By HAYLEY KRISCHER
December 5, 2017
In a penthouse suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel on a cloudy fall day not long ago, the actress Gabrielle Union was stretching her body out on a chartreuse velvet couch: resting her long legs with ease, a red pillow propped up behind her, saying absolutely nothing.
Though the tiny room was filled with half a dozen people — Ms. Union’s publicist, a photographer clicking away, the photographer’s assistant, Ms. Union’s stylist, her makeup artist, her hairdresser and this reporter, who slunk quietly into a corner — the space was silent.
The silence went on for a few minutes. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it wasn’t the kind of atmosphere one might expect around someone like Ms. Union, who, at least on social media, appears to be a natural extrovert. And who, as an advocate of sexual-assault victims for over 20 years, feels a deep need to be emotionally available, open and talking.
After a few minutes, once she was comfortable, Ms. Union asked for some music.
“Tina on shuffle?” her publicist said.
Ms. Union nodded, and soon everyone in the room was low-humming to Tina Turner’s classic “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?
Ms. Union’s silence, it turned out, was recuperation from the intense emotional experience of a monthlong book tour spent listening to painful stories of hundreds of women (and some men). For many showing up to buy her recently published memoir, “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” the area around her served as a sort of pop-up safe space to express their pain.
Some of her readers, she said, have experienced the most horrific abuses imaginable. The kind of abuses, she said, if someone were to put it in a movie, it wouldn’t seem realistic.
Some would wait at the end of the line to meet her so they could get more time. End-of-the-line people were especially raw, Ms. Union said, as if their traumatic event just happened. Their story would tumble out in the seconds it would take for her to sign their book. And then came the tears.
Ms. Union would weep too, in her hotel room every night on the tour, thinking of what some of these women had suffered. “Crying like I’m at a funeral,” she said.
The actress has been in the public eye for over 20 of her 45 years, so it’s fair to say that these people sharing sensitive material with her don’t feel as if they’re meeting her for the first time.
On her Instagram account, 9.1 million followers are treated to outfit changes and frequent flashes of a dimpled, dazzled smile. The other day Ms. Union posted a video taken in June of herself in a velour tracksuit, shimmying for friends to Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.” Her husband, Dwyane Wade, is the shooting guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the team won that night, so the caption read: “Me after that win and rolling into the weekend like.”
And the likes poured in.
Since 2013, after big roles in “Bring It On,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Ugly Betty,” Ms. Union has been playing the lead character in the award-winning BET drama series “Being Mary Jane.” ABC is developing “White Dave,” a comedy that she will executive-produce along with LeBron James. And she is in early discussions, she said, about turning her book into a television series.
If this materializes, it promises to be harrowing. “We’re Going to Need More Wine” contains Ms. Union’s own heart-wrenching, deeply personal stories: about her infertility struggles, her childhood during which she lived in the all-white Pleasanton, Calif., for the school year and spent summers with her grandmother and cousins in a predominantly black neighborhood in North Omaha. About her first marriage, to the N.F.L. player Chris Howard, and subsequent divorce; her relationship with her father; and about the time she was raped at gunpoint when she was 19. Her assailant was caught, and he took a plea deal of 33 years in jail. She doesn’t know if he’s still there. She doesn’t want to know.
The book was the natural outgrowth, Ms. Union said, of years of therapy.
“There’s a valve at the bottom of my canister where I can let things out in a healthy productive way,” Ms. Union said over lunch at Maialino, an Italian restaurant. “Like Skype sessions with my therapist, with friends, silence, sitting out in nature, time with the kids, with my dogs. Watching ‘This Is Us’ — that has been quite therapeutic.”
Her house in Cleveland is so quiet that a buck often hops into her backyard. She likes having a cup of coffee when no one is around, and stares at that deer.
But such solitude isn’t always easy to find. Mr. Wade has sole custody of two sons (Zaire, 15, and Zion, 10) from his first marriage, to Siohvaughn Funches, as well as custody of his nephew (Dahveon, 16). Ms. Union said she will sometimes claim “gastrointestinal issues” in the bathroom just to get a few minutes alone.
“I fake diarrhea a lot,” she said, laughing.
She has been talking about “me too” for many years — even writing about it in her book — long before it became #MeToo. On Oct. 17, the day the book was released, about two weeks after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, Ms. Union told Robin Roberts during a segment on “Good Morning America” that she has been repeating her sexual assault story “with the goal of never having to hear ‘me too’ again.”
When she first saw #MeToo trending, her arm went numb, she told Ms. Roberts. “Post-traumatic stress syndrome from the rape,” Ms. Union said on the air, visibly shaken, her mouth quivering.
All of the hugging and the touching on the book tour, as rewarding as it’s been, can be difficult for her as a trauma survivor, she said at lunch. In “We’re Going to Need More Wine,” she writes, “No one understands how much female celebrities are physically touched and grabbed and shoved and fondled.” She needs to sit facing out in restaurants such as this one, for instance, because she cannot enjoy her meal with her back to the door.
Robinne Lee, an actress and the author of “The Idea of You,” who has been a friend since the early 2000s, said she understood Ms. Union’s motivation for writing and that her candor is not new. “Black women are not a monolith, and we all have very different experiences,” Ms. Lee said. “So I think it was important for her to show that she had all of these different facets of her life.”
Where’s My Book?
According to HarperCollins, Ms. Union’s publisher, her book is now in its fourth print run and has over 100,000 copies in print. It spent three weeks on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. But she has felt that navigating the book world as a black woman is not a simple task. (One 2015 study of 40 publishers and review journals found that nearly 80 percent of those who worked in publishing were white.)
Ms. Union said that in her tour, only certain airports displayed the book, and that she had heard from readers that they had asked for it in certain cities, only to find it was still in stacks on the floor or in carts in the back. “So I started asking people to tell me what stores this was happening in. You don’t want to alienate booksellers,” Ms. Union said, “but where’s my book?”
One store, she said, began promoting her book only after the store was deluged by a Facebook campaign.
Kima Jones, the founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a publicity company, and who mostly represents black authors — including the Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess and the PEN America prize winner Rion Amilcar Scott — was not surprised that Ms. Union, who is not her client, felt “We’re Going to Need More Wine” received inadequate support.
“It doesn’t make sense in a way,” Ms. Jones said in a phone call, “but it does make sense to me because that’s the way a lot of books by black people, celebrity or not, are treated.”
Ms. Jones wondered if the glamorous aspects of Ms. Union’s life might lead sellers to underestimate the gravitas of “We’re Going to Need More Wine.”
“That in and of itself is a tragedy considering that her book — I hate to use the word ‘timely,’ because this is something that should have been part of the cultural conversation for a long time — but it is very ripe and very timely,” Ms. Jones said. “There’s actually no reason we shouldn’t be talking about Gabrielle Union’s book beside Roxane Gay’s work or Leslie Jamison or Maggie Nelson’s work or any of the other women who are talking as critics of popular culture.”
Ms. Union thinks she didn’t visit enough cities or enough stores. She’d like to do a second leg of the book tour. And maybe there will be one, especially given how invested she is in the public discussion around sexual assault. A lot of times her tour stops felt like a revival, she said.
She asserted strongly that women of color haven’t been heard as enthusiastically. “I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”
“If those people hadn’t been Hollywood royalty,” she asked, referring to some of the women who first spoke out about Harvey Weinstein. “If they hadn’t been approachable. If they hadn’t been people who have had access to parts and roles and true inclusion in Hollywood, would we have believed?”
She knows that her own platform gave her a place that allowed her to speak for people who have gone through similar experiences. She calls herself a “perfect victim”: not just because of her current celebrity status, but also because she was raped at work, because it was caught on surveillance and the police were called — but also because the majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to the police, according the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“When we have the microphone, how often do we pass it back to the people who are experiencing a different challenge, but who are equally worthy as having the microphone?” Ms. Union asked.
And then she stopped herself. “I just did this,” she said, and stretched her hand backward, over her head, as if she was symbolizing a passing of the microphone to someone behind her.
But the microphone shouldn’t be passed behind, she said, acknowledging that many people still feel ignored.
“It should be passed to the side.”