In New Memoir, Comedian Chelsea Handler Gets Serious

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Comedian Chelsea Handler. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Comedian Chelsea Handler. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Stand-up comic, actress, writer and TV host Chelsea Handler is a woman of many talents. You may know her from her late-night talk show, "Chelsea Lately," which aired from 2007 to 2014, or her Netflix documentary, "Chelsea Does," or her other show, "Chelsea" — or her five books.

Now, she's out with a new memoir, "Life Will Be the Death of Me: . . . and you too!" The book covers a wide swath of Handler's life — from the 2016 election to her crush on special counsel Robert Mueller. It's also an examination of the death of her older brother Chet in a hiking accident, and how the event shaped Handler into the person she is today.

"I wanted to have my independence. I wanted to be a strong woman and a strong role model and never depend on anybody, and I thought that was because I was just strong," Handler (@chelseahandler) tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "I didn't think it was a direct link to what happened at 9 years old, when my brother told me, you know, promised me he'd be back shortly from his trip to the Grand Tetons and then him leaving and never returning."

Handler writes about a year of peeling away coats of self-preservation, starting with a meltdown in her psychiatrist's office — her first tears in 30 years. A large part of her journey, Handler says, was discovering that she lacked empathy.

"That was an awakening," Handler says. "I'm a fixer. I want to show up, and I want to fix your life. If my girlfriend has a problem, I will be there every single day at the edge of her bed. But I never went to those people's houses and thought about what they were going through."

Interview Highlights

On the response to her book 

"I've heard from people on social media and such — so many people. I got a message yesterday — I don't remember which one — [from] a woman who said she hadn't spoken to her sister in 13 years and that she read my book and called her sister and her sister read my book after she sent it to her and that they're meeting. It's something that we all have experienced: loss and grief. So, you know, it's really moving. I mean, to have an impact on something like that is not something I ever thought I would have."

On Chet's death and its impact on her and her family

"It changed my dynamic and the narrative in my head and kind of helped me get stuck in that place of a 9-year-old brain with regard to men and with regard to relying on anybody in your life, because it seemed to me after he died and what happened to my family that no adults were reliable. I couldn't depend on my father. He was gone in his corner of grief and never came out of it and you know tried to sue the people my brother was with. My brothers and sisters were all dealing with their own pain. My mom was just trying to keep us going, and I didn't give myself enough credit and enough room to talk about that. I thought I didn't have to."

"I wanted to be a strong woman ... and never depend on anybody, and I thought that was because I was just strong. I didn't think it was a direct link to what happened at 9 years old."

Chelsea Handler

On growing up in a quirky, unusual setting

"It's a bit 'Sanford and Son.' … It was very clear from a very early age that this was not a traditional family. My father was a used-car dealer, which meant he was home all the time, and he sold cars out of our driveway. It's not like he had a business to go to. You know, he was a mover and a shaker and not the most honest, moral character ... and if he had been more successful, he could have done more damage. So, luckily, he wasn't more successful. So, it was a little bit of instability in that way.

"But there were six of us growing up, of which I was the youngest, and my brother who died, Chet, was the oldest ... and we were bookends, you know. He was my first crush. He was like my first boyfriend in a way, because he took me everywhere with him, and I loved him. … He was the head of the family in a way. Like, he was the head of the children. He was the oldest, so we all looked to him. If somebody needed anything. Like, if we wanted pizza, I would go in and ask my dad, because I was the youngest and cute and a loudmouth, so that worked for that. But if we needed serious stuff, Chet was the one. So, we worked in tandem a lot together.

"And our family was nontraditional, you know. We were always the family in the neighborhood that everybody kind of was like, 'Oh, God. Look at their driveway. Look at their used cars everywhere.' ... We grew up in a Jewish kind of materialistic part of New Jersey, and there was money being spent and shown in cars in terms of materialism. So, growing up, it was embarrassing."

On her mother's sweetness and absent-mindedness

"My mom once came to pick me up from school on my birthday — I was in third grade — and I was like, 'Can you please take me to lunch on my birthday?' She said, 'Of course, of course,' and at lunch, I went down to the principal's office. I waited and I waited and waited, and she never came. And I finally, when I went home that day at three o'clock ... I was furious. You know, I walked in hysterically crying. I was like, 'Well, how could you not come and get me on my birthday?' And she said, 'I was there. I parked right outside where I drop you off in the morning, and you never came out.' And I'm like, 'Mom, you have to go and sign me out. I'm 9. You have to go into the school and come and get me.' She wasn't intentionally leaving me out of her thoughts or forgetting to pick me up. They just didn't."

On how she viewed Chet's death as a form of rejection, and the impact the 2016 election had on her emotionally

"In your 9-year-old brain, that is a rejection. You know, he went off and let himself be killed, when he told me he would never leave me. So, my 9-year-old brain didn't have the vocabulary to understand. Intellectually, I got that it was an accident. Emotionally, he lied to me. He lied to me and he left me and he never came back. ... And then, my dad was so gone, so I was screaming and crying for attention after he died — my brother died — and my dad had none for me. He just would be like, 'Get out of my face.'

"It took me until I was 40 years old to understand that I had so much anger that I didn't understand why, until the election, which was a huge trigger for me, as it was for millions in this country, when my world became unhinged again. And that election represented the feeling I had when I was a little girl and the whole world became unhinged, and I lost it again. And this time, I had the resources and the knowledge to try and sit down with somebody and get to the root of it, because I wanted to be coming from a place of positivity and optimism, not anger and outrage."

On recognizing her privilege

"I think my whole career has been about telling everybody what's wrong with them without ever taking a really hard look at myself, because I thought I was too cool to have to do it. … The older I get and the more awake I've become, and after the election especially, you realize what an advantage it is just to get through life with white skin. It's not that every white person has immense privilege. It's an advantage over people who don't have white skin. So, that's what I learned, to stop crediting yourself with all of your success and take into account all the optics and all of the surrounding information and to be a little bit more responsible about what you're putting out there. And for me that was so important, because I felt like I had just made a career of being a loudmouth for so long, and I wanted to do something more."

On how she views Chet's death today

"In my mind, now that I have a deeper understanding of awareness, of mindfulness, of like, you know, that people aren't really gone, now I believe that he's like — not that people die and they're sitting around floating above your body, not that stupid nonsense — I believe that he'll always be a part of me, and so will my mom. Like, they're with us. The people that we love are with us, and we should be spending our time honoring them, instead of grieving for so long. We can grieve, because we need to get that out, but we have to honor those people, and the way to honor them is by fixing yourself and getting healthy. And then, you know, I get to write a book about my dead brother. … So, you know, I'm happy I wrote this book."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Robin Young and Todd Mundt. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 15, 2019.


Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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