Glamour writer Laurie Sandell - who's made a career out of profiling celebrities like Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet and, most recently, Taylor Swift - had seen the signs since she was little that something was off about her father.
There were the sudden job changes, the crazy stories about the famous people he'd met, his total estrangement from his family. But it wasn't until she was in college and discovered that he'd opened several credit cards in her name, running up thousands of dollars in debt and ruining her credit, that she realized that her father's deceptions might run deeper than a few tall tales.
(Images from 'The Impostor's Daughter'; click any image to enlarge.)
The story of how Laurie unraveled her father's lifetime of lies is the basis of her new, amazing graphic novel, The Impostor's Daughter, in which she weaves together the story of her childhood, the discovery of her father's lies, her journalism career and her issues with men, which culminated in a stay at a rehab center recommended to her by one of her interview subjects, Ashley Judd. I couldn't put down her book, so when I met up with Laurie at a cafe in Brooklyn (we coincidentally live in the same neighborhood), I had lots of questions-about her book, about her dad, and about her career interviewing celebrities.
[Doree will be interviewing interesting women every week for us. If you have a suggestion, email her.]
Why did you want to do it as a graphic novel?
I did it first as a memoir. I wrote a 350-page memoir. And that was my original intention-it started originally as an essay for Esquire, which I published anonymously in 2003. But that essay ended on all of these questions. I ended it saying, I don't know who he is or what he does, is it this, is it this, is it this? I felt that as much as a writer, I felt as a daughter that I had to get to the truth, to the bottom of things. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and I went to writers' colonies, and I think the story was unfolding as I wrote. It made it difficult to have the proper perspective. It made it difficult to have the emotional truths and that was why I turned back to cartooning, because I'd always cartooned about my dad, and I discovered this box of childhood cartoons.
I'm going to put more of them up on my website. I have hundreds. I looked at those cartoons and realized how fearless they were. I realized I wasn't being that fearless in the memoir, and so I decided to try it as a graphic novel. And it was almost easy for me emotionally to talk about him that way.
I know it's hard to think about this in retrospect, but do you think even at that time you felt like there was something off about your dad?
Oh, yeah. My childhood cartoons were so observant. I knew every single thing that was going on in my house, and my father knew I knew every single thing that was going on in my house because I gave them to him as gifts, and he loved them. In a way he loved that I knew.
It fed his ego in some way.
Yeah. It fed his ego, exactly. I think it was very exciting for him that I sort of saw what he was doing.
In some ways your book reminded me of David Carr's memoir Night of the Gun-
I haven't read it but I really want to.
Because he uses his training as a journalist to go back and recreate these years he basically lost because he was a drug addict, but he's using his tools as a journalist to do it. I thought that was really interesting how you kind of interplay what you're doing as a journalist with your discovery of what your dad was doing. It did seem like it was all related.
Absolutely. My mother constantly bemoans, like, why did I have to have a daughter who's a writer? My mother just very much wanted to keep the family intact and the story a secret, even to herself. I became a writer for this very reason. I didn't set out to become a writer. My father created a writer. He created a digger.
You have that bit in the book where you find out about the credit cards and you write what you wanted to say to him, and you wonder, if you had confronted him at that time, what would have happened.
It was the first real piece of physical evidence really. There were little bits and pieces, little hints. It was the first, direct-not affront, but direct betrayal. And I tell you, even now, 38 years old, I've written a published a book about this, and I still am afraid of my father, I'm afraid of him hurting me, I'm afraid of him hurting himself, and I'm still afraid of losing his love even though I've already lost it. And that stuff is so potent, as a daughter.
He seems really lonely.
He is. He's a total lone wolf. And always has been. No connection to his family at all. Very, very few friends. But the thing is, I feel like if my father were to say something like, I made some mistakes, I own it.
It seemed like he always had some excuse or some rationalization. It was always the other person that was crazy, or he was misunderstood.
Exactly. In a way I wonder if this period of time, to some extent, I wonder if he's enjoying it. He's getting a lot of attention. My sisters and my mother are really sort of rallying around him. So that would be in keeping with his, I hate to say it, with his narcissistic makeup.
You write that this whole experience with your father made you a better interviewer-somehow more empathic with people. How did you discover that?
I think it was my very first in-person cover interview. My very first interview was a telephone interview with Penelope Cruz. That was my first cover story. My first in-person interview was Ashley Judd. And I was really floundering and I didn't know what I was doing, and I was a little bit starstruck at the time. It was a fashion story, and I could tell immediately she had no interest in fashion. She kept trying to flip the interview back to her charity work. I wasn't, at the time, a seasoned interviewer and I didn't know what to do. I had 40 questions about fashion and I just kind of threw away my questions and I just started to talk about my dad, and she was just so drawn in by the story, and I just started a correspondence with her after that. It wasn't like I deliberately said, aha, I'm going to use this, but it became very quickly clear to me that I had always kind of in a way bonded with people over this story. So it was no different in a way than what I had been doing all along, except it was with celebrities.
You come into a celebrity interview with a preconceived concept of who this person is, that's been put together by the press. There's no way to get around that. And there's this whole thing of projection going on with celebrities. And that goes on with my father. I definitely say he was my first celebrity. He was this larger-than-life, shape-shifting, identity-shifting person, and that's what celebrities are. So as much as I got starstruck by them as much as I got starstruck by my father, I also felt at ease in their company. I can do this, that was sort of the feeling.
It was almost like, no one could intimidate you as much as your father could intimidate you.
Exactly. No one could intimidate me as much as my father had intimidated me. I'll repeat that so you can use it in my words. That's really good.
Do you ever feel like you have to tell a certain story at Glamour?
Well, they have certain themes that they're interested in. It's very different doing a Q&A format from a running text story. If I were doing a running text celebrity interview, I would have lots of observations that I would make that I don't have the chance to make in a Glamour interview. On the other hand, you get to hear their voice and it's their voice. Yeah, the Glamour audience has certain interests so I try to stick to those interests, but obviously Glamour's also interested in breaking news and scoops and so I try to do that too.
It's hard with a monthly.
Yeah. It's very hard with a monthly to do that kind of thing. But what I've learned is that celebrities are so media savvy. They're more media savvy than anyone you can imagine. So if there's going to be breaking news, it's breaking news they're going to give you, essentially. The Ashley Judd thing-the rehab story, which was one of our biggest selling issues ever-she decided to tell me.
Because she felt like she had this relationship with you?
I think it was because she felt like she had a relationship with me, and because she decided that she wanted that story in Glamour. A lot of celebrities will decide, I want this story in Vanity Fair. They're very media savvy. It's not like I'm going to crack them. Once in awhile I guess it can happen.
I feel like especially with actors-I feel like when people claim they're getting the "real" Reese Witherspoon-it's like, she's an actress.
And she's a very good actress, on top of that.
I actually try very hard in my celebrity interviews to in a way throw out my questions. The skill that I learned from my father literally is the only time I've ever gotten anything new or interesting from a celebrity-when I just talk to them and they like me as a person. If they like me as a person, and I'm not saying they're going to tell me about how their heart was broken that you don't know about-it's not that. It's just that what they talk about is going to be more authentic and interesting and you'll hear something new. If you just sort of stick to the typical celebrity interview format, you're going to get a pat and boring celebrity interview.
Why are people so fascinated with who celebrities are dating?
Every celebrity I interview asks me the same question.
On a fundamental level, it's gossip. In high school, you gossip about, Oh, Laurie broke up with Dan, oh my God.
I think it's because we mistakenly believe that we know them and we mistakenly believe they're one of our friends. I think we really do believe they're part of our circle in our minds. So they're part of our circle to discuss and pick apart and to bring them down and to have them be human like us.
Or we think, like, we could be friends. Like if it just so happened that I met Taylor Swift at the mall, she'd probably like me and we'd be friends.
Exactly. It's totally true. And even I've had that starstruck moment with certain celebrities. I wouldn't say I'm starstruck, like nervous, to meet any of them, but there are certain celebrities that for whatever reason-like Sarah Jessica Parker-who I just have a girlcrush on. So when I interviewed her, I thought that we were going to get along, and maybe we'll be friends. And I met her and she was completely unlike anything that I had imagined. Very reserved and not like her persona.
You expect her to be Carrie Bradshaw.
I did. I kind of did. Which is ridiculous. I mean, I should know better after all these years of doing these interviews.
But also, because she always plays that character.
She always plays that. She projects that in every film, in every character. So I was like, I'm going to like this woman, I know who she is. And she was very kind of reserved, and sort of serious, and so I walked away feeling like I really admired her, really respected her, really liked her, but there was no pretension that we were going to be friends. And really it would be part of my job to not be friends with the people I interview.
You do have this sort of bond with Ashley Judd.
Yeah. It went above and beyond the interview. She recommended the rehab center.
She saved your life.
Yes, you could say that, absolutely.
Has she seen the book?
To be honest, I didn't want to just use her name if I didn't have her permission for the book. So I sent her the text. She hasn't seen the drawings yet. She read the text and she approved it. I was actually surprised-she didn't make any changes, she was fine with it.
Ben. Or "Ben." [Laurie's ex-boyfriend, whose name is changed in her book.] Has he seen the book?
I actually sent him the entire manuscript. Like Ashley Judd, I sent him the entire manuscript and gave him the option to change his name. Because originally I didn't change his name. And I also changed a couple of details about him to make him less recognizable and he said yes, please change my name.
Is he a well-known person?
Yes. He is not famous, but he's known. He's a director, which I say in the book. I asked if he wanted me to change that detail, but he said no.
Is he with anyone now?
I have no idea. He didn't want to be friends. I would have been friends but he didn't want to. He wrote a film about me and I don't know what's going on with that. I have nothing bad to say about him, but for whatever reason I wasn't in love with him.
Do you think you can be in love?
With anyone? No. I was in love, but with the worst people. So can I be in love? No. I mean I'd like to say that's not true because I've done lots of therapy and I'm very much at a point in my life where I very much want the real thing. I'd like to find a stable relationship. But I so far have not been capable of being in love. I was thinking about my next book potentially being called Commitmentphobe, about female commitmentphobia. It's amazing to me because just like the next person, I want it as much as the next person does, but once I'm in it, I feel like I'm in a claustrophobic elevator and can't breathe. Look at the father I had. It's very hard to overcome that. It kind of sucks. I got at least a great career out of my dad, out of growing up that way, but it's completely been a problem in my love life.
And how are you doing with all the stuff you went to rehab for?
Sober for three years. So that stuff has been great. I'd kind of like to be able to have a glass of wine. I didn't go there for alcohol but there's this concept of cross-addiction and when you're an addict, you're an addict. Plus I think to get through all this stuff about my dad and have a healthy relationship at some point I think it would be good for me not to turn to the chemicals.
What about the religion stuff you talk about in the book?
It's funny-a couple people have said, oh, you became religious. No, I did not become religious. I am not religious. I opened myself to the possibility of spirituality and God. I've been a lifelong atheist. So I'm sort of saying, I would like to believe in God, but inside I'm sort of like, come on. It's very hard for me to accept that concept. The thing that I mentioned in my book that I think is true is that my father was really God to me. And once I sort of removed him from the equation, at the very least I'm able to open my mind and say, you know what, maybe I'm more agnostic than atheist, and I'm able to maybe say I don't know what's out there, and maybe there is and maybe there isn't. So not religious and would marry a non-Jewish guy and all of that, but I'm definitely into the idea of spirituality with a pinch of God.