Monday, September 27, 2010

Those dancing feet

Gosh-damn, what do you write about on a Monday?
A Monday after a particularly choice grandmother weekend, making videos of old ads (for 7-year-old Caitlin loves watching vintage commercials for Chatty Cathy and Tiny Tears, then staging her own demented versions), plunging into cookie dough up to our elbows (or should I say "cookie DO", in keeping with the newly acceptable and even universal spelling of "donut"), and general chasing around. It was good, it was exhausting, they're home now, and I have the Mondays again.

But that's OK. Because there's always something to write about, isn't there?
If anybody follows this blog, they'll catch on to the fact that I like to probe the layers of my collection of old books like an archaelogical dig. Yellowed paperbacks are my favorite, because for some reason I seem to remember more about them, even books I read decades ago.
This one was published, gulp, thirty years ago. I couldn't believe it came out in 1979, but there it was. It has the strange title of I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, a memoir of Valium addiction, withdrawal and "psychiatric triumph". Oh, sign me up!
It's even more interesting to note that I marked up this book plenty with marginal comments and underlines, and highlighter so old you can barely see it any more. It sort of soaked through to the other side and marks passages that aren't relevant at
At the time of the Valium disaster, Barbara Gordon was a successful (read: Emmy-winning) TV documentary producer with a wonderful life. Wonderful enough to inspire this description of her marvelous live-in lover, Eric:
"Eric made love like no man I had ever known. He was strong, tender and totally uninhibited. He touched, he felt, he laughed, he talked. As I fell asleep in his arms, I silently thanked my guardian angel for all my happiness, for the richness of my life."

Right. At the same time that she's rhapsodizing about how swell everything is, she's experiencing sweating, hammering panic attacks every day that force her to swallow copious quantities of Valium. Eric's little flaws (total financial dependency, no friends at all, two mentally ill ex-wives and a child he is forbidden to see) just sort of blur by her.

And yet, even consuming an astonishing 30 milligrams of Valium a day, she is able to function so well at work that she wins national awards.

This is a curious memoir, and I was only to find out later that Gordon took huge liberties with the facts, moving events around in time and changing a lot of what she calls "details". When she goes cold turkey on the Valium, her doctor reassuring her it isn't addictive, she describes violent spasms of withdrawal:

"My scalp started to burn as if I had hot coals under my hair. Then I began to experience funny little twitches, spasms, a jerk of a leg, a flying arm, tiny tremors that soon turned into convulsions."

Still she insists she doesn't need to taper off. She wants to do this, womanfully, in one go. Eric cheers her on and feeds and supports her and listens to her endless weepy monologues about her unhappy childhood.
At first. And then. . . and then, inexplicably, things change. More to the point, Eric changes - into something unrecognizable.

This hideous metamorphasis into monsterhood happens after five years of cohabiting in apparent bliss. Barbara describes him as "nearly six feet tall, with a head of thick black hair, graying slightly at the temples, a gentle smile, a marvelous mixture of man and boy." Well, maybe this woman was more drugged-out than she thought, because (according to her book) this marvelous man-boy would soon be verbally slicing her into pieces, cutting her off from her friends, tying her to chairs and punching her in the face.

The rest of the memoir deals with Barbara's rescue, in the nick of time, by two of the dozens of wonderful friends she has (though they do seem to disappear in her times of greatest need). She ends up in a series of mental hospitals while doctors try to figure out what is wrong with her. They look right at the Valium and don't see it. Then, as now, that's the way psychiatry works.

Or doesn't work. What happens with Eric is even more disturbing: he wages a hate campaign against her, telling her friends blatant lies designed to throw them off-balance and poison them against Barbara.

Eventually she finds a wonderful, understanding therapist and spends months pouring out her childhood woes in true Freudian analytical fashion. More interestingly, she falls in love with a 25-year-old psych ward burnout with a prison record (involuntary manslaughter) from Riker's Island. My my, how this woman picks them!

All this is leading up to something I saw in a library in the early '80s: a book called Prince Valium, written by one Anton Holden. This was "the other side of Barbara Gordon's million-selling memoir", Holden's attempt to set the record straight. Instead, it ends up more twisted than ever.

Turns out Barbara's boyish boy friend "Eric" isn't a failed lawyer at all, but a film producer working in the same medium as Barbara. He's moderately successful, mainly for the Vixens in Chains kind of movies that drip creepiness. But he's smooth enough to hide his icy sociopathic core, especially from someone as infantile and utterly dependent as Barbara.

Holden insists that the dates in her memoir conflict wildly with reality, with a year passing between certain episodes instead of days. He paints himself as her would-be saviour, completely defeated by her narcissism and impossible demands. It becomes apparent pretty quickly that what this guy really wants is a piece of the action: he'd like to rake in some cash and fame of his own, while whitewashing what really happened between them.

But what really happened between them?

I wasn't there, but I can't see how a forty-year-old successful career woman could fall for a brute with a shiny surface, a man so parasitic he reduces his partner to voraciously chewing pills to deal with her anxiety: without her even knowing it. This is the thing that rattles my teeth.
Until her kindly saviour/psychologist enlightens her about it, she seems to have no idea at all that "Eric" is sucking the life out of her. He's so practiced a user, so smooth that she thinks she's happy.

I've never known a person consuming 30 milligrams of Valium a day who is happy.
Or even alive.

OK, so more is known about Valium withdrawal now, and many say it's because of Barbara Gordon's book. I won't say much more about Prince Valium now, though I may be commenting more on it later (I've just ordered a used copy. It's not hard to find, though I doubt if he broke any sales records: the book is too creepy, and loyalty to Gordon too strong).

The movie version of I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, starring the then-hot Jill Clayburgh, drew only a tepid response, mainly because it lacked the edge and twisted, complex dynamics of the original. Liza Minnelli, whose then-husband Jack Haley Jr. once presented her with a gold-plated Valium tablet, eventually ended up in rehab.

Mother's Little Helpers weren't so innocuous, after all.

Gordon describes Valium not as a tranquilizer, but "a leveller". I'd say she got it wrong. This Eric/Anton/boy/man/incubus levelled her long before she ended up in a locked ward with a 20-something boy friend who had killed somebody. I wonder if she's still alive today (she'd be over 70); what happened with Anton Holden, if there were any legal ramifications; if her subsequent books made any money. One of them, Jennifer Fever, was about relationships between older men and younger women. Might as well title it, The Sky is Blue.
Contrary to what most people seem to think, the Valium didn't screw up Barbara Gordon's life. Going off the Valium didn't screw up Barbara Gordon's life. Not even Eric did. It was her own bad choices. Even addicts choose the poisons they put into themselves, and only they can choose to stop.

And nasty, brutish partners don't fall from the sky.