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Wil Wheaton Is Doing the Work

The actor/author was disappointed by the sexism and insensitivity of his 2004 memoir ‘Just a Geek,’ so he decided to revise it. He talks to MEL about getting a do-over, living with the anger of how his parents mistreated him and why he still stands with Chris Hardwick

Bearded and bespectacled, ironically wearing a “Dad Religion” shirt that’s in the same font used by one of his favorite bands, Bad Religion, Wil Wheaton sits in front of a massive bookshelf filled with novels, board games and comic books. It’s the day before his new book, Still Just a Geek, is released, and he’s talking over Zoom from his Southern California home, thinking about how he got to this place in his life. 

“I’m really starting to feel like I am the person I always wanted to be,” he says. “When I tell my wife, ‘I wish that I had figured this out earlier,’ what I’m actually saying is, ‘I wish, at 35, I had chosen to do the work instead of being a drunk.’ I’m really grateful that I was able to overcome that.” 

Wheaton turns 50 this summer, the father of two adult sons, whom he adopted after he married their mother Anne Prince in 1999. He was a child actor, becoming famous as one of the boys in 1986’s Stand by Me who went looking for that dead body. Then he played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, eventually quitting the show to pursue movie stardom, which didn’t entirely materialize. After that came career struggles, self-doubt and a lot of unprocessed resentment toward his parents. When he was a kid, Wheaton’s actress mother pushed him into the business, which he hadn’t wanted for himself. His father was abusive, Wheaton says, and his mother gaslit him about that abuse. (On top of all that, he says, his parents controlled his financial life, leaving him needing to ask for money even as a grownup.) Child performers often have a difficult transition to adulthood, but Wheaton’s sounds more fraught than most, especially considering that his family has a history of mental illness.

But as Wheaton settled into domesticity, he began to develop his voice as a writer, creating a blog in 2001 where he discussed his life and Hollywood. Soon, an offer to pen a memoir came his way, and in 2004 he released Just a Geek: Unflinchingly Honest Tales of the Search for Life, Love, and Fulfillment Beyond the Starship Enterprise, which featured some of those old blog posts. From there, Wheaton started appearing as an exaggerated version of himself on The Big Bang Theory, he did a lot of voice acting and audiobook narration, he hosted a talk show on SyFy — and he kept on writing. Along the way, he noticed that his drinking was starting to get a little out of hand, and he went into therapy to deal with his traumatic childhood. 

Cut to 2020, when a book editor suggested Wheaton revisit and revise Just a Geek. Wheaton hadn’t looked at the book in a decade, and when he did he was horrified. “I was immediately confronted with homophobia and a real gross male gaze, and I was reminded that this voice is mine,” he writes in the intro to the new book. “It wasn’t a pretty realization, seeing this ugly side of me (and that it was ugliness that I put out into the world, as opposed to the darkness that was inside me, which I kept from the world). To say I was horrified and embarrassed would be an understatement. To say I wasn’t sure I wanted to interact with this side of Past Wil — or, really, most sides of Past Wil — would be a lie. But my editor insisted I needed to show everything and respond to it all.”

In Still Just a Geek, Wheaton essentially remixes the original book, inserting reams of annotations that allow him to comment on the previous installment from a fresh perspective. And a lot of those comments are brutally critical, Wheaton pillorying himself for misogynistic jokes, inappropriate comments and other moments that make him cringe now. (The self-laceration extends to even minor things, like him apologizing for not supporting Major League Baseball players during the 2002 almost-strike: “I regret not standing with the players’ union, and buying into management’s position.”) 

There is new material in Still Just a Geek, but what’s most fascinating is the way that modern-day Wheaton reacts to 2004 Wheaton, who in the original book was often reacting to kid-actor Wheaton. Amidst the apologies and regrets, though, Still Just a Geek also contains a lot of anger — aimed specifically at his parents, whom he feels did a lot of harm to him. (In one annotation, he writes, “The man who was my father made a choice, when I was a child, that he didn’t love me. He made a choice to be my bully instead of being my father. My depression and anxiety are largely a consequence of his emotional abuse, and my mother’s gaslighting about it. … I despise that man, and I will never see or speak to him or my mother again if I can help it.”) 

To Wheaton’s mind, Just a Geek was him trying to win their approval — Still Just a Geek is him trying to let that go. It’s also about him making peace with his younger selves. “The current annotations are me hopefully finding compassion for that [younger] person and giving all those [versions of me] a voice,” he tells me. “When I look back on [writing the new book], I feel like, ‘Yeah, that was really difficult but, boy, what a difference it made.’”

During our conversation, we talked about therapy, geek culture and staying sober. Wheaton still has a lot of anger to process, and on occasion his voice would rise, going off on Donald Trump or “mediocre fragile white men.” But the focus of his ire remains his parents and the pain they put him through, and he would often bring the interview back to his mom and dad to let them have it one more time. 

But I also wanted to ask about his support of longtime friend Chris Hardwick, who in 2018 was accused of sexual assault by ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra. (Hardwick denied the allegations, and after an internal review by AMC he was reinstated as host of Talking Dead. Likewise, his name was restored on the Nerdist website after the company executed “an internal investigation conducted with the assistance of outside employment counsel.”) Questioned about his friend’s alleged behavior, Wheaton was animated and impassioned, recognizing the contradiction of believing women but not believing Hardwick’s accuser. Wheaton knows that his life is still a process, and he’s trying his best to do the work. “I know that if I looked at myself and saw no changes between 28-year-old me and 48-year-old me, that’d be a real bummer,” he said later during our conversation. “Because how do you not learn anything in 20 years?”

Wheaton on the set of The Big Bang Theory

With Still Just a Geek, was the initial inspiration simply “I’m not happy with a lot of stuff I wrote in there, so I want to go back and fix it”?

Honestly, I had just left it behind me — I hadn’t thought about it in a very long time. There are enormous sections of it that I had completely forgotten about — there were these moments where I was just like, “Oh my goodness, this is the most consequential thing that will ever happen in my life,” and here I am 20 years later and I have completely forgotten about it. I had no intention of revisiting it at all. 

As I started doing [Still Just a Geek], I found myself very impatient with the person I was when I wrote [the original memoir] — and extremely judgmental and irritated and embarrassed. And then I got to a point where I realized, “Wait a minute, none of that’s coming from me — all of that is an expression of the insecurity that I had when I wrote it [initially].” I was just trying so hard to be seen by my parents and to figure out how I could take the path I had been placed on — without my consent — and continue down it in a way that actually was meaningful to me. 

Looking back on all of that now — with the benefit of hindsight and maturity and sobriety, and finally living the life I want to live — I’m really glad that I did all of the work. In the process of seeing all those things that I didn’t like about myself, I actually saw the things that I really love about myself that I wasn’t ever able to notice because I was drowning in this unsuccessful effort to be seen by my mom and dad.

In the annotations, you’re very candid: “What I wrote here was very sexist,” and “That was really insensitive what I wrote there.” Was the public-confessional part of that process important to you? 

I think if you’re gross in public the way that I was — if you had talked to me [back] then, I would be like, “No, of course I don’t believe any of these [hurtful] things [I’m writing].” I would have argued really strongly, “No, I’m a good guy!” I absolutely didn’t get the concept of privilege at all — I had no idea. My entire life had been such a struggle just to be acknowledged as worthy of existing that if anybody ever was like, “Dude, that’s not cool,” I immediately took it personally. I was like, “Well, I’m a failure and everything sucks, and everything dad said about me is true.” And a lot of that stuff happened in public. And I just felt like, “Well, if it happened in public, this part of me learning and growing and maybe having teachable moments also needs to happen in public.”

But was there any part of you that thought, “Hey, growth is great, but I don’t have to put this all in a book”?

I don’t think I would’ve done [the work] — I think I needed that deadline. 

John Green, in a recent Vlogbrothers video, talked beautifully about being motivated by anger and resentment and fear — and how that works for a while, [how] it can really motivate you to do things. I think of that as a toxic fuel that corrodes and destroys the engine that’s driving the creativity — eventually you have to stop doing that and start using a more positive fuel, a more healthy fuel. It was in the process of doing this book that I came to understand what John was talking about. 

In the very beginning of [rereading Just a Geek], there are these parts where it’s cringy, cringy, cringy — it’s cringe-tacular forever. On one level, [Still Just a Geek] is just me saying, “Well, I really messed up here, and this is gross and this isn’t okay.” But what this book is really about is me at nearly 50 years old finally allowing the eight-year-old who begged his mother to let him be a kid — the teenager who was abused relentlessly by the man who was his father, the twentysomething whose parents were stealing from him and blaming him for his financial struggles — all those people I was, they finally got to speak. They finally got to say, “None of this is okay. I didn’t ask for any of this. This sucks.” 

Also, I got to say [to those younger versions of me], “You guys, I’m standing on your shoulders. You never gave up, so I have this incredible life right now. I have a career that I love, and I’m a really good dad, and my wife tells me I’m a good husband, so I choose to believe her. I’m happy more often than I’m not. And I’m here now to be the dad you never had. I’m here now to be the loving, supportive person who you always deserved and never got.” 

I think we’re always talking to our younger selves, but in Still Just a Geek you’re really doing that. You’re both criticizing that guy and trying to show him some compassion.

I don’t talk about this a lot, because it’s triggering for people: I wouldn’t say that I was suicidal when I was a teenager, but if I went to sleep and never woke up, I would’ve been totally fine with it. I actually ideated in my late 20s, early 30s, and that was really frightening. So I sat down with my wife and I was like, “This needs to not happen. I have a wife and kids, and I don’t know what this is all about.” I spent time with a therapist and started to really work through it and really come to understand all of that. 

The subject of mental health was extremely taboo in my family. I think one of the primary reasons my parents never taught me boundaries was because if I knew boundaries, I could defend boundaries and then they couldn’t manipulate me. [As a] young person, all I ever wanted was my dad to love me — that’s all I ever wanted, and he just chose not to. I don’t know what would’ve been worse: Dad withholding love or dad just constantly being cruel and humiliating and not even making the effort to hide just how much contempt he had for me all the time. It was really, really hard, and it really hurt a lot. There were times where I was just like, “This is too much for me.” I’m really grateful that I never gave up.

A lot of us can blame aspects of our lives on our parents, but then we might think, “I don’t want to put it all on them.” In Still Just a Geek, you really unload on your mom and dad: Did you feel any conflict about “I’m almost 50 — I don’t want to still give this so much power”?

It’s actually quite the opposite. I was gaslighted my whole life. From the time I was seven years old when my mom was like, “Well, I’m a failure as an actor, but I could probably achieve something with my kid” — and she chose over and over and over again to not hear me when I said, “Please let me be a kid” — all of that is on them. I was a kid, I was a child, I didn’t know any better. Like every child, I just wanted my mom and dad to be proud of me, and I just wanted to feel safe and feel loved. 

I keep meeting people who survived similar situations, and we realize that we all live in this weird club that we wish we weren’t members of. But when we see each other, it’s just sort of like, “Oh my goodness, I’m so glad you’re here — I’m not alone. But I’m also really sorry you’re here.” I don’t know, maybe in telling my story in this book, it makes it okay for another person to just say, “No, this wasn’t okay,” because a huge component of my trauma was protecting my mom and dad. It was really buying into the myth that my incredibly abusive, unbelievably cruel, authoritarian father was this super-loving, great, kind, charming, funny guy. And he just wasn’t. He’s an asshole. Or [believing] that my mom really wanted what was best for me — but that’s just not true. 

[Voice rising] What parent hears their child beg them to stop making them work and is like, “No, you’re going to do this because it’s what you want to do — you made a commitment at seven”?!? [Collects himself] I’m sure you can hear it — this little part of me still gets mad about it. Because it’s just like, “How dare you?!?” 

I can see how angry you are still about it.

Where I mostly live right now is, “Okay, I get it.” I am now older than they were when all of this stuff happened, and I look back on two people who were incapable of being parents — they were just so damaged by their own parents. They had so much generational trauma, but they were incapable of just being vulnerable and being willing to admit mistakes.

I am working on this thing where I can let go without condoning. I recently heard a person say, “I’m going to do my best to not carry all this stuff that you put on me. I don’t forgive you — I want to be really clear about that, I absolutely do not forgive you, you do not deserve forgiveness, you must carry the burden of what you did for the rest of your life — but that doesn’t mean that I have to be connected to you in an emotional way anymore. I don’t have to be the bigger person and let it all go.” And that is a struggle, because it’s very easy to become angry and to feel the narcissistic rage that my dad put into me that I spent years trying to remove.

That anger is also very clear in the book. You have a lot of anger attached to your parents. And you don’t seem ashamed of expressing that anger.

I think that it’s okay to allow that to come out rather than forcing it to sit [inside]. There was a lifetime of that, and it doesn’t just go away because you write one book about it. I spent a couple years working on that book, and I’ve spent many years working with therapists, and the reality is, parts of me still hurt a lot. I’m doing my very best to show up for those parts and heal them and move on — and in so many ways, I really have. I am unbelievably happy in just about every possible way that really matters. 

When I emotionally reconnect to the 29-year-old [version of myself], I don’t feel “How dare you do that to me?” What I feel is, “How dare you do that to him?” I don’t get mad for [present-day] me. But for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time with the “me” who was that age, and it still just comes up because part of me is still in disbelief. Part of me is offended on behalf of that person who I happen to have been — the same way that I am for when I see other famous kids who were clearly exploited and used by their parents. 

I would do anything for my kids. All I’ve ever done is support what they want to be. I’ve helped them be the very best people they can be and find their dreams. I think that’s what a parent ought to do. 

New parents think, “I’m gonna be such a better dad than my dad was,” but they tend to go too far in the opposite direction. Did you catch yourself doing that with your kids?

Overcorrecting is very much a risk. And I know that there are times where I hadn’t gotten my temper under control — there was still so much anger and pain in me that occasionally I blew up at my kids when they were little and they absolutely didn’t deserve it. When they were older, I sat down with each of them and was like, “I need to talk to you about these things that I remember that I’m sure you do, too. I need you to know how sorry I am, and I understand where all of this is coming from and I need to acknowledge these things. You can tell me whatever you need to — I’m absolutely here to accept it and own all of it so that thing is healed instead of papered-over and forgotten,” which was the go-to move for my mom. My dad just never talked about anything — he just never cared — but the go-to move for my mom was to just distract and deflect and blame and frustrate me so that I got so exhausted that I couldn’t speak up anymore. 

An area where I’ve possibly overcorrected with my kids is that I’m like, “I just want to check in with you. I love you. Am I texting you too much? Am I calling you too often? Am I in your space too much? I know you’re 30…” [laughs] And every time they’re like, “This is great, we love you, thank you.”

In 2021, you celebrated five years of being sober. How difficult was the pandemic in terms of not drinking?

It wasn’t a struggle in terms of sobriety. Everyone who chooses to quit drinking has a different journey and it’s not a contest — there’s no wrong way to do it. Honestly, for me, it was just a choice: “I will not do this.” I just stopped, and I never went back. 

[Back in 2016] I asked Chris Hardwick to help me because he’d been sober for 12 years at that point. I said, “Look, I don’t want to go to AA, that doesn’t feel like my jam.” I just can’t do religious stuff — I experienced an incredibly traumatic parochial school upbringing. I had to do a show in a church once, and it was real hard just being in that environment [because it’s] extremely triggering to me. But he was like, “I will absolutely help you, I will be here for you, call me whenever you ever have any questions or fears or concerns or anything like that.” He really showed up for me every time. And sometimes I’d call him multiple times in a day. There were some days that were a little bit easier and some days that were really hard. 

By the time the pandemic came around, I hadn’t been drinking for about four years. I’ll tell you what was really hard was 2016 when Trump was elected and fascism started running the American government — that was a real hard time to not have the gentle numbing blanket of alcohol to get through all of that. I know for a lot of people who are abuse survivors — who are trauma survivors who live with PTSD — the Trump presidency was awful. I heard someone describe it as every day someone jamming their thumb into a fresh bruise and holding it there. 

But, honestly, being forced to endure that and work through it, it was just like, “Yeah, I’m a lot stronger than I think I am. My support network is really here for me.” They really showed up for me. So during the pandemic, it wasn’t hard at all. 

You and I grew up at a time when geek culture was not cool, and now that subculture is very popular.

Yeah, it’s like, “We won!” 

Well, here’s what I want to ask about that: Fanboy culture has gotten so toxic online. Some of these people, who for so many years were treated like nerds or losers, are getting really angry on social media, being really sexist assholes. Does it make you sad to see how geek culture has morphed?

I think that culture [always] existed — I think that because we’re cisgender white men, we weren’t aware of it. [Asshole voice] “Oh, you’re a fan of [such-and-such band]? Name X number of their albums” — that gatekeeping toxic fandom. 

Whatever fandom it is ​​— sci-fi fandom, comics, movies, sports — it always comes down to fragile white males. It’s white men who have been told their whole life how great we are — how we deserve everything, how we’re entitled to everything — just being really threatened by the realization of our own mediocrity. It’s our realization that people who actually show up — regardless of what their race or gender is — they’re just blazing past us, because they’re actually doing the work. There are just all these mediocre fragile white men who have been taught that every space exists for them — and that sharing space with other people is somehow taking something away from them. 

There was a brief moment at the beginning of the mainstreaming of geek culture where I participated in that a little bit: “Yo, I earned this, I got beaten up for the stuff that I liked!” A healthier and better attitude — the one that I got to, not as quickly as I wish I had, but still relatively quickly — is, “Yo, we’re going to put this gatekeeping away and open our arms to absolutely everyone in fandom, because the more of us there are, the more of the things we love will be created for us to consume.” This sounds like such a bumper-sticker slogan, but I feel like we have to just keep repeating it over and over again: “[Fandom] is for everyone. Nobody owns it.” 

You mentioned Chris Hardwick, who you’re still good friends with. In 2018, an ex-girlfriend, Chloe Dykstra, accused him of sexual assault and emotional abuse. You left Twitter around the same time, and you got criticized: “Why isn’t he talking about this? Why isn’t he standing up for this woman?”

I’ll tell you why, because she’s a liar. She lied about absolutely everything. And I’m not going to abandon my best friend, who I’ve known since I was 18 years old, to placate a bunch of people who believe a liar. It is absolutely possible to stand up for women and to say that the things she accused him of doing are not okay — they just happen to all be lies. It is absolutely possible to say, “This woman is a liar — and these things are absolutely not okay.” 

I was already on my way out of Twitter by the time that happened. I don’t know what Twitter’s like now, but back then, whoever was making decisions was like, “How can we make this the most toxic environment possible? How can we enable and protect bullies and not respond to the people who are being bullied?” I’m a punk kid from the 1980s — there was a point where if the punk club got invaded by skinheads, well, that’s not a punk club anymore. Now it’s a Nazi club, and I’m not going there. Twitter became a toxic, terrible environment.

I know that a meme took hold that, oh, I ran away [from Twitter] because I couldn’t handle [being criticized for not denouncing Hardwick], and that’s just not true. When [the accusations] came down, I got on the phone to Chris and I was like, “What the fuck, man?” And he told me a bunch of stuff. And I was like, “What about this? And what about this?” And we had a very difficult conversation because that’s what friends do, get to the truth of things. There’s so much that so many people just don’t know, because it’s not public, and I’m not gonna spend a lot of time and energy trying to change the mind of a person whose mind is made up. 

I want to be really clear: I absolutely always, always stand up for and support women, especially women who speak up against powerful men. I have always believed, for as long as I can remember, that when someone is dishonest in an allegation, it really hurts all of the people who are true survivors, who have actually experienced something really terrible, because it gives their predators something to hide behind. I know that there are just lots of people who are absolutely convinced [that Hardwick is guilty of the accusations against him], and I’m sorry, it’s just not true.

You talk a lot in the book about battling anxiety and depression. Does being a day out from releasing Still Just a Geek exacerbate that state?

I wrote myself a note a few months ago for, like, today: “Your book’s coming out tomorrow, and you are scared to death about it. You’re convinced that they’re all going to laugh at you. You’re convinced that they’re all going to hate it. You’re convinced that somehow this is going to somehow bring your parents, whom you’ve worked very hard to keep out of your life, back into it. This is what I want you to remember right now, because I have this perspective that you don’t: This is going to go on for, like, three weeks, and at the end of that three weeks, the promotion cycle for the book will be over. Then you go right back to your regular life — you get to start work on that next book that I know you’re excited about. And if you’re really lucky, maybe a couple dozen people tell you some story about how this was profound for them in some meaningful way — that would be really, really wonderful.” 

I’m really glad that I did that for myself because I have a ton of anxiety right now. I’m terrified. I’m really, really busy right now, and I have a lot going on. I want to be able to just enjoy it and feel good about it, but I’m just not wired that way — I’m wired to worry, and I have to just accept that that’s how it is. 

It’s okay to worry a little bit — a little anxiety can be a great motivator and can really keep you moving along. But there is a point where it becomes harmful. And as someone who suffers clinically, I have learned how to identify when it’s becoming harmful. It hasn’t gotten there yet, but I can see that as an absolute possibility. 

So I’m just remembering that note that I wrote to myself: “This is just for a minute. This is all temporary.”