On Emma Forrest’s Glamorous Tragedy

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4 May 2011

I was looking forward to reading Maud Newton‘s profile of Emma Forrest at The Awl, for reasons I will describe in a moment.  Forrest – a journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and now memoirist – has written a memoir, Voices in my Head, about the loss of her psychiatrist to lung cancer.  Or at least I think that’s what the memoir is about.  Forrest has had a career among celebrities and, at the time of her psychiatrist’s death, was recovering from a breakup with actor Colin Farrell.  Maud Newton assures us that the book is not about Farrell, although the profile spends a lot of time on him and their relationship.

I experienced the loss of a therapist a few years ago; hence my initial interest in the profile, and in the memoir.  Dr. P was a dear, dear man who helped me more than any doctor – any professional anyone – ever has.  He woke up one morning with a headache; a few days later he was having a brain tumor removed.  I saw him just after a first round of chemo; he looked gaunt and tired (and wore a funny hat), yet was in typical good spirits and optimistic about his treatment.  He lived another 18 months.

For the last nine months or so of his life I wasn’t seeing him regularly, so I had no direct knowledge of his death until about a year later.  Who informs a former patient when a doctor dies?   No one does.  (Unless, perhaps, you’re dating Colin Farrell.)

One day I was in the neighborhood of his office and walked into the lobby of his building (I had a sinking feeling; I’d tried calling a few times, months earlier, but the voice mailbox was repeatedly full).  I asked the doorman if Dr. P still kept an office there, and he shook his head no.  I thanked him and started to walk away, but then he stopped me and said: “The doctor – he die, you know?”

The NY Times printed an obituary of Forrest’s psychiatrist, with an online guestbook where patients, former patients, friends and family could leave their remembrances.  It’s a wonderful thing that they have been able to connect; I’ve often wondered who else experienced the loss of Dr. P (how does one find out, if your doctor doesn’t make it into the NY Times?).  Many good and wounded souls who continue to mourn him, I’m sure.

All this to say that, while I don’t think this is “fair,” it’s hard to feel motivated to read Forrest’s memoir.  It’s an ungenerous reverse-prejudice, I suppose, not unlike the unsympathetic tinges I felt towards Elizabeth Gilbert‘s all-expenses-paid, soul-searching jaunt around the globe (Gilbert’s blurb prominently christens the front cover of Voices).  In my mind I know that we are all human beings, subject to the same deep despair and loss.  But the marketing of the whole thing – Forrest’s book, that is – sort of waves its big arms at you and says, “This is NOT an everywoman story.” I guess my gut longing was for someone to tell a story that I (and others) have been unable to tell (I’ve tried writing about it, unsuccessfully); and now I feel instead like someone has glamourized and commercialized it.

But, you’re saying, you haven’t even read the book.  This is true.  This is true.  Gimme some time.  In praise of Voices, Newton writes:

It’s a testament to the author’s empathy that she’s able to incorporate other patients’ eulogies into the book without robbing them of their power or giving off the slightest whiff of gimmickry […] What’s brilliant about Forrest’s book is that she’s upfront—and funny and insightful and lyrical—about her neuroses, her compulsions, her need for attention, but she’s also willing to consider everyone else’s assessments and everyone else’s pain.

I’ve written before about what an impressionable reader I am.  So maybe my resistance/repulsion has something to do with the fact that I am currently reading Dezso Kosztolanyi‘s devastating Skylark, about a tragically ugly, unmarriageable young woman.

Skylark 

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