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To Hell and Back: A Conversation With Author Isabel Gillies
June 19, 2009 By Hilary Black

The author of the new memoir Happens Every Day talks about the pain of infidelity, the misery of divorce and three ways to move out of the darkness and into the light.
Editor’s Note: Isabel Gillies is the author of Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story, just published by Scribner. She is also known for her role as Detective Stabler’s wife on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and for her cinematic debut in the film Metropolitan

wowOwow.com: Your book explicitly describes a nightmare scenario: having your husband walk away from what you thought was a very happy marriage. If you had those years to do over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Isabel Gillies: That’s a good question. Because my husband left me for another woman, people often assume I have a victim mentality: "He did this to me and there was nothing I could do." And it’s true, there really was nothing I could have done to change his mind. But looking back after four years, I now see that I was definitely participating in the destruction of the marriage in ways that I wasn’t aware of. So I suppose the only thing I could have wished for was to be older and wiser – to have the self-awareness I know now. But of course, that’s not possible.

wOw: Do you think there are ways that women can prevent something like this from happening to them? Or is that just a fantasy?
Isabel: If someone wants to leave, there’s not much you can do but watch them go. I really felt that was true in my case. So the only thing I could do was to figure out how I could make a future for myself and my children – a future that would also include my ex-husband, because, of course, he’s their father. So what I did then, and also do now, is try to live my life not looking back, but looking forward. And I think my advice to women in similar situations would be just that. After all, you only get one life. So it’s important to try to save your own life, and your kids’ lives.

wOw: How did you portray your divorce to your children? And what advice do you have for other women with young children who are navigating this kind of a sticky situation?
Isabel: First of all, my children were very young – both under four. So in those first few days, when I could hardly get a handle on what had happened, they couldn’t either. They just felt that something was wrong. Once I got used to the idea and was able to put a sentence together, I went to a therapist and asked how I should handle it. And she told me to tell them their story, which I think is great advice. So I tried to tell them the truth about what happened, but in a way that they could understand it. I never gave them pat explanations, like "Mommy and Daddy just couldn’t live together anymore,” because that just wasn’t true – I could have lived with my ex-husband forever and ever. So instead I told them what little truths I could: "Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, but Daddy just didn’t feel like he could be married to Mommy anymore." So I think the best advice is not to lie to your children, and respect how they feel about this new situation that they’re adjusting to. And even though it kills me to have put them through so much pain, I’m hoping their experience will give them strength – and put them a little ahead of the game in the future.

wOw: How do you feel about your ex-husband now? Have you forgiven him?
Isabel: I really have. From the moment our marriage ended, we both started looking toward whatever future we were going to have together as non-married people. Not that there wasn’t anger and hurt; there was. But it was less important than moving forward. We had to for our boys. What we decided is that by sharing this goal of our children’s happiness, we have to trust each other. And, you know, the truth is that I like him. I always liked him. Being pissed off and holding grudges only hurts you in the end – and I’d go so far as to say that it could possibly prevent you from meeting someone else to share your life with.

wOw: Why did you decide to tell this story? Was it difficult for you? Or cathartic?
Isabel: It was not difficult or cathartic. Really, something was humming in me about this experience. And I was talking to everyone I knew about it constantly. After reading one of my e-mails, one of my friends said, "You’ve got to write a book." So I just sat down and did it. It came pouring out of me. I think I finished the manuscript in three or four months. I am also on "Law & Order," and a writers’ strike froze our shooting schedule. So I suddenly found myself with nothing to do — which doesn’t really happen to working mothers that often! So I took that opportunity to write it all down.

wOw: In the book, you reveal that your father-in-law left your mother-in-law for another woman he later married: your situation exactly. Was it difficult for the people in your life to read this story? Did your ex-husband or his family object to your writing it?
Isabel: I told my ex-husband that I was working on something, but didn’t show him any drafts. He’s an English professor, so he sort of intrinsically understands the need to write your own story. But I think it’s been very painful for him and his wife to read this. And I’m sure it’s painful for his parents in some way. Still, I made it very clear in the book that this was my version of our story. I tried to tell it from many different angles. And I hope it’s fair, most of all. 

wOw: How do you feel about having the public know these very intimate, very personal things about you? And when, if ever, will you allow your sons to read this book? 
Isabel: Well, I don’t really care about myself so much; I’m the sort of person who tells everything about myself anyway. So even if some people out there are appalled by what I’ve written, it will be worth it to me if my story helps even one person. As for my children, we’ve already been working on this stuff: talking about it, helping each other through it and getting the details right. So by the time they read the book — which will be whenever they feel they’re ready — they’ll be so far ahead of the game that none of it will surprise them or shock them. This is a story I would tell them anyway. 

wOw: Are you working on another book now?
Isabel: I am working on something new, which has been a wonderful experience. It’s a memoir about mothers and daughters. I’m not sure if I could ever make anything up! 

wOw: At this stage, do you see yourself as much as a writer as you do as an actress?
Isabel: If I had to choose one, I’d choose writing. But for me, whether I’m expressing myself on paper or in front of the camera, the artistic process is the same.

wOw: Although your divorce was excruciatingly painful, over time you built a new life that seems to have made you even happier than the old one. What can other women do to achieve that kind of transformation in the wake of an ugly divorce?
Isabel: Well, I think that there are a couple of things. First of all, when something terrible happens, I think it’s important to recognize it as really happening. In my case, my ex-husband helped me a little bit because he didn’t ever, you know, sleep with me again. It was over, which was incredibly painful in one way. But in another way I was able to recognize it as a real thing. The second is to choose to move forward, instead of wallowing. Take another road, pull up your socks, make the bed, cry in the shower and move on. Third is to focus on the little things; if you take time out to take in the larger scope of the world, and appreciate what you do have, you’ll find yourself moving forward, even if it’s in baby steps. As my dad always says, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

Source: Wowowow.com