Bustle’s “Without This Woman” is a series of essays honoring the women who change and challenge us every day. Below, actor Constance Wu reflects on her sister Helen. Wu is celebrating the release of her debut memoir, Making a Scene, a collection of 18 essays on topics ranging from her parent’s divorce to Twitter.
I am the third of four daughters, and my unsung hero is my second-oldest sister, Helen.
She’s several years older than I am, so I was a kid and she was my teenage sister. Helen was the one who always encouraged me, believed in me, and never said anything negative or fear-based about my career or my choices, even when they weren’t the best choices.
When I went off to college, my parents divorced. And through that divorce, a lot of the family didn’t talk to each other. People were just silent. It was a time of change and adjustment. In that four-year period, I went from being a kid to an adult, and my relationship with Helen naturally shifted. I graduated college. I had boyfriends and heartbreaks and rent to pay. I could talk to her about my boyfriends, sex, and my body. She just accepted it, like, “Oh, Constance is 22.”
When I was in my 20s, I made a lot of poor financial decisions, as people in their 20s often do. I knew that my oldest sister disapproved of that a lot. She feared for my ability to pay the rent. My parents worried about it a lot, too. Helen just seemed to hold faith that I would figure it out, and that I was working my way through things. Her faith in me continued — and strengthened — during hard times, when it was often more difficult for me to have faith in my own potential.
We happened to live in New York at the same time, and also Los Angeles. At the time, she was getting her Ph.D., and I had just moved there. She was there for me through many heartbreaks, bad auditions when I felt awful about myself, and a lot of family drama. And to live in the same city as her — it was pretty special.
Sometimes when I couldn’t afford a meal, she’d just make me one. There’s one I remember. It was before Fresh Off the Boat. I think at that point I’d only done theater and maybe a couple McDonald’s commercials. It was late at night, I’d gotten a really bad haircut, and hadn’t had a good audition that day. I was trying to figure out what to do with my hair so I’d put in foam rollers to try to get my bangs to behave. I was totally depressed. And she was like, “Just come over, I’ll give you beer and food.”
I went to her house, and she made me a steak and corn on the cob and gave me a nice cold beer. I was in my pajamas, and half of my head was in foam rollers. But because she’s my sister, I could do that, and it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Now, even though we’re no longer “kid sister” and “big sister,” I still look to her for guidance on lots of things, like car insurance or training advice for running. She runs ultra marathons.
I’ve always believed in myself and my resilience, but even people with the greatest confidence have moments of self-doubt. And in those moments, you need a touchstone to bring you back to yourself so you don’t drown in sorrow. For me, Helen is a touchstone who brings me back when I’ve lost my way.
Without my sister Helen, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain faith in myself.
As told to Leila Barghouty. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.