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Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Few Missing Pieces

I planned my return from Rehoboth yesterday in order to be home in time to watch the HBO Special: Grey Gardens.

I had seen the documentary "Grey Gardens," the story of "The Edies" years ago. I found it, then, absolutely compelling and astonishing. I still do.

I was not disappointed with the HBO version.

At all.

In fact, I found the performances by Jessica Lang and Drew Barrymore absolutely riveting. They certainly were completely spot on in terms of vocal inflections, mannerisms and even hand gestures.

For those of you who may not know, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale was the sister of John Vernou ("Black Jack") Bouvier III, father of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Part of the creme de la creme of New York High Society, Edith married Phelan Beal and had two sons and a daughter - Edith Bouvier Beal.

The family lived in a mansion estate known as Grey Gardens in East Hampton, NY. When Phelan Beale abandoned his wife and family, the mother and daughter continued to live there. When the money began to run out, they eventually lived in abject poverty and squalor.

There's LOTS more to the story, but I don't want to ruin it for you.

It is the relationship between mother ("Big Edie") and daughter ("Little Edie") that is the heart of the documentary, a Broadway musical (Grey Gardens) and this HBO Special.

And, it is this relationship, as well as what each individual woman brings to it, which I find so absolutely fascinating.

I admit that my fascination with these two women is due, at least in part, to my own experience with mental illness. I have a sister whose exact diagnosis is unknown to me but who is, no doubt, mentally ill.

For approximately four years, I had custody of her two sons while she lived - well, God knows where. I hear she's living someplace in Texas, having lived for a short time with her son, his wife and two children, in Maine.

She fades out and then reappears, stays for a few years and then fades away again. No one really knows where she goes or how she lives. God only knows.

I haven't seen her in over 20 years.

I suspect those who know her today would describe her in the same way the Beale women were described: 'Eccentric'. 'Odd.' 'Peculiar.' 'Quirky.' And, perhaps, 'Misfit.'

When we were younger, my mother would always say, "Oh, you know your sister. She's a real character!" One of my aunts would say, "She's a real piece of work, that one." Another would say, "I think there are a few marbles loose upstairs." Or, "Sometimes, I think she has a few pieces missing."

It was all a joke. And, it wasn't really funny. You know?

I see a striking similarity between the Beale women and my sister. Indeed, I see that same similarity in many of the women I've known who have been 'peculiar' or 'eccentric':

They weren't born 'crazy' or 'mentally ill' - it's just that, when the challenges that life always brings inevitably came, the 'few pieces that were missing' made the difference in their not being able to hold it all together.

Challenges? Did I say challenges? That sounds so 'clean'. So 'sanitized'.

I'm talking about when the life you have carefully built for yourself begins to fall apart. When someone not only breaks your heart but stops it into the ground. When you unexpectedly lose something or someone very dear to you.

When you finally discover the truth about a lie that has been told to you - or about you - which has shaped and formed your life, and the truth is somehow worse than the lie. When the image of yourself is distorted by disease or disfigurement - even if temporary.

When the dream you have for your life is manipulated or cheated or stolen from you.

Those 'few pieces' act as a buffer or a safety net to protect you or carry you over The Abyss. When those 'few pieces are missing', well, you may not ever recover. Your perception of life will always be changed.

And, as the philosophical notion goes, perception is reality and reality is truth.

"Little Edie" lost her lover, her chance at an audition with an important producer, and her father. Shortly thereafter, she began to lose her hair. Completely.

Alopecia universalis is devastating for any woman. When you have a dream - however unrealistic - of being an entertainer, and you have lost your hair, you have lost your dream.

When this loss follows all the other important loses, and you already have a few pieces missing, well, if you survive all of that trauma, you come out on the other end seeing the world a little differently.

Your reality is different. So is your truth.

Is it any wonder people begin to see you differently? It is then that people begin to call you 'peculiar'. 'Odd.' 'Quirky.' 'A Misfit.'

As you grow older, they'll call you 'eccentric'.

And, indeed, you are.

Don't miss 'Grey Gardens'. Rent the documentary, first. If you don't have HBO, ask a friend to tape if for you. While you're waiting, you can catch pieces of both the documentary and the HBO special on YouTube.

If you don't have a friend to tape if for you, try to be patient until it comes out in DVD and then rent it at Blockbuster or through NetFlix.

Just don't miss it. Because, you know, we are all, any one of us, just a few missing pieces away from from being 'a real character' - and some of us start with fewer pieces than others.


susankay said...

So close to madness and loss. Msgically so close to Grace. Neither makes any sense.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Actually, I think you also have to be more well-heeled to be "eccentric."

Bette Davis in "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" = Eccentric

Lizzie Borden = Crazy

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

susankay - you are so right.

Kirke - I think you are spot on with the class difference, although I have heard 'eccentric' used to describe 'Lizzie' - until the brutality of the murder she committed.

I think there's another dimension to it. Eccentricity doesn't usually lead to acts of murder. 'Insanity' or being 'crazy' might. See what I'm trying to say?

motheramelia said...

Thank you Elizabeth. My mother had Alopecia universalis and it was devastating to her, although she eventually learned to joke about it. I think my sister's mental illness contributed as well as a difficult life raising seven children. Which she and my father did a good job at in spite of hardships. I will have to wait to watch Grey Gardens since I don't have HBO, but it sounds fascinating.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I do indeed, Elizabeth. There are so many fine lines when we are talking about mental illness and so few firm boundaries. John Nash is another one who comes to mind. Schizophrenic as hell--but in the right settings capable of turning the world of mathematics and economics on its ear.

It takes so little to push someone over from one side to another, and for that person to be "productive" vs. "non-productive."

Same way with temporary insanity/crimes of passion. I remember a big murder case in Columbia, MO when I lived there some years back. A woman had been brutally abused repeatedly by her husband. One day, she sat a chair by the door, and as he walked in the door home from work, she emptied a 12 gauge shotgun into him and blew him right back out onto the porch.

No doubt, she committed murder, but I always got the feeling she would not have been the kind of person who normally would have done this. Whew.

These are all very fuzzy edges.

Muthah+ said...

I am too poor to be excentric. I am just considered queer--and they are right! Tee Hee!

Martha said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. A timely reminder.

Judy said...

You might find the book Evil Genes - Why Rome fell, Hitler rose, Enron failed and my sister stole my mother’s boyfriend by Barbara Oakley of interest

Anonymous said...

This was really sad yet beautiful. I have seen Grey Gardens...both vversions, and it seemed the Edie's were Agoraphobic.

Anonymous said...

In response to the person who thought the two Edies were 'agaraphobic', probably just more that they had a) no car, b) no money, and c) few friends. So why would they go out a lot then?
They wouldn't. I think, rather, they adapted to their odd circumstances & did the best they could with that. It is a shame the other two sons didn't help then out with caring for Grey Gardens. Seems their only plot was to try to force the Edies out of that house as a solution. Some of the blame of what happened rests with those sons & the rest of the extended family. Jacqeline Kennedy Onasis comes across as the hero.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No one said anything about being agaraphobic. And, I read somewhere that, at the time, Jackie O contributed $35,000 to getting the house back in shape. She was also able to convince the town to help out and got other monies from the Historical Preservation Society. It's not what you know, it's who you know.

I don't usually publish anonymous posts. I did this time b/c it allowed me to comment. Next time, identify yourself in some way or your comment won't get printed.