My therapist and I have decided that she will give me a writing prompt once a week, and we’ll use that as a starting point on certain topics. I may share some of them here. This prompt was:
When a public figure dies, it can sometimes feel like a personal loss to us. Describe your experience(s) with this and your thoughts on why it happens
When I was in high school and struggling for the first time with my own definition of who I was, Eric introduced me to Spalding Gray’s work. Eric was my friend who was the best read and most cultured, he himself a playwright with some young success. He would throw gasoline on the fuel of our pretentious media consumption. When we found a movie that was obscure, strange, incomprehensible, or made a heavy impression on us, we would likely call it an “Eric movie.”
Being the 1980’s we were newly in love with Jonathan Demme’s work. Jonathan’s latest movie was Swimming To Cambodia, a Spalding Gray monologue. The idea of a movie simply about a man on a stage talking was not initially interesting. He would sit at a desk and talk about a bit part he had in a major motion picture. That’s all. That is when I learned what a monologist was. And that was when I learned that one line in a movie can be spun into 90 minutes of story. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what I wanted to do.
I have since read all of Spalding’s books, seen all of his filmed monologues, and spent hours reading about him on the web. He had a history of not being normal. And that’s what he would use to create his works. Telling stories of youthful indiscretions or the trials and tribulations of the entertainment industry, he would make these bizarre stories feel familiar. At least to me. I have always wanted to be a New Yorker, and I suppose more than that I always wanted to be a New Yorker just like Spalding Gray.
He had issues. Dealing with depression throughout his life, as well as a horrible accident in 2001 that began his ultimate decline. He was a passenger in a car that got hit by a small truck, in Ireland. His injuries were severe, and the recovery took months and months. At the time I was a young father dealing with a child we had no idea how to help. This was also the beginning of my formal depression treatment.
I was so far away from my younger self, the one who wanted to live in New York. I was completely disconnected from art. Reading wasn’t an option in my busy life, and movies and TV were for decompressing with the wife. For a long time I forgot about Spalding Gray.
When he died in 2004 I read it online in the news. I read that he had committed suicide and that only bolstered my connection to him. By 2004 my depression was starting to gain steam after years of simply being an annoyance. By then I had two children, both very young. Everyone tells me I was a great dad, but most of my childrens lives growing up are a gray cloud to me now. I can look at pictures and remember, but if I try to think of the year 2004 it’s just a hazy mess.
Spalding Gray was a neurotic genius. Much of his content was autobiographical in a way that made him very vulnerable. And told the stories of his own problems in the mental health arena. Many of them were parts of his personality and didn’t require treatment, per se. But others were depression, anxiety, or OCD related. Very entertaining, but in retrospect very telling and sad.
He died when he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. He had many attempts before that, but this one was a bit different. No note, no forewarning, just sudden and sad. I thought about him out there in the dark and cold weather of mid January. When I think about it I feel so alone and cold and insignificant in the shape of the universe. And it jars me to think that he could have felt the very same way in those final moments.
While he was missing, before they had discovered his body, everyone had to go about their daily work. There was a family birthday. Friends came and went, visiting and consoling his wife. Telling her this was just like him, and he’d be back before they knew it – likely with a very long and interesting tale to tell. An article talked about the eerie normalcy of the house during that time, and it reminds me of my concept of “future ghosts.” Those things that happen even though you or others feel like the world has ended. Even in grief, the car needs filling up or the bills must be paid. Or the memories that feel like they take place in a different life. During the before.
On January 11, 2004, Gray was declared missing. The night before his disappearance, he had taken his children to see Tim Burton’s film Big Fish. It ends with the line, “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.” Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, said after he disappeared, “You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”
Big Fish is one of my favorite movies, and the meaning is not lost on me. When I tell my own stories that seem incredible, or don’t match what the external “me” represents, I enjoy the communication but worry people won’t believe them or that one day they will be gone, I will be gone. For Spalding it may have been an upsetting release, that permission to die. For me it makes me cry for a different reason. It’s the final telling of the stories, but the guests who attend at the end of the movie validate them. They make you understand that your own story can be told so many times, and it can be interpreted in many ways. It can seem either so boring or so incredible as to be unbelievable.
I am sad that we won’t have any new Spalding Gray books or monologues. And that it reminds me so much of myself. But it also inspires me to keep telling my story and keep writing. That we all have unique gifts, and we can all use our stories to help, amuse, entertain or even just relate. Recently I have been given an opportunity to try and tell my stories in their own unique way, and that excites me. I suppose I will even live through some new stories in the meantime.