In his new memoir, “Tragedy Plus Time,” the actor and comedian Adam Cayton-Holland writes about his younger sister, Lydia, and her sensitivity when she was young. When one Goldfish cracker fell on the floor, he says, she’d have to throw out another with it, so that it wouldn’t be alone on its journey into the great beyond. “It was Lydia in a nutshell: champion of the overlooked and minuscule; thoughtful, crazy and kind.” Adam, Lydia and their older sister, Anna, were close growing up in Denver. As Lydia got older, she struggled with depression and eventually took her own life. In this book, Mr. Cayton-Holland writes about his childhood, his family bonds and the devastation he had to overcome in the wake of Lydia’s suicide. The co-creator of the comedy series “Those Who Can’t,” about a group of less than inspiring high school teachers, Mr. Cayton-Holland talks below about humor running in the family, and how the book unexpectedly led him to forgiveness and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
When all this went down with my sister, I was devastated. After I picked myself up, after a month or two, I didn’t want to do comedy. I didn’t feel funny, and I certainly didn’t want to talk about this stuff. But it was sort of pushing to get out in one way or another. I’m this insufferable creative type who has to process things through my art, so I felt a totally self-imposed pressure to talk about it, whether that be on stage or, as it turned out, in writing. Every time I got on stage and told jokes and wasn’t talking about it, I felt dishonest.
A few months after her death, I wrote a piece about all of it, and it blew up on my website. That essay was the first slight release of the pressure valve to let out a little air. It begot other essays. I went on podcasts and talked about it. My literary agent is a big comedy fan, so he got wind of me through podcasts. He called me out of the blue and said, “You should write a book. There’s more here.” It was like music to my ears, because I thought, “I have so much more here.”
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I wrote it very selfishly, to heal myself and process. But in writing it, I was surprised by how much joy I was able to conjure just thinking about the good old days with my family. I always thought humor was my thing. I’m the comic in the family. It was fun to realize how much my family is caught up in all of that, and how funny each of them is as individuals. I asked my mom how she met my dad. She said she talked to him on the phone. “I thought with a voice like that he sounded tall, dark and handsome,” she said. “Turns out he was a 5-8 Jew from Brentwood.” And I thought, that’s going in the book verbatim. Thanks, Mom.