Yesterday the Child Mind Institute hosted a boisterous and at times somber discussion with actress Lorraine Bracco about living with dyslexia and, later in her life, with depression. The conversation with Dr. Harold Koplewicz was part of the 12th Annual Katz Memorial Lecture. Bracco talked about everything from growing up feeling “dumb” in school to how her experience with depression and treatment informed one of her most famous roles. In between, Bracco was remarkably candid about how, despite all her success, she wonders what would have turned out differently if her dyslexia had been recognized and treated at an early age.
“Social promotion—I think they invented that for me,” Bracco joked about her poor showing in academic subjects as a child. “I was a jokester, I was humorous, but when it came to reading, writing spelling, I was a disaster. ” She vividly described her angst about the written word. “When I was called upon to read, I was so anxiety ridden the words would just pop up and hit me,” she said.
Thanks to a middle school English teacher who took an interest in her, she went on to become a model, a successful TV producer in France, and an actress on both sides of the Atlantic. But still that anxiety was hard to shake. She “couldn’t go to an audition cold,” she said—she “needed to see the pages beforehand, learn them by reading out loud.” She was unsure about her future as an actress until that particular problem brought things to a head.
After a reading of a play by David Rabe, surrounded by an A-list group of actors, Bracco was mortified by her performance. Humiliated, she rushed out of the room with “tears popping out of my eyeballs like darts.” The playwright caught up with her and wouldn’t accept her poor opinion of her skills as an actress. “Lorraine, I enjoyed your reading,” she recalls him saying. She screamed, “You’re a liar! I can’t read!” But Rabe was calm. “If I ever do this play, I want you to play this part,” he said. And he did, and she did.
“I don’t believe I would have tried any more to be an actor if it hadn’t been for him,” Bracco told Dr. Koplewicz.
The pain of growing up with an unidentified learning disability is still with her, despite the humor. “My daughter went to a Montessori in Tribeca, and they had what do you call it, ‘creative spelling’?” Bracco said. “I would have been so good at that!” However, “even today I find myself wanting to use a word and I can’t spell it so I have to dumb myself down. I think ‘This is pathetic! I am pathetic, still!'”
That’s why spotting problems early is so important to Bracco. “If I’d met you as a kid, wow,” she told Dr. Koplewicz. “Where could I have gone? What would I have been instead of feeling like I’m always climbing out of a hole? I mean, you know, I could have been solid. I think I would have been challenged in a way that would have been intellectually stimulating. Instead of using humor to hide behind.”
One issue where Bracco isn’t left wondering what could have been is her depression and the successful therapy and medication treatment she (eventually) received. She went through a painful divorce, a long custody battle, a bankruptcy. “When I was going through all the bad stuff, people would say, ‘Of course you were depressed after going through all that,’ ” she recalled. “But when I was on the upswing, I thought, ‘Why am I not doing the happy dance? Something is really wrong. Let’s figure this out!'”
Her positive experience with depression treatment encouraged her to seek the role of Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos—with a caveat. She wanted to make sure the part wasn’t designed to be a negative stereotype. Bracco recalled telling creator David Chase, “I’ve been in therapy now for awhile, I’ve been on medication, and it’s been incredibly helpful. And I don’t want to make a mockery of it—I don’t think that’s fair.”
That instinct, to present the truth of mental illness and treatment, continues. “What shocks me the most is how many people come up to me and can’t believe that I’ve been in therapy and have been on medication,” Bracco said. “They whisper, ‘You take medication? I take medication!’ All right! Why are we whispering? It’s the big secret, the big stigma. It’s a terrible thing. When I think how many people suffer with depression it’s heartbreaking to me.”