“You’re Not Allowed To Die”


“It was the first time I realized this wasn’t all about me. I didn’t care if I died, but my family did. That’s the thing about these kinds of disorders: They’re consuming; they make you egocentric; they’re all you can see.”  Zosia Mamet (Glamour, Health & Fitness, September, 2014)

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I spent 55 years on the planet never having heard of David Mamet, despite the fact that he’s nearly a contemporary of mine and one of the most prolific and decorated American playwrights, essayists, screenwriters and film directors of the past 30 years. Mamet’s literary achievements include: winning a Pulitzer Prize and receiving several Tony award nominations for 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross; writing the screenplays for The Verdict, Wag The Dog, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, Hoffa and Ronin, several of which resulted in Oscar nominations and/or garnered recognition at prominent film festivals around the world; and authoring half a dozen books, including The Old Religion, Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, The Wicked Son and The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture – to name a few. Mamet also wrote and directed Redbelt, The Spanish Prisoner, House of Games, Heist, State and Main, The Winslow Boy, Oleanna, Homicide and Things Change. Simply put, I had every reason to know and admire David Mamet – I just didn’t.

In fact, had a friend not sent me a link to a segment of the Morning Joe show several years ago featuring Mamet’s then 26-year old daughter, Zosia – a columnist with Glamour Magazine and a co-star on the widely popular HBO show Girls – chances are I may never have been “introduced” to David, let alone learned how little (and how much) the two of us have in common. During the segment, Zosia shared what, up to that point, had been a very private lifelong struggle with anorexia nervosa that began when she was 8 years old. “It was then,” she recalls, “that I was told I was ‘fat’ for the first time” – then that “a monster” surreptitiously stole past the guard her father likely had been keeping at the door to his daughter’s gentle, but impressionable young heart and found its way into her brain. Its voice, muted to the rest of the world, was loud, unrelenting and merciless. “I was only 17 years old,” Zosia recalled, “living in misery, wanting to die. And then, one night, my dad came home from a party, took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You’re not allowed to die’.” As it turned out, those 5 words were the impetus for Zosia to seek the treatment she so desperately needed.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live with “the monster” Zosia describes. I’ve never had to wake up to a voice on perpetual loop berating me 24/7 for the way that I look, the food I eat (or even think about eating!), how I compare to others, the way my clothes fit, etc., nor have I had to endure the constant companionship of an invisible, but no less real “bully” pummeling an already nutrition (and sometimes love) starved mind and spirit with the most hateful and disparaging self-talk imaginable, filling my psyche with lies and distortions, urging, if not insisting, that I isolate from family and friends and engage in acts of unspeakable self-harm – a beast hell-bent on breaking and, ultimately, destroying me. I’ve never known the suffering associated with silencing my body’s hunger cues, forcefully depriving it of the sustenance it needs to function, nor have I stood in front of a refrigerator door longing, but unwilling/unable to open it or over a toilet bowl torn between staying in my illness or taking another difficult step on the road to recovery.

I do, however, know (intimately) the well-spring from which David’s 5 words (and the tears that likely accompanied them) flowed. I know what it’s like to stare into “the monster’s” eyes or at least the sunken sockets of the almost lifeless ones his handiwork has wrought. I know the futility and frustration that comes with trying to reason with “him” and the fuel-starved mind he has monopolized. I know the second-guessing and regret that comes from looking back and wondering if there was something you did or didn’t do that could have made a difference. I know the anger of feeling abandoned by what I’d always been taught to believe is an all-loving, all-knowing and all-merciful God. I know the sense of helplessness and anguish that comes with seeing your loved one’s life incrementally slipping away before your eyes and how easily it can turn to hopelessness. I know the despair of hanging up the phone and wondering if it’s the last time you’ll ever hear your loved one’s voice. But, I also know a thing (or two) about sacrifice and hope – and the indomitable power of the human spirit!

You see, there are lots of things I don’t have in common with David Mamet (and never will): a Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Oscar Award nominations, “Best Film” recognition at the Venice Film Festival, critically-acclaimed movie and theatrical box office hits, a place in the American Theater Hall of Fame, etc.; but there are two very important things that we do: (1) 26 year-old daughters, born less than a month apart, who have been to hell and back and whose hearts are as courageous as they are creative, as resilient as they are sensitive, as battle-tested as they are beautiful; and (2) a father’s heart, which, on a moment’s notice, would unhesitatingly make whatever sacrifice is required for his daughter’s to continue to beat, to fight and to love content in the knowledge that she is loved unconditionally and that she is worthy of love!

*Special thanks to Kendall Price (www.kendallpricephotography.com) for granting me permission to use this “Dad & Daughter” photograph

The Benefit Of The Doubt

alone in a crowd

The image is still frozen in my mind: The young African-American girl in the bright yellow flower print sun dress standing on the edge of the sidewalk, bearing the unmistakable look of a lost and confused tourist, and the throngs of smartly-dressed churchgoers pouring out of the sanctuary into the steaming hot summer sun in one of South Florida’s most affluent neighborhoods seemingly oblivious to the young girl’s existence, let alone her plight. I remember wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt – to believe that they were so engrossed in powering-up their smart phones and the just-couldn’t-wait conversations that followed that they simply didn’t notice her, that in the heat and their hurry to get to the air-conditioned comfort of their luxury automobiles they simply confused the tears that had begun to spill down the sides of her cheeks for beads of sweat or, perhaps, like those that preceded the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, that they were so distracted and consumed with their own problems they simply didn’t have the time or the heart-space required to take on someone else’s and so they continued walking confident that another of their number would play the role and lend a hand if one was needed.

But my heart knew better. Despite being fatigued from having just walked 5 miles, it could see the truth from 25 yards away. It saw the look of confusion morphing into panic on the young girl’s face, her tears for what they were and the unmistakable countenance of feeling invisible – and it insisted that I stop. “Looks like you might be lost,” I said. “Can I help?” Turns out, the young girl had set out hours earlier on a bus from the other side of town, hoping to audition for a part in an upcoming play at a little theater adjacent to the Biltmore Hotel. The closest the bus could get her was about a mile walk from the venue and unguided she had mistakenly set out in the wrong direction. I knew there was no way she could make it on time by foot. Since I lived only a short distance away, I asked if I could borrow her cell phone to call my wife and arrange a ride. She hesitantly obliged and within minutes Cyndy came to pick her up and whisk her off to the theater. While we waited, I shared with her that our daughter also acted in the theater as a young girl and that I knew a little something about auditioning and the nerves that went along with it – an acknowledgement that brought a long overdue and much needed smile to her face. As she got in the car, I wished her well. She thanked me – for caring.

This isn’t about race, nor is it a commentary on Judgmentalism, though it easily could be both. It’s about living with an Attentive Heart. It’s about being on a perpetual scavenger hunt for moments when you can make a difference – and seizing them. It’s about recognizing and then attending to the needs of others. It’s about stepping outside of ourselves and our comfort zones. It’s about giving, about making time rather than making excuses. It’s about the power of one. It’s about the quiet child in the back of the classroom, the one sitting alone on the sideline during afternoon recess, the one leaning against the wall at the school dance – the co-worker who never seems to have company for lunch. It’s about not ignoring the obvious, about what it’s like to be invisible – about the fundamental need/longing that all of us have to feel as if we matter, that someone cares that we exist. It’s about checking in, about showing up, about extending a hand or a hug. It’s about ignoring the well-intended admonition of our childhood and making it a point to talk to strangers. It’s about all the little girls (and little boys) struggling to find their way and their identity in an increasingly complex and impersonal world. It’s about caring – about finding love and then giving it all away.

I’d like to think the young girl I met on the sidewalk that day got the part she wanted – that her go-the-extra-mile efforts that morning were rewarded. I’ve even fantasized about the part serving as a springboard for a career in theater that one day would land her on a Broadway stage, perhaps even entertaining some of those same folks who passed her on the sidewalk that morning without so much as a second glance – save perhaps for one of scorn or contempt. But this much I know for sure: The little girl who got back on that bus was not the same one who got off it. Thanks to the simplest of gestures by a sweat-drenched stranger, she was affirmed, shown compassion – learned that she mattered. There was nothing extraordinary about any of it, except for the broad smiles it permanently imprinted on both of our hearts.


Photograph used was taken by Caroline Gorka.  I encourage readers to check out her and her work at: https://caroline1photography.wordpress.com