After Janelle Hanchett ’01 graduated from UC Davis, she had her first baby and descended into a drug and alcohol addiction that would grip her life for several years. Her recovery in 2009 accompanied intense gratitude and also an immediacy of motherhood that she wasn’t used to.
“Most women like me end up in jail or mental institutions or permanently separated from their families. Here I am sober and reunited with my family. It’s so rare,” said Hanchett. “None of this is lost on me, and yet I’m feeling erased, resentful, bored. Is this really all there is?”
To find out if other women shared her feelings, in 2011 she started a blog, Renegade Mothering. She quickly inspired a following. In fact, a manager at 3 Arts Entertainment, producers of TV shows like “The Good Place” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” sought her out, eventually connecting her with a literary agent. I’m Just Happy To Be Here (Hachette Books, 2018) recounts her difficult story, which ultimately leads to acceptance.
Now she is working on a TV pilot — a 30-minute non-network comedy — that she hopes to sell in the near future.
Hanchett sat down with UC Davis Magazine Editor Jocelyn Anderson to talk about her first book.
Jocelyn Anderson: How was your career trajectory shaped at UC Davis as an English major?
Janelle Hanchett: At UC Davis, I took Ken Verosub’s survey geology course. He offered me a job in his paleomagnetic research lab. And I took it, and I wanted to do something in science, but I was so terrible at it. He was so patient with me and wonderful, but I could not understand the physics and math behind what he was trying to teach me. So I went back to English. I almost didn’t want to do that because my whole family was journalists and writers. I wanted to do something different on my own and new and challenging. But I had to go back to what I’m good at. It was where I was meant to be.
JA: What did you hope to accomplish with your blog?
JH: When I got sober, it was like I was suddenly dropped into motherhood. That’s how it felt. I had an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old and a newborn. I was working 30 hours a week and I was going to grad school. I was rocketed into this super domestic life, balancing work and kids and school. So I started looking for people writing about my experience and motherhood. This is really hard — where are the people [who understand]? There’s this narrative that motherhood is supposed to complete a woman and I was like, this doesn’t complete me. So I decided I was going to write the truth of my experience, no matter how hypocritical or inappropriate.
JA: How was writing the book different from the blog?
JH: The voice and tone are very different. My blog is extremely in-your-face. If I wrote my book that way, people would want to punch me in the face by page 20. It’s a much different endeavor to ask someone to hang out with you for 300 pages than it is on a blog. It’s more toned down. And I found that I was unable to write the book in hourlong stints. I would go away for weekends. My husband would come home on Friday, and I would check myself into a cheap motel room and write 18 hours in a weekend. I have four kids and one of them always needs something. I needed those big blocks of silence and privacy to figure out what to say.
JA: What is it like to talk about these difficult events over and over during book readings and appearances?
JH: I have enough distance from it at this point that most of the topics I touch on at book events don’t affect me that much. There are some passages I won’t read and things that bring up too much emotion. At first on my blog, I didn’t talk about addiction or recovery, not because I was ashamed, that ship had definitely sailed. It just wasn’t the purpose. I was wanting to connect with other mothers. I didn’t want accolades for taking on responsibilities that were always mine. Oh, you were a late-stage cocaine addict and now you’re a suburban mom. But over time, I started realizing that I might be helpful to some people because I really violated a lot of the myths and stereotypes we have around drug addicts. I’m white and middle class, well educated, straight-A student at UC Davis, studied abroad. … I also wanted to complicate this idea of motherhood saving us. Once the disease has progressed passed a certain point, it doesn’t care who you love.
JA: One review I read called your book “tragicomic.” Is it difficult to be funny and serious at the same time?
JH: No, I have to be funny because some of this is just really funny. If you don’t laugh about it, you’ll just go nuts. You can’t take yourself too seriously, having done some of the things I’ve done. Like laughing at the ridiculousness of myself and humans in general. I’m always horrified and amused simultaneously by the antics of humans. You don’t have to lose truth by using humor or satire. In fact, sometimes you can show a lot more truth by holding a mirror to the ridiculousness of what we’re doing. If you can’t do that to yourself, you won’t be a good writer. It’s a short jump to self-righteousness or pretension. I don’t have any interest in that.