Actress Lorraine Bracco is best known for her role as Dr. Melfi on the iconic television show The Sopranos, in which she helped mobster Tony Soprano exorcise his inner demons. In some ways, it was a part she was well prepared for. Bracco had been in private therapy for years for depression. And she’d also had her own demons from the difficulties she had as a child with dyslexia.
She shared some of those struggles with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, of the Child Mind Institute at the 12th Annual Katz Memorial Lecture.
“I hated school because I felt really dumb,” she told Koplewicz. “It was a huge struggle.”
Bracco says that her difficulties became quickly apparent when she had to learn to read. “Whenever I was called upon to read aloud, I was anxiety-ridden.” Writing and math weren’t any better. “I was a disaster. There was paper and pencil and nothing made sense.”
Bracco’s parents tried their best. But her father, a fishmonger, had started working at 14 or 15. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and “definitely dyslexic,” according to Bracco. There wasn’t much information available about when she grew up. She went through school with few noticing. “Social promotion — that was me. I think they invented that for me!”
To deflect attention away from her struggles, Bracco turned to humor and storytelling. “I was always kind of a jokester in class,” she reminisced. She explained she was forced to find a “creative way” to express herself. Once when a boy she had a crush on asked her to read something, she pretended to be a human typewriter to make light of the situation.
Bracco’s creative side got a jolt from a middle school teacher who believed in her. He encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming a model and spoke to her parents on her behalf. They agreed. She went to Wilhelmina Models and they took her on the spot.
Her career as a model took her to France, where she lived for a decade. She learned spoken French surprisingly easily, which she credited to her ability to learn scripts quickly by reading them aloud. In France, she modeled, acted in French films and produced a popular television show, Les Enfants du Rock (The Kids of Rock and Roll).
After her first marriage ended in France, she fell in love with the actor Harvey Keitel and returned to the United States. She starred in the movie Goodfellas and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Karen Hill, a mob wife.
After splitting from Keitel, she went through a difficult and costly custody battle over their daughter. She declared bankruptcy. Depression followed, but she didn’t recognize it right away. “I had a sh---- decade and a really bad year, before I admitted to myself that this was a problem,” she reflected. “Depression is a vortex. You don’t have it. It has you.”
Things started to look up after she landed the role of Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos. With therapy and medication, Bracco recovered from depression. Now, she’s an advocate for treating mental health issues. “You have a toothache, you got to dentist. A broken leg — you go to emergency room. But if you show any signs of mental illness, people say: Just stop that. Don’t do that. Just grow out it.”
She’s also speaking up about learning and thinking differences. Looking back, Bracco wishes that she had gotten help for her dyslexia in school. “I think I would have been challenged in a way that would have made me intellectually stimulated,” she said. “Instead of using humor to hide.”
But today, she’s thankful that there’s much more awareness. She even joked about how her daughter went to a Montessori school where they offered “creative” spelling. “I could have used that!”