March 21 – An acclaimed biographer of celebrities including Montgomery Clift, Diane Arbus, Marlon Brando, and Jane Fonda, Patricia Bosworth’s new book The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan recounts her own fascinating life, including the loss of her father and brother to suicide.
You’ve written so frequently about other people. What was the experience like when writing about your own life?
It was a release. I had been holding back all these memories. I finally gave them form. I took a 10-year period (1953-63) when everything seemed to be happening to me almost at once. My brother and father both died by suicide; I got married and divorced; I graduated from college and I became an actress. And I was in my 20s. I was on this incredible journey trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to do everything. I lived by my instincts. I didn’t have any plan. When you’re writing a biography, you’re writing about somebody else, so you have to have an outline, a structure. I didn’t have any of that. The experience of writing about myself was cathartic, upsetting, disturbing, as I viewed the way I was as a very young woman – but overall I ended up appreciating everything I tried to do. It was always a struggle, but I did achieve certain things in that period.
I assume the title of your new book alludes in part to your father and brother. Losing one person to suicide is so difficult. The fact that you lost two people so close to you, within just a few years of each other, must have been unimaginable. You described it in your NPR interview as “a double whammy.” Could you tell us about that time in your life?
I felt numbed. The psychiatrist I went to told me that my feelings were “buried deep down, as in an iceberg” and that it would take decades for them to melt. And it was true. I literally didn’t feel anything for many years. I was a suicide survivor, and suicide survivors are often workaholics, working night and day to assuage their grief and pain, and that is what I did. And during that time – this 10-year period I’m writing about – I also met the subjects of my future biographies: Montgomery Clift, who was my father’s client; Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando, who I met at the Actors Studio; the photographer Diane Arbus. I gravitated to these subjects for good reason. One died by her own hand. Another was a suicide survivor. All of them engaged in extremely self-destructive acts. Writing about them was the way I coped with the fact that the two men I loved most in the world had killed themselves.
I imagine the world was a different place back then, in the 1950s, in terms of society’s understanding of suicide and mental health. Though people are still often hesitant to talk about it now, a recent Harris poll revealed that 90% of Americans value mental health and physical health equally, and believe that suicide can be prevented. What was it like for you back then in the wake of their deaths?
It was very different back then. I remember I was still at Sarah Lawrence College when my brother killed himself, and I recall how the students behaved toward me. Everybody knew I’d experienced this terrible loss, but nobody knew how to deal with it. I felt very isolated by this kind of generalized dismissal, but I couldn’t talk about my brother, either. But then nobody talked about anything in those days. I couldn’t talk about my marital abuse or my brother’s possible homosexuality. My parents couldn’t; nobody could. Everything was kept secret and silent – a reason the people of the 1950s were called the Silent Generation.
Was it important to you to talk about their suicides? If so, why?
Of course it was important to talk about their suicides; it was a huge release, but I rarely did in those days. I’ll give you an example: I was at the Actors Studio working on a scene from “Antigone” with a dear friend, Lily Lodge. I was playing Antigone. It’s the scene where Antigone is fighting to get her brother a proper burial service. It didn’t occur to me that it might be difficult for me to play that scene, and when we began to rehearse I burst into tears, remembering my brother Bart and that I hadn’t gone to his funeral or visited his gravesite in Sacramento. Lily stopped rehearsal; I calmed down, and then we talked late into the night and I poured out my heart to Lily. She was very compassionate. Up until that point I had told no one about my brother’s suicide. It was a relief to release some of my pain.
Has your understanding of their loss changed over the years?
I would like to rephrase the question. That today, I understand my relationship to both my father and my brother, and their relationship to me, in ways that I didn’t when I was very young. By that I mean my brother and I were as close as twins and the most intimate of confidantes. That remained the same even in death, because I continued to communicate with him in my mind for a long time. With my father, I became his caretaker. In this period I write about in my book, I went from adoring daughter to concerned young woman trying to save my father from himself and his pills and liquor. It didn’t work, and again I didn’t really see myself in that way until I began writing this memoir.
You’ve gone on to lead such an amazing life: you had a career on Broadway, you rode on the back of Steve McQueen’s motorcycle, you became such a successful author…and I’m leaving plenty of stuff out! I would think this should be a tremendous source of comfort to anyone reeling from a suicide loss. Life does go on. Is there anything you would say to someone who’s lost someone to suicide?
I would say that if you can find something outside yourself to keep you occupied, if you can volunteer somewhere or dedicate yourself to others somehow. And I think going to church or synagogue helps; just sitting in church and being quiet can be comforting. (Or meditation and exercise if you’re not particularly religious.) When you’ve experienced suicide, you have so many chaotic feelings swirling around inside you: guilt, tremendous anger, sadness. There’s no way you can get all these feelings out. You get used to having them inside you and sometimes they well up more than other times. But the loss never leaves you.
You can read more about Patricia Bosworth’s life in her book The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan.
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