Maria Bello is not one to be typecast, as evident by the variety of film and TV roles that have included an unflinching spokesperson for the alcohol industry (Thank You for Smoking), a caring pediatrician (ER), or a seductive waitress (The Cooler). Nor does she apply limitations to her personal life or her sexuality, which she defines as "whatever" in her powerful new book, Whatever … Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves.
However, that freedom to be whatever only came after the 48-year-old actress was forced to ask simple questions about who she was following a painful visit to the hospital. During her stay, Bello found herself revisiting old journals in "the process of uncovering" who she was and what she had become.
Realizing there were many versions of herself, Bello had to figure out which one was the truth. And it wasn’t until her 12-year-old son, Jackson, asked his mother a simple question: If she was romantically involved with anyone.
First documented in the op-ed for The New York Times, Bello revealed that she told her son she was involved with a woman who acted like a godmother to Jackson. That truth led her to write her new book, which questions the labels so often used in society.
In the excerpt below, Bello chronicles her journey that led her to a very simple truth as told to her by her son: "Love is love."
The first thing I did after I fell to the floor on my knees in agony was reach for the black rosary beads that Father Ray had given me, just before he died. In between the retches and the stabbing pains in my chest, I said the Hail Mary, something I had not done in many years.
I said the prayer over and over again. The pain would stop every three minutes, and Clare would lift me back into bed and tell me to breathe. At one point I bolted straight upright, like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I clutched my beads, screaming, "Something inside of me is killing me! Something is trying to come out of me! Something needs to come out of me!!"
After months of emergency room visits, tests and an operation, we did in fact find there was something trying to come out of me; it was a previously undiagnosed parasite I had picked up from my many years in Haiti. This parasite had, in fact, been eating me alive. And while recovering in bed for the next three months, I realized there was something else eating me alive, something that also needed to come out. It was much more powerful than the parasite.
It was my story.
In the summer of 2013, while I struggled in the hospital, I realized that waiting to do something isn’t always an option. In a moment, everything could end, and my stories would be lost -- stories of love, partnerships, miracles, and madness that filled the hundreds of notebooks beneath my bed. During my months of recovery, I read through each one of my trusted journals, collections of my thoughts since I was a teenager.
I started with one of my favorite journals -- an old, beat-up green notebook plastered with hearts. At first, I thought reading it was going to be a classic trip down memory lane. You know, stories of teenage heartbreak, details of crazy antics, and confessions of my hopes and dreams. But something unexpected happened as I read. I began to ask myself questions. And once I started asking those questions I couldn’t stop. Instead of just recovering from my illness, I found myself in the process of uncovering who I was and who I had become.
Was I a partner?
Was I Catholic?
Was I damaged?
Were the words that I was reading the essence of who I was then, and were they still defining me now?
Who was the main character in the book of my life? Was it the 13-year-old girl who first decided to write in her notebook covered with hearts? Was it the 19-year-old young woman whose only friend in college was an Augustinian priest? (Thank you again for those rosary beads, Father Ray.)
Was it the 20-something blonde in a ponytail marching around NYC in her army boots, pissed off at her past and anxious about her future?
Was it the 30-something woman who sounded like a teenager, thinking that every man she met would turn into Prince Charming?
Was it the woman who gave birth to an amazing kid and yet continually questioned if she was a good enough mom?
I started to see a common thread in all of the characters I had played throughout the years: a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth. But, was I brave enough to let her speak?
Nope. Not exactly. Not the whole truth.
It’s a good thing my 12-year-old son, Jackson, knew how to ask questions. Not long after my recovery, he asked me a question that would change my life forever.
My parents were visiting from Philly. Jack had willingly given up his room, adorned with a life-sized mural of a soccer player on the wall, so that his grandparents could be more comfortable. He slept in my room at the foot of the bed on a blow-up mattress at our house in Venice, CA. Surrounded by their suitcases, my dad’s snoring apparatus, and my mom’s prayer books, my parents dreamed away as Jack prepared to confront me one night as we were getting ready for bed.
Out of the blue, he asked me if I was currently romantically involved with anyone.
In all of 30 seconds, I flashed back across the thousands of pages in my journals. What could I tell him? Could I tell him about who I was when I was 13 years old? Or about the kind of adult I was at 32? At 47? Could I tell him the truth? The truth of how I had become the mother, lover, and woman that I am today? Could I own every bit of myself and make him understand that I will constantly evolve and change, just like he will?
I started with what he really wanted to know about -- the present. His simple response when I told him I was involved with the woman who was like a godmother to him was, "Whatever, Mom . . . love is love."
The passage comes from Whatever ... Love is Love: Questioning Labels We Give Ourselves by Maria Bello. The book is available now.