In The Ugly Cry, Danielle Henderson writes about experiencing abuse from family members, being abandoned by her mother and growing up with her foulmouthed, horror movie-loving grandmother. Individually these topics seem unfathomably heavy—but Henderson leavens them with humor to create a wholly original testament to survival.
Why did you choose the title The Ugly Cry?
It’s something my grandmother said whenever a child was crying in her presence. “Oooo, you look ugly when you cry.” Then she would laugh, and her laugh would make me stop crying and laugh, too. I realized as an adult that she never actually cared if it made us stop crying, and she wasn’t saying it as a kindness. She genuinely loves teasing children, because she is a tiny maniac.
You use your power of observation to deliver vivid portraits of your family members in this book. Did you rely on diaries or journals for this? Do you still keep a journal?
I never felt safe keeping a journal when I was a child. My abuser would have used it to embarrass me, and later I shared space (including my bedroom) in my grandparents’ house to such an extensive degree that the concept of privacy was tantamount to winning the lottery—impossibly out of my grasp. I always wrote in great detail when I was in school, but I didn’t start journaling in earnest until I was 18 years old.
I journal every day now and have for years, but I think the reason I was able to deliver such vivid portraits of my family is that I’ve observed them for over 40 years. I narrowed in on my most vivid memories and used my knowledge of how my family acts and reacts to fill in the story. I realized in therapy that hyperobservation was a response to my trauma, a way of keeping myself safe. I learned at a very early age that I could not stop trauma from happening, but I could gain some sense of control if I was prepared for it—which doesn’t work either, as it turns out. But that’s what turned on the switch.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Ugly Cry.
What’s the appeal for you of writing memoir instead of fiction?
Memoir creates deeper connections, whether you’re writing a book or telling a story over dinner. I thought about the books I needed to see on my library list when I was a teenager, and I would have felt so much better about myself if I knew that other women had survived similar families. I’m compelled to tell my story as it happened because I am compelled by connection as a form of healing.
Since finishing The Ugly Cry, have you received any reactions from the family members you write about in your book?
My brother is the only person in my family I’ve allowed to read the book, and his reaction was unexpected, because he apologized. At first I couldn’t understand why, but he felt terrible for not being there for me more when we were younger. I reminded him that we were both children, both reeling from trauma in different ways, and the important thing is that we reached a place in our 20s where we became very close again. But he felt a lot of grief when he was finished reading and considered that there were a lot of things about our childhood that he’s never addressed. He may go to therapy. The fact that my book could even make him consider it is a triumph.
My great-aunt (my grandmother’s sister) has also read the book and is incredibly supportive. She loved seeing her little sister come to life on the page, and we both laughed about stories from my childhood. But she also had some grief—even though she was aware of what happened to me, she did not know the details. It hurts to put someone in a place years later where they feel guilt about something they could not control, but the beauty that comes from the connection of it alleviates that pain.
My mother knows about the book, but I haven’t sent her a copy yet. She will definitely read it, but our relationship is in such a tender place as we try to reconnect that I kind of don’t want her voice in my head. As present as she is in this book, this is not her story to tell.
“I thought about the books I needed when I was a teenager, and I would have felt so much better about myself if I knew that other women had survived similar families.”
You originally set out to become a fashion designer but became a writer instead. What changed your course?
Oh, my résumé reads like I’ve been on the run from the law. Most of the work I’ve done has been out of survival—I’ve supported myself entirely since I first left home after high school—and that does not leave a lot of room to dream or define your goals. I didn’t become a fashion designer because I left school, and in 1996 I could see no other way to reach that goal. I worked in coffee shops, bookstores and restaurants, having two or three jobs at the same time, because I had to pay rent and eventually size up from a futon mattress on the floor to an actual bed.
The thing about my writing career is that it was never supposed to happen. I never set out to follow that dream; my writing was always just for me. My course changed as I changed, as I grew, as I gained more confidence in my abilities or felt more desperation about how I was living. Going back to college at 30 years old was very freeing; I was being valued for my brain by people who encouraged me to take bigger chances.
When I left my Ph.D. program, I started freelance writing full time. The first time I was able to pay my rent and bills with a paycheck earned from writing was my tipping point. My agent found me through my freelance writing, which jump-started a writing career in television that I was also never supposed to have. My literary agent was a friend of a friend; when he heard my stories over dinner, he said, “You should write a book.”
There are plenty of writers who know what they want to do in utero and map their lives toward those specific goals. I’ve never taken a writing course, I’ve never been to a writer’s retreat, I’ve never taken a year off to work on my craft. I survived, and I keep surviving. Then I write it down.
“I’m compelled to tell my story as it happened because I am compelled by connection as a form of healing.”
The tenacity and grit you demonstrate throughout your memoir is impressive. What, or who, helped you persevere the most?
This is the most difficult question to answer, because I truly do not know. There’s no way I should have survived what I did, and as early as I did. If you look at my beginnings, that’s not a kid who eventually moves to Alaska for four years on a whim. This may be an unfulfilling answer, but I persevered because I had no choice. I did not have the option of moving back home once I was gone. My family was never going to support me financially. I didn’t have a therapist until I was in my 20s. There was no scaffolding, nothing propping me up. If my life was going to be worth living, I had to figure that out on my own.
In The Ugly Cry, you acknowledge the racism embedded in your community, but you seem to consider it more a fact of life than an obstacle. Has your perception of that racism changed as you’ve gotten older?
Absolutely not. Racism is still a fact of my life every day. Racism didn’t get worse; it got louder. It got confident. But so did I.
Your honest voice shines through in this book, especially when treading softly around the abuse you experienced. Through your craft, you let these dark times speak for themselves while keeping the focus on your own behavior and reactions. What was it like to write about these heavier topics? Did you rely on any forms of support or comfort to soften the emotional blow?
My therapist deserves her own chapter at the end of this book! She was crucial to helping me get out of my own way and find value in my voice. For a long time, I didn’t feel like my life story was worth telling; bad things happen to everyone, and some experience far worse things than I have. My therapist helped me to remove that layer of comparison and learn how to write without focusing on the audience.
It wasn’t difficult to write about my abuse. That may seem strange, but I’ve been telling my story for years and am very adept at flopping out those facts. Perhaps that’s why you feel the darker times speak for themselves; I just told what happened without giving any thought to spicing it up with glitz or glamour. In those scenes I was more of a reporter. The events were enough.
“Racism didn’t get worse; it got louder. It got confident. But so did I.”
Flannery O’Connor said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” What would you say to that?
I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think that’s entirely true—especially now, when hypervigilant parents are shielding children from their own childhoods as a way to avoid any kind of pain. A lot of people emerge from childhood as absolute chumps, and they remain chumps until their dying day. This is a statement made from a place of privilege.
I would say the opposite was true of my experience. Yes, I had a clear picture of the horrors the world could throw at you, but it took me decades to learn that I was worthy of love. It took me even longer to learn that I could love someone else. For me, surviving childhood meant that I started my adult life at a deficit.
Your acknowledgements are extensive and heartfelt, and they include your mother. Are you at peace with her?
I’m at peace with myself. I was able to find an astonishing amount of grace as I was writing about her, which came as a surprise. We reconnected last year when my aunt was dying; I flew my mom, brother and sister out to say goodbye. But our relationship is still in flux. I’ve made peace with her in that I see her for exactly who she is, and I’m no longer willing to spend effort on being angry at all the things she’s not. That does not mean there is a happily ever after for us, but it does mean that there is a happily ever after for me.
“I don’t think grandparents get enough credit for the myriad ways they save our lives.”
The people in your memoir are so memorable. Can you see your story as a movie? Any thoughts about who would play your grandmother?
I actually optioned the book as a TV show years ago, when it was just a proposal. It landed in a place that wanted to emphasize the sitcom elements, which ignored so much of the reality of my life that in the end it didn’t work out. I’m trying to enjoy the book as it is, existing in the precise way I wanted people to receive this information about me, before I entertain it as a film. And truly, I may be avoiding it because absolutely no one could play my grandmother.
Who would you like to see read your book?
Everyone. I will not rest until I am casually sitting next to someone on public transit and they are reading my book, gently crying tears of blood.
Everyone, but especially grandparents and people raised by grandparents. There are so many of us, and those relationships are so special. I don’t think grandparents get enough credit for the myriad ways they save our lives.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Ugly Cry?
The great capacity we all have to survive. The boulders of joy we can find among the pebbles of pain. I want readers to feel that their families are an origin story, not an endpoint.
Author photo credit © Maile Knight