One might expect Talking to My Angels, Melissa Etheridge’s gripping new autobiography, to be a depressing read. The Grammy/Oscar-winning singer-songwriter has endured so much in her 62 years — alleged sexual abuse by her older sister, a lack of attention and support from her mentally unwell and alcoholic mother, a battle with breast cancer, acrimonious splits with former partners Julie Cypher and Tammy Lynn Michaels, and the loss of her son Beckett, who died at age 21 from an opioid overdose three years ago.
And yet, Talking to My Angels, much like the triumphant new Broadway show Melissa Etheridge: My Window, is inspiring and hopeful — the story of someone who didn’t just survive, but thrived. And it all can be traced back to what Etheridge describes as a “heroic dose” of cannabis, a mind-blowing moment that occurred 20 years ago and divides not only her book but her entire life into two before-and-after volumes.
“It created such a change in me. It really was a big change in my life,” Etheridge says, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from her dressing room at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. “I think up to then my priorities and my intentions and my desires were all, ‘Oh, do I have a girlfriend? Do I have a hit song?’ Those kind of things that are not even a part of my life now. It was all very stressful, and that ‘heroic dose’ sort of freed me up, took the chains off of me. And so, I wanted people to understand that this was my way into this awakening. This was my own choice. Not everybody has to go off and overdose on cannabis or anything to get there, but this is what I experienced.”
Below, Etheridge — who has been in a healthy and fulfilling marriage with her “best friend,” Emmy-winning TV writer and producer Linda Wallem, since 2014 — speaks candidly about her sister’s abuse, mother’s neglect, son’s death, Cypher’s cruelty, and Wallem’s unconditional love. She says sharing her stories, both on paper and onstage, has not just been a part of her healing process, but “has been the healing process. It really has. By opening up my past, maybe I can be inspirational to others and help lift other people up. I’m very grateful to be able to do that.”
Yahoo Entertainment: Talking to My Angels isn’t solely focused on your son Beckett’s death, but obviously that tragedy is a big part of your story. I was utterly furious to read that you learned of his overdose via an email from Julie that said, “I blame you.” I literally gasped out loud when I read that.
Melissa Etheridge: I struggled whether to put that in. It’s also in my Broadway show, and yes, the audience gasps when they hear that line. But I say this: Try to get into the mind of a parent who has lost a child. The absolute whole crater of guilt and shame that one can fall into is devastating. And to know Julie, to know who she is and where his death probably took her and her guilt, when I pull my own self out of it, it’s like, “Yeah, that’s her M.O., to reach out and hurt someone else, so it doesn’t hurt her anymore.” It’s like her saying to me, “I give the poison to you now, because I can’t handle it.” I mean, I don’t talk to her. This is not a forgiveness thing. This is just an understanding thing, of how it’s devastating to lose a child. And although I certainly didn’t lash out at anybody, and people can’t believe that someone could say that, that is the depth of human pain. It can cause hurt people to hurt people. And if you kind of come at it from that angle, there you go. There it is.
Did Julie ever apologize?
Oh, no, no, no, no. That’s not her. No, no, no. We have absolutely no contact now.
I have to say that when you two were separating, I think it was pretty low that Julie tried to use your breast cancer against you in your custody battle, claiming you were too ill to be a fit parent. That was another chapter when I angrily yelled out loud at the book.
Well, you understand now the person that Julie is, so it’s not that surprising!
I mean, you would just think that even if an ex-couple has differences, when tragedy strikes, whether it’s a death or a serious illness, that they’d put all that aside for a second.
Yeah — you would think so! [laughs]
But on the subject of guilt, you did mention in your book that it crossed your mind your cannabis use might have contributed in some way to the path Beckett went down, with his opioid addiction. How did you come to terms with that guilt?
Well, that’s our culture. Our culture lumps all drugs together: “Drugs are bad!” It leaves no room for spiritual growth. There’s religion and then there’s drugs, and the ancient form of enlightenment or plant medicine is just lost, and so it leaves one with no place to land on. I certainly don’t believe in heroin and cocaine and these life-destroying drugs or pharmaceuticals that numb things. There are psychedelics that raise the consciousness which do not hurt the body physically, and it’s a whole category that we have no definition for. But it’s hard to explain to a child. It’s hard to explain when their culture is saying “drugs are bad” to say, “Actually, these are good and those are bad.” Actually, it was hard for me knowing that cannabis probably would’ve really helped Beckett a lot, but then the need to numb the pain goes into your pharmaceuticals and heroin, and then everyone says, “Well, cannabis is a gateway drug.” No, it’s just part of a series, if someone is in that much pain. It’s hard to describe. But yeah, that was not easy.
That’s one of the reasons why I formed the Etheridge Foundation, because we are providing money for research into the psychedelics that can help in opioid-use disorder. There’s an option of, “OK, you’re in this pain and you’re obviously looking for self-medication here. So, let’s guide it.” Let’s not be afraid to let adolescents explore their minds, explore their consciousness, and make new neural pathways. This science; it’s not just woo-woo stuff. This is science. And so the Etheridge Foundation provides money and funds for the research into this, so that we can go to our government and say, “Here’s the research.” … And I’m a regular cannabis user still, and it helps with stress, helps with sleep. I totally look to plant medicines, and not pharmaceuticals of any kind.
Obviously, your relationships and breakups with both Julie and Tammy are a big part of this book. I found it interesting how you wrote that when those relationships very publicly fell apart — especially with Julie, only a few months after you and her, your two kids, and [the children’s biological father/previously anonymous sperm donor] David Crosby had posed for the cover of Rolling Stone — made you feel like you’d let the entire LGBTQ+ community down.
Oh, yeah. I’d say the last couple of years [with Cypher] were: “I’m not happy, but oh my God, now I’ve gone all public with all this. I can’t just blow it all up.” But then it got to a point of the diminishing returns. It wasn’t worth it anymore.
I was shocked to read that your second child with Julie, Beckett, was conceived sort of behind your back — that Julie underwent artificial insemination with David Crosby’s sperm without your knowledge!
Yeah, that was something that I didn’t really ever share with anybody. But I thought I should be truthful in the book, because sometimes people can be thrown into parenthood and can relate. It was a difficult situation. I knew we were having incredible troubles and didn’t really understand why she wanted to do that. But there you go.
Your fraught relationships with both your mother and sister also figure a lot in Talking to My Angels too. One of the most shocking things I learned about your childhood is you write that your sister Jenny, who was four years older that you, molested you from when you were age 7 to 11. You also say your mother didn’t believe you, or ignored you, when you tried to tell her about this.
Yeah, well nobody talked about that stuff at all then. That was one of those things that when you are young and something’s like this is happening, you know what? My sister was giving me attention. And so as a kid, you’re like, “Oh, I’m getting lots of attention! I shouldn’t tell anybody. But oh, I don’t like this! I should tell somebody.” You’re confused. But then you get to a certain age when you’re like, “No more!”
So, at age 11 you stood up to Jenny, and that actually stopped it?
Yeah. I moved to the other room. And she was crazy herself by then, was running around doing stuff. She was a very oppositional child and teenager.
I was very surprised to read that for a long time you still financially supported Jenny. You even bought her a house. A lot of people in your position probably would’ve gone no-contact way before that. What was the complexity there, that you two still had some sort of sibling relationship?
Well, she sort of left the family structure. She ran off with a motorcycle gang and was wreaking her own havoc away from our home. And then she came home when she was pregnant and she had changed; all of a sudden, she was part of the family again. I was not even thinking about that old stuff, because it made my mother and father so happy when they didn’t have to take the responsibility for her anymore. I could say, “Oh, I’m going to buy Jenny a car so that you guys don’t have to worry about her getting around.” It was kind of enabling and fixing the problems for my family. Then it got to a point, right around my cancer, when I was like, “Yeah, no. I am not going to do this anymore, in my forties. What am I doing? This is horrible!” And I just stopped.
Many families have that sort of dynamic with the “good kid “and the “bad kid,” or the golden child and the black sheep. Was there part of you that sort of got off on the fact that you could swoop in and be the hero of the family now?
Oh, yeah! I was like, “I’ll fix that!” Money changes everything, that sort of thing. It doesn’t, by the way. But yes, I definitely did want to be the hero, sure.
Are you still in touch with Jenny? Does she know this book is out?
I don’t tell her things like that. She lives with her daughter now, and I’ll hear from them once in a while. I came through their town, I actually played their city, and I hadn’t seen her in 17 years, and I was like, “Oh, you’re an old lady now!” [laughs] I rarely have contact with her, but it also doesn’t cost me anything [emotionally] anymore. She’s just a person now. She’s good.
You write about desperately craving your mother’s attention as a child, but never really getting it. It made me sad to read about how your mom didn’t believe that you’d make it in music and told you to just give up that dream. Did she ever have a moment, once you became so successful, when she said to you, “I admit it, I was wrong. You did good, kid”?
Well, her version would be, “Well, I guess everything turned out OK, didn’t it?” And I’d joke back, “OK, Mom, I’m going to buy you a house now. Did everything turn out all right now?” That sort of thing.
How did this whole complicated mother/daughter/sister dynamic affect your romantic relationships and the types of women you pursued?
Well, you don’t really realize what deep beliefs you bring with you, which then translate into who you’re going to attract and who’s attractive to you. And Julie was absolutely that. It was like, “Oh, I can make this person happy and I can change things for this.” From what I understand, the issues or beliefs that are inside of us, that we might not even know that we have, start when we’re young. With me, that could start with, “If I make the environment around me fun and if I can entertain, then everyone’s going to be happy and I’m not going to feel that sadness” that my mother’s depression would bring into the house. And so it was my job to make everyone happy, and then to get a job as an entertainer. You can really burn yourself up if you believe that you’ve got to make everyone else happy in order for you to be happy. So, that’s sort of what I went into my relationships with: “Oh, I can make you happy! I can make your life magic, and in turn, you will love me!” But that only works for a little while.
Was your pursuit of stardom or performing also influenced by this need for attention, approval, adoration, validation, anything like that?
Yeah, but I don’t think I consciously thought of that. I just knew when I was 12 years old, I was in front of an audience for the first time and I thought, “Wow, this is great! People applauding!” I just liked the way it felt. I didn’t think, “Oh, Mom doesn’t give me this, so I need this attention.” I wasn’t really like that personally. I don’t try to create attention; I just enjoy creating music and then exchanging that with people and lighting them up. That’s my favorite thing. But that does come from, “Wow, I’m going to make everybody happy, so I’ll be happy.” Now, performing is more just a great way to make a living.
To end things on a happy note, after all you’ve been through, how did you get to a good place emotionally so that when your current wife Linda came around, you were finally ready for a stable, healthy relationship?
Oh, my God. It was during my relationship with Tammy that I changed my understanding of this life. This reality changed [with the heroic cannabis dose], and that’s when I started realizing I had to change myself. And as I changed, then that relationship [with Michaels] didn’t work, because what made it work before wasn’t working anymore. We were just so different now. Then I was in a place [after the split with Michaels] of not looking for a relationship. I was even saying, “I don’t want it!” But I was having this friendship that I loved. My best friend Linda was amazing. I told her, “You’ve got to come help me; I’m a single mother of four now!” She moved in, and then the more we hung out together, the more I actually realized: “Um, wait a minute. This is exactly what I want in a partner!” When I made my little dream list of what I wanted in a relationship, it was this. That was a beautiful way to fall in love, and it was totally different from any way I had before. And that’s what the real stuff is.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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