Carrie Fisher came to Boston for the last time in 2016. She was 20 minutes late to her own talk at Harvard University because she’d wandered into another event and was schmoozing with the British physicist Stephen Hawking. Pure Carrie.
When she finally showed up, a student orchestra played John Williams’s “Star Wars” theme — the full six-minute version that accompanies the medals ceremony at the end of “A New Hope.” Despite the fact that Fisher was at Harvard to speak about addiction, mental health, and secular humanism, there were a lot of folks in costume: several Hans and at least one Chewbacca, a Vader, an entire squadron of stormtroopers. And of course, there were Leias. One of them, her hair in the iconic twin buns, had decorated the rims of her hot-pink wheelchair with stars and planets and galaxies.
It was hard not to wonder if this was awkward for the woman it was intended to honor. But Fisher accepted it all graciously. I believe she knew that she carried with her the burden of our childhood longings. She knew what Leia meant to us.
We lost Carrie Fisher last December, a casualty of her lifelong struggle with substance abuse. This month we’ll lose Leia. It’s not clear if General Organa will die during “The Last Jedi,” the latest installment of the Skywalker family saga opening Friday. But we won’t see her again, at least in any new footage; this will be our last fresh glimpse of the complicated heroine we grew up with.
Luke may be the nominal hero, but in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, it’s clear that Leia Organa is the only competent adult on the screen: She’s a seasoned diplomat and politician; she can weld; she’s a crack shot with a blaster. She’s passionate and sharp-tempered, but when her planet is decimated, she refuses to weep. If Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi had trained Leia as a Jedi, the trilogy would be over in one movie — Leia is the use-eagles-to-fly-the-One-Ring-into-Morder option of the “Star Wars” universe. The reason they train Luke instead isn’t because they think he’s better; it’s because he’s expendable. If Vader cuts him down, they still have Leia.
She was the progenitor of Sarah Connor, of Ellen Ripley, of Furiosa and Clarice Starling and Scully. She was what so many young women and girls needed to see: a woman who could be strong.
If you’re a certain age, the “Star Wars” trilogy was on television every year at Thanksgiving, and you grew up watching Leia exert that cool confidence even as your own family’s foibles were on full display around you. For so many of us, the “Star Wars” movies were an escape from the imperfect adults frustratingly in charge of us, with their drinking and their divorces, their silences and shouts.
We wanted to be someone like Leia. But even more so, as kids, we wanted to belong to someone like that, someone who knew what she was doing, who couldn’t be broken, who always did the right thing.
The brilliance of “The Force Awakens,” the long-awaited follow-up to the original trilogy (those movies from the 1990s don’t count), was how it brought us a recapitulation of that longing, and showed us the flaws in it. General Organa, as it turned out, wasn’t a great mother. She failed her son; she lost her husband. Watching the film, it’s easy to read between the lines and imagine how it must have been in the Organa-Solo household: Han lapsing into irresponsibility, Leia into her armor of uber-competence, concentrating on rebuilding the Republic, studiously not noticing how her family was spinning out of control. You can even read “The Force Awakens” as a story about intergenerational mental illness, with Leia the mother who refuses to see her father’s sickness manifesting in her son.
Carrie Fisher was mentally ill — famously so. In the periods when she was well, she wrote devastatingly funny memoirs about her bipolar disorder, and in the words of her daughter Billie Lourd she was “purposefully open” about it throughout her life. “Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival,” she wrote in an advice column to a young bipolar woman.
At her Harvard talk last year, she stood up to give her address with a sheaf of handwritten notes, but then discovered that they were all out of order — and she couldn’t read her handwriting anyway. She’d written them during a manic episode, she announced.
She squinted at her notes, trying to decipher what she’d written about spirituality and the Force, and when she was done she flung each page into the audience. Speaking at Harvard was as close as she had gotten to a college education, she said. Instead, she talked about “Star Wars,” about her drinking, about her divorces. She talked about being sick. She talked about failing.
What is the word for someone who is at peace with not being at peace with herself? None of her anecdotes about illness ended triumphantly; there was no medal ceremony at the end of Fisher’s accounting of herself. She was simply there, surviving and vulnerable and messed up and funny — visible.
During the question-and-answer period, one after another young women got up to tell her about how they lived with their own disabilities: the Leia cosplayer with the spangled wheelchair; an aspiring actor with anxiety disorder; even me, a journalist in remission from depression. She had cleared a space for us, she had made it safe for us to be seen.
It will be hard to lose Leia, to part with a character who made it safe for women to be strong. But I will miss Carrie Fisher more. She made it safe for us to be weak.
For many of us, that’s an even greater gift.S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.