Upon attending a reading of Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at Stony Brook Southampton on a recent Saturday evening, I realized that I too have a story left to tell.
It was the start of the fall semester, mid-September 2001, my last class, Storytelling with Spalding Gray, and the coursework for my MFA in writing would be complete. Although I hadn’t seen Swimming to Cambodia and didn’t know much about the man or his work, I knew he was one of the best. I had seen snippets of his monologues, his patrician face behind a desk, his lean figure. And his voice; I could hear that New England drawl.
After an independent study of classics such as Faulkner, Joyce, and Wolff, I thought a storytelling class would be refreshing, a relief especially after the horror of the previous week. I expected the class to be entertaining, certainly dark but funny too. I expected a WASP version of Woody Allen to walk through the door.
Instead, dressed in black, eyes glazed over, staring straight ahead, limping, I think with a cane, he appeared like a character from a horror film. If I saw him anywhere else other than a classroom, I would have turned around and run the other way.
From that first session and the 12 that followed, all I recall is a slide show of images and fragments of dialogue. He began by telling us about his trip to Ireland, his car accident, his altered state, how he couldn’t think straight. There was no warm up, no getting to know you, or “tell me about your summer vacation.” He was desperate to tell us everything and that’s what he proceeded to do.
About halfway through the three-hour session, it was our turn. We recited our memories of the horrific day, where we had been, what we were doing, who we were with when we found out about the World Trade Center. “I should be there!” he exclaimed. “If I’m not there, I can’t bear witness, can’t write about it,” he cried as if he were sitting in a therapist’s office, not lecturing in front of a classroom of graduate students.
Spalding lay on his back on the table that served as his desk at the front of the classroom. It was as if he were the patient and the students were a team of therapists.
I remember raising my hand, offering suggestions from my experience as a journalist. “Perhaps you can talk to people who were there,” I said, “on the phone or via email.” No, No, he shook his head, gazed off, and continued his lament. If he couldn’t be there in person, it didn’t count, was no good.
Upon arrival the following week, he appeared in the doorway yelling “ANTHRAX! ANTHRAX! as if he was screaming FIRE in a crowded auditorium or CODE BLUE in an emergency room. There was white powder sprinkled around the men’s room, he said, before bolting away to find the campus security. As we waited for him to return, I sat there dazed, but was fairly certain that Al Qaeda wasn’t interested in terrorizing a bunch of Southampton students. And I wasn’t surprised when he came back about 15 minutes later saying it was baby powder, just a prank.
At the time, it was difficult to feel compassion for him. I had worked hard and was paying a lot of money to be able to study creative writing in my forties with a tween and a teenager at home; so dealing with a grown man acting out on my evening out was irritating and quite stressful.
The next image I recall is Spalding lying on his back on the table that served as his desk at the front of the classroom. Again, it was as if he were the patient and we were a team of therapists looking through a one-way mirror. He was talking about a recent move to a new house, a white house in Sag Harbor. Although I don’t recall the details, his distress was palpable: he was saying that the move was a mistake, that he missed his old home, particularly dancing in front of the fireplace with his young boys.
As his depression enveloped the room, I wondered if the other students were as uncomfortable as me. Maybe not, I thought scanning the blank faces. I had tried to broach the subject of his bizarre behavior with some of them, but no one seemed as disturbed as me. Perhaps this was part of storytelling, part of telling the truth, I figured. After all, this was Spalding Gray.
During the semester, we did tell our various stories of dating, drugs, dysfunction, and general detritus. One of my stories featured my husband climbing through the window of our accountant’s home to retrieve our tax returns and finding all 300 pounds of him in the kitchen in his underwear. Most people break out laughing when I tell this story, but I don’t remember Spalding cracking a smile or showing much interest.
When a young woman recalled her experience with Klonopin, he jumped towards her in the front of the room. ‘Klonopin, did you say Klonopin?’ he gasped, wanting to know all the details. ‘Did it help? How did it make you feel?’
When a young woman, however, recalled her struggles with mental illness from a young age, her first visit to a psychiatrist, her experience with Klonopin, he jumped towards her in the front of the room. “Klonopin, did you say Klonopin?” he gasped wanting to know all the details. “Did it help? How did it make you feel?”
After the last class, a group of us went out for a beer at the local brewery. It was early December, the chill had set in, the long haul towards Spring on the East End of Long Island was just beginning. As the others chatted, Spalding mumbled about driving home in the dark on the back roads. He feared that a deer would leap in front of his car. Sitting opposite me, he indeed looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I stared into his despairing eyes, but he didn’t return my gaze, didn’t see me, didn’t see anyone.
When he said he had no cash for a beer, I offered him a few dollars. Even though he probably didn’t know my name and couldn’t hear any of us all those weeks, I finally felt compassion for him. No matter how iconic, how brilliant, how talented he was, he was lost and couldn’t find help.
That was the last time I saw Spalding Gray. But I read about him over the next few years:his final ride on the Staten Island Ferry in 2004, his jump from the Sag Harbor bridge, his star-studded memorial service. I was surprised he had lasted that long.