“I felt the chains of growing up trying to be someone I wasn’t, and then living in Hollywood, a town that rewards pretending,” she writes. “Later I had to do the work to shake off the shackles that I had put on myself,” she adds. “I hemmed myself in with shame.” She goes on to share wrenching details about her divorce from her first husband and being raped at gunpoint when she was 19.
Her new book, “You Got Anything Stronger?,” continues the project of unshackling. It’s soul-baring work. The new essay collection delves into some very intimate subjects — pursuing surrogacy after experiencing infertility, grappling with depression and facing racial prejudices in Hollywood and beyond.
Union, 48, speaking by video from her home near Los Angeles, admits that she worries her frankness will be judged — “Not being understood is a huge fear of mine,” she says — but she’s adamant about pressing ahead.
Take, for example, a potent essay about her iconic role as Isis, a call-it-how-you-see-it cheerleader in the 2000 film “Bring It On.” Union doesn’t celebrate the memorable character — she exposes her flaws. “She didn’t go far enough,” Union says of Isis, who stood up to the rich White girls who stole her Black team’s cheers. (Today we’d call that cultural appropriation.) In words addressed to her on-screen persona, she writes: “I failed you and myself. . . . I wish I had just given you the space to be a Black girl who is exceptional without making any kind of compromise. Because that’s who I want to be now. That’s what I am chasing, so much later in life than you: to be exceptional by my own standards. Unapologetically me.”
In the 21 years since her breakout role, Union has appeared in numerous television shows, formed a production company, launched a hair-care brand for textured hair and spoken out against sexual violence.
Union’s books, too, have sparked conversations and fostered a sense of community. She’s met scores of readers who have shared their personal stories. “We’ve all been made a fool of. We’ve all been publicly humiliated in some way, shape or form. We’ve all had losses. . . . We’ve all felt alone in a crowded room.” She understands now how alone she isn’t.
During our conversation, Union talked to me about her new book, a crucial lesson learned during her marriage (to former NBA star Dwyane Wade) and how her stepdaughter Zaya opened her eyes.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Walk me through the essays. Which ones were the toughest to write and what, if anything, did you really want to include in this book but didn't feel like you had the words for yet?
A: In this book, I included everything I wanted to. In the last book, we left a lot of chapters out because I was fine to share them in writing, but I wasn’t okay to do a press tour and to speak about those issues impactfully. If I wasn’t willing to do that for my readers or listeners, then I wasn’t ready. That was my barometer. But for this book, I’ve had four years of added experience and therapy, and a lot more freedom and a lot more learning. I’m comfortable with everything.
Q: You are a self-proclaimed lover of memoirs and biographies. Which ones have left an imprint on you?
A: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I’ve reread it every year for close to 30 years. And “I, Tina.” I read Tina Turner’s autobiography after I got divorced. Her book gave me the wings and the fire, like, it’s not over. There’s a second act. There’s a third act. You do not have to be defined by the worst that’s happened to you.
Q: You talk openly about going to therapy. It's no secret that many Black people and others of color don't feel comfortable seeking help for mental health issues. Do you want to normalize therapy?
A: It’s weird, right, to cold-call a stranger, hope there’s a connection and then proceed to tell them your deepest, darkest secrets? We don’t do that as Brown people. Generally speaking, you talk to your family members, friends, clergy.
I’d like to think I offer solid advice to my friends, but I’m not a trained professional. I’ll say my piece and then add: “Have you called your therapist? Would you like help finding one? Here are five referrals. Let me know what your insurance is.”
You want help. You don’t have to keep suffering. And there is light at the end. A therapist can give you a plan of action to tackle most anything. If I hadn’t gotten therapy, I probably wouldn’t be here. I don’t think I’m overstating that.
Q: You make a distinction between the "tit-for-tat of fairness" and grace in your marriage. Tell me how you arrived at the idea of granting grace versus fixating on fairness.
A: I wish I came up with this idea on my own, but it may have been my therapist or a shaman who said, perhaps consider grace. To me, that felt weak, like a cop-out. Like I’m settling. But when you’re keeping score, there’s a winner and a loser. In a marriage, if you want someone to lose, that’s counterproductive to a successful partnership. Grace has to be on the table. Now, I give grace out like Tic Tacs because I’m not losing anything. Offering grace initially felt like stupidity, and now it’s harmony.
Q: In the essay about your stepdaughter Zaya, who is transgender, you say that she has taught you so much. What have you learned from her?
A: Everything. No one in this household has ever walked the same walk as Zaya. She has completely different challenges. And she has to lead. We do family therapy so she can feel a little freer to talk about the harder things. I’ve survived all kinds of demons, but none could prepare me to help guide her and what she faces daily. So, we just have to depend on her honesty, as much as a 14-year-old is going to be transparent, so we know how best to help her.
But Zaya’s the new generation. And she’s incredibly smart. She’s constantly challenging me, asking, “Are you a woman if you don’t do your hair every day, wear makeup, or wear a certain kind of clothing?” As I’m talking to her, I’m actively having to unlearn a lifetime of misogyny, toxic masculinity and colorism. Zaya’s journey as a dark-skinned trans girl is different. We have to learn the whole thing from scratch, and it has been a journey. It’s been lined with revelations and pain, but also a lot of joy.
Nneka McGuire, a former editor at The Lily, is a freelance writer in Chicago.
YOU GOT ANYTHING STRONGER?
By Gabrielle Union
Dey Street. 240 pp. $27.99