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Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Spalding Gray saved my life

Spalding Rockwell Gray was born June 5th, 1941 and died January 11, 2004. He was an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and monologist. He was known for his dry wit, narrative monologues, and his "quiet mania." He achieved celebrity status for his monologue entitled "Swimming to Cambodia" which aired on HBO. The monologue was about his small acting role in the film "The Killing Fields." It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It blew me away and I became an instant fan. 

I have read all of the books he wrote. Most of his books were word for word his monologues. But, they translated into excellent literature. You could almost hear his growing mania in each page. My favorite book was Impossible Vacation. It was all about Spalding's search for a perfect moment. I wrote to you about my perfect moment, and yes, it was inspired by that book. His writing was unique. He had a way of communicating his fears and anxieties that I have never seen from another author. He was so personal in his writing. You got the sense that nothing was left out, that you were seeing the true human being. And you could not help but like him. He wasn't perfect. He left his first wife for a younger woman. Mr. Gray was self absorbed and petty. He had some flaws. But he was also a genius. His perceptions about himself and those around him transcended his weaknesses as a human. He was the quiet observer of his own life. Spalding could see his own weakness and insanity, in their bare and true form, and casually say, "Well, that's me!" 

I am not sure why he spoke to me as a reader. I suppose I related to him despite his neurotic tendencies or maybe because of them. What troubled me the most about his writing was his talk of suicide. His mother killed herself when Spalding was a young boy. This impacted both the man and the writer. At times, it seemed he blamed himself for not being available enough, for not seeing the signs. But at other times, he recognized that she chose her demise long before it had occurred. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. Because of the incredible personal nature of Spalding's writing, the reader couldn't help but worry that he would one day follow his mother. He did talk about it. But you always got the feeling he knew how terrible his mother's decision was. You wanted to believe he would rise above it. He married the younger woman. They had children together. Spalding had been reborn. He wrote about the transformation of his life in the book Morning, Noon, and Night. It seemed that Spalding would continue to be the man we all loved and he was finally happy. He was becoming the parent he never had. 

In January of 2004 Spalding Gray took his own life. He drowned himself by jumping into the water off the Staten Island Ferry. He had serious internal injuries from a car accident in Ireland months before. Doctors had speculated that Spalding had sustained a closed head injury, but this was missed in the initial diagnosis. He was never treated for the brain injury. There is no doubt that Spalding suffered from depression. Possibly, he was a manic depressive as well, but it's impossible for the fan to know if the mania he displayed on stage was part of the act or real sentiment. The only thing we can know for sure is that whatever part of his mind that kept the depression from overwhelming him was lost in that car accident. Spalding's wife reported his increasing remoteness and withdrawal from those around him. He tried his best with surgeries and medications. His injuries changed him. He barely resembled the person he was before. He began to walk the streets alone. He rode the ferry alone. One night, he did not return. 

You may wonder why I think Spalding Gray, a man who took his own life, met his aim. I agree, he does not sound a likely person. But I think you have to look past his death. It does sound as though he had a brain injury in that accident. For a man as brilliant as Mr. Gray, losing his mind must have been a crushing loss. I really believe we are all prone to depression and mania. But for most of us, a higher level of our mind keeps us from giving in to it. For someone like Spalding, who was on the edge anyway, even a slight loss of comprehension would have been all that was needed. I think he lost insight into his own life. How ironic! This man, who had made a living with his deep insight of himself, had lost his one most endearing quality. So I don't judge his life by his demise. I look to the body of his work and  happiness he brought the world. No one writes like Spalding Gray. His work is poignant, striking, and therapeutic. I think many readers love him because Spalding is willing to be insane for his reader. If you feel neurotic, read his books. He will be so crazy for you that you won't have to be. No one could ever replace him. When you read him, you begin to feel like you really know him - or at least the part of him he want you to know. I must say, his writing inspires me. Perhaps one day I could learn to write about myself in a way similar to him.

Spalding after his car accident

Yes, he met his aim. He dedicated his life to writing and performing. He did what he obviously loved. I think it's a testament to how talented he was that I actually felt a lump in my throat the day I read about his death. Never before had I felt sadness at the passing of someone I did not know personally. When Spalding left, I felt a sense of loss. A friend had died. I would no longer hear his voice, no longer be able to know him. Yes, he left behind a lot. Not just books and movies, but a widow and children who loved him. I know it's my own wife and children that prevented my suicide in 2006. When I sat in my car, on that steep overlook, contemplating my demise, I also thought of Spalding Gray. Truly, he is the only person I have ever really known who killed himself. I never met the man, but I know more about him than I know about my own brother.  I thought about the pain he put his family though. Suicides leave a hole in the world like no other. I also thought of how much I wanted more. How I wanted to one day write like Spalding Gray. How I had hoped for a few more perfect moments.  I knew I did not want to die. I have to say, without having known Spalding Gray, things might have been different. So thank you, Spalding, you might have saved my life. 


Movies of his monologues:
Swimming to Cambodia (1987)
Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure (1988)
Monster in a Box (1991)
Gray's Anatomy (1996)
And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)

Swimming to Cambodia (1985)
The Nothing Issue (1985)
Sex and Death to the Age 14 (1986)
In Search of the Monkey Girl (1987)
High & Low (1988)
Homespun (1988)
Terrors of Pleasure (1988)
Monster in a Box (1992)
Impossible Vacation (1992, novel)
Gray's Anatomy (1994)
First Words (1996)
It's a Slippery Slope (1997)
Morning, Noon and Night (1999)
Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue (2005)

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