Let me first explain that this is a love story. It’s the story of how I fell in love with Spalding Gray, a person who has been dead for over a decade, and of whose existence I only learned a few months ago.
Here’s the funny thing about me and how I fall in love with people, shows, books, and ideas. I discover something, either via the incessant research that my unquiet brain forces me to do in my spare time, or something discovers me. In the case of Gray, it was a bit of both.
So for the uninitiated, who was Spalding Gray? He was an actor, Wooster Group performer, writer, and monologuist most famous for his 1985 monologue “Swimming to Cambodia,” about his experience playing a minor role in Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields, shot on location in Cambodia and Thailand. The monologue was made into a “concert film” by Jonathan Demme in 1987, and it was roughly around that time that the greater American populace was introduced to Gray’s signature style of entertainment. He would sit at a desk, usually wearing some combination of plaid shirt and jeans, and talk about his life candidly. He was referred to, at the time, as a sort of goyishe Woody Allen: A white, “straight,” middle-class man with oversized neuroses owing to a troubled family history of mental illness and Christian Science, topped off with a painful, waspish candor.
He was also super, SUPER bisexual.
What do I mean by this? I’ll let the man speak for himself here:
“very confused about my bisexual feelings,” he wrote in his journal in 1972. “Liz [LeCompte, Gray’s collaborator and longtime girlfriend] accused me of…desire for a man masked in the desire for young boys.”
Then, in 1973:
“I went to a homosexual bath club in Amsterdam and was “picked up” by this German photographer who was vacationing in Amsterdam. He was very aggressive and he made love to me like I was this beautiful woman. He took time with me with all this incredible foreplay so by the time he began to fuck me I was wide open and had this very intense climax. It was not a very private place, and people were watching…it was not my first homosexual experience.”
And in 1976:
“What I haven’t been able to integrate is the homosexual side of me and I know I have to face it here in New York…”
It goes on, and on, and on. Gray sucks a lot of cock, and feels weird about it. He mentions this in an early monologue in a vivid scene of giving a blow job to a man in a hotel, during which Gray thought to himself: “I am a homosexual, I AM a homosexual!” Which, for the time, was kind of a bold move. He’s also, all over his diaries and monologues, totally obsessed about contracting HIV/AIDS throughout the 80s and 90s. At one point, he fears he will be the “first straight person” to get the disease. At other points, he claims that he’s not gay because he merely fucks, but never wants a relationship with, another man. Gray was in three long-term relationships in his adult life, all with women.
But he never seemed to stop fucking, or fantasizing about fucking, men, all the while defining himself as straight. It’s almost as if the word “bisexual” simply didn’t exist in the 80s and 90s. And then you remember: it basically didn’t. Up until his suicide in 2004, Gray was thinking and worrying about STIs. He was haunted by the memory of a “sleazy” woman he’d slept with years back, terrified he might wake one morning to find the telltale purple spot on his neck or thigh. At one especially memorable point in his 1991 monologue “Monster in a Box,” he recalls being told by his then-girlfriend (later wife) and frequent artistic collaborator Renée Shafransky about a worrying rash she was developing. She assumed it was a spider bite at first, but then, lo and behold, she’d gone to the library and found a book laying open on a picture of HIV-related skin markings. She freaked out and told Gray about it in the Modern Museum of Art at the start of a screening of Moonstruck they were about to attend. This revelation caused Gray to literally bark. “I’m barking,” he recalls in Monster. “I’m barking in the Modern Museum of Art!” Cher was in attendance for the screening, and this barking caused her to look askew, along with her male entourage, at the semi-famous man barking in the MoMA.
Obviously, in the early 90s, the cultural fears surrounding AIDS and HIV hardly belonged to queer people alone. After the early 80s when the virus was thought to be only a “gay disease,” more research surfaced that showed that STIs and AIDS/HIV were everybody’s issue. But Gray’s obsession with it speaks to something deeper. All his life, he thought about men. Dreamed about them, talked about finding them beautiful. Imagine being a bisexual person in the early 1990s who was both incredibly visible and incredibly hidden in certain ways. Because even though Gray talked about his same-sex attraction in monologues and wrote about it in his journals, it’s not an aspect of his life or performance that anyone seems interested in talking about.
Well, the exactly three people who care about this subject are in luck, because I’m here to bust this thing wide open.
This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten extremely invested in a person who’s been dead for a very long time.
I haven’t had a hot and heavy obsession like this in a long time. Sometimes, the muse just speaks to you and in your darkest hour, it brings you a bisexual writer who does and says things that make more sense to you than anything you’ve ever seen or heard in what they call “real life.”
Art has always been realer to me than real life, so it’s not that surprising.
I remember being a kid, I must have been about 5 or 6 at the time, and going to a video store with my father. There, I saw a massive cut-out promo for Nick Broomfield’s film of Monster in a Box that must have been a year or two old at the time. Being autistic, I have always been both a very literal and imaginative interpreter of images. I saw a man peeking out of a box that was far too small for him to fit in, with a frightened expression, and the big block lettering above his head. At the time, I imagined nothing scarier than the idea of a monster in a box. I asked my father if this was a scary movie, and he laughed and said no. He didn’t try to explain what kind of a movie it was, because I was five years old. And even if I hadn’t been, it would have been a hard task to adequately describe, to a person of any age, what the fuck Gray was doing. “Well, it’s a filmed monologue about a man who can’t finish a novel about a guy who is too WASPy to take a vacation,” he might have said. But that would have created more questions than answers.
So I remained scared of that image and the idea of a monster in a box for a long time. And then, a few months ago, doing research for a piece I was writing on the soul-sucking emptiness of Tim Burton films, I’d always remembered a story told to me by—again, my father—about how Gray killed himself after seeing the Burton film Big Fish, a truly horrible and depressing movie that, after I saw it as a kid, basically gave me the same impulse. I started to look into his suicide, because suicide interests me as a subject. Then I started reading, and watching, and reading some more. Soon, my life was divided into two distinct categories: the times when I was researching, reading, watching, or thinking about Gray, and the other times, when I was so depressed I couldn’t do much outside of working and sleeping.
These obsessions have, throughout my life, kept me going. They’re always with dead gay or queer-coded people, because those are the people who speak to me the most. The first step of obsession is to seek out every possible audio-visual evidence of them you can find. Then, you research. Then, you start to think you know this dead person, or this famous person, or this person who in some way is totally unavailable to you. Then, you start to wonder if maybe you’re not the only person like you who’s ever existed. Maybe there’s this other guy, too. So what if he’s dead? He lived, once.
I’ve always had a hard time connecting to other people. Whether it was the kids at school who didn’t understand why I was talking about Abbott and Costello movies all the time, or the kids in high school who didn’t understand why I was so uninterested in being a teen girl, or the people at college who thought I was a hopeless nerd spending time in the library rather than having any semblance of a social life, or the people I’ve met throughout my adult life, who, though many of them are lovely, wonderful people, still seem to be left scratching their heads after an encounter with me. They tell you—especially if you grow up queer—that you’ll find your people someday. And that’s true, but it comes in fits and starts. And sometimes your people happen to be scattered across the country instead of neatly in one place, so that your sense of community, however rich, remains nebulous. These people love you and they’re here, but they’re not physically here to help you when you’ve had a bad day or meet you spontaneously at the bar after a difficult work week.
So I’ve fallen into this habit of finding these older, usually dead, gay men to fall in love with. And during quarantine, pretty unsurprisingly, it’s gotten worse. I spend so much time in my head, thinking about my imaginary friends, wishing they hadn’t died before I’d had a chance to meet them.
In the past year, I’ve started to realize now how much I lean on these obsessions to get me through really hard times. It feels like a new relationship, even though it’s not: your parasocial love for someone, whether living or dead, can sustain you during times when your life just isn’t measuring up to what you want it to be. As someone who goes through periods of pretty intense depression, I’ve learned to use my ability to research and deep-dive as a crutch. You can’t be paralyzed in bed if you’re fueling an obsession! I mean you can, but usually, when it comes to my specific brand of depression, getting really, really passionate about something or someone is a safe bet for helping me crawl out of the paralysis that often visits me when my brain is too free and unoccupied.
But the best thing is when you discover someone who other people have loved before you. In Gray’s case, I was fortunate to discover a fellow fan in director Steven Soderbergh, who adapted Gray’s monologue Gray’s Anatomy to film in 1996 (yes this was before the TV show, if you can believe anything came before that TV show) and who made a touching tribute compilation film in 2010, six years after Gray’s death, called And Everything is Going Fine. The film is scored, in part, by Gray’s son Forrest, who is a talented composer.
It’s a beautiful piece of work and one of the most lovely, honest ways I’ve seen of appreciating someone whose life and death were complicated without having to boil them down to some essentialist totem. And Everything is essentially the opposite of the contentious Morgan Neville documentary Roadrunner, which caught critical flack for essentializing the late Anthony Bourdain as a “tragic suicide” figure rather than a real person who lived and tried hard not to kill himself throughout the course of his life.
When we want so badly to be seen, we’ll make a mirror out of anyone. Especially if they happen to be queer. I’ve always found it so easy and nice to fall in love with people who are already dead. What better way to protect yourself from the fear and torment and general pain of loving a real person, with their real moods and real bodies and real, disappointing humanity? I have to keep them at arm’s length. This is especially true for men, who I always fear in real life. I can look at a man onscreen and love him, but if he’s in the room with me, all I feel is terror. Their largeness and the way they move and smell—it’s fascinating, even intoxicating, but ultimately it feels dangerous.
I guess I get what Gray was saying about his own queerness. He wanted to fuck men, but he wanted to love and be loved by women. Maybe he didn’t feel love could factor into his relationships with men. Maybe that would have made it weird. Perhaps even—too gay. Or maybe it was just too far of a leap for him to develop an emotional passion for another man. Maybe he didn’t see men as being that safe, either. But that’s the thing, I don’t know. I’m speculating. I’ll never know. But I’ll probably spend a lot of my life thinking about it, because again, that’s what I do. I set up grand obsessions for myself and follow the mysteries they unfold until I reach a dead end. I love from a distance, obsess from a distance. I don’t know why. It feels safe, but it hurts a lot, too.
I told you this was a love story.♦