A Conversation with Kitty Bruce on Helping Addicts Recover from Substance Abuse
June 25, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau
This is about resolve.
Direct, honest, funny, self-effacing, and peppering her sentences with just the right amount of expletives, Kitty Bruce is one of those perfect interview subjects. Missing a single word would be a mistake. So my eyebrows raise when she admits, “I don’t usually do interviews,” quite a surprising admission considering the ease in which she converses.
This is more about what Kitty is doing than it is about who she is or where’s she’s been. On the other hand, who she is and where she’s been greatly influences what she’s doing now.
About a dozen years ago, Kitty decided it was time to merge two long-desired goals into one ambitious project: helping those recover from substance abuse and honor the legacy of her father, the celebrated comedian and social satirist, Lenny Bruce. The result is the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization that helps fund recovery programs and scholarships.
“Addiction is a worldwide problem,” says Kitty with her typical directness. “It’s not even a problem. It’s a devastation. It’s a tsunami of horror, which literally blankets families.”
This isn’t an oversell, either. According to the Addiction Center, over 20 million Americans are in the grips of addiction (and that’s not counting tobacco, by the way), 100 of which die every day, a number that’s tripled in only two decades.
In a recent New York Times article, journalist Abby Goodnough details how fentanyl is so prevalent in Baltimore these days addicts are having a hard time finding heroin.
Federal statistics reveal overdose deaths have increased by a staggering 54% for people between 55 to 64 — not only because the drug is more prevalent on the streets, but it’s also 50% stronger than heroin they’ve been using.
By emphasizing education and employing a strong sense of empathy, Kitty personally oversees the recovery program and helping them into the next phase of their lives in a low-stress situation. “I did swear, if I ever had a car, I’d give someone a ride,” she says unintentionally highlighting her generosity, “and if I could pay back what was so freely given to me, I would. And I’ve honor that promise every day.”
Every 10 years or so there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Lenny Bruce’s story and we’re currently in the upswing of another one of those waves. First is the original Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in which her father is portrayed as a recurring character. Then there’s Ronnie Marmo’s one-man play, I’m Not a Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce, which has recently completed a successful Off Broadway run and will soon be touring nationally.
But none of that is really central here, either. The real story is Kitty Bruce’s fight to help others; it’s a difficult, constant battle against a ticking clock. This is about resolve.
Calling from her home, Kitty talked with me about the origins of her foundation, the impact of addiction, and how her father “won’t stop talking.”
NR!: So let’s start with the obvious. How’d you come up with the idea for the foundation?
Kitty Bruce: I thought my father should be remembered and his legacy should be something that should change lives and make the world a better place. He had a very kind and gentle side. With that being said, I had offers to have his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the other [offer] was for a plaque. But I don’t want a dopey plaque and, as far as the star on Hollywood Boulevard, I don’t want his name walked on. So that was a two for two, no.
What I did think was, “Well, if you want to honor his memory, how about we change lives. How are we going to do this?” I was 50 at the time and I thought to myself, “Well I think it’s time, because I’m getting older and I make a mark in my father’s name.” So, I’d spoken to a priest of all people, and I said, “I need some help in creating something and I keep thinking about it and trying to form it.” And he said, “Just pray.” [pause] So, I prayed. And I prayed for about six months and it seemed like nothing happened except for my drive to want to do this was off the charts.
The next step was to start a not-for-profit charity. There are a lot of charities that give a little bit towards the cause and they keep a lot of money. That’s not what I was interested in doing; we’d pick up the tab [for] people who didn’t have the funds or the insurance to do so and stay with them from the beginning to the absolute end, check on them after they receive their scholarship.
NR!: And how has it been going so far?
Kitty: We just had a success story. A young man was seriously addicted and it’s a year and a half later and we’ve put him in an incredible men’s recovery house. We match the person’s personality and their interest. There are certain recovery centers which deal with musicians. Anything that would interest a person who wants to get off drugs and alcohol, you have to not replace something or give a substitute; you need to give something better.
So we match a person who gets the scholarship with a particular recovery center. It’s a year and a half later and this young man is clean and sober, has a job and is really doing great. It feels so good.
I believe in education. Not the type that says, [adopts a stern, treachery tone] “Don’t take meth because your teeth will fall out.” Not that [but] an education to teach that person in recovery how to navigate in a clean and sober world. While [they] were getting high and drinking, guess what, the world kept spinning; but the addicted one who can’t move until they have a drink in the morning, they’re not part of the world, they have their own world.
So if you take someone who’s been in addiction and suddenly you drop them in a world which has been continuing to go on, it’s enough to overwhelm someone to go back to use and drink.
NR!: Similar to when prisoners are released from jail or prison after a long sentence.
Kitty: Absolutely. It’s very important to teach how to navigate in a sober world. How do we form this lifestyle? Because being sober and keeping your sobriety is a lifestyle change. It also affects families; they become addicted to the addicted one. And once the addicted one becomes less dependent on the family they lose their place. And that’s why I encourage Al-Anon so much. Addiction and alcoholism just takes over everything. It doesn’t affect just the one person; this is a world problem, something which has become so extremely large. I live in a small town and we’ve had 42 overdoses in one month. They have [opioid effects blocker] Narcan for free in most of the drugstores here.
NR!: That’s intense.
Kitty: The numbers are frightening, Andrew — we are losing our future, we are losing the young people who will eventually mold this country. I can’t think of one positive thing which comes out of addiction, with the exception of discovering recovery.
So the foundation runs on a couple of things: a lot of praying [laughs], constantly thinking of how to raise money for scholarships, whether it be t-shirts or donations. I want people to be aware that this is a resource that can save their loved-one’s life. I wouldn’t call it an obsession, but it’s pretty damn close; I’m driven when it comes to this topic.
NR!: So how has this work changed your view of addiction?
Kitty: It’s continued to show me that something needs to get done and I’m doing it, doing my little part in the universe to honor my dad.
The more that I traveled to different treatment centers — Paris, Belize, California, Florida, New York — I went to these places to see what they were offering. I took the best parts of what they had because I wanted to be able to put together a program and a module and tried to keep an open mind and not have an opinion. That’s what I need to do whenever I’m checking something out, and then I review it again.
My father always taught me to do things in triplicate. I’m turning people onto Lennybruce.org to show them what we do and why it’s important to donate. There’s been a huge resurgence [of interest], The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel bringing my father’s character into the series, that’s something I never thought would happen. He just still keeps talking, Andrew… for a man who they kept trying to shut-up, HA!
NR!: All this resurgence should funnel interest toward the work you’re doing.
Kitty: Most definitely, because there’s so many people, young people who don’t know who Lenny Bruce was. And with that play I had people come up to me and say, “Is it true he was to be sentenced for a year, and they threatened 10 years for talking?” I said, “Yeah, it’s true.”
NR!: I can’t imagine running a foundation is easy. What have been some of the hardest aspects of this work?
Kitty: Learning how to delegate. I was doing everything practically myself and I literally… [pause]… there was nothing left, Kitty disappeared. I had to check my ego at the door and ask for help.
And the worst part is trying to get funds for scholarships; it’s a very fine line between begging [laughs] and explaining. I’m tapped, I’ve put practically everything I have into this [laughs]… and I can’t think of a better way to go broke.
For more information and to help change the lives of others, please visit lennybruce.org/donate.