I saw Spalding Gray up close just once. It happened on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, when much of Lower Manhattan was open only to rescue workers and emergency vehicles. The nearest I could get to the site of the Twin Towers was Houston Street. As I headed toward a set of police barricades, he walked right past me - instantly recognizable in his flannel work shirt, with his wavy mane of gray hair.
I counted Gray’s monologues “Swimming to Cambodia,’’ “Terrors of Pleasure,’’ and “Monster in a Box’’ among the most entertaining and rewarding experiences I ever had in a theater. There, less than a mile from ground zero, I wondered how this great American storyteller would wring drama and humor out of the attacks, but felt certain that he would. After all, here was a man who found dark comedy in the story of his own mother’s suicide and his fear that he too would take his own life.
Gray never did write that 9/11 monologue I was imagining, and three years later his body was found washed up on the Brooklyn waterfront. The evidence strongly suggested that Gray, 62, committed suicide by jumping from the Staten Island Ferry. He left behind two children, a wife, a legacy of brilliant performances that helped pave the way for the essays and monologues of David Sedaris and the cast of public radio’s “This American Life,’’ and more than 5,000 pages of journals.
One of the most disturbing yet insightful aspects of reading “The Journals of Spalding Gray,“ Nell Casey’s 340-page distillation of Gray’s unpublished, personal writing, is learning how magnificently and artfully Gray constructed his appealing onstage and onscreen persona out of his own obsessions, neuroses, and troubled history.
The journals begin in 1967 when the 25-year-old Gray was working as an actor in Houston and end with the sporadic, disjointed, and frequently heart-rending, desperate entries from his final years. For his monologues, Gray drew upon seminal events and themes that are detailed in his journals: his mother’s death, his own suicidal fantasies, his marriages to Renée Shafransky and Kathleen Russo, his sexual fixations, his acting (particularly in the film “The Killing Fields’’), and his hypochondria. But he did so selectively, creating a character that was a good deal more sympathetic than the manipulative, competitive, and self-absorbed individual who emerges from these pages.
To accuse an author of being a narcissistic journal writer may well be missing the point of journaling altogether. Yet, for the Gray fan who identified with the semi-autobiographical character the man invented and played onstage, reading Gray’s often rambling and humor-free accounts of his jealousy of fellow actors, his obsession with his reviews, his self-glorifying identification with Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, and his poor treatment of the women in his life (“I wake up with an erection every morning and force sex on Renée. Then we work on MY BOOK. What a honeymoon!’’) can be a sobering experience. At one point, Gray reveals that his first wife accused him of being “CONFESSIONAL but not HONEST.’’ That seems just about right.
Though there is much material here to educate the Spalding Gray aficionado, these journals are perhaps most useful in helping one to understand the healing and purgative power that Gray and no doubt many other troubled artists have found in both writing and performing. “I’ve become so good at playing my pain to save me from it,’’ he writes at one point.’’ And later, “As long as I ACT insane I know I’m not.’’
In entries from Gray’s last years, the reader may note that even the act of writing no longer has the power to save the man; his final writings often seem rushed and brief: “I can’t write what I’m thinking because it causes me too much FEAR, anguish. I don’t have the courage to GO ON.’’ That entry is dated “Fall 2001,’’ around the time when I thought I saw Gray near ground zero. But these journals reveal that Gray wasn’t actually in Manhattan on that night; he was in Sag Harbor, N.Y., attending a vigil, after which he was besieged by nightmares. The man I saw on Sept. 11, 2001, and in whom I seemed to find my own source of strength and comfort, was apparently a figment of my imagination; the real Spalding Gray was another person entirely, many miles away.