The Journals of Spalding Gray
Publication Date: October 18, 2011
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Riveting, funny, heartbreaking, at once raw and lyrical: these journals reveal the complexity of the actor/writer who invented the autobiographical monologue and perfected the form in such celebrated works as Swimming to Cambodia.
Here is the first intimate portrait we have of the man behind the charismatic performer who ended his life in 2004: evolving artist, conflicted celebrity, a man struggling for years with depression before finally succumbing to its most desperate impulse. Begun when he was twenty-five, the journals give us Gray’s reflections on his childhood; his craving for success; the downtown New York arts scene of the 1970s; his love affairs, marriages and fatherhood; his travels in Europe and Asia; and throughout, his passion for the theater, where he worked to balance his compulsion to tell all with his terror of having his deepest secrets exposed.
Culled from more than five thousand pages and including interviews with friends, colleagues, lovers, and family, The Journals of Spalding Gray gives us a haunting portrait of a creative genius who we thought had told us everything about himself—until now.
Spalding Gray was born and raised in Rhode Island. A cofounder of the acclaimed New York City theater company the Wooster Group, he appeared on Broadway and in numerous films, including Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields, David Byrne’s True Stories, Garry Marshall’s Beaches, and as the subject of the 2010 Steven Soderbergh documentary, And Everything Is Going Fine. His monologues include Sex and Death to the Age 14, Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, and It’s a Slippery Slope. He died in 2004.
Nell Casey is the editor of the national best seller Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, which won a Books for a Better Life Award. Her articles and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour, among other publications. Her fiction has been published in One Story. She is a founding member of Stories at the Moth, a nonprofit storytelling foundation. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.
“For all its seeming straightforwardness, Gray's confessional enterprise raised thorny questions about the nature of autobiographical performance. One of the things that kept his audience coming back was the mixture of revelation and reserve, self-lacerating candor and self-mocking comedy the low-key New England native employed. How much of Gray's art was a transcription of reality, and how much was a refraction or deflection, a carefully cultivated fiction packaged as the ‘truth’? Now, in a book sure to be carefully sifted for fresh evidence, The Journals of Spalding Gray add another provocative layer to the story. Selected by Nell Casey from some 5,000 pages, these edited entries begin in 1967, when the 25-year-old Gray was working as a regional theater actor in Houston. They end in 2003, as he spiraled toward suicide. Gray died in 2004, after an apparent jump from the Staten Island Ferry. Casey supplies useful and well-made narrative bridges. The result is a kind of memoir in fragments, frank and elliptical, unsparing and occluded. . . . Gray was full of shadow parts. A number of them emerge with more clarity and starkness in his journal than they did onstage. . . . The Journals of Spalding Gray reveal a tangle of interlocking identities. There's the thread of the artist coming of age and finding his singular theatrical voice and another about the backstage exploits of a demi-celebrity. We get gossip and jealousy (Gray was riveted by the amount of money Dustin Hoffman made), travelogue and therapy, marriage and the lurking demon of suicide. Finally this is a book about self-consciousness, which was both the engine and the anguish of Gray's life. . . . One puzzle is whether the journal itself, presumably a zone of private contemplation, was just another form of mediated experience. Casey makes the case, at one point, that Gray wanted to have his journal entries published. But in a way that's beside the point. Whether onstage or alone with his notebook, Gray was forever tracing and retracing the pathways that made him who he was.”
—Steven Winn, The San Francisco Chronicle
“The Journals of Spalding Gray reveal someone who was at once addicted to the rush of self-exposure and yet was also deeply private. Brooklyn-based journalist Nell Casey has edited Gray’s literary anatomy down to a readable package. . . . Like Gray, who riveted millions just by sitting at a desk and talking, the best practitioners of self-revelation make it look effortless—as if they’ve delivered a spontaneous laying bare of the facts. In fact, it requires a literary sleight of hand—the ability to show all and reveal nothing—that is anything but simple. As Gray’s journals show, he honed his craft carefully, tweaking and adjusting his stories for maximum narrative torque. I miss Spalding Gray. His death was not just an untimely tragedy among the litany of talented, creative folk who are cruelly dragged away by attendant demons before their time (Kurt Cobain, Chris Farley and Amy Winehouse come immediately to mind) but a loss that has resonated with me for years. Even now, I’ll be walking down a city street somewhere or hear a song come on the radio, and think, ‘I wish Spalding Gray were here for this.’”
—Leah McLaren, The Globe and Mail
“During his nearly 30 years as a man onstage alone, Gray perfected the art of turning his life into art . . . Gray’s journals show a man who was constantly walking a line between trying to keep something for himself and believing it was is artistic duty to share everything with his audience. . . . Even for a born confessional raconteur like Gray, that line between the public and the private must have been hard to walk. . . . A romantic might even say Gray sacrificed himself for a greater purpose, that he was the truest kind of artist—the kind for whom there was no life outside of what he created with it.
—Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle
“Reading these journals one is impressed with the highly aestheticized provenance of Gray’s truth-telling. Plainly the monologue was as much a theatrical as a personal form for him, despite how much he depended on the candid and at times almost sensationalized rendering of his life experience. On the other hand, the exploitation of personal experience is itself one of the darker obsessions that Gray reveals in these journals. . . . In [them], Gray has no audience to spare, and the unmediated rawness with which he confronts his own death wish, particularly toward the end when he recapitulates his mother’s earlier trauma in his own move out of a beloved house during a period of mental instability, is perhaps the most profoundly disturbing element these entries reveal. If his audience would be shaken and surprised by the lack of forthcomingness in an artist who sought to create the illusion of truth-telling, then in his journals Gray was seemingly unafraid to unravel his own dark thoughts.”
—Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star
“The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey and culled from the Swimming to Cambodia performance artist’s notebooks, letters, and tapes, plus interviews with his widow and friends, reveal a daring melancholic (he committed suicide in 2004) who mined his chaotic inner life, troubled relationships, and tragic family history to create sterling works onstage anchored by his signature desk, water glass, notebook, and microphone.”
—Lisa Shea, Elle
“The conflict found throughout Gray’s extensive journals [is] between his own relentless search for transcendence and the often shocking absurdity of worldly contingency of the sort that will, eventually, tragically, short-circuit him. . . . It’s distressing to read the way happiness generates sadness and terror in Gray’s psyche, because his work could be the source of so much pleasure to his audiences. Even offstage: one friend tells the editor Nell Casey—who has done an admirable job knitting together a selection of Gray’s journal entries with interviews, and her own thoughtful take—that Gray was so seductive a storyteller that just sitting around a downtown loft, hearing him recount the mundane details of his day, could ‘torture you with pleasure.’ He invented a performance genre out of this narrative prowess. But the dark side, the journals reveal, was just how much Gray himself was tortured with self-torture. He’d make light of it in his monologues, [which], stripped to the minimum of voice and story, [were] Homeric, odysseys performed on a bare stage with a bare wooden desk and chair. . . In some ways it was ancient, Gray as the Homer of small things. In some ways it spoke to the moment, with a light touch of philosophical and spiritual consciousness . . . it had that artful quality of seeming artless, but somehow he had found the sweet spot where remorse and laughter meet, and it was like attending a therapy session on laughing gas. . . . Looking backward, he spoke for a generation; looking forward, he helped inspire (for better and worse) a generation of memoirists, most of whom lacked his self-deprecating humor . . . He becomes one of America’s great talkers and theatrical raconteurs. Mark Twain, Oscar Levant, Fran Lebowitz, Richard Pryor are his peers. He made holding an audience in the palm of his hand seem effortless, yet his journals reveal how much he rehearsed and revised. In some ways the journals help us understand Gray’s obsessive confessional impulse and his snatching at spiritual consolation. . . . The final sections of the journals are particularly painful to read as Gray struggles to maintain his life while undergoing antidepressive treatments . . . These final pages radiate some of the unbearable sadness of the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Gray comes across as a genuinely noble, striving, seeking soul, felled by a malignant fate. . . . Gray’s work deserves to last.”
—Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Times Book Review
“I counted Gray’s monologues among the most entertaining and rewarding experiences I ever had in a theater. Here was a man who found dark comedy in the story of his own mother’s suicide and his fear that he too would take his own life. . . . and [in 2004] his body was found washed up on the Brooklyn waterfront. He left behind two children, a wife, a legacy of brilliant performances that helped pave the way for the essays and monologues of David Sedaris, the cast of [National] Public Radio’s “This American Life,’ and more than 5,000 pages of journals. One of the most disturbing yet insightful aspects of reading The Journals of Spalding Gray, Nell Casey’s distillation of Gray’s unpublished, personal writing, is learning how magnificently and artfully Gray constructed his appealing onstage and onscreen persona out of his own obsessions, neuroses, and troubled history. For his monologues, Gray drew upon seminal events and themes that are detailed in his journals: death, suicidal fantasies, his marriages, his sexual fixations, his acting, and his hypochondria. But he did so selectively, creating [a] sympathetic character. . . To accuse an author of being a narcissistic journal writer may well be missing the point of journaling altogether. These journals are perhaps most useful in helping one to understand the healing and purgative power that Gray and no doubt many other troubled artists have found in both writing and performing. [But] in entries from Gray’s last years, the reader may note that even the act of writing no longer had the power to save the man. . . . Sobering”
—Adam Langer, The Boston Globe
“The brilliant, tormented performer mesmerized audiences with his autobiographical monologues, but most revealing are these diaries leading up to his suicide in 2004.”
—Karen Holt, O Magazine (#4 of 10 Titles to Pick Up Now)
“These selections from the journals of actor and monologist Spalding Gray span the late ‘60s through his untimely death, providing a fascinating glimpse into his psyche, personal life, and how he approached his work. The cast includes his mother, the three women he loved, his psychiatrist, and later, his two sons. [Though] Gray is not easy to like—a narcissistic alcoholic, abusive to the women in his life, jealous of others’ success—he manages to charm, and ultimately wins the reader's sympathy. Casey does an excellent job filling in the blanks with biographical information, and narrates most of the last few years of Gray's life when he was in and out of mental hospitals and rarely wrote in his journal. The few chilling entries included from this time show a man obsessed with suicide. Fans of Gray's work will savor this window into the mind of a complicated genius.”
“Casey has created a fascinating look at Gray (1941-2004), the actor, writer, and pioneer of the autobiographical monolog (e.g., Swimming to Cambodia), though the lens of his own journals. The goal was to reveal more about an intriguing figure who had already seemingly revealed so much about himself through his monologs. Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, granted access to Gray’s journals, sketches, photographs, and audiotapes, now housed at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. Casey selected from more than 5,000 pages of Gray’s journal entries from 1966 to 2004, including reminiscences from childhood to just before his death. . . . Like Frances McCullough’s edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath, which documents Plath’s struggles with depression, this book provides the reader with an intimate look at Gray’s life: his fight for success, complicated relationships, bouts of depression, and eventual suicide. . . . engrossing and moving.”
—Mark Manivong, Library Journal
“Private secrets within performed secrets, unspoken confessions behind the public ones: that is what emerges from the pages of Spalding Gray’s journals, a document of wrenching and exhilarating honesty, shot through with self-hatred but also with unremitting humor and irony. The book draws you in with its dire, lunatic brand of introspection, almost as though you were listening to an emergency phone call from a close friend who can’t, or won’t hang up until he’s done detailing all the reasons why he’s a fraud and why his life sucks and why it’s high time he put an end to it. The anguish is real—whether it be about Gray’s conflicted sexual identity, his ambivalent feelings about celebrity, his depression or his phobias—but so is the sly twinkle in his eye. At one point Gray compares his journals to John Cheever’s, and they do indeed have some of the latter book’s urgent candor and distilled insights, especially in regard to outward success and inner feelings of failure. . . . [These] journals allow us to see the unreconstructed Spalding Gray, the man who had many caddish instincts (especially when it came to women) and a core of ‘neurotic self-absorption.’ The book has been superbly edited and annotated by Nell Casey; she also provides an excellent introduction. . . . The Journals of Spalding Gray are as intimate—and as skinless—a text as I’ve ever read, full of panic and despair, leavened with boyish misbehavior and dry wit . . . and lit with a kind of disembodied lyricism that honors even the blackest perceptions. . . . ‘It makes me sad to be happy,’ he observed, with his usual dark clarity. The odd thing is how happy his sadness—exquisitely performed as it was, made us.”
—Daphne Merkin, Bookforum
“Gray began performing his mesmerizing, confessional monologues onstage in 1979, then leapt into film in Swimming to Cambodia (1987). His renown intensified with each subsequent movie and book as this tightrope artist of relentless self-awareness, this teller of hard truths and celebrator of beauty, this wily storyteller assiduously transmuted his life into art. His scrupulously edited journals contain the volatile raw material for Gray’s artful monologues, revealing just how much he concealed. . . . Obsessed with death and sex, afflicted with depression and breakdowns, buoyed by fatherhood, he calls himself a ‘public neurotic’ and worries about maintaining his creative edge. A car crash left him with brain damage [and] in 2004, he crafted his final act and drowned himself. Gray’s journals illuminate the worlds of theatre and film and provide tenacious, scintillating, and sorrowful testimony to a uniquely artistic life.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist
“The publication of The Journals of Spalding Gray is a significant event in American arts and letters. If Walt Whitman was our great chronicler of American life toward the end of the 19th century, Gray was his ironic, darkly funny counterpart. He did more than anyone else to record what it was like to be human—achingly human—in the urban America of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This is not only a great book, it’s an important book.”
—Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours and By Nightfall
“The Journals of Spalding Gray tell an important story that is painful to read but hard to put down. They bring you into a mind that is original and uncensoring even as it careens off the rails into destruction. Gray’s complex moods, dark imagination and wit are often disturbing and deeply moving.”
—Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind