Kate Bowler: I know it’s sort of a strange thing to admit, especially on a podcast like this, but part of me always assumes that people are fine, which it turns out, is just not true. We might maybe find ourselves assuming that another person’s success came without speed bumps. We assume marriages or family dynamics or friendships are effortless. We assume that other people don’t get caught in the same late-night shame spirals or worry about their retirement accounts, or that their kids are going to be okay, or if they’ll ever feel ready to forgive their dad. I don’t know if you’re like me, but I think we sometimes find ourselves assuming that other people have it together. And it could be because social media paints that picture for us, that everyone else is out there living their best lives now. Oh man can that feel isolating for all of us who are afraid, anxious, mad, lonely, in pain. My name is Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Today, my guest is someone that you might have had some assumptions too. Hers is a story of a chaotic childhood being raised by a single mom who worked as a stripper and struggled with drug addiction, often being left in the care of complete strangers for months at a time, of being physically abused by her mom’s partner, having to fight gangs in high school. Just surreal, awful, unspeakably difficult. And yet, hers is a story about love. It’s a story about a complicated mom who deeply loved her daughter and a daughter who had to learn how to forgive her mom, and that daughter who found the tenacity and the resilience and the courage to take care of herself is now learning exactly how to live, to trust people along the way. My guest today is the absolutely incredible Minka Kelly. You will probably recognize her as Lyla Garrity in the Emmy Award winning show Friday Night Lights, or as Samantha on HBO’s Euphoria. Her acting is characterized, in my humble opinion, by such vulnerability and heart. And when I saw that she was writing a memoir, I just jumped on it, fully expecting her life to be as seamless as her success. But what I didn’t realize is how much she has overcome to be where she is today. Hers is a story of survival and deep, deep love. And she tells it in such a moving memoir called Tell Me Everything. Minka, thank you so much for doing this with me today. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to it.
Minka Kelly: Thank you so much for that beautiful introduction. Thank you.
Kate: I always wondered if maybe we should start with where you are now because you’ve worked so hard to get to such a place of peace in your home and frankly, such a lot of love in your heart. And I know every book is a kind of weird gift that we give ourselves. So I wondered what gift you hope to get from having written this beautiful and tender book.
Minka: Oh, gosh, that’s such a good question. It’s interesting because, you know, to your point, I have learned while writing this book that we write the books we need to read. And when I started writing this, I didn’t know really why. I just knew I had to do it. And I was just doing it. I just had to get all of this out. And when I got towards the end of writing the book, I started to realize, oh, wow, this is this has changed my life. It has helped me grow in so many ways. It has helped me see things in myself that I wasn’t really that aware of. There was there’s just such a level of introspection that happens when you decide to tell your story and really commit to telling the truth. All the darkest, most embarrassing and humiliating parts.
Kate: It is odd too how much acknowledging our own pain makes, at least for me … I think one of the first feelings I had was a sense of how humiliating it felt just to tell the truth. Is this too much? Is this awful? Will this make me unlovable in some way? And about myself and also, I guess, about other people. When I was reading your book, I was thinking about this tug-of-war feeling I always have when I want to figure out how to tell the truth. And one is that, you know that Ann Lamott feeling of “if people wanted me to write nicely, they should have behaved better.” And then this other bit, where the more we write about the people that we love and are usually the same people as the ones who hurt us, in one version, they might start looking more and more and more adorable and less and less sort of human. And I imagine that when you sat down to write your story, it was in that way kind of a hard story to tell.
Minka: Absolutely. And that’s also why it took me so long to write it. I remember in high school saying, “I’m going to write this one day.” And and I also would always say along with it that I will have to wait till my mom is gone, because the truth in writing would break her heart, which would just bring on more shame and guilt that she already puts upon herself. And then it took ten more years after she died to start writing. And thank goodness, because there’s so much processing and healing that needed to happen. I didn’t want to write this as someone who has any sort of anger or resentment. I wanted to make sure that I came from a place of forgiveness and compassion and love. And it it all makes perfect sense, the timing of it all.
Kate: Yeah. Sometimes there’s a moment when we’re kids, when we realize that our experience is not entirely normal. I wondered if there was a moment you can remember where you realized that your childhood might not be like other kids in your class.
Minka: Well, one, I knew it from how different my mom looked than the other moms. You know, my mom wore little tiny denim shorts with her butt hanging out of them. And, you know, my friends all had dinner with their parents at night, every night. And we would make it to Jack in the Box sometimes. And I knew that no one else’s mom was a stripper. But what’s funny about that is everyone loved my mom, and I was so embarrassed by her because we all want what we don’t have. Like, they wanted the fun mom. And I wanted the responsible mom who dressed very boring and was normal and went to a 9 to 5 every day. I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have such a fun and free- spirited spirit for a mom. But, you know, as a kid, too, you just normalize everything. You’re like, this just is what it is.
Kate: Yes. Yes. Your mom’s love sounds like it was just like sunshine. Like when she was up, it was like a whole world opened up of fun and spontaneity and, like, absurdity that everybody else must.
Minka: Absurdity sounds right. Yeah. I’m really glad that you see it that way, because it was really hard to tell the truth while also capturing the nuance of it might seem bad. Yes. But it’s also really beautiful and deep and loving and complex. It’s not as black and white as this was a bad mom. And that’s not a mother’s love. It’s like, well, yes. And.
Kate: Yeah. And trying to capture that distinction between like, I was loved and I was not safe and having both of those be part of the same story because, I mean, for people who don’t know how much just how much of your life was consumed by this, just how hard you had to work to stay safe and to take care of yourself and be incredibly resourceful. Like managing your mom’s unsafe partners. Or when your mom left you in the care of complete strangers for months and months when you were in elementary school. Or growing up in the presence of addiction and abuse and drug dealing. It just, it sounds like it was so much work. Just taking care of yourself.
Minka: Yes, it was. It was a lot of work, taking care of myself and sometimes taking care of her and, you know, managing all of the grown-ups around me’s feelings. And I think like a lot of women who had complex relationships with their mothers, as you come into adulthood and you have relationships in your life, you start to realize, oh, wow, I don’t need this survival mechanism anymore. I don’t need to work to deserve love. I don’t need to be so hyper vigilant of other people’s emotions and manage them to keep myself safe.
Kate: Oh, my gosh. You describe it so perfectly, though. “Like a meteorologist.” I thought that was so astute. Like, “Kate, this weather pattern is coming in and it’s a stormy.” And I imagine your sensitivity was such a gift because you could notice everything but that it must have also been very painful to notice everything.
Minka: A blessing, Yes, because it makes you an intuitive and caring and empathetic and deeply feeling, deeply loving person. The trick is that you outsource all those things, so you outsource your safety. You outsource your reality and your feelings based on what everyone else is feeling. And so when you grow up and your therapist asks you, “What do you want? How do you feel?” And you go, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. What do I feel? What do I want?” Because I’ve been so busy and consumed with everyone else’s wants and needs and feelings. I haven’t had time to check in and know my opinions, my thoughts, my feelings. And so that has been a bit of a journey because that codependence of “I’m not okay unless you’re okay” doesn’t leave a lot of room for who who I am and what I need.
Kate: That sounds entirely right to me. Right? Yeah. Yeah. No, no. First, let me tell you how you feel. Then let me work backwards.
Minka: As long as you feel okay. I feel great. Are you okay? Then I’m okay.
Minka: Are you happy? I’m happy. But inside, I’ve abandoned myself so much that I have become completely numb to whatever it is I might be feeling. Because I’ve had to suppress all of my feelings to manage yours. I’m deeply uncomfortable. I’m afraid. I’m insecure. I’m sad. I’m hurt. I’m lonely. But none of that matters because that would be a burden to you. So let me make you okay by … I don’t need to acknowledge mine. So if, if I make you okay, then. Then everyone’s okay. And so you get really practiced that numbing yourself and suppressing all of these things. And what happens when you do that for so long when you don’t need to do that anymore, it manifests in ways that can be very harmful to your relationships that are healthy. You know, I remember one of my best friends, I had a really short fuse for a long time. I would just get so upset at the injustice of something if something wasn’t fair, I had to yell it out and and demand someone fix it or insert myself into situations that were none of my business and be so angry. And I remember my best friend saying to me, “Mink, I think this is about something deeper. I think you’re in a depressed rage at any opportunity you can to let anger out. It’s coming out in rage.” And I was like, “Whoa, what?” And I was so embarrassed and I was so sorry. And I made my best friend cry and I didn’t want to do that. And so that was when I really started to look at those things.
Kate: Yeah, yeah. It’s it is wild, the things that like, serve us really well and then don’t, you know. It’s like useful, useful, no longer useful. Like I’ve had a really hard time finding the right amount of fear in my life because I, you know, had cancer for kind of like too long. And now there’s not a right amount any time. And then, and then I could just feel it like I could feel it in my body. I felt prickly and jumpy and kind of just like lightly weepy, but looked amped, you know, just because I felt amped. And it’s been hard to realize, like no, fear is a friend, keeps you safe, helps you notice things, look around, and then fear has to kind of get right-sized in relationship to other you know like love or people who want to help you. Right?
Minka Yeah. Yeah. All the range of emotions are so important. They’re all messengers telling you. Anger is something I had such a complicated relationship with because it wasn’t safe for me to be angry when I was younger. So I had to work on my relationship to anger and know that it’s just letting me know when a boundary’s been crossed. But it was learning how to manage the anger as opposed to emotionally react to the anger and hurt someone back, you know, for making me angry as opposed to going, “I need a minute.”
Kate: It’s hard to see the big story, I guess, sometimes of our lives when especially when we’re in seasons maybe, wherein things feel like they’re going well. Those are strangely then the times where like ugly, hard things from the past pop up and remind you like, oh, this book has a lot of chapters.
Minka: Oh, yeah. There’s nothing like being in love to show you where you need to grow. Oh, my gosh. Yeah. You think I think I’m a fully-functioning, well- developed … done all the therapy. Let’s do this. And then you fall in love. You’re like, Oh. Oh, God. I have so many bruises everywhere. Hold on. I have a lot more work to do.
Kate: Some of your accomplishments sound too like they opened up a lot of tenderness and vulnerability. Let’s start with nursing on that. Like you decide, you’re just like scrapping it out. Could you tell why? Tell me a little bit about that big jump you made from survival into finding your own footing and deciding to launch headfirst into a pick a surprising career?
Minka: I credit that to me just having guardian angels along the way. You know, and luck is so much a part of why I’m here today, you know, and the women that have been in my life and supported me. You know, I got fired. And then I went, okay, but at the same time, this angel in my life, luckily my rent was only $475 a month. You know, she was like, “I will take care of that for you for a year.” And I took that opportunity to go to school.
Kate: And they wanted you to be a model. I mean, you could have gone a whole different way and you were like actually nursing.
Minka: Yes. She wanted me to be a Playboy playmate and get my boobs done and do a whole bunch of other things. And I didn’t want to do that. And that’s why I got fired. And and I was like, okay. I think it’s just the the hustler and the survivor and the scrappy in you that goes, okay, what will I do next? There’s no time to be sad or feel sorry for yourself. It’s like, okay, how do I move forward? You know what? I want to go to school. I want to acquire a skill that I can do for the rest of my life. I want to have a backup plan that my mom never had. I want to be proud of myself. I can go to school now and really commit to it in a way that I always wanted to. I love school. I love learning. And I missed out on that in high school and didn’t get to go to college. So the opportunity to go to nursing school was the best time of my life.
Kate: What do you think you learned about yourself when you’re like just in it to win it? I’m just picturing like gloves on, looking, staring at things that you know, make other men weep.
Minka: You know, I would say all the time, I had no idea I had the stomach for this. I’m so lucky. This just doesn’t bother me at all. And I’m deeply fascinated by it and so excited by it and excited to see I’m really good at something. I can do something that has nothing to do with the way that I look because I was just so afraid of my mother’s currency her whole life were her looks. And that really scared me because I also watched her currency go away and her continue to need so much help and support from her friends. And I just never wanted to depend on anybody. And there is no better feeling in the world than to feel like, okay, I’ll never need anyone’s help. I can always take care of myself. I can do this thing. And I’m really, really good at it. You know, that that codependence or that like intuition or that intuitiveness that is able to anticipate the needs comes in really handy in the O.R. when the surgeon doesn’t want to have to ask for what he needs. He wants you to know what he needs before he needs it. That is a skill that I am very good at.
Kate: Yes. I wonder, too, if … I’ve interviewed some E.R. doctors and they have the same badass intensity that you have too, where it’s like there’s a theater of life feeling where, like, you won’t look away. And I imagine your courage also made you pretty great at being in places that other people would fear to go.
Minka: Thank you.
Kate: Your desire to reframe the compliment you were always getting from your mom of like “you’re so beautiful” and you wrote, “I just wish once in a while she’d compliment me on my resourcefulness, intelligence, or resilience.” And when I read that, I just wanted to like, scream. “That is exactly what all of us are seeing when we’re getting to know you in this story!” So it must have been a strange thing to see that in yourself. Looking back, like looking back on your kid self and think, Wow, I really am unbelievably resilient and intelligent and resourceful.
Minka: Thank you. Yeah, I didn’t think that at the time. You know, it wasn’t at the time that I was like, “Mom, I wish you would think that I was this.” It was like, “Thank you.” That’s what makes me good. That’s what makes me lovable. That’s what makes me worthy of love. As long as I am those things that you’re saying I am. And looking back, I wish that there were more focus on other things because I just wonder what that might have encouraged me to lean into as opposed to me learning that that’s what I want to lean into in my 28th year of life. So it has been a journey and I’ve had a lot of help from therapists and friends helping me acknowledge I am those other things.
Kate: Yeah. The way you talk about your friends and how much you love them and the way they know how to bring food and show up and like reassemble, you know, our lives come apart and then and then people help us reassemble them, and then they come apart again, and then they’re like, right back in. And I’ve always had this image in my mind when I think about my friends. I know that I don’t have much of a … this is just a very awkward thing to admit, but I’m like, not a not someone with like, a lot of natural self-esteem.
Minka: No, girl.
Kate: There’s not a foundation there, much of one. And when there is, I feel fortunate. But it’s hard to build on that when it’s so sandy all the time. And so when I picture my friends, I picture it like those buildings that they have all the scaffolding on the outside and they just if they keep building, then the building can get sort of taller and taller. But without it, I know it would kind of come apart and I guess I just feel kind of settled on the idea like maybe some parts of us are just kind of built from the outside in and maybe that’s like not a bad version of knowing what love is. So when I see them, I know, I know exactly for minute. I know exactly what they see. And thank God for that, you know?
Minka: We say to each other all the time, you know, when one of us is feeling low and we’re like, “Oh, God, I wish you could see you through my eyes. I wish you could see what I see.”
Minka: Our women in our lives are everything. I’d be walking backwards if it weren’t for the women in my life. I’m so thankful because, you know. And when you don’t have family, the women in your life become your family. Especially when you see how they show up in a time of crisis. When you see one of them moves in, the other one shows up every day and like you said, bringing food, you’re like,” Wow, God, okay, so maybe I’m not that bad.” Maybe I have done something right. I’m going to make it my life’s goal to love these women as best I can and show up for them in a way that they’re making me feel like, oh my goodness, this has to be what family feels like.
Kate: Yes. Yeah. These are the people who teach me to fight. These are the people who teach me how to apologize. These are the people who…
Minka: Make space for me to not feel like I have to fight anymore. Give space for me to be soft. Yeah.
Kate: Yeah, that’s good.
Kate: Your success came also at a time of real heartbreak for you as you’re on top of the world in one way. Friday Night Lights is doing so well and then you get a call from your mom that she’s not doing well. I imagine that that was … Didn’t your dad say like it was like almost like a moment of decision? Like, you’re like, all right, I I’m not going to have the the timeframe that I imagined to get every apology, to be has mad for as long as I need to be mad, to let the story kind of play out, that you’d have to sort of superspeed the relationship. That you’d have to sort of build the best ending with your mom. Can you tell me a little bit about what that sort of season was like for you?
Minka: It was very surreal and I was very angry at her at first. I think that was a part of why I was in such denial, because the very little girl in me said, this is my time. You don’t get to need anything right now because it’s my turn and I’m living my life and I don’t want to take care of you anymore. And of course, you’re sick and you’re probably not even really that sick. And like, this is your way of getting me back after doing me so wrong. And, no! But I wonder how long it would have gone on had we not had this time frame. I just am thankful that my dad had the wisdom and the love to say you need to see a therapist and fix this with her. But I don’t even know how to describe to you the feeling of, oh God, I fixed it now. Just give me more time. You know that’s the rub.
Kate: Yes. Yeah. Cause more love just makes more love. And then that’s the great gift. And the great heartbreak is just more love.
Kate: How do you think her cancer diagnosis changed her in the last part of her life?
Minka: I think that the cancer diagnosis really humbled her, and I think that was part of how and why we were able to heal in the way we were, because she just stopped defending herself. She put all her weapons down. She stopped avoiding reality and distracting herself and running. It planted her. And it just made her very present and vulnerable in a way that she never allowed herself to be. She was never vulnerable. She was always very tough and very scrappy and very everything’s fine. “Everything’s fine. Look. Look how everything’s fine. See? Let’s go to the movies. Let’s get some new shoes at Payless. Or let’s eat ice cream. Everything’s fine.” And this was the first time I got to see her go, “I’m scared.”
Minka: “And I love you. And I’m so sorry.”
Kate: Yes. What a beautiful phrase. It planted her. Minka, you’re right. Sometimes we do have to … I mean, whether we want to or not be still enough to be loved and be seen. A sickness is so embarrassing. It’s so human. It’s so. It’s just bodies doing stuff you wish they didn’t do. And then everyone can see it. And for you then to show up. Was that hard then to just, like, talk yourself into walking up to the edge with her? Because everything makes a deadline, you know, and then you have to like, you know, tiptoe up to what you don’t want to. What was that decision like to really walk with her?
Minka: It was really complex and complicated and messy and not how I would have wished or maybe how I would have handled it today. I was in real denial of it and pictured it as something that that might eventually happen but it’s not gonna happen now. So I don’t need to tend to this now.
Minka: You know, I can now be the one in denial and pretend everything’s okay and not come for the last Thanksgiving of your life. Your favorite holiday that you made so special for us, no matter what was happening in our lives. I’ll see you for the next one. I’m busy. I wasn’t busy. I just didn’t want to see it. I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t watch this thing take over her. I couldn’t see her sick. She was so strong. And I don’t know that it was an active, conscious choice I made. It was just when it got to that point, it was there is no other choice. This is what I have to do. It was just, I don’t know if it’s love that takes over, if it’s just, you know, it’s like a friend of mine called me “grace under pressure.” And so when it when it came down to it being really real, when she was on her last days, it was, I’m here. This was the biggest pressure. This was the highest stakes. And that’s where I’m my best. That’s why I work well in a O.R. It’s like the higher the stakes, the more calm I am and the more I’m able to do what we have to do. I lose sense of self and I become very aware of what needs to be done. And I’ll get to me later.
Minka: And so it wasn’t really a choice. It was just this is what I have to do.
Kate: Because it’s not the end that we would write. You know, like when you’re like, Well, I sort of hoped that, like, this person would come in and be open and self-giving in some kind of way. But no, this person is just as broken as before. And, you know, I’ll make a treasure chest for you for like, this will be our final … Do you mind telling me about that? I thought it was so sweet
Minka: Gosh. Yeah. So when she got the diagnosis, she decided she was going to write in a journal for me and that she was going to create a treasure chest full of things that were for me that I couldn’t look at until she was gone. And when I would visit her, she would brag about it and talk about it and point to it. “That’s for one day. That’s for you.” So when the time came and I had to go through all her things and sort of clean out her bedroom and it was this big moment of, okay, now you get to look through this chest. And I just remember opening it and going, “Is there another one in here, because surely she didn’t mean to just leave me a treasure chest full of socks?” And it was just so, like apropos of her “isms.” Of, of just like “her-ness.” Of course, she never got to it or she never did it or she forgot or she just put it off and, and and now she’s making me laugh. Yeah. You know, I can just hear her going. “Oops, Sorry, boo. I forgot.” And you’re like, “Mom, this was really important.”
Kate: Yes. Yeah, the unfinished way that people love us.
Minka: I love that.
Kate: And then the way that we got to like, fill in the rest.
Minka: “The unfinished way people love us.” That’s really beautiful.
Kate: Hon, you wrote something brilliant and I know it will be a gift to others. I want to just thank you for the honesty and the beauty that shines through it. Thank you so much for doing this with me today. What a gift.
Minka: You. Thank you. This has been so lovely. Thank you for receiving this and me with so much heart. It’s been really lovely talking to you.
Kate: Isn’t she wonderful? Minka said something too. I just haven’t been able to get out of my head. She said that her friendships have taught her not, you know, just to do the hard stuff, but that it’s okay to be soft. She spent her childhood hardening, growing calluses in order to endure the neglect and abuse from other people that should have been trustworthy. And yet, man, she’s learning to be so soft. And for so many of us who have experienced complicated childhoods, it can be devastating to untangle the trauma of our family stories, especially when we may never get the recognition of the pain that we endured. Apologies we are owed. We might never be able to forgive the wrongs done to us or perhaps adequately make up for the wrongs we have done to others. So how do we stay soft in a world that has taught us to be tough? Jessica and I, in our book of blessings called The Lives We Actually Have, wrote a blessing for a moment like that, for if you happen to have had a painful childhood. So if this you, here we go. Blessed are you who come with all your sorrow, allowing your pain to convey all its truth. For here in the arms of Jesus is where reality is a welcome guest. Here is where grief is understood at its core. Where the dark shadow of betrayal is seen from the inside. Here, my dear, is where the work of healing begins. Blessed are you who mourn as you meet yourself once again. Ask that little child who needed protection but did not receive it, who deserved respect, but was not afforded it. The things that should have happened but didn’t. And the things that happened but shouldn’t have. The broken family systems and normalized cruelties that allowed your pain to continue far beyond what it should have. For you have come now to the God who is alive to your past, your present and your future, and who has already moved heaven and earth to restore your dignity, to return you to yourself. Take a minute to remind your past self that you are loved now, tomorrow, and forever. And rest. You are safe. You are held. You are loved.
Kate: All right, my darlings. Good to be with you. Let’s talk soon. This episode of the Everything Happens podcast was made possible because of our generous partners Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And of course, nothing is possible without the wisdom and expertise of my absolutely fabulous team. Jessica Richie, my heart, I love you. Harriet Putman, Keith Westin, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Jeb Bert, and Katherine Smith. This really is my very favorite kind of group project. So if you want to know what else we’re up to, head over to katebowler.com/newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. I would really love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It means a ton to us when we hear what you liked or who you want to hear in conversation next. Also, we really love hearing your voice. Feel free to leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. So call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at @katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.