I Grieved For My Mother On the Set of Nancy Grace

I Grieved For My Mother On the Set of Nancy Grace
Illustration: Angelica Alzona. :

I went to New York to interview for a job on HLN’s Nancy Grace in September of 2008, fewer than 48 hours after my mother’s funeral. When I tell people that, they always widen their eyes. I can tell what they want to ask me: “So your mom’s funeral wasn’t even the worst day of that week?”

Those who know of Nancy Grace usually describe her as the crazy blond lady who used to yell about missing kids and their apparently terrible mothers on TV. She positioned herself as the loudest and most caring advocate for the tiny and innocent in this wicked world of sin, but she punctuated her on-air screeds with tonally baffling, numbly sensationalized tweets. She has earned criticism for, as David Carr put it in the New York Times, “rac[ing] toward judgment, heedlessly ignoring nuance and evidence on her way to finding guilt.” She remains one of the most recognizable—and perhaps reviled—cable news anchors of the last decade.

At the time I interviewed for a spot on the production team on her show, Nancy Grace, I had been working at CNN, in Atlanta, for a year. I left home in Massachusetts to work there right out of college and spent my first few months running around in high heels, handing people stacks of paper, and getting yelled at. I loved it.

Of all the CNN personalities, Nancy was the one who most fascinated me. Even before I met her, I found her demeanor so outrageous that I couldn’t believe she wasn’t acting. I would watch clips from her show on the monitors and turn to my colleagues, insisting that it couldn’t possibly be real, but must instead have been a work of such high comic genius that the American public just didn’t understand it. I soon discovered that it was all very, very real.

About six months prior to be hired full-time, I had filled in for Nancy’s floor director a couple times, which is when I first met Nancy. The first time I laid eyes on her in person, she was being wheeled into a studio, her belly swollen with unborn twins, her helmet of hair even more Lego-like in person than on TV. It was clear that impending motherhood had already made America’s most outspoken advocate for missing, abused, and murdered children even more righteous in her crusade.

I got put on the overnight shift as my own mother was dying, 1,000 miles away. I spent a summer driving to work as everyone else was going to bed. Every night, I would sit in the parking lot until I stopped crying, then walk into work red-eyed and frenzied, and sit there until morning, kept awake only by my rising panic. I wondered if I should move home to help take care of my mother, but by the time I started to seriously consider it, it was too late. I realized she was going to die—imminently—and that my life would continue on. So when a supervisor told me there was an Associate Producer job open on Nancy’s show—which would mean both a promotion and an escape from my increasingly unbearable vampiric lifestyle—I applied.

The producers I interviewed with knew about my mother, and treated me with a mix of concern and terror. They didn’t tell Nancy, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to. When the executive producer introduced us after the show, he reminded Nancy that I had worked for her before, filling in for the floor director who normally cued her toward the camera during the show, and she either remembered me or pretended to. She gently took my hand, looked her producer straight in the eye and asked, “Can I have her?” Her hands were so soft that I didn’t even think about what, exactly, she might want to do with me.

They hired me a few days later, I think in part because they felt bad for me. I now realize that if they’d really been sympathetic, they would have given the job to someone else.

Death is an event that attracts a rush of people and activity, until everyone goes back to their lives, leaving you with an empty house and too much time to think about why it feels so empty. So I went back to work in Atlanta ten days after my mother died grateful to have something else to focus on. When I started working for Nancy about three weeks later, I thought the job would be a good distraction, that it would make for an exciting escape from my misery.

The moment Nancy entered a room, she filled it. The power of her presence was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, a cosmic force that announced her stardom. Everyone around her seemed to be under her spell, to bend to her mercurial will whether she was gently thanking them for helping her out of her wheelchair during her pregnancy, or screaming at them to get her crushed ice. I was completely starstruck, and surprised to find myself both desperate for her attention and terrified every time she so much as glanced in my direction.

The first time I worked for her, Nancy greeted me warmly, tenderly sandwiching my hand between both of hers and holding it a moment longer than necessary. She settled into the anchor chair and demanded a makeup artist. When the artist arrived, Nancy looked into the monitor and insisted that the artist’s work on one eye didn’t look like the other. I felt like I was watching a Saturday Night Live sketch, only it was real. I reenacted that scene for my friends and family over and over, honing my Nancy impression for maximum comedic impact, and it killed every time.

The second time I worked for her, she shouted to me to get her a box of tissues, which was both terrifying and flattering. After the show, the camera operator told me, “Nancy Grace yelled at you—you wear that like a badge, girl.”

When I got home that night, my parents called to say that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer again, nearly ten years after she’d recovered from a different form of the disease. As I sat on the couch in my new apartment, my mom explained that she was going to have to cancel the visit she’d planned to see my new place because she had to have surgery. She never saw that apartment. Fewer than six months later she was dead.

When I started working on Nancy Grace full time, the show—Nancy herself included—was based in New York, so I was one of only three Nancy Grace employees in Atlanta. The other two producers I worked with were kind, calm people. The big story at the time was Casey Anthony, the Florida mom accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee. The first few months were a blur of grief and fluorescent lighting, gruesome murders and photos of Casey Anthony at parties.

The material was disturbing and emotionally taxing, but I was in such a morbid state of mind that being submerged in the gory details of death every day felt somehow natural. The horror stories we covered helped me process my grief by putting it into perspective; after spending an entire day editing video of a father sobbing about his missing daughter, it was difficult to feel sorry for myself. Because of the stories we covered, I skipped almost entirely over one stage of grief: anger. Every day, I watched parents who were angry—and with good reason—at whoever had taken their children from them. I realized there was no one to blame for my mother’s death; she had simply died. A bad thing had happened in my life, but I was keenly aware that much worse things were happening to other people every day.

Still, it often felt like we were exploiting tragedy, which was hard to reconcile with empathy. Theoretically, we were trying to get justice for the missing and murdered, but we were also turning real people’s suffering into entertainment; Nancy often interrogated grieving family members on live television. Of course, that’s why people, including me, not only watched, but loved her. Her fans saw her as a maternal warrior heroically serving as the mouthpiece for those who couldn’t speak for themselves—which is exactly how she seemed to see herself.

During my first few months on the show, Nancy came to Atlanta once or twice, but always with a couple of producers from New York in tow. I barely interacted with her. A few times, producers yelled at me like I’d never been yelled at before (and I come from a long line of Italians known to throw temper tantrums well into their nineties). Those moments were confusing and unsettling, but rare. But everything changed when Nancy moved to Atlanta.

After the move, in addition to my regular duties editing video, I would be expected to help Nancy edit scripts before the show. Nancy arrived at the office every day around 7 p.m. (or 7:15. Or 7:30). The show started at 8. My job was to print the scripts for her, then stand quietly in the corner, willing myself to become one with the wall, as she rewrote them by hand while getting her makeup done. As I watched her face get transformed into the one viewers see every night, her hair coaxed into its signature shape, I’d get increasingly nervous, hoping she wouldn’t ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, and willing her to edit the scripts faster as we got closer and closer to showtime. When she finished her first edit, I would call the writer in New York and dictate the nearly illegible changes to her over the phone so that she could enter them into the prompter. We did two rounds of edits, so I would put on sneakers and sprint back and forth, up and down a treacherous flight of concrete stairs, racing against the clock.

One day, I was told to go to the studio during the first segment of the show, which happened whenever there was an error, sometimes one as small as a comma missing from the prompter. I stood in the corner waiting to receive my regular verbal lashing during the commercial break.

But when the segment ended, Nancy simply looked at me and said, “Hand me your shoe.” I knew better than to question her, so I took off one of my sneakers and brought it to her. She held it up in front of the camera so the whole control room in New York could see and declared that she hated my shoes. Then she smelled the shoe and threw it at me. She didn’t hit me and wasn’t trying to, but I was still shocked.

Every day, Nancy would evaluate my outfit. She often commented on how conservatively I dressed, once saying that if I didn’t start showing a little more skin, I’d end up alone with my cats. (“That’ll never happen to me,” I said. “I’m allergic to cats.”)

Other days she would tell me that my outfit was too revealing. Once after the show, I was standing in the lobby with the rest of the staff, wearing a crew-neck, knee-length dress. Nancy looked at me and asked if I was going to an orgy after work.

Once every week or two, Nancy invited us to a fancy, members-only dinner club for their Thursday-night special: breakfast for dinner. Silently shoveling waffles into our mouthes, we would sit around the table as everyone listened to her talk to an old friend about their days as prosecutors. As always, she was the performer and we the captive audience. I always left uncomfortably full because I had nowhere to look but at my plate. I think I gained about 15 pounds while working for Nancy, all waffles.

She often called me “dear,” although I suspect that was mostly because she couldn’t remember my name. Nancy could be downright motherly—so kind, so warm, so charming. She’d tenderly take my hand, just as she had when we first met, but once she’d reeled me in, I often felt as though she’d yank the hook back at any moment. When she was happy with me, I felt on top of the world. When she was displeased with me, I’d want to grab the machete I once had to buy as a prop and decapitate myself. I spent many shows crying in my cubicle.

Whenever I talk about working for Nancy, people ask me why I put up with it all. I tell them I was 23. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself to an employer, and I didn’t quite realize I could. I worked for her during the height of the financial crisis, and was terrified of losing my job. Where would I go? Back to my parents’ house in rural Western Massachusetts with nothing to do but feel my mother’s absence even more acutely than I already did? It didn’t feel like an option. In my grief, I had clung to work like a life raft, but it was deflating quickly.

When a job opened up down the hall on Jane Velez-Mitchell, I seized the opportunity. Jane covered a lot of the same horrifying stories as Nancy, and she was known for being demanding and a little wacky. But she seemed, well, kinder.

I ended up working for Jane for five years, first in Atlanta, then in New York. It took me about that long to decompress from my 14 months at Nancy Grace. A parlor question you’re likely to get after working for her is “is Nancy Grace evil or what?” I don’t know how to answer that. Children have been found because someone saw a segment on her show. Like anyone on television, Nancy was playing a role, that of a heroic mother—intensely protective of not only her own twins, but of our country’s less fortunate children. While that role was, to some extent, calculated, I always got the impression she bought into it just as much as her most dedicated fans did.

When I look back on my time with Nancy Grace, I mostly feel sorry for the girl I was: sad, confused, and stuck, searching for guidance and finding none. That girl was struggling to survive something that seemed unsurvivable. If that job had come along at any other time in my life, I probably wouldn’t have taken it, and if I had, I imagine I would have gotten out of there as quickly as possible. Some nights, I didn’t know if I was crying all the way home because I missed my mother or because I was upset about something that had happened at work, but now I realize it was both. It was because I was dealing with a type of pressure I’d never experienced before, and the one person I wanted to talk about it with was dead. It was incredibly isolating, by far the loneliest period of my life because for the first time I was really and truly on my own. When I started working for Nancy, I was still a kid in need of a mother’s protection. By the time I left, I felt pretty grown up.

Now I’m a stand-up comedian, and given that what drew me to Nancy in the first place is how funny I found her, I should probably get more material out of her than I do. The truth is that I still don’t find much humor in that experience. It was the darkest time of my life, both because I was grieving and because I lived in fear that I would be belittled and yelled at every day—and I usually I was. But one thing I’ve always found funny is something that until now, only I have known. The shoe Nancy sniffed, then threw at me? I had recently stepped in dog shit while wearing it, and there was still a little bit on the bottom

Editor’s Note: Nancy Grace did not respond to Jezebel’s multiple requests for comment on this piece.

Mary Cella is a writer and comedian who hosts the stand-up comedy show Female Comedians (with Tits!) the first Thursday of every month at Tip Top in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @mary_cella.

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