Jonathan Groff empowered me to accept—and own—my identity with Mindhunter

Jonathan Groff saved me from myself.

I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin. I’ve always known there was something wrong with me from the start—born three months prematurely, I wasn’t expected to survive. Instead every morning I count 14 different surgical scars and feel three different pieces of hardware implanted in my body. My muscles ache, bruises inexplicably form, and I’d never describe myself as attractive. And that’s actually the lesser reason why I can’t look at myself in the mirror.

It’s difficult to form a meaningful connection with yourself when you’re also ostracized for who you choose to be. My disability was the start of my bullying, but the majority of it was about my life choices and came from the people I should have been looking up to.

One high school teacher told me I’d never graduate college because disagreeing with him meant I had “an authority problem.” Another told me I couldn’t accomplish my athletic goals “because you’re handicapped.” Family members sent me to church to try and change me, where I got told I’m going to hell twice: once for being disabled and again for liking crime novels.

I was regarded as intellectually bright, but most of the authority figures in my life didn’t know or want to know what to do with me. And after hearing I was defective, unwanted, or wrong enough times I just embraced being the aberration.

All this considered, it’s no wonder I connected with Mindhunter‘s Holden Ford.

Jonathan Groff’s performance as the plucky, pioneering FBI agent hooked me creatively for many reasons when I binge-watched the Netflix series, which led me to a thorough critical analysis of the character’s evolution and the way an actor can truly imprint on a protagonist. Holden is a wonderfully complex character, and Jonathan is the core of why he’s so successful.

To articulate that properly and do both of them justice, I ended up spending over 30 hours building a profile of my own. Watching hours of film, cross-checking fiction with facts from the Mindhunter book written by John Douglas, learning more about character and actor to figure out how each of the pieces informed the whole and construct my proverbial case.

While asking questions about self-image versus perceived image, how Holden’s identity changed under stress, and why Jonathan playing against type made all the difference, I realized things that finally changed the way I saw myself. Not only did I identify with Holden, but Jonathan helped me break my own cycle of self-consciousness, fear and denial.

Because just as Holden suffered a panic attack at the end of Mindhunter season 1 while facing an OPR investigation, about a year ago I experienced my first anxiety attack—not by getting hugged by a serial killer but from having my career nearly ripped away from me and then having my own overdue reckoning. Our stories parallel each other in more ways than one.

Mindhunter

MINDHUNTER – Patrick Harbron/Netflix

When Holden Ford starts working with Bill Tench and ultimately joins the Behavioral Sciences Unit, he finds his purpose. That’s what happened to me when I became an entertainment journalist. In school, I would sit alone in hallways and tell myself: Someday when I get older, I’ll find a place where I fit in. After I fell into this line of work, it was like the world opened up to me.

I’ve always been a firm believer in entertainment as a device that enables people to examine and potentially change their lives. I’ve heard plenty of examples and experienced it myself on a number of occasions, some of which I’ve written about. Something about ideas within the construct of a story makes them more accessible to me. My career surrounded me with people who shared my passion and for the first time in my life, I was welcome.

But even in this safe space, I’ve never been completely comfortable with myself. Much like Jonathan Groff is great at conveying Holden’s awkward eagerness as he tries to connect with his FBI colleagues at the start of Mindhunter, I’ve been trying to be who I’m supposed to be.

There are very few people with whom I can open up entirely. Mostly I’ve been trying to curate an image—convince the PR reps that I’m worthy of an interview. Impress the talent that I’m working with. Make my boss happy. But more than anything, I was trying to prove to myself that I deserve to be here, that this person genuinely likes me and I’m not seeing what I want to see.

My anxiety started in small ways, giving me nerves before every interview and self-doubt afterward. I would apologize for things I even thought I did and catch myself shaking out of the blue. Rarely did I leave an interaction feeling good about myself; I was usually worried about the impression I’d made. In the worst case, a network rep found me in a cold sweat in the bathroom before an interview, because I was that convinced I wouldn’t be good enough.

I brushed these incidents off as caring too much about my job; I wanted to do well, so of course, I’d be nervous. I could even joke about them, with my friends calling me a “serial apologist.” It wasn’t until watching Jonathan Groff play out Holden’s arc in Mindhunter that I came to the realization the self-deprecating humor and the nerves were a reflection of my own discomfort.

Who are you if you’re pretending to be someone else? What happens when that someone else starts to sublimate who you used to be? Are you really emotionally healthy if you’re not able to be honest with yourself, let alone those around you?

As Mindhunter season 1 progresses, one of the best things about Jonathan Groff’s performance is the many subtle ways he transforms Holden into someone who can be a formidable equal to these serial killers—and then slowly crosses the line to see from the other side of the table. It gradually dawns on Holden that he might be the very thing he’s so determined to fight against.

I wasn’t going head-to-head with serial offenders; I was going up against myself, and Jonathan helped me recognize that. There was that part of me that kept telling me I was the mistake, the outlier, the malcontent. It was easier to aim outward (and arm myself against those people who wanted to tear me down) than to embrace what was inward.

Here’s where I want to be particularly clear: I’ve met many wonderful people in my career and we’ve done some amazing things. I don’t mean to diminish any of the friends I’ve made or the moments we’ve shared that have positively impacted my life. Without some of them, I wouldn’t be here, because there were times that I still broke, and they were there. But there were a lot of others who weren’t so kind, and I wasn’t looking at myself the right way. I saw everything as fuel for my fire. Ironically, being the rebel gave me a more acceptable identity than having the courage to be genuine.

People expected me to play that part, like Holden playing to his next interview subject, and there was a certain amount of satisfaction in proving them wrong. But that came from a negative place of pushing back instead of the positive energy of doing things for myself. I lived with that monster because, as in the first season of Mindhunter, I was getting results no matter what the personal cost. I landed big headlines, got invited to parties with celebrities, saw my name on TV and almost had my own billboard in Las Vegas. Those victories made me happy, and they balanced out my physical and emotional pain to make me feel like everything was fine.

Then, out of nowhere, I was one step away from losing everything. But unlike Holden with the Richard Speck interview, it had nothing to do with me.

MINDHUNTER

Just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, my home state of California passed a bill called AB-5 that devastated independent contractors across the board. In the blink of an eye, I was legally unable to write more than three articles a month for any employer, when in the pay-per-click world of freelancing, I needed to have dozens of bylines in multiple places just to survive.

The effects of AB-5 were immediate and chilling. Some companies refused to work with any writer living in California. Others cut back so much that it was near-impossible to earn enough. Friends lost their jobs and their homes. I went from working for a half-dozen outlets to just one—and if FanSided hadn’t offered me a job, I would’ve lost everything I’d worked for and everything holding me together.

But the damage didn’t stop there. With what I was able to do now drastically reduced, I became less valuable—and more invisible. People I’d worked with for years stopped calling or blamed me for the situation. What I’d built over more than a decade was falling apart like Holden Ford finding himself in the crosshairs of that OPR investigation near the conclusion of Mindhunter season 1, but conversely, it was my head being f—ked with.

What I don’t often talk about is how insular my career is; the parties, press events and conventions are the minority. Getting to meet a celebrity or travel to a set are the rewards for the 80 percent of my work that’s sitting alone in a room talking to myself. Those moments were also an escape from those intrapersonal struggles. With those diversions taken away by the pandemic and people’s reaction fueling my self-criticism, I had my first panic attack last spring.

It felt like being that unwanted kid in the hallway again, and I couldn’t handle it. After everything I’d fought for, I still couldn’t outrun being that nothing everyone said I’d be.

As if that wasn’t enough my family imploded in the remainder of 2020—we lost three people in less than six months, one of which revealed other relatives I’d never known about, and there was acrimony elsewhere that resulted in near-constant fighting. Being unable to avoid hours-long shouting matches, some of them turning violent, instigated more panic attacks. When I tried to reach out for help, I got told “we all have problems”; eventually I could be in the same room and never even acknowledged. I was depersonalized in my career and in my family.

I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong even as I knew I couldn’t fix it. There’s a great scene in the Mindhunter season 1 finale where Holden profiles his own breakup, and I was doing that to myself in my own downward spiral. I needed something to escape into; something that would make me feel like a human being again.

When I decided to binge-watch Mindhunter and write that prior article, that was my Ed Kemper moment. Instead of getting a hug from a serial killer, I latched onto Jonathan Groff’s work as Holden Ford—and just like Holden, I took a startling but worthwhile look in the mirror.

MINDHUNTER – Patrick Harbron/Netflix

One of my analytical principles is that you have to understand the actor to completely understand a character. Just like characters are informed by the experiences they go through in the script, each actor brings their own life experiences to every role—along with their habits, their body language, and their personality traits. It’s pretty fascinating to look at how much an actor can shape a role, even if they might not realize they’re doing it.

So when I wanted to break down Holden Ford, I had to get to know Jonathan Groff. That meant watching a lot of film—I finally got to see Hamilton—and taking copious notes. It also included familiarizing myself with him off-screen to figure out the line between actor and character, and as I got to know his backstory, I learned just as much from Jonathan as I did from Holden.

In fact, I was inspired by him.

There are certain people who just uplift the people around them by the energy they put into the world. Jonathan Groff is one of those people; simply watching interviews and behind-the-scenes videos, he brought moments of joy when I needed them desperately. I never thought I’d say anyone talking about serial killers was calming, but that’s the feeling I got listening to him narrate John Douglas’ other book The Killer Across The Table. I’ve got “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen 2 as my alarm now, just because listening to him sing cheers me up.

I also identified with him personally. I found myself empathizing with his journey to coming out, and had forgotten he was one of the people maligned by that 2010 Newsweek article that claimed gay actors couldn’t believably play straight characters. That wasn’t my journey, but it hit home for me in the sense that I’d been hiding an important part of myself, and it was Jonathan that prompted me to stop holding back.

Looking at him, I finally asked myself, “Why the hell are you hiding?”

Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter is a certified badass. But Jonathan Groff in Frozen isn’t afraid to be a little weird when he’s talking to himself by voicing Kristoff and Sven the reindeer, which is actually pretty darn impressive.  And Jonathan Groff as a human being doesn’t take things too seriously or worry about embarrassing himself. He’s genuine, earnest, funny, energetic and a little bit nerdy—and if he could be all these things and be embraced by so many people, why couldn’t I?

Granted, I am nowhere near as talented, charismatic or good-looking as he is. The versatility he has is once in a lifetime talent, and I can’t act, can’t sing and once fell into an orchestra pit. But he gave me, for the first time, someone I look up to that I also see myself in—and the inspiration and courage to live my truth.

MINDHUNTER – Credit: Netflix

By the close of Mindhunter season 2 (and the series as we know it), Holden Ford has chosen his course and owned his new identity. He’s not without reservations; that last look on his face is a clear sign that he knows his work isn’t done, and in fact, hasn’t amounted to what he wanted. But he knows who he is, and he’s implicitly still out there doing what he has to do.

There’s a meaningful story there, that one can face down the worst of humanity and go through the wringer and not lose themselves. Holden has definitely changed, and he’s been through a lot professionally and personally to keep everything together, but the core of him is still Holden. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me as my world has completely upended. Holden has to ask a lot of tough questions, even breaks a time or two, but he’s still a hero.

There are still challenges I have to deal with, and I’m sure I’ll make mistakes. Even writing these words, I’m fighting my anxiety that says that everyone will think I’m weak or judge me for putting so much of myself out into the world. While you’re reading this, I’ll probably be nervously pacing a hallway somewhere. But in another way, I’m glad to say it, not only to own who I am but if nothing else, to share my appreciation for Jonathan Groff for getting me here.

To a place where I can say I haven’t had a panic attack since I wrote that first article. Where I can tell you that I love to sing, even though I’m not great at it, and proudly say that I once off-key performed with Adam Levine instead of making fun of how I sounded. That I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in college after the death of my best friend and almost quit writing to join the LAPD. That I ended up with two college degrees, but I’m prouder that I was captain of the dodgeball team. That I had a nervous breakdown a few years ago, yet can laugh about it now. That I still don’t like the way I look, but I do feel comfortable in a suit—one more thing I have in common with Holden Ford.

And that I have one last line on my bucket list and it’s to meet Jonathan Groff. To thank him directly for getting me to recognize what I was missing and empowering me to own who I am after all this time. The other reason I hear “Lost in the Woods” every morning is to remind me of his example, keeping me pointed in the right direction (dare I say my true north). Hopefully, our paths will cross someday and that’ll mean the world to me.

Until then, I’ve got a few more John Douglas books to finish—and I’m not hiding that or anything else about myself ever again. Thanks to Jonathan Groff, I’m finally proud of who I am.

Both seasons of Mindhunter are now streaming on Netflix.