More of a psychiatric casebook than a life: The Journals of Spalding Gray | Arts
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Sunday, January 1, 2012

More of a psychiatric casebook than a life: The Journals of Spalding Gray

Posted by on Sun, Jan 1, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Edited by Nell Casey
Knopf; 368 pages

The world primarily remembers actor and playwright Spalding Gray for a body of some 20 theatrical works he wrote and staged over three decades between 1975 and 2004. Improbably, he performed almost all of them, alone, while seated on a stage whose set design rarely included much more than a wooden table and chair, a microphone, a glass of water—and a notebook containing a skeletal outline of the evening’s subject, handwritten, in all caps.

Even more improbably, their subject matter was overtly autobiographical. Early monologues like Sex and Death to the Age 14 and Booze, Cars and College Girls openly disclosed their contents in their titles. His mid-career masterpiece, Swimming to Cambodia (which director Jonathan Demme captured on film in 1988) detailed Gray’s idiosyncratic discoveries—about the world, U.S. and global politics, relationships and himself—during his experiences as a supporting actor in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. That film, which detailed the horrific aftermath of the Vietnamese war on the mainland of Southeast Asia, won three Oscars.

During the 1980's and 1990's, a number of critics claimed that Gray actually created the genre of autobiographical performance. If that is an overstatement—and it is—Gray’s work still had an undeniable influence on a generation of writers (and performers) of autobiography, creative nonfiction and postmodern storytelling, as well as those who have followed.

It is nearly impossible to imagine the work of Ira Glass, David Sedaris, Mike Daisey or Tim Miller without him. The poetic journalism of Anna Deavere Smith clearly owes Gray a direct debt as well. Along with every writer who has ever appeared on This American Life, The Monti and its inspiration, The Moth in New York City, suddenly seem a lot more speculative absent the groundwork Gray did in public first-person narratives two decades before.

The first page of Grays notebook for SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA
  • Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
  • The first page of Gray's notebook for SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA
Nearly eight years after his apparent suicide in January 2004, Knopf has released a heavily edited and abridged version of his journals—the daily writings that formed the basis for much of his autobiographical work. Editor Nell Casey has clearly brought certain strengths to the task, not the least of which would be the sheer determination required to plow through a reported 5,000 pages of dyslexic and grammatically problematic prose. Additionally, after the brain damage that Gray sustained in a 2001 car accident took its inexorable toll, Casey drew on a number of sources in an attempt to provide context to the last period of Gray’s life.

Casey has previously edited books on writers dealing with depression (2002’s Unholy Ghosts) and writers providing extended care for sick family members (An Uncertain Inheritance, in 2008). Tellingly, the Gray she emerges with in these pages is strikingly similar to her previous subjects: a man who is primarily, perpetually hyperaware of a series of self- and other-diagnosed psychological dysfunctions—and whose dilemmas require the ongoing care of family members and significant others, frequently to the exclusion of all other individuals and concerns, over a period of nearly 40 years.

In short, those expecting a juicy, ribald ride behind the scenes of Gray's most engaging narratives are in for a shock. THE JOURNALS OF SPALDING GRAY ultimately seems more the joyless casebook of a forbidding psychiatric enigma than a famous monologist and humorist's back pages.

In itself, that isn't necessarily a bad thing; no small amount of gravitas is certainly due this subject. But the evidence Casey presents on what appears to have been Gray's lifelong mental states is overwhelming. Regrettably, it also becomes mind-numblingly redundant beyond a point. Page after page, the months and years crawl by as Gray agonizes over a largely fixed constellation of fears, obsessions and perceived emotional disabilities.

I don’t wish to trivialize the psychological pain which remains Gray’s constant companion through most of this book. Still, the sheer volume of repetition involved here in cataloging these discontents extends well into the Kafkaesque. Their only conceivable use would appear to lie in the realm of a detailed psychiatric workup or diagnosis. Somewhere, I have little doubt that one is already in the works.

I wrote a critical retrospective on Gray’s career for the Independent following his death in 2004. In it, I reported my experience upon reading the script for his 1997 performance, It’s a Slippery Slope—without the distraction of the monologist’s reportedly charming performance, which I hadn't seen.

What mostly struck me by the work was what I termed the thread of desperation that laced through “narratives already slipping out of [his] control—two years before his accident in Ireland.”

I then concluded: “From his earliest narratives, Gray explored the mental illness that ultimately drove his mother to suicide at age 52. He always worried he'd inherit it, and in the final analysis I am not convinced he didn't, entirely independent of any physical trauma he sustained.”

Gray, on the set of SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA
  • Gray, on the set of SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA
The undesired confirmation of that conclusion rises here out of literally hundreds of entries Casey has selected. From the 1960s forward, we encounter a man whose hunger to remove the boundaries between life and theatrical art seemingly stems in part from a fundamental inability to construct or observe meaningful interpersonal boundaries in his own relationships. Repeatedly, Gray not only despairs when he is unable to share “everything” with a lover or an audience—he fears that he himself is “vanishing.” By 1980 he writes of a “need for the audience to prove to myself that I exist.”

But Gray ultimately finds the act of reporting his own life problematic as well. “I love it,” he writes after the initial success of Sex and Death to the Age 14, “but it eats me up and when I am left alone, I feel like a shell that always needs to be filled up by the audience.” Being a reporter on his own life dislocates and distances Gray from actually living it, reinforcing a passivity he finds erotic at times and infuriating at others. Ultimately, its effect is seen in a crippling indecisiveness that leaves his various lovers hanging indefinitely because he cannot choose a direction in his life.

By 1981 Gray has effectively become a collaborateur with his dysfunctions, writing “I have a great fear of getting well and normal lest I disappear.” By 1985, negative grandeur convinces him at points that he’s “some portion of Christ” and the “first straight articulate sufferer of AIDS…chosen as a spokesman to bring [a particular insight] to the people.” Gray never actually had the disease.

The degree of his compulsive oversharing is glimpsed in a 1989 exchange with actor and playwright Sam Shepard about a therapist both were seeing at the time. When Shepard confided that he didn’t discuss his conversations at the therapist with his wife, Gray marveled: “He kept it to himself. A private thing. And I realized I have no private thing.” By 1991, he writes on more than one occasion, “THERE IS NOTHING PRIVATE LEFT.”

In my 2004 retrospective I also concluded “something sordid” was in the subject matter of It’s a Slippery Slope. That conclusion stands tragically confirmed as well, as the day to day entries detailing his engagement to director Renée Shafransky and a simultaneous affair with publicist Kathleen Russo unfold.

But what is possibly most tragic here is this: In these pages, Spalding Gray comes across as a man who, until very late in life, had a nearly infantile need for constant attention—and an accompanying inability to reciprocate love as an adult and accept responsibility for his actions and his desires.

However, as he and Russo established an ongoing relationship, we read that Gray was slowly developing the ability to become a functional adult. By the autumn of 2000, distinct changes in the discourse reflect a maturing as he gradually learns how to actually be in a relationship and a family.

But just as Gray’s long infancy seems to be drawing to a close, he travels to Ireland in June 2001. While there, a car crash sends “hundreds of shards of bone” into his frontal lobes. A journal entry two days after the crash evinces subtle but telling changes in his language structures, syntax and word choice. From that point forward, what Gray does with words—what he can do—is permanently changed. The downward spiral begins, over a year before his brain damage is finally diagnosed.

Half a year later, I'd witness that deterioration in person, during our January 2002 interview in New York.

The eerie miasma which settles over Gray’s last, damaged set of entries only reinforces the sense of dysfunction that has accompanied most of this book’s previous 300 pages.

In striving to “shape a history” from the material Gray left behind, it seems that Carey has mainly constructed a pathology here instead. More disappointingly, Carey's text concludes with a last line a bit too pat—and tasteless—to be believed.

For the rest, most of what there is to be learned from THE JOURNALS OF SPALDING GRAY is of a decidedly cautionary nature, perhaps more for psychologists and psychiatrists than those contemplating work in the field of autobiographical performance.

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