Commentary – Swimming to Nowhere: Spalding Gray’s vanishing leaves a local artist mulling his searches for the perfect moment
The Oregonian, March 28, 2004
The note on the kitchen table read: “Spalding Gray wants you” scrawled in my husband’s handwriting. The Omega Institute had called to tell me I’d been accepted to a weeklong performance workshop with Gray that was to begin March 14 in Austin, Texas.
My application to the workshop had been a one-page letter explaining why I wanted to study with him. I told him I was working on a one-woman show, titled “Death Wish, A Comedy” which “takes the psychological idea of the ‘death wish’ and through funny stories explores how I grapple with the pull towards death in my everyday life.”
I imagined him at his home near Sag Harbor gazing fondly at my letter, thinking to himself, “Gigi from Oregon, I’d love to have her in my class.” But 12 days after I received my acceptance, he was reported missing. According to articles in The New York Times, he had been depressed since suffering serious hip and head injuries in a head-on car crash in 2001 while on vacation in Ireland and then in 2002, he tried to commit suicide. This past Christmas, his brother said, he was “fairly depressed.” Given this, it’s doubtful he ever read my letter.
For two months I had held out hope that he had “gone missing” intentionally because he needed more material and wanted to see what disappearing might be like. My hope had been bolstered by the many sightings. Even after he was presumed to have jumped from the Staten Island Ferry, a retired police detective claimed he spotted Gray at a diner in Orange County, N.Y.
Hasn’t everyone, at one time or another, fantasized about what it might be like to disappear, to be free, unknown, unfettered? I wanted him to be the Spalding Gray still in search of what he called “the perfect moment.” But that’s not what happened.
A friend said recently: “Well, maybe you have to be crazy to be a real artist.” Can this be true? I don’t want to be profoundly depressed or suicidal to experience the depths of creativity.
I recall moments when I’ve been at my darkest, when I felt like the act of living was just too much bother. I felt my least creative then. The last thing I would attempt was picking up a pen and writing, and yet, the act of expression is what eventually brings me back to life.
My commitment to my craft has become a commitment to stay sane, to keep the flow going, to say: I am alive, me, alive, still here. It leads me away from despair and back to life. But there is an opening up and a letting go in every creative act which can make you feel more vulnerable, which for some, may lead to suicide. I don’t know because my dark moments have always led me back.
Being an artist for me means being willing to bear the anxiety of creation. I must be willing to take the journey, wherever that may lead. For a while, I’m not in the driver’s seat which can feel like freedom or panic or both. As psychologist Rollo May said: “Creative people … are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the ‘divine madness.’ ”
Spalding Gray, I wanted you to visit your personal hell, take notes and come home and tell me the story. I take your stories with me. I remember them as the flames of my own misery lick my ankles. They remind me that I am not alone.
I will miss sitting in the audience feeling like I’m just across the desk from you, with your glass of water, plaid shirt and dark corduroy pants. You transported me into a world where self-loathing and neuroses butted up against hilarity. The granddaddy of the autobiographical monologue, you taught me that by paying meticulous attention to the details of my daily life – everything from boredom to despair — I could transcend self-indulgence, and might even be funny.
I wanted you to come home and tell me what happens when you disappear. Did you find the perfect moment?
Spalding Gray’s body was pulled from New York’s East River on March 7, 2004.