SALT LAKE CITY — When actress and author Carrie Fisher was hospitalized during a manic bout, part of the bipolar disorder that has both vexed and enlivened her, she wasn’t allowed to cope privately. As with so much of her life, others stood ready to reveal the details. So she decided to share it herself.
She’s been telling her story since, in autobiographical writings like “Postcards from the Edge,” which became a gritty movie, and “Wishful Drinking,” now a one-woman show. The woman who was Princess Leia in the Star Wars trilogy at 19 and born to Hollywood royalty — singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds — has never lived a fairy tale.
Friday, she shared pieces of her journey during “An Evening With Carrie Fisher,” sponsored by the Utah Film Center. She received the center’s second annual Kim Peek Award for Disability in Media, an honor bestowed because of the candor with which she has tackled the mania and depression that are part of who she is.
Peek's legacy, noted program emcee Carol Mikita of KSL, was his "message of universal respect for differences." Fisher was lauded as having a similar passion for knowledge and the same goal of acceptance for people who are different.
“Would Kim Peek have liked the word 'disability' to describe him?” Fisher asked in a phone interview beforehand. “Disability sounds so broken. Bipolar disorder is challenging; it’s incredibly intense. You have the choice to submit, be a victim, or take it on and fly in the face of it.”
Fisher and Peek had very different challenges and triumphs. Her life was high-profile, particularly after she became Princess Leia, unaware the character would forever be part of her name. Her mental illness, substance abuse, even her relationships were fodder for tabloids. He grew up quietly, largely in obscurity, a child with severe disabilities who was also wildly gifted.
Peek was born with brain abnormalities that included macrocephaly and lack of connective tissue between two sides of his brain. Simple jobs like setting the table or getting dressed were huge challenges and he only learned to climb stairs at 16. He had quirks that seemed bizarre to strangers, like humming loudly to focus. But he had an endearing personality. And his prodigious knowledge across 15 categories, including math, literature, sports, classical music, history and geography, made him a mega-savant. With an incredibly efficient filing system for his photographic and auditory memories, the ability to read two pages at the same time — one with each eye — and retain it, plus mathematical skills that included calculating dates both future and past at lightning speed, he was both odd and inspiring.
“When you met him, you knew within minutes you’d met an extraordinary human being,” says award-winning screenwriter and family friend Barry Morrow, who wrote the movie “Rain Man” after meeting Kim and his dad, Fran Peek, in the 1980s. “In ways off-putting to some. It was not just the vast information stored in his noggin in ways science has not yet figured out, but his sweet humanity.
“He was much more, for me, than the subject of a movie. They come and go . But knowing Kim and his father, watching their relationship, that is one of the bigger lasting lessons I learned.”
Kim died of a heart attack at age 58 in 2009. But not before he’d traveled nearly 3 million miles and entertained and awed millions with his skills and his humility — a reach to rival Hollywood’s best and brightest.
The award’s roots
One actor keeps his Oscar behind bulletproof glass with lasers like you’d employ to protect the Hope Diamond, lint free and clean as microchips for a super computer, says Morrow. Those barriers protect the little guy from the unwanted touch of strangers.
The Oscar that Morrow won in 1988 for best screenplay is battered, some of the shiny gold literally loved off it. Peek carried Morrow's Oscar with him everywhere he went for several years. No glass case for this one, which has wandered far, perched one minute by salt shakers in a pancake house, another by a pilot’s seat, because on a commercial flight it could be called a weapon. It has passed from hand to hand in classrooms and made a slow circuit on a merry-go-round at a city park. Preschoolers and grade-schoolers and long-out-of-schoolers have petted the statue, the ultimate if somewhat-accidental icebreaker between Peek and the public he both charmed and puzzled.
Morrow donated it to the Utah Film Center to honor Peek's memory. They’d planned a storyboard about Peek, featuring his accomplishments and the statue, as well as bits about “Rain Man.”
But what Peek did best was tear down barriers that separated him from a public that knew little about the conditions that made him so unique. So the film center board decided to pair exhibition of the Oscar with presentation of a Kim Peek award, said film center founder and board chairwoman Geralyn Dreyfous.
“We want to bring in somebody every year who embodies the spirit, the stamina, the intellectual curiosity that Kim represented,” she said. Fisher is honored for sharing her bipolar disorder with a mix of humor, defiance and grace.
Friday, she exhibited all three as she accepted the award from Morrow and Fran Peek and then spent the evening with the audience at the Rose Wagner Theater. Before the event, Morrow and Fisher posed for photos and charmed the crowd that came for a pre-show reception.
Forthright and funny
She didn’t have the choice of keeping her disorder a secret, Fisher said. “I don’t know that I would have shouted it from the hilltops initially. It was put in the paper about me, like addressing a rumor. But I decided I would rather have my version of ‘what’s the matter with me,’ what I’m dealing with, rather than someone else’s version.
“There’s a line from a 12-step program that says you’re only as sick as your secrets. This was not something I wanted to be ashamed of, though I was initially. I didn’t like the handle or what it implied, though I was not sure what it did imply.”
She “foraged” to learn who else had bipolar disorder and it struck her those who did had a lot of trouble managing it. If it’s that hard to handle already, she thought, “Why would you take on the shame of it, as well?” She decided not to be ashamed.
She likens being bipolar to bull riding. She is a “cowboy who rides horses who do eventually throw you off. The question is how long can I ride. I try to use the part of it that's usable.”
For instance, she wrote one of her books in four months. But it is a mixed state, especially when she experiences both mania and depression. “It’s quite an exhausting challenge, but if you can get in line with it, there’s a blessing among the burden.
“The danger is you enjoy the excitement of it until it tilts off into a place that’s too stormy,” she said, noting treatments help but are not ideal. She believes they will improve. One of the most helpful is electroconvulsive therapy, but it has “been depicted in an awful way and some people would rather die than use it. That’s a shame, a crime,” she lamented.
“I think a certain amount of respect is due someone who can take on this spider.”
Humor has long been one of her tools for coping and communicating, Fisher said. In video clips introducing her, she pointed out that "I am a Pez dispenser and I am in the Abnormal Psychology textbook." As she entered to a standing ovation after that clip, she quipped, "I watched some of that film and I feel like I'm dead. But at least I'm not quite as fat."
She is working on another show, called “Any Questions?” where audience members ask and she answers. People like that. “We are fascinated with reality shows, though once you put a camera on it, it’s not reality any more. And we like to watch people circle the drain. If that were aerobic, I’d be skinny. I’m not.”
She’s looking at film projects and, as always, writing. “I feel busy anyway, so I might as well attach some activity to it,” she jokes.
After all, “if it wasn’t funny, it would just be true."
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