Margaret Cho Gets Deep About Past Sexual Abuse: 'All I Have Is Ownership of My Own Suffering' (Exclusive Interview)
It has come to my attention that comedians are often dark, even morbid, human beings. Apparently, this is common sense to everyone but me.
I had expected that I would laugh for hours during an interview with a famous comic; instead, I am fighting back tears. I don't know why San Francisco-born comedian and musician Margaret Cho decided to spend most of our "Wild Night" for this column talking about being bullied, sexually abused and raped as a young girl, but I’m glad she did. I presume this is why she is so funny: the humor of her work comes from addressing her deep-seated pain.
Cho has actually been working on music and playing guitar for seven years now. She released her first single, the Desmond Child-produced “I Cho Am a Woman,” in 2008 on iTunes. Two years later, she completed her first album, Cho Dependent, which was nominated for a Grammy for best comedy album. (Some artists who appeared on the record include Fiona Apple, Tegan and Sara, Ani DiFranco and Andrew Bird.) In anticipation of her untitled, soon-to-be released second album, she will embark on her "psyCHO" comedy and music tour on October 2. A television special featuring her new material recorded live in New York will debut on Showtime on September 25.
Recently, I visited the comedian at her sprawling 3,264-square-foot Glendale, Calif., home, you feel like you are walking into an eclectic museum for Hollywood weirdos. Cho enjoys collecting knicknacks from her travels around the world. She has shrines of deceased loved ones and a statue of a skeleton head in a sombrero in the living room. There is also a Chinese dragon head figurine sitting on a table. Lots of sexual photographs of herself hang in frames along the walls. Dark wood lines the windows and doors, and a large red stage curtain hangs in front of mysterious double doors. For our evening together, we spend time at Cho’s place and then we venture to a psychic to get her a past life reading. I thought this would be a good way to determine if she really is a "psycho."
7:00 p.m.: Margaret Cho sits scrunched up on a couch in her home, displaying knee tattoos of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln just below her pink-flushed, and makeup-less face. She’s surrounded by tons of colored print pillows, which contrast with her all-black attire. A large glass bong, a prescription weed bottle, rolling papers, a banana peel, TV remotes, a bottle of red wine and various spray cans sprawl across a vintage glass table. Behind her is a shrine to her 100-lb. German Shepherd mix Ralph (named after actor Ralph Fiennes), who died five years ago. Its ashes rest in a box next to a painting of the dog.
7:05 p.m.: “Heyyyy now!” screams her bespectacled bandmate and boyfriend Andy Moraga at her two adopted dogs, 1-year-old Dogmar and 8-year-old Gudrun, who are chasing each other around and barking. Moraga rises from a red velvet chair on the left of the room and corrals the animals. The couple met at an LGBT benefit a year ago and have been dating ever since. He was a roadie for the rock band 4 Non Blondes and now works with up-and-coming musicians. He looks over at Cho’s other living pet: a 16-year-old, hearing-impaired, mixed-breed dog named Bronwyn. She rests by a large window and stares out at a large gold lion statue in the front yard. “She can’t see very well, either,” Cho adds. “But we love her.”
7:12 p.m.: Soon into our conversation, Cho brings up her sexual abuse. I can tell this is something she needs to discuss. I think I’m ready for this. I can tell it will be an intense, emotional ride.
7:13 p.m.: Cho was sexually molested by a family friend from age five to 12. “I had a very long-term relationship with this abuser, which is a horrible thing to say. I didn’t even understand it was abuse, because I was too young to know,” she says. “I endured it so many times, especially because I was alone a lot.” At 14, she was raped by another acquaintance. “I was raped continuously through my teenage years, and I didn’t know how to stop it. It was also an era where young girls were being sexualized. For me, I think I had been sexually abused so much in my life that it was hard for me to let go of anger, forgive or understand what happened.”
7:14 p.m.: She looks over at Moraga, who is texting on his cell phone. “I guess we can play that song now,” she says to him. “I hope I can remember the lyrics.”
7:15 p.m.: The song, entitled “I Want to Kill My Rapist,” is from her new album. Cho starts singing: “I want to kill my rapist, I want to kill my rapist,” repeatedly to me while Andy strums an acoustic guitar. The rest of the lyrics elaborate on this theme and are occasionally funny, but it comes from a real and dark place. She continues, “I thought I forgave you, but I’d mistake you. I’ll shake you and I’ll bake you. You better run now while I’m having fun now. Here comes the sun now, and you’ll be done now. I see clearly and sincerely, you’ll pay dearly…”
7:18 p.m.: “I’m still trying to figure out how to be a musician, but I really enjoy it,” she says. “But really, we want to kill the rapists. I’m a victim and now a survivor of sexual abuse and rape, and I think it’s really hard to talk about it. I think having a song to perform live will allow others to talk about it. It’s a huge issue, and this was cathartic for me.”
7:20 p.m.: Cho feels like she grew up in a time that was very unsafe for women. “People sexualized young girls like Brooke Shields. Men had so much control and entitlement over women,” says the comedian, who began therapy at age 27 and coped with her past trauma through comedy and singing about her abuse. “I think Bill Cosby and Woody Allen and all these men are so disgusting. It’s gross. This song I made is a rejection of all that. The rage women have against abusers is real. We have the power to come forward and say ‘This happened to me.’”
7:22 p.m.: Cho admits that her abuser is still alive and her family knows about it. She says that sexual molestation is an excusable offense in her traditional Korean family’s eyes, which she thinks is insane. Her family believes that people shouldn’t make a fuss about things that have happened to them in the past. “They don’t really want to talk about it, because that would make it real somehow. I think Asian culture often is in denial about such things. Like, if they don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. So it makes me unwelcome in some ways,” she says. “But all I have is ownership of my own suffering. I can take that and explain it in a way that helps resolve it. But I often think, ‘How do I have sanity? How do I bring justice?’ I kind of save myself through it. ”
7:24 p.m.: “You’re a very sexual person. It is hard for you to be sexually open, given what you have been through with men?” I ask.
“My sexuality is hard because I had to fight through so many circumstances and figure out how to enjoy myself, because I was used by so many people," she explains. "My abuse set me up for trying to discover what I liked. There were many instances when I went on a date and didn’t want to be sexual at all, but then I felt like I had to, because it was unpleasant to say no. It was like I could get it over faster, so I would say, ‘Fine, fine.’”
“You have also been in polyamorous relationships. How does that work sexually for you?”
Cho looks over at Andy. “We’re monogamous, I think. Are we?” she asks him, laughing.
“We think,” he responds.
She continues, “Okay, I’m not polyamorous anymore. But I was in my marriage, and it was great. It opened me up to a lot of things sexually, but I just don’t think it’s my style. It’s definitely something that is different. It’s about communication and trust.”
7:30 p.m.: Gudrun the dog keeps licking my leg. “She really likes you,” says Cho. “She wants to be a writer like you. She’s just really into you. She loves your legs. That’s really cute.”
7:45 p.m.: Cho attended Lowell High School in San Francisco. She was expelled because she often skipped class and got bad grades in ninth and tenth grades. She then transferred to J Eugene McAteer High School, but dropped out at the beginning of her senior year. She left because of the intense bullying, which she suffered at both schools. She had speech issues and social phobias and felt it easier to talk to adults. She thinks that is why she was probably abused so much. She sought out older company because she didn’t want to be around children who made fun of her. Her one regret is that she feels she never got the education she should have.
“When I was raped in high school, it was the first time I had sex that was penetrative, so it was different and weird. I told someone that I was raped, and the kids at school found out and said, ‘You are so ugly and fat that the only way anybody would have sex with you is if they were crazy and raped you. So don’t act like you are hot and somebody wanted to fuck you,'" she recalls. "'It’s because you are disgusting, and you deserve to be raped.'”
After that experience, Cho’s English teacher encouraged her to write things down in a journal and gave her the voice that she didn’t have. Sadly, she says, he was later killed. “The same kids who told me I got raped because I was disgusting also told me that he was murdered because he was a faggot,” she says. “That’s why I ended up leaving school. I didn’t want to be around people that were so cruel.”
7:48 p.m.: Cho sometimes searches for these bullies on Facebook. She thinks it would be funny to abuse-shame them, but she hasn’t found many on there. “I hope these people are dead,” she says. “But if not, I can’t find where they are. But I have to watch myself because I don’t want to be a bully. It’s just funny to think about. There was this one girl, she was horrible, and she filled my sleeping bag at camp with tons of dog shit. She has kids that are the age we were then. I wonder if she lies in bed and thinks of me and feels bad. I wonder if her girls bully or get bullied. Maybe she is terrified that will happen to her kid?”
8:00 p.m.: The conversation moves from abuse and rape to death. I notice a trash art portrait of Joan Rivers by artist Jason Mecier (above). The image is made out of items that Rivers (as well as comedians Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Kathy Griffin and Phyllis Diller) had given to Cho over the years, including a can of Aqua Net, a bottle of Excedrin, a tube of Monistat 7, some condoms and an I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! label (and some Justin Bieber DVD’s). The two were very close.
“Joan was always talking about the way she was going to die,” says Cho. “She was always threatening people with her death. Whenever she wanted me to do something for her, she would say, ‘Can you please just do this? I am going to die soon!’ But I am so lucky she was in my life. She taught me a lot about comedy.”
8:05 p.m.: What was harder for Cho to accept was Robin Williams’ suicide. He was the first celebrity she had ever met. Her parents owned a bookstore in San Francisco in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and her father had Williams autograph a copy of The World According to Garp. When she started comedy in the ‘80s, he hung around the clubs and watched her perform. She always looked up to him as a father figure.
“It was hard to accept his death and let him go. I was confused, perplexed and depressed. It still feels like a hoax to me. I miss him," says Cho. "None of us had any idea the suffering he was going through, and we blame ourselves." Cho found that she could not stop grieving Williams’ death, so she spoke with her friend Michael Pritchard who told her, "Don’t grieve Robin, be Robin." In response, she started the Be Robin homeless outreach campaign and raised tens of thousands of dollars after his passing. She and Andy volunteered on the streets of San Francisco, passing out food, supplies and clothing and providing showers and haircuts for the homeless. Her most memorable experience was hugging a man who claimed he hadn’t been touched by another person in a year.
8:07 p.m.: Music was another way to express her love for Williams. There will be a song on her new album called “Funny Man” that is about his life, impact on society and unfortunate death. “Robin Williams was a driving force, and his spirit will be carried through on this new record,” she says.
8:35 p.m.: Cho also had weight issues growing up. In the early ‘90s, ABC developed and aired a sitcom based on Cho’s stand-up routine. All-American Girl was the first network show about an East Asian family. Network executives on the show criticized her for being too fat.
“I didn’t understand. I was too fat to play the role of myself?” she asks. But she knew she wanted to keep the show, so she starved herself and took weight loss pills Fen-Phen and Meridia. “I was having orange, pepperoni-grease diarrhea and exercising like crazy. Being on speed, not eating and having drugs shoot literal shit out of me in a short amount of time got me very sick. I ended up in the hospital with kidney failure,” Cho recalls. “I still have some issues with weight from doing that.”
8:55 p.m.: Gudrun is licking my leg again.
8:59 p.m.: Cho tells me that she loves Cyndi Lauper, Joan Jett, Olivia Newton-John, Blondie, the Pixies, Sonny & Cher and Duran Duran. One of her favorite concerts was Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock in Atlanta. She said that she saw seven different people bleeding that night. “I saw people bleeding from different teeth, internally bleeding, hangnail bleeding. Some people even showed up bleeding,” she says. “I liked watching the people bleed.”
9:20 p.m.: We walk outside to my bumper-less and smashed-in Mazda, and Cho and Andy get in the backseat. I drive to psychic and spiritual healer Kris Cahill’s residence, only a few blocks from Cho’s.
“How did you know about her, Danielle?” Cho asks me.
“I don’t,” I reply. “I just searched for a nearby psychic on the Internet with good ratings and then called and talked to her for a while to make sure she wasn’t a serial killer.”
9:26 p.m.: We walk inside Cahill's house, and I can tell that Cho is very nervous. It’s hot and one can feel a sort of awkward energy. Cahill offers us some water in her office. There are blue, black and green rocks on the windowsill. There also is a stack of books about how to make money on her desk.
9:28 p.m.: Cahill starts off explaining that she is a clairvoyant, not a fortune teller. She works with the energy that is provided to her. She reads pictures in her mind and talks to dead people. For much of the reading, she keeps her eyes closed. Cho wants to discuss past lives and how they affect her today.
9:35 p.m.: The clairvoyant tells Cho that she is reading her vibration and sees a vivid teal as her aura, which is Cho’s favorite color. Cahill says that teal is associated with healing and growth. The first picture she sees in her mind is a young female from Mongolia, wearing traditional garments. She’s very independent and about seven years old. She is extremely fiery and intense, and others don’t understand this intensity. She’s very adventurous and has a lot of freedom for a child. She has a fearless spirit and is a natural leader, even though women weren’t supposed to be assertive during this era. Cho tells her that she has been to Tibet and feels a connection to her Mongolian ancestors, whose culture has fascinated her for a long time. She imagines herself then, riding horses and being an independent woman.
9:40 p.m.: Cahill describes another past life. This is a female who is about 18, married and surrounded by a tight-knit community. She lives in a mountain village, and it is winter. There are donkeys, horses, goats and other animals in a barn that she takes care of. She enjoys working with animals and living off the land. She is in this barn by herself and it’s very cold, but it doesn’t bother her. She communicates with the animals and understands the spirit of them. She was working as a healer and has a natural inclination to aid others.
“I love animals. I talk to them all the time,” Cho notes. “I try to tell people what animals are saying to them, because I always feel like I know what they are saying. It’s hard to let them go, and it’s hard to be in a world that is so cruel to animals. It’s so much easier to communicate with animals than it is with people.”
9:51 p.m.: The final past life read is a hard one. Cho is a male soldier in her 20s in Croatia, facing war and upheaval. In her eyes, you can tell the soldier hasn’t lost and is determined to get back to his home life. He has taken the grief, pain and suffering and achieved spiritual awakening. He now feels validated, because he has survived a very long battle. The vision demonstrates that Cho has survival ability, and, through this, she can find healing. Cho asks why we choose a harder life for ourselves and if we control it. Cahill tells her that we do, but it’s because we grow from the experiences. You have to choose tough times and get through them.
9:55 p.m.: Cahill tells her that she envisions her standing and flipping through pictures of her future, choosing what she wants to keep. She says that the present is a big energy for her and that she is sensitive to everything around her. She says Cho lets other people's demands affect her and she needs to learn to learn to let go of their negative energy.
10:02 p.m.: The psychic explains that Cho is able to release the negativity in her life and to come to peace with things that others may not remember or don’t know how to deal with. Cho thinks she may be a spiritual protector.
10:10 p.m.: Cahill acknowledges that Cho uses humor as a way to release the heavy things in her life naturally. She does it publicly and through her art. She says the dark comedy she creates comes from dark energy, which she turns into a colorful vibration. She also thinks that Cho needs to get more organized and lift more of that energy as well.
10:30 p.m.: We leave and walk back toward the car. “What did you think?” I ask Cho.
She looks down at her feet and presses her finger against the glass window. "It was really, really great, but I feel bad about my friend," she says. During the reading, Cho mentioned that a friend was having a tough time and needed some guidance. She is concerned about what is going to happen to her in the future. Cho feels bad talking about her at all. We begin driving back to her house. There is complete silence in the car. I drop them off outside and quietly say goodbye.
10:36 p.m.: I guess it’s true: sometimes in life, we need release. We need someone to listen and to drop the heavy stuff to move forward. We need to get deep, not wild.