She kept them under her bed -- a hundred or more journals she had filled since her childhood in Philadelphia. In 2013, while recovering from parasites she had picked up while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, actress Maria Bello started reading her journals.
Bello started with her favorite, a well-worn green notebook plastered with hearts. She expected a trip down memory lane but instead she began asking herself questions, trying to get at who she was and who she had become.
What Bello came to realize was "there was something else eating me alive, something that also needed to come out. It was much more powerful than the parasite. It was my truth."
The result of that exploration was her first book, Whatever . . . Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (Dey Street Books, $25.99). The book, which launches April 28, is a series of personal essays about modern family and partnership, and about questioning the labels we give ourselves -- and that others give us.
It's also about the larger conversation about labels, which Bello hit head-on in a Nov. 29, 2013, "Modern Love" essay in the New York Times: "Coming Out as a Modern Family." In that piece, one of the ten most popular "Modern Love" essays of all time, Bello shared the story of telling her then 12-year-old son, Jackson, that she was romantically involved with her best friend, Clare Munn, who was like a godmother to Jackson. Her son's response -- "Mom, love is love, whatever you are" -- sparked the "Modern Love" essay.
It also led to a label Bello coined for herself -- "Whatever" -- which has been embraced by thousands who don't fit so easily into labels like "gay," "lesbian," or "bisexual," and for those who exist outside the heterosexual, nuclear-family structure.
In her book, Bello doesn't just explore labels surrounding sexuality. Each essay heading is a question, such as: Am I a Catholic? Am I a Good Mom? Am I Resilient? She writes about being the child of an alcoholic father, about having been suicidal and of her bipolar diagnosis at age 27.
The book is not, however, against labels, but instead an exploration of which labels hinder or empower us. Ultimately, Bello writes, "Labels are useless and meaningless, unless they are the labels you want for yourself and make you feel part of a community to which you are proud to belong. Labels should never make you feel judged or afraid."
"'Whatevers,'" she says, "are the wave of the future." Bello features some of them in a video she released the same day as Bruce Jenner's April 24 interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, in which Jenner detailed the struggles of being transgender.
Bello calls writing the book, which took her a year, one of the hardest -- and most rewarding -- things she's ever done.
"The hardest part was the editing part -- to figure out the structure and what to include. This isn't a memoir. It's like tiny stories of my life that open up bigger questions. When I finally came to that structure of questioning, then everything seemed to fall into place."
She learned, too, that she had to honor her own approach to writing.
"My writing inspirations, like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones -- they all say the same thing, which is you should write a little bit every day. I wanted to be that person, and I'm not. I would go two weeks without writing, and then in one night I would sit down in a manic frenzy and write forty pages. So I didn't follow the advice of these incredible writing teachers, but somehow I ended up with a book. That must be through the grace of God."
Munn, Bello says, has been a "huge supporter" of her book. It was Munn, who Bello calls "a creative visionary," who came up with the "Whatever Campaign," which includes a line of "Whatever . . . Love Is Love" apparel and items. Part of the proceeds goes toward human and equal rights causes, such as Human Rights Campaign and Equality Now.
Bello calls her "an incredible, curious, odd duck."
"Everybody who meets her falls in love with her instantly. Talk about authentic. She is just incredibly herself. She understands the fluidity of life and is constantly moving and seeking. She's like a four-year-old kid in a forest, every single day, looking for the bird."
Bello says she always has to remind herself that relationships are fluid -- "they are not static." That's true for her relationship with her son, who is now 14.
"We just went through a really bumpy batch because we have to figure out how to relate to each other in a new way because he's not a child any more. He is a young man," Bello says.
"Our relationships are always becoming themselves," she continues. "I feel that, for myself, as long as I live in the question and let that be okay to live in the question, there's a mindfulness and a joy and a curiosity that comes from living in that space."
Bello's hope for her new book and the campaign is "that the questioning will continue and that people will be inspired to get rid of labels that hold them back and accept labels that lift them up."
"That's why being a 'Whatever' is so important to me," she says. "I feel it frees me and it frees others from the constraints of outdated labels. It allows us to find the life we were meant to live."
Photo: Clare Munn, Maria Bello and Mariska Hargitay.