To many people, Michael Ausiello led something of a charmed life: He was one of the biggest pop culture journalists in the business, scored cameos on some of his favorite TV shows, and shared his life with his handsome and charming boyfriend, Kit.
But everything imploded in 2014, when Kit was diagnosed with Stage Four neuroendocrine cancer and given a year to live.
Ausiello’s new memoir, The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words, is a heartbreaking account of Kit’s final 11 months, as the couple rush from doctor to doctor, get married, argue, make up, argue some more, and ultimately accept the inevitable. But it’s also a chronicle of a human relationship, with all its flaws, infidelities, and regrets.
As the LGBT community has fought so hard to teach the world that love is love, Ausiello reminds us that grief is grief. We chatted with him about the memoir, out today on Atria Books.
When did you decide to put your story to paper?
It really didn’t come to me until I was asked by Simon and Schuster to write about it. That’s how it happened—I didn’t come to them, they came to me. I had no intention of writing a book. It wasn’t in my mind at all. Aside from while I was writing Facebook dispatches giving people updates about Kit’s condition—a few people would comment, “You should write a book.” But it was kind of in one ear and out the other.
A couple of months after Kit died, an editor at Simon and Schuster, who had been following my Facebook updates approached me. He thought there was a book in there somewhere.
What was your initial reaction?
It was a real mix: It was, “Oh God, I couldn’t do that,” but also “Oh God, I have to.” I took a couple of weeks to think about it, because I wanted to be sure if I said yes that it was something I could follow through on. At the end of the day, as hard as it was going to be to write, there was this strong belief that it was something that I had to do. For Kit, but also for me. It just a great opportunity to honor him.
As a reporter was it hard to put yourself in the center of the story?
I’ve always sort of found ways to inject myself into the story, whether it was finding a way onto a TV show I loved [laughs] or something else. But this obviously took it to another level. It definitely took some getting used to.
One of the hardest things, actually, was getting comfortable writing something this long. The longest thing I’d ever written previously was a cover story for Entertainment Weekly. And I’m also used to writing under deadline. And while this was definitely under deadline, it was a much longer one—it allowed me to really sit with the writing and to nurture it. To get it to a place that I was happy with.
But when you’re a reporter you train yourself to let the story go. Was it hard to let go of the manuscript?
It was hard to let go, absolutely. It was hard to say, “I’m happy with it, and I’m ready now to pass it on.” In a way, I probably would’ve loved to keep extending the deadline a little bit more to give myself a little more time. But 18 months was what it took, and 18 months was what I needed. And I’m happy with the finished product.
The book goes into your whole relationship with Kit. Was it harder recounting those last 11 months or dredging up personal stuff, like infidelity, drinking, and jealousy?
The hardest stuff by far was the cancer. The diagnosis, and then his death—those two things in particular were very difficult to write. Much more difficult than any of the relationship qualms we’d had before.
Were you worried about what family and friends, people who knew Kit might think reading some of the details of your lives together?
I tried not to worry too much while I writing the book about who would be reading it and what they were going to think. I tried to focus on telling the story as honestly as I could. During the editing process, when it came time to cut a good chunk to get it to manageable word count, then I started to think about, “Do I really need this personal detail here? Is it important to the story?”
Luckily, in most cases, if something got cut, it was because it really didn’t work, tonally or structurally. Rarely did it come down to, “I’m going to cut this because I’m going to upset someone, or because someone’s going to judge Kit or me.”
I was conscious of Kit and his legacy, and of not wanting people who loved him to have any negative feelings about him. But, at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to sugarcoat or whitewash him. Because then you’re creating a caricature. No one’s perfect—and Kit wasn’t perfect. But a lot of the things during our relationship that I perceived to be flaws of his, I look back now and realize they’re what made him him. They’re what made him unique, and charming, and special. All of that stuff.
If Kit was standing over your shoulder while you wrote the book, what would his edits have been?
His edits would be about the photography, about the font choice. Maybe some notes about the cover design—although I really think he would’ve loved the title and the cover. Most of his notes I think would’ve been about art and design elements, versus the words themselves.
How were you able to keep working while this was all going on—logistically and emotionally? Did you take a leave of absence?
The Americans set visit and the Kristen Bell interview happened right after the diagnosis, when we really didn’t know how bad it was going to be. We were in a sort of awful discovery period. Once we knew more, I stepped back from my job. I worked from home almost exclusively. When Kit’s condition was bad, I wasn’t working; when it started to improve, I worked a little bit more.
I will say that during those final months, I stepped away from my job kind of completely. That’s when I posted something on TVLine, letting the audience know what was happening and why they wouldn’t be hearing from me so much. That was when I really started to lean on my staff, and they were amazing: They really stepped up.
What did you get out of writing this book? Did you get some healing, some closure?
I don’t know yet. I wish I could tell you that I feel a sense of healing, but I don’t know if that’s true. My hope is that when the book comes out, the reaction will give me some sense of peace and closure about the experience. That people were moved by it, and that people were like, “Oh my God, I wish I’d gotten to know Kit.” I’m excited about people getting to know Kit. I think that will bring more comfort.
But writing the book was hard. It was hard fucking work, emotionally. There were points in the writing [process] when I was like, “Why am I doing this to myself so soon after losing the love of my life? Why am I torturing myself?” And in some chapters, it felt like I was torturing myself. In the end, I just had to keep my mind on the big picture, and I had to plow through.
How did Kit’s parents react to the book?
They haven’t read it. They have a copy, but they’re not emotionally ready. You know, he was their only child, and they’re still grieving. I gave them a book because they’re a big part of it, and they should have it. Maybe one day they’ll decide that they’re ready to pick it up and read it.
They come off as very compassionate, I think.
Their devotion to their son was inspiring. They were there right until the end. And I’m so grateful for that. And they were there for me, too. They were a tremendous sense of support for me. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.
You lost both of your parents when you were younger. Did that give you strength or did it make it worse?
It felt completely different. This felt like I was losing someone for the first time, mostly because I’m an adult now. Whereas, back then, I was a kid. This, I was present for in a much bigger way than I was for my mom and my dad.
And you were also the primary caregiver.
This was my whole world. His care was my… he was my whole world. This dominated my life in such a massive way. But what I did feel, at least initially, was that I couldn’t believe it was happening again. I felt like my tragedy punchcard was full by the time Kit got sick. There was a sense of disbelief—a little bit of anger at the universe.
But then, the second I would begin to pity myself, I would look at Kit, who was so not a martyr in any way, and not a victim, and I would follow his lead.
The fact that you and Kit were both men—did that affect how you were treated?
I honestly don’t know. I mean, this is all I knew. It’s hard… We did face some confusion about what our relationship was. Sometimes people weren’t aware that he was my husband—he was mistaken for my brother once or twice. If one of us had been a woman there wouldn’t have been any hesitation that we were a couple.
There was one time when he was mistaken for my father. That was really difficult, and I got very angry when it happened. He was just so frail and old looking, I guess. Luckily, Kit didn’t hear it, but had he heard that… On top of him being so sick, someone refering to him as my father, I have to imagine it would’ve been emotionally crushing. What frustrated me was that, to the person who said it, it seemed so much more likely that this man, the same age as me, was my father than possibly my husband. Not even to pause for a second and think, “Oh, that could be his husband.”
I will say it’s one of the reasons I wanted to us get married [after the diagnosis]. I knew we’d be going into all these doctor’s appointments, and I didn’t want to introduce him as my partner or my boyfriend. There’s something very powerful about saying, “This is my husband,” or “I’m here checking in my husband.”
We’ve been talking so much about the heartbreaking aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of humor in it, too.
That’s something I want to let people know ahead of time; it’s not just a memoir about someone dying of cancer. It’s not just a depressing, heavy read . There is some humor—some of it inappropriate—interspersed throughout.
The title is so great. It informs the book, but it also speaks to who you are. Did that come to you right at the beginning?
I was meeting with my book coach and during one of our sessions, I made an off-handed crack to him, you know, “Spoiler alert: the hero dies in the end.” Before I even made the remark, I knew. It hit all the beats I wanted to hit: it’s a little funny, a little cheeky, a little inappropriate. On top of it all, it plays into my profession.
It also gets it out of the way, so you can get right to the story.
I love the title. My editor loved it too. There was never another title considered; this was the only one. I think the original idea was, The Hero Dies In The End, and then we just chopped off “The End.”
Below read an excerpt from Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words. Michael Ausiello will discuss the book with Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, September 13 at 7pm at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway
I felt the hope and optimism in the room begin to evaporate. And I desperately tried to contain it before it was too late.
“Those oncologists also said that between chemo and radiation there’s a lot of hope here,” I told her, my voice taking on a sudden alarm.
“The problem is, the tumor is already at an advanced stage,” she said.
And then Kit stunned me by asking her, point-blank, “What stage are we talking?”
Prior to this, there had been minimal discussion of staging. We’d never asked, and the only time it had come up—with Dr. Abbott—we’d been told that this type of rare cancer didn’t lend itself to traditional staging. I tensed up and just stared at Dr. Davis, waiting for her reply. It came quickly and without hesitation.
“Stage 4,” she said, her air of sunshine and happiness now replaced by darkness and dread. I looked at Kit and his face suddenly became bright red. He smiled nervously, spontaneously letting out an “OK . . .”
Dr. Davis saw us both reeling. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Bottom-line this for me, Doctor,” Kit said, barely able to contain his swelling panic. “What are we looking at here?”
“You mean in terms of time?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“We don’t like to give numbers. Our patients are not numbers . . .”
“Please, Doctor,” Kit interjected.
Dr. Davis hesitated, before carefully replying, “About a year.”
I grasped the corner of the desk, supporting myself so my knees didn’t buckle. I looked at Kit. I saw the shock invading every pore of his body. I felt it invade mine, too. Was this what an out-of-body experience was like? Because I suddenly felt as if I were looking down on someone else’s apocalypse.
Dr. Davis continued to talk, but I couldn’t hear a word she was saying. Kit began to sob. “I need a minute,” he cried out. “Please give me a minute.”
Dr. Davis nodded her head and exited, closing the door behind her.
I rushed to Kit’s side, as he stood up from the exam table. “I need a minute,” he repeated, only now it was directed at me.
“I am not leaving you, Kit,” I exclaimed. “Please don’t ask me to leave you.”
“I need a minute!” he screamed, before escaping to the examining room’s private bathroom. He shut the door. And then it started. The wailing. The most horrible sound I had ever heard in my life. I started frantically pacing around the room, alone, trying to figure out how I could tweak the space-time continuum by just five minutes so we could go back to life before a doctor at New York’s premier cancer center told us that Kit would be dead in a year. Kit continued to bawl. I began to fear for his safety, that he might somehow harm himself. Everything was spiraling out of control. I had to do something. I raced from the room, reluctantly leaving Kit all alone, and rushed to Davis at the nurses’ station.
“Dr. Davis, please come back in the room,” I begged. “Please give Kit some hope. He’s really upset. I’m scared. Please. There has to be some hope.”
The resignation on her face told me that there was no hope to be had, but she nonetheless returned to the exam room, just as Kit was exiting the bathroom.
“I’m OK,” he assured us, his eyes bloodshot.
“Christopher, everyone is different,” she said. “And the year time frame is a range. It could be more than a year.”
It also could be less was what I wanted to say.
Dr. Davis’s pep talk left something to be desired, but at least the temperature in the room had cooled off. I was not currently worried that Kit was going to hurt himself. I was now back to worrying simply about him dying of cancer in twelve months.
“If you do decide to receive treatment here, I would like to start as soon as possible,” Dr. Davis explained. “I can have our chemo nurse stop by and talk you through what to expect, and he can also give you a tour of our chemo suite. I’ll give you guys time to discuss it.”
Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words is out now on Atria Books.