in that room. I smoked constant weed. I listened to the Amélie soundtrack and ate big bowls of cherries, before I became very allergic to them. I smelled like chocolate and I rested, and at some point I left and went back to New York City to continue to try to let something out of myself and into myself.

The room went through changes. Things got taken off the walls because the ceiling had to be fixed. The little bed, once part of a pair, was taken to the third floor to be with its mate and was replaced with a weird big four-poster bed that my parents got without asking me. A crib went into the room, but it was old, from when we were babies. It was supposed to be for my sister’s twins, but I think she thought it was thoroughly unfit, which I’m sure is right. It seemed rusty and splintery and not for today’s babies. The last time I was in that room I’d crept back to Milton to try to get my head on straight after the three-year long crash and burn of my marriage. Being a divorcée in a big bed all by yourself actually seems like a game that I would have played as a girl.

I don’t know what is more important than to say that most of the time I spent in that room was given to completing tasks, making wishes and fantasizing, all in preparation, all in a yearning drive, to become my actress adult self. Every single stage of that room is colored by that desire. My parents came to that house and they maybe were thinking about whether or not they were who they hoped to be, and whether they could continue to do what they wanted. I knew exactly what I wanted to be, and I knew I had nothing to do but to wait until it was time. Incubation. The room was a chrysalis. In many variations, I played a game. I played that I was an adult actress, that I had choices about what to do with the hours in the day, and that I was also living a life in which I myself was chosen by others. I played that I ate a small meal and took a long walk. That my room was my apartment and our lawn was Central Park. I played that I had objects of womanhood (clip-on earrings, a purse, a bra, a cup of coffee and window to look out of), and I pretended that I used these objects with intention while knowing that they were part of a whole, precious vision.

I used to get myself up in “dress-up clothes” that strangely resembled Bernadette Peters in Annie, using play money from Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life and an old purse that also had fake credit cards and car keys, and leave my room like a woman leaves her New York City apartment: Lock the door, be in a bit of a rush, wiggle your butt as you walk, go out there into the city-world to get something for yourself, like groceries or nightgowns or scotch tape — all small but important details in a bigger situation of personal success.

I did it all on purpose, my game-playing in that room whose walls looked like a garden. Not long ago, I told my father, “An actress is someone who is a woman on purpose,” or many different women to be sure, but also one woman as well. I played the game of pretending and imagining that I was already who I hoped to be. And I sat in the room and I studied in there, hoping to make my brain good enough to go to New York. I played the game again, and I slept on the bed in the right way and the wrong way, and then I left.

Playing the game became second nature, even outside of the room. You cannot play the game correctly if you are also not aware of the present. The actress is not unaware that she is standing on a stage. You cannot play the game well if you erase the objects that are there. You have to say, “This plastic tea cup is what it is, but I’m saying that it’s a porcelain coffee cup and it has coffee and not just water, and I’m looking at the lawn through the bedroom window, but the bedroom window stands for a gorgeous old window in a New York City apartment, and the lawn stands for a city street that I’m not even afraid of, or Central Park.” You take the now and you use it and you make sure to not insult it. You just use it creatively. You make it special by saying, “Hey room, did you know you could do this with yourself?” You play the game until so much time has passed that the game becomes real, and everything has always been real, all of everything and the way it’s been dressed up and converted, it’s all connected because it was always allowed to be there.

Most of the time I spent in that room was given to completing tasks,
making wishes and fantasizing, all in preparation, all in a yearning drive,
to become my actress adult self.

The room is resting now, and I’m out there with a bra and a purse, pretending to be another woman when someone calls action, and honestly being one woman when the person says cut.

Out in the world, the part of myself that has been asking to be let out and accepted, the adult actress who lived inside my child self, has sprung into being. She changed places with the child, who has now made a tiny little bedroom in my heart. She lives in there. She has her own little phone line and it calls my brain and I always pick up.

The room is resting and when I need it, I go back and rest in it. We are together again, and it’s odd, because the room has the feel of an empty cocoon, invisible curving, a curling up trail of energy. It has the jet streaks of the energy of a creature that has waited and waited and built up the power to be whole and to fly off into the outside. It has done its major part, and now it is either just what it is, or a treasure for another creature to find and wonder over.