Humor and sorrow share real estate in the Palm Beach Post columnist’s moving, unorthodox memoir of grief
As one of the Palm Beach Post’s most dexterous reporters and columnists, Leslie Gray Streeter is as comfortable writing about fundraising galas and music festivals as she is covering homicides and interviewing chefs. This is how it is in a skeleton-staffed 21st century newsroom, where versatility is the new specialization.
But whether she’s blogging about the royal family, interviewing Smash Mouth or alerting readers to the latest fast-casual restaurant, the commonality linking Streeter’s work is that she’s the storyteller, not the subject. That changed on a July day in 2015, when Scott Zervitz, Streeter’s husband of more than five years, died of cardiac arrest. As Streeter would bluntly recall it in her debut book, Black Widow, released this spring, Scott “dropped dead in front of me while we were making out.”
Suddenly, Streeter was the focus of local news articles, navigating a narrative she couldn’t control.
This past March, this deft interviewer again found herself on the other side of this equation, promoting Black Widow on venues as large as “CBS Sunday Morning,” with its 6 million viewers, and as small as Delray’s Murder on the Beach, where she read and signed books for a crowd of 23. A memoir of her time with Scott and the painful year following his sudden passing, Black Widow merits this attention: It’s a brave, wrenching book that, conversely, isn’t afraid to strike comic notes when warranted.
Peppered with the snappy prose, pop-culture references and everywoman relatability that have long been a hallmark of Streeter’s newspaper work, it examines grief with a combination of raw honesty and absurdist distance. Of the moment Scott’s heart stopped beating, she “saw [his] head shaking, kind of like a blender that keeps rumbling three seconds after you turn it off.” She compares a visit to a mausoleum “like car shopping.” Noticing that she cried off a pound in the immediate aftermath, she muses, “Is it wrong to be happy about that?”
The timing of Scott’s death couldn’t have been worse in the sense that the couple was in the years-long process of adopting a child, Brooks, who had been living with them but was not yet officially theirs—and who would now have to be raised by a widowed single mother, should she win legal custody. She explores this and much more—including her formative years, how she met Scott, and the possibility of dating again, in the memoir’s 262 pages.
We caught up with Streeter just prior to her signing this spring at Murder on the Beach.
Have you had total strangers, after reading this book, just want to come up and hug you?
Yes. The last three days have been really funny. Mothers in the drop-off line at my school, who I didn’t know knew who I was, have come up to hug me. I’ve always been a person, since I’ve been at the Post, that people recognize. After Scott died, it was a weird thing—people would stop by the office. I was redefining my boundaries at first; it was kind of startling. And people would walk up to me in the grocery store and just hug me. People walk up to me and say, “I lost my husband five years ago, or two weeks ago;” there are people that say, “I lost my dog yesterday.” And it’s not the same thing, but their heart is broken today, and they need to talk to someone who would understand. If that’s me, I’m super-honored that you chose to do that.
How did you come to decide that you should write a book about your experience?
The day Scott died, I was in my kitchen with a friend of mine, Scott Eyman, who used to be the books editor at the Post. For years, I would bother him with, “I wrote five pages of what’s going to be the next best novel!” And he would read it and go, “what else you got?” He said to me, “You will finish the book you have to finish.” So I was in my kitchen, and it was maybe 5 o’clock, 12 hours after Scott had died, and I said to Eyman, “I think this is my book.” It just came out. But when you’re in grief, you don’t know what the hell you’re saying. I probably offered people money that they were kind enough not to collect on.
I’ve always processed my emotions through writing, whether it’s in the paper or blogs or otherwise. Probably two months later, I bought a computer so I could write something, and I didn’t want it to be on the Post computer. And I just started writing.
The subtitle of your book is “for people who normally avoid books with ‘journey’ in the title.” What kind of books are those, and why was it important that yours was different?
If you’re a person whose healing is helped by things that are very serious and full of super-emotional sincere language, and are very much about journeys and feelings—the Marianne Williamson sort of thing—then that is fantastic. I know many people who have been moved and changed and healed by those things. That is not me. … You [might] feel there’s something wrong with you if you laugh, or if you’re pissed off at the person who died. And I just wanted to say, your life is your life. If it’s a journey, it’s a journey. But here is a thing for people who just want to read about someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and stumbled through this ridiculously awful thing that happened, and hope that they got through the other side.
And it’s not a how-to book. It’s not something you’d find at a bookstore with a pink cover and butterflies on it. It’s not a journal. Maybe Little, Brown will want me to do the Black Widow Journal, and it’ll be full of curse words and ink stains—that’s a really good idea! But it was never meant to be a how-to, because there are no how-tos in grief. It was just my story.
I was taken by the humor in this book, even in moments of demonstrable sadness. Is that just your personality?
Yes. I’m funny. And funny is really hard. If you try to be funny, you fail. It’s not “slipping on a banana peel onto the gravesite” funny. It’s like, you’re hungry at the wrong time, or you hug the wrong person. I’m sure funny things happen to people all the time, and they don’t notice them. I noticed them because I needed to remember that stuff. I needed to be human.
And yet, how genuinely painful was it to relive these experiences in a literary form?
The funeral was surprisingly easy to write about. As you could imagine, the chapters that were hardest to write were the chapter in the emergency room and the one about the custody hearing to terminate Brooks’ birth parents’ rights. I pored over that, because I wanted to make sure I got everything right. I took everyone’s name out, and sent the chapters to the social workers to make sure that I had gotten the process right. The ER thing was obviously horrible, because it was a horrible day—the worst day of my life.
Was writing the book therapeutic in the sense that it brought up some insights that you may never have thought about if you weren’t forced to explore them in this way?
Absolutely. I went back to therapy six months ago to prepare for this [media tour], because I knew I was going to be bringing up things and reading the book again. And I did the audio book. It was honestly great. I thought, nobody else could do it but me. It has been incredibly therapeutic, mostly because it makes it easier to do things like this, and to talk to people and not burst into tears when we have these conversations.
My uncle said to me once, “you never get over it, but you get through it.” I’m not grieving like I was five years ago. The pain is not what it was. He’s still not here, I still cry occasionally, but writing this, and writing the funny parts, makes me happy. The cool part of it is that five and a half years of marriage leading up to that day were pretty good. … It sucks because it won’t happen again, but it happened. And I got a thing that a lot of people don’t get. I want to remember that.
You write at length about how difficult it was to tell Brooks the full truth about what happened to Scott. Now that Brooks is old enough to understand death, has it fully hit him?
Yes. He’s 6, and [Scott’s] not here. And he has an unfortunately solid grasp on grief that 6-year-olds shouldn’t have. … And I wish he didn’t. But I think that maybe, subsequent things will be easier to explain to him. I never have to say, “so-and-so went to a farm, or they went away,” or whatever. He doesn’t super want to talk about this, but he loves giving people the books.
Who do you most hope to help with the publication of this book?
People who have been told that their grieving is weird, or that they’re doing it wrong. People who love those people and don’t know what to say to them. In this society we talk about our poop and our sex lives and our boobs and everything else. We don’t want to talk about death. It happens to everybody. And I just want to get a conversation going about how grief is normal and everybody grieves. Everyone will lose someone. And I want people to know that it’s OK to talk about death.