Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the May issue of the online magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme for May is "Resilience," and in addition to Lindsey Romain's piece on "Postcards From the Edge," they also have new essays on "Alien," "Sorcerer," "Princess Mononoke," "American Movie," "Waiting for Guffman," "Elle," "Cameraperson," "October Sky," "Paradise Now," "Christine," and Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" series.
“I shot through my 20s like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.” - Carrie Fisher, Postcards From the Edge.
I expected 30 to be different. Everyone tells you it will be. It’s the age of miracles, when the last morsels of wasteful youth are drained from your body and you emerge fully formed on the other side of not giving a fuck. I woke up on my 30th birthday and thought I’d see someone brand new in the mirror. Someone easier on the eyes, quicker to a smile. Someone I might like better.
But, remarkably, I hadn’t morphed into my new form overnight. Instead, as I stood before the bathroom mirror, I was even more acutely aware of my bodily flaws. Stretch marks, flabby skin, sullen cheeks. Sick from a never-ending plague of regret; the stain of bad memories that bubbled into my conscience every morning, taunting me years later like some infected ingrown hair. I looked haggard, too old for 30, but also well-earned; a face that’s seen some shit.
I wanted 30 to be different. I knew, intrinsically, that it wouldn’t be. I wasn’t fit for a change, because I wasn’t fit to fix myself. And that’s what it was going to take. Not some magical clap of thunder, cloud of smoke, and boom: metamorphosis. I needed major, self-induced roadwork. But I had no idea where to start.
I began to measure my moments in “lasts.” This is the last time I will eat carbs for a whole year. This is the last day I won’t exercise. This is the last time I will drink a bottle of wine in my bed on Saturday night while watching YouTube videos about tiny houses. The “last” of it all prolonged the serious nature of my predicament, as my sanity slowly slipped from my grasp like a handful of marbles. An endless cycle of doing nothing to get better, just tripping over reality and conjuring another “last” that wouldn't come.
In that slum, I turned—as I often do—to my obscene fairy godmother Carrie Fisher, and most notably the film based on her book and her life, Postcards From the Edge. It’s a movie I’ve always loved, but one that found its footing in my heart as my 20s crescendoed into a ball of incomprehensibility. Just as my life spiraled out of control, so too did Suzanne Vale’s, the drug-addicted actress who suffers an overdose in the movie’s opening chapter.
Meryl Streep plays Suzanne with the sort of disaffected gumption I often see in myself: light in the eyes, heavy in the gut. It’s the way she sits in rehab, shoes off and legs folded up into her chair, finding comfort in her limited space so that the world around her seems less foreign. (I do this, too.) She seeks out humor in her situation, takes everything in with minimal severity. When her mother asks what happened to her hair—which is frayed and lazily piled on her head—she casually replies, “I don’t know, it’s all the rage in rehab.”
The film is largely plotless, choosing to detail the brief window of time following Suzanne’s rehab stint and her transition back into the real world; she’s forced to live with her mother, the old-school Hollywood actress Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), while she works on her new film, a middling action B-movie that leaves her dissatisfied at day’s end. She instead finds comfort in the arms of Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid), a handsome, careless producer who builds up her self esteem with his velvety smiles and smooth words. She spends her days eating junk food and wandering sets, lost in the paragraph break between one life chapter and the next.
There’s something comforting about the clinical aspects of Suzanne’s story: Her room in rehab, with its pleasant decorations, like putting bows on a bruise; the coy smile she wears at all times, as if she’s in on the joke that is her life. But what’s more, her garbage-dump situation doesn’t eat her personality or the way she’s considered by others. Her mother still loves her fiercely, if complicatedly. The men in her orbit still find her attractive. Life exists beyond the bubble of her addiction and self-harm. She’s barely considered broken by anyone but herself.
That’s often how mania feels. Like there’s a violent storm raging inside, while everything exterior moves by with ease, blissfully unaware of the nearby cacophony. It’s frustrating and impossible to explain, but you learn how to live with it; how to shush the screams, how to silence the discomfort, how to ignore the part of you that always wishes it was dead. You learn to make it funny.
As Carrie wrote in her memoir, Wishful Drinking, “If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
A few weeks into my 30s, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Seeing a psychiatrist was part of my self-made “fix it” plan, and suddenly I had it: an answer, a way to curb the mania. But after the initial wave of relief, the panic set in. A diagnosis isn’t a one-and-done deal.There’s no shot you get to make you suddenly not bipolar. This was a disorder, and there I sat in the middle of it all, disordered. Subscribed to a life of antipsychotics, left to mount the peaks and valleys of an irregular brain, alone with myself in what will be a lifelong struggle to feel normal, whatever that is. Bipolar disorder is so severe, I later learned, that I will have to mark myself disabled on paperwork and job applications for the rest of my life.
The night I got diagnosed—after an hours-long phone call with my sister—I came home, crawled into bed, watched Postcards From the Edge, and sobbed myself to sleep as it played in the background. I knew now that I was drawn to Carrie for more than just her eccentric humor or her role as Princess Leia. There was a primal recognition of self, something I realized way back when and now knew why. Even though Suzanne Vale—Carrie’s alter ego, whose life loosely mirrors her own—isn’t diagnosed bipolar in the film, Carrie’s screenplay says a lot without saying much at all. Addiction is often an early symptom of the disorder, and Suzanne is certainly an addict—not just of the Percocet she mows down like candy, but of chaos and disarray. She drinks Jack Faulkner in like a fine whiskey, sip after sip until the bottle’s gone. She trades manic episodes with her mother, the two of them living out psychotic field trips in the other one’s brain. Doris spikes her smoothies with vodka, drinks wine in the early morning hours, but still guards her daughter’s own proclivities like a vulture. “What if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” she asks when Suzanne balks at her, a deflection of the finest order.
In one of the film’s more famous scenes, a fresh-from-rehab Suzanne is forced to attend a party her mother throws to celebrate her sobriety. Doris forces her to sing for the crowd, and Suzanne unwillingly compiles, singing a soulful cover of Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me.” It’s a beautiful moment, where Suzanne funnels her frustration and pain into something like reclamation. “No one will ever know / The one who loves you so / No you don’t know me.”
It’s a big moment for Suzanne, but it’s immediately stolen from her by her mother, who steps forward after her daughter’s performance to do her own number for the room. Only hers is a more rambunctious act, more crowd-pleasing. Suzanne watches her mother with a telling knowingness. She isn’t fixed because she’s sober; this chaotic, exuberant life is in her DNA. Her mother’s desire for attention is her future, too. Drama, lawlessness, mania—they’re a lifelong dance.
Suzanne and Doris are my people. They exist in the world with the loudness reserved for those touched by disorder and dysfunction. But they aren’t silent participants in the crummy hand they’ve been dealt; they’re fully active citizens of the world—even if they come off “crazy.” By the film’s end, they’ve learned how to funnel their mutually assured destruction into a casual, simpatico life; or as casual as life can be for two Hollywood actresses. It is my dream way of going about things as my newly diagnosed life unfolds: as my imperfect self, but in conjunction with the people and the world around me, and fully capable of enjoying fabulous, magical things.
Carrie Fisher didn’t want to play the part of Suzanne in the film because, “I already played Suzanne,” she would say. It’s true that the story follows events from her own life almost to the dot. She wrote the novel, Postcards from the Edge, after her own stint in rehab, and it mimics the time thereafter, when she transitioned from actress to acclaimed author, and picked back up the pieces of her life that had fallen into what she thought at the time was an endless sinkhole.
“I was very unhappy back then. I was just a mess,” Carrie tells the camera in Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, an HBO documentary released after her and Reynolds’ death that detailed the intricacies of their lives and mother-daughter relationship. “Some of the things that are in the movie happened.”
The novel was released in 1987—years after Carrie was diagnosed bipolar at age 24—and the film, for which she adapted the screenplay, in 1990. Most people will miss the disease that rests in its margins, but the bipolar eye sees all; it sees the loving way Suzanne looks at bottles of pills in her mother’s medicine cabinet, infatuated with the idea of release, impressed with how close and how dangerous that release is. I looked the same way at bottles of wine in the grocery store, my fingertips grazing liquid relief, an intoxicating mixture of fantasy and peril.
Near the end of Bright Lights, Carrie (now in her late 50s) sits in her home as a woman does her nails. She’s watching Funny Girl on TV and singing along, reciting lines at rapid-speed. She’s manic—“It’ll go out of style soon and then I’ll just be quirky,” she jokes—and in that mania, she says something that cycles through my brain every day, as I wage a war with my new meds, as I try to quiet the voice that goes goes goes in my head, as I try to lull myself to sleep that never comes easy: “You know what would be so cool? To get to the end of my personality, and just, like, lay in the sun.”
Carrie died in 2016 with drugs and bipolar meds in her system. But I’ve never found that hopeless, even after my own diagnosis. She was 60, too young but also old enough to have filled her life with so much experience, so many stories. Best of all, she created something special, something eternal in that time; she wrote about her hardest, most embarrassing, most human moments with gusto, humor, and care. She gave us, her fellow disordered siblings, a rope through the muck. Every time I pick up one of her books, or turn on Postcards from the Edge, I remember that there are other people like me in this world, living weirdly, just trying to figure it out.
Her life was was still riddled with things I fear my future may have in store—hospitalization, intensive psychotherapy, mental breakdowns—but I’m entering this next stage prepared. Equipped with Carrie’s words as solace, with Suzanne’s spitfire in my back pocket; proud that I took a big step for myself, and ready to laugh through all of the shit that life is about to fling my way.
I’m still 30. I still look into my mirror every day and see the things that I hate, feel that same chalky discomfort, struggle just to keep my head on straight. But my life is, at the very least, funny. And for now, that is quite acceptable.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.