Swimming to Cambodia

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Understanding My Father’s Suicide through ‘The Journals of Spalding Gray’

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I couldn’t bring myself to drive to Boston’s Revere Beach, where my father drowned himself in 1992, so I took the G train to the Greenpoint Waterfront, where Spalding Gray’s body was discovered in 2004. I’d been there before, of course—countless afternoons sloping into evenings on the rocks of WNYC Transmitter Park.

But I had never gone there realizing it was where Gray’s body washed up on a cold day in March, two months after he was reported missing. Nearly 14 years later to the day, I stood on a pier overlooking the rocks off the East River, holding my copy of The Journals of Spalding Gray. I turned to the last page, a quote from one of his entries written in 1970:
I began to realize I was acting as though the world was going to end and this was helping lead to its destruction. The only positive act would be to leave a record. To leave a chronicle of feelings, acts, reflections, something outside of me, something that might be useful in the unexpected future.
Here was a spot where I’d supervised photoshoots with clients, where I’d participated in woo-woo Californian rituals of impermanence and sipped pony-necked beers out of brown paper bags. To be here now seemed at once wholly incompatible and utterly harmonious. It was like coming home.

Like Gray, I grew up in Rhode Island, about 30 minutes north of his hometown of Barrington. Like Gray, I lost a parent to suicide—his mother in their family garage with the door closed and the engine on, my father in a way that was … well, like Gray. In September of 1992, my father walked into the waters off the Boston shore, stating in his note that his intention was for the tides to take him.

The tides must have worked, because he was never found. After waiting out a seven-year period to have him declared in absentia, his mother sent me a manilla envelope with a copy of a suicide note and his will. My own mother rarely, if ever, brought it up.

Gray learned about his mother in a similar way when she died in 1967. At a train station in Providence, his father said simply that she was “gone.” When Gray later referred to this as “the avoidance language that was going on in Rhode Island,” I knew intuitively, experientially, what he meant.

Around the same time that I learned of my father’s death in that familiar old Rhode Island language of avoidance, I was also beginning weekly, sometimes biweekly trips into Providence. In ninth grade, a performance of Othello at Trinity Repertory Company shook something deep in my ribcage—especially in the moment of Othello’s suicide at the end. It was like chasing the dragon, but the dragon itself was unnamable. In the wake of that performance, combined with a childhood love of opera, I took after-school classes at Trinity as well as the experimental theater down the street, Perishable Theater. I saw plays by New York experimentalists like Mac Wellman over and over until I’d memorized the scripts.

And I began to read books—monologues, really—by a fellow Rhode Islander whose brother, Channing, covered the arts for the Providence Journal. They were one-man shows with titles like Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, and Monster in a Box, performed (as I later saw on film) at a wooden table, adorned with a single glass of water, with a notebook used occasionally for reference. It was nothing like the verbal aerobics of Shakespeare or the pageantry of opera, yet I was completely taken with this not-quite-actor, not-quite-writer who seemed to cut to some primal aspect of the human experience.

In 2003, I began my freshman year at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus as a playwriting major. Those first few months in New York, I often hoped I would run into Gray on the subway, that we could share the distinct experience of being two of the few Rhode Islanders who move outside of a 20-mile radius of their childhood homes and seek their fortunes in the unknown. I went further outside of the Rhode Island safety zone and spent that first winter of my college experience in Russia, studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School which both augmented and challenged what I’d gleaned of Gray’s school of downtown theater.

The day I returned from Moscow was the day Gray disappeared. What we presume to know now is that he boarded the Staten Island Ferry and leapt into the ultimate unknown. We never locked eyes on the B train, but his loss felt familial. The next few months felt like a bizarre stasis in the face of life continuing. My second semester of college, my first job in the city, working on plays on-campus and off. I learned that they found him when a guy I was seeing emailed me about it before inviting himself over. I imagine Gray would have appreciated his death being used as fodder for a booty call.

But going back into those books that I’d collected, the tales of peak experience and alternative medicine and childhood pets, was impossible. I often wonder if there was some subconscious connection between Gray’s death, my own delayed grieving process for my father (which wouldn’t begin in earnest until 2011), and my ultimate decision at the end of 2004 to withdraw from Fordham and abandon theatre studies.

It took me half a decade before I felt ready to read Nell Casey’s compendium of Gray’s journal entries, which span the 1960s up until the first weeks of 2004. Grief, in some ways, is a lot like Gray’s signature monologues: There’s some semblance of an arc of where you begin and end, but for the most part it’s improvised, nonlinear. You circle around one topic (anger, depression) before hopscotching over to another (bargaining or acceptance), and then making a sharp U-ey over to one of the earlier stages (denial) for a coda.

And reading Gray’s journals was a method for unraveling this reverse-Fibonacci sequence. A wayfinder of his artistic development, the books he read, and his ongoing obsession with synchronicity, the journals also kept the loss of his mother in the same room. If it wasn’t front and center, it was at least in the periphery, hanging like a premonition. An undated entry read, “the new fear was that mom had not only killed herself, but had also laid the groundwork to kill me.” I felt the familiar rattling of ribs, got a whiff of the vapors of recognition.

I realized that, more than anything else, this is the monster in a box left behind by the suicide of a parent: We worry that the stories they write are also coded into our DNA, and that we’re bound to follow in their wake. “MY MOM DIDN’T LEAVE A NOTE,” he wrote in all-caps in an undated entry from the early 1980s, when he was touring Australia, and I wonder if his journals, if his obsessive self-biography, was some sort of recompense. I wish I could tell Spalding that my father did leave a note, and it didn’t do a Rosetta Stone’s job of helping me to understand why he left. It didn’t even do a Google Translate’s job.

I tried for years to find out exactly who my father was: the books he read, the path of his development, the theories that formed his obsessions. He died pre-internet, however, and the information available is sparse. Trying to track it down would make me physically sick from the subliminal stress. His name appears in a college yearbook for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. The U.S. Coast Guard sent me a copy of his brief military record before he was honorably discharged from Governor’s Island. I want to know his pain, what kept him up at night, the scraps of paper he filled and the complaints he wrote in all caps. Gray called this act in life “seeking out its dark spots” in an April 1985 entry.

For reasons that were beyond articulation when I added the book to my Amazon cart, I believed that Gray’s journals would give me some sense of a road map to self-destruction without having to feel that destruction cut so close to the bone. Academic research. Clinical observation. Over the course of four decades, I’d be able to see the same road markers in Gray’s life that my own father followed. What I got instead was more of this nonlinear grief, but at some point it resolved into an equally nonlinear understanding. It was an understanding through coincidence, of the sort of chance groupings that psychoanalyst Carl Jung would define as synchronicity.

In his book of the same title, Jung notes that we could see synchronicity as those coincidences that fall within the realm of probability. But we can also intuit within them a sense of persistence. Taken at face-value, none of what I’ve written about so far is so unique: People lose parents to suicide. People die, voluntarily or otherwise, by drowning. The reason that we still see memoirs with titles like My Dead Parents is that they have a market; they carry resonance. And people are drawn to the water (we are, after all, 66 percent water). It’s not an uncommon metaphor.

But if we care to look past the odds of probability, these ideas still have a way of persisting. At a certain point in The Journals of Spalding Gray, it’s as though I’ve become bloodhound-attuned to sniffing out at first any mention of his parents, death, or the water. I free associate and scribble notes about the few times Casey writes in editorial notes that Gray almost drowns, either intentionally or not. It’s not unlike how Gray himself drew connections between the elements of his life and the lives of others in order to distill greater meaning. It wasn’t so much that he projected his suffering, neuroses, hopes, or fears onto others as it was that he understood, implicitly or not, that one of the main reasons synchronicity exists is that as humans, most of what we do experience are the hand-me-downs of history.

In that same April 1985 journal entry, Gray described Swimming to Cambodia as an attempt to balance out polar extremes. “Like any work of art it is an attempt to become God out of a loss of contact. An attempt to create a tiny, balanced universe. An attempt to play at being God out of a lack of contact with the real or imagined source.” And here I am attempting to play at being God, using Gray as an imagined source. And that experiment seems to work.

Jung writes that “spontaneous synchronistic phenomena draw the observer, by hook or by crook, into what is happening and occasionally make him an accessory to the deed.” Nearly a quarter of a century after losing my own father, nearly 18 years after learning about his death, there is still a knot of complicated grief. Trying to untangle it in the years that followed that initial manila envelope often resulted in paralysis, of making the jumble even worse. Gray’s journals pulled me out of that inertia, allowed me to know when to weave one end of the twine over or under an entangling loop.

On September 26, 1985, the day after I was born, Gray wrote in his journal, “Had this dream that I was arrested for holding a mirror up to people on a beach in England.” Many who have eulogized Gray, including those whose tributes appear in the 2005 book Life Interrupted, note his role as the mirror, observer, and reflection all in one. To read his work, any of his work, is to see and be seen. It’s to be made an accessory to the deed, of testing the mirror by moving some part of our body to see it reflected. Like a Möbius strip, that reflection comes back to us, albeit transposed. We don’t know the exact truth, but we know its mate.

By hook or by crook, Gray’s journals drew me into the wilderness of a mind both voraciously open and inescapably hindered. He wanted to know the truth. But like grief, to know the truth is to be an active participant. Like grief, the truth lacks a script. At best you can hope for it to show you to a wooden table with a glass of water and a notebook with some sense of an outline.

Surprise Me!