Spaulding Gray: Downhill Racer
Spalding Gray's son, Forrest, answers the phone, and therein lies a story. For those who have followed what the artist himself describes as "the ongoing soap opera of Spalding Gray, as I call it when I'm most glib," that soap opera has taken the most unpredictable turn from Gray's Anatomy, which he performed two years ago, to It's a Slippery Slope, which he is currently performing.If you missed the last episode, Gray's Anatomy is the story of Gray's macular pucker (an eye ailment), which took him to a sweat lodge in Minnesota, a nutritional healer in California and a doctor in Thailand who pulls the source of his patients' afflictions from their bodies -- the material looking much like the inner parts of chickens. As Gray took his audience through a carnival ride of anxiety, seated at a table with a notebook and a glass of water and dressed in his performance costume of khaki pants and flannel shirt, he ended at a place of surprising peace -- the wedding of Gray and his longtime collaborator and director, Renee Shafransky. For some in the audience, it was a happy ending for a couple they'd come to know and care about -- or thought they knew.Now there is Forrest, son of Spalding and Kathy, his new partner. Another child was due last month. Gray and Shafransky divorced after a long free fall that included the acknowledgment of his affair and the birth of Forrest. Gray reached such a manic state that Shafransky almost had him committed. It is as if a whirlwind had come down on him and completely transformed his life. It's a Slippery Slope is the story of that whirlwind -- and the redemptive value of skiing.As it happens, the affair with Kathy was an unseen backdrop to the blissful wedding scene at the conclusion of Gray's Anatomy. For some, including Fresh Air's Terry Gross, whose interviews with Gray have almost become a series of performance-art pieces themselves, Gray's betrayal of Shafransky was also a betrayal of the audience. Analogous to the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi drama, the affair made the audience aware that the persona that had been projected was just that, a mask, and they don't like what's behind it. As personal and self-revelatory as Gray's work is, there's still artifice -- and the nature of that artifice, as presented in It's a Slippery Slope, is discomforting to some."It's not betrayal of the audience because I am letting them in on my betrayal of Renee," Gray insists. "It's not a betrayal. Terry (Gross) said, 'How could you have ended Gray's Anatomy so beneficently without saying you were having an affair?' I didn't know I was going to continue the affair after the marriage." Gray pauses, and immediately recognizes how this sounds. As one who's made an art of examining his life, he has an ear for how he may be heard, and with lightning reflex acknowledges, "Maybe that's a bad-faith copout, but the other thing was that Renee and I were working to create the ending that we wanted. I said to Renee, 'We should put the affair in.' And she said, 'No.' She said, 'As your director and dramaturge, it's going to be too much to lay on the audience. It's inappropriate. We're going to leave it out.' Which gets back to the whole thing that you're only going to have so much revealed in a life in an hour-and-a-half out of 55 years."So everything's a betrayal. I could have really turned coats with Terry Gross and said, 'Well, Terry, did you really think I was telling the truth about these stories? Oh, no, I've been making them up all the time.' But I'm not going to be glib and ironic like that, because I'm not making them up."Those who are less accepting of the Spalding Gray of It's a Slippery Slope are exhibiting, in Gray's view, their own intransigence toward change. "The problem with George Carlin for me is that every time you see a picture of him you see his shoulders raised and he's 60 years old and he's still acting like a neurotic kid. Well, I don't want to go that route. The audience will come with me who can come with me. There are going to be a lot of women, in particular women, and I'm getting letters that are saying, 'Bye-bye, I'm no longer a fan.' When I define the word 'fan,' it's fair-weather fan."Stick with the process! I thought the John Lahr interview of Woody Allen was very good in The New Yorker. It gave me some courage to go on, but the point is, change is betrayal if you want fixity. If the audience wants fixity, they're coming in the way they come for a drug -- but in a more wholesome way. They're coming for fixity and stability in their life. They're saying, 'If nothing else, at least we have the Christmas tree with the ornaments; at least we have Spalding Gray and he loves Renee.' Everyone wanted to believe that. I had a college student in Ann Arbor tell me that all her friends say that love is impossible now because Spalding Gray and Renee's relationship failed. Puh-lease! What kind of responsibility is that? It's enormous."There are more significant responsibilities in Gray's life now. As much as Gray serves as an amalgamation of 20th-century neuroses for his audience -- much of his conversation is about therapy, his fear of death and the terrors of air travel -- there is a distinct new timbre to his voice. "What's happened with fatherhood?" he explains. "It's exteriorized the hysteria."The day I call, after Forrest hands over the phone, Gray reports, "We have a crisis here. Forrest's sister, who is 10 years old, got lice from the Sag Harbor school, so I have to go out and get Rid and get rid of everything and change the bed and wash her hair. (Kathy has children from before her relationship to Gray.) I never heard of lice. I thought they only had this in Auschwitz, let alone Sag Harbor. We moved out into the country and got lice." Exteriorized hysteria: fatherhood, lice -- and skiing."I had no idea how therapeutic (fatherhood) would be. Now that I think of it, and I haven't said this before on any interview, skiing was parallel -- as it were -- to it because the skiing was making an object for fear. All my life I'd been anxious, and anxiety is fear without an object. The mountain became the object. And I realize how important it is to have real fear. All we have in our culture is virtual fear. People are flying in an airplane and are told there is nothing to be afraid of. At 30,000 feet up at 600 miles an hour they're saying this is fine! We're supposed to believe that? The same business with the anxiety -- when you see it outside yourself and objectify it like that, it is a great curative."When Gray speaks of skiing, Forrest is often the very next subject, as if the two are congruent themes in Gray's psyche. The objectified fear of the mountain and the "exteriorized" fear of fatherhood have changed him. The change is most apparent to him in how he speaks to his son. "There's this automatic adult voice in there that's never, never existed before. It never was directed at Renee or myself or other people. I'd always said I didn't want to be a father because I did not want to be a cop. Cop is only the shadow or dark side of that voice. The nurturing father is the other adult in there. And there are times I'm a fucking cop. I hate it -- and I don't do it enough."This does not mean that irony has left him. "The ironic did not disappear, but a new voice crept in: the nonironic, positive cheerleader that (in It's a Slippery Slope) I was able to direct at Forrest's sister that moment on the slope. And have been able to somewhat integrate in my life around her. I can still give to her, and very much to him, and say, 'What you just did was great and that's wonderful and I love you.' And there is no double-edge in that."The Spalding Gray monologue is more than an entertaining exposition of one man's neuroses. Gray serves as witness to our culture; through the prism of his extremely self-conscious reflections we glimpse changes in our collective consciousness. In It's a Slippery Slope, Gray is not only relating the diminution of his own ironic spirit, but signaling a shift in attitude within the culture. There is a longing for the transcendent, the sublime. The ironist's smirk is beginning to be exhausting to hold up."I think that what has happened now is that we're in the repression of the sublime. One of things about ski culture I've always had a problem with is that they are so into denial of the sublime. I'll give you an example. I was standing on Squaw Mountain looking out over Squaw Valley, which was the backside of the mountain. There was a huge snowstorm rolling in -- it looked like one of those old 19th-century paintings of Yellowstone. I was so entranced by it, and this ski instructor saw me staring out and skied in beside me and said" -- Gray speaks in an atrociously smug tone -- "'How do you like the view from my office?'"Cute, cute -- but nice. But also I perceived he recognized how awestruck I was. But it's all reductive; it's all frat-house talk. It is to keep the sublime in abeyance."In a culture infected with advertising slogans that diminish our ability to communicate the sublime -- "It doesn't get any better than this!" -- such a language is distant from us, with that distance affecting our ability to appreciate, or even fully realize, experience. In the new monologue, Gray works toward a language of the sublime. "I try to hit some of it in my monologue, and at times I wax a little poetic, but I am really trying to celebrate the sublime." He pauses, and then pulls back, as if the spirit of celebration is not completely appropriate to his present circumstance. "To some extent, it might be out of guilt for Renee that I'm splitting the sublime between my son and skiing. But the skiing was an extremely therapeutic event and a reconnection, even though it's very mechanical and it works like a stupid theme park -- particularly when the slopes are all groomed and like corduroy. But if you're in a storm and if you ever get stuck in a white-out -- it really is very, very wild."In the whirlwind of change that descended on Gray in the last two years, skiing has been his salvation. "It was all in a year's time (marriage, fatherhood, divorce, a series of deaths). It just about put me away. The skiing saved me. You know, Renee used to fight with me on that one when we were still talking. She'd say" -- he speaks in a shrill, badgering voice -- "'Until you're in therapy three times a week and not wasting your money on skiing and escaping, you're never going to come to what's wrong with you.' I chose the skiing. I am in therapy," he adds. "I'm doing it. But not three times a week."Gray tries to explain the year of tumult by describing unconscious impulses beyond his control, forces that he has a history of giving into but now seeks to restrain. "I think that I have a very, very powerful and active unconscious. I was the middle son (his brother Rockwell teaches at Washington University), and I think that the complexity of my unconscious was from the fact that there was so much of my mother interjected into me. There's this whole battle going on. People keep saying, 'You're just mining your self for material.' Well, it never just feels like my self."I'm really trying to be vigilant now. I'll tell you something, I can't afford to give over too much to the unconscious or break down anymore into what I call 'breaks,' where I enter into a kind of controlled madness -- because I'm a father and I don't want to lay that on my son the way my mom did around me, the mirroring. She showed me her crazy side as a child."I was out on the stage of Lincoln Center opening night and the temptation came to me. It was just like the devil whispering in my ear: 'You can't lie to this audience with this show. Why don't you show them how you really went mad? And you're about to do it now and you won't be able to control yourself. You're going to start blabbering into this microphone and rolling on the floor.'"And I thought of Forrest. And that just anchored me immediately. 'You're not going to do this to your son.' Now I've got to get to a place in therapy where I say, 'I'm not going to do this to me. I'm not going to do this to the child in me.' I still have to do stuff myself."Then his voice rises with urgency: "The skiing was something I did for myself! It was enormous. Someone else could look at it as a self-indulgent, bourgeois activity, but to me it was the first time in my whole life that I was able to give myself pleasure. I have had some in the past -- good masturbation sessions where I was absolutely able to give myself over to the act, but those days are over. I'm too old for it. I'm not interested in it anymore. So skiing has been able to replace that." He laughs. "It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on. And on a warm day -- off."But as Gray chose skiing, he did not choose fatherhood. The conception of Forrest was an accident. Did he not want to become a father? "Look, it had to, for me, happen by chance. I didn't know that. But looking at it now, this second child was also not planned. If I had thought it through, I would have resisted it, and even after it happened I resisted it. I did not want to have this most recent one, either. I had to work it though in therapy and make my decisions. I had to say 'yes' to it. It was me who confirmed it."Looking back at it, a child could exist for me if it would have to will itself into the world, push itself through. Forrest pushed himself through -- and this new baby is really kicking."Who'd have though that in speaking of conception, Spalding Gray would sound like Norman Mailer, who once expressed his disapproval of birth control because it diminished the sex act by eliminating the element of chance? Gray acknowledges, "This sounds like a romantic, crazy, old-fashioned concept, but again it's in hindsight, because when Kathy was pregnant, I didn't see Forrest for eight months. I was so freaked out by that, so sure that I would never see him, until a light bulb went off and I said, 'I want to.' The light bulb only went off when Renee left, when she said, 'I'm moving out for a while.' And then that gave me the space to begin having my own feelings about it because, as I say in the monologue, Renee was the 'great feeler.' She beat me to it. She never didn't have an opinion and she never didn't have a feeling. When she walked out the door, the room was like a big empty vault, and I turned to stone because I didn't know what to feel. I didn't know what I was feeling. I could not own my own feelings."Has his relationship with Shafransky entirely dissolved? "It's in abeyance now. I talked with her on April 10 for her 42nd birthday for a couple of hours about a lot of things, and then I think we left it at this -- she feels 'stalked' by my celebrity, my image. She can't get away from it. She feels like I'm a stalker, so she's moved to Malibu to work on a film script. She couldn't be in New York with what's going on now with the publicity -- also with the new child. It must be very difficult. I also hope that she's come into a place of her own now -- that she's had that time in therapy to do that. But I don't know. I project enormous rage."Beyond the rage of his former wife, while simultaneously within it, as displayed by some audience members (there's been some hissing), Gray tours It's a Slippery Slope. He reconsiders the ending to Gray's Anatomy once again, and marks the similarity it has to the new piece. "The monologue is such a therapeutic event for me because in it I can manipulate the life. I needed the peace in the monologue; I needed that sense of peace to center myself around my life."But this one ends, too, with a great sense of satisfaction and peace -- coming down the mountain, the last run. The fact is that in the ongoing chaos the only place I ever find peace is in my monologue, my transitional object. People say, 'Do you have stage fright?' I say, no, I have airport fright; I have airplane fright. When I walk out and sit at that table, I'm home. I would almost say to you, and this is a bit ironic, that I prefer the story to the life. I went through this recently in therapy when I was telling about how beautiful our new house looked in Sag Harbor. I began to describe the cemetery next to it and the views out each window, and when I got to the house I was freaked by the realness of it. And the story was so far above it, it was transcendent."The audience that chooses to "stay with the process" will continue to return to Gray for those moments of transcendence. That's why we return to any art, after all, whether it be Gray's monologues or Monet's paintings of Giverny. Reality isn't enough. So, however we may be disappointed by the "real" Spalding Gray, he still brings us stories far above the real, splendid stories of an imperfect life, not too unlike our own.