Carvell Wallace reflects on growing up unhoused in 'Another Word for Love' Wallace is known for his celebrity profiles, but his new memoir, Another Word For Love, is about his own life, growing up unhoused, Black and queer, and getting his start as a writer at the age of 40.

Writer Carvell Wallace on past pain and forgiveness: Letting go is 'always available'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. My guest today, award-winning writer Carvell Wallace, didn't begin writing until he was 40 years old. It started with an impassioned Facebook post and pretty quickly turned into a full-fledged career, writing profiles of musicians and athletes and politicians for big-name publications like the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker. His ability to delve into the interior lives of his subjects even caught the eye of NBA star Andre Iguodala, who tapped Wallace to co-write "The Sixth Man," which chronicles Iguodala's basketball career.

Now Carvell Wallace is delving into his own life. "Another Word For Love" is the name of his new memoir, and it starts with Wallace at 7 years old when he and his mother were unhoused for a year, bouncing from place to place, sometimes sleeping in their car. That instability will become a hallmark of Wallace's life, growing up with and without his mother in Western Pennsylvania and D.C. and Los Angeles. He chronicles that experience, as well as his addictions, becoming a parent and coming into his own as a queer Black man.

Carvell Wallace, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CARVELL WALLACE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Well, I want to start off by reading an excerpt from your book, which sets the stage for why you write. Can I have you read just a little bit of it?

WALLACE: (Reading) I write about beautiful things because I have learned to love things that I don't like. I have learned even to see God in them. They say that religion is for people who don't want to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who have been there and don't want to go back. So I write about beautiful things because I don't want to go back, because my entire life is in bonus and exception. Because even though I have every right to be here, I also have no right to be here. Even though I should be here, I really and truly should not be here.

MOSLEY: This memoir is about your childhood trauma, but it's really just the first part of the book.

WALLACE: Yeah. Yeah.

MOSLEY: The rest of the book is about recovery from that trauma.


MOSLEY: So it's not a straightforward chronological memoir in the way that we think of it.


MOSLEY: Why did you choose to write it that way?

WALLACE: Well, there were two reasons. One is I was really cognizant of just not wanting to create trauma porn. It has always struck me that there's a weird kind of ghoulish fascination with watching people suffer under oppression for art and from people writing about their oppression and reliving it over and over again. It's just like - it's like the artists - I have a problem with them. But sometimes I think the audience is really just excited to see that.

MOSLEY: Did you ever feel conflict in that...

WALLACE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Because - right. It's your story. And you want to express it, but you also are aware of that thing you're talking about?

WALLACE: Yeah, well, that's why - I've been aware of that since the beginning because I really came on as a writer during this post-Ferguson moment. And so I was aware from the very early moments that people were effectively paying me in exchange for hearing stories about my trauma. And I was conflicted about that. I definitely wrestled with that. And so the question for me was like, well, how do I address that artistically? Because we do need to talk about this. I remember interviewing Tarell Alvin McCraney for the New York Times Magazine, and we talked about this a lot. And I asked him, not as an interviewer, but, like, just as another writer, like, yo, do you ever feel like you're exchanging your trauma for rent money? He was like, yeah, that's a complicated question, but I think we have to ask ourselves why we have this pain to exchange in the first place.

And that to me was, like, an important guiding thought. So it was like, focus on the root of the pain rather than the nature of it, and then also focus on the recovery. That was really important to me that the book was primarily about it. And if you see that, like, the trauma part of the book is like a third of it, if that.

MOSLEY: Right. Yeah.

WALLACE: It's like, we need to get that stuff out of the way so we can establish the terms. But this isn't - we're not doing "Stone Cold Bummer" featuring Manipulate (laughter). It's a "30 Rock" reference, but, like, you know, this is about what it means to become whole again. This is about living and hope and fullness and the regaining of self. This is about courage.

MOSLEY: You start off the book by talking about your mother. And you go pretty deep and detailed into your experiences as a young boy. Early on in the book, your mother sends you to live with your uncle and aunt. She struggled to find places to stay. She couldn't take care of you. And there's this moment when you're around 12 when you realize that the only person that will always be with you in the world is you. What did that revelation mean to you at 12? That is a pretty big revelation to have at 12 years old.

WALLACE: Yeah. I mean, it's, like, an intelligent revelation, but my response to it was, like, a childish response. Because my response was like, well, then, there's no one to trust, and, you know, the only person that matters is me, and none of these people are trustworthy. Like, it was a wounded response. So the insight, I now look at it as being like, OK, that's a pretty valid insight. But the way I held that insight was, like, childish.

MOSLEY: You remember the moment when you felt...

WALLACE: I vividly remember the moment.

MOSLEY: ...It. Yeah.

WALLACE: Because even at the moment, I was like, this is a thing. This is big. Like, I've had insight.

MOSLEY: Where were you? What were you - yeah.

WALLACE: I was looking in the bathroom mirror. I had just learned that my aunt and uncle were getting separated, divorced. And that family was supposed to be my, like, safe family after all of the chaos of my initial family. And so I went to them, and it was all this difficulty of, like, where's my mom? I don't know where I belong. And then it's like, OK, finally, I'm here, and then they're like, actually, we're not even a thing anymore.

And so their thing fell apart in ways that were traumatic and ugly. And so in that moment, I was like, oh, I don't really have anyone, and no one has anyone. And actually, the only person that is ever with you every moment of your life is you. And so it's really just you against the world. Like, that was an insight that I had, and I remember thinking, oh, this is brilliant. This is, like, the kind of insight that, like, brilliant people have. Like, I wanted to be, like, a brilliant person, even as a kid. So I was really excited about that. But it took me years to understand what that truly means.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Did it offer you some sort of solace in the moment to know that you were all that you had?

WALLACE: Well, I think probably it was a thing that I did often, which is intellectualizing an emotion. It was like taking an emotion and putting it into, like, the container of, like, an observation or insight as a way of insuring myself against the actual feelings.

MOSLEY: Your mother died in 2008 of lung cancer. I'm sorry for your loss.

WALLACE: Thank you.

MOSLEY: She was 54 years old.


MOSLEY: You use a few words to describe her in the book, but one word that stood out for me was swindler.

WALLACE: (Laughter).

MOSLEY: It made me even more fascinated by her.

WALLACE: (Laughter) Yeah.

MOSLEY: What was she like?

WALLACE: I really liked using that word to describe her because - what was she like? There's no explanation for her. I think, in a lot of ways, she was an artist. I don't think that. I actually feel that very deeply, that she was an unrealized artist, that she really wanted to examine the world and explore the world and break molds and sort of queer spaces and break things up. But the circumstances of her life didn't allow her to do that. She got pregnant very young. She was the youngest of a lot of kids. She never really...

MOSLEY: Nineteen.

WALLACE: Nineteen.

MOSLEY: She had 19 brothers and sisters.

WALLACE: She had 19 brothers and sisters. Yeah. And so her life could never - she just didn't have the setup.

MOSLEY: And she had you as a teenager.

WALLACE: Yeah, she got - well, I think she got pregnant at 19 and had me at 20. And it was immediately just into the fire at that point. I mean, she was barely out of high school. And maybe had three years of sort of, like, living life and maybe, like, you know, tripping the light fantastic. She moved to New York briefly. She dated from what I understand, a couple of, like, in some New York Yankees. You know, she was, like, in the life. I learned that she briefly - and this has happened after she died, so I can't confirm it, but I learned that she briefly married into the Nation of Islam and then was like, I don't think this is for me. So she bounced from that.

So she was, like, out trying to explore the world the way that I do. And then she ended up getting pregnant pretty young. And then I think from that point forward, it was, like - it was just a question of subsistence for her. It was treading water, if that. And so I think she never got to experience the fullness of her intelligence and her brilliance and her creativity. So I think she was quite depressive, was my experience of her. She was also lots of fun when she was not depressive. She was really happy and loving. She was wonderfully impractical. Like, I'm waking you up in the middle of the night to go see the eclipse kind of thing.


WALLACE: You know, that sort of thing. And, you know, I, like, loved that about her. And the other thing that this process has made me really, truly realize about her that I don't think I understood before I wrote this book is that she was one of the only people in my family who encouraged me to be an artist. Like, I think she saw me from a very early age, like, this kid has - whatever artists have, he has it. And he needs to pursue that because if he doesn't, he'll be unhappy. And so where everyone else was like, really? You want to be an actor? Really? You want to be a writer - you know, music? Like, what's your backup plan? My mother was like, great, let's go. Let's do this. Like, let's get you into this program. Let's figure out where you're supposed to go. So, like, in retrospect, I have even more appreciation for her for that because her parents died, obviously when she was fairly young, too, because they were - you know, her mother was 48 when she was born.

MOSLEY: When she had her, yeah.

WALLACE: My mother used to always say, you know, when your parents die, you miss them forever. And I remember being a kid and thinking, that doesn't make any - surely, you get over it at some point. Like, you can't - you know, but now I get it. Like, the way that she loved me, even though you could - I could point out all these problems with this and that, the way that she loved me is, you know, she loved me, like, the way a mother loves their child (laughter). You know?

MOSLEY: You all lived on and off from each other - really, throughout your childhood. How much was on and how much was off?

WALLACE: Let's see. When I was 18 months, she sent me to live with her sister while she went to school in D.C. Then I went to live with her again when I was 4. So from 4 to 8 was those periods in which we bounced around the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. Then she was gone again, and then I moved out to LA when I was almost 14, so 14 to 17. So really, whatever that is, 4 to 8 and 14 to 17 - that's seven years of my childhood were with her.

MOSLEY: You were there when she died.


MOSLEY: You watched the life leave her.

WALLACE: Yeah, I held her. I mean, she got diagnosed, and then she didn't...

MOSLEY: With lung cancer.

WALLACE: We moved her in to live with us. Yeah.


WALLACE: And we took care of her until the end.

MOSLEY: You write, (reading) of all the times in my life, I wanted to say this particular sentence - don't leave.


MOSLEY: Was the first time that you said that to her was when she was dying?

WALLACE: Yeah. Yeah. That's one of those sentences that even when I would read it back in revisions, I was starting to cry (laughter).

MOSLEY: Yeah. Sitting down to write that - I mean, you know, I think we just - we say, like, cathartic and healing.


MOSLEY: We use those terms a lot.


MOSLEY: But what was that process for you, sitting down and spending slow time thinking about your mother?

WALLACE: Well, I think it was cathartic and healing - I mean, unfortunately, even though that's a cliche - because it helped relieve me of some of lingering resentments that I may have still been carrying towards her, right? Because I believe that, like, any resentments that we have, even if they're justified, they're more harmful to us than they are to anyone else. So whatever ways in which I was like, you know - like, when my mother was alive, I had a very complicated relationship with her. On the one hand, I loved her, and it was great. On the other hand, I was like, mad at her for leaving. I was mad at her for not being there. I was mad at her for the way that the things that happened in my life as a result of the way that she, in my opinion, chose to live, right? That's what I thought then.

MOSLEY: And what were the things that she was telling you about why she couldn't be with you?

WALLACE: You know, it was interesting. Those conversations really didn't happen til, like, I was in my 20s and early 30s. And at that point, there wasn't a lot of why because I think I understood why. I think I wanted her to acknowledge the impact. And like a lot of parents, she was like, oh, get over it. It wasn't a big deal. You know, that's life. Tough cookies. She would say tough toenails. These are all her go-to phrases.

MOSLEY: Those were her sayings. Yeah.

WALLACE: And they would make me laugh even when I was mad at her. And I don't think there was a question of why. I think it was more like, I desperately wanted her to acknowledge that this had mattered to me in some way. And she was unwilling or unable to do that to my satisfaction. And so I felt resentful towards her for that. You know, this person - they're so self-absorbed. They won't even acknowledge - you know, that kind of thing, which is what I - you know, a lot of people have that relationship to their parents at some period. But ultimately, I got to be relieved from that. And towards the end of her life, I had a real moment of clarity, like, two days before she died, where suddenly it dawned on me, oh, wait a second. There's no benefit to me being mad at this person for whatever this is. Like, there's truly...

MOSLEY: It was just an epiphany.

WALLACE: It was just an epiphany. It just literally just hit me, like, one afternoon. Like, bing - I was like, oh, snap, you know? And after that point, I was like, oh, you can actually let go of anything at any time, can't you That's actually possible. It might not be easy, but it's available to you.

And so it has become really important for my health, but also out of respect for my mother and my ancestry that I let go of whatever troubles I have...


WALLACE: ...With this person, or had, and focus on what their power and beauty and glory was. And I actually believe that there's a real personal and political benefit to that because it allows me to be empowered. It allows me to connect to her sources of power. It allows me to show up more fully. You know what I'm saying? There's something to that for me. So I have no doubt that she joined me in the writing of this book. I have no doubt that this was what she wanted for me on some level. And to whatever extent she's able to reach me from wherever she is, I have no doubt that she was able to, like, help me a little bit here and say, like, this is - you have to listen to the poetry. Like, go, you know?

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is writer Carvell Wallace. He's written a new memoir called "Another Word For Love," which is about growing up in the '80s, unhoused for a time, separated from his mother, in adulthood building a life of stability for himself and his children through writing. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Carvell Wallace, an author, columnist and podcaster, who covers film, music, culture, and the arts for various news outlets, including the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker. He's written a new memoir titled "Another Word For Love," which recounts a childhood of uncertainty and growing into an understanding of his manhood. He's the father of two children and lives in Oakland.

Can I have you read another excerpt of the book? It's the chapter "The Clothes." It's the start of that chapter.

WALLACE: (Reading) I missed my mother, and I wanted a woman to love me. I was in seventh grade. I wore my aunt's stockings one day after school, because when I looked in the mirror, I saw a woman I could be safe with, who loved me and knew everything about me and still wanted to spend time with me. That woman was me. I saw little pieces of her in me all the time. But when I put on my aunt's clothes, I saw her more clearly and completely, like an apparition that had come to life, like something you had dreamt about that had now appeared before you. I liked these clothes. I liked them more than my own.

MOSLEY: That's Carvell Wallace, reading from his new memoir. Carvell, describe more of what you mean when you say you looked in the mirror and saw the woman that you could be safe with.

WALLACE: Yeah, I don't know that there's (laughter) much more I can say about that. I think that's pretty much it. Like, I think when I was a kid, I just - this is me looking back and trying to make sense of...

MOSLEY: Right. Because when you were a kid, what did it feel like to you?

WALLACE: I do think that that was the feeling. I think - I don't - I don't think I understood that feeling until later. But there was a feeling of almost like safety or something, you know? Like, when I go back and sort of do the math on it, I'm like, OK, well, let's get - that makes sense. Like, your mother was gone. You were living with a maternal figure that was, you know, caring in some ways, but also sort of distant in others. You were - felt isolated in general. So it does make sense that there was a satisfaction that you found in seeing this woman in the mirror who was you.

MOSLEY: It goes back to your initial - that, like, you knew that the only person you had was you, too.

WALLACE: Yeah. There - see, there you go. I did not make that connection.

MOSLEY: You were shamed for that moment.

WALLACE: Yeah. Yeah.

MOSLEY: Yeah, because your aunt and uncle found out that you were wearing your aunt's clothing.

WALLACE: Yeah. They were not equipped to healthily deal with that at all under any circumstances. They were so far from being equipped to deal with that. And it was just, you know, it was, like, 1987 or whatever year it was in this small town in Pennsylvania, and there just wasn't - you know. So it was pretty bad. And I think for me, the shame that it sort of, like, grew inside of me, the fundamental shame - like, there is something wrong with you. You are a bad person. Everything bad that happens to you was going to be your fault because look at you - you're all messed up, you know. It's, like, you know, that's what I walked away from that with. And, you know, my aunt once apologized to me for that years later, randomly, unprompted.

MOSLEY: She came to you without even a discussion about it. Yeah.

WALLACE: I called her up to talk about something else. And she was like, hey, before we get started on this conversation, I want to apologize for this.

MOSLEY: What did it feel like to get her apology?

WALLACE: You know, it was interesting. I was just talking with a friend about this the other day. It felt obviously good. I remember the sentence that she said that really struck me was - she explained in her own story, some of the reasons that she had this emotional response to this moment, which I won't - you know. And...

MOSLEY: Because it's her story.

WALLACE: Because it's her story. But at the end of it, what she said was, and I hope you've been able to recover from that. And I think that was the most powerful part, because it was like, oh, I'm actually allowed to recover from this.

MOSLEY: It's something to recover from. Yeah.

WALLACE: And it's something to recover from. Right. And adults have tremendous emotional and spiritual power in the lives of children. And I'm always surprised by how deep that goes. And so this person saying, you know, in 1987, you're terrible, you're a freak, like, you're - you know, you disgust me, is incredibly powerful. And this person saying in 2011 or whatever year that was, I hope you've been able to recover from that, is also powerful. That said, I thought it was going to, like, magically - I think I got off the phone, and I was like, yeah, I'm going to magically be free.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Lift that chain, yeah.

WALLACE: And what I learned is that it was a good beginning. But all of the scarring and damage around it was all there. So, like, it didn't, like, magically snap a finger and disentangle everything. It was like, OK.


WALLACE: Now I have permission to start disentangling.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is writer Carvell Wallace. He's written a new memoir called "Another Word For Love." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, my guest today is writer Carvell Wallace. He's written a new memoir called "Another Word For Love," which is about growing up in the '80s, unhoused for a time, separated from his mother, and an adulthood building a life of stability for himself and his children through writing. Wallace is an author, columnist and podcaster, who covers film, music, culture and the arts for various news outlets, including The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. He's also hosted several podcasts, including "Finding Fred" about the enduring legacy of Fred Rogers and the "Care And Feeding," Slate's parenting show.

You were married for a while, and you and your ex-wife have two children. They're now adults, your kids. When your son and daughter were really young, you two divorced. And you write in the book that that was the moment when you decided to make your life an apology. What do you mean by that?

WALLACE: What I mean is the ways in which we harm one another can never be undone. Like, you cannot un-harm a person. And that is a heavy realization to have and yet, to me, absolutely necessary because if you truly want to make amends and make right - I'm not just going to say you - I have to fully embrace the fact that I can't un-harm a person.

MOSLEY: And that divorce, for your kids, was the harm.

WALLACE: I think in that relationship, as much as we loved each other, we also did not understand love well enough, and we harmed each other a lot, for sure. For sure. And I don't think either of us ever intended to and was like, oh, I can't wait to wake up and harm my partner today. I just think, you know, childhood fears, traumas - this person is, like, in my space. This person has, like, triggered something in me. Now I'm in fight or flight - I just think we behaved in ways that we both regret. And we've talked about it at length. And that's part of what we did for our children, was like, well, we have to recover from the ways that we hurt each other so that our children are, like, raised by two loving parents. But for me, you know, getting sober had a lot to do with it because...

MOSLEY: Because you had a problem with alcohol for a moment.

WALLACE: For sure. Yeah. And it was, like - and I think as long as I was drinking and using the way I was, it was not possible for me to actually do the intricate work of growth. It, like, was in the way. It was, like, a block.


WALLACE: It was, like, a growth blocker. And so that was a big part of it. And, you know, just like having, you know, like, all the stuff - going to therapy, like, doing all the, like, meditation practices so that I have some awareness of what is going on inside of me rather than just being blindly driven around by a collection of fears and insecurities (laughter) - right? - and therefore causing harm - you know, like, journaling became relatively big because then I could actually see patterns in my thinking on the page. That's weird. Why do you always think that? Here you are yet again. If I turn back to this journal one year ago today, you were saying the same thing about some other person. Like, maybe you're the problem.

MOSLEY: Maybe you're the problem, yeah.

WALLACE: Maybe you're the common denominator, my dude.

MOSLEY: But I want to understand the apology part - like, living life...


MOSLEY: ...As an apology, especially in the context of your kids.

WALLACE: Yeah. So...

MOSLEY: Yeah, and what'd that look like?

WALLACE: So what that means is that, listen, I'm sorry, and I shouldn't have done that, and you deserve better is all very important. It's, like, important stuff to say. But we used to always say to the kids when they were little, the real apology is changing the behavior. You know? And so if you just say I'm sorry and that was terrible, and then you just keep doing the same thing, that's not enough.

And so for me to live as an amend is to wake up every day with a consciousness that I am responsible for my behavior because of the ways - and it's necessary for me to, like, deal with my behavior and my problems and my triggers and my shortcomings and whatever because of the way those things have harmed other people, that it's actually necessary for me to deal with them. It's not optional. It's not, oh, today, I'm going to try to be good. It's actually I've already done enough harm to people that I owe this to the world.

MOSLEY: You mentioned your addiction to alcohol. How bad was it?

WALLACE: I feel like it was bad enough that I had to quit. I didn't end up having, like, a lot of the normal consequences. Like, I never got a DUI, et cetera. But that was really just a function of luck. Like, I certainly should have gotten DUIs. Like, I should have had more consequences than I did. For me, the way I knew it was bad - there were many flags. I ignored many of them. But the one that I finally happened to see in the distance one day was that I drank, like, a tremendous amount of alcohol, and I didn't feel drunk at all. And...

MOSLEY: And at this point, you were living - you were a husband. You had...


MOSLEY: ...Two small children. You guys were...


MOSLEY: You were working every day.


MOSLEY: There's a part in the book where you talk about you all had a barbecue, and you had...


MOSLEY: ...Friends over...

WALLACE: Yeah, yeah.

MOSLEY: ...And it's the end of the night, and you're like, hold up. I know this bottle was full.

WALLACE: Yeah, that's right.


WALLACE: Yeah, we were, like, fair functional. We were functional. And that was a big part of - actually of our sort of thing, was like, let's make sure that we remain functional so that we never have to quit. So as long as, like, the dishes are done and the kids are in bed by a reasonable hour and, like, we've put away the laundry, then we're good. Once we start messing up on those things, then we have to admit that there's a problem here.

So the problem is you're no match. If you have an addiction, no amount of, like, self-will or organization is a match for the chaos of the addiction. So the emotional damage - your inability to show up for love, the fights you have, the ways that you, like, disappear on people and things and the way that you prioritize drinking above everything - it's out of your hands. And for me, the moment of change was the moment that I fully accepted that it was out of my hands 'cause I think for a long time, I thought, this might be out of hand, but I'll get it back. There was a moment that I realized, oh, it's out of hand, period. That is its permanent state. It'll always be out of hand until you stop - end of story.

MOSLEY: Was it hard to quit?

WALLACE: No, because at that point, I didn't want to go back to what my life was like before. Once I had a few months of sobriety, I was like, oh, my God, what have I been doing for the last 15 years?

MOSLEY: It had been 15 years. Yeah.

WALLACE: Yeah, I started when I was, like, 17 - like, started in earnest when I was, like, 17, and I didn't quit until I was, like - boy, longer, like, 35, so 18 years.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is writer Carvell Wallace. He's written a new memoir called "Another Word For Love," which is about growing up in the '80s, unhoused for a time, separated from his mother, and an adulthood building a life of stability for himself and his children. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Carvell Wallace, author, columnist and podcaster, who covers film, music, culture and the arts for various news outlets, including the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker. He's written a memoir titled "Another Word For Love," which recounts a childhood of uncertainty and growing into and understanding his manhood. In 2019, Wallace co-wrote the New York Times bestseller "The Sixth Man" with Golden State Warrior forward Andre Iguodala, which is a memoir about Iguodala's life in basketball. Before writing professionally, Carvell spent 15 years as a case manager for a youth nonprofit. He also designed programs for youth incarcerated and in foster care.

One thing that you explore pretty deeply is your sensuality and sexuality in the book - your yearning for it, the intimacy of it and consent. As you mentioned earlier, you were violated as a child. And you come back to those experiences to try to understand one particular experience that happened with you and someone that you cared about you were with, that you were lovers with. First off, can you talk about what happened and then what revelations you came to after you got sober and you were thinking about that particular incident?

WALLACE: Yeah. Well, what happened was, at the time, it felt to me like a very normal, like, horny guy just trying to get laid thing. You know what I mean? Like, this person was like - we had been dating for a long time. We had broken up, but we were still kind of seeing each other and sleeping together. And then at one point, they were like, no, I don't think I want to do this. I was like, come on. They were like, no. I was like, come on. You know, I'm, like, 22 or something, still in college. And they're like, OK, whatever. Like, but they clearly aren't that into it. And then right afterwards, they go, you know what? I'm actually disappointed in you.

MOSLEY: That you kept going.

WALLACE: Yeah. And I was, like, mystified by that. I was like, well, what do you mean? And they were like, I said no, and you kept pushing. And it was the first time that that ever dawned on me that that was not what you were supposed to do. And I remember in that moment feeling horrified by this 'cause, like, I have always wanted to be not a bad person. I mean...

MOSLEY: You wanted to be a good guy.

WALLACE: Yeah. I wanted to be a good guy and - like, with all of the, like, problems that come with that 'cause there's, like, some kind of toxicity that comes with constantly trying to be seen as a good guy. It's like being good is actually about being, not about being seen as, but that's a whole another story. But I was really mortified by this.

MOSLEY: And this was, like, no means no time period 'cause 20something - that's the '90s.

WALLACE: Yeah. This is, like...

MOSLEY: Yeah. No means no. Yeah.

WALLACE: This is, like, '90-whatever. And I feel like I don't know that I heard no means know that much then. I think what we heard was that, like, sexual assault was when someone jumps out of the bushes at you and - you know what I mean? But we also saw a lot of people violating boundaries in movies and TV in order to have sex. Like, we saw that all the time. So I was under the impression that that was something that you did. You coerced. You pushed. We - and then there's, like, movies where people lie. They pretend to be other people. They fake. They, you know, like, put, you know, peep holes in the room so their friends watch.


WALLACE: Like, we grew up with all this stuff being normalized...


WALLACE: ...And played off as a joke. So I didn't know the seriousness of this until this person told me, to some extent. And I don't think they told me the whole seriousness of it. I'm not sure that they knew, but they were just like, that doesn't seem like you. And I'm actually disappointed. And that was the word that they used - was disappointed.

MOSLEY: That stuck with you for a really long time.


MOSLEY: Some years later, though, you and this person had a conversation about it.

WALLACE: Yeah. Well, we - I mean, that always bothered me. And even before I got sober, I remember we were sort of still friends, but, like, it was not super-close. And then at one point, we had, like, an email exchange where we both talked about it. And I was just like, listen. I'm, like, really sorry about that. And they were like, yeah, you know, like, I understand. And I have some things that I feel sorry about in our relationship. And listen. We were both kids and whatever.

And then when it was time to write this, it felt to me important to write this because we have to examine the real consequences of this stuff that we learn in a way that feels visceral and true. And I wanted to put it later in the book because I didn't want it to be like, oh, this was a thing in the past, but now we're, like, looking at the flowers. And isn't it beautiful? Like, I wanted it to be firmly planted...

MOSLEY: Situated in the now.

WALLACE: ...Within this adult life because it's not over. And like I said, when you harm someone, you cannot unharm (ph) them. And so...

MOSLEY: It's not over 'cause it's always with you. And you know it's always with that person.

WALLACE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I thought it was, but that's another story. So anyway, when I wrote this chapter, I was like - I went back and forth about, oh, my God, I don't want to include this. It'd be terrible. I'm going to get canceled, etc. And then, you know, all my friends who were, like, writers and mentors and memoirists were like, listen. Just write it, and if you feel like you don't want to put it in there, don't put it in. But write it. So once...

MOSLEY: You felt like putting it in might hurt you, like you might be seen as a predator or...

WALLACE: Sure. Like...


WALLACE: Or you just don't want - I mean, you're writing your book. You don't want to be like, hey. You know, you want everyone to be like, this guy is great. What a flawless human being (laughter). It's like, you can't really do that and tell the truth at the same time. But I'm like, obviously, my job is to tell the truth. That's more important. So I'm saying I have to do the thing. So I then sent them the chapter. Like, we hadn't talked...

MOSLEY: The person. Yeah.

WALLACE: ...At this point - yeah - in, like, probably 10 years. And I was like, listen. I want to know if you have space to, like, process something that happened when we were in college. And they were like, yeah, sure. Here's my phone number. So then I reached out. And I was like, yeah, so here's the thing. I'm writing this book, and I'm actually doing a chapter about this thing. And they were like, what thing? And I explained it. And they were like, I don't remember that.

MOSLEY: They didn't remember.

WALLACE: They were like, actually, wait. That sounds kind of familiar.

MOSLEY: Does that change your perception of the moment at all...


MOSLEY: ...For you or no?

WALLACE: No, no...


WALLACE: ...Because, well, we had the same thing that happened to us because before I even went there, they were like, oh, I actually want to apologize to you about something. And they named something that they did that they thought - they weren't Black - that they thought was, like, incredibly anti-Black that I did not remember at all. And they were like, at the time, you were really upset by this. And I was like, huh (ph). And then what we both realized is that the reason we didn't remember these things is because so many worse versions of them have happened to us since then, that these were way down on the list of things in that area.

MOSLEY: Yeah. So the reflection and the apology is just as important for you...


MOSLEY: ...As it is for the person - yeah...

WALLACE: Well...

MOSLEY: ...That this happened to.

WALLACE: Well, I did send them the chapter. I was like, listen. I wanted to send you the chapter because I want to know if I'm remembering this correctly or if you feel like I'm representing this correctly. Like, this is important to me. So they got the chapter, and then they were like, yeah, this is great. I love this. And actually, I kind of wish that everyone who did this to me would just sit with it for this long. Like, I don't even need them to fix it 'cause you can't. I just wish that they would sit with it for this long. And so that also was an insight for me about the way we think of apologies and amends is that it isn't to make the other person feel better, although that can happen. It isn't to make the other person feel hurt, although that's really important. It isn't to be free of the thing, free of the suffering. It's actually to be present with it in a real way, to be present with the meaning of it.

MOSLEY: There's this piece that you wrote during the time period during the overturning of Roe v. Wade where you asked yourself what your mother's life might have been like had she had access to an abortion.

WALLACE: Well, if she had one, because I think she did have - probably have access to one, I think, looking at the numbers. But, yes, if she'd actually chosen to take it.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Why did you put yourself through that exercise? What did writing that do for you?

WALLACE: Yeah, that was a no-brainer because around that conversation, I think one of the things that I kept seeing online - you know, it's like the problem with infinitely scrolling Twitter is you start seeing the same argument over and over again. And so you start forming counterarguments in your mind. And one of the things that I kept seeing was, you know, my abortion helped me in this way, my abortion helped me in that way, which was great. But I didn't hear a lot of men talking about how abortions helped them.

And so I did actually write a thread about that, about the way in which, like, abortions that we had been a part of, my ex-wife and I, had actually positively impacted our lives. But then the next thing that I started thinking was, like, how might an abortion have positively affected the lives of people that I love, you know? And it wasn't like - nothing about it was like, I don't deserve to be here. Even some of the comments were like, this is - you know, like, you're a gift. You deserve to be here. And it's like, that's not the point...

MOSLEY: The point, yeah.

WALLACE: ...That's not the point, you know?

MOSLEY: You were looking at the potential person your mother could have been.

WALLACE: I was looking at the potential person this woman could have been. That's what I was looking at. Like, that's what was important to me in that piece.

MOSLEY: What did that exercise feel like? Because what you wrote was pretty beautiful.

WALLACE: It felt so good. It felt so good because, again, I am also living in amends to my mom. And what that means is I am trying to love her in her fullness now in ways that maybe I wasn't able to do when she was alive. And so there is a feeling of joy that I get from being able to, like, examine her full self. And so that part felt good. Obviously, there's also grief. There's tremendous grief. And none of it is like, I shouldn't have been born; I ruined my mother's life. That's not - I have no inkling of that. That's not even remotely how it works in my mind. It's more like grief for what she couldn't have.

And I think the fact that she has passed helps a lot because in my believe, I think she gets more opportunities. Her spirit and soul will get more opportunities to embody themselves in new ways. And so this go around that she had may not have been everything she wanted it to be, but she's been freed from this, from these constraints. And I love that for her (laughter).

MOSLEY: Carvell Wallace, thank you so much for this conversation.

WALLACE: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

MOSLEY: Writer Carvell Wallace. His new memoir is called "Another Word For Love." Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews the new Netflix talk show "John Mulaney Presents: Everybody's In LA." This is FRESH AIR.


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