An Actress, Yes, But Also an Amazing Writer
I first came across Carrie Fisher, as so many of us did, as the feisty Princess Leia Organa in 1977’s cinematic classic Star Wars. That movie holds a special place in my heart, not only for what it is, but because it completely blew me away when I stumbled across it by chance during an uncharacteristic bout of teen-age truancy. Ditching my responsibilities as a page at a conference that I was attending with my parents in the Big City, I followed some new found friends across the street to a local movie theater to take in whatever happened to be showing. When the lights dimmed and the THX sound grew louder and louder until I felt as if my chest was going to cave in, I knew I was about to be transported into the realm of the unimaginable.
Even though the little town I lived in had no movie theater of its own, I ended up seeing that movie over a dozen times in the next year or so. It never grew old. But although I adore the film, that’s not why I remember Carrie Fisher today. I remember her mainly because of something that came ten years later – the publication of her book, Postcards from the Edge.
By then I was a young woman myself, coming off a bohemian existence that left an indelible mark on the person I was to become. While not one to follow gossip all that closely, I had heard about Carrie Fisher’s struggles with drug addiction and growing up as the daughter of Hollywood royalty (her mother was Hollywood sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, her father crooner Eddie Fisher, who left her mother to marry Elizabeth Taylor). When I heard that Ms. Fisher had written a novel that was getting rave reviews, I was intrigued.
On a whim, I bought a copy of the book. And that’s when I truly fell in love with Carrie Fisher.
Postcards from the Edge is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman – an actress; a known but marginally successful actress – who is battling drug addiction. The main character’s name is Suzanne Vale, and when the book opens, we see the beginnings of her journal:
Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway. Besides, what was I supposed to do? He came up to my room and gave me that dumb stuffed animal that looks like a thumb, and there I was lying in bed twelve hours after an overdose. I wasn’t feeling my most attractive. I’d thrown up scallops and Percodan on him the night before in the emergency room. I thought that it would be impolite to refuse to give him my number. He probably won’t call, anyway. No one will ever call me again.
The book continues with Suzanne’s journal entries while she goes through rehab, and later relates luncheon conversations, musings while driving in LA traffic, inner thoughts during insipid dinner parties, talks between her and transient lovers, talks between her and her good friend Lucy. (Other characters do occasionally pop up, such as Alex, a fellow patient at the rehab clinic; his backslide gives a harrowing account into the mind of a junkie.) The novel is not so much a narrative as it is a digest: letters, journal entries, monologues, third person dialogs. It’s a deeply internal book, and is refreshingly absent of rationalization or hand-wringing. What it is, is stark, personal, unguarded, and very, very funny. That’s right – wickedly funny.
This is no Hollywood exposé, no recounting of starlet vanities, no skewing of conceit. It’s not a statement about superficiality, not even a cautionary tale of excess. It would be far less of a book if it were. Instead, it’s the reflection of a young woman at a point in her life when she knows she should be flying but instead feels terrified that she might careen out of control.
While the names, faces and specifics may have been changed, it’s clear that in Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher is relating real events, real feelings, real fears. (She did overdose on sleeping pills and prescription meds in 1985.) This book is genuine, revealing her courage, not just in writing the book but in admitting the insecurities, the flaws and the vulnerabilities that she lived with day in and day out. Yet still so fierce, so perceptive, so… wickedly funny.
When Postcards from the Edge came out, it focused on the issue of drug addiction, but Carrie Fisher later spoke out publicly about living with manic depression, relating that she used drugs as self-medication because they helped to “dial down” the manic aspects of her bipolar disorder. You can hear echoes of this mental displacement throughout the book:
She wanted to be tranquil, to be someone who took walks in the late-afternoon sun, listening to the birds and crickets and feeling the whole world breathe. Instead, she lived in her head like a madwoman locked in a tower, hearing the wind howling through her hair and waiting for someone to come and rescue her from feeling things so deeply that her bones burned. She had plenty of evidence that she had a good life. She just couldn’t feel the life she saw she had. It was as though she had cancer of the perspective.
Ms. Fisher later became a widely recognized advocate for removing the negative stigma of mental illness, mainly due to her no-holds-barred ability to talk about the subject and the open acknowledgement of her own struggles and treatments. She once told ABC News, “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.”
In Postcards from the Edge, we see where that defiant attitude came from. We glimpse the woman who refused to give in to her demons, but acknowledged nevertheless that they were there, and that sometimes they won. And we can appreciate the woman who embraced her own vulnerabilities with wry humor, whether she was standing tall or hiding under her bed sheets.
When I heard the news of Carrie Fisher’s passing, I was playing a Star Wars online game with hundreds, maybe thousands of others from around the world. Suddenly, everyone just stopped as word spread across General Chat that the princess had died. The entire universe paused, and mourned.
Later that day, I went down to the basement and dug out my old, dusty copy of Postcards from the Edge. I started reading, and suddenly was caught up again in Suzanne’s story, in Carrie’s story, a story that was perhaps less grandiose but far more compelling than tales of lightsabers and rebel alliances and evil empires. I read the entire book in one afternoon as I mourned the princess, the general, and the woman.
Carrie Fisher, actress, writer, producer, humorist, mental health advocate, dead at age 60. She will be deeply, deeply missed. But her legacy – both on film and in life – will endure.
~ Sharon Browning
Editor’s note – Sadly, Debbie Reynolds, the Hollywood starlet Fisher loosely based Suzanne’s mother on in Postcards, died just one day after her daughter. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Reynolds/Fisher family, friends and fans.