Now I Understand

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In the mid-1970s, Freddie Prinze was leading an extraordinarily successful life. In December 1973, at the age of 19, he had come to the nation’s forefront after a stint on “The Tonight Show” in December 1973, which led to him landing the first half of the title role in “Chico and the Man,” an NBC television comedy. He appeared opposite Jack Albertson, a stage and film veteran. Despite their age and cultural differences, the two became good friends, with Albertson serving as a mentor to his younger co-star. I remember the series clearly. Prinze’s character was a breakthrough role. For the first time, American television boasted a Hispanic figure who spoke English perfectly.

By January of 1977, Prinze had a rollicking standup comedy career with sold-out gigs wherever he went and a top-selling comedy album; “Chico and the Man” remained a highly-rated show. He even performed at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball. He was married with a 10-month-old baby boy, Freddie, Jr.

And, he was miserable.

Things had begun to spiral out of control for Prinze. He’d become addicted to Quaaludes and cocaine and, in November 1976, was arrested for drunk driving. Then, on January 26, 1977, his wife, Kathy, startled him with a restraining order.  Two days later Prinze planted himself at the Beverly Hills Hotel and began making a series of “goodbye” calls to his mother, a few friends and his manager, Marvin Snyder. Snyder rushed to the hotel to try to stop his young client from harming himself. But, it was too late. Prinze put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He survived the initial shot, but the next day, his family authorized officials at ULCA Medical Center to remove Prinze from life support. He was 22.

The news of Prinze’s death – a suicide, no less – shocked and horrified the masses who loved him. How could someone that young with so much talent, success and money, plus a beautiful wife and baby, be so unhappy? I was 13 at the time and couldn’t understand. He was popular, right? He had lots of money, right? Why would he kill himself? It just didn’t make sense.

The recent suicide death of actor / comedian Robin Williams exposes, yet again, a miserable underside that lurks beneath a life of outwardly blissful happiness in the entertainment world. There’s a reason why the symbol of the theatre is comprised of dual masks: the comic Thalia, smiling, and the dramatic Melpomene, frowning. They’re high and low; top and bottom; the moon’s bright side and its dark side. Intertwined and – for the most part – interchangeable. All emblems of life. One can’t exist without the other.

Both Prinze and Williams had a great deal of money and a great deal of fame. It seemed everybody loved them. If someone has those two things – money and fame – then everything else is inconsequential. They should be completely and totally satisfied with their lives. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Money may make life easier, but it really doesn’t make it completely satisfying. As cliché as it sounds, money truly does not buy happiness. No amount of money will make you like a job you hate. I love writing, for example, even though I haven’t made much money from it; a few freelance and contract technical writing gigs over the past few years. When I lost my job with an engineering firm in 2010, I was earning more money than I ever had before. Yet, in that last year, I hated the place. For some reason, tension had been building since the end of 2009, and I ultimately felt management was targeting me specifically. It was almost a relief to get laid off.

It’s difficult for people outside of artistic communities to understand. But, comics, actors, singers and other artists are people, too. We’re weird, yes, but we’re human beings first. We have the same emotional fluctuations and experience the same anxieties in life that everyone else does. We’re just a bit more expressive about it. Yet, because professional artists exist in the public realm, their lives fall under greater scrutiny. They’re magnified a thousand times for all to see. And, when someone makes a career out of telling jokes and doing impersonations, people assume they’re always happy. But, it’s difficult for most to imagine the pressure an artist must feel to perform and be “on” all the time. People expect a comedian to make them laugh – all the time. Entertain me, my little clown. I want nothing less from you.

And so, the entertainer does what they’re supposed to do – entertain. That’s why they’re paid – very well, sometimes – and thus, despite whatever agonies they’re facing, they pull the spirit of that entertainer deep from within the depths of their souls and put on a show. The writer, the singer, the dancer – all of them do what they’ve trained themselves to do; what they’ve wanted to do perhaps since childhood.

It appears artists, in particular, are prone to severe mood swings that often lead them to substance abuse and untimely deaths. Actors, writers, painters and the like experience the best and worst that humanity has to offer. That’s why the word “troubled” often accompanies the moniker of artist.

Jackson Pollock was one of the most innovative abstract painters of the 20th century, but he battled alcoholism his entire adult life. Ernest Hemingway was a literary giant, a larger-than-life persona who was the epitome of masculinity and steadfast courage; yet injuries he incurred during his raucous life apparently took a toll on his mental and physical health, and he committed suicide in 1961.

But, it’s not that every artist is troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We merely troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We just observe life through a more acute lens; we balance things out differently. We don’t see the world strictly in terms of black and white. We watch it move in all its colorful glory; the laughter and the pain mixed up together. That’s how and why we create the art that we do. If we didn’t experience the full gamut of human emotions, then we wouldn’t be so creative. We’d be … well, just like everyone else.

Fellow blogger Gus Sanchez touched on this very subject a few weeks before Williams’ death. “On Mood Disorders and the Writing Process” jumps directly into the fire of the artist-mental illness connection. As someone who’s gone through the manic highs and lows of creativity and dry spells where I feel the entire world is out to get me, I fully comprehend the realities of depression and anxiety.

It’s a blessing to be imbued with such creative elements. We can make other people happy, or make them think. It’s a curse in that we see the ugliest sides of the world glaring back at us and challenging us to do something about it. We often take up that challenge. Many times it works out for the best; sometimes, it hurts.

The Melpomene mask doesn’t conform to our vision of life in the limelight. Everyone wants to be around Thalia; we always demand Thalia be there to make us feel good about things. But, Thalia just can’t be a part of our world unless Melpomene is also present. They’re undeniably symbiotic; conjoined twins held together by the same heart. They can’t live separately. Without cold, there can be no hot. Wherever there’s a smile, there must also be a frown.

Towards the end of my tenure at the engineering company, I had a private meeting with my immediate supervisor. I told her that everyone was on edge and just didn’t feel good about things. She shot back, accusing me and the others of “creating all this drama.”

“There’s no drama,” I quietly responded. This wasn’t a soap opera. It was the real thing. I guess she couldn’t understand it the way I did. She was looking at the situation through a narrow, gray tunnel. I saw all of the sign posts, in blazing red and yellow, warning of danger ahead.

When Freddie Prinze passed away, my young mind couldn’t fathom such horror. But, as information about Williams’ emotional problems begin to surface, his tragic death seems only slightly more comprehensible. I keep thinking Freddie Prinze and other artists who died at their own hands reached out from the netherworld, grabbed Williams’ soul as it departed his beleaguered body and said, ‘Come with us. We understand. You’re safe now.’

So, I look at all the happiness and all the tragedy that make up this wonderfully unique thing called human existence, and I understand, too.

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

2 Comments

Filed under Essays

2 responses to “Now I Understand

  1. Yes, seeing the world through a more clarifying lens can at times make life a bit more difficult to take in. I understand it as well. I still find the out of suicide ultimately infuriates me. This was really well done, putting a broader view on the issue.

  2. Jean B.

    Great post! I have long pondered the connection between… (I am not even sure what term I want to use here) one’s mental state and creativity, whether that creativity be in one of the arts, or in science, etc. Society would do itself a great disservice if it ever succeeded in making all people happy clones, be that through medication or other means. Many artists, scientists, and other folks whose names and accomplishments have been revered since antiquity have not been “normal”, which has made me question the value that is placed on being normal. Unfortunately, as you point out, the very characteristics that make people uniquely creative also tend to make them less than happy and sometimes profoundly unhappy.

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