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The Story Behind I AM THAT GIRL

by Sarah Stankorb

November 17, 2014
Photo by Jersean Golatt

In 2012, it looked like Alexis Jones had it all. She’d founded I AM THAT GIRL, a nonprofit she calls the “badass 21st-century version of Girl Scouts.” She lived in Los Angeles, had support from entertainment industry friends like Kristen Bell and Sophia Bush, who’d rushed Jones in her sorority before her One Tree Hill days. Jones was on the road as an empowerment speaker 250 days a year, for four years. She had just landed a book deal—a dream of hers—to write the manifesto for I AM THAT GIRL.

Then, one day, Jones found herself driving the 24 hours from L.A. to her hometown, Austin, hurtling down the highway with two suitcases and alternating between blaring music and bouts of uncontrollable crying.

Her father had cancer: Multiple myeloma in his bones and lymphoma through his entire lymph system. She had the luxury of writing the book anywhere, and home was where she needed to be. So she drove and cried, drove and cried. When she arrived, she moved back into her childhood bedroom, with the squeaky bed and same old wallpaper.

“When you’re younger, everything feels so big. And you come home and you're like, oh my god, my closet is tiny...I don’t remember my bed being so small,” says Jones.

Living back at home felt awkward and Jones found herself trying to explain to people, “No, no. I don’t live live with my parents. I just live with them because of circumstances.” Her life at that time became a jumble of emotional contradictions. She was working on the book, a guide for I AM THAT GIRL groups and chapters, which encouraged young women to put themselves first, have a strong work ethic, dare to be unpopular, dream big, contribute and not just consume. But she also had everyday obligations: cooking for her father and stepmother, walking the dogs, going on medication runs, and picking up nieces and nephews.

As she wrote the book, Jones asked 30 girlfriends—big names who had experienced true success—to contribute stories about times they’d failed. She asked one who created a national nonprofit to talk about her divorce. “I'm not going to provide another unattainable highlight reel for young girls,” Jones insisted. She saw that people are all just messy works in progress.

Meanwhile, Jones herself was a mess. “There were moments when I would have a hard time getting out of bed,” she remembers. “I would just be crying and my mom would come home on her lunch hour and just lay there with me.”

She ran into a high school friend’s younger brother, Brad Buckman, and soon told him something she never would have admitted in her usual context: “I don’t have my shit together. I don’t know up from down, and I’m so scared I can’t breathe.” She’d put up a front with everyone else she dated up to that point, but she didn’t have the energy for that with Brad. She cried on their second date.

Jones felt like she was reverting to a “high school version” of herself. “It’s this bizarre paradox or juxtaposition because at that same time, you are home and they are your parents, but you’re now a caretaker.” It feels counterintuitive, she says, to be “literally, physically stronger than your father.” Holding that juxtaposition in her brain, Jones said, felt a little schizophrenic; at the same time, the act of caretaking was an honor.

Still, Jones wrote the book, one that teaches young women to take as much pride in their struggles as their successes (Bush wrote the foreword). Years later, after Buckman fell for the at-home, fraught, but real version of Jones, the couple is now engaged. And after two-and-a-half years fighting cancer—and during that time, as Jones says, having no idea if he would live or die—her father is now in remission.

Jones is back in L.A. again, but she’s a transformed version of the person who hurtled down the highway to her family home years ago. Back then, she’d already lived in L.A. for a decade and had grown accustomed to the glitz, the feeling that, as she puts it, “you start to think you’re more important than you are.” But in Austin, for a time, she was able to emphasize her other roles, those of daughter and friend.

“The irony was I thought I was doing it for my dad,” says Jones. But moving home didn’t just end up being an act of selflessness; it was less even a response to a pressing emotional need. Being home to care for her family as Jones wrote I AM THAT GIRL was a chance to remember the girl she once was, as well as what and whom she valued.

“It was a privilege,” she says.

This is the third part in a series on Millennials who moved back to their parents’ homes during the 2008 recession—where they ended up making awesome things. Read the other entries here and here.

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The Story Behind I AM THAT GIRL