She was molested for more than a year in high school. She was raped her first month of college — the week before her younger brother was hit by a car and killed. She suffered from an eating disorder for the greater part of a decade.
The show that Caroline Rothstein performs at Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center on March 21 will not be standup comedy. But it will probably make you feel good.
“I will be bigger than heartbreak,” opens Rothstein’s spoken-word piece, “Fierce This House.” “I will be stronger than the empty empty choking guzzling my chest.”
Rothstein, a 35-year-old poet, performance artist and motivational speaker raised in Chicago but based in New York City, has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker and Nylon Magazine, which raved that her work “sucks you in at first listen, packing enough punch to help you find the strength to love yourself fiercely and unapologetically.”
Rothstein’s performances have even received praise from superstar Lady Gaga, a fellow eating-disorder sufferer, who watched one of Rothstein’s videos and tweeted to her fans that she found it “very inspiring.”
Rothstein phoned the Light while sitting on the stoop in front of her building in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The things that happened to you were fairly insane. How did you find the strength to get through them?
“A lot of therapy, a lot of really incredible support from my family and friends. And I think the main anchor for my ultimate recovery and healing — I’ve been fully recovered now from my eating disorder for 14 years and moving beyond all the other traumas — is and was just that I’m an inherent optimist. And I’m a deeply spiritual person, and so my spiritual practice is feeling that we are all the God within and we are all interconnected and not separate, that we are quite beautifully one. Knowing that keeps me anchored and persevering beyond my trauma and pain. And I share my story so that other people know they’re not alone and that hopefully, the preventable things that happened to me never have to happen to anyone else. Death and change are inevitable. But sexual assault doesn’t have to exist, eating disorders don’t have to exist.”
How do you prevent sexual assault? It’s not a matter of how you act or feel. There’s somebody else in the picture, too.
“That’s a really complicated question, because I shouldn’t have to avoid sexual assault. People who sexually assault should stop sexually assaulting. It’s our job as a society to teach people how to not rape each other.”
For the parents and grandparents of kids who may have eating disorders, what are some warning signs to look out for?
“Warning signs are going to be different for everyone. If one kid is an extrovert and they start spending a lot of time alone, that would be concerning, as would an introvert who suddenly starts going out constantly. But what is universal is your ability to know that someone is struggling. Trust your gut. And if you are concerned, it’s how you approach the concern. It’s coming from a place of love and curiosity versus interrogation and shame. For example, when I was struggling with an eating disorder, if people focused on the behavior, asking if I ate today or if I kept down my food, that would have actually make me feel worse and not trust them.
The friends and loved ones who approached me by asking how I felt or how they could support me, those kinds of questions both allowed me to feel I could trust those individuals and let me have an open space to start to talk about what I was going through. And the reason I ultimately got the help I needed was because I was able to share with my friends and my mother and father what I was going through. And to this day, I have a very open relationship with my parents about my emotions. My sister — not surprisingly, I suppose — is a psychotherapist, because we come from a family where my parents taught us that honesty and curiosity were really valued in our home. So even though I struggled a great deal, the fact that they valued honesty meant that I didn’t feel a lot of shame in sharing with them what I was going through. My mother once said that she wanted me to get the help that would teach me how to help myself, which I think is so beautiful. And that’s really what the goal is.”
Are people getting better at recognizing the warning signs?
“My eating disorder lasted from the mid-‘90s to 2004. The Internet and social media barely existed when I began to recover, and I think that we made major strides, but I also think we have a long way to go. And I think the next push in eating-disorder prevention would be around really understanding the way larger systems of oppression impact how we feel about our bodies and ourselves — racism, sexism, misogyny, gender inequity, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia. Those horrible discriminations can also impact how people feel about their bodies. So I think we need to do a better job of understanding the way we as communities impact people’s well-being. We have to take responsibility for that, too.”
Why do you suspect it’s so easy to use food as a love substitute or as a coping mechanism for anxiety?
“We need to teach consent and feeling at a very young age. We inherit our inabilities to cope from society and from our families. Instead of learning how to feel, we end up having to unlearn how to not feel. It’s the responsibility of our educational institutions and our culture to shift our thinking to making it OK to feel and to giving young people coping skills at an early age and a language to articulate what their feelings are, so that unhealthy coping skills are actually avoidable.”
You mentioned social media and the internet. Is something like YouTube a good or a bad force for an artist such as yourself — or is it both? Now you can get yourself out there for everyone to see — including Lady Gaga. But doesn’t that cut into your audience of people willing to pay to see you in person perform what they’ve already seen on their phones?
“For myself and for other poets, musicians and performance artists I know, social media only helps sell tickets, because people want to actually experience the real thing. No matter how much social media becomes an intrinsic part of our lives, ultimately people do want to experience something live. If we only cared about Netflix, Broadway wouldn’t sell out. But it does. And concerts sell out, and poetry shows sell out. People want to experience art live. And what social media and YouTube offer is an opportunity to give you a peek — just the same way, when I was growing up, I would hear a record on the radio and would want to go and see a band live. It’s the same thing. It’s actually a very exciting time for art, and I think that the more social media starts to make us feel more isolated, the more people are going to want to pendulum-swing to live experiences again.”
Who comes to your shows mostly?
“It depends on the venue and the framing. At a JCC like in San Diego, it varies and usually is based on who already knows my work. If I’m on a college campus, I’m getting a college-age audience. When I’m doing a sold-out poetry show in NYC, it’s usually a cross section of young adults and people up through my mother’s age. It always varies. I don’t have any specific kind of audience.”
Do people ever show up thinking they’re about to see a comedy show?
“I think that sometimes people show up thinking it’s comedy, but I hopefully I don’t disappoint. I mean, I definitely have plenty of people I know who are comedians and plenty of my poems are comedic, and I have an improv background. To me, comedy is important. According to the audience laughter, I appear to be pretty funny, too.”
• IF YOU GO: Caroline Rothstein performs 8 p.m. Thursday, March 21, 2019 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center’s Garfield Theatre, 4126 Executive Drive in La Jolla. Tickets: $18 or $15 for JCC members. (858) 457-3030. lfjcc.org