Bit By Bit, Putting Myself (Back) Together
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 at regular intervals, 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, and he made this clear.
By this point, I was more annoyed than scared when a thug dropped the mask. “Oh for God's sakes, I know who sent you. You’re repeating the lies of my reps and producers.” I stood toe-to-toe with him throughout a lengthy conversation, trying to get a sense of what exactly was going on. Of all of the creepy goons, the guy I call "Ross in Irvine" was the most forthcoming – though he sneered at me throughout in that “gotcha!” way of shady cowards working in a group.
He said something curious toward the end, before I fled his company:
“You’re going to be raised up pretty soon. And we don't want you to freak out. Don’t make any waves. Just take it as it comes.”
Only much later did I make the connection between this comment and the events that followed.
As it turned out, he was right. I would be raised up.
And I still wonder: if my Oscar nomination is what he meant, how the hell did he know about it back then?
In 2011 I wrote a screenplay based on a memoir by Lee Israel called Can You Ever Forgive Me?
It was the first screenplay gig that I felt good about. In the years that followed, the movie kept almost getting made, only to fall apart. Soon after my Head Over Heels opened in Ashland in 2015, the movie was heading to production with Nicole Holofcener directing and Julianne Moore starring. As director, Nicole had done a rewrite on the script. And then that iteration fell apart as well.
Then in 2017, everything clicked. Marielle Heller directed the film with Melissa McCarthy as Lee and Richard E. Grant as Lee's friend Jack. I was invited to see a screening at the 20th Century Lot in August 2018, and I was thrilled. The movie was a wonderful collaboration of sensibilities that gave it a rare authenticity.
In October 2018, the studio flew me out to attend the premiere in New York. After years of taking abuse from the vindictive Head Over Heels con artists, I was shocked when people treated me with genuine appreciation for my work.
I remained in New York for a few days after the premiere. I passed through Times Square at 7:50, and noticed that Head Over Heels was heavily discounted at TKTS. On a whim I purchased a seat and jogged to the Hudson Theater.
The mood in the theater was desolate. The spare crowd assembled in the center of the orchestra amidst a sea of empty seats. The mezzanine and balcony were closed. How was this show still running?
The changes after San Francisco proved to be trifling, lateral movements that failed to address the baffling storytelling. It was an out-of-body experience to watch characters I'd invented, the children of my imagination, wandering dumbed-down and rudderless through Michael Mayer's arch cash-grab. I found myself shuddering and chuckling at the same time (which I later described as "shuckling"). My shudders came from embarrassment, leavened by the very "Broadway-ness" of the flop that unfolded.
The audience was restive throughout Act One and their mood at intermission was restrained, with none of the bright-eyed, chattering audience energy that one experiences when a show is firing on all cylinders. They'd been suckered. As in San Francisco, I chose not to attend Act Two. I couldn't bear to see Mayer's desecration of the stories of loss that inspired me to write the show in the first place.
After I returned to Los Angeles, 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 went into a giddy upswing ...
... as Head Over Heels sputtered to its ignominious end. The New York Times article announcing its January 6th 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.
Its investors lost fifteen million dollars all told - the final casualties of the stubborn, fragile egos of my former agent and lawyer, now desperate to hide the fact that their greedy interventions destroyed a once-promising show.
A couple of weeks after the Broadway closing, I got an Oscar nomination. I didn't realize they were happening so early, and I got the news from Lin Manuel-Miranda, who called me, bursting with excitement.
When the attention threatened to overwhelm, I decided to let the surprise awards season deliver the joy deprived me from the thwarted success of Head Over Heels. Just enjoy it, Jeff.
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. As it happened I got several opportunities to do so.
Like I would waste my breath on any of them.
I pulled my shit together 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 enjoy a dazzling rise on Broadway). We drank in every minute of the fun, arriving in a limo with my folks (to whom the Academy kindly offered seats in the balcony). And as one can see in the third photo below, I was genuinely thrilled when Spike Lee and his crew took home the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
The turn of events was just so funny, given everything. This is what I meant about karma’s sense of humor. I'd never have dared ask for such an outcome.
While I frown on schadenfreude by and large, in March 2019 the scales of Justice moved towards balance when Head Over Heels went entirely ignored by the Tony Awards nominating committee.
That’s what con artists get for exploiting artists.
If they'd just behaved ethically and resisted the cult-like manipulations of my agent, we'd all have enjoyed a harmonious hit together and the revenue that rains down. Instead, they got an acrimonious flop.
Seven 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 noose beside me on the floor, which I'd fashioned two weeks prior from rope I bought at Koontz Hardware on Santa Monica Boulevard. I went out much faster than I expected.
I was transported by ambulance to Kaiser Permanente hospital, where I came to much later. The drug tests came up clean of any drug that wasn’t prescribed. For I had stayed clear of substances for over a half a year.
But I had been struggling after so many betrayals. Sobriety offered no relief from my 24/7 fear of people’s intentions towards me - a logical fear, alas, the result of years of gaslighting abuse by sneering, wealthy bullies.
The 30 Xanax that I swallowed were prescribed for sleep. I was never a pill-head and never felt a high from Xanax anyway (which is common with ADHD).
After getting out of the ER I spent three days at St. Francis Hospital, where I was once again surprised to be treated with kindness. I will always be grateful to the wonderful staff there for their level-headed kindness and humor. My shrink there gave me the first of the multiple PTSD diagnoses that I'd receive in the years that followed. These were the result of the many betrayals of trust compounded by two years of scary encounters designed to keep me silent and afraid.
Now back home, I began a course of intense therapy to treat Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The complex variety results from repeated traumatic events versus a single traumatic incident. It never occurred to me that the blanket of fear had a name.
I've met many scurrilous people in my life. But the overt criminals left no trauma, for I could always ask myself, "Why did you trust them in the first place?"
The trauma I held came from wolves in sheeps' clothing who exploited my trust in order to steal my art, then took extroardinarily cruel measures to keep the truth of themselves from coming to light.
Much of the stigma of PTSD arises from its tiresomeness to others, and it is exhausting indeed. Many perceive the afflicted as seeking attention, or as shifting blame. It's easier to discount the person falling apart rather than consider the brutality to which they were subjected (often by villains claiming victim status, in boilerplate narcissistic fashion).
Before, my mistrust of people kept me from pursuing mental health options. I wasn't about to risk paying yet another stranger to look after my interests. But I gathered my fortitude and 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.
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 responded that I wasn’t his only client to be subjected to such brutal psychological torture. He did not go into details beyond telling me that an actress patient had endured a similar series of incidents, and was left broken and reeling.
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.
Throughout human history, no good ever comes when people say "I don't want to get into that messy stuff."
Nor does the target whose life is upended.
Getting help was expensive. Insurance wouldn't cover my multiple therapists. But I had to do something.
And so began the next leg of my climb from the sadness.
In November I met a film and TV producer for lunch, my first such meeting in ages. 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 colorful affairs of a drug-dealing middle-aged gay prostitute who lives in New Orleans. I wrote the role of Ariel, the titular hooker, for myself. My frankness about my past as a sex worker would be the “hook" of my hooker show.
He brought me in to his production company, where I pitched Bad Fairy to the executives, and in short order they optioned the show for development. This lifted my spirits immensely. Though TV was a new storytelling medium, I tend to do well with new 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 that a week prior, I’d requested a perusal copy of the libretto to the stage musical of Mame, which had never been revived on Broadway. I thought I might be able to modernize some of the dated sections to appeal to contemporary audiences.
The producer's project was a new screen adaptation of Auntie Mame based on Patrick Dennis’s original novel. I told her that I loved the novel, having torn through it with delight when I first moved to New York City. I saw the classic 1958 film afterwards and enjoyed it immensely - but I missed some of the hilarious nitty-gritty from the novel that couldn’t fly past the 1950's censors.
In short order I began developing a new treatment of the story. Over the pandemic year, my collaboration on Auntie Mame brought tremendous light into my dark days. Via dozens of Zoom meetings, phone calls, emails and no small expenditure of midnight oil, I devised a treatment that got all aboard excited.
I kicked ass, if I may say so. I wasn't mindfully working "at my best." I was just working as myself: conscientious, timely, cheerful, prompt, collaborative, innovative, and always putting the audience first.
When I work, I’m working all the time, my head swimming in the architecture of story. If one sees me walking down the street, there’s a good chance that I’m in a creative dreamland. I was over the moon to be in that headspace again.
We pitched Auntie Mame to a major studio in early September of 2021, and the lead exec picked it up in the middle of the pitch meeting. We were all ecstatic. The producers said they'd never received such a quick response.
Life felt bright after so many years of grief. And as my finances were cratering, the studio's pick-up was perfectly timed. I'd worked for those producers for free for over a year. My concern over my finances was like a heavy backpack I carried 24/7.
In my previous Hollywood outings, producers always found money to pay 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 aside from the financials, I prayed that Auntie Mame would be my bridge back to the industry. My hard work could undo the extensive damage done by John Buzzetti and his numerous flying monkeys, hell-bent on keeping me from rising - where I might pose a threat by telling the truth of my exploitation at their hands.
It was September 2021.
A month passed. October 2021. I began borrowing money from friends and family. It felt shameful. I assured them that payment on Auntie Mame was coming soon.
Then came November. I began to panic. At Thanksgiving I burst into tears on the phone with a new manager whom I was trying out. She consoled me that the money for my work on Auntie Mame would probably come next month.
It didn't. By December 28th 2021, I still had not been paid a cent, leaving me no way to pay bills that came due that day: a couple of credit card payments as well as payment for my storage unit, which contained irreplaceable personal treasures. And rent on my apartment was coming due along with all manner of other bills. At minutes before the 6PM deadline, 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 exhausted from living with no financial cushion – the heavy backpack that I mentioned before - which was the direct result of my exploitation by WME, LMPNY and the gullible producers in their thrall. I fell apart on the phone, exploding with rage and grief in equal measures.
That night I swallowed my pride 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.
Then January came and went. No payment. More defaulting.
February. No payment. More defaulting.
March. No payment. More defaulting.
April. No payment. More defaulting.
My credit rating, which was solid in December from fifteen years of paying my bills on time, was now destroyed. I could no longer afford my apartment, but my awful credit rating offered no way for me to find another.
The excuses began to wear thin as the goalposts for payment kept moving. My PTSD returned from fear that I was being financially manipulated once more, triggering memories of the bullying financial deprivations of Head Over Heels. I tried not to bug the producers, but my extreme circumstances forced me to. After delivering for them like a cheerful pro all the while, the financial deprivation forced me to become “difficult.”
But I kept getting assurances that payment was around the corner, which kept me from taking steps that I wish I'd taken now: going on public assistance, getting low-income health insurance, filing for a bankruptcy that was as unneccessary as it was inevitable.
Why did the industry seem hell-bent on keeping me below subsistence level?
Finally 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 a 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 as the producers suggested that I stop writing until I got the go-ahead to commence.
At this point I began to worry that 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? Why was I going unpaid yet again? Why couldn't my business just get DONE?
I asked around, and no other screenwriter suffered such travails. Not even close.
May. No payment. More default.
June. No payment. More default.
July. No payment. More default.
These were entire months, spent mostly at home by myself, frantic with worry. God knows I couldn't afford a car. I couldn't go out to dinner with anyone from fear we'd go dutch.
I was dying from the strain of defaulting. I was selling every possession I could. The weight of the fear was overwhelming. And I was ashamed that I allowed myself hope again after so much loss. Heavy insomnia kicked in as I brooded.
Why couldn't my business 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, who were 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
Even with their manifold blessings and boundless wealth, the rich WME 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 other royalties as well.
While the money allowed me to pay down some debts, 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.
Though I remained clean of substances, it became clear to me that I'd begun using alcohol to medicate fear and anxiety.
So on Sunday October 16th, 2022, I quit drinking and began going to AA meetings.
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.
Insanity is often defined as "trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
I wrote an apology to the TV producers, letting them know that I was stepping off of Bad Fairy for a spell, maybe for good.
Twenty long December days followed.
Still no payment. More defaulting. It would take many years to overcome the losses accrued from going unpaid on Auntie Mame.
December 20th. I had no money to travel home to Oregon for Christmas with my folks. I had no money to buy food - again.
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 a plane 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.”
Instead of vilified, punished and driven to financial ruin, rinse, repeat.
At long last I recognized 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 value beyond the valuable art I make.
I was killing myself to create art for people who discarded me on delivery like I was 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, from my ADHD oversharing – but a message nonetheless that I wish I’d sent the entertainment industry years before.
In my opening words to the movie producers, I pulled my participation and work from Auntie Mame.
I let it go.
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 have gone weeks without HIV meds because I can't afford health insurance premiums. 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: Auntie 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 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 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 save myself.
Microsoft Word. New Document.
“To the Attorney Grievance Committee …”
I’d begun many such documents since 2015 only to put them down before long. My computer's hard drive is a graveyard of incomplete drafts of my sorry story. Reflecting on the betrayals triggered trauma still lodged in my amygdala, which sent fight-or-flight distress signals, making me spin down. The recovery was always a long climb out.
Before, I was ashamed to recall how naïvely I trusted, especially late in the abuse when any objective audience member would shout, “Hey, you idiot! They’re stealing from you!”
I used to worry about the effects on my career if I told my story. But then Auntie Mame happened, leading me to reflect that a “career” implies sustenance 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?