Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Myself-Help: The Mental Trials Of Spalding Gray


When I met Spalding Gray on a winter’s day in 1993, he was contemplating suicide. He was pale and anxious, and he spoke in a whisper. He talked about his need to be in constant motion, and his sense that he was suffocating. “I couldn’t get my breath last night. I was freaked. I was panicked.”
He was staying in James Bond room in a London hotel. His suite had a spiral staircase in the middle, leading up to a deck. The windows wouldn’t open.
“I yelled. Because I’ll do it when I’m in a panic. And I thought, ‘I better not yell in this fucking hotel or they’ll come. They’ll come and take me away’. I pictured myself in a London hospital. In a psychiatric ward. But there was this voice that said: ‘Don’t do it. Don’t yell anymore.’”
The sudden intimacy was shocking. With hindsight, it seems horribly prescient. “I’m off-track in my life right now,” he kept saying. “Out of synch.”
I assumed his discomfiture was focused on his mother’s suicide: it was at the core of Impossible Vacation, the book he was promoting, and had dominated his life. “I’m 51 now,” Gray told me, “and my mother first started to break down at 50, and killed herself at 52. So I’m going through a very difficult period because it’s … it’s tempting me to imitate her demise.”  
I have thought about that interview many times since. I thought about when Gray’s body washed up in the East River in January, 2004, apparently after a suicidal leap from the Staten Island Ferry, putting a full stop on a brilliant life of storytelling, angst, and wit. He was 62.
I thought about it again when I heard that Steven Soderbergh was making a documentary, culled from clips of Gray talking, which would put his final years in context. What nagged was a question about honesty and performance; sincerity and art. Gray’s genius lay in making art out of his pain. But what if you met him, offstage, and he told you he was thinking of killing himself? Should you call the Samaritans or applaud? To put it another way: where and when does the anxiety of the artist become a work of art?
One of the most dramatic stories Gray told me was about his experience filming Soderbergh’s period drama, King Of The Hill. It was a long tale – it had surely been aired before – about the director casting Gray as a suicidal man because he was “ruled by regret”. On the final day of filming, made-up with slashed wrists and dressed in a 1929 suit, Gray left the film set and walked into a drugstore.
“There was this woman, filling prescriptions in the back,” Gray told me. “I walked right up to her and I was pale, pale, and I lifted my arms, and I said: ‘Do you have anything for my wounds?’ And she turned, and went ‘Oh! Oh! Oh my God! We have Mercurochrome’.
“It was so innocent; she didn’t even run for Band-Aids. Mercurochrome was such an antiquated word. And she said: ‘How in heaven’s name did you do that?’ I said: ‘I slit my wrists.’ Then I saw what I was doing to her. It was so cruel. I apologised. I tried to tell her I was in a film, but she was in such shock that it didn’t matter.
“I just got out of there. And walking back, I realised what I’d done. I said, ‘Jesus - there’s that woman, she’s 52 years old, she looked not unlike my mother, and I was just getting back.  I was working it out.”
The Mercurochrome story seemed rehearsed, yet scarcely less moving, than the rest of Gray’s conversation, and it subsequently turned up in his 1997 monologue It’s A Slippery Slope. Did that make it less true? And what did that say about the rest of Gray’s confession to me? This, after all, was what he did. His art lay in massaging his pain, and conquering it by turning it into a story.
He had begun this process during the birth pangs of The Wooster Group with his then-girlfriend Elizabeth LeCompte, and perfected the form with his staged monologues; most famously Swimming To Cambodia (filmed by Jonathan Demme), in which memories of playing a bit part in The Killing Fields jostled with apparently random reflections on the author’s fear of sharks, relationships, and genocide. Everything he did was autobiographical, including his novel, Impossible Vacation, which was a memoir with the names changed to protect the guilty.
So, Spalding Gray told me he was close to killing himself. What did that mean? Was I just a willing stooge? Was he crying wolf, or did he really get close to the abyss on that windy night in London?
Well, what I remember of that meeting, what I trust about it, is the urgent feeling that the author’s tumult was real. The interview may have inhabited the terrain of therapy, but it wasn’t an act.  Gray had spent the night fantasising about death’s release, and on the morning after the night before was still deep in the mire. At the end of my hour, he wrote the words “some chat” in my book and sent me on my way home to Edinburgh, expressing concern, and awe, at the fact that my journey home would take me into a snowstorm. (A whiteout appealed to him). That last handshake was strange. I was thankful Gray had been so generous with his intimacy – it made a great story - but concerned too. If a man is truly suicidal, shouldn’t an interviewer do more than transcribe the tape?
On hearing that Soderbergh was making a film, I went back to that hydrolysed C90. Spooling through analogue memories, I noticed cues I had missed. There was so much talk of suicide it was almost pitiful, but the musicality of Gray’s confessional whisper had anaesthetised the drama. Yet there were stark differences of tone.
When Gray said his ideal state would be to have a therapist come to his room to watch him write, “so I could be a writer in his eyes”, he was obviously delivering a gag.  But when he described his work as “a compensation for sadness”, his tone was flat.
There was a lot of talk of his mother’s suicide. He talked about the nine years of depression he suffered, which softened, over time, into sorrow. “Now I don’t know, when I’m sad and I cry, whether it’s about her,” he said, “but it’s often about loss.”  He fretted about inheriting her mental chemistry.
Then, fiddling with a pill-packet and a glass of water, he told me about the time he was in Galway, with his then-wife, and producer, Renee Shafransky. They were standing at the cliffs of Moher. “It was exquisite. It was very grey. And I had this compulsion to take a running leap and run off and yell: ‘Reneeeee!’ and turn, and just as I was going down, see the look on her face.”
This Wile E Coyote fantasy would also make its way into a performance piece, and even here his telling of it was polished. But then he said something else I hadn’t noticed at the time. “That’s why I’m feeling very pent-up, actually,” he said. “There’s no drama in my life right now … oh, there’s plenty, there’s plenty, but it’s back in New York. The home situation is exploding. All over the place. Or the lack of home situation.”
The lack of home situation.
Around this point, there was a knock at the door – room service, with a tray of tea. The distraction may be why I didn’t register what Gray said next. “Also,” he murmured, “I have some very intense domestic issues going on in my relationship, and they’re private.
“I’ve always made monologues out of private situations that are digested. And when one isn’t yet digested, and it’s a secret, it’s hard to sit on it. And not air it. Because through airing it, and writing about it and talking about it, one begins to, as the British would say ‘sort it out’. Come to terms with it. Digest it. Understand it. To some degree, own it. So I’m in a rather shaky and depressed state right now.”
***
Was it just hindsight that made this seem significant? The remark was both an invitation and a warning. Gray seemed to be saying there were things that he needed to talk about, and that not talking about them was killing him. That should have been a red rag to an interviewer, but it also illustrated the limits of the process. An interview may be a therapeutic exchange between consenting and sometimes duplicitous adults, but it isn’t therapy, and even a confessional artist deserves some privacy.
But, then, these were the boundaries that Gray liked to blur.
I asked around.
I ambushed Soderbergh on a red carpet in Leicester Square, and asked what was special about Gray. “A lot of people think they could get up there and tell their story, or tell a story, for 85 minutes, and hold you,” he said. “They don’t understand how hard he worked to structure the monologues, and why they work the way they do. It’s more difficult than it seems.
“Spalding had a unique take on life. He had a unique take on art. He seemed to be able to be able to articulate a lot of the confusion that we all experience in life, in a way that made it seem OK to be confused.”
Certainly, Gray was confused when I met him. Probably, confusion and curiosity were his natural states. But what had he meant when he talked about “pent-up emotions”, and indigestible private situations? What was this “lack of home situation”.
I tried asking Renee Shafransky, who now works as a therapist in Sag Harbor, New York. Politely, she refused to talk. I contacted Dr Oliver Sacks, who treated Gray in his later years. He declined, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.
I Googled Gray’s second wife, Kathie Russo, and arranged to see her in Manhattan.  She was travelling in from Sag Harbor for her daughter’s graduation, so we met, late in the evening, at a seafood restaurant by the bus station.
It was a strange encounter. Russo hadn’t heard my interview, and I didn’t want to dredge up bad memories.  But such sensitivity was unnecessary. Quickly, Russo did the arithmetic. She calculated that Forrest, her son, would have been six months old when I interviewed Gray.
“Spalding and I weren’t speaking to each other,” Russo said. “I had Forrest and he didn’t see him until May ’93.” Though Gray was married to Shafransky at that time, he had also been seeing Russo. “We had an affair for two years.  Then I got pregnant and he didn’t want anything to do with me or the child. He didn’t see Forrest until he was eight months old. So you saw him in a very crazy, crazy state.”
Emboldened by this, I told her that Gray had been suicidal. “He said that then? Oh wow. He never even really talked about that. He made jokes about it, but we never took him seriously.
“To me that’s so confusing, because I think he really did kill himself because he had brain damage. But then if you really believed… He never said he wanted kill himself to me … not at that time. So it makes me think… You were his witness. You might have saved him then. Because he always needed someone to talk to.”
***
The next time I saw Russo was at the European premiere of Soderbergh’s film, And Everything Is Going Fine, in Edinburgh. Russo was accompanied at the screening by Forrest, now a shy young man built in his father’s image.
The film places Gray’s art firmly against a backdrop of his mother’s extreme nervous breakdowns, which led to her being placed in a Christian Scientist nursing home. Gray’s father appears, describing Spalding as “a shy, backwards sort of fellow”, explaining that he thought his son was “nuts” when he applied to study theatre at Emerson College in Boston.
There is angst, and much autobiographical colour. Gray’s early torment includes a nervous collapse lasting four or five months, after which he decided to keep a journal. This helped develop his memory for detail. His experiments with the Wooster Group persuaded him to become a writer, not an actor, and after his first autobiographical monologue in 1979, Gray recalls: “I became like an inverted method actor… I was playing myself.” (In a later monologue, he refines this formula to:  “I was making a living out of playing myself. I was playing with myself.”)
The film supports Russo’s understanding of Gray’s ultimately successful drive towards suicide. She believes that the real problems began with a car crash in Ireland in 2001, which fractured his skull, leaving him with frontal lobe damage, and depressions of a new intensity.  Towards the end, he was unable to process his pain in the way he had before the accident. “He was always in conflict. But he knew how to take that conflict and make it into a story. And it was a very entertaining story. What happened to him at the end was … he didn’t know how to finish it. Like he’d have the story but he didn’t know how to get it down, tell it to an audience.
“He would do these loops. Any crisis, he would be in a loop – like when you met him, and I was pregnant. He would be obsessive-compulsive, dwelling on … how could I get her pregnant? How did I let this happen? Instead of taking responsibility, and saying ‘OK, I did this’, and moving towards a resolution, he would just look at all the bad. But then somehow, with every crisis, he would start to write about it. That was his solution, to write about it.
“Before the crash, he’d be in a loop and he’d find the little exit, and he’d go ‘Cool, I have a story to tell. I’ve worked it out.’ At the end he was just like a hamster on a wheel.”
I ask Russo to fill in the details of the turmoil Gray was experiencing when I interviewed him.  
“It was horrible,” she says, laughing, “because he was a real asshole. And he didn’t grow up. It was like, ‘Come on, accept your responsibility. You don’t have to get married or anything, but you need to be responsible for this child.’”
Gray talks in the film about the moment he heard that Russo was pregnant, saying – with a typical flourish – that he fell into a foetal ball at the news.  
“He fell into the foetal position because whenever he was faced with a grown-up issue, he retreated to a child, instead of dealing with it like an adult. He made the problem bigger than it had to be.” Russo recalls that difficult conversation. ‘OK, so I got pregnant. It happens every day to people. It’s like, deal with it. Your wife – she knew we were having an affair. So, you need to tell her…”
According to Russo, Gray had married his first wife, Renee, while Russo and he were having an affair. “They had planned to get married before I met him, and he was going through with it. I said, ‘Look, if you get married, that’s it, I can’t see you. End of story. So he goes, ‘What am I going to tell her?’ I said, it doesn’t matter that you’re getting married – do what you want. It’s your relationship with her. I’m not going to see you after you get married… Of course, I didn’t stick to that.  So he told her a week before they got married: ‘I’m having an affair.’ She said: ‘I don’t care, I still want to get married.’ She told him, ‘We can get divorced, but I want to get married.’”
It is, of course, unfair on Shafransky to tell this story without hearing her side. And Russo’s understanding of it must have been filtered through Gray, so its absolute reliability may be questioned. But it does illustrate the complexity of the “intense domestic issues” Gray had alluded to in my 1993 interview.
Russo continues the tale. “Right after they got married, he sent me this love letter, with tickets to San Francisco to meet him there. I went. Then we saw each other a whole other year after he got married.  Then I got pregnant. So we’d been together two years before I got pregnant.”
She laughs. “I felt he would come to his senses and commit. Because I knew we were right, to be together. But then when I got pregnant I saw the other side, and I was like, ‘You do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you have to be responsible to this child.  You can stay married, I’ll let you have visitation.’ I was ready to work all that out. But, no – he was pretty immature about the whole thing. It wasn’t until he could break with Renee that he could deal with it, and she was telling him, we can have a relationship with the child too. Although she forbade him to see Forrest until they had worked things out. She was open to it, but she had other things she wanted to take care of first before he saw the child. Probably because she knew that as soon as he saw the child, that would be it – he would be in love, forever. And Spalding definitely was a person who loved his children more than his partners.
“I’m OK with that, because I get it. But I’d rather go through what I went through with Spalding – his suicide and everything – than to think of anything happening to my children. My love for my children is way more than I could love a partner. I don’t see that as unnatural. He would feel guilty about that, but I would say, ‘I totally get that’.”
If that sounds harsh, it’s worth noting that Gray’s final years were no picnic. He was in and out of mental institutions, trying all manner of different therapies. Before his final exit, he had made several suicide attempts, so there was a suspicion that he was attention-seeking when he was finally posted missing.
“At first I didn’t believe he actually did it,” says Russo. “It took me 24 hours to call the police. I was so tired of going through all these attempted suicides. It was becoming like a cycle for us – he would leave me a note, I’d call the cops, the cops would pick him up, say ‘What do you want to do with him?’ and I’d say ‘Take him to the nearest hospital.’
“I remember saying when I got home that night: ‘You really want to do this? Go ahead, do it. I’m not going to go out at 2am looking for you on the Staten Island Ferry.  You want to do this, this is your choice.’ The hardest part was not knowing, because he was missing for two months. I mean, we think he killed himself that night. There’s no way of knowing.  But he wasn’t a cruel person, so I can’t imagine him lingering around – knowing that it had hit the papers, and not trying to call us.  And all the sightings of him drove me insane.”  
Over time, even the uncertainties of Gray’s death have been fashioned into a narrative. In hindsight, it seems significant that he took his younger son Theo to see the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, a fairytale about fathers and sons, on the night before he disappeared. But that may also an illustration of how we all try to rationalise the unknowable by telling stories. “I do believe that film gave him permission,” Russo says. “That last shot of Billy Crudup carrying Albert Finney to the river, and then the voiceover, ‘My father will always remain immortal, like his words’.
“I mean, I’ve gone to psychics who said, ‘Oh, he didn’t jump, he slipped.’ Like he was thinking about it, but he didn’t want to do it, and it was icy that night and he slipped. I’m like, ‘Well, that could have happened too.’ The point is he was thinking about it. I hope he made the decision to jump, for his own sake. But I know, with him being ruled by regret, that once he hit that water… I’m sure he called out my name, I’m sure he went, ‘Oh, no! I don’t want to do this, I’m cured, it’s too cold in here!’”
Russo gives the impression she is slightly ambivalent about her position as the keeper of Gray’s flame. She has a new life and a career of her own, working in radio, and stresses she has no desire to be trapped in the memory of her time with her late husband. But she is also aware that his talent has been somewhat forgotten since his death, because he was a writer who was best experienced orally: hence the Soderbergh film, which she produced, and now The Journals of Spalding Gray, which exposes the twisted skeleton of Gray’s thinking. The editing process was “excruciating,” Russo says, “because I’ve had to be very protective about what went out. I let them see everything, but I had final say.
“There’s a lot of revealing stuff. You really get behind the scenes of his thinking. That’s not always nice. He’s very critical of the women he’s with, including me. That was hard – like when he scrutinises your body. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s what you thought?’ Ha!”
The journals make clear the torment Gray was suffering around the time of the publication of his novel, albeit in a less baroque, less engaging form than he offered in conversation. One thing they don’t answer is the question of whether Gray ever stopped performing. Even in his most private writings, Gray explicitly addresses the reader, so it’s possible that, even here, he can be said to be curating his own myth.
But such an interpretation ignores the reality of the pain he endured, and the emotional havoc he created.
The entry for January 9, 1993, when Gray was in London doing publicity for Impossible Vacation, reads as follows.
“The negative power of the mind. I thought of trying to get out of this press tour by pretending I was sick and now I am sick. I am very sick. My chest cold has blossomed into my head.
“What am I doing in search of the miraculous? I can’t begin to express how depressed I feel trapped in the Montcalm Hotel and it’s raining out and I feel like I’m going to die. Myself keeps falling out. There are these big gaps that I fall into.”
He continues: “I have nothing more to write except sad sad sad. I am working against myself to prevent pleasure. I’m only at peace when I’m on drugs or booze, I don’t know how to go on without screaming. I feel such rage and pain.”
There is no explicit mention of suicidal thoughts, but the mood is clearly grim. I met Gray four days later, by which time his obsessional scratching had begun to scar.
But, putting aside the reasons for the emotional conflict, it’s clear that Gray felt some anxiety about the way he used his creativity. Or, perhaps, the way his creativity used him.   He talked about “the over-voice, the over-view” in his thinking. “That is the artist, that is the watcher, that is the writer. [The overview] is a shadow, that you want to destroy because you want to be wholly present, but you also want it to protect you.”
Reading through my interview with Gray and – accepting the nervous dissolution caused by the larger dramas - it’s clear to see that he was greatly conflicted about his need to entertain; he fantasised about delivering  his thoughts straight. It was the Woody Allen conundrum. He knew he was good at being funny, but he needed to be taken seriously. The novel had helped a bit, but he had tried reading a dark passage about his mother’s breakdown to an audience in New York, “and it was so heavy that I felt I’d done them a disservice. But I forced myself. I read only the breakdown parts. That’s all I read for an hour. Then I learned never to do that again.”
He continued: “You know, when I speak, I don’t see my speech in the air.  As I’m talking to you now, I’m conscious of working on what I’m saying, but I’m not shaping it the way you do when you write, when you concretise these things.”
That, then, is the truth about Spalding Gray. He inhabited contradictions, cultivated them, and squeezed the pulp out of them. We can only guess, but it seems as if he was never more alive then when he was contemplating his own mortality. The tragedy, as Russo understands it, is that that Irish car crash robbed him of the ability to sculpt his thoughts in a way that made them more entertaining, more bearable.
Russo admits that living with Gray was a challenge. “There was always something wrong. The grass was always greener on the other side. He was a hypochondriac. He was always looking for the next illness. I’m like: ‘Why can’t you just be? Be here now – you know that old Sixties thing? He would try to be. And the kids would make him present: because their needs are bigger than yours.”
Even in death, there is a sense that Gray is having the last word.  His ex-wives, who are not great friends, live close to each other in Sag Harbor.
“Renee lives two blocks away from me,” says Russo, laughing. “There’s this Pilates class in town that I go to, and she goes to, and one time, it was just the two of us, because it’s a drop-in class. So there we were, and I’m looking up at the ceiling going: ‘You planned this, you are up there laughing! You totally orchestrated this whole thing!’ But I just laugh – what am I going to do?”  
And that, really, is a very Spalding Gray thing to say.