Daily Archives: February 28, 2012

Review: “The Journals of Spalding Gray”

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The Journals of Spalding Gray, by Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey. New York: AA Knopf/Random House. 326 pp., illustrated.

“I know that there’s a part of me so in love with death that I feel like I have already died and am looking at the living.”—Spalding Gray, 1976

It took some time for the dire circumstances surrounding Spalding Gray’s premature death to enter the public record, but time finally filled-out the final chapter of a brilliant life, lined with tragedy. Gray was last seen alive aboard the Staten Island Ferry, of which he apparently jumped. His fans were mostly shocked and confused. For many, Gray was the epitome of cultured, cultivated calm, the kind of person one might have assumed would be always graceful and resilient under any kind of pressure. But the truth fell well-short of that impossible standard.

The Journals of Spalding Gray document Gray’s graveyard spiral in painful, intimate detail, but there’s much more to it than that. Few public figures of his era were as open and honest about their history, their secrets, their feelings. Where other celebrities existed in a sealed bubble of hype and hagiography, armored-up inside characters created by their press agents, Spalding Gray walked the Earth virtually nude, intellectually and emotionally. It’s that quality that made him the greatest monologist of our time. He breathed life into a tired, stale format by bringing the audience directly into his mind, and his heart.

His Journals were published in 2011, presumably to coincide with what would have been Gray’s 70th birthday. Editor Nell Casey sorted through boxes of material containing over 5,000 pages of text, hours of audio tapes and countless other related documents, then supplemented that by interviewing some two dozen of Gray’s friends, relatives, colleagues and collaborators. The book, which spans the years 1967-2004, is more than just a collection of journal entries; the editor has duly rendered the closest thing to a memoir there will ever be.

Its pages are laced with pathos and tragedy from almost the very start. He was never really, truly, totally happy with himself. The brilliant and beloved public figure we all admired from afar was, at his best, deeply neurotic and reckless, even by the standards on post-war New York City. At worst, he was a full-on sociopath whose exit was foretold by the man himself from very early on, as this book documents. Few people could even pretend to be comfortable with the level of intimacy Gray displayed throughout his career, and the journals take it even further. While he was apparently writing with the intent of future publication, one presumes he had no intention of ever living to see that day. (It’s kind of like the Nixon Tapes, in that sense.) Any future scholarship on him must take these “journals” as primary-source material.

Not unlike its author, the book is at their best in the 1970s. The early entries burst with fresh-eyed optimism, sometimes in spite of himself; one instantly hears that voice, a voice like none other. The early entries are breezy and pretentious, as one might expect. He writes like a poet in love for the first time—which, in a sense, he was. These were heady times. He spent a few days in a Vegas jail, and even appeared in two old-school porno flicks, “Little Orphan Dusty” and “The Farmer’s Daughter”, where he helped invent a now-common group-sex position known in porn as “the split-roast”. (He also cried on the set.)

Yet, the dualism is set early. On a trip to Mexico, he writes: “I think now that I want very much to live.” He was only 26. Upon returning home, his father told him a) that his mother had killed herself; and b) to go collect her ashes at the post office, allegedly. It’s impossible to conceive of the cataclysmic shock this moment must have been to him; his journals don’t even contain full, complete sentences for nearly a month afterwards—just fragments.

It’s fun reading the first-hand, real-time experiences of someone who played such an important role in the 1970s theatre scene in New York. The trope has been exhausted, but it’s still true: In this book, the city exists almost like a character in and of itself. For Gray, the city was where he escaped from a tumultuous youth; it was the place where he created the persona we now associate with him, and where he found the first in a series of women who served as muses, lovers and victims of his own self-destructive behaviors.

Elizabeth LeCompte was a writer, director and occasional actor in the same Wooster Group Gray helped found; she oversaw the development of his first monologues. Their love, slightly fictionalized, forms much of the plot of Gray’s only novel, the underrated Impossible Vacation, whose laborious composition is the subject of one of his best monologues, Monster In A Box. His years of peak professional success were also the years in which he did the least amount of journal-writing. Maybe the success helped satisfy something in him, making the ol’ existential hand-wringing less necessary in that period, or maybe he was just too busy. Either way, even in 1985, when his life was outwardly perfect, he was writing: “If I continue being who I am now, I see disaster written on the walls.”

Noted names float throughout the text: Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Annie Liebowitz, Craig T. Nelson, Steven Soderberg, Sam Watterston. For years, he shared an apartment with LeCompte, his first great love and herself a pivotal figure in that scene; they continued to share it even after splitting. She had a child with Willem DaFoe, who moved in, and Gray moved on to Renee Shafransky, who exists in a sort of parallel world as a character in his best-known works; she is the only one of his great loves who did not participate in this book, for reasons pretty easily guessed after reading it.

Kathie Russo (who was exceptionally brave to have permitted this portrayal of her, which is not often that complimentary) would become his widow, the mother of his children, the driver of the car in which they almost died, through no fault of her own. She tamed Spalding Gray, got him domesticated and primed for what should have been the next 30 years of their lives together. Instead, they only got a decade.

They were in Ireland on late-June, 2001, on a vacation he was reluctant to take (in part because their host had died a month earlier), in the back-seat of a rental-car without his seat-belt. “Gray fractured his hip, which would leave him with a drop foot, a limp on his right side, and permanently in need of a leg brace in order to walk,” Casey writes; “he also suffered an orbital fracture … Later, in surgery, hundreds of shards of bone were found lodged in his brain. Russo, meanwhile, got fifteen stitches in the back of her head where Gray had hit her with his own head as he flew forward in the accident.” Everyone else walked away.

And then 9/11 happened, and the city where he had the greatest moments of happiness in his life was deluged with negative energy. A man who’d spent his entire life trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) not to think too much about death had, within just three months, had the subject forced into the forefront of every aspect of his personal and professional life. Gray was physically broken and in constant pain, mentally distressed and traumatized, and struggling to cope with the impact of an ill-advised move into a new community and a home that was a money-pit, all while his output was slipping. As the dust-clouds floated up and away from Ground Zero, the shadows rolled in on his soul.

In the last 19 months of Gray’s life, he spent parts of at least six of them in mental-health facilities. He was given prescriptions for drugs including Aventyl, Celexa, Lamictal, Neurontin and Zyprexa. He also received approximately 21 electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) “treatments”, despite concerns over giving such treatments to a man with a metal plate covering his brain. The ECT treatments occurred in 2002: Gray had committed himself, but he, his family and friends (and at least one trained neuropath) had begun requesting his release after six weeks. The hospital refused, keeping him for three more months, during which time the ECT happened. By the time he was released, he had less than a year to live.

In November 2001, two years before he died, he wrote: “I’m a dead man. A ghost.” It’s remarkable to read the moments of lucidity and focus in his journals in the final years and recall that, no matter what, he kept working. Despite a six-hour operation to insert a titanium plate into his forehead, Gray was back on-stage within ten weeks of the accident; his last performance, at PS 122, was about a month before his death, which was apparently incited in part by watching the movie “Big Fish”. The journals document how hard he tried just to maintain, but much like his mother a quarter-century earlier, the conclusion was foregone. It was an act of will.

As a fan, someone who once sought out VHS copies of “Swimming To Cambodia” and “Monster In a Box” as was entranced by the man’s abilities, the experience of reading Gray’s own account of his last days was just heart-breaking. Casey’s additions are indispensable at this point; reconstructing the circumstances of the car accident, the awful extent of his injuries and his final descent into total madness, dissolution and death was, as with the book in general, an impressive display of journalistic skill. The whole situation never made sense to me until I read this book, and got the story from Spalding Gray himself.

His confessional style may have evolved as it so often does, in response to his repressed conservative upbringing, in particular by seeing how his mother suffered and eventually perished under those conditions. Many of the unique and now-legendary personalities to coalesce in New York’s performance-art scene of his era wrestled with similar issues, and slipped those surly old bonds. But he never quite slipped them fully, no matter how far he went.

 

sheltonhull@gmail.com; February 28, 2012

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