Speaking of graves, I tell my younger friends that one day they’ll be at a bar playing pool and they’ll look up at the television set and there will be a picture of Princess Leia with two dates underneath, and they’ll say ‘awww–she said that would happen.’ And then they’ll go back to playing pool.'” — Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking
Can I call you Carrie? I mean, obviously, I can–I just did—but is it too presumptuous? As a writer, surely you understand that “ Dear Ms. Fisher” reads a little awkwardly. I know “Dear Carrie” is a bit intimate, a bit close to the liberties too often taken by press and fans with boundary issues. A bit close to what I imagine led you to say, on the Today Show in 2008, “all I did when I was really famous was wait for it to end.” I can only hope that the personal things I’m about to discuss somewhat mitigate my taking such a liberty.
When news of your cardiac arrest hit social media, I was sitting alone in my office, wrapping up the last business day before the Christmas weekend. Upon reading the news, I immediately burst into tears and sobbed; crying on and off for nearly an hour. If anyone would understand this reaction, I think it’s you.
It’s become increasingly popular, in both the media and in personal conversation, to shame those who mourn celebrity deaths. People like me, who sat obsessively refreshing my browser for updates–”how long was she not breathing? Did she make it to the hospital?”–not moving for over an hour, as the sun set outside my window.
Carrie, we both know why saying: ‘it’s not like you actually knew the person, get over it’ to the many fans who felt their breath catch in their throats upon learning you’d died is less than unhelpful. We know it’s also potentially quite damaging.
For those who might need fancy doctors from prestigious hospitals to help convince them, here’s what Dr. Alan Hilfer, chief of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, told New York Magazine in the wake of Robin Williams’ death in 2014:
Noting that it is perfectly normal to be saddened by the passing of a celeb we love and admire…says Hilfer, ‘there are some people whose reactions to celebrity deaths are so obsessional and extreme that it can literally make them sick.’ Sometimes, says Hilfer, such people suffer from underlying conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or personality disorder.”
And there it is, Carrie. There’s the danger. But I didn’t need to tell you that. You’re the one who wrote in Wishful Drinking that you’ve waited all your life to get an award for something– anything really. Maybe if not for acting, then for your writing? But no:
I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. I’m apparently very good at it and am honored for it regularly.”
You weren’t just good at being mentally ill, Carrie, you were excellent at it. Diagnosed in 1985 with bipolar disorder, you went fully public with your illness in an interview with Diane Sawyer in 2000. In the staged version of Wishful Drinking, filmed for posterity by HBO, you described being bipolar in this way:
Mania is a little like a bank error in your favor, it’s like liquid confidence. When the tide is in, it’s all good. But, when the tide is out, the mood that cannot, and should not, be named comes over you and into you.”
The look in your eyes as you delivered that last line made the entire audience, who had been laughing loudly only moments ago, fall silent. I know because I was there. You continued, into the hush:
Because naming it would be an act of summoning,” [you held your finger to your lips] “shhhh.”
You let that moment hang, and I felt the room hold its breath.
When I was a teenager, I, like you, had a tough time. No, I wasn’t put in the chorus of my famous mother’s nightclub act– though that now seems like a missed opportunity on both our parts. My tough time had to do with my father. My amazingly smart and supportive, but too often terribly abusive father.
By the time I was a teenager, the daily screaming matches had become such a large part of my life I no longer worried about their effects on me, Instead, I worried that our neighbors would hear them. I spent many nights crying and talking to myself.
Is it any wonder that the first major relationship I got into was terribly unhealthy? That it was chock-full of crying fits, self-destructive behavior, and loud arguments? The teachings of Freud practically demanded it, and who was I, a mere 15-year-old slip of a girl, to stand against the Austrian father of psychoanalysis?
By the time the Star Wars trilogy was theatrically re-released, I was badly in need of escapism. And boy did this pulp-novel retelling of The Hero With a Thousand Faces scratch that itch. I fell deeply in love with the franchise as a whole, but it was the Rebel Princess with the smart mouth that captured the biggest part of my heart.
My mother, who I’m close to like you are to your mother, Debbie Reynolds, did her best to help me through the dark times in various ways. She had me in therapy and she tried to love me with the force of two parents (she overshot this and ended up blasting me with the love of at least four. Mostly I enjoy this, though it can be a touch embarrassing at parties).
She also gave me your second book, Surrender the Pink, at one of my lowest points. I was still in high school and on anti-depressants at the time.
The novel’s protagonist, Dinah, is a thinly-veiled (so thinly it’s frankly indecent) version of you. The book explores her love life, and centers on her terribly unhealthy, strangely magnetic, all-consuming love affair with a man named Rudy. In describing the pain of losing Rudy, you wrote things like:
After Rudy left, she turned on the television because she didn’t want to listen to the sound of his not being there.”
It’s hyperbole, but not an exaggeration, to say that for me, reading this book was like a gulp of emotional oxygen after my entire being had been holding it’s breath for over a year. I devoured it.
That quote above? It’s underlined in my incredibly old paperback copy of the book. I have lots of quotes underlined, some with a ruler, others with a shaking hand. There are sections where Dinah’s increasingly worried friends try to give her advice which I labeled with the names of my friends– friends who had said almost exactly the same things to me. I have comments on chapters, like “the jerk probably never called” written in the margins.
It wasn’t just that this book mirrored my life– it was that you wrote it in a voice that reminded me of myself in my better, clearer moments. If you could take your pain, your emotional turmoil, your mental struggles, and turn it all into writing and a career, then maybe what I was going through could be a kind of crucible for me too.
Which brings me to 2004, when we met.
You were on an author tour for your new novel The Best Awful There Is. It was at a Barnes and Noble in New York, (now a Century 21). After giving a talk about the book, a sequel to Postcards from the Edge, you took questions from the audience. Do you remember how banal those questions were, Carrie? I hope you’ve forgotten.
Now, I’m a very outspoken person. In fact, I won the title of the “Most Outspoken” senior girl in the High School polls. I had a portrait taken to commemorate this honor in the yearbook, but something allegedly happened to the film and instead of retaking it, they just used another shot of me they had on hand:
That’s me. Dressed as Princess Leia for Halloween. I wore that costume in school the entire day, and all around New York. I even had my blaster confiscated by the school security guard, who I’m pretty sure would’ve worked for the Empire if given the chance.
So when the questions posed to you, my hero, sounded like a child could do better given half the chance and a few cookies, what’s an outspoken devotee of Carrie Fisher to do? Ask one of her own.
I nervously told you that I, as an aspiring writer, had trouble writing honestly about my life. I was afraid of hurting people. But you– you wore your heart on your sleeve in your writing. You were so naked. How did you do it?
You immediately glanced down at your body and grabbed your clothes to reassure yourself you weren’t actually naked. When the audience laughter subsided, you launched into what felt like a 10-minute monologue on the subject, looking straight into my eyes the whole time.
I confess, much of what you said was lost to me because the blood rushing through my ears along with my heartbeat was pretty loud–but I remember you saying you’d been famous since you were a baby. You said that when the tabloids had been talking about your personal life for that long, being honest in your writing was “just telling my side of the story.”
Afterwards, the crowd lined up to get books signed by you. When I was nearing the front of the queue, my mother discovered she was out of film on her disposable camera. One look at my crestfallen face (loves me with the force of four parents, maybe five), sent her racing out of the bookstore in search of a new one.
I dawdled as long as I could, letting people go ahead of me until I was pretty sure there was no way she would make it back in time. When I put my battered, underlined copy of Surrender the Pink in front of you, you gasped and said it’d been a long time since you’d seen one of those.
I explained to you that I’d had a really hard time in high school and that in reading Surrender the Pink, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit; that it had “kinda saved my life.” You looked into my eyes and said, “I’m so happy to hear that,” and, after a very short pause, “and I’m sorry you were in such a fucked up relationship.”
I burst out laughing and told you “I like to think I got my really terrible relationship out of the way at 16 and it’ll all be uphill from there.” You threw your head back and cackled, saying “I like that. I really like that. Thank you for sharing that with me.” You signed the book, and then shook your finger at me and scolded: “now you keep writing, you hear me? You keep writing!”
My mother arrived after the signing was finished with new camera in hand. You were already picking up your purse and turning to leave, and I shyly asked “Ms. Fisher, I know we were supposed to take pictures with you while you were signing the books, but my mother’s camera ran out–”
You interrupted me, saying, “come on, come on, let’s do it.” You wrapped your arms around my waist and rested your head on my right breast, as I’m much taller than you. When I’ve told this story to friends, they always ask “which breast?” When I tell them, they always ask to touch it, and then gasp in awe if I let them. It’s the Carrie Fisher boob.
I moved into my first apartment soon after this, and the disposable camera vanished. I spent years searching for it.
When a celebrity dies– especially someone so big, so loud, so unapologetically herself, we all feel our own mortality a little more keenly. Death moves from down the street to the next room.
At the end of the filmed version of Wishful Drinking, an emergency siren wails. You exclaim from the stage: “that’s my ride!” before paramedics wheel you out of the theater on a gurney into a waiting ambulance. The audience files out into the street after you, staring as it drives away into the night.
When you succumbed to the complications from your cardiac arrest on Tuesday, you left us– the fans that loved you for Star Wars, for your books, and for your fearless declarations that helped change the way we talk about mental health– staring in disbelief at the space you left behind, not wanting to listen to the sound of you not being there.
And now Debbie Reynolds, who no doubt loved you with force of 4-5 parents, has left her space behind to join you.
I never did give up on writing, Carrie. My drive to do it atrophied for a time, clouded by depression and disbelief, but never went away completely. And here I am. Writing to you. Telling my side of the story. Because it’s a hell of a thing to disregard the direct order of your hero, isn’t it?
You named me someone who could be a writer, and you named mental illness as something that could be lived with, and used. These were, indeed, acts of summoning. I often feel that every word I write, I partly owe to you. But don’t expect any residuals–the pay in internet journalism sucks.
Shortly before you passed away, I found the disposable camera. “Precious pics– CARRIE FISHER” was written on the side. I was a little afraid to try and develop it after so many years. While the picture is still in there, trapped on aging film, it’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat: neither alive nor dead. Now that you’re gone, I find myself unable to resist trying. Maybe it’ll come out completely black. Or maybe all that will be left is the faint outline of a person, resting her smiling face on the chest of a stranger.
And that will be okay. Because it couldn’t really have captured you anyway.