Around the middle of the 2011 movie Contagion, protagonist Mitch Emhoff, along with the rest of the residents of his daughter’s hometown, has been placed under mandatory quarantine. Desperate to find a stocked grocery store, the two venture outside the house, driving by a once-quaint commercial strip picked over and set ablaze by looters.
The scene hit close to home for comedian Cameron Esposito.
Not trying to be dramatic but the burning hometown in Contagion is my actual hometown of Western Springs, IL pic.twitter.com/RjS86lLDWt
— Cameron Esposito (@cameronesposito) March 14, 2020
As it has for so many Americans, however, the novel coronavirus would creep even closer to Esposito over the coming weeks, eventually to her front door in Los Angeles, where she moved from Chicago in 2012. As Esposito details in a Refinery29 essay, her girlfriend, book editor Katy Nishimoto, was admitted to the ER on March 25 with chest pain; she was tested and discharged several hours later with a presumed, albeit not confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19.
It’s been an emotionally intense month for Esposito. On a March 2 episode of Conan, she addressed her recent divorce from fellow comedian and erstwhile Chicagoan Rhea Butcher onstage for the first time. Then, on March 10, she wrote a Vanity Fair op-ed on Hachette’s decision to publish, then pull, Woody Allen’s memoir; it had been slated for release on the same imprint as her new memoir, Save Yourself, which she wrote from 2015 to 2019.
I called Esposito at home (where else?) on Friday, where she was busy molding her now-cancelled book tour into a series of Zoom panels with other queer memoirists and caring for Nishimoto. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
You’ve had a hell of a last few days. How are you doing?
I’m OK. Am I OK? I don’t know. I like when I have a purpose to my time, so I’ve had stuff throughout the day, and that’s been helpful. Before this call, I was looking into the void that’s going to be the next few hours. I’ll have a break, and that’s a little tough — the downtime.
You’ve posted periodic updates about Katy on Twitter, and also interviewed her about her status as an immunosuppressed person in a recent episode of Queery [Esposito’s weekly podcast with LGBTQ+ guests]. Could you tell me a little about the last 48 hours?
She’s napping in the other room. There’s some relief because when she went in and out of the hospital, she got an inhaler that seems to be helping with some of the symptoms.
It feels so weird to talk about it publicly, because part of the way I experience and process things is making work about it. Then, obviously, this is also someone’s medical information, so [there will be] a lot of conversations about that. Do you text each of your friends individually, or do you talk about it publicly? It’s a complicated question for any person right now, especially with the heightened insulation. We’re all in this situation where we can’t get a hug from someone that’s not our own arms.
I so often am thinking about what in my private life I need to talk about publicly. I know as a comic I’m supposed to have a take, but when it’s still happening in my life, I don’t want to say that much.
What you’re describing reminds me of a moment in Save Yourself, when you recount being called a homophobic slur by a neighbor. You say you told friends, processed your emotions, and then wrote a bit about it — you “shared it as a person first and as a comic second.”
That’s exactly right. I think any person that works in an art medium, making that art is a useful survival mechanism. If things in your life feel truly personal, it can be complicated to figure out when and how, exactly, to share them. Katy woke up from a nap and copy-edited my piece for Refinery29, because that’s what she does for a living. Nothing is without input, but even that’s complicated.
Did Katy help out with Save Yourself?
She used to work at the agency that I’m represented by. That’s how we initially met, through book stuff. Although she wasn’t my agent, we were connected through the beginning process of working on this book.
As we all continue to navigate social distancing and lockdown, I’m thinking of another moment in Save Yourself when you describe standup as feeling like everyone in the room is connected by a network of shared roots. How are you accessing that state of connectedness when live performances aren’t possible?
I’ve been doing these Zoom book author panels. The reason that feels like an appropriate place for me — as opposed to Instagram Live, which I’ve also been doing some of — is that with Zoom, if the attendees leave their cameras on or opt in, you can see them, too. It’s not just the authors on the panel, it’s also the homes of all the attendees. That’s been really helpful, because it’s been the closest approximation to having a live audience. In fact, it’s a step further, because I don’t ever get to see my audience’s couches!
I’m having a lot of pause realizing how much my life is about connecting with other people. Prior to all this, I would have said, “Oh, I’m an introvert and need a lot of time to myself.” But I think that I can say that because my job involves interacting with so many people, and also because I spend a lot of my recreational time, say, out and running around the reservoir that’s by my house with a ton of people, or going to a crowded book shop. My life is people. I did not realize that before.
Tell me more about those Zoom conversations.
It’s been an interesting range. I had memoirists like Saeed Jones, Tegan Quin [of Tegan and Sara], Roxane Gay, and Carmen Maria Machado on. The conversations were great, and Zoom really works for this, just to say. For [future reference]. And by the way, Zoom, you can give my money back for my subscription any time you want.
Last night, I had a panel with indie booksellers representing four different bookshops, and also a person representing Wildfang, a clothing retailer. I’d planned partnership events with all those places. When you go on tour, a local bookseller is usually the person that provides books. I lost the income in book sales — hundreds and thousands of books, because the tickets came with a book — but also, the booksellers lost those sales. I’ve been trying to do as many little things as I can to give back to the businesses that I have this symbiotic relationship with.
All of us who have suddenly pivoted to Zoom are also learning about this phenomenon of Zoom trolling, in which strangers use publicly accessible links to hijack meetings. I understand you had a run-in on one of your recent panels.
Oh my God. What happened on my panel is someone played hardcore pornography. Here’s the thing: Zoom has this default setting where folks can share their desktops through the main feed. Which I did not know to anticipate, because I didn’t think that would ever be the default setting. All we had to do was turn it off, but it was pretty brutal.
So much of standup is willing to be vulnerable and candid in front of an audience. Why be vulnerable in a new medium and write a memoir?
I’m just a truly earnest person. I can’t not be. It would be so nice if I could be slightly less earnest, but it’s not possible.
It was motivated by my publisher reaching out to me, having seen some of my other written work, as well as a web series I was doing [for BuzzFeed] called “Ask a Lesbian.” They asked if I had a book in me, and I said yeah. I think there will probably be others.
Over the course of writing it, did the frame of your book shift? Did you think you were going to write one narrative, then realize you were actually writing something totally different?
I started walking through a separation, then eventual divorce while writing the book. It actually goes back to what we were just talking about: It was happening as I was finishing final drafts, so I chose to acknowledge that my life was changing in that way, but I stopped the [narrative] before that relationship even really started. I hadn’t had time to heal and reflect and live the moments for myself.
[Writing about it] is also one of the least painful parts of divorce. There are a lot of parts that are much more complicated and painful than that. But it did make it hard to figure out what I’d say about it. I figured the best thing might be to say nothing at the moment.
I have to say, writing this memoir while going through a personal crisis and trauma was a giant pain in the ass. No one should have to reflect on their life while also watching their life start over. It’s too much — I would not recommend it.
What other unexpected experiences did you have while writing?
The biggest thing that falls in that category is that I found my younger self to be really lovable. I think as a child, I found myself to be really gloomy; I was ashamed that I couldn’t fit into a more typical gender presentation and felt gross in my body. I had an eye patch because I had crossed eyes. I was so aware of the things that I thought made me unattractive, but encountering myself, as an adult, I was like, “This kid’s actually kind of amazing.” I was pretty brave; I was pretty funny. I really found a lot more love for my younger self.
What would a future memoir cover?
It would cover thinking that your life has reached a finish line, that it’s going to follow this one path, then having that massively change. It will probably include the rebuilding of community and my self-image post-divorce. A lot of us make plans for our life: This is the job I’m going to have, this is how long I think I’m going to know this friend, this is the relationship I’m going to have with my parents, or whatever it is. Imagine that future, then when that future goes away, for me, it felt really scary, and it also allowed me some space to make choices again.
Any thoughts or wisdom for folks sitting at home?
Actually, I’m looking at this framed photo that my folks gave me — I was the cover of the culture section in Chicago magazine. My dad framed it for me that Christmas. Anyway, my parents still live near y’all, so: Stay inside, and keep my parents safe. Do not go to Western Springs or anywhere in the Chicagoland area.
And my other piece of advice would be: Do not watch the movie Contagion. I think Kirschbaum’s is on fire in Contagion, and no one should have to watch their hometown bakery burn to the ground. Don’t watch that movie right now. Stay away.