Fans of the Law & Order franchise will recognize Isabel Gillies as Kathy, Det. Elliot Stabler’s on-again, off-again wife on Special Victims Unit. As rocky as that onscreen union has been, Gillies’s real-life first marriage was much more dramatic. In 2004, the native New Yorker packed up their two young sons and left a promising acting career to follow her husband, professor DeSales Harrison, to Oberlin. A few months later, without warning, he decided he wanted a divorce amid rumors of an affair with a colleague. Coming back to the Big Apple a single mother of two, Gillies moved in with her parents and started to rebuild her life both personally and professionally. She returned to her signature TV role in 2006, and the next year she wed her second husband, journalist Peter Lattman. This year, she found catharsis—not to mention coverage in gossip columns and a spot on the New York Times best-seller list—when she released Happens Every Day, a memoir about the breakup. Time Out Kids spoke with Gillies about her writing and performing careers, single parenting in the city and finding happiness anew with her blended family, which includes her two sons, ages seven and five, and her six-year-old stepdaughter.
What inspired you to write this memoir?
Many things. I started it last year. There was the writers' strike, which coincided with my children being in school. My new husband and I were expecting, but I lost the baby. So suddenly I wasn't working, I wasn't taking care of the kids from 9am to 3pm and I wasn't pregnant, and I had a story in me. I thought, Okay, I can go to the gym and go out to lunch every day, or I can sit down and write this. So I wrote every day from 10 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon. It took about three months. It’s hard when you’re a mother and you've got a lot of stuff going on to find that quiet. That doesn’t often happen. If your life offers it up, that’s a good time to jump.
Have you been surprised by the book’s success?
Actually, that doesn’t surprise me. I really think the human experience is very similar for everyone; we’re all doing slightly different versions of the same thing. Telling my story straightforwardly struck a chord in people. I am surprised, however, that there’s so much infidelity in the world, on the part of both men and women.
Are you planning on writing more books?
I am—a sequel, in fact. I’m writing about living with my parents and my children, which I did for two years in an apartment. The book's also about dating and living in New York. When you have a traumatic event in your life, you change. You're not the same person you were, and you have to discover who you've become. I didn’t know that I was strong before; now I know I am strong. I think I am more ready for a fight, a little more mother bear.
How did your ex-husband react to your memoir?
He didn't. I think he’s decided to not talk about it with me. We just focus on the kids. I think he thinks, That’s your deal and I’m not going to stop it; I’m just not going to get into it with you. He probably doesn't think the book's such a great idea for many reasons. But he doesn't say, "I don’t think it’s good for the kids. I don’t think it’s good for me." We have a common goal: the happiness of the children. How we get there sometimes is very different. A lot of it is taking deep breaths.
How did you cope with your grief?
I just was always sad. Sometimes I’m still sad. Sometimes it makes me sad that I didn’t get to have one family for my entire life. I didn’t take antidepressants, but I took Ambien for six months to get to sleep. I was so anxious and panicked.
Although your book is billed as a memoir, you used a pseudonym for your ex and his lover. Why?
I just didn’t think people could find out [their identities] so easily [, but they did]. I didn’t understand the scale of what happens when you write a book. I thought it was considerate not to use their real names. I used my name because it was my story.
Did following your husband to Oberlin affect your acting career?
Well, it ended it. But that was fine. I had made that decision. I was psyched to live in a little college town and I was happy teaching acting.
Did any of your fellow cast members on SVU help you through the tough times?
No, they weren't involved in this at all. Mariska [Hargitay] is a very good friend of mine, but that happened after all this. We started working together more after I was back in New York.
What was it like to save your TV marriage, having just failed to salvage your own?
When I got back to New York, I desperately needed money and a job for my own self-esteem. The [SVU producers] called me and said, "Okay, you’re getting a divorce [on the show]." I had lost like 20 pounds. TV loves that. I had had this big experience and I had been teaching acting, so my chops were sharp. I did one scene, and suddenly they wrote me back into the show. So I really did save my TV marriage!
What's on the horizon for you, acting-wise?
Hopefully, SVU will keep going. I’m not aggressively [auditioning] because so much is shot in L.A. I want to write more. It’s so much more creative to me.
How did you meet your new husband?
In the park! It was a big playdate with all my childhood pals. A friend called both of us because he knew we were single parents and needed something fun to do. I couldn't believe how hard weekends were when I was a single mom! They’re brutal, lonely, sad and horrible. So we went to the park and played monkey in the middle together. And then we had playdate after playdate with our kids. That’s a great way to fall in love with another parent.
What kinds of activities did you do on those playdates?
Central Park on sunny days and the Museum of Natural History on rainy ones. We loved going to pizza parlors with the kids, and Fairway. It’s like a museum in there; there are even live animals.
What are your favorite things to do with your family these days?
I love the daily pickup at school. We still love going to Fairway, the movies, riding the bus. We do West Side Little League and that’s just heartbreakingly sweet.
What’s on your nightstand to read this summer?
Ruth Reichel's new memoir, Not Becoming My Mother. I read all her books. I saw somewhere that she recommended Nigel Slater's memoir, The Kitchen Diaries, so I'll pick that up. I want to check out Kathryn Stockett's The Help. I might go back and read a classic. As I near 40, I feel that it's time to revisit the big dogs—Wharton, Hemingway, Austen. And then How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Faber and Mazlish. It's like having the secret code.