The other morning I woke to the sound of my radio alarm clock just in time to hear the entertainment news from a local radio station that James Gandolfini, mob boss of the hit HBO show, The Sopranos, had died at 51 of a heart attack. I screamed aloud, startling my boyfriend who lay asleep next to me, "Oh, my God!" He woke and asked what was wrong. "Tony Soprano just died," I burst out into tears as I made my way into the kitchen for a morning cup of coffee. Then later that night I called my mother and said, "It's a very sad day. Tony Soprano died," I cried to her. "I hate to say this, but I feel sadder then when my father passed away five years ago.” My mother replied, "Well, you get to know the actors, and they become a part of your life."
She was exactly right. Tony Soprano, Carmelia, Paulie, Christopher and the rest of the New Jersey mob gang had been a part of my life for the last six months. HBO had begun airing episodes. During these six months, I had also given up alcohol, deciding to take a much-needed break as I entered into therapy to work on myself. I would attend an open discussion AA meeting in the evening and then afterward come back home to my rented, one-bedroom condo and serve myself a small helping of ice cream and play my DVR episodes of the show.
My obsession with celebrities and identifying with the characters from a show or movie didn't start with the infamous mob boss. I grew up the second oldest of seven girls with a strong desire that one day I would venture to Hollywood and become a famous actress. Movies but particularly television was my way of escaping the feeling I didn't quite fit in with the world or running from my parents’ perilous fights.
I remember going to school in the seventh grade and telling people that Dudley Moore was my Uncle. My innate talent to convince people of whatever stories I conjured up created an envious response from my fellow classmates. It was only when one girl, Kelly somebody, called me out and said, "I meet Dudley Moore before, and he never mentioned you!" My balloon was deflated at least for the time being.
The lack of a brother among seven girls caused a strong desire to have a male figure around to lean on and feel protected. I had an easy fix for that and quickly imagined Richard Dean Anderson a.k.a. MacGyver as the brother I yearned for. Being second born and always feeling second best among my parents, I created my own world where in addition to the "handy/get out of any situation with a thread of string an a pencil sharpener" brother, I adopted Karen and Mac Mackenzie from Knots Landing as my parents and Robert McCall from The Equalizer as my grandfather. Of course, this time I chose not to broadcast my new family at school should someone discover my little white lie.
As the fights and arguments between my real parents worsened when I was 16 and living in a suburb of Chicago, I decided to add a boyfriend to my imaginary family. Only one man, handsome, fierce, street smart and a fighter would fit the bill — Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice. I fell into a deep obsession with him. I audio-recorded the show by placing my cassette player up to the television. These tapes helped me escape when I went jogging in the cold Chicago winter on a track course at a nearby school. I used these relentlessly to escape the hell I found myself in. Aside from the screaming, fighting parents, I lacked self-confidence in school because of my hairy upper lip and my acne. Isolating me with my television family and friends was my only salvation.
A year and half later my mother left my father and moved herself and the kids down to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. It wasn't a situation where she told my Dad that things were not working out. She just left. He didn't know our exact location for over a year. It was only her continued use of his credit cards that gave him some knowledge of our whereabouts. I didn't care though where we were at least the fighting had stopped.
Although the surroundings may have changed from harsh bleak winters to sunny ocean filled days in Florida, the family drama didn't stop. We went from being a middle-income family to dirt poor. Since my mother had never had any formal educational training, she went to work at a donut shop, making minimum wage, which, back in 1986, was about $3.35. Hence the reason she still used my father's credit cards.
School also became different for me. In the suburb of Chicago where I attended high school, things seemed like "The Breakfast Club". Yet, in the panhandle of Florida where the elementary, middle and high schools were all on the same campus, and the school mascot was an actual bulldog that belonged to one of the seniors, a redneck midget, things seemed more like "Deliverance."
I had decided once we left Chicago I would reinvent myself and began shaving my upper lip (despite my mother's warning the hair would grow back darker and thicker) — not if I keep shaving it, I reasoned and also decided to go by my middle name of Leah. My hair was dark and wavy back then, and since I kept to myself for the most part, I was nicknamed Allison after Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club.
The fantasy world of my television family was not to end though. My younger sister, Lisa, whom I shared a room with when we first relocated to Florida, began physically abusing herself either by slapping her face, stomping on her foot with the other or pinching herself until she bruised. She had to get rid of the "bad thoughts," which plagued her mind. I endured this trauma for three months until I moved out to the living room and made the couch my new bed. It was at that time I began watching the show WKRP in Cincinnati and began connecting with the characters the same way I had done with their colleagues while I was living in Chicago. I even used that show as the basis for a short story I submitted in a writing contest my English teacher entered me in.
My sister eventually went to a treatment facility for nine months that took care of troubled teenagers. After I graduated from high school and eventually started college at a small community campus in the panhandle, I started dating a real guy this time. He was a chef, and I worked as a waitress while putting myself though college. Every Wednesday night (which happened to be my regular night off from the restaurant), I would settle into my comfortable couch with a bottle of White Zinfandel and watch, 90120 and Melrose Place. I was past my phrase of pretending the characters were my family or friends, but I still used the shows as a temporary escape.
Years later I would meet four single girls living in New York City who would help mold my dating and lifestyle habits. Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha. I found traits of all of them within myself. Samantha more so when my drinking and promiscuity heightened in my early to middle 30s then as my life settled down in my 40s more so like Carrie and Charlotte. At work, I was more like Miranda. A no-nonsense bulldog fighting for the top results for the client.
You see that's why the death of James Gandolfini affected me so deeply. He wasn't just a great actor. He was my hero, an heir to all those who had saved me before. I am wise and mature enough to know that television characters aren't real, but I suppose a little part of me still longs for the fantasy and escape even at age 43.