Actor Joanne Vannicola's story is one of trauma and triumph — and they share it all in a new memoir
This interview originally aired on Feb. 1, 2020.
Joanne Vannicola was an eight-year-old kid from Montreal when they landed their first professional TV acting gig on Sesame Street. They wrote their first play at 17, made their 1994 film debut with Denys Arcand's Love And Human Remains and has starred on television shows such as Slasher, Rookie Blue and CBC's Being Erica.
They have also become an advocate of LGBTQ rights, fighting against stereotypes in the entertainment industry. But along with all of those accomplishments, Vannicola has lived through trauma.
Their memoir, All We Knew But Couldn't Say, describes enduring physical and emotional abuse and how they moved on and shaped an identity with resilience and determination.
Vannicola spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why they wrote All We Knew But Couldn't Say.
Abuse in black and white
"As a child, I understood that our home wasn't safe. There was the violence of my father and the fact that my mother was complicit in that — she had contributed to his violence by lying about things we had done, knowing that he would erupt and beat one of us. I understood that was the scenario, that was the story in our home and I knew that it wasn't safe.
When you're a kid, you know what's safe, what's not safe, what hurts and what doesn't.
"I guess you'd call it a sadistic pleasure that my mother arrived at by witnessing violence. Not just violence, but the violence of her children. I don't know how to relate to that but to say that I witnessed it as a child. I understood how unsafe I was in the face of that.
"When you're a kid, you know what's safe, what's not safe, what hurts and what doesn't. Everything is relatively simple that way, it's one or the other. There aren't a lot of grey spaces."
An escape into the world of television
"Being on Sesame Street was magical. Most people asked me about being on the show and it's as magical for viewers as it is to be a child and participate on that show. When you're a kid, it's the land of make-believe, it's the land of every character you adore. I had the time of my life as a child doing shows like that and entering the make-believe world.
The land of make-believe — of dance and acting — served a purpose in that it allowed me to escape my everyday.
"I was trying to please my mother and if it meant being a star tap dancer and tapping solos with a skipping rope. I would work out for hours until I could do that. The land of make-believe — of dance and acting — served a purpose in that it allowed me to escape my everyday.
"I'm not sure that I would have fared so well if I didn't have a space to disappear — and to learn about love and acceptance in ways that we didn't get in my family."
"I knew that my life had a purpose beyond being an actor and beyond all the things that we do in the world to survive. I knew that my own story could have a purpose. I wanted to learn how to write it in a way that would reach people who needed it, people who needed a reflection of themselves or people who have no idea what it's like to be gay or grow up in violence.
I wanted to tell a story that somehow they could hear.
"I wanted to tell a story that somehow they could hear. I thought if I could be as honest and emotionally vulnerable as I possibly could, then perhaps I might achieve that with this book."
Joanne Vannicola's comments have been edited for length and clarity.