SEX, DRUGS, GAY MEN AND CARRIE FISHER by Dennis Hensley
"Suzanne Vale had a problem — She'd had a child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay. He forgot to tell her, and she forgot to notice."
So begins The Best Awful, author Carrie Fisher's just-released fourth novel and a sequel to her first, the actress-turned-addict odyssey Postcards from the Edge. Like her previous books, Awful is ripped from the headlines of Fisher's own life. And what headlines they are. From the break-up of her three-year relationship with CAA super-agent Bryan Lourd, who left her for another man, to her diagnosis as bipolar and manic-depressive, to a 'psychotic break' that landed her in a mental hospital, Fisher forges through it with brutal honesty and compassion. The razor-sharp wit that made Fisher a highly paid Hollywood script doctor is also on display. Witness the first chapter heading: The Man That Got the Man That Got Away.
"If my life wasn't funny, it would just be true," Fisher muses, settling into a chair in the den of the of the Beverly Hills home she shares with she and Lourd's 11 year-old daughter, Billie. "And that, I like to think, is true of everybody." With that, the erstwhile Princess Leia pops open the first several of Diet Cokes--her current drug of choice--and opens up about breaking up, breaking down and that decades-old rumor that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, is a card-carrying, tap-dancing lesbian.
Was it difficult to write this book?
Sometimes, and sometimes it wasn't. When I was in the hospital, I don't think they thought I'd be able to do much again. There was a moment in there, when I hadn't slept for a million years, that I thought, 'I'm gonna live in my mother's back room in Vegas as a handicapped person.' That was where it was going to go and that was sort of okay with me.
Has your ex, Bryan Lourd, read the book yet?
He was the first to read it. I gave it to him and said, "Anything you don't like is out." There was nothing.
You're quite honest in the book about how it felt to be left in that situation, yet by the end of the book, I had a lot of affection for Leland, the character based on Bryan. It's certainly not Gay Daddy Dearest.
I've read those books, and I don't like them and I don't want that father for my daughter. I love Bryan and I need Billie to feel as good as she does about him.
How did you find out Bryan was leaving?
It was not, "I'm leaving and I'm gay, nice talkin' to ya." It was, "I'm leaving." And I was wearing blue shorts with lobsters on them. That's all I can really tell you about the day. If I had known it was going to happen, I would have worn a better outfit.
So he left and then you found out later he was gay?
Much later. I can't get into all this, because it's his story too. But it's just about whether or not we were both being candid with one another. We were not forthcoming about anything. There was a lot of fear and upset about the whole event.
You've clearly had a great rapport with gay men your whole life. When this happened, was there a part of you that was like, 'Wait a minute. This can't be happening to me. I'm in with the gays. It's not like I've been living in Amish country.'
Yeah, like suddenly I'm the Republican Party. 'How did that happen that you do not tell me? That's my thing!' Bryan and I got along very well, and we were very compatible and it was as much that as anything that made it impossible to read in any way. So that's when you run around in a kind of stunned fog thinking, "How did I miss this?" I know how! I mean, there are people that think Bryan seems gay but there's a whole group that don't. I don't think he seems gay.
Did you ever think, "Is this some kind of sick joke?"
It took two or three years to get to that point. It was just very painful. Any kind of betrayal--or if feels like a betrayal--is painful. I'm not going to say that I didn't participate or that I'm the victim in this. I don't believe in that kind of stuff at all. What I actually ended up believing is, you have to get to the place where you forgive yourself. Bryan is somebody that I chose to be with. It wasn't like I was in the middle of the street and the Bryan car ran me over.
And everyone in Hollywood knew what had happened. How did they treat you?
Everyone treats you like everything is perfectly fine, finer than fine, uber-fine. There was a lot of that hair-heavier-on-one-side kind of thing.
The look of concern.
Yes, and people saying, "Well, I wanted to tell you." It's a hard thing for people to know what to say. The comments that they were working on for me, Liza's getting. In fact, I think I gave her one.
Were you able to talk about it to people?
I would talk about it and talk about it and it was so annoying and no one was more annoyed than me, but I thought I could talk myself out of how bad it was. But I loved him and he loved me. Nothing is just one thing, you know.
Did your friends get tired of hearing about it?
Oh yeah. Let's move on--now! But I wanted them to know that I didn't know. And I'm supposed to be smart. That was really what stung after I got over the personal pain of it. I just really felt stupid and there's no way to cover that. After the pain, you get into the public humiliation, and so you want to explain and say, "I'm not an idiot!"
It's not like Hallmark makes a card for such situations.
They should! I have to get together with them. (Laughs) It's a very particular thing, this thing, and I don't think it's completely uncommon any more. I got in on the ground floor. Angels in America, eat my dust!
After Suzanne is left, she has a couple of trysts; one with a Playboy Hollywood actor and one with a naive young model. Is that about proving she still had what it takes to attract a man?
Well, those weren't attempts at real relationships at all; like who's going to be pushing your wheelchair and remind you to take your medication.
Was it about sex?
The way that this is for me, it's about sex but it catches up with you. After the sex, you think, 'Oh yeah, this is good,' but you don't go into it saying, 'Man, I gotta get laid.' What you go after is the big hug of it.
Is it more damaging to be left for a member of the same sex? Would it have been just as hard if he had left for a woman?
No. It's different because of how wrong I got it. Most everyone gets abandoned for a younger woman and replaced. Any fool can do that. But this is another kind of fool. When you realize what you've overlooked, it's astonishing. And it doesn't mean that the person is bad or their betrayal is larger. It's what you failed to see or were willing to overlook. So really when the dust clears, and that's what I'm trying to say at the end, the forgiveness that you really have to grapple with is with you.
The line in the book where you describe yourself as a 'fag widow' made me laugh out loud.
There was actually a whole chapter called Fagdad Cafe and a gay guy at Simon and Schuster said that was anti-gay so it was cut. I couldn't believe it. Anti-gay, that's me. Sure, for a while I had a problem with Bryan's being gay. I sort of take gay men one at a time. Actually, I can now say I'm a "homophiliac." You cut me and gay men come out.
When do you plan to let Billie read the book?
Done. That was not my decision. Bryan read it and handed it to Billie.
She really liked it. She said things like, "I didn't like this character's name. Could you change it?" Those were her notes.
She seems like a bright, together kid.
She's tougher and more comfortable in her skin than I ever was. She is not going to be an alcoholic or an addict. Something could show up in adolescence, maybe, but she doesn't remind me of me in those ways.
Is that a relief?
Yeah. There's a terrible thing that I've seen in AA that I loathe, which is when people stand up and say, "I'm saving a seat for my kids," and sort of laugh about it. I want to say, "If that's indeed true, you should be sobbing, because you crawled on your knees over glass, and barely made it alive to fucking get your stupid-ass seat here. Maybe your kid won't fuckin' live to get their goddamn seat."
In the book, Suzanne, on an OxyContin bender, takes off to Tijuana with a tattoo artist she hardly knows. Did you do that?
I didn't. Here's what happened. After Bryan was gone, Billie was very very young, I had dental work and, well, thirty Percaset was way not enough here. I got more and sort of collapsed and said to Billie, "Go get your grandmother." I was so guilt-ridden, so crazed. So the Tijuana stuff was the emotional equivalent of that.
Did you take Oxycotin?
I didn't find that until like right at the end. Thank God, I would be major dead.
That's the Rush Limbaugh drug, right?
Bummer. Bad poster child for a really good drug. But he probably has not taken a shit for like two years. Nice to think about, isn't it? Nice for your readers.
You did, I see, get a solar system tattoo like Suzanne does in the book.
Got a tattoo. Bryan and Billy had been out of town and Bryan called me while I'm in the tattoo parlor. He goes, "We're back, where are you?" And I went, "I'm in a place," as though I was in an S&M lair, because I know what it says about me. It is the equivalent of, you know, 'I'm at the dealer's.' I know it's an indicator.
You write about how, before you went into the mental hospital, you experienced everything you saw on television as if it were about you. Do you remember anything specific about that?
I was watching the story of Andrew Kunanan on CNN. So I was Kunanan, Versace and the Police. Well, Versace drops away, so now I'm just the latter two groups and I know as soon as they catch Kunanan, I'll be caught. And this isn't really good news. So I'm watching it really with great seriousness. It was soon after that that I was auditioning for the mental hospital and there was no room. No room at the bin.
You describe your time at the mental hospital and what led up to it so vividly. How did you remember it to write about it?
I write when I'm in it. It loves itself. It wants to make out with itself. There's nothing more vivid than a manic high.
Did what you've gone through affect your memory?
I can't differentiate between senior moments and other lapses. I can't determine whether it's my life that's crazy or just me. One bad thing about this tag, this classification of manic depression, is any time anyone doesn't like how you're featuring, they can just say, "You're taking your meds, right?" It's like constantly saying, "You're having your period, right?" I think I'm very sane about how crazy I am.
How long were you in the mental hospital?
Weeks. And of course I made friends with the gay people. (Laughs)
Have you ever heard gay rumors about yourself?
When I split up with Brian, we were both gay. And of course, everyone knows my mother's gay. What? Insane.
Where did that rumor come from?
I'm totally convinced it's my father (Eddie Fisher). You should have heard how I reamed him about starting that rumor. I think it was how he dealt with him leaving my mother for Liz (Taylor). So my father's story is basically that my parents relationship had gone south because my mother was gay so he leaves her in the house with her lover. It's so insane. With the press living in the yard? With my brother having just been born and my mother saying things like, "Your brother just split me wide open." And my grandparents were there, too, which heightens the sexuality.
Nothing sexier than a house full of people and woman recovering from childbirth.
Because who could resist? I know that's where I want to go. You can't keep me away from a woman who's just had an episiotomy. It's very erotic. Sewing is a female thing. So when you've been sewn anywhere the next thing you want is a woman. My father, being sensitive to all these things--though he was not there--just intuitively knew that two women, in that situation, would just want to eat each other. I can't find a more romantic way to put it. They want to go down. They want to be where the babies were.
Did he ever cop to starting that rumor?
When I start talking to my father in any way like this, he starts backing away to a window.
Was it something he said in the press or privately?
In the press, he says, "I wasn't there," so the implication is, I didn't need to see it to know that the woman liked women.
What's your favorite gay rumor about yourself?
Well, I was supposedly gay from the gate, as they say in the industry; the construction industry. I was in my mother's Broadway show Irene, when I'm fifteen and the rumor is that my mother's dating a girl in the show and I'm supposedly this hard as nails Las Vegas showgirl lesbian. What? By the way, this story is being told to me as I'm having a facial, and the guy doesn't know I'm the hard as nails girl. So then he says a new girl comes into the show and starts hitting on my mother's girl and I go up to the new girl and I say, "Keep your hands off my mother's girlfriend." So basically I'm a bouncer, in effect, for my mother's sex life.
Have you ever been involved with a woman?
I have made out with a woman. Once. No, more than once. It was post Bryan. I heard the rumor about me, and I believed it. I thought maybe there could be something to that. It was fine, but I am not gay. I wish I was. It would be so much better for me. It would be easier. I always think of relationships as a roommate-type thing once the sex burns off.
If there were no gay men in your life, what would be different?
Well, I'd not have fun on a whole bunch of evenings. (Laughs) My whole history would be impacted. There is no way it's not very clear how I ended up with Bryan. It's surprising that it didn't happen earlier. That I took the detour through Paul Simon-land is astonishing.
Do you remember the first time you knew what gay was?
I don't know how I found out, I just knew. When I was like 13, my mother had gay dancers in her show and I used to have crushes on them. They were so gorgeous and kind and fun and interested in me and they'd take me to movies like Pink Flamingos. That was who I started smoking dope with and I wanted to fit in with. This reminds me of something: Meryl Streep and I went to see the opera singer, Renee Flemming, perform at Tanglewood. It was a lot of old people in the audience and Meryl said, "Who's going to come here when they all die? Is this going to just die away?" But then we decided it was okay because gay guys would come. So culture was safe.
How did Billie find out about homosexuality?
She asked me and I told her. Of course, she had a more urgent reason to know.
If it's like you describe it in the book, you weren't ready for that conversation.
I don't think anybody's ready for any conversation about sex.
Did your mother ever talk to you about sex?
With my family, there's a dependence on sketches. My grandmother married at 15, 16 and she was never told about sex. My grandfather had to do sketches for her. Then, in the third grade, I got in the car after school said to my mother, "I saw the word fuck written on the handball court. What is that?" She said, "I will have to tell you at home later when I can draw you some sketches."
Can I buy those on E-bay?
Nobody ever did the sketches. There's a lot of promising of sketches in the family and a lot of not coming through with these things. Believe me, if we could do the Reynolds Family Book of Sketches on Sexual Activities, it'd be the stocking stuffer of a lifetime.
The character based on your mother is hilarious in the book, by the way.
Oh, I have to tell you something great. This is very gay. Last week, when I had to record the audiobook, I wasn't feeling very spry so my mother comes up to the house and she says, "My dear, why don't I do it?" Can you imagine my mother, like reading scenes about getting blow job lessons so you don't have to get your tongue pierced?
But she was up for it?
She was not only up for it, we were cresting on indignation, both of us.
I could listen to you tell stories about your mother all day long.
Well, she has finally reconciled herself to my talent for cooking. She was really was suspicious of it and a little bit haughty. She had to look for it within her family--Is there someone else in the family that can cook? Uncle Wally can cook.
You couldn't have just developed it on your own.
Oh no. So there's a tap-dancing and singing gene, naturally. All the manic-depression, shit-bag DNA is from Eddie and Uncle Wally gave me the cooking.
And she would've gone further back if she had to.
Oh, she would've maybe even made some calls.
Do you still encounter rabid Star Wars fans or has that died down?
Well, I did this autograph show not long ago. I hadn't checked in on that planet ever and the people were just unbelievable. I wanted to do a documentary about it.
Why did you do it?
My assistant kind of got us into it. She said, "It's like two hours, you go and you leave." And they paid you with a box of cash. I've never seen cash. I used it to pay the people who were decorating my daughter's bathroom and they didn't know how to accept cash. You'd come at them with a little teeny stack of money and it's frightening to them.
Did a part of you feel like, "I can't believe I've sunk this low?"
Completely. 'Don't tell anyone I ever did this.' So I hide in plain sight. I called it Celebrity Lap Dancing.
Would fans literally tuck bills in your g-string?
I so wish, but they didn't. You felt at all times as though you've sold one of your children. Or a kidney for sure. Or the kidney of a child. I don't know quite how to look at it. I just know that for one wild week there I felt like a mafia hooker. I do want to write something about the whole movie thing because for years I kind of let it be this forbidden thing and now I think it's funny. If I wait long enough, anything becomes kitsch.
Plus, you've got the new Star Wars movies now so there's a bit more distance.
And I know Ewan (McGregor) and I know that they're all stuck in the horrible syrupy goo of bad space talk so I feel better about it.
Did you ever want to punch up your Princess Liea lines?
I did sometimes at the end. The funny thing is back then, we got the same reviews as these people are getting today, but suddenly now, I'm a comedienne. I'm Carol Lombard. Before I was "bovine" and I had "the worst characteristics of both my parents." That's a nice review to get at nineteen.
Plus, you were a tough as nails lesbian at the time.
Well, not in the movie. I had to go all the way to outer space to be straight.
How would you describe your life now?
(Dryly) Just a cavalcade of fun. (Laughs) I'm much more responsible, and I understand something better, which is that, after thirty-two years of off and on, engaging in what in psychiatry is called "the talking through," I don't think that's an ideal solution for what I have. I do think being of service is.
How do you do that, by writing about it?
Maybe a little bit, but nothing that's self-perpetuating, that makes you feel sorry of yourself. My job is to keep it away from my daughter and write about something else. People do come to me about helping them with certain things and that's good. That's how you can help. Otherwise, I'm done now.
The ending of The Best Awful finds Leland and Suzanne sort of together again, in a way.
It's Hollywood together; together in an apart way.
Is that ending the way you'd like it to be in real life?
Well, nothing is going to be the way that I want it to be, especially since I don't know what I want. I wasn't raised on anything kind of regular and unified so anything that I would want is probably from a movie. Although, most of my friends now are in relationships. But still I couldn't see myself in that. The most I can see myself in a relationship is probably the one that I am not in; Bryan. He is my Emergency Contact Number. That's what I saw in him when I met him.
What do you hope readers get from the book?
The one thing that I wanted to do was write about stuff that is ordinarily painful in a way that's funny. Most of the books that I read about the mentally ill were very intense and it is intense. I just wanted to give some of it a lighter thing. Being left for a man, that gets to be funny, too. All this stuff has to be funny or like I say, it's just true. And that's unacceptable and that's the biggest thing I've found out in my life.
Do you worry that people might thing you're being inappropriate; that these things are no laughing matter?
I'm probably going to offend some people. I get these awards for being mentally ill now, like I waited my whole like to get an award and 'Oh, this is what I'm good at.' So I said my speech about mental illness, and make a joke about how there should be a Bi-Polar Pride Day. This woman comes up to me and afterwards and says, "I was really offended by what you said." I didn't know what to tell her so I talked to her for like an hour and a half and learned that she was having a terrible, terrible time in her life. But I said to her, 'If you cannot laugh at this thing, you're going to be in so much trouble because this thing is just going to strangle you, because I have been where it's really, really seriously not funny and it's one of the worst places in the world." The worst thing that ever happened to me was losing my sense of humor in this. And the best thing was getting it back.