Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Brooke Nevin, Hachette Books
The coming-of-age memoir of Laura Chinn, Acne, begins by discovering his first zit, at the age of ten – typical kid stuff, right? Thing is, that’s pretty much where Chinn’s middle childhood ends. Soon after, her parents divorced and her brother was diagnosed with brain cancer, leaving her alone at home in Clearwater, Florida, while her mother and brother commuted for treatment.
Yet, as you might have guessed, her skin plays a central role in her life story. Chinn does Acne the title of her memoir to show how painful it was for her, though it should have paled in comparison to the other hardships her family faced. “My brother was blind and deaf and in a wheelchair, and I was always jealous of his fair skin,” she says. (At one point, Chinn accompanied his mother and brother on one such trip, to Tijuana, where he was prescribed unregulated Accutane for what became acne that masks his face.)
Having parents who weren’t at all interested in parenting and consumed by his brother’s illness made him grow up quickly: in his memoir, Chinn recounts his teenage years of drinking, smoking, having a best friend who broke her bathroom sink while having sex on it and trying to lose her own virginity. Additionally, she finds it hard to make fun of boys who grab her crotch at school, racist classmates (Chinn’s mom is white, her dad is black), and being around her brother for his eventual death. She drops out of high school but heads for an unlikely Hollywood ending in Los Angeles where she establishes a career in television (she’s the creator of Pop TV’s Florida Girlsand was also a writer and producer on Fox’s The mic and wrote for Fox’s Acquired rights).
Chinn says when she started talking about her formative years in writers’ rooms, “I was telling a story that I thought was pretty benign, and they were reacting so horrified. that was what being a teenager was like. I thought, like, witnessing gangbangs was part of everyone’s childhood. They also said she should write a book.
After battling acne for decades, what made you want to write a memoir about it? Didn’t you just want to get rid of it?
Part of it was because I had such a hard time talking about it. I was so ashamed of it, and even until a few months ago it was really hard for me to talk about it. And so there was some catharsis to write about it. So I started doing it, and then I started following the fact that acne had been that guideline my whole life. All these other things are going on, while I’m still dealing with this skin thing. It was also fun for me, the juxtaposition between my obsession with my skin and the horrors everyone was going through, like my brother with brain cancer.
You write about a childhood where you spent long periods of time without adult supervision. What do you think it taught you?
I don’t recommend it as a parenting technique, but I will say it has made me incredibly capable and not easily overwhelmed by life. When I was 20, my friends were scratching their cars and crying, and they didn’t know what to do. And I was like, “Well, you call a body shop, make an appointment, bring your car.” As I had taken care of myself for so long, it definitely made me a very capable adult.
You’re really honest in the book, about everything from being made fun of by a guy about your buttons to the lighting on set working as an actor to how lucky you were to avoid yourself injure or injure others while driving while intoxicated. What was the hardest part to write?
Drunk driving was certainly the most difficult; I still bear so much shame. Selfishness is deplorable. It’s hard to think of myself as someone who was capable of doing something so destructive, but I was. I wanted to write about it in hopes that someone else might learn from my actions, but it was hard to put the words in writing.
What was your parents’ reaction to reading the book?
It was difficult because I don’t think they knew how difficult it was for me. So I think there was a lot of emotion, and it’s one of those things where their cup was so full of taking care of my brother and their stress and horror of what was happening to my brother, and therefore to in many ways I think it was surprising for them to learn all that I was getting myself into and what my life was like without them. The extent of the danger, almost, how dangerous it was. My mom grew up in a completely different time when they used to run around the neighborhood and they didn’t do, you know, heroin. So I think it was quite alarming, the amount of danger a child can encounter if their parents are not present.
I was struck by your position that you weren’t going to use drugs, that you drew a hard line there.
It saved my life. It was a saving decision. It was really, really. I think there are young people who can take drugs, and they come out the other end, but I think young people who are going through trauma, who have been through trauma, sometimes drugs can take too much place, and I think I wouldn’t have survived. If I had started, I don’t think I would have stopped.
There are so many examples in the book where you write about downright racist people around you, seemingly unaware that your dad is black. How did you learn to assume your identity and defend yourself?
It’s funny. I found it all so hard to believe and so ridiculous that there was almost no evolution. It was like, immediately ridiculous to me and immediately I knew I was always going to tell whoever I was in front of that my dad was black, no matter how seemingly scary that person was or whatever point of view, and I don’t know why exactly? Because I was so young and so little, but I think because I had the gift of growing up in a house where everyone was a different color, I just had such knowledge at such a young age that’s a ridiculous point of view and doesn’t make any sense. And so yeah, it was almost like immediate, my reaction to that was almost immediate. People still don’t know I’m black, but I don’t live in a place where there are so many people who would talk racist in front of me. I don’t know if this is the place or if times have changed or if I just happen to be surrounded by more enlightened beings, but I don’t meet him anymore.
You dropped out of high school. Did you get a GED?
I dropped out of high school in second grade, then I went to a fake high school. It’s a high school by mail, so you send them money and they send you open book tests and then you get a high school diploma, but it’s not like it’s real. It’s kinda real, but it’s not real.
It’s the education you received when you started working as a screenwriter on television shows in Los Angeles. Do you suffer from impostor syndrome?
Huge impostor syndrome, until my husband completely changed my perspective, because I’d been in writers’ rooms with all these Ivy League educated people, and I was venting my insecurity to about it, and my husband said, ‘But Laura, so few of us went to school to write. And I was like, “Oh yeah,” because he went to Columbia for engineering. When I started asking people, they went for all these other reasons and I was like, They might know more about books or science or something. But many of us are self-taught even though we went to college. So that helped me a lot. But no, I had so much insecurity around not being educated.
How did you tell yourself to be, You belong in this room?
Literal claims that are exactly that. I listen and I still listen to a lot of affirmations. I used to see a woman who made me write affirmations every night before bed that are exactly that. I am Laura Chinn and I deserve to be here. I am Laura Chinn and I deserve good things. You’re just brainwashing yourself into believing you deserve it. And I recommend college because I think it took me a long time to get that sense of entitlement, but someone could get it in four years. They can get it easily in four years.
Back to your acne – you’ve tried to fix it in so many ways: Accutane, diet, and even the Scientologist-approved cleansing ritual. Can you tell us how you thought they would change your life?
Every time I was like, This is the answer. I’m so much harder on myself than anyone else, and when I have a flare-up I feel so heavy and there’s so much insecurity and self-hatred that comes to the surface. But when I see a breakout on someone else, I don’t notice it. And then if they report it, I’m like, I do not care. You are beautiful. But for me, one of the biggest challenges with this health issue is that I feel like I’m not allowed to have it. If you have another medical condition, you may have it and you may have a bandage or a cast on your leg or whatever. But in our society, we have decided that this health condition should be concealed and hidden and should be ashamed of it. And so it has always been very difficult for me. The shame aspect was always very, very difficult, and so with each new treatment, I was like, I no longer have to be ashamed of my health problem. It was like lying to yourself. I’m sure people do with all types of physical things they wish they could change, right? You think everything is going to go away and you are going to be confident. But then, honestly, I started doing some inside work and the confidence came more from within, and all the fantasies about how my skin was going to make me confident kind of went away, and I was like , Oh no, it’s all going to have to come from within, right?