Betty Rae’s Part 1: David Friesen and Mary Thao Nguyen provide exclusive postmortem on the events of late 2020
Kansas City, we are beyond excited and humbled to announce the reopening of Betty Rae’s this spring under new ownership….
As of this week, Betty Rae’s Ice Cream is under new ownership. This has provided a collective sigh of relief from Kansas Citians who were perplexed or outright gobsmacked by a series of odd events, which had all-but doomed the frozen culinary chain. Today we’re examining the complicated history of actions that unfolded over the last few months. This is the first of two pieces on the subject. You can read the follow-up here.
At the end of 2020, the Kansas City staple Betty Rae’s Ice Cream, which has long received awards for excellence from The Pitch and other publications, found itself in a horrifying situation. Extending far beyond your typical social media faux-pas, the family-owned business was haphazardly declaring war against its supporters. And itself.
Within a matter of weeks, this much championed local institution became fully engaged in the sort of breakdown you might expect from, say, an uncle that fell too far into conspiracy theories, and suddenly supported a violent uprising against the government. Not to that degree, specifically, but rather us locals bore witness to an unprovoked and unexplained disconnect with reality; an onslaught of odd comments, attacks, and otherwise perplexing behavior—from whoever was running the online component of an ice cream shop.
And in general, I think we can agree, ice cream shops tend not to be lightning rods of discourse.
Intertwined in the erratic behavior was an increasing series of accusations about inappropriate behavior within the organization; mostly focused on owner David Friesen. The more that employees (both current and former) seemed to press for engagement on the grievances, the more that Friesen (clearly the lone operator of the social media accounts) appeared to become unhinged. If you were following along, you remember how quickly and deeply this spiraled. If you were not present, you can certainly imagine.
As the situation hit an apex boiling point, employees began compiling public documentation. These releases detailed specific events of inappropriate behavior, ranging from violations of personal boundaries on up to declarations of fiscal mismanagement. As The Pitch began to interview those involved, a few major throughlines began to emerge. The first was that Friesen’s wife Mary Thao Nguyen had separated from him, and was in some degree of fear/stress about his behavior. Reflecting that was the second point: almost everyone who came forward about these personal and/or workplace betrayals seemed so be… regretful in having to do so?
Every business prefers to think that, in some outwardly portrayable way, they’re less a job than a family. The undercurrent of our discussions around Betty Rae’s seemed to exude… that this was actually the case. Folks were talking to us, less from a place of resentment towards the treatment of an employer, and rather from a launchpad of genuine concern.
When we covered the story back in early December, we made sure to offer ample opportunity for comment from ownership. Betty Rae’s, the kind of place that you make sure to take your out-of-town friends so you can brag about our food scene, was worth saving if there was any kind of explanation or apology to be offered. David Friesen submitted a statement that did not vary greatly from his final social media posts on the matter. He asked for his privacy to be respected, and claimed that many of the events described were inaccurate, and curiously added that he was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. This last detail actually resulted in a few of his friends or supporters writing in to accuse us of attacking someone who was mentally ill. But who had not had anything to say about said diagnosis until we published our report.
This moment struck a bit of a personal nerve. It did not impact our coverage at the time, but it did sting. I, personally, managed to publicly and humiliatingly nuke my life almost a decade ago for reasons I did not understand. Later, I discovered I had spent most of my life with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The journey from hitting rock bottom to even having a proper diagnosis took years, and the process of dialing medications in accordingly took even longer. I have lived and struggled through what a long, frustrating, and horrific journey exists between blowing-up your world to having even the basic grasp on how bipolar even functions within you. To be told overnight that this condition was a reason to excuse Freisen’s behavior was reminiscent of too many men I’ve previously seen called out for bad behavior, who leaned on a sudden diagnosis as a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not that this meant I dismissed any part of this out of hand, but I had my doubts and I hoped to hear more when the time was right.
Two weeks ago, David Friesen and Mary Thao Nguyen reached out to ask if I’d be interested in a follow-up interview. The answer was an immediate yes.
The Pitch is not a cudgel. It is not a weapon to be turned against those who have done wrong without any opportunity for redemption—or at very least, to understand a situation as fully as possible. Whenever our news reports on shocking or disruptive behavior, the door is never closed for us to hear the other side of the conversation. Being the voice of our city means being the voice of everyone in our city, even if that means simply laying out the perspective of someone who has done wrong.
This is, as aforementioned, never a Get Out Of Jail Free card. Mental illness is a universal and crippling galaxy of inherent human problems. It also never means that your behaviors can go without eventually attempting to provide accountability for what you’ve done to wrong others—even if you don’t remember doing it, or you weren’t in control of your choices.
We can all fuck up. Even the worst bad-actor can still be a victim in some form. But without a path towards rehabilitation, why would anyone even bother to aim for better?
So again. David Friesen and Mary Thao Nguyen reached out, two months after Betty Rae’s had gone completely silent. Two months after it seemed like there was no path back to normal for—again it feels almost cartoonish to have to be this emotionally divided on the subject—a pretty good ice cream parlor. An ice cream parlor that some how imploded so spectacularly that everyone in Kansas City with any access to social media was asking “What the fuck is going on here?”
Mary claimed that, despite the earlier situations including separation and concern for David’s health, the two had mended their relationship—thankfully due to David’s mental health situation being reigned in. I had internal questions about both the mending and the claims of clarity, and I’d heard that the two of them had been seeking to sell Betty Rae’s, and it seemed like they were hoping some good press might make that sale go through easier. If there was a world where people stopped responding to all their posts with links to our write-up of abuses that had occurred there. And as critical as I’d been at first mention of David’s mental diagnosis, I would never want to dismiss someone out of unfounded distrust based on the struggles of my own life and those around me.
So the three of us sat down for a call.
The TL;DR of the transcript below is a fascinating journey that I think speaks volumes to… well, almost too many issues to name? Friesen was, systemically, a victim of a combination of a broken mental health system and of that same system failing the stress test of COVID-19. Nguyen is a centered, loving person who seems to be incapable of taking shit from anyone, and put her foot down repeatedly to protect those she loves; including her husband. The two of them are attempting to tackle the road ahead with a healthy mixture of hope and gritty acceptance of how difficult it will be—and quite frankly how awful it has been to this point.
None of this is an excuse. None of this exists to explain away the behavior that touched so many employees and even unaffiliated members of the community. And perhaps the biggest reason this is being run by The Pitch is that there are no excuses here. Those involved accept responsibility, even for those events in mania that would be easy to write-off for others. There are repeated explanations for both amends that have been offered and amends that are to come.
And perhaps most importantly, neither David Friesen nor Mary Thao Nguyen will have anything to do with Betty Rae’s Ice Cream moving forward. There was no angle here in trying to clean-up public perception to help make a sale go through. This is an (occasionally hostile) interview with two members of the community who wanted to share their side of the story, their journey that is only now beginning in mending gigantic wounds, and a huge public apology in their own words.
This is not a pardon. This is not a pass for what has come before. This is not an attempt to look for redemption. This is quite simply opening a door onto the other side of a very public story. This is a reveal about the way that mental health is sincerely a fragile thing; worth preserving at all costs. And this is a sort of public farewell from a couple who will now disconnect from the world of public KC life for the foreseeable future, to focus on surviving what they’d done to themselves, and what they’ve allowed to spread to others.
Here are David Friesen and Mary Thao Nguyen in their own words. It feels important to let them share this with us, before the limelight allows them to go do the work that needs to be done. We feels there is something important, and meaningful, to take from this accounting of mental health battles, and what it takes to make even a dent in that war.
Take it or leave it on your own terms. Context matters. Accountability matters. And we hope that at the end of the day, everyone gets as much closure from this as they can find. We’ll be here to say something if they don’t.
The Pitch: My first question, I suppose is very broad: David, how are you?
David Friesen: Well, it’s like waking up from a bad dream, it’s so hard to describe. Right now, I’m pretty stable. I was hospitalized three times; when I gave that statement, it was actually during—I wrote it during the second hospitalization. It was written in a ward and I was halfway to understanding what’s going on with me. Right now, I’m on medication and I have a new understanding of my diagnosis and my own mental state, basically.
To be clear so that I’m not grasping at straws or saying something out of line: your diagnosis is–?
David Friesen: Yes, my diagnosis is bipolar. I guess Bipolar Type 2? I don’t know.
Mary Thao Nguyen: I don’t know if you distinguish between the two? I don’t think he—he got the manic-depressive thing, but he wasn’t talking to God or gods at any time.
David Friesen: Yeah, it was interesting, I met people in the psych ward who had similar things. They range in severity, but I’ve never had hallucinations and never heard things that people didn’t hear, nothing like that.
Mary Thao Nguyen: His sense of the world was just off; it was like he was seeing a different color that didn’t exist.
David Friesen: I was untethered from reality to a big degree. That’s part of why I would disagree with my own statement at this point because in the statement, I was still very much in the mindset—when I wrote that—that I was okay, it wasn’t that serious, etc. etc. Now, I think I realize just how out of control I was.
You said you were institutionalized three times; is that because—why wasn’t it just one long period? Were you sort of resisting or trying to stop doing it, did you come out and think you were okay and then realize you had to go back in?
David Friesen/Mary Thao Nguyen: I came out and thought that I was okay. To explain my mindset in the beginning, I almost want to go back five years and then go back one year, and then just a few months.
I would love that, let’s start this story from the beginning.
David Friesen/Mary Thao Nguyen: So basically, the past five years for us have just been enormously stressful. I had four years straight of working seven days a week, sometimes up to twelve, fifteen-hour days. As the sole owner before Mary came on in the fifth year, it was the most pressure I ever felt in my life. The business being so successful from the start just added to that pressure and it didn’t make it more fun or exciting, it just made more pressure. In addition to that, in those five years we’ve had three kids, we lost my wife’s mother, we moved a house and had a bunch of problems with the old house that we moved from, so everything that could’ve happened in those years did. It was just really insane, it made me so stressed out. Going back one year, Mary came on to help run the business and take some of the pressure off, and I started working on my mental health which, at the time, I just thought was anxiety-related. I had been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder already and then when you throw work into that, it’s just much worse. I was seeing a therapist and getting medication, and then I finally got on a medication that seemed to be working for me, for my anxiety. We didn’t know that this medication can trigger manic episodes, and it’s one of the side effects.
It’s also hard to tell that you’re in a manic episode when you’re working seven days a week and raising three children and dealing with a move.
David Friesen/Mary Thao Nguyen: Yeah, so basically, I hadn’t been diagnosed with anything approaching bipolar disorder at that point, it had never even been on the table. Maybe in the past, I’d been manic, but it seemed like just workaholism or just keeping up. This pill Effexor, I guess, triggered a manic state but it’s so hard to describe to people who aren’t familiar with it, but you feel 150 percent. You feel unstoppable like you’re on top of the world and supremely confident and everything that I never was. I always had some kind of anxiety or depression throughout my whole life, and then suddenly it was all gone. That untethered me, in a way. I started to lose my grasp on reality. I was kind of monomaniacal and combative and argumentative with Mary but in my mind, it was both of us. I had become convinced that the marriage was falling apart. I thought that I was doing everything I could to keep it together and in reality, I was the causal factor in the problems that we were having. It was really impossible for Mary to do anything about this. From there, things just kind of spun out. Because we were running the business together as our marriage got worse, it started to bleed into the business to the point where it affected everybody and caused everybody to quit. Even then, I was convinced that I could pull it all together, and that’s when I was hospitalized. The reason why it was three separate stays was because people don’t have a lot of recourse to actions when a loved one is manic but won’t accept that.
David Friesen: So, they did everything they could to get some affidavits together and get me locked up, but as I got locked up, I was convinced that it was them misreading the situation and using medical and legal stuff against me, so I was very defiant.
Was this a 5150 sort of situation, or—?
Mary Thao Nguyen: Yes. I had to get affidavits too, on my side of it.
David Friesen: It was basically a week on and then a week off.
When did the first round of this happen?
Mary Thao Nguyen: The first hospitalization was in late November, the week before Thanksgiving.
David Friesen: Was the first one Thanksgiv—yeah, you’re right.
Mary Thao Nguyen: The thing on my side of it was (that) we didn’t even know how long he was experiencing this kind of mania, either. What David said about how previous iterations being mild or manic episodes to carry him through tough times of running a business and we just attribute it to anything. The thing that was happening here was—when someone can be so depressed and then you see them not being depressed, you just consider it “not depressed.” If you’re not aware of the bipolar diagnosis and mania is not even on your radar, it just comes out of nowhere. Then with the hospitalizations, not only was David resistant but the system couldn’t accommodate somebody like him who was in a manic state and in danger of wrecking his life, and was in the midst of wrecking his life, I couldn’t do anything to help him because he was fairly reasonable and wasn’t an imminent threat to himself or others. Those are the parameters for treatment, to keep you against your will.
David Friesen: Yeah, most of the time, people will become violent. I don’t know why I didn’t get this at all, probably because I’m not spiritual, but people will become convinced that either they’re talking to God or God’s talking to them, or that they’ve unlocked some secret of reality that they can see through, like seeing through the Matrix for them. I never had that, so I just presented as high-functioning and irritable, basically.
Mary Thao Nguyen: Which would have been how I would’ve described him prior to this. [Laughter]
I get it, my big wake-up for my bipolar was breaking into a friend’s apartment to tell her for two hours about a treasure map I found. Yeah, sometimes not talking to God is where you—[Laughter]
Mary Thao Nguyen: It’s kooky or you come off as maybe drugged or whatever. I talked to workers as he was being discharged and asking, “What are your outpatient follow-ups?” Because I was not in a safe position to follow up with him, he did not have a support network, and their response was, “Oh, we handle inpatient, that’s a whole other department for outpatient.”
I think you mentioned it, but I would like to hear more about it; to what degree do you think that this was really hampered by the COVID situation, that there was just no safe option and that sort of thing?
Mary Thao Nguyen: From my perspective, it was hard not to have other people be able to interact with us to see things a little bit sooner and maybe they could say something.
David Friesen: Yeah, that’s a good point. We were just in a bubble.
Mary Thao Nguyen: It made a huge impact because there’s also no way to diffuse some of that energy. With that, it was just that isolation and he felt imposed upon him and I felt it was imposed upon me, because I couldn’t go to a friend or family member’s house as freely and breathe and have time to myself. When it peaked, it escalated quickly and became so pubic so quickly that there wasn’t a lot of recourse. On top of that, the institutions were very considerate of—institutions are already so underfunded with so little resources to use but even more so when they’re trying to keep in mind who to keep in a hospital during a pandemic.
Mary Thao Nguyen: All these thresholds became so much harder to reach and get the help he needed, and that we needed as a family to get to him. It made things a lot harder.
So, David, was this third time the charm, or the first two times you were just like, “I’m fine, I don’t need this,” and the third time it was like, “Actually, this is the case?” What happened in those three rounds?
David Friesen: I think there was a little bit of that, but medication also comes into it; on the second round, I was put on a mood stabilizer that I’m on currently, and I think that has the biggest effect. It’s not a lot of time for the doctors to work on you; if you’re going to be in there for seven or eight days and they try to get you on a new medication and monitor you and then send you out into the world—it’s just not a lot of time.
A lot of those meds take two weeks to tell if it even works, so yeah. That limited range seems dangerous and complicated, but I understand that that’s what you’re limited by.
David Friesen: Yeah, exactly. It’s a really tough situation. There was something about it happening a third time—not being a charm, but it’s difficult to go through that. The first time it happened, the police showed up at one of the shops and said, “Hey, we’ve got an order, we’ve got to take you.” I had no idea, I had never been to a mental hospital and knew nothing about what was going on.
These were the things that Mary and the family had put together?
David Friesen: Yes, yeah. They take everything away, put you in some clothes and you’re stuck in a place with very little to do and not really knowing when you’re going to get out. They say it’s a 96-hour hold, but it doesn’t count holidays and weekends. They can keep you longer if they want to, 96 hours is just the legal designation, I’m not sure what it refers to. The first one hitting around Thanksgiving, that added a few days on, and on the third one I was in there for Christmas which was kind of depressing.
[Laughter] That is bleak.
David Friesen: Oh, yeah. There’s so much time to think and I think that finally the medication was starting to work. I was realizing the truth of everything that had happened. I still see us coming to terms with everything that’s happened again, not even realizing how far back the mania and the discoloration of the world goes back, you know?
Sure, it’s always difficult to pick out a random starting point for that. I guess that begets the question here: without getting super into the generalized accusations here, Mary, there were a lot of people trying to speak for you and it doesn’t sound like they were terribly far off in saying that you were at the very least concerned here. Three times you had gone to legal means to get David committed. What was your headspace like during this extended period of time? Was it a slow build and then it was very out of control, or was this something that came out of the blue and you didn’t understand what you were seeing?
Mary Thao Nguyen: Definitely the latter, it definitely came out of the blue. There were and are a lot of people speaking for me, and that was frustrating because the people who knew the most and are closest to me would know better than to say something so publicly.
Mary Thao Nguyen: We are extremely private people with our personal lives. To have that bleed into something so public was [pause] embarrassing is probably a mild way to put it. I don’t even know the word for it, I’m sure there’s tons of them. It came out of nowhere and I’m still dealing with two different people. One is David the father and friend that I’d known for half of my life, and then there was this other person who seemed to be a complete rejection of that person and everything they held dear. Myself, his parents, any family, his friendships, any sense of modesty and humility, really. It was really hard. Getting him hospitalized came from a place of wanting him to get the help he needed and getting him the support system so that he wouldn’t do anything stupid or dangerous, which he kind of did. It was a coordinated effort between me and his parents and a coordinated effort between us and the employees. I appreciate their efforts and everything that they were doing, because we do treat them like family and they essentially saw a family member going through a difficult time, so they submitted the affidavits and everything. While some consider it a punishment in that state, I was grateful because now David recognizes that our intention was love. This isn’t getting him jailed, jail wouldn’t have done anything for him. It might have done less for him and would have made it worse in some ways. Hospitalization was something that he needed, and I wish that they had kept him for a couple of weeks to make sure that the medications work and bring him back down, but mental health is such a hard thing to navigate.
There is something so life-affirming and generally sweet about the fact that David was committed by several different forms of family. To hear that the employees were somehow one round of this—enough people cared about him to do this weird, painful work.
Mary Thao Nguyen: Yeah, our employees are amazing. The people we hired and stayed with us as long as they have, their biggest question was, “What can we do? How can we help?” That speaks to how amazing they are as individuals but also the culture that we’ve created at the shop was one where there was mutual respect. I don’t think they think we’ve ever looked down on them. Even with the allegations that came out in the Pitch article, they asked me if I was comfortable with them speaking out. There’s a conflict; they saw that he was making active decisions and from a manic state, the longer we kept trying and failing to get him help and him refusing to acknowledge that there was a problem, it just felt like an active conflict in a sense.
I think that dovetails well into the next big question for David. Without spending a lot of time going line-by-line through each accusation identifying things like the dating apps shared on the iPads and so on and so forth—as Mary said, a number of people are family to you. Do you think that there was a sense of family or some sort of sense of a power imbalance to you being the employer and the employees that stopped people from being as forceful as they should have been in letting you know that something was going wrong? In the text messages about the dating apps, people seem to be sort of casually suggesting, “Hey, just letting you know we can see this!” The question I’ve had from the start is, why did no one step in and take your phone away during the large social media breakdown? Why do you think that no one stepped up to stop you from what you were clearly not in control of?
David Friesen: I think that goes back to one of the bigger problems: no one was in a position to. I had sole control of the business, I had sole control of all social media and everything else. I don’t know if I would phrase it as a power imbalance because I’ve never felt like the type of person who exercised power over others. I know that that is up for debate and that everybody’s got a different perception but—
Right, I understand not wanting to tell my boss who’s in charge of my employment that they’re being so weird on social media that it’s endangering our jobs. I understand that there’s a difference between you deliberately trying to exercise power over somebody in a situation, I think you get that, too.
Mary Thao Nguyen: I would also say that during all of the social media stuff, that was the peak of the mania, too. At that point, we were separated, and a lot of the employees had already left. He’s not going to listen to anybody anyway.
David Friesen: It was all happening at once, so as it was unfolding, people were leaving. That should have been a way of telling me that something bad was going on.
But you weren’t in a place to receive that information.
David Friesen: Yeah. I was also being hospitalized and the shop was closed so there was a core of people that stuck around and would come in and work at the shop when it was sporadically open, but I was effectively out of commission. I couldn’t be reached enough for anybody to tell me that.
You have such a public-facing and textbook spiral here. Was the way that the world was suddenly coming after you just furthering the spiral downward? Were you in a place to notice that what you were doing was making it worse until you woke up after the third hospitalization to be like, “Oh, everything’s on fire, I have to be able to see that?”
David Friesen: No after, after. That’s one of the hardest parts about it. To use that statement as an example, I read it now and I only sort of recognize the person who wrote it. It’s not something I would say now and it’s not something I would have said before. Yeah, I was in a state where I felt like, “I got this.” It never felt like it was out of my control. From what I’ve read, that’s a real hallmark of mania. We’re spending a lot of time on mental health and everything, but I also do want to say that I own everything that I did. I’d really like to apologize to everybody, basically. I have a feeling like I’ve let the whole city down. It’s ridiculous, it’s a real awful feeling and I’m just sorry to everybody. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dodging or hiding behind the mental health stuff or whatever.
It is very easy to dismiss somebody who, in the middle of a breakdown, suddenly comes out and says, “I’m diagnosed bipolar.” That could be seen as a way out. In terms of taking that at face value for people who obviously aren’t your doctor and there are certain people who won’t believe what you’re saying here today because it sounds like patching the hole. What is it that you would like to say about where you are? To a further extent—it sucks, and you are in a place to recover your sanity, so what is the path forward for making amends for what happened here? I think that there’s a lot of people that are ready to forgive and get back to being in love with Betty Rae’s, a wonderful Kansas City institution that we’re all cheering for, but there’s certainly a lot of shit in the way of that.
David Friesen: We’re stepping back from the business, we’re in the middle of trying to sell it. We can’t disclose who the party is, so there’s that. I’m getting to the place where I can contact people and apologize in-person to those who I’ve wronged. It’s not an easy question to answer, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it.
Mary Thao Nguyen: We’re making sure that the person who purchases the business, that he understands that it’s more than ice cream, it definitely stands for more than that, at least for us. We’re hopeful that the new owner will respect and continue that. We’re selling it and kind of re-evaluating a lot of efforts of our life to focus on where we go from here and what that means and what we need to be prioritizing, obviously our kids first and foremost, and then our own mental health. Both of us, for all of us. This has been a lot for all of us to process. In a lot of ways, David coming out of his mania, I’m a little bit ahead of him in terms of processing because he hasn’t been able to while he’s been in it. That’s a challenge all by itself. Really messy.
So, there is a buyer, and they understand the work they have ahead of them as a brand, right?
Mary Thao Nguyen: Right, and we’re happy to work with them to help with that transition and that the brand continues to be what it was, what it is.
Is the idea that there’s a sale on the horizon seem nice because it’s absolutely the time—neither of you need this on your plate to try and deal with a company’s perception while dealing with life-destroying mental illness that has come with it, that’s just wonderful to hear. Mary, I would like to be done talking about your private life as soon as I can here, but you guys were separated, it seems like you were in a place where you were very afraid. What was the thing that happened where you knew that this was going to be fixable, or at least a path towards it? When did you have faith that you could come back and that there was a path forward for your relationship?
Mary Thao Nguyen: I would say that after every interaction that he and I had in the past two months, one question that I always asked was, “Do you know why this is happening?”
I kind of just let him answer and I would gauge how I would respond based upon that. The first thing was that he had sort of cut himself off from his parents, and he started to reach out to them more. His parents and I were staying within close communication and living with each other at that time, to keep on the same page on everything and be as close as they needed to be if he wanted to reach out. I took that as the first sign that he was being more responsive to the medications. I know how important his family is to him and his parents, especially. That was one sign and then being able to answer, “Do you know why this is happening?”
The first few confrontations, it was a 50/50 blame accountability, to which I definitely had a lot of advocates telling me, “This is not your fault,” which is a struggle to believe still. Eventually, it became “Some of it is my fault, but he’ll own up to certain parts.” Then it got to “What have I done?” There were a lot of gradients that helped indicate that things were stabilizing and that he was more rational. The narrative is so easy to believe, “Here’s this bitter woman, this bitter divorce” and I think that’s what people clamped onto from the outside. The other aspect of the pandemic that also made things worse was that everybody else is isolated from entertainment. It’s all Rear Window, but it’s on social media.
I think that that definitely added fuel to the fire of how many people would want to jump on this drama. Isolation makes everybody bored out of their minds and there’s this story and it’s, “Let’s keep reading more.” That made things more awkward or whatever word you want to use there. People wanted more details and all that stuff. The truth is that real people were involved with real nuanced, complicated problems. There’s no defense that you could put on social media that’s not going to get torn to shreds by somebody else, a bunch of trolls who will have their way with it.
I absolutely understand that, and I understand that popcorning of everybody’s internal problems but also, the only reason we’re talking today is that it’s the sort of thing between Betty Rae’s being a Top Ten Kansas City institution that everybody adores and David’s very public social media long-term breakdown. It feels like everyone in Kansas City at some point interacted with it in some way. It is a matter of public news and I understand why people would push back against an apology or trying to explain it away, and yet people will absolutely read this and be like, “These excuses are bullshit.” So, I guess the thing I would ask is what you can say to that person that might convince them otherwise?
Mary Thao Nguyen: I would say that there’s nothing we’re going to say that’s going to convince them. One of the things that we’ve always done at Betty Rae’s and in our lives is just being one hundred percent transparent and honest. Transparency and honesty are so important to us, so if you need us to say more, then that’s something you need to examine and you can take all the time and space you need to get to that place, but we’re dealing with it personally and we just want the public to know as a statement on mental health and how it can affect an entire community of people without realizing it.
David Friesen: I would say that I agree with Mary that there are people out there who won’t think anything good of me no matter what, but I would just say that everything that went into Betty Rae’s was me. The long days that I was working were to not disappoint people, to give them what they wanted. We never ran out of a flavor, there were lines around the block, and we kept putting out new things. We gave money to charity like crazy, not just in December but all throughout the year. We did a lot of truck events for little or no money, we were involved with the community. So, I would just hope to be viewed in that context. When the whole meltdown was happening, anybody who knew me didn’t recognize it. They were like, “Who is this person?” The whole reason that it is a story is because of everything we did before also, and all the good we put out. It would be easy to somebody just dipping into the story to think that it was probably a pattern of behavior, but I don’t think anybody would agree to that, that actually knows. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was like going insane for a few months.
I mean, it quite literally is.
David Friesen: Yeah, and it’s not like there were a bunch of warning signs leading up to it or a slow escalation.
Mary Thao Nguyen: –that we were aware of.
David Friesen: Your question as to “Why didn’t anybody stop it?” was because you can’t stop a tsunami, you know? It just happens, and it’s left to everybody to deal with the results from it.
So, what you are doing next is you guys are selling Betty Rae’s, you’re going to take a step back to take some time for yourselves, spend time with family, and fix the weird gigantic divide which you guys are already taking a path towards, which is really inspiring and good. Before you leave the spotlight of being the Betty Rae’s people, are there any concrete steps you’re taking to line up the storylines here and heal the people who feel wronged about stuff? What are you doing to leave on a good note with everyone involved?
Mary Thao Nguyen: Everybody is in a different place with this, so I think it’s just kind of meeting them where they are and leaving it up to them to let us know how comfortable they are with coming to terms with it and giving them that space to do so. Hopefully, some of the former employees feel comfortable coming back to work. Friends and family are still processing what’s happening, they’re just in different places. Everybody’s in different places in so many ways, so I don’t think you can say, “This is one concrete step,” because everything will just have to be so individual.
If there was something that you could ask for that is not—I can’t imagine the person who’s reading this who is going to have a very small amount of empathy for this like, “Okay, I kind of understand where they’re coming from.” What is it that you would ask for from them that isn’t asking for too much? Would you ask that people be understanding? Are you still asking for space? What is your best-case scenario for what happens next in the community as far as their interaction with you and your interaction with doing the apologies that need to happen?
David Friesen: I would just ask for a little sympathy and understanding. I’ve gotten that from some people I have spoken to personally, I’ve had family members or friends who have dealt with bipolar mania, and I would just ask—try to imagine that the dumbest mistake you ever made became a huge public media thing. I don’t know. When these things would happen with other people in the past, I was always kind of wary of the pile-on because I would always imagine myself in their shoes and now, I am in their shoes. That’s all that I would ask is sympathy, understanding, and the need for people to work things out privately.
It absolutely never would’ve happened to you if you weren’t in charge of one of the most believed institutions in Kansas City. You earned it, ironically, through goodwill and that is why it’s become such a big thing. I know that must hurt.
Mary Thao Nguyen: The other thing I would add to that is that everybody should check their own mental health. It’s something I’ve said before any of this was happening. When I’ve spoken about Betty Rae’s before, I’ve spoken to people about how stressful running your own business is and the toll it can take, not only on an individual but the whole community around that individual. I think it’s important for people to be open to talking about mental health and talking about how they’re feeling and letting those resources be just as available as COVID tests and vaccines at this point. The social aspect of this has just been—we should all check our brains, essentially. We all deserve that, to have someone checking in on us. I’m going to toot my own horn here that David was really lucky to have so many people including myself committed to him and concerned for him through this whole process. So, the compassion and empathy and understanding from the community that we hope we’ve demonstrated our own share of compassion and understanding for Betty Rae’s.
As I’m wrapping up here, the thing I’ve wanted to ask you is as you’re talking about wanting to be an advocate for mental illness, Mary, you are somebody that just went through the opposite side of this and found a path through and a way back. What is your advice to people that suddenly find themselves dealing with a loved one who is suddenly not themselves? What is the advice you could offer people in terms of being aware and finding a path forward? What happens when you’re genuinely scared of that situation versus creating a positive change in their life?
Mary Thao Nguyen: Just like you wish that that loved one would listen to you, listen to your loved ones in your life who are saying that it’s not your fault, who are saying that you can be strong, who are saying that they want to help, who are saying that they are there to help. Accept that you need help and accept their help. It’s so funny how weirdly cyclical it all is of saying this person needs help and then not accepting help on your own. No one can fight this battle on their own, including you. Talk to friends, talk to a therapist, talk to doctors and be open and honest about what you’re going through and what you’re feeling. Being open in that way lets other people know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
One of the positives that has come out of this for me is that people who have known me have come out and said, “I’m kind of going through this thing with my partner who is bipolar, what steps are you taking?” Everybody who is bipolar is different, from what I’ve read. Some people have never had depression, good for them. Some have never had mania, good for them. The severity ranges, so the supportive nature of caring for somebody in any regard—caregivers need to have a support network, as well. I am fortunate to have the best family in the whole world and they have all been super supportive and stand by me. One of the things that I want to stress is that this is an ongoing journey, this is not one where we’re all tied up and things are good onward, there are still steps to take for healing and recovery for everyone involved.
My last question here is for David and it is pretty simple: if somebody didn’t read everything that was written here, just skipped to the very end and they’re just like, “I don’t know why this article exists, this guy’s an asshole,” what is the thing you would say tot that person to convince them that you’re sincere and doing your best?
David Friesen: That’s a hard one to answer, I don’t really know. I just remain incredibly sorry to everyone I’ve hurt. That’s all. I have a tough time answering that, because in my mind, the critics are right to a certain extent.
Mary Thao Nguyen: Yeah, everybody’s feelings are valid.
What is your path forward? We haven’t really talked about that. I know it has to be abstract because you’re in the middle of the thing here, but what do you want to have happen next? What is your best version of the next couple of months of your life?
David Friesen: I just want to heal the relationships with those closest around me, and then start working outward from that. It’s awful to feel that I’ve let everybody down who loved the business, but it feels way worse that I’ve done that to family. I know that there are family members who my relationship will never be the same with, so that’s what I would like to work on.