Bit By Bit, Putting Myself (Back) Together
As I hit rock-bottom, karma pulls a switcheroo. But then a new dream job becomes a nightmare, and I make the hard (and only) choice.
Karma is a funny bitch. She rarely does what one wants, but she has a ripping sense of humor.
In New York, Head Over Heels continued its dismal slog at the bottom of the Broadway grosses. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the creepy encounters with strangers continued, with two major incidents in August and September 2017. The August 18th incident was perhaps the scariest of them all and is not something I am comfortable discussing in this context. It was an awful violation that left no doubt as to its source.
The encounter of September 21st involved a stranger in Irvine who was a font of useful information. He dropped the mask with the opening line, “You got fired from your show because you refused to change anything.” He had no reasonable way to know who I was, and there was nothing online about the show’s dark background. He was sent to find me.
I was by then more annoyed than scared when a thug dropped the mask yet again. “Oh for fuck’s sakes, I know who sent you then. You’re repeating the lies of my reps and producers.” I stood toe-to-toe with him throughout, trying to get a sense of what exactly was going on. Of all of the creepy people, he was the most forthcoming – though he sneered at me throughout in that “gotcha!” way of shady people working in a group.
The big takeaway from the Ross incident was something curious that he said toward the end:
“You’re going to be raised up pretty soon. And we want you not to freak out. Don’t make waves. Just take it as it comes.”
I bolted from his corporate short-stay apartment shortly after. (An astonishing amount of the creepy people lived in corporate short-stay apartments, I’d later realize.) Only much later did I make the connection between his strange comment and the events of following months.
As it turned out, he was right. I would be raised up.
And still I wonder: how the hell did he know back then?
In 2011 I wrote a screenplay based on a memoir by Lee Israel called Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It was my first completed screenplay gig that that I felt good about. In the following years, the project kept almost getting made, and then falling apart. After Head Over Heels opened in 2015, it was going into production with Nicole Holofcener directing and Julianne Moore starring. Nicole had done a rewrite on the script. And then that iteration fell apart as well.
Then in 2017, the film completed production with Melissa McCarthy as Lee and Richard E. Grant as her friend Jack. Marielle Heller directed. I was invited to see a screening of the film at the 20th Century Lot in August 2018, and I was thrilled. My work was present, but the movie was much more – a wonderful collaboration of sensibilities that gave the film a rare authenticity.
But Can You Ever Forgive Me? was a small-scale film. I didn’t expect much.
The studio flew me out to attend the premiere in New York in October. It was jarring when people treated me with appreciation for my work.
Shortly after the premiere, Nicole and I got a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards, and then another nomination came, and another, and suddenly my life took off in a total upswing – as Head Over Heels sputtered to its ignominious January 6th close. The New York Times article announcing its closing asserted, “The show did not recoup its costs, making it a flop, and that money will be lost.” Thus Spake the Paper of Record.
After HOH closed I got an Oscar nomination. I didn’t watch the nominations broadcast live. I got the news from my friend and collaborator Lin Manuel-Miranda, who called me, bursting with excitement.
I decided to just enjoy it all and let that awards season deliver joy long since deprived from the thwarted success of Head Over Heels.
Producer Christine Russell called me out of the blue, and I was archly polite, assuring her that I would not use my platform to blow the whistle - during an acceptance speech, say - and as it happened I got several opportunities.
Like I would bother to waste my breath on any of them.
I cleaned my shit up amazingly well, and was hale and hearty as I strode onto the Oscars red carpet with my friend of 30 years Heidi Schreck on my arm (who would shortly have her own dazzling rise on Broadway). We drank in every minute of the fun, arriving in a limo with my folks, to whom the Academy kindly gave seats in the balcony. And I was genuinely thrilled when Spike Lee and his crew took home the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
It was all just so funny, given everything. This is what I meant about karma’s sense of humor. And while I frown on schadenfreude by and large, in March 2019 I felt the scales of Justice move towards balance when Head Over Heels went entirely ignored by the Tony Awards nominating committee.
That’s what they get for exploiting artists.
Six months later in a San Francisco hotel, at noon on October 1st 2019, housekeeping discovered my unconscious body. I could not be roused. They found a rope beside me on the floor tied into a noose.
I was transported by ambulance to Kaiser Permanente hospital. They ran a panel of drug tests, which came up clean of any drug that wasn’t prescribed. For I had stayed clean of them.
But I had been struggling after so many betrayals: I had no way to change the context from my constant fear of people’s intentions toward me - a logical fear that began with the discovery that John Buzzetti and Conrad Rippy were exploiting me behind my back, followed by the shocking behavior of the many flying monkeys that joined forces with them.
The 30 Xanax that I swallowed were prescribed for sleep. I was never a pill-head and never felt a high off of Xanax anyway, which is why I had a full bottle. I went out much more quickly than I expected. I did not complete the job with the noose I’d fashioned two weeks before and transported in my luggage like a security blanket.
In the months that followed, I entered heavy therapy for multiply-diagnosed Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I got five such diagnoses in all. The complex variety results from repeated traumatic events versus a single traumatic incident. It never occurred to me that my constant fear had a name.
My mistrust of people had kept me from pursuing mental health options, but I began seeing three therapists a week in rotation: a psychiatrist, a talk-therapy psychologist, and another psychologist who specialized in EMDR, a breakthrough technique that transfers traumatic memories from the brain’s amygdala (where the fight-or-flight response originates) to the frontal cortex. It is less effective for PTSD of the complex variety, which was the sort that brought me to that moment.
My psychiatrist is highly-regarded in Los Angeles. When I told him about the stalking harassment I’d endured – hesitantly, beginning as always with “I know this makes me sound crazy” – he nodded without judgment, and told me that he was familiar with the topic. I wasn’t his only client to be subjected to such brutal, ongoing psychological abuse. He did not go into details beyond telling me that an actress client had gone through a similar series of incidents.
I was not alone. This meant everything. The gaslighting tactic of “He’s crazy” was beginning to lose its grip. Core people in my life believed me: those who listened to the whole story instead of accusing me of making it up, shunning me – which was an extra level of trauma and in many ways the most painful.
The therapy was expensive. But I had to do something. And so began the next leg of the climb out of the sadness.
In November I met a film and TV producer for lunch, my first such meeting in ages. We hit it off. I had him chuckling when I brought up a TV series I’d been dreaming about for a couple of decades: Bad Fairy, which concerns the affairs of a drug-dealing middle-aged gay prostitute who lives in New Orleans, and those of his colorful associates. I wrote the role of Ariel, the titular hooker, for myself. My frankness about my past as a sex worker would be the “hook,” as it were.
He brought me in to meet his production company, where I gave a full pitch to the executives, and in short order they optioned Bad Fairy for development. This lifted my spirits immensely. TV was new to me, but I tend to do well with new storytelling forms. Avenue Q was my first musical, after all, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? my first produced screenplay.
I began to find my feet. In August of 2019, a film producer approached me asking if I knew Auntie Mame. I told her the truth: the previous week I’d requested a perusal copy of the libretto to Mame the stage musical, which had never been revived on Broadway since its original run. Aware that it contained some creaky racial stereotypes, I thought I might be able to modernize these sections for contemporary audiences.
The project was a new screen adaptation of Auntie Mame based on Patrick Dennis’s original novel. I told the producer that I loved the book as well as its sequel, having torn through them with delight when I first moved to New York City. I saw the classic 1958 film afterwards and enjoyed it immensely - but missed some of the hilarious nitty-gritty from the novel that couldn’t fly past the censors.
In short order I began working with the producers on a new treatment of the story. Other producers came aboard. It was the pandemic year and Auntie Mame was a rare, consistent source of happiness. Via dozens of Zoom meetings, phone calls, emails and many nights burning the midnight oil, I produced a story treatment that got everybody excited. My goal wasn’t to supplant the 1958 film, but to offer a fresh angle on the story.
I kicked ass. I wasn't "at my best." I was just myself: conscientious, timely, cheerful, prompt, collaborative, innovative, always putting the audience first.
When I work, I’m working all the time, my head dreamy as I imagine a story unfolding. If someone sees me walking down the street, there’s a good chance that I’m imagining language, dialogue, story. I was over the moon to be in that headspace again.
We brought Auntie Mame to a major studio in early September of 2021, and the lead exec announced a pick-up in the middle of the pitch meeting. We were all ecstatic. The producers said this had never happened to them before.
Everything felt so bright after so many years of grief. And it was perfect timing. I’d been working for nothing on the movie for over a year, and finally I’d get paid. In my previous Hollywood outings, producers paid me something before a studio picked up a project. But even so, with a studio now backing Auntie Mame, surely money would arrive in a month or two.
And just in time: for my scant savings were almost gone as a direct result of my loss of livelihood on Head Over Heels. It was September 2021.
And aside from the financials, I prayed that Auntie Mame would be my bridge back to the industry.
A month passed. October 2021. I began borrowing money from friends and family. Then came November. I began to panic. At Thanksgiving I burst into tears on the phone with a manager I was working with. She consoled me that the money for my work on Auntie Mame would probably come next month.
December 28th 2021. Still no money. A couple of credit card payments were due as well as rent on my storage unit, which contained personal treasures that were irreplaceable. And rent on my apartment was coming up along with all manner of other bills. At minutes before 6PM, my friend Joe was on the phone reading me his credit card numbers so I could save my storage unit.
And then my computer crashed.
On the dot of 6PM, all of the prior years of financial abuse and neglect came to a head. I was sick of living in poverty – the direct result of the abuse I took from WME, LMPNY and the rest. I fell apart on the phone. Joe listened as I slowly gathered myself.
Later I sat down and wrote a letter to the Auntie Mame producers:
My dear Mamians,
I hope that you are having happy holidays.
I write this with tremendous embarrassment.
For several months I have been struggling financially and thus emotionally, and I don’t want my desperation to intrude on our professional relationships.
Forgive me this.
Four months ago I had to begin borrowing money from friends and family to pay the basics in my life like rent and food and health insurance and etc. I communicated this to my reps, rising to pleading in a manner that was undignified and embarrassing. (If I am concerned for my dignity, something is wrong.)
The worries of my last month especially have been more devastating than I can bear, coming as they do atop Covid isolation (I live alone and know almost no one in LA) as well as working through C-PTSD from the years of stalking trauma drama that I mentioned to some of you. I was making concrete gains.
These days I am drowning in a barrage of emails and texts and calls about accounts past due, going into collections, etc. The state of California began garnishing my bank accounts in October. My credit rating is plummeting. I’d paid my bills every month for fifteen years until November. The terror has been relentless. …
I broke down earlier today and cried and cried to my dear ex Joe, who suggested that I write to you.
When I borrowed from Joe and others, I promised that the money would come this month because it’s I was told “next month” last month. I had to go back on my word which is not my way. I’ve never been so embarrassed. …
I am really ashamed to write this. I took pride in my self-sufficiency.
I do not know what to ask, except that if there is a way that I can get paid somehow before too long - even for the outline - it would make a huge difference in my life and bounce into my screenplay.
I again apologize for this. I hit a point today where I realized that I have to advocate for myself.
Thank you all, and again I hope you are having a great holiday season.
I spoke with one of the producers, who made it sound like money was just around the corner.
January came and went. No payment. More defaulting.
February. No payment. More defaulting.
March. No payment. More defaulting.
April. No payment. More defaulting.
My once-solid credit was now destroyed. I could no longer afford my apartment, but given my credit I had no way to find another.
I began to fear that I was being financially manipulated again, triggering memories of the bullying financial deprivations of Head Over Heels. I tried not to bug the producers, but I had to from time to time. I now risked becoming “difficult.” I kept getting assurances that payment was around the corner.
I decided to channel my fear through art. So, I wrote the first act of the screenplay – 30 pages – in hopes that it might hurry matters along. Though but a partial first draft, it was my proudest screenplay work, sticking point-by-point to the treatment I’d finessed with such care. The initial response was positive, then suddenly guarded: the producers suggested that I stop writing until I got the go-ahead to commence.
At this point I began to wonder whether I had been used to set up the movie - with implied promises to write the screenplay, which would then be finished by a client of – who knows – William Morris Endeavor, perhaps. Or was I being ruled by C-PTSD? I asked around, and no other screenwriter had such travails whenever their livelihood was at stake. Not even close.
May. No payment. More default.
June. No payment. More default.
July. No payment. More default.
These were entire months.
I was dying from the strain of defaulting. I was selling every possession I could. The weight of the fear was overwhelming. Had I once again created something valuable, leaving me vulnerable to another spin-cycle of exploitation? Heavy insomnia kicked in as I brooded.
Why couldn't this just go normally?
When all seemed lost, my intuition pinged. I realized that in recent years I hadn’t seen much revenue from my creative assets, Avenue Q in particular. My royalties on the show still went to the William Morris Endeavor Agency. Now my former agency, they were nonetheless obligated to collect their ten percent and send me the 90% balance …
WME. I had a hunch that felt an awful lot like inevitability. I wrote to my licensing company, Music Theater International, to get the sum of my Avenue Q royalties as delivered to WME since the top of 2021. And then I cross-checked those amounts with my bank balances.
July 19, 2022 1:18 PM
FROM: Jeff Whitty
TO: [name redacted] at the William Morris Endeavor Agency
SUBJECT: Missing Royalties
Dear Ms. [redacted] and the WME royalties division:
On surveying the last year, I detect a large discrepancy between my royalties delivered to WME from Music Theatre International (MTI) and funds deposited by WME into my corporate bank account.
The discrepancy is significant. As included in the attached PDF, these are payments sent to WME from MTI.
[I list eight payments totaling $13,479.49]
And these are the sole deposits from WME to my bank account over the last year:
[I list three payments totaling $4948.78]
This leaves a balance due to me of $8,800.71.
I look forward to prompt reimbursement of these missing funds. Please reach out if you have any questions.
Sincerely, Jeffrey Whitty
Despite their manifold blessings and boundless wealth, the rich folk stooped to steal revenue from a former client of famously small means.
Within days, with no explanation nor apology, the missing funds magically appeared in my bank account – to the tune of $9400, for as it turned out WME took a chunk of my Bring It On royalties as well.This development only led me to further fear that I was deliberately being driven broke again. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what shoe was about to drop.
August. No payment. More defaulting.
September. No payment. More defaulting.
October. No payment. More defaulting.
In the face of a Category Four depression, I was determined not to break this time. I kept an aggressively cheerful face on social media, mindfully using it as an opportunity to be playful and, on occasion, political. I refused to moan about my circumstances.
Doing substances was out of the question, and I felt no desire; but it became clear to me that I was using alcohol to medicate fear and anxiety.
So on Sunday October 16th, I quit drinking and went into recovery.
I quit smoking as well that day, kicking a 25-year habit. I was not going to break. If nothing else I vowed to emerge from 2022 better in mind and body than when I went in.
November. No payment. More defaulting.
My Bad Fairy TV series was languishing and the fault was all mine. I was reluctant to pour my heart and artistry into yet another project, only to get grief in return, commensurate to my efforts. I wrote an apology to Fremantle, letting them know that I was stepping off for a spell, maybe for good.
It was clear that there was no place for me in the industry.
Twenty long December days followed.
Still no payment. More defaulting.
December 20th. I had no money to travel home to Oregon for Christmas in a few days. I had no money to buy food most days. My folks had sent me some help, which was immediately snatched from my bank account to pay off outstanding debts.
Among my remaining possessions of any value was a generator that I once used at Burning Man. A potential buyer reached out on OfferUp. I agreed to cut the price, giving me just enough money to buy the ticket – but at the last minute the sale fell through, and then the price of a flight home doubled …
That night my friend Alan took me to dinner near his house in Brentwood. A brilliant actor and man of the theater, Alan turned 95 in seven days. During the meal he told me that during a dark point in his life, he felt like everything was over, but in retrospect the losses cleared the path for something better.
And then he said, “I hope that through all of this you find an atmosphere where you are supported.”
Supported. Instead of vilified, punished and driven to financial ruin, rinse, repeat.
Yes. That was it: the final bad habit that I needed to kick.
I was addicted to a career where I was neither treated as human nor as of worth beyond the valuable art I make.
I was killing myself to create art for people who treated me like swine in a factory farm.
After dinner I walked Alan home, kissed him goodnight, then took the #2 bus back to my apartment. (In the absence of wheels, I’m a whiz on the LA transit system.) I climbed into bed, fired up my laptop and began a letter – too long a letter, in retrospect, for my ADHD oversharing – but a message nonetheless that I wish I’d sent the entertainment industry years before.
In my opening words I pulled my participation and work from Auntie Mame. No backsies.
In short, the letter said: I’m done here. I wrote what was true of my 2022:
All three of my credit cards were shut down and collections agencies hound me every hour demanding payment in full. The IRS began garnishing me in May. I borrowed money from friends and family promising what was implied: that payment on Mame was just around the corner. Those relationships are frayed and some beyond repair because some of the people I borrowed from think I lied. I can’t blame them. It’s so improbable that I am still unpaid. I had to reach out to my former drug dealer to source HIV meds which I traded for craft supplies. The progress I was making on my mental health is coming undone for I cannot afford a therapist. I lost a crown on my tooth in April and have endured pain that comes and goes in my jaw ever since. I have sold both of my drones, both of my nice computer monitors, my office chair, my wide-format printer, my Glowforge laser cutter, my mountain bike and everything else I could. All year my porch saw a parade of people coming with pennies on the dollar and leaving with my stuff. I have been stuck at home 99% of the time because I have no car and have no way to pay for an Uber. This is after living for years as a recluse when the threats came down - and when I felt brave enough to go out again the fucking pandemic happened. And then when that was done: Mame. I am so tired of being alone. I am 51. And I had no money to buy food today. On these days I eat from cans I bought before the pandemic. I've had to do this again and again.
I must go bankrupt and will likely lose my most precious possessions, my theater work, to be liquidated. I can't file for Chapter Fourteen where my assets would be saved, because that demands income that Mame just refuses to provide. My baby Avenue Q is due for a revival and I had a ton of changes I was dreaming about. But the agent who exploited me reps the bulk of the rest of the team so I will surely be excluded. He will convince people to shun me. I went through the hardships of mounting that show so I could have residual income for the rest of my life. Theater pays better than film in that regard. Gone. For this.
By the end I knew that the letter was too long. Fuck it. Let them roll their eyes. I was done revising for those people. I hit “send” and fell into a blessed sleep.
Joe came through once more the next day, bless him, arranging a plane ticket home where I enjoyed a lovely low-key Christmas with my little brother Brian and my folks. Thank God for the Joes and everyone who looked after me in my darkest hours, as I’ve looked out for others in the past and, now reminded, shall forevermore, for how many holidays can any of us count on?
That week I unwound amidst the easy familiarity of the house I grew up in, taking the dog to the beach, seeing the holiday lights, cutting up with Brian and helping my parents out, and for the first time in several years I felt something like free. Plucked like a chicken but free at last.
I got no reply to my message to the producers. As I learned from Head Over Heels, gratitude is unlikely from certain sectors of the industry for it suggests an obligation to return in kind. They got a studio thanks to me.
I returned to West Hollywood with a single writing project left on my plate, one I’d avoided for years. It was my last opportunity to tell the truth to save myself.
Microsoft Word. New Document.
“To the Attorney Grievance Committee …”
I’d begun many such documents only to put them down before long. My hard drive is a graveyard of incomplete drafts of my sorry story in the industry. Reflecting on the betrayals triggered trauma still lodged in my amygdala, which sent fight-or-flight distress signals, making me spin down.
And it hurt to recall how naïvely I trusted, especially late in the abuse when any objective audience member would shout, “Hey! They’re stealing from you!”
I used to worry about the effects on my career if I spoke up. But then Auntie Mame happened, leading me to reflect that a “career” implies sustenance that was in short supply ever since my lawyer and agent began exploiting me..
Lack of income downgraded my career to a hobby. And shouldn’t a hobby bring joy?
“Do not talk badly about people in your industry,” warned the hot Venezuelan personal trainer who picked me up that August morning in 2017.
I wonder: am I “talking badly” when I write about abuse?
Even if so, it’s better that I do, lest my silence enable future scorched-earth exploitation of artists. My treatment is a dangerous new low in the Broadway industry. I refuse to allow my abuse to be a successful trial run. I’m a canary in the coal mine instead - but only if I sing out.
“If someone is fucking you over, you have to let them fuck you all the way to the end,” the Venezuelan mercenary continued. But when exactly IS the godforsaken “end” that he warned me to let “them” fuck me all the way to?
There is no end, so long as secrets remain secrets. I’d bear the ugly truth for the rest of my life as I try to eke out a living amid the sneers, jeers, and smears of my abusers. God didn’t put me here to carry the shitty dirty water of dirty dirty people. I’m giving it back. Now they may carry the burden of their bad behavior.
As for the threat’s conclusion, “You don’t want to find out what will happen if you speak out,” I fully expect reprisals from John Buzzetti et al’s flying monkeys. I know damned well how complex and fucked-up their mercenaries can get. What, will they disfigure me? Frame me for some horrid crime? What else happens to the corporate whistleblowers whose intimidation they proudly advertise on their websites?
Should any future misfortune befall me – any – may all eyes turn to John Buzzetti, Conrad Rippy and the rest of them.
The storyteller in me would choose a redemption arc for my exploiters: meaning apology, making amends, repairing the damage, and moving on.
Remember: audiences love the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge, who changed their ways.
But even the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys celebrated her demise.
I’d throw all my support behind a sincere redemption arc, because that is my nature. Lest anyone get it twisted: I am kind now. I’m no longer nice nor to be fucked with.
Finally, as for the sex tapes that were threatened in DUMBO a week later, I beg of my malefactors: please release them!!! I’ll get an account on OnlyFans and make a mint selling my exclusive “duet” minute-by-minute analysis of my performance. And for making me a star, I’ll graciously thank the William Morris Endeavor Agency, the law firm of Levine, Plotkin and Menin, the Go-Go’s, Gwyneth Paltrow and every wealthy producer above the line of Broadway’s flop musical Head Over Heels.
And beyond my gratitude, I shall offer my warmest congratulations to all of them …
… for at long last, they finally brought audiences something that they want to see.
Today is January 10th, 2022. My exploitation began almost eight years ago. Though I lost everything, I won the war. Every level of Broadway’s business dealings must put the audience first. When businesspeople betray the audience for their own fleeting gain, that’s how flops are made.
The fight over my Head Over Heels was never a battle of commerce versus art. I fought for both sides all along. And if the story is shocking, imagine the weight of carrying the truth all these years as so many worked so hard to shut me up.
On this day I am afraid – for I don’t know where I will go – but I am free.