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Film

Revisiting the tragic story of Spalding Gray

American actor Spalding Gray had built his artistic reputation on the back of his excellent monologues which were beautifully autobiographical. Starting out by working in theatre alongside the likes of Willem Dafoe, Gray found success by adapting his monologues for the cinematic medium which led him to his collaborations with filmmaking pioneers such as Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh among others.

Gray’s monologues have been described as the perfect mixture between poetry and journalism, with many critics and fans pointing out that his brand of humour was revelatory. Through his simple monologues, Gray managed to establish himself as the most prominent practitioner of theatrical autobiography which required him to investigate the fundamental nature of human memory itself.

While Gray’s legacy is still alive due to his contributions to the world of theatre and cinema, a major part of his legacy is also defined by the last few years in his life. After enduring a terrible car crash in 2001 during his time in Ireland, Gray’s body was almost destroyed and he suffered a fractured skull as well as almost complete immobilisation.

He had been vacationing in Ireland to celebrate the momentous occasion of a 60th birthday but it ended with the worst incident of his life. The process of recovery after such an accident was tremendously arduous and triggered severe depression as well as bipolar behaviour, both of which he had inherited from his family members because of his genetic predisposition.

His health, both physical and mental, was naturally at an all-time low and he tried out various forms of therapy but to no avail. Struggling to get out of this state of limbo, Gray reached out to famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. If that name seems familiar, it’s because Sacks was actually played by none other than Robin Williams in the 1990 film Awakenings.

It was Sacks who later revealed that Gray was feeling extremely suicidal and conceptualised the act of suicide as the logical conclusion of all the autobiographical monologues he had written so far. In fact, he even thought of killing himself during a live interview because he believed that it was the ultimate creative act that he could indulge in at that point.

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While looking back on what happened, Sacks reflected: “I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.” According to his wife Kathie Russo, Gray only decided to finally go ahead with his plan of killing himself after he had gone with his children to see Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Russo revealed that Gray had been moved by the last line in the film: “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.”

The very next day, Gray was reported missing after a difficult battle with prolonged depression. He had taken all kinds of sedatives and medicine, he had tried acupuncture and had even floated the idea of jumping off the Staten Island Ferry where he had been loitering around the railings the day before he went missing. Due to his strange demeanour, he had to be escorted away by the guards.

Over the course of the following months, Gray’s wife and his family were completely perplexed and feared the worst. Witnesses had come forward to confirm that they had spotted Gray on the ferry before he vanished. His family slowly learnt to accept that he had taken his own life but the wait for the body to surface was pure anguish for those who were close to him.

In March of 2004, his body was pulled out of the East River and it was established that he had likely jumped off the ferry as he had always planned on doing. He had been working on a new monologue at the time of his death which he left unfinished and it was published in that way in a book called Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue.

Robby Stein, psychoanalyst and the godfather to his son, tried to convince him that he had to stay alive for the sake of his children and those who loved him so much. However, Gray was in a place of such emotional and physical pain that he did not feel like he had it in him to endure it all which resulted in his tragic demise.

Stein recalled: “He was always caught up in the idea of ‘I have to end this all because it’s killing everyone around me and myself and it’s the only answer to this thing going on inside my head.’ I’d say, ‘Spalding, do you know how painful this is to everyone?’ He’d just say, ‘I know, I know, I can’t do it, I’m sorry.'”

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