By Veronica Wells
When I heard that Jenifer Lewis was writing a memoir, I was immediately intrigued. Not only has she played everybody’s momma on the big and small screens, her persona just draws you in. Whether she’s sharing sage career advice, singing about how she doesn’t want anybody f*cking with her in these streets, or speaking candidly about her mental illness, Lewis’ energy is infectious. She’s engaging. She’s fascinating. You just want to lean in and hear what the hell she has to say. So I had to get my hands on that book. And not only has it exceeded my expectations in the areas of fun-ny, the memoir also includes several life lessons.
Checking White folks
Lewis was doing laundry one day and put her basket in the elevator door while she was grabbing the last bit of her clothing. A White couple in the elevator took it upon themselves to kick the basket out of the door, spilling her newly washed clothes onto the floor. Thankfully, Lewis caught the door and proceeded to pick up each article of clothing one by one. When the couple protested, she went clean off, physically imposing herself on them to let them know she was not the one. It was everything! While this incident probably represented one of her manic episodes, still it was a lesson to me that there is nothing wrong with expressing yourself when people do something that shows a lack of human decency.
Lewis has been very open and honest about her sex addiction, as a coping mechanism for her bipolar disorder. And while her lovers were many, she still had her standards. When one of her potential suitors dropped his pants and revealed equipment that didn’t measure up, instead of trying to appeal to his ego and waste her own time, Lewis sent him away. If a woman with a sex addiction was able to express her desires and wasn’t willing to settle, then we can do the same.
Reading Lewis’ memoir there are more than a few instances when she was so close to getting a role before it was eventually given to someone else. Sometimes it’s clear that she was too loud or too big for a part. And other times it was circumstance, someone was a better fit. But there were other times when it seems like things were just unfair. Still, while there are moments when Lewis went without work, she didn’t doubt her talent or ability. She didn’t stop pushing. She didn’t stop declaring her greatness. I have to believe that her recognition and acknowledgment of her gifts is what helped so many of the other greats to recognize her star as well.
Who didn’t want to be in the spot when Barack Obama was inaugurated as 44th President of the United States? And while Lewis had a ticket, she was supposed to be in the back, where she would miss quite a bit of the action. But the day of the event, she arrived early and managed to finagle her way to the front. It was a real lesson in the power of determination mixed with a bit of luck.
The theme of mental health and wellness run throughout the entire memoir. And what I most appreciate is the fact that Lewis never describes her journey toward healing as linear. After her initial acceptance of the fact that she needed professional help, there were more than a few setbacks. There was denial, missteps, prescription problems, self sabotage etc. Still, it’s abundantly clear that had Lewis not done the work to find the right therapist, been patient as she got the right prescription, and held herself accountable for her own actions, there’s no telling where she would be.
Feel the fear and do it anyway
In her therapy, Lewis learned about the importance of confronting those that have hurt you. And unlike those White people in the elevator, this was about confronting people who she trusted, people who she admired, people who were respected in her community. Her childhood pastor, who her mother revered, groped her and kissed her in his car one day as he was driving her home. When she told her mother about the incident, she didn’t believe her. After therapy, well into her adulthood, Lewis called the Pastor and confronted him, in power, about his actions. And it helped.
Writing a letter
Obviously confrontation is a theme here. And while it may seem redundant, I think it’s important for women to really reflect on this as we’re conditioned from birth to be appeasing and pleasant. But if anything, Lewis’ book teaches that not only is there a time and place for confrontation, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. When her therapist suggests that Lewis writes a letter to her mother, whether she decides to give it to her or not, she does so. And then with a bit of trepidation, eventually decides to mail it. The letter called her mother out for a lot of dysfunction. And while she didn’t know how her mother was going to react, she learned that people are often more open than we think when it comes to hearing the truth about themselves.