For The Sunday Salon
I think I need to find myself a book to read that’s full of normal, sympathetic types who know how to crack a joke. Just lately it’s been wall-to-wall mad people. I suppose if I choose to watch the auditions for American Idol, I should know what to expect. And yes, the rare decent singer has been interspersed with a parade of plausible rogues, adolescent divas, some criminally insane and a great crowd of people who are scarily tone deaf. A classic case was a 16-year old girl who had been in the Idol version for children at 12 and clearly thought she was something pretty special. When the judges disagreed (unanimously and with their usual blunt charm) she pouted, protested, kept singing over the top of them and displayed all the signs of advanced delusion. Eventually she was persuaded to leave, accompanied to the door by Paula’s cries of ‘It’s all good. All good.’ Which was interesting, given that the next program on was a fly-on-the-wall documentary of Paula Abdul’s ‘daily life’, which featured a delightful clip of Paula pouting, protesting and declaring to the camera near tears ‘People are not treating me like the gift that I am.’
Why do celebrities agree to do these types of documentaries? I felt entirely neutral towards Paula Abdul before watching it, and now I think she ought to seek medical help. It’s a strange life when the people you call your best friends are your manager, your stylist, your lawyer, etc, and you expect these people to take complete responsibility for every detail of your day. The program featured a busy 48-hours in Paula’s life as she attended the Grammys in L.A. then flew overnight to Philadelphia to promote her jewellery line on QVC (I am so innocent televisually that I had no idea what QVC was). Paula’s entourage included two of the most completely hopeless female employees I have ever seen who were unable to do anything but repeat each other’s lame excuses, and an equally futile business manager with tumbling locks of suspiciously teased hair. All three sat around in a stretch limo, attached to mobile phones with helpless looks on their faces as Paula failed to emerge from the ceremony and the time ticked ever closer to their supposed departure. Where was Paula? No one knew and no one had any idea what to do about it. Eventually Paula appeared on the street, clearly accompanied by a film crew but equally clueless as to where her limo was. Crossing the street she was hailed by some blokes in a car. ‘You’re a legend, Paula!’ they yelled. ‘I’m a legend,’ Paula repeated to herself, and promptly tripped over the hem of her frock.
Matters did not improve when the group was finally reunited. The hopeless girls had packed skintight jeans and high-heeled boots for Paula’s flight when she wanted sweat pants and sneakers. With fourteen minutes to departure, Paula was laboriously unpacking her case in the middle of the airport concourse. She couldn’t find what she wanted either, and submitted to an uncomfortable and sleepless flight. Oh it was like watching a disaster movie only the cast was too inept even to die. How could anybody live this way? Paula snarled and cast blame around, the ineffectual employees/best friends looked apathetic, and so it continued, like Sartre’s play in which incompatible individuals are locked eternally together in a room in hell. Paula was not about to hire anyone who would be firm and clear with her about arrangements and neither was she about to take responsibility for herself. If sweat pants mattered to her, why couldn’t she have packed them herself?
Writing about Paula Abdul is very easy, compared to writing about the book I had intended to discuss here, Linda Grey Sexton’s memoir of her mother, the poet Anne Sexton, and I can feel myself continually edging away from it, pushing it carefully to one side. It’s been as compulsive to read as Paula was hypnotic to watch, but it was accompanied by a queasy repulsion for Anne Sexton’s toxic brand of mothering. There’s a moment early on when Linda Grey says that her mother ‘only attempted suicide nine times’ and that ‘only’ speaks volumes about the absolute necessity for the child to rationalize and contain what is wholly unacceptable. What’s strange is that, for me at least, the endless threat of suicide pales in comparison to Anne Sexton’s maternal crimes; forcing her children to mother her, obliging them to witness her every mad moment, transgressing every possible borderline in their private lives, abusing them physically and emotionally, and binding them to her with her wildly oscillating, inconsistent love. She was one sick woman, but of course her children were not able to understand that in any conceptual way. It is painful to watch Linda Grey struggling still in adulthood to find some stable, reliable piece of ground on which to base her own sense of self, away from the destructive influence of an overwhelming mother. It’s a very good book, but a harrowing read. And what I find troubling about it all as a reader (and I think this is the first time I can recall such a thing happening) is that I really like Anne Sexton’s poetry, which is generously quoted throughout the text. Her complete works have been in and out of my alibris cart this week as I’ve wavered over my buying decision. I’ll leave you with a little bit of her work, so you can appreciate her wayward, damaging genius.
Not that it was beautiful,
but in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there;
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind,
in the commonplaces of the asylum
where the cracked mirror
or my own selfish death
I tapped my own head;
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
It’s a small thing
to rage inside your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself.