I did not intend to even address this Geoffrey Owens story, let alone relate to it on a personal level, but I feel the need to say something, and maybe even encourage others (myself included) in the process. I was triggered by what happened to him--from the fact that he he was 'outed' to the subsequent ridicule and shaming to the hope that things can and will turn around for him.
We have all hit these brick walls in life. Sometimes we see it coming, and we get to slow down to minimize the impact. Most times, it comes up out of nowhere and we crash. I don't even have to know the particulars of his situation to know that he hit a wall and this was his way of trying to deal with the impact.
Let's start by dispelling the myth that being a working actor means riches and fame. No, it means having a job for the moment, and then perhaps the ability to secure another one in the future. Acting is temporary work. The fact that The Cosby Show was a big hit in the 80s means that there are royalties and maybe other opportunities. But one cannot live on royalties and the possibility of future work. And he wasn't the star of the show, he was a supporting actor, just like all of the other kids and significant others on the show. In fact, until the later seasons, he was a guest on the show. Even after he married into the family and became a regular, he was not featured in every episode.
After that show, he had name and face recognition, but he still probably had to hustle for jobs. In the 27 years since that show ended, he has worked as a character actor. In fact, the last time I saw him on screen (which was the first time I saw him in a while) was on an HBO show called Divorce, but again as a character and not the star. He currently has a few other roles in production.
But, as he explained on Good Morning America, he needed more income to make ends meet and working at the grocery store offered him the flexibility to continue to audition and work as an actor when possible. He mentioned that he even taught at Yale, his alma mater and does not need any sympathy because he was performing honest work. Of course, because of all this attention, he had to quit his job at Trader Joe's, but he also might get a job with Tyler Perry, which means in that cliched way we hope that life will work out, this setback has possibly been a setup for his comeback.
Here is how I was triggered and brought to tears: I know what courage it must have taken for him to take a job at a grocery store and run the risk of being recognized, and potentially shamed for it. I know what it is like to have high hopes and dreams of the kind of life you want, and then fall short of achieving or maintaining those dreams. I know what it is like to have to make do with reality and make hard choices. I know what it is like to then have those choices used against you to further shame or mock you into seeing yourself as a failure.
I was just going to tweet out a few reactions to this story, but I felt the need to share one of my brick wall moments. I came back to DC after law school with no job in place. I searched and applied for every legal job that seemed to fit, but got nowhere for more than a year. So I took a temporary job with one of those organizations that brings students to DC, which worked out great until it ended. Then I got a part-time job in retail while continuing to look for full time work. That job carried me through the holiday season and into the summer. It wasn't great, the pay was terrible, but it paid the bills and I had the flexibility to go on interviews and work various other temp jobs as needed.
Then one day, a high school classmate of mine walked into the store. She had not been a friend, but I knew her well enough to recognize her. It had not yet been ten years since high school, but when she asked why I was working at the mall, I suddenly felt very ashamed. And so I quit by the end of the month. For a while, I found sporadic temp work and set up my own practice, but it was still several months before I landed a steady job.
As far as I am concerned, there is no moral to my story that ends well...at least not yet. I won't address the fact that I have been under-employed for years, nor will I divulge how long that has been my reality. I will admit that a part of me prays that the lesson of Geoffrey Owens' story is not that everything will miraculously work out, but that things will eventually work out. There is a way to rebuild after experiencing a crash.
However dejected and depressed I feel right now (and it is pretty bad today), I actually feel inspired by his story. I am inspired that he hasn't given up on his dream, he just found another way to work towards achieving them. I am inspired that his story has lead us all to re-evaluate the tendency to mock others for seemingly falling down. How many of us have hit that brick wall, and remained a wreck? Are we seriously shaming a man who has the courage to take a less glamorous job than the one he once had? Does it make us feel superior to him, or are we afraid that the same thing could happen to any of us?
As I write this and re-examine where I am and how I am dealing with the brick wall in my path currently, crashing is not the worst thing. It hurts like hell, but I am still here. I may just be a writer with a law degree, but once upon a time I was just a frustrated and bored housewife. I have the opportunity to create a possibility for myself which might not have happened if I had not been fired from the last dead end job I held. Geoffrey Owens is not just some guy who went Yale and just bags groceries. He is a working actor.