No Labels

Maria Bello: I’m a Sexual ‘Whatever’

In her her new book of essays, the actress opens up about her own struggles in romantic relationships and why we need to expand our definition of “partner.”

05.01.15 9:15 AM ET

Maria Bello wants to ask you some questions.

The stunning actress, best known for her roles on ER and in A History of Violence, as well as her humanitarian work, is out with a thought-provoking collection of essays, Whatever…Love is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves.

The essays were triggered by Bello’s popular 2013 Modern Love column in which she disclosed that she was in a relationship with a woman. That column was only the beginning of a conversation, and the book represents her attempt to work through the questions the column raised. Bello plunks herself down into thorny questions regarding sexuality, religion, politics, and family—and she wants to stay there.

The book is emotionally raw without being a lurid tell-all. Bello writes candidly about her troubles with her alcoholic and mentally-ill father as well as her own difficulties in a variety of romantic relationships. Bello wants us as a modern society to be more open-minded about different forms of love, to give a more expansive definition to the word “partner.” When it comes to her sexuality, an area of modern life around which society obsesses with labels, Bello is a self-described “Whatever.” She also sees as limiting our tendency to define “partner” as being the person we’re having sex with. Lives are much richer, she believes, when we find companionship in all manner of people.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bello opens up about feminism, Pope Francis, sexuality, and why she is pro-choice.

Why did you want to write this book now?

It was really stunning to me after I wrote the 2013 New York Times essay, where I told my son that I was involved with a woman who was like a godmother to him. He said to me words that would change my life. He said, “Whatever, Mom, love is love.” That was the seed of my article, and made me start to question many of the labels we give ourselves. It was stunning for me. I had 73,000 Facebook hits that day. It was mostly people saying “I’m a Whatever, too, and never knew what to call it.” They didn’t know how to talk about new sorts of partnerships and labels of families. I thought, “Wow, this an important topic and many, many people want to have this conversation.”

And labels make people lonely, right? If “partner” is limited to boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife.

The best art makes you feel not so lonely anymore by sharing our personal experience. I never thought of this as a memoir. I thought of it as a series of personal stories that lead to a larger conversation. That’s always been my hope because the labels I have given myself and other people have given me, I ask questions of those labels in my book. But other people are going to ask other questions for their labels, to figure out which labels disempower you and which labels shine with the light of the beauty of who you are or are meant to be.

What might surprise a lot of people is that one of the people you describe as a partner, as one of your closest relationships, was with a priest.

I have been blessed to have so many incredible teachers in my life. One of them, his name was Father Ray Jackson—my son, Jackson, is named after him actually—was my professor at Villanova University. He was the person I had lunch with every day. He’s the one whose shoulder I cried on when my mom was going through chemotherapy. He was the guy I talked to about everything. I point out in that chapter that in many ways he was my partner all through university. He was the main person in my life. Just because we weren’t romantically involved doesn’t mean someone can’t be your partner. That’s the gist of a lot of what I talk about in the book, the idea of partnership. My two friends are sisters and they’ve raised a daughter together. They all live together—so aren’t they partners? People get so ashamed sometimes when you ask someone, “Do you have a partner?” More than 50 percent of people in America are single, so often they say they don’t, but the truth is that if there is somebody significant to you in your life that you are committed to, isn’t that a partner? And then people light up and go, “My dog is my partner!” or “My ex is my partner!” or” My best friend is my partner!” So I just think the traditional labels don’t work for people anymore, we just can’t fit into those tidy little boxes any more.

You write a lot about your own father—his struggles with alcohol, his rage, and so on. You also open up about when you learned about some of the abuse he suffered as a child, such as when he was tied to a pole and left overnight to let rats scurry on him. What was it like discovering your father’s vulnerability?

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I do believe that if we are open and listen to people’s stories we can’t help but to have compassion for them. We all have our struggles. My father certainly had his. As I got older and started hearing these stories—a lot came from my mother, as they weren’t things my father would talk about—then I had huge compassion for my father for what he suffered. I was able to stop seeing him as this super anti-hero and more as a human being that had his own pain and struggle. It was then, when I really understood his stories, that I started to grow into acceptance. My father’s a really good man, and thank God he has grown and changed over the years. He’s apologized. He’s gotten on the correct medication. He’s curious about life. Thank God we were able to transform our relationship. You hear often that forgiveness is the key. For me, I don’t believe in forgiveness across the board. For me, I was able to forgive my father after getting through acceptance. But I think some people go through things and I would never tell them to forgive. I was with a little girl in Haiti who was 7 years old and was raped by her father and uncle. She was lying on a hospital table, and so I felt, “You know what, I would never tell this child she needs to forgive them.” Acceptance is one thing. To accept that something has happened to us. To accept what the other people were going through. Forgiveness—I don’t know.

Speaking of Haiti, the average consumer of news sees plenty of celebrities going to hard-hit areas of the world. You write quite passionately about Haiti—what is it about that country that is so alluring for you?

As soon as my foot hit the ground in Haiti I knew I would be connected to this place for the rest of my life. People often visualize Haiti and only can see poverty and devastation. The truth is that even in the poorest of the poor communities, there is so much life, art, music, dancing, and joy. You are overwhelmed with color and joy as soon as you land there. You’ve never seen more extraordinary beaches and hilltops. It’s an incredibly remarkable place. Haiti’s the sort of place where you either fall in love or are terrified. But most people I know that have gone there have fallen devastatingly in love, like Bill Clinton. I would encourage everyone to go visit Haiti because it really is stunning.

You talk about how important a role books played in your life. One book in particular had an impact on you when you were diagnosed as bipolar—William Styron’s Darkness Visible. What was it about the book that reached you?

I tried to explain depression to someone, and it’s almost impossible. Many people have written about depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. There has rarely been anything I’ve read that has been so concise and hits the nail on the head exactly for what depression is. He actually wrote it when he was in the midst of a depression. I like to say depression feels like your whole family just died in a car accident, you have no one and nothing left, but the truth is they’re inside having dinner and are just fine. Styron’s Darkness Visible is the first book I’ve read that captured that in an artistic and authentic way. It’s a short and really concise book. But it’s really in your gut heartfelt. It’s not one you’d walk away from feeling sad. I think you walk away feeling that this man shows you a part of himself that will help you be more compassionate in the world. I felt more compassionate to myself with my own disease, for my father, and all the people who suffer from it in the world.

Your mother was a nurse, and you write about the botched abortions she saw—women swallowing bleach, using knitting needles. Do you think that experience is part of why you are adamantly pro-choice?

I think I am adamantly pro-choice because a woman should be able to choose with her body. How I came to that conclusion was through the lens of my own experience, and part of that lens was my mother’s experience, so I’m sure that had something to do with it. Also, I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world, meeting so many incredible women, and this is a huge, huge topic. It comes up over and over again, women saying the same thing, that they deserve the right to do with their bodies. Women will have abortions no matter what.

I found it a bit fascinating that at various points you got jealous of men with whom you had relationships when you saw them on screen. Could you not separate the fiction from reality, even as an actor?

I think that we as a society, we’re raised to believe in Prince Charming. We’re raised to believe in this romantic notion that someone will come along and make us a whole—someone will deliver our missing gold shoe. What I realized through all of my romantic relationships is that no one was going to complete me, I am already whole. The only soul mate I have is myself and God. So when you talk about movies and movie people, it’s the same. We romanticize things, we make things up, we want that attraction we see in movies, whether your job is acting or being a housekeeper.

You aren’t the biggest fan of labels, you’ve resisted being labeled bisexual or gay…

People can label me whatever they want to label me.

Or you resist that label for yourself. Is that a better way to put it?

I think my book is a series of essays about modern families and partnerships and questioning the labels we give ourselves, and that other people give us. It’s about getting rid of the labels that hold us back, and creating and embracing the ones that shine light on who we are. So in the end, I realized the only labels we should have are the ones we give ourselves. In terms of the labels I take—I will take any label if it will change human rights or help move policy forward.

Last year Facebook added 51 new definitions for gender orientation. I’m looking through them, and thought I was at least 15 of them! So does that mean we should change LGBT to LGBTABCDG…it would be the whole alphabet. So I prefer to point to one of my greatest heroes, who I wrote about, Marsha P. Johnson, who was a very famous African-American trans woman who threw her shot glass at Stonewall. When the judge asked her what the initial in her middle name stood for, she replied, “Pay it no mind, because it’s nobody’s business anyway.” That’s the point of being a “Whatever,” or saying you’re a “Whatever.” Things are more fluid. As soon as we start to think of anything as static we’re basically just lying to ourselves. Life is fluid. Partnerships are fluid. Things will change and we will die. We don’t know when that’s going to be, for the most part. If we can remember that and continue to question, to live in the question, which is sometimes so difficult. For me, the more I live in the question, the more I am mindful, the more I am joyful, the more I am compassionate, and the more I am grateful.

In the book you address the recent issue of young actresses, most notably Shailene Woodley claiming they are not feminist. Why do you think it has become a dirty word? Why are some young women uncomfortable with that word?

Feminisim, the word, is equal rights for men and women. It’s become this sort of loaded label because of how it was perceived in the ’60s and ’70s. A young celebrity came out recently and said she was definitely not a feminist, but she is now a very powerful person, and so successful and so amazing—she is a feminist! She may not call herself that, but obviously she believes in equal rights for men and women. I think the label of feminism is redefining itself. My son is a feminist. He was going to take Ping Pong for his extracurricular class, and I told him he had to take something more serious. His dean told him to take gender studies. Jack came home so mad at me that day. He said, “Mom! Gender studies! That’s so stupid. Everybody knows men and women are equal.”

That made me really proud of this next generation, that they won’t be looking through that lens anymore. Another of my favorite feminists is Michael Kimmel. He happens to be a man but he is a feminist. The new feminism is about energy. It’s about that balance between male and female energy, and the acceptance of the differences and yet the equality between those genders.

In the book you struggle with how you self-identify as Catholic, but you don’t necessarily line up exactly with people the Church considers “good” Catholics. I was curious how you feel about the new pontiff, Pope Francis?

I’m proud to call myself a Catholic. I’m so encouraged by the pope’s views on inclusiveness and keeping his attention on poverty and peace in the world, that’s what being a Catholic is. There’s room for love and acceptance. Our pope now, he seems to come from that place as well. That the stuff the Church often makes a high priority—divorce, gay marriage, abortion—he seems to pay more attention to things that really matter and are grounded in love and acceptance. When he was at the wall separating Israel and Palestine—that photo, I’ll never forget it. For me that was a huge breakthrough.