ASSUME WE KNOW — Don’t tell people about their own struggles. Since my accident, if I’m really exhausted, I sometimes stammer. Often people will inform me that I just stammered, as if I didn’t know it happened. Believe me, I know.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eliza VanCort.
Eliza VanCort is the author of A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO CLAIMING SPACE: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard. A student of the arts and political science, she is a Cook House Fellow at Cornell University, an advisory board member of the Performing Arts for Social Change, and was recently named a member of Govern for America’s League of Innovators. Creator of a highly regarded talk on anti-racist communication commissioned by MIT. Eliza gives talks and runs workshops both nationally and internationally on women, anti-racist, and global communication.
She is also the founder of The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca (AWI), Central New York’s preeminent Meisner Technique acting studio. Eliza has led a life that Hollywood studios would dismiss as being too-hard-to-believe. When her mother became paranoid schizophrenic Eliza hitched across the country from New York to California by truck with her. She had to learn to be small and invisible to stay safe. As an adult, she suffered a traumatic brain injury which required her to rethink communication from the ground up.
These two experiences, in combination with her acting training, resulted in Eliza developing unique insights into the nuances of human behavior. Today, she is passionate about sharing that knowledge and empowering all women to claim space. VanCort, who joined the chorus of women fiercely proclaiming #MeToo — gave a 2018 TEDx in which she shared her personal story and offered actionable, transformative tools for real change. This formed the foundation of her talks on empowered communication for the good of all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
My life got off to a bit of a rocky start, but my battle scars made me stronger. My mother became paranoid schizophrenic when I was 4 1/2 years old, and my father was granted custody. During a visitation my mother took me without his permission — which was considered an illegal kidnapping. This happened twice more. The hardest time was when we hitchhiked across the country, from truck stop to truck stop, from New York to California. During those trips I decided that if I was going to survive, I would have to make myself so small that I was invisible. I hid behind a curtain of hair and mostly lived in my imagination.
With a lot of love from my family and community, I worked through my early trauma and eventually graduated at the top of my class with a degree in political science, and then was admitted to NYU law school. After my first year, I got a scholarship to do whatever I wanted in the summer. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. I could work anywhere I want to, and I don’t want to do any of this!” My philosophy is if you’re going through hell, don’t keep going. You’ll end up in hell! Find a different path! So, I took a leave of absence from law school, and never went back. I had acted a lot in high school, and missed it terribly in college, so I found a great acting program in the city which taught the Sanford Meisner Technique. I fell in love with it! I performed in New York, then taught Meisner in Boston. Eventually, I opened Central New York’s most preeminent Meisner studio, The Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. Then my accident happened in 2014, and everything changed.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill?
Sure. While I was riding my bike, someone decided it was a better idea to text and drive, than just drive, and hit me in the head with their car.
I woke up with a bi-lateral brain injury and a subdural hematoma. My short-term memory was shot. I would go to bed remembering everything but wake up with half my day gone. I was also clumsy. I remember trying to fry an egg but ending up with it landing on the stove and not in the pan… repeatedly. And there were weird things. Before the accident I loathed raw tomatoes. Afterwards, I craved them. A few weeks in, I thought I was getting “back to normal.” My friend Kim was visiting, and I asked her why everyone who stopped by was acting so weirdly. She said, “Eliza, they aren’t acting weirdly, you are, and they don’t know what to do.”
That’s when she told me that my communication skills were compromised. My world was rocked. I had always prided myself on my excellent communication, and now I couldn’t even tell I was bad at it! It was scary.
What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
Hannah Gadsby says there is nothing more powerful than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself. I tell my students and clients that the part of your bone that has been broken mends the strongest, which is a pretty damn good analogy for life. After my accident, I was afraid. I was scared that if I went into the world again, my new weaknesses would be revealed. Part of me wanted to hide in my bed and never leave.
Eventually, my friend Katie encouraged me to start writing. That’s when I decided to rethink the ideas of fear and bravery. If I was afraid, it meant something was worth doing. At this point I was relearning a lot, and so many things scared me. Failure was an everyday occurrence. I started to thank that fear, thank it for telling me I cared enough about something to fear messing it up. That was the shift — when I saw bravery as fear meeting action. What’s brave about doing something that doesn’t scare you? This perspective allowed me to focus on getting up and learning, rather than being stuck in a state of mourning a person who was forever lost.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness?
None of what is happening now in my life would have been possible if I hadn’t been hit by that car. None of it. The work I did recovering from my accident was hard. I had to relearn my communication, in many ways from the ground up. But I learned so much in this process. It was an astounding journey.
The keynotes and workshops on communication, public speaking, and claiming space are an indirect outgrowth of my struggles growing up, and later a direct outgrowth of rebuilding my communication skills bricks by brick after my accident. I know I could have never written my book, A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard. without the challenges I’ve faced.
Just last week I was on a podcast, and as the host was giving me this glowing introduction all I could think of was, “Wow, I’m sharing what I learned about communication and women claiming space because some woman thought it was a good idea to invade my space and hit me in the head with her car. This is WILD!”
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
Learn to navigate the hard parts but look for the gifts. I don’t think of suffering as a terrible thing. It’s a tool life gives us to learn and grow.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Katie Spallone, my sister from another mother, encouraged me to write at bedtime after my accident. This way even though I would wake up with little memory of the prior day, I at least had written it all down! It hurt to look at any screen, so I touch typed with my eyes closed, recalling what I had learned and experienced.
Every day I would send Katie what I wrote. She would edit it and send it back, and then follow up with a call or visit, encouraging me to write more. This is when things started to turn around. I was far too foggy at the time to really appreciate how much work Katie was putting into my writing. Editing the writing of a woman who had a head injury and types with her closed eyes is no joke! My writing seemed to help reprogram my brain. (New studies show that’s probably exactly what it was doing!) It also gave me a feeling of control and purpose. I’m convinced Katie’s love and encouragement about my daily writing was a critical part of my recovery. She’s ride or die, that woman!
I have to say, however, that I have been on the receiving end of love, support, and help from so many incredible humans throughout my life. My “big sister” Alice Green, my elementary school teacher Robert Wallit, my little “brother” Alek Osinski, all my beautiful and generous sisters of choice, not birth. My village is one of my greatest gifts. I think this is why I’m so passionate about giving back. I have not been on this road alone. Far from it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My passion is inspiring and empowering women of all races and backgrounds to live the life of their choosing unapologetically and bravely. My family fled the holocaust on my father’s side. I was raised with the idea that no one is free while others are oppressed and that the personal is political. My life has been largely focused on trying to make an impact, whether it’s creating a speech for a progressive candidate, giving talks, writing my book, or teaching acting. I hope to say at the end of my life that I left the world a little better than I came into it.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- ASSUME WE KNOW — Don’t tell people about their own struggles. Since my accident, if I’m really exhausted, I sometimes stammer. Often people will inform me that I just stammered, as if I didn’t know it happened. Believe me, I know.
- ASK QUESTIONS — I don’t mind answering any questions about my accident. In fact, I find that my bringing it up helps others combat the feeling that it’s a taboo subject, which keeps things much more real.
- DON’T COMPARE — I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to with brain injuries who say there is one thing that bugs them: people saying, “It doesn’t make sense you experience X,Y and Z because my friend has a brain injury and she never deals with that. Are you sure that’s because of your brain injury?” As with most challenges, each brain injury is different. Trust that people are telling you the truth, know their experience, and don’t compare.
- ASK — I love it when I become friends with someone and they say (after hearing about my accident,) with no pity or judgement, “Is there anything that I can do?” For me, this opens the door to a critical component of my post-accident friendships: total honesty! When not distracted, my memory is great now. But when very distracted, my memory is shot. I often repeat things and people feel embarrassed to tell me. It’s like my memories live behind a curtain, almost a fog. If people remind me we talked about something, the fog is instantly lifted and I remember! If they don’t, I have a vague feeling I may have forgotten something, and it’s really unsettling. A simple, “Hey, you told me about this last week” makes all the difference. It’s a gift.
- FOLLOW THE PLATINUM RULE — This is an idea originated by my dear friend, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. The golden rule is “treat people the way you would want to be treated.” Leslyn’s Platinum Rule is, “Treat people the way they want to be treated.” Leslyn does a good deal of work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She developed this because what works for one person or group, might be radically unhelpful, or even cruel, for another. For example, if some people forget things, they wouldn’t want to be given a hard time about it. Since my accident, if my friends gave me a hard time every time I forgot something, it would become pretty demoralizing. Get to know people, listen to their needs, and treat them the way they want to be treated. And if you don’t know how they want to be treated, ask.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Your fear is a window into what matters. Listen to your fear, then do the thing that scares you. That’s real bravery.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Oprah was like a daughter to Dr. Maya Angelou, and Maya Angelou’s poetry and autobiographies got me through my childhood. Oprah has clearly learned so much from Dr. Angelou, and from her own unbelievably inspiring journey. Talking to Oprah… that would be… well, it would be magic. I have to say this question was tough. I mean, Hanna Gadsby, Emma Watson, Samantha Bee, Angela Davis, Vice President Kamala Harris, Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano, AOC, Trevor Noah, Stephan Colbert. People who give back by doing what they love but also see the world for what could be and work like hell to make that world a reality for all of us. Those people are my heroes.