Wishful Drinking | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9781439102251 | Simon & Schuster, 2008 | 5 out of 5 Points
In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells the true and intoxicating story of her life with inimitable wit. Born to celebrity parents, she was picked to play a princess in a little movie called Star Wars when only 19 years old. “But it isn’t all sweetness and light sabres.”
Alas, aside from a demanding career and her role as a single mother (not to mention the hyperspace hairdo), Carrie also spends her free time battling addiction, weathering the wild ride of manic depression and lounging around various mental institutions. It’s an incredible tale – from having Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, to marrying (and divorcing) Paul Simon, from having the father of her daughter leave her for a man, to ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed.
“Wishful Drinking” is the first of Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical non-fiction books, a very short book with a lot of padding in the form of extra space between the lines and a lot of photos, but to be honest, sometimes I like a short, fun read, and this book definitely delivered. Of course, everything to do with Carrie Fisher has a bitter-sweet tinge to it, since our space princess has gone the way of the supernova in December 2016, but reading her books seems to make her alive again, at least in the reader’s head, for a few hours of (sometimes very uncomfortable) fun.
A ROMP THROUGH A POST-ELECTRO THERAPY BRAIN
The book starts with a mention of Carrie’s experience with electroconvulsive therapy, aka shock therapy, which has taken most of her memories and sets the stage for her to rediscover herself while telling her readers about those discoveries. As a depressive person, the parts of the book that referred to electro therapy were extremely uncomfortable; it might have helped Carrie with her bipolar disorder (though if you read some of her accounts of it, I’m not sure whether it was a long-term solution), but the mere thought of losing your memory has always made me feel the same kind of terror as being on a wobbly footbridge over a mountain chasm. Carrie describes her own experiences of this treatment and of her loss of memory with a strange, detached curiosity, as if finding out who she is again was, all in all, more of an adventure than a horrifying ordeal.
There is a general thread of horrifying events being related in a musing, slightly sardonically humorous way stretching throughout this book. Whether it’s the death of a good friend of hers in her bed, or the revelation that her step-father had prostitutes come into the house he was sharing with her mother every week, Carrie relates it all in a similar way as another person would talk about the one time a frog jumped on their face while they were sunbathing.
Generally, a lot of the kind of humor in this book was pretty familiar to me though. It’s the kind of humor you will get out of any severely depressed person trying to be funny, though since Carrie was a very polished writer, and a pretty good comic too, it actually ends up being funny most of the time. I’ve used the word ‘sardonic’ before, and I think it is a very accurate description for her writing style as a whole. It seems to be the literary equivalent of that little half-smile that never had any chance of going all the way up to the eyes, and the little shrug with only one shoulder that makes you look more like you’ve got an itch than any really careless gesture that it’s supposed to be. The whole book seems to express this ‘Nothing I can do about it, but I’ll live’ attitude that depressed people will often show to non-depressed people to keep them from worrying too much.
“Wishful Drinking” really feels like a book written by a mentally ill person who wants to get her memories down on paper so she will have a way to re-establish them in her brain, while also telling a largely ‘sane’ world about experiences that are hard to describe to somebody who is not depressed, addicted or bipolar.
STRANGE CHILDHOODS MAKE STRANGE ADULTS
But besides being a bipolar person’s memoir and memory-containment, this book also gives the reader a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood in the 1960s and 70s. Carrie’s mother was, of course, the Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds, and her father the then popular ‘crooner’ Eddie Fisher. Carrie relates the confusions of her childhood in this book, from the affairs of the various father figures in her life to the complicated family relations among the Hollywood elite of that time (and among their mostly lesser known offspring) to her relationship with her mother, which seems to have been shaped by an acute knowledge that her mother was something special. She describes how she and her brother tried to carve out a part of her mother’s identity that would really belong to them, how they tried out her clothes, how they dealt with her being on TV more than being around them sometimes. From Carrie’s descriptions, a picture of an incredibly loving, caring Debbie Reynolds emerges, who however seems to be removed from normal mortals, whose head seems to be somewhere else than the heads of everybody around her.
The detachment that keeps shaping the way Carrie tells her stories largely also informs the way she talks about her family and her childhood. It might be that this is a side-effect of her electro therapy, a certain emotional distance from those memories that she regains, or that she has kept, or it might just be the writing style she felt most comfortable with at the time.
Hollywood history isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but I have to say that I’m really grateful to Carrie for including the one or other tidbit of historical value in her book. I might not know any of the people she is talking about, but her world seems, if a little blurry around the edges, so very concrete, especially because she describes it like it’s no big deal a lot of the time. Her kind of nonchalant, unemotional storytelling might be a little bit off-putting at first, but it definitely grew quite a lot on me throughout the course of this intense little book.
There is one part in the book, when she describes how she signed herself in to a mental hospital, where she says that her type of insanity is actually quite a bit infectious, and she combines this with her former claim that she keeps making people around her gay to the following sentence: “So, by the end of this book, you could be gay and insane! Unless you began that way.”
I guess it’s a good way that I already began that way, then (well, bi, not gay, but same difference). But even if you’re neither gay nor insane, you really should take a look at this book. And if you happen to be struggling with your own mental health demons, this memoir of one of the elders of our ‘community’ might be of a little help to you, or might at least give you few hours of complicated fun.
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