I didn’t even know of him until after he died. His sister’s letter on Medium struck a chord someplace deep inside. That was in 2015. Last year I finally watched the entire series of Parks and Recreation (re-watching dozens of episodes since). Then I listened to a podcast he did with Pete Holmes where he openly talks about heroin. He described things so matter of fact throughout the hour-plus listen. Not long after the recording, heroin took his life.
I don’t normally write reviews. And this will be far from a normal review. It’s more general thoughts on such a necessary story. Three years ago I remember reading what Stephanie Wittels Wachs wrote about her brother’s death. It was called The New Normal. It detailed how Stephanie found out about her brother’s death (she was the one who received the dreaded phone call), the day after she found out (it just so happened to be her birthday) and what the ensuing weeks were like. It hurt like hell to read her words, because they felt so real and raw. To cope with such a tragedy, Stephanie continued to write. Eventually, she wrote enough to make a book out of it. It surfaced on my radar sometime last year, with the release scheduled for early 2018. I wasn’t necessarily in a position to drop $20 on a book in February, so I patiently waited until April for a library loan.
Harris died at 30. Stephanie marveled at his talent, his potential and his wit. To her, Harris meant everything. She was truly broken. She still is truly broken. She’s married with a child, but Harris and Stephanie were best friends. They had no other siblings, just two loving parents. As the older sister, she always tried to protect her brother. Stephanie shared stories from their childhood, which really shines a light to how Harris became this successful comedy writer. He told jokes as an infant. Stephanie found out Harris had a drug problem days before she married her fiancé, Mike. Her disappointment was evident. How could her brother be addicted to heroin? Like most heroin users, Harris began with pills. It wasn’t until later he experimented with heroin.
It’s heartbreaking to read her words. Her daughter, Iris, has a complicated ear issue. She needed a hearing aid, which devastated Stephanie because she just wanted her daughter to lead a normal life. She thought, maybe, Iris would fall behind, be picked on or something even worse. As Stephanie tells these stories, it’s Harris who puts her in better moods. It’s Harris who always knows what to say.
Stephanie and Harris grew up in Houston. Harris, after graduating from Emerson College, moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy. The guy was ultra talented, landing a job on Sarah Silverman’s show in the mid 2000’s. He wrote for Eastbound and Down and Secret Girlfriend. His mainstay was Parks and Recreation where he not only wrote and created storylines, but he appeared in a half dozen or so episodes as Harris, a stoner animal control employee who sometimes spoke during Leslie Knope’s forums while wearing a purple Phish shirt. Harris literally built vacation time around Phish touring, even requesting time off at age 22 after accepting the job with Sarah Silverman. Harris coined the term “humblebrag,” which he turned into a book in 2012.
Stephanie shares personal information, including e-mails sent, delivered text messages and jokes written. The story flows in such a potent way as Stephanie breaks down chapters by various points before and after his death, which makes for a more enticing read rather than Stephanie just writing in a journal style. The journey Stephanie takes the reader on stretches from the early childhood days in Houston up to shortly after a year following his death. Her misery drags on as she details handling his estate, attending the Emmy’s and going back to work. Her post on Medium, the New Normal, highlighted the reality she now faces for the rest of her life. The book only expands on that point. Nothing will ever be the same.
Listening to Harris talk about using heroin with Pete Holmes on a November 2014 episode is rather difficult. Harris talks about leaving work on a network show to buy cheap heroin at the infamous Skid Row. He spoke to Pete about being clean and sober at the time, but that wasn’t the case. He had been using at the time, Stephanie explains during the book, having relapsed shortly before recording. In February of 2015 Harris died in his apartment.
Things were really looking up for Harris professionally. Aziz Ansari, who wrote the foreward for the book, was ready to begin filming his Netflix show, Master of None, which Harris was supposed to play the role of Ansari’s best friend. This, Stephanie recalls, would be his big acting break. None of that happened. Ansari dedicated the first season to his friend Harris.
Overall, the book features moments that’ll make you smile. Moments where you just want to cry. Harris had so much promise. He already had given the world so much joy and laughter. The stories Stephanie tells only further emphasizes that point. I’ll end with this line that Harris told Stephanie once before. It might be what I take most from the book: “Let’s stop finding a new witch of the week and burning them at the stake. We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”