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On a frosty Virginia morning, Constance Wu’s favorite middle school teacher asked her to step outside, before accusing the aspiring writer of plagiarizing a term paper she’d written on Beethoven.
“You are not good enough to have written this,” her teacher said, according to Wu. She wrote about the incident in her new headline-making new book, “Making a Scene.”
When a stunned Wu began crying, her teacher replied, “Now I know you’re guilty, because if you were innocent, you wouldn’t cry."
“After that,” Wu wrote, “I didn’t want to be a writer anymore.”
Making a Scene
The story is titled, “Of Course She Did,” and is one of 18 essays collected in Wu’s book that chronicles a range of memories throughout her life, including the years the “Crazy Rich Asians’” actor spent portraying Jessica Huang on the TV show “Fresh Off the Boat” which ran on ABC from 2015 to 2020.
The series was based on a memoir by restaurateur Eddie Huang and followed a Taiwanese family living in Florida during the 1990s. The series brought her fame, then despair. In the book, Wu details sexual harassment at the hands of an unnamed producer, an experience she called "traumatic" at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.
Then, in 2019, a series of impulsive tweets about its renewal resulted in a fierce backlash from the public along with her peers.
“I became a headline, a meme, a springboard for righteous opinion. An ungrateful girl making a scene,” Wu wrote in “Making a Scene.”
The contempt made Wu feel “helpless and desperate,” leading to a suicide attempt in 2019. “I needed a wound to prove it, to prove that I hurt as bad as everyone said I deserved to hurt,” Wu wrote.
Fortunately, a friend intervened, and Wu took a break from the public eye. Meanwhile, Wu's star was shining: "Hustlers," the movie she starred in alongside Jennifer Lopez, was garnering rave reviews.
“I quit all social media and turned down magazine cover offers. I chose acting roles that wouldn’t put me in the limelight too much — choices that have restored peace to my life,” she wrote.
After a three-year absence, Wu returned to social media in July with the release of her new Prime Video series, “The Terminal List,” and the actor has a film coming out in October (“Lyle, Lyle Crocodile).
Wu sat down with TODAY to talk about “Making a Scene” and opened up about the joyful essays she included, as well as the hard-to-talk about ones and why she doesn’t regret them.
TODAY: Tell us about your new memoir.
Wu: It’s not really a memoir. It’s a book of essays — they’re personal essays, but each essay is meant to stand alone and is not related to each other, other than the fact that I am the writer of them. They’re just personal experiences in my life that I think were relatable, but formative.
What are the essays about?
My book aims to celebrate the ordinary and to ask us to look at our own stories with curiosity rather than judgement. Because of that, I don’t try and make myself out to be the coolest person or the best person.
It’s very honest. Sometimes I’m a good person. Sometimes, I’m not. That’s part of being alive and growing up.
I think a lot of people are focusing on one chapter, in particular, which is the last chapter I wrote.
I didn’t actually want to include it, but it was about my experience on “Fresh Off the Boat” and how the first five years I was sexually harassed and intimidated. And I kept quiet because I wanted to preserve the reputation of the show because I ‘handled it.’ And because the sexual harassment was ‘not that bad.’
(Note: TODAY reached out to "Fresh Off the Boat" and 20th Century Television for comment).
At that time, prior to the “Me Too” movement, it was actually pretty standard. It was far from the only experience I had and it was pretty standard for women in the industry at that time.
That’s why it’s called “Making a Scene,” because you can’t get rid of an emotion just by willing it away. It’s going to come out somewhere else. And I think trying to repress that abuse for five years, in order to preserve everyone else’s jobs, the reputation of the show — being such a beacon for Asian-Americans — you don’t want to dirty and sully that one shining beacon, inevitably came out in “Making a Scene.” I think the book provides, not excuses, but context to it.
In terms of the stories and the essays you chose to write about, out of all your life experiences, how did you settle on the ones you ultimately ended up including in 'Making a Scene'?
It was a really an organic process. I didn’t sit down and say, "I’m going to write about this event, this event and this event." I would just have memories pop up that I hadn’t fully worked through, like being raped. Putting it down on paper was a way of understanding it and myself better.
So, it a little bit, felt like therapy in that sense. I didn’t curate it. I just sort of let my mind and my heart tell me what I wanted to write.
How did you find the courage to include the chapters that were hard for you?
When you’re writing it, it doesn’t feel public, right? Because you’re alone in your house or your office and it’s just you and the page.
The essay about “Fresh Off the Boat,” that I wrote last. I actually didn’t want to include it. I didn’t want to write about it. I was like, "I handled it,’ it’s done, whatever, I don’t want to exploit this," but my editor really encouraged me to write it and I was so resistant.
Finally, I said "OK, I’ll do it as an exercise for myself, but I’m not going to publish it." So, I wrote it for myself to work through what happened in my own heart and in my own mind. And it was really healing and helpful to me in a way that I didn’t realize.
It’s funny, I kind of relate it to a physical wound. If you have a physical wound, you bleed, right? And you have a scar, and you can see that it happened because you have physical proof that it happened.
I found that putting words on a page, it was like having a witness, like having a scar, having something that showed that this was a real thing.
But with emotional trauma, you don’t have physical proof it happened, even though it could have just as great of an effect, if not more, than physical trauma. I found that putting words on a page, it was like having a witness, like having a scar, having something that showed that this was a real thing. I think it made it real for me in a way that I didn’t realize would happen. I decided to include it in the book because it’s very scary to be vulnerable, publicly, and I didn’t want to do it.
And I’m still scared of it.
But I decided that what it did for me, and how it might help other people, means more to me than I’m scared of it.
You have to weigh what matters more to you. Three years ago, when I was really going through it, I was still a little bit to raw then, I wasn’t as grounded then and I wouldn’t have been able to do that, and it wouldn’t have mattered more to me.
My fear would’ve outweighed because I would’ve had to take care of myself. But I’m in a place where I’m a lot better.
After what you went through three years ago, how do you protect yourself or keep yourself from going to a dark place?
I’ve taken a lot of time to think about that and the noise doesn’t matter to me, attention doesn’t matter to me; it’s never been about fame or success. I started as a theater kid — it was always about community. It was about the joy of performance. All the other stuff around it is just stuff. And it’s easy to get caught up in it.
But when there’s a lot of negativity, the thing that I’ve found is that, usually, people’s commentary is a reflection of them, not a reflection of you because they don’t actually know you.
If some person who only knows clickbait, headlines, snippets and thinks they know me, passes judgement and criticism, it’s a reflection of how they feel about themselves or it’s an opportunity for them to express something that they’ve been wanting to get off their chest.
So, if my story is a springboard for them to explore their feelings on something, OK. Because I’m OK.
If it’s something I’m not as OK with, like three years ago when I had a suicide attempt, if somebody’s scrutinizing that, that’s a little bit more tender. That’s a place where I’m not as grounded yet.
But other types of criticism, whether it be about my appearance or my performance or my decorum, you just have to realize that people are criticizing you, it’s an extension of their own insecurities or their own beliefs. That’s sort of how I deal with it. I guess that’s the epitome of what it means to not take things personally.
After taking a three-year break from social media, you returned in July. Why did you return and what’s the experience been like?
I recognized that the message I was trying to get out meant more to me than my fear of social media. I had to overcome that and be honest about my experiences because the hope is to help people who are feeling isolated and alone, and in this place where I could have used help back then, and I didn’t have it. So, that’s why.
And coming back to it? I haven’t come back to it necessarily. It’s definitely not my natural place to be. I grew up in the nineties. I’m 40. I think for Gen Z kids, they’ve always had it. They understand how to do it. It’s like part of their heartbeat. Me? It’s not the natural way I ever connected with people.
You said you hoped to connect with people who might feel as isolated as you once did. For someone reading your book with similar feelings, what would you like to say to them?
That it’s OK to make mistakes, that making mistakes is part of the journey of you being your most authentic self. If we don’t make mistakes and we are always perfect, that’d be kind of boring and dishonest. I think it’s more important to be honest than true, then it is to be a positive role model.
Do you feel that art has helped you heal?
One hundred percent, especially writing this book. I talk, in this book, about the sense memory exercises I learned when I was in conservatory drama school and applying that exercise to my own life, to revisit past trauma without attaching to the feeling or attaching to judgement or shame, just reliving the sensory elements of it makes you see it in a different way.
And writing was healing to me because you don’t have a physical wound when you have an emotional trauma. But words on a page are the closest thing you’re going to get to that. And that makes your story feel real and valid and worthy, however small or big the pain may be.
Would you say that art has been your lifeboat in the last three years?
Maybe, my whole life, it’s been my lifeboat. Art and friendship, yeah.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com