On January 9, 2004, Spalding Gray took his kids to Tim Burton's film, Big Fish, which ends, in voiceover: "A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In this way, he is immortal." The next day Gray would disappear, and nearly two months later, on March 7, he would be discovered floating in the East River, the victim of an apparent--and, considering his history of chronic depression, widely assumed--suicide.
When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded, with sadness, of a line from my favourite Spalding Gray monologue, It's a Slippery Slope. "I want to live a life," he laments in his New England drawl, "not tell it!" Gray spent twenty-five years telling and retelling his life in live performances, on film, and in print; if we go by Big Fish's logic, how could anyone leading this sort of existence not become his or her own story? And trapped in all that telling, maybe Spalding Gray felt that the only way to "live a life" was to decide when it ended.
Raised a Christian Scientist in Providence, Rhode Island, Gray identified more as "a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew;" specifically: "I feel like Woody Allen." But where Woody Allen has sublimated his anxieties into fictionalized caricatures of himself, the line between the Spalding Gray of Monster in a Box and Swimming to Cambodia and the "real" Spalding Gray wasn't just blurred--it became, at least publicly, nonexistent. Spalding Gray performed as Spalding Gray, speaking about the life of Spalding Gray--or at least a version of Spalding Gray. I wonder if eventually that version, with all its attendant tragedy, became as indistinguishable to Gray as it was to us, his audience.
These are projections, of course. I didn't know Spalding Gray. I never even saw him perform. All I have to go on are documents of his work, which seem to me, now, like a struggle for agency: shaping the formless, wrangling the unruly, tidying his life into the neat confines of narrative. This is true of all autobiography, but I wonder and worry about forging a career of this sort of thing. There's something seductive about making strangers complicit in your foibles and fears--and in so doing, helping you feel less alone in the world. But in developing a public persona, and then "living out loud," how is it possible not to lose track of yourself, at least a little bit?