The reporter-interviewee dynamic is always a weird one. So there was something meta and slightly trippy about my dinner with fellow entertainment reporter and legendary TV news scoopster Michael Ausiello, whose cleverly (and devastatingly) titled memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words hits shelves Sept. 12.
There’s an awkward, fleeting stare-down, for example, when the waitress asks if we’d like a cocktail. Ausiello’s book is candid about a flirtation with excessive drinking. (Relax, it’s under control.) We both order drinks, sparing ourselves lame jokes about Diet Coke. Many people who know Ausiello and read his book arrive armed with quips about the borderline addiction to fountain Diet Coke he details. In fact, he even has a ranking: Target and Chipotle have a “good mix” (syrup to carbonation ratio); Subway and 7-11 are subpar.
It’s the odd, uncomfortable thing about memoir writing, something we appreciate must mirror the experience of so many of our TV-star interview subjects. The people you meet know things about you, ranging from the intimate to the mundane, like your soda preferences. And, Jesus, in Ausiello’s case, they know that the love of his life, his husband Christopher “Kit” Cowan, received a terminal cancer diagnosis the day of their City Hall wedding, and died 11 months later.
That’s the spoiler alert teased in the headline—in this case the title of the book, and the tragedy of Ausiello’s lifetime. Kit’s the hero. He dies in the end.
Of course, I already knew some of this. I’ve known Ausiello for years, as most people in the entertainment industry, and certainly most TV fans, do.
Most of us have relied on his insider scoops for more than a decade, first from his time at Soaps in Depth, then with star-making stints at TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly—the iconic “I’m Sorry” Katherine Heigl EW cover was his orchestration. In 2010, he launched the website TV Line, for which he currently serves as editor in chief and from where, among other milestones, he fed the insatiable appetite for Gilmore Girls revival news last year.
He’s never been the kind of reporter to draw a hard line between his personal and professional life, but Spoiler Alert is an entirely different beast. It’s shockingly candid, chronicling “Year One” and “Year 13” of his relationship with Kit, and discussing sex, shame, infidelity, drugs, and, ultimately, the blunt, uncomfortable, harrowing details of Kit’s excruciating and emotional battle with aggressive neuroendocrine cancer.
The ending is given away in the title, but the experience of reading it is something wholly unexpected.
You might brace for the tear-jerking cancer grief porn that’s become its own genre of pop culture, and, yes, my god, will you cry. But it’s also a humorous, enlightening, and sometimes even sensual look at gay life in New York City in the months after the 9/11 attacks, when Michael and Kit met, and a swoon-inducing romance that pulls no punches about how just how much work goes into staying with the love of your life until the end of his life.
Few cancer memoirs—or even love stories, for that matter—are this honest. No one is sainted, not even Kit. No one is excused nor vilified for their misdeeds. “Love is love” has almost become a cliché by this point, but Spoiler Alert underlines that point, particularly because of how human, for better or worse, Ausiello dares to allow himself and his late husband to be.
“It’s incredibly freeing to not give a shit,” Ausiello says when I ask him how he feels about everyone now knowing about his sex hang-ups, his drinking, his insecurity over stretchmarks. “All the shame. All the things that I was too embarrassed to talk about and was afraid people would find out. I just didn’t give a shit as I was writing it.”
There’s always the temptation to canonize a cancer patient after their death. But Ausiello writes openly about an affair Kit had, how his excessive marijuana use was a thorn in their relationship, and the amount of therapy and lengths they went to in order to stay together, even living apart for a period before Kit’s diagnosis.
“That was something that, at times, I struggled with,” Ausiello says. “I was never going to go in and paint him as this perfect human specimen who had no flaws. I wasn’t interested in doing that to him, because honestly some of what people might see as his faults are what I think make him so interesting and unique and charming.
“As I did write it, there were moments where I was worried that people might judge him,” he continues. “People who knew him the most were who I was most worried about getting their feedback. From what I heard it’s only made them love him more and miss him more.”
Ausiello’s humor, which is on every page of Spoiler Alert, is a wry, over-it bemusement. Denis Leary once told him during a 2015 Comic-Con interview, “I just met you, but already feel so sad that I disappointed you so much. Your judgmental vibes are hilarious.” It’s a cultivated personality that makes the curtain-pull look at the raw, unfiltered emotion of falling in love and dealing with death all the more surprising, and certainly affecting.
He began writing Spoiler Alert just months after Kit’s death, wanting to type out the memories while they were still fresh.
“I had to put myself back in our bedroom the night that he died and remember what it felt like to watch him slowly slip away,” he says. “There were a couple of times when I said, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? Is it worth it? The pain that it is causing me, it almost seems masochistic.’”
There’s no point in withholding how much I cried while reading Spoiler Alert. Nor is there in how much both Ausiello and I teared up during our conversation.
I’m a gay TV reporter in a long-term relationship, and I also happen to be a cancer survivor. I can imagine, then, what it was like to get the phone call that his husband might have cancer while on the set of The Americans waiting to interview Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, or to have to appear on camera interviewing Kristen Bell days after a doctor tells you he’s “concerned” about his prognosis.
It was therefore understandably moving to not only read about such a committed caretaker-patient relationship between Ausiello and his husband, but also the portrait of a complicated, inspiring gay love story. The beauty of the book, however, is that the details don’t have to mirror a reader’s own life so eerily for the story to feel so personally powerful.
Spoiler Alert has been publicly endorsed by a host of gay male celebrities. Andy Cohen posed with it on Instagram: “I cried. A lot. Sometimes it feels good to just… sob.” Girls star Andrew Rannells co-signed the need for Kleenex, and also wrote “the love and honesty with which he writes is astonishing.” Jim Parsons said, “I flew through it, even while literally sobbing at too many moments to count (don’t let that scare you—it’s unbelievably uplifting, too).”
That celebrities, particularly gay ones, are supporting the book is, sure, a testament to how well-connected Ausiello is in the industry. But it’s striking a chord because of the gorgeous, frank gayness of the story, a warts-and-all telling that is still rare.
They met just after 9/11 at the recently closed Webster Hall during Ausiello’s first social outing after the attack. His insecurities and his infatuation instantly manifested: “I was already worried the gay police were going to issue me a citation for trespassing out of my league,” he writes. Nonetheless, there was tonsil hockey, and then dating, and then, suddenly, 13 years together.
They never had any design of getting married. But after learning that the love of his life might have cancer, Ausiello couldn’t bear the thought of showing up for appointments and not being able to say, “I’m his husband.” In a cruel twist, the day they planned to marry at City Hall was the same day Kit was told he had “about a year” to live. The entire ordeal was so rom-com-esque, you’d be hard-pressed not to suspect Ausiello cribbed it from an episode of a show he covered.
Despite their shell-shocked emotional haze, they made it to City Hall in time to register for a marriage license, but were unaware they’d be given an appointment at a later date for the ceremony. That wouldn’t work. They needed to get married now.
They had less than an hour to make it across the street to obtain a waiver from a judge and then back to City Hall for a ceremony before it closed, but Law & Order: SVU was filming on the steps of the courthouse. Ignoring the production assistant imploring them to wait for the shot to be over, they barged through, only to learn that the judge had already left his chambers. For the first time, they pulled the cancer card.
They got the waiver, threw Mariska Hargitay off her mark again, and said “I do” just under the gun.
“I didn’t realize what a fucked-up day that was until I really went back into it and unpacked it all,” Ausiello says. “It was literally the worst of times and the best of times in one 24-hour period.”
For all its romance, the exhaustiveness with which Spoiler Alert covers the reality of a cancer battle shouldn’t be discounted from its impact. Maybe because it’s deemed depressing, or because it’s complicated—who knows—cancer narratives often gloss over the specifics of treatment plans, chemotherapy, medications, side effects, and the day-to-day responsibilities of a caretaker. Ausiello is meticulous in recounting those details, giving rare insight into the hellaciousness of the cancer journey.
“It was my life for 11 months,” he shrugs when I ask him about this. He was a caregiver. Medications were his life. Doctor appointments were his life. Kit’s comfort was his life. “I’m insecure about a lot of things,” he says. “But I was a fucking great caregiver. And I didn’t know I had that in me.”
Did he think Kit appreciated that as it was happening? Ausiello nods yes. That must be nice to know, I say. He starts to cry and takes a moment, thinking if he even wants to say the next thing, knowing it will destroy him all over again.
“I mean the last words he said to me were, ‘Thank you,’” he says, the waterworks coming on cue, as they should. “It all came so naturally, though. It never felt like work. It just felt like whatever the fuck I have to do to make him… better. Maybe save him.”
The tears come and go—from both ends of the table—as he continues, stopping and starting to collect himself. “Whatever that takes, that’s what I’ll do. If that means that I have to learn how to change a colostomy bag in 30 seconds so that shit doesn’t go all over the bathroom floor, no time to think about it. Just gotta do it. And I’m going to keep him entertained through it so he doesn’t feel self-conscious about the fact that I’m invading his personal space.”
As painful as reliving the year-long death of his husband must have been while working on Spoiler Alert, it offered an opportunity few people are afforded. He got to, in detail, spend a year recollecting, processing, and maybe rethinking the start of his relationship all the way through to his husband’s last breath. Did he learn something about his relationship that he didn’t know before?
“One thing: I think it really crystallized for me how hard we worked on the relationship. How hard he worked on it, too,” he says, still choked up. “How much we wanted to make it work. And I’m so glad we did. Because there were several times in our time together where it looked like it was going to be over, but I’m glad we didn’t give up.”
The emotional heavy-lifting was over, as much as it could be in a 90-minute conversation about someone losing his husband. We laugh about his masterful eulogy, which is reprinted in the book and contained some choice language. “It tickles me that I called my husband a cunt at his own memorial service,” he says, teasing the speech.
I ask what his experience has been like doing his job at a time when cancer narratives are all over pop culture, most poignantly this last year in USA’s BFF comedy Playing House. He steers away completely, he says, recounting a harrowing experience at the first movie he saw after Kit’s death, the live-action Cinderella. “I come to find out Prince Charming’s name is Kit,” he says. “At first I was horrified. Then I was like, this is Kit fucking with me.”
Before we go, there’s one last question—maybe it’s the obvious question—and one last cry, too. The fact remains that Ausiello, a person who has made a career out of telling people’s stories, has devoted years of his personal life to another person as well: caring for Kit, then writing about that experience, and now on a press tour talking about it. He’s spent so much time in service of Kit and Kit’s story. What about his own?
“It’s been two-and-a half years and I’m still not over him,” he cries. “I don’t know if I’ll have the answer to that question until I really accept that he’s gone and move on.”
His voice catches again: “I’m not there yet. I think part of that is because the book hasn’t allowed me to let go. Part of it is I don’t want to let go. The book is helping me by giving me what I want. He’s still here in a way. I’m still talking about him. He’s still in my life.”