How ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Writer Elisabeth Finch Used Lies to Create Must-See TV

Finch’s mother, Joan, was desperate to come to Los Angeles to help care for her. But Finch kept her parents away, which crushed them, according to a source close to the family. When people wondered why she rejected their care, she explained that they were overbearing and impossible to be around. Over the years, her brother, Eric, a doctor in Florida, talked about wanting to speak with her doctors about her treatment, says the source, but she wouldn’t let him. In spite of her illness, Finch valiantly flew in for big events back East—her mother’s 60th birthday, graduations. But she’d only stayed for a few hours before having to fly off to somewhere important. “We’d take any time we could get with her,” says her cousin, “It was like, Oh, my God, she’s so fabulous.” People close to her chalked it up to Finch’s “independence.” Finch, as recounted in that first article for Elle—a connection she made through her close friend, Mickey Rapkin, then a writer there—was instilled to treat adversity with “quiet dignity.”

Finch had told friends that there were two shows she was dying to work for—Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood. Lo and behold, when she landed the job at Grey’s Anatomy, a dream came true. There was an obstacle along the way. According to sources at the show, a few seasons into Finch’s stint, writer Krista Vernoff took over as showrunner, and did a blind read of writers’ work to see whose work matched her own vision. Finch’s didn’t make the cut and she was let go when the show got restaffed. But Finch was rescued when someone at Shondaland resurfaced the old Elle article for Vernoff and asked her to reconsider. The woman literally lives for her work. She was promptly rehired.

Like most writers rooms, the Grey’s Anatomy room, which consisted of roughly 17 people, was an intimate, sacred space for people to share all kinds of stories and confessions. For 10 hours a day, the group would churn over past humiliations, scandals that had consumed friends, dark family secrets. They’d mix and match, map them onto the arcs of the show’s many characters. Grey’s was diverse before its time, and suffused with a kind of empathy that made Finch—“the only person [in the writers room] who identified as a person with a disability,” as she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter—a perfect fit. Unlike at The Vampire Diaries, here she had a presence. She excelled in the area of personal confession, laying her pain bare, often with an appealing, familiar humor. Other times, she’d laugh at something tragic—laughed so hard until she cried. People figured it was a coping mechanism. She carried her heart—and her cancer—on her sleeve. She was visibly sick and getting sicker. In addition to the bald head and scarves, she wore a bandage over a presumed port on her upper chest area; you could see it behind her baggy tank top and cardigan. Her skin had a yellow-greenish hue, which she covered with badly blended cover-up. She could sometimes be heard retching in the bathroom, at which point the producers would insist, “Please. Go home.” “No, no,” came the valiant reply. “I really want to be here. Just let me do an hour more.”

Cancer afforded her certain privileges. She had an extra comfortable chair. From there, she tacitly claimed extra talking rights. The writers room was like one “Jewish nosh-table on a Sunday morning,” as one writer describes it, with everyone talking over each other. But when Finch had the floor, she was not to be interrupted, and took whatever time she needed drawing out her stories. Anyone else could lose their job for being such a room hog. “We all tolerated it because we thought she might be dying. These might be her final words,” says this writer. Coworkers recall that her frequent bouts of illness and mental stress coincided with deadlines for her episodes. In these instances, she’d often have to pull in a senior writer to pick up the slack. She showed little interest in returning the favor for other people’s episodes.

Lest anyone forget that cancer was an ongoing battle, she took frequent weeks-long leaves to do what she claimed were clinical trials. She corralled a group of loving friends to help her. She had rented a condo near the Mayo Clinic from her good friend Nick, whose family, sources say, treated her like a surrogate daughter. Nick would drive her to appointments. She’d get out of the car, enter the building, and then he’d drive off. She might snap a picture of the Mayo Clinic exterior for Instagram, with a tag like, “There are Giants in the Sky.” Another friend helped organize care packages. She and a third friend, Molly, became the point people who updated friends and family with information. One day, when Nick was traveling for work and unable to take her to the clinic, Finch asked her cousin in New Jersey to step in. “I couldn’t go,” recalls the cousin. “I was devastated that I couldn’t be there for her.” But Finch didn’t want anyone to get too close. When friends asked if she wanted company during her treatments, she declined. She didn’t want anyone she loved to be connected to her cancer memory, she explained. The friends she collected were empaths; many had been touched by cancer themselves.

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