Spalding Gray spent most of his career sharing the intimate details of his life with the public. His monologues covered topics from sex to his experiences as an actor, to his surgery for a “macular pucker” (clinically known as epiretinal membrane). The former and latter subjects were even turned into feature films.
Because Gray shared so much of his life publically, it seems natural that he might have published his journals one day. However, he never had the chance to do it. Gray committed suicide in 2004.
Now all of his journals, notes, and even medical records have been gathered up and sorted through by editor Nell Casey.
The Journals of Spalding Gray is a look at some of the thoughts and feelings Gray had during different points in his life. While it is mostly fascinating, it’s hard not to feel like an intruder in someone else’s mind. We do not know which of these journal entries Gray would have shared, if any, had he decided to take on this project himself.
Casey defends her choices in the “Introduction” and “Editor’s Notes” sections of the book. She makes the valid point that Gray was very open about his life. She also points out that Gray had indicated at different times that he thought his journals would be published, and some of the journal entries even seem to address an audience.
The Journals of Spalding Gray was also published with the cooperation of Gray’s widow, Kathleen Russo.
Still, reading something like this is not an act to be taken lightly. Though Gray chose to share parts of his life through his monologues, he rarely shared those moments in their raw form. As off-the-cuff and conversational as his monologues were, they were always carefully scripted. Gray fed off of his audience, changing and crafting his shows based on their reactions.
This book exposes him completely. It is not just entertainment, but a portrait of a soul too tortured to continue living.
That being said, even this book does not include everything. Russo had approval over what was to be included. Naturally certain things were left out to protect her and her children’s privacy.
The book is broken down into five sections, each representing a decade of Gray’s adult life. Casey provides a commentary at the beginning of each section to supplement and provide context for the entries. She does a great job of providing useful background information on each period of Gray’s life.
She also notes when journal entries are undated and includes them where they seem to fit the best. Not every entry is in chronological order. On some occasions there is an entry from Gray reflecting back on a period of time (usually a negative period) and then we will get earlier entries that were actually written during that same period.
This works well for the structure of the book. Gray’s more reflective entries were often longer and more articulate than the entries where he was fraught with emotional issues. Gray spent a good portion of his life struggling with his identity. He was often confused by his role in life. He was at odds with what he felt he was supposed to be doing and what he was doing. He was traumatized by his mother’s suicide.
In these journals, Gray talks openly about his homosexual encounters. He had three long-term relationships with women, but seemed to always be yearning for sexual relationships with men as well (though he never seemed interested in personal relationships with the same sex).
Gray struggled with what kind of artist he wanted to be as well. He usually leaned toward the avante-garde, but became jealous when his theater friend Willem Dafoe started finding mainstream success. Interestingly, the journals seem to mention professional jealously before mentioning that Dafoe had also become romantically involved with Gray’s own girlfriend. Eventually Gray’s two worlds would meet with the success of Jonathan Demme’s film Swimming to Cambodia (1987), the filmed version of Gray’s monologue about his experience as an actor in the 1984 film The Killing Fields. Though his mainstream success wouldn’t prevent his ongoing struggles with depression, it did push his career in new directions.
The sad reality about Gray’s life is that he never seemed satisfied with it. His journals outline this fact vividly. Though he did find some satisfaction after marrying his second wife and starting a family, his life was shattered by a devastating car accident in 2001. Gray suffered severe injuries that required multiple surgeries over the following several years. His journals during this time period detail his worsening depression.
The personal nature of his writing is difficult to read. One can’t help but wonder if he wanted these thoughts shared. Casey notes that Gray had reduced the amount of deeply personal material he was including in his monologues in his later years. He was concerned for the privacy of his children. The writings include his devastation of the sale of his home, an obituary he wrote for himself as a piece for The Larry King Show, and even a suicide note to his wife written several months before his actual suicide.
Needless to say, this book is not always easy to read. It’s a portrait of a fascinating but tortured life. It is a glimpse into the psyche of a man at constant war himself. Gray spent his professional career sharing his life with the public. His carefully crafted monologues told tales of the mundane and the extraordinary, of his fortunes and misfortunes.
While reading his personal journals, it’s hard not to get an uneasy feeling, as if peeping in on something not meant to be seen. Still, The Journals of Spalding Gray exists and it’s worth the uneasiness to share in those moments of joy and pain.Powered by Sidelines