106 Amy Brenneman
“I just was super hungry sexually. I was super out there. I just didn’t want to be the victim. You know, I wanted to run the show. And I did.”
Amy has a degree in comparative religion from Harvard, but most folks know her as a famous actress. She’s a mom, a producer, an activist and the host of The Challengers Podcast.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW): When I was 10 years old, a new girl moved into our neighborhood. She wasn’t particularly funny or creative or any of the things I usually liked in a new friend. But what she did have was a trampoline. And as a kid, having a trampoline is like as an adult having a beachfront vacation home. So, I flattered that girl and I brought her a plate of cookies I made because all I wanted was not to know or love her, but to know and love her trampoline.
When I was a chemically dependent 19 year old young woman living with 8 people in a 2 bedroom apartment and working in a coffee house, a regular customer took a liking to me—a professional woman in her 40s. I remember feeling special when she expressed interest in me and my ideas and my stories. I was desperate for connection. So when she invited me to an event, I accepted. Only to discover her interest in me had nothing to do with me as a person and everything to do with her as someone embroiled in a multilevel marketing scheme. She was trying to use me to get something for herself. I remember feeling foolish when I realized this.
But it’s just this shitty thing we humans do to each other. Sometimes we use each other for trampolines. Sometimes we use each other for profit. Sometimes we use each other because we’re just fucking lonely.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you’ve stepped into The Confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets. Today, I’ll be speaking with someone who manipulated a perfectly nice person many years ago and is now ready to talk about it. For listeners joining me in The Confessional for the first time, stay tuned after the interview for a blessing I’ve written just for my guest, but maybe also for you.
NBW: Joining me in The Confessional today is the actress and producer Amy Brenneman. Amy, what came to mind for you when I asked if you’d like to step into The Confessional?
Amy Brenneman (AB): What came to mind was a story from when I was maybe twenty six, twenty five. I had been traveling with a theater company for about five years and it was a very long winter. We were doing Ibsen.
NBW: Which is also a very long winter.
AB: And I was surrounded by my best friends in the world, but none of those were a romantic connection and I was really longing for that. So I remember, it snowed on May 22nd, and I remember laying my head down on the table of this communal kitchen and just sobbing with my friend Bill and just saying, I can’t do this anymore, like I just need, I’m just a little done with being on the road.
A week later in a complete explosion of, it’s like northern Maine skips spring, like it just we just went right to summer and suddenly it was beautiful and blue sky and the end was in sight and we were putting on the play. And one of the people that came to see the play was the brother of a woman who lived in the town, I’ll call him Will. And he had beautiful long hair, like kind of an interesting combination of kind of hippie mountain guy but all he was an electrical engineer. He was like super brainiac. So within, you know who’s counting, three hours of meeting him? We were having sex outside among the daffodils and it was so joyful. I just felt like I was coming back to life, and I had this enormous orgasm and then burst into tears of joy, relief, release, everything. And Will looked at me really sweetly and he was like, “oh, wow, you’ve been… I can see you’ve been really lonely.” And my defenses went up. I just couldn’t bear that he saw my truth and I said, “no, I haven’t. I just, I think we have an incredible connection. I think I’m, I think this is you, I’m not lonely.” I just, I just remember that feeling of being so exposed and I couldn’t deal.
In a way I was meeting up with a much more evolved person who is comfortable with emotion. You know, he was the person that had done the work and I was so defensive.
NBW: Why did you not want somebody to see that you were lonely?
AB: I don’t know. I don’t know. Because it was so, I was, it was the truth. I mean, I was sobbing a week before with my friend. I mean, I’d been terribly lonely.
NBW: And where was Will coming from?
AB: So Will had just gotten out of a marriage, and was very clear and lovely with me and said, “this was so great and you seemed so awesome. I’m in a place in my life where I’m consciously allowing myself to date lots of different people.” And my ego just couldn’t take it.
He was going to go back to Dartmouth in New Hampshire to get his masters. And I definitely was moving to New York after the summer, and I just, you know, within two weeks said that I’m uncomfortable with you dating other people. That doesn’t work for me, I think I’m falling in love with you. And I just wore the guy down, basically. I just made it my mission to get him all to myself.
NBW: Can you name for me the need that you were trying to get met when you thought I have a mission and it is to get him for myself, exclusively? It sounds like it wasn’t like I’m definitely in love with this guy and my heart can’t bear not being with him. It sounded like it was something else.
AB: I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe we can figure out the word for it. But I’ll tell you, it’s like, it’s located in exactly, and again this is more historic, I still have it a little bit, like professional jealousy. Much, much less than I did, but it’s located in the same exact place, like I had it really deep. Years ago, I had a really good friend who was in a movie that, she was nominated for an Oscar for it, and I was consumed with jealousy. And felt terrible because she’s so worthy and I love her, but I was consumed with jealousy. I don’t have that anymore.
NBW: And do you think that’s the root of it? It’s going, I can’t bear for another girl to have the thing that I want to have—even if I don’t even want to have it that much I’m going to want to have it more if I think she’ll have it instead.
AB: For sure, and then I get to make the decision. I want to be able to make the choice. You know, it’s like I want to know, you know. I want to be offered the acting job and then I have, and then I can relax, my adrenaline system goes down and go, OK, do I really want to do this? But until I’m offered it, until it’s mine, you know, I’m competitive enough. I am going to go after it.
I remember reading about something that Cate Blanchett was doing, it was a movie. It sounded amazing. I was like, oh, dang, like, that sounds great. I hate my lot, I wish I had that movie. And then the very last paragraph was like, it shoots in Bulgaria for six months, and I literally remember going like, oh, I don’t care that much actually.
NBW: Ok, so you got the guy all to yourself, and then what happened?
AB: I just was crawling out of my skin that summer, honestly, and I remember, I was very tight with my parents, I mean, specifically my dad so it wasn’t like it was, an excruciating place to be, but it was, I was sleeping in my childhood bed, quite literally. And, you know, because the nature of this theater company was, you know, we’d go off and have these adventures and it was amazing and changed my life. But I didn’t have a home of my own. So I’d sort of get plopped down in suburban Connecticut and it was so uncomfortable. And I remember this one night I was gonna go visit him and I was gonna get up at like, you know, in the morning and drive. And I was crawling out of my skin. I mean, it must be like, you know, a junkie and I just couldn’t stay in that house. And I was sort of speaking as a rational person, which I was not at that moment, “like, I think I’m going to get a jump on it, I think I want to drive.” And it was like 10:30pm at night, and my father looked at me like, what is going on? Like he was a very important escape valve for me. And, you know, I couldn’t really be honest about any of it, and the only language was like, he’s my boyfriend.
And then by the end of the summer I had worked on him with my laser ego beam to the point where he said, “I think maybe I should go to Columbia and then we could continue this.” And so the confessional part is I moved to New York and I never returned his calls and I never write him back. And he’s writing to me, this is sort of pre-email, but he’s writing to me, he’s calling me, and as soon as I got a bit of a life going I dropped him. And I’ve never talked to him or made amends or anything.
I mean I guess the reason I thought of the story is, you know, it’s one thing if, I mean, if you’re just, yeah, if you’re mutually hurting each other, you know, but this. But it’s like, oh jeez. I went after something I didn’t even want, and, just like what a dick I was.
NBW: I mean, do you think in a way that what you’re describing was like a protective mechanism because you’re just less likely to be taken advantage of or to be hurt or to be the one who is cheated on if you sort of preempt that by being that to the other person or doing that to the other person?
AB: 100 percent, 100 percent. I once had a therapist say, who was very gentle, she was like super soothing, loving, very femme, lovely gal in New York, and she once said, I’ve never seen anyone move quite so quickly to contempt.
NBW: To contempt for what?
AB: Whatever had been the object of my affection five minutes before. Like I, you know, I just could go from like, yay, you’re my guy to like ew get away from me. Like not only not only get away from me, but like you’re gross and you’re, I can’t even be in your presence.
NBW: Well, you’re just always the subject, right. And they’re always the object. So Either they’re the object of like, your, like, desire or I have to sort of you know, I have to make sure this guy is in my basket or whatever. You know, I have to acquire this person or whatever, or they’re the object of your scorn or your contempt, right? But in any way they’re never the subject. Right?
AB: No, no!
NBW: But now you’ve had two decades of being with someone who’s the subject —your husband Brad, right?
AB: Right. Right. Right. And I think I think the more I quote, unquote, “got away with stuff” with guys like that, that is where you have contempt, right? Like, with Brad, he’d say, like, “what the fuck are you doing?” He saw me. He saw me entirely and was like, “why are you doing this?” I’m like, I don’t know! Then I had to do my work. But I had just, more often than not, just got away with whatever I was doing. You know, which on one hand felt really powerful and on a one hand, I had, I hated myself and had contempt for the people for being so dopey.
NBW: Yeah but, you know what, getting away with what you’re doing, yeah, again, it seems like, whoa, look at this. I’m killing it. But it’s it’s own prison, isn’t it?
AB: Of course, of course, of course.
You know, I had, I had one of Brad’s and my early, well we were together for about a year, and we had this moment that completely changed my life. So we’d been dating, we’re in love, you know, it was happening. And I don’t even remember what the inciting incident was, but I did something that I was aware, like, ooh he’s gonna be mad at me and I wonder how this is going to go down. And he came in and he’s, and he’s a really, you know, emotionally dropped-in person and he was pissed and he said: “Number one, I love you so much. Number two, I am so mad at you.” And my whole nervous system relaxed and I was like, oh, if number one is true, I can actually hear your anger and nobody’s going anywhere.
So I think in a way, what you’re talking about, like, how do you, you know, in a true, human, Jesus-y way, it’s like, I love this person who’s struggling. And as a human on the planet, I’m having a hard time, you know, and I have opinions.
NBW: Well, Amy, I really am so grateful that you were willing to tell this story to me. I guess, I mean, just I think there are probably other people out there who have something like that in their past where they’re like, I manipulated a situation and this person got caught up in it and then I just dropped it. And like that whole like, wow, I really did treat them like an object. I think when we sort of grow and mature later in our lives, we get this perspective on behavior that we exhibit, especially in our 20s and we’re like, ughhh. Then you have words for what that actually was, you know? And it can be heavy, so I just know there are going to be people who listen who had the same experience. So thanks for just getting out there with it. I appreciate it.
AB: Well, thanks for being you and creating a space for, for all of it.
NBW: A Blessing for Amy
I wouldn’t be in my 20s again for all the money in the world. I didn’t yet know how to live a human life and my nervous system interpreted everything that happened to me as a crisis.
I feel like this is what you were describing when you said, At 25 you couldn’t bear for a sweet guy to see the truth of your loneliness. That at 25 your ego couldn’t take a guy wanting to see other women. That at 25 you were crawling out of your skin.
We all were, Amy. We were all crawling out of our skin at that age, but you can’t crawl your way out of your skin, you can only shed it.
And I think maybe we can’t shed old skin until our nervous system learns to stop looking around for escape valves every time we feel lonely or threatened or sad.
You described it, you know. You told me that when you were dating Brad something happened and you felt threatened like you would lose him and he said Number one, I love you so much. Number two, I am so mad at you.
Your whole nervous system relaxed, you said. So Amy, Number one, you are so loved.
Number two, you hurt someone when you were young. But, Number two, you are so loved.
Whatever the second thing may be in your life–that you lied, that you made someone angry, that you didn’t get a part and Cate Blanchett did. Whatever it is, it will never be the first thing. Because the first thing is and will always be that, number one, you are so loved.
NBW: Next time on The Confessional I speak with a singer/songwriter about violence and his own toxic masculinity.
Mishka: I held, you know, Nate’s face as far away from me as I could so that he couldn’t hit me. And then with my right hand, I tried to destroy him.
NBW: In the meantime, here is a confession from a fellow listener. It’s a segment I call Shit I’m Not Proud Of.
Teri: Hi this is Teri, and I’m calling to tell you that sometimes just so my husband thinks that I have hurried home and cooked for him, I will hurry home and just fry onions in a skillet and serve takeout.
NBW: Do you have Some Shit You’re Not Proud Of? Call 618-CONFESS and leave me a message and I might play it on the show.
The Confessional is produced by House of Pod and Shameless Media with support and spiritual guidance from The Moth and PRX. Our music is composed by Antwan Banks Williams.
Nadia [00:21:26] You know, Jealousy is not my go-to sin. It’s just I mean, I’ve other things I struggle with consistently and that it doesn’t come up for me much. But I have a story of when it did come up and I was so horrified that I immediately started laughing at myself. And it was my dear, dear, beloved, sweet departed friend Rachel Held Evans (Sp?) When she announced that she was going during the Obama administration to the White House prayer breakfast. She had been invited to the White House prayer breakfast. I thought, “why wasn’t I invited to the White House prayer breakfast?” Literally, my next thought was, who the fuck thinks that? Who has that thought? Why wasn’t I? And then I just started laughing at myself in like short order.
Nadia [00:00:00] OK. I have just warm up questions and the first one is, you have already answered, but I’m going to give you a chance to expand. Which is what, like what pop culture are you super into right now that you want to talk about? Music, movies, TV, whatever.
Amy [00:00:21] Yeah. Yeah. Do I answer that? Yeah. OK. I am super into you. While I’m consuming quite a lot of different things right now. You know, I was I want to. I’d like to say I was like an early fleabag season to person. Like when I saw what she was doing with authenticity and humor and sexuality and deep spiritual yearning, I just blew the top off.
Nadia [00:00:54] Same my favorite show over the past couple of years. Actually, somebody on Twitter said the best thing anybody has ever said to me, which is they said, Nadia, I consider you to be both fleabag and hot priest at the same time.
Amy [00:01:09] I would have I would say that’s right. That’s right. Well, they live in one. No. Yeah. Yeah. But just.
Nadia [00:01:20] So tell me why you related to it? Tell me specifically what about season 2. Really kind of made you go, oh my gosh, this is brilliant.
Amy [00:01:33] Well, you know, she is just an artist that I would follow anywhere. So it’s just how we felt, how we feel about like Joni Mitchell. It’s like whatever this person says I’m interested in. So I’m not she doesn’t have to win me over. I’m engaged with her. Season one I loved because as a theater artist who now works in film and television and in theater, we do direct address all the time. Very hard to pull off in a screen medium, I find. And so the way just just on a theatrical level, I just thought it was such a high wire act. And I was loving it. I loved all the honesty about sexuality and stuff at a certain point, just because it’s been a long time since I’ve been out there, a certain certain level of of her activity. I was like, oh, I it felt it sort of in my rearview mirror. And then season two. Like what’s in credit? And this is what I love about about television right now is that, you know, usually with with an eye. And I can honestly say I mean, I’ve fallen into Parks and Rec and which is more traditional, but I love that, too. I mean, in that in the traditional sense, the lead character never gets over a central problem. Right. So we watch you know, we watch Archie Bunker for years and years and years, you know, with his bigotry. You know, we watch, you know. That’s the main thing. Like, that’s how, you know, Ray Romano lives with his family. That’s what the show’s gonna be about. So I just thought it was so incredible within the first five minutes of the first episode of the second season. And she’s like, yeah, I’m not sleeping around and like, I’m not I don’t have this. And it was as if the creator just said, like, I’m not I’m not interested in rehashing. But then you go, well, what is it going to be about? And you know. And the way was connected between the first and the second is it’s about a deep longing for authentic connection. And in the first season, it looked like this. And in the second season like this. And and just the you know, the play of she just. I just have not been as invested in a couple in a long time. I totally thought they’d end up together. I was mad at him. But then. But then, of course, he’s as substantial as her, and that’s why they were well met.
Nadia [00:03:59] I was like, what? He’s Catholic. He’s not Anglican. Look, I just assumed when he showed up in a caller, I was like, oh, this is going to happen like, you know? And then it’s like, oh, no Catholic, right? That’s right.
Amy [00:04:13] And I and, you know, celibacy in my world is sort of a joke. And suddenly with Andrew’s…
Nadia [00:04:17] Baby, it’s a joke and everywhere. Oh, let’s be honest.
Amy [00:04:20] It’s a joke. But then also the way she. And this is where it’s like, oh, so smart. I can’t stand it. But the way she took the theatrical device of the fourth wall and it became an integral part of the story, and we as audience were complicit as like you, this is suddenly weird. Yes. And then. And then when he calls her on it, which I completely ripped off in a play that I’m writing, but that he’s the only one that sees her checking out like a little like an autistic person. I just loved it on every level. And I just loved how she’s walked through her experience.
Nadia [00:05:02] OK. Next question is just can you describe for me a detail… Describe for me a detail from your bedroom or one of your bedrooms. Growing up when you were a girl. Just one thing about your bedroom.
Amy [00:05:35] I had a furniture set which included a desk that was like a triangle, it fit into a corner, which I thought was so brilliant. But the one of the legs was never entirely stable and it was never fixed.
Nadia [00:05:59] Is that a metaphor for just everything now?
Amy [00:06:02] I think so. I’d like it looked really good. It was a good idea. Here it is.
Nadia [00:06:08] Oh, my God. Will never be stable, totally unfixed.
Amy [00:06:12] Also, where the where the adults that are supposed to take care of this. They really checked out there.
Nadia [00:06:19] OK, third one. What wisdom have you earned in the last year of your life?
Amy [00:06:35] That joy is necessary and it doesn’t mean I’m shirking my responsibilities.
Nadia [00:06:46] I love that.
Amy [00:06:47] Yeah. That it’s my birthright. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not a responsible or sober person. It actually means that I’m reflecting part of humanity, which is. Joy and gratitude.