"I know life is no laughing matter, but having experiences can be." (Page 6)
Trigger Warning: This article contains some graphic descriptions of domestic violence and sexual abuse that may be triggering for some readers.
When I heard that Girls Trip actress, Tiffany Haddish, wrote a memoir, I was sure that it would definitely give me a good laugh. What I didn't know, was that it would also give me a new insight into childhood trauma and the unique healing journeys that come after it. In The Last Black Unicorn, Haddish vulnerably and courageously details her tough, traumatic childhood and the way that she used comedy to cope with the turmoil around her.
When you see Haddish getting feisty in Girls Trip or delivering a spontaneous and energetic monologue on Saturday Night Live, you wouldn't necessarily pin her as someone who has gone through immense trauma, but oh boy, has she. Haddish's memoir begins with some funny anecdotes about becoming a sought-after DJ in the Bar Mitzvah scene, discovering that she, herself, is Jewish around the same time, and some tough love from Richard Pryor at Laugh Factory Comedy Camp. However, it quickly jumps into some harder discussions, and although Haddish tells her story with energetic humour, it is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Haddish's story begins as a young kid, just 3 years old, bearing witness to her father head-butting her mother and then beating his own head. She recalls, "Blood was pouring down his face and her nose, and her white jumper was just covered with blood, all over.” Her father then abandoned her, and Haddish was raised primarily by her mother and grandmother. However, when she was 8, Haddish's mother got into a car accident and suffered a severe head injury. After the accident, Haddish's mother experienced a significant personality change and suddenly, Haddish was the target of vicious insults and beatings. This lasted until she was 13 years old.
“Constantly telling me I’m ugly, I’m stupid, I’m not worth nothing. I just felt stupid and not important, but I loved this woman so much. I’d just do whatever, 'cause I loved her. She was the first person I’d ever loved. And now, after this car wreck, she hated me. She even said that to me at times." (Page 66)
From 13 to 18 years old, Haddish was in and out of foster care, and throughout this time, endured beatings from bullies in group homes, contact highs from being forced to hotbox a car with a foster mom, and molestation, except she didn't even know she was being molested. Haddish explains that when she was 13, a "Foster Grandpa" caught her stuffing her training bra with toilet paper and subsequently, tricked her into thinking that if she let him suck on her breasts every day, they would grow. Being the innocent 13-year-old she was, she let him do so for 15 minutes daily before school and didn't think anything of it. It wasn't until she was 19, jokingly talking about boob jobs with a friend, that Haddish realized that this was, in fact, molestation.
As if her childhood wasn't painful enough, Haddish's story doesn't end there. Later in life, Haddish got into a relationship with a man she refers to as "Ex-Husband." During her marriage to Ex-Husband, Haddish suffered severe emotional and physical abuse. She was choked to the point where she thought she was going to die, was trapped in a guest room, or the "Holding Tank", for a full day, and was slammed so hard into a wall that she developed a knot on the side of her head, to name just a few of her awful experiences in the relationship. During this time, Haddish also suffered a miscarriage, which she couldn't even pinpoint as due to stress or the violent beating she had just endured.
Despite the terrible abuse she suffered at the hands of Ex-Husband, Haddish married and divorced him twice. When reflecting on the relationship, she references a variety of different reasons why she stayed, from not wanting to be a quitter to not knowing any other way to be loved. Her story sadly echoes those of so many other individuals dealing with domestic violence and is an example that illustrates the dire need for greater education and experiences of healthy relationships, starting as kids.
“Maybe it was just that I didn’t know any other way to be loved. Maybe this was the only man that I had ever thought truly loved me. Maybe I just couldn’t leave that, no matter how bad it was.” (Page 291)
As Haddish prefaces in the initial "Invitation" to The Last Black Unicorn, there were many times throughout her book where I struggled to know whether to laugh or cry. Haddish describes such dreadful memories with strength, resiliency, and courage, and tells an important story, that unfortunately, likely mirrors many other children's out there, in a way that is inviting and relatable.
At first, I wasn't exactly sure how to engage with Haddish's humour when it was contrasted with stories full of so much suffering. However, as I continued to read through the memoir, I developed a deep appreciation for what comedy is for Haddish: a space to work through and cope with the traumatic experiences she has endured and the hurt that comes with it, while also being a voice for other survivors out there. There are some experts that say that humour is actually one of the best ways to cope with suffering. Multiple studies from as far back as the 80's show that laughter stimulates the immune system and counteracts the negative effects of stress hormones, so Haddish is definitely on to something.
“Being onstage is my safest place. It’s the only place I’ve ever felt like nobody’s going to jump up and beat me, and if somebody do beat me, there’s so many people in here they’re going to stop it. And it’s onstage where my voice is heard. I’m not being shut out. It’s where I am accepted.” (Page 425)
In an interview with Doctor Oz, Haddish once again describes the sexual abuse she endured and is received with claps, cheers, and validating "Yes's" from the audience. Doctor Oz responds and says, "I know you told the story because you wanted other women to know that they're not alone and that takes a lot. And they're thanking you, you deserve it." And that's truly what it all comes down to. Everyone copes with their trauma differently, and whether it's through comedy, spoken word, art, etc., what's important is that you process your pain, and if you choose to, speak out about it, because that's the way these cycles of violence break. As Tiffany has shown, as survivors, we don't always know the best way to heal or prevent what happened to us from happening again, but what we can do is talk about it, open the conversation, and perhaps, try to shape better tomorrows together as a community.
“I believe my purpose is to bring joy to people, to make them laugh, and to share my story to help them.” (Page 427)
Written By: Prish
Tiffany Haddish. “The Last Black Unicorn.” Apple Books.