We loved Spalding Gray the way we love Woody Allen: for feeling and saying things we’re scared to feel and say. Gray sat at that wooden table with his glass of water and mic and confessed to us. As he did so, he perfected a disingenuous, partial candor that made his angst hysterically funny.
But in his journals, he’s not performing.
The man who could be wry about anything onstage—even genocide in Cambodia—hasn’t yet gained the same distance from his everyday reactions to a far safer, gentler life. That’s what his journal was for: to buy him that distance. He is not bothering to smooth the peaks and troughs of his elation, despair, and obsessive rumination for his future readers.
And so we get Gray raw, unfiltered by his own intelligence, and there is nothing to laugh about. The entries begin with his mother’s suicide and ends with his own, which he comes to believe was dictated and preordained by hers. He buys a house on impulse and moves from a house he loves, just as his parents had, and the new house becomes the repository of all the bitter regret coursing through him. Suicide starts to feel inevitable. The suspense of the last journal entries is as tight as anything Stephen King’s written, as Gray attempts, reconsiders, maneuvers, loses his nerve, regains it.
His wife, Kathie Russo, blames brain trauma, not maternal fate: After a car accident shattered his hip and sent bits of skull fragments into his brain, Gray’s depression grew heavier and more pervasive, blanketing him like one of those lead covers doctors used to use to keep out the X-rays.
In the end, it killed him. We lost a confessional voice so brilliant, it became iconic in 20th century America. And we lost the artful distancing that would have made his suicide bearable.