As a TV writer, Jessica Queller, 38, used to call herself “the ‘WB’ girl.” She’s written for so many dramedies on the teen TV network (now called the CW) that she suspects “there’s something about me that may be arrested, development-wise.” When pitching in the writers’ room, she’d always drawn on her high-school years at Riverdale, and they’ve never been more relevant than on her current gig as a writer for Gossip Girl.
She tries to keep the show, which is written in L.A., authentically New York, sending the kids to Veselka for pierogies and Jenny to the bam costume shop to borrow a dress. The episode where Eleanor Waldorf chooses tall, blonde Serena over her petite, brunette daughter, Blair, to model her clothing line was informed by Queller’s family dynamics: Growing up, she always felt that her own fashion-designer mom, who put a premium on looking pretty and being well accessorized, fawned over her golden-locked, put-together younger sister.
But if Queller were to use her more recent personal history for material, this is what would happen in the next episode of Gossip Girl: After Eleanor dies of cancer, Blair and Serena test positive for the BRCA gene mutation and, facing a high likelihood of cancer, decide to cut off their breasts. Queller had a prophylactic mastectomy a year ago, and has written about it in a very un–Gossip Girl book called Pretty Is What Changes.
It was in between writing for Felicity (the Keri Russell vehicle about an NYU freshman) and One Tree Hill (like The OC but set in rural North Carolina) that her life began to diverge dramatically from those of her characters. In the fall of 2001, she’d temporarily moved back East, and her mother, Stephanie, who had already survived breast cancer, was diagnosed with stage-3C ovarian cancer. Stephanie’s apartment was mid-renovation, so she moved into Queller’s tiny Barrow Street sublet, the two sharing a bed. They settled into a routine: Stephanie’s day would be filled with chemo appointments; Jessica’s would be spent dealing with the typical thirtysomething-career-girl predicaments, like whether or not to succumb to the advances of her charming but married boss. At night, they kept each other awake worrying what would happen if the chemo wasn’t working, if “the grains of rice” (as the doctor referred to her tumor) were spreading, if Stephanie’s time was running out. She lived another year and a half.
In 2004, Queller was working on Gilmore Girls, about a mother-daughter duo living in suburban Connecticut, when she all but got her own cancer diagnosis. She’d taken the BRCA test at the suggestion of her high-school best friend but had likened it to an HIV test—“You tell yourself you know it’s going to be negative, that it’s just for peace of mind.”
When the test came back positive, she was unprepared and uninformed, and figured that at 34, she had plenty of time to process it. But one of the few friends she told happened to work on the op-ed page of the New York Times and, in a sneaky way of forcing Queller to face her predicament, assigned her a piece on the topic.
Here’s what Queller learned: A properly functioning BRCA gene suppresses tumors, but a mutated gene essentially doesn’t. People who test positive for the mutation have up to an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer, and there is no consistency to the age of onset. “The more I researched, the more I became personally traumatized,” she says. She found no definitive course of treatment; most alarming of all, preventive chemo doesn’t work for all BRCA cases. She decided her options were either to be vigilant about screening to catch the cancer as soon as it arrived, or get rid of her breasts.
It’s not easy to conjure up light teen drama when it feels like you’re living in Gattaca. Some co-workers were sympathetic, but others weren’t. “Can’t you just dip your boobs in green tea?” asked one of her bosses. Worse, Queller couldn’t even use her own morbid plot as material, and had to watch as one of her closest friends, the head writer on ER, jumped at the chance. “He didn’t ask my permission,” she says. “He told me he was doing it the day before they started preproduction. As a TV writer, you always steal from the people in your life. But to be the one whose life was being used … I like to think it’s my job to rip off everyone else’s drama.”
On March 5, 2005, Queller told the world in her Times op-ed that she planned on getting a mastectomy, which was her way of making the decision. But it also forced her to confront a new dilemma. The BRCA gene mutation also correlates with a higher risk of ovarian cancer, and Queller’s doctors advised her to remove her ovaries by 40 at the latest. She’d refused to consider it until she’d had a child, but the years of illness and grieving had made it nearly impossible to develop a high-functioning romance in sync with her biological clock. “I didn’t have the luxury of being someone in her early thirties dating and falling in love and being free,” she says with considerable understatement.
During her surgeries—there were three in all: one to remove tissue, one for the implants, and a third to fashion nipples out of skin from her hips—friends insisted on shoving her into the dating pool. One guy she met was hoping for a Gossip Girl–style drunken hookup; instead, she took him to a diner to explain her situation. “I told him over French fries,” she says. “It did not go well.” After her last procedure, a friend set her up on the phone with a sportswriter who was open to kids, and for a year it seemed to work. But then it didn’t, and when they broke up, she was 37 and a half.
Over the recent writers’ strike, Queller started meeting with a fertility doctor about insemination from an online sperm donor. Now she’s back in the Gossip Girl writers’ room, and the contrast feels familiar. “I have a double life,” says Queller. “Everyone at work knows, conceptually, but they forget. My friend Josh was patting my back last week and he’s like, ‘Oh! You’re not wearing a bra!’ and I’m like, ‘Josh, my boobs are fake.’”
Pretty Is What Changes
By Jessica Queller.
Spiegel & Grau. 256 pages. $24.95.