In her new book and on Broadway, the queer icon reflects on the painful loss of her son
Not so quietly, Melissa Etheridge has been grieving. At just 21, Beckett Cypher, the son of Etheridge and her former partner Julie Cypher, died from causes related to opioid addiction.
Three years after his death in 2020, Etheridge is doing what she’s done since she showed the world what lesbian women can do on stage in the 1980s — opening the windows to her life through her writing. This time, though, her confessional style is within the pages of a new book titled Talking to My Angels.
The title is a reference to the closing song of her 1993 Grammy-winning album Yes I Am, which established Etheridge as a rock force to be reckoned with.
In the book, which she summarizes in the foreword as “an ode to love,” Etheridge lays a lot on the line, delving into many of the intimate details of her sturdy four-decade music career, her romantic relationships, surviving cancer, losing Beckett, and raising four children: Bailey Jean Cypheridge, Miller Steven Etheridge, Johnnie Rose Etheridge and, of course, Beckett.
Etheridge called me at the end of September while en route to the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, where she was about to launch her My Window show, which was co-written by her wife, Linda Wallem-Etheridge. In a review by Laura Collins-Hughes for The New York Times, Collins-Hughes wrote about Etheridge’s approach to Beckett’s death, writing that “the most starkly powerful part of the show, Off-Broadway… works less well on Broadway.”
“I cannot fault Etheridge for her stiffness in that delicate section at the performance I saw, or for reaching for words — like her blunt assessment, ‘He was difficult’ — to convey her memories,” she added. “But this is where relying on the script’s gentler, more contextual language could assuage what must be a terrible vulnerability.”
When I spoke to Etheridge while in previews for the show, she said, “I don’t know my head from my feet,” as she was entering a car to take her to the theater. Whatever discomposure she was experiencing, on topics from her initial ambivalence toward being a parent to her opioid research foundation inspired by Beckett, she spoke her truths with the kind of clarity we have come to expect.
Before we get into parenting, let’s talk about Broadway. How do you distill your life through music into a Broadway show?
Melissa Etheridge: We want to get it to two hours. It’s a bit over now. So that’s what we’re doing today is still cutting it down, because man, when I first threw my first idea together, it was like four hours long. I was like, “OK, yeah, that’s not going to fly.” So, it’s really choosing the beats that I want to say, and how I want to get from beginning to now, and how to do it. And that’s art. That’s the craft of this. It’s been quite fun and interesting, and exhausting.
We last connected at the beginning of the pandemic, and if you’re like other creative people I know or have spoken to, then perhaps you needed a project. It sounds like you found that in the show, but also the book. Was the pandemic a reflective time for you?
ME: Yeah. My thing was it just all started happening at once. I had three or four desires that I’ve been trying to do over the last decade, then they all came together at once. I think the pandemic sort of made everybody hungry, so all of a sudden it was the book and the show, and we have a documentary coming out next year about the women’s prison in Kansas, but that’s later. I can’t talk about that now.
In the book, you write a lot about your parents and about now being a parent yourself. How has time shifted your perspective on how you reflect on the way you were raised by your parents?
ME: As I grow and change, my memories grow and change. It doesn’t stay the same. You see things differently. I certainly have more of an understanding. I’m older than my father ever lived to be. I can look back and go, “Oh, this is what it’s like to be a parent. This is what it’s like to have lived your life and then have children.” And so, the older I get, the more knowledge I have and the more understanding I have of my parents and the events that happened in my childhood.
How has being a parent yourself helped you better understand your parents?
ME: When we’re younger, we tend to blame our parents: “Well, if my mother had loved me more, then I wouldn’t be so sad or depressed.” And at some point in your adulthood, you have to go, “I can either keep looking back and blaming and staying a victim, or I can step up and go, ‘Maybe all that happened, but that was the past, and I’m not going to have it define me now.’”
With my first book, my mother was very mad at me for quite a while. Because when we were growing up, it was, “We don’t air our dirty laundry in front of people.” Fortunately, there are people that have stepped up and go, “Hey, this happened.” And it helps people that are going through it now, and I think that’s the best part.
You get to Beckett’s death in the beginning of the book, but you write that you didn’t just want this book to be about his death. Instead, it’s about accepting his death and then finding a way forward despite the pain. Why did that seem like the right approach?
ME: [His death] had such a great effect on me. I can walk around and go, “All is love. Choose only love. It’s important to be happy.” But then when life happens, when the contrast comes, when it’s things that seem to take you down to the bone, that’s when I say — no, if I truly believe all is love, and we’re going to choose only love here, I have to see this as a temporary existence that we all have, and we all make choices. Some of us are here for a little while, some of us are here for a long while, and all in between, and no one is responsible for anyone else’s happiness. And you can’t save anyone; you can only inspire them. And the way that I can continue to inspire my friends and my family is to be the best I can be, to show what happiness and joy looks like, even when there is loss, which there always is. We are here to experience loss.
Your dedication to Beckett in the beginning of the book is so poignant: “For my son Beckett who is with me every day in the nonphysical.” How do you interpret the nonphysical in relation to him?
ME: Well, you can look at it a bunch of different ways. We can look at it esoterically, which is, we all really exist in our minds, and we are all just perceiving everything, and we only have the capacity to perceive a certain amount of the energy around us, that which we call the live energy. But if you look at it scientifically, we only perceive 4% of the energy that is in this magnificent energy field. And that’s the scientific way of looking at it. So, who are we to say that the 4% is all that there is? There’s nothing in that 96%? No, there’s a whole non-physical energy field that I believe is larger than us and where we come from, and everybody calls it all different sorts of things: God, Spirit, the universe. But I do believe that we came from there, we are all connected to there, and we’re all going back there.
Do you have a name for it? Do you call it anything?
ME: Well, I call it the nonphysical, and the power I call Source.
In the book, you acknowledge your initial ambivalence toward being a parent. Do you think that there’s something about being a queer person, specifically a gay woman, that shaped the way that you thought about parenthood?
ME: I don’t know if it has to do with that, necessarily. Although growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, if you were gay, it just wasn’t an option. It was part of what parents would be so upset about: “You’re never going to have children,” that sort of thing. I think that was my first kind of thought. And the second was, I didn’t exactly have great love and affection for my mother, and so I was kind of like, “Well, what’s being a mother mean?” It seemed like there was a lot that I wanted to do for myself, and I didn’t know if there was any room to take care of anyone else. But then it’s funny, and that’s the whole other journey in itself — when it happens, or if it happens, or if it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. There’s no right or wrong to it. It’s just going to be what you’re going to walk in that moment, day to day.
And with your music, how has parenthood shaped that aspect of your life?
ME: Couldn’t write those naughty love songs anymore. [Laughs.]
Not when they were young, right?
ME: No. Because I wasn’t planning on children, I could write all those naughty songs and not worry about it, but now my kids are like, “Wow, what’s that?” But I grew up, and just growing up makes a big difference. I don’t know if it’s the kids or anything, but your music changes as you change as a person. What’s important to you, what moves you, what you want to write about, what am I thinking, what am I experiencing? It’s just different than it was when I was 25 or 30.
Your daughter, Bailey, is queer. What’s it like seeing her grow up now as a queer person compared to your own experiences as a young queer person?
ME: I think it’s really different, and for her, growing up with queer parents, she cannot understand any sort of limitations because she didn’t grow up with that. So it makes absolutely no sense to her. She told me when she was an adolescent, “Mom, when you raised me, I actually thought there were at least as many gay people in the world as there were straight people,” because that’s all who she met. So she kind of comes from that equality place as a natural surroundings, but now she works for GLAAD, and she is very, very active and does so much because she does have such a sense of equality that she was raised with.
I don’t have to tell you that the opioid crisis in America is devastating. And that hit home for you. Can you talk about what Beckett’s death inspired, which was the Etheridge Foundation?
ME: The path I’ve been on has been filled with a lot of understanding of plant medicine and psychedelics and how much it’s helped me, and how much I’ve seen in the research, how much it helps others. It especially does help in opioid use disorder as just a way to get through this and off of this. It doesn’t exist in the pharmaceutical world. And it’s as much of just gathering the research and the data to show folks because there’s such a misunderstanding of it all. So that’s what the Etheridge Foundation does. It raises funds for research and testing. It’s not very easy because there’s a bunch of laws that are in the way. So it’s trying to change hearts and minds about all that.
Has the foundation helped you heal?
ME: Oh yeah, hugely, because I wanted to do something. I felt so helpless. And it does make me feel like there’s movement forward on this, and maybe I could help. This can help someone somewhere.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.