If you've ever been in therapy and liked, trusted and worried about losing your shrink, Emma Forrest has lived your nightmare. Three years ago, her psychiatrist died of lung cancer she didn't know he had. This was the man who rushed to her side at St. Vincent's after she downed a bottle of pills, who sang show tunes—"It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed / he's psychologically disturbed!"—with her in sessions, and who tried, with no hint of salacious intent, to confiscate a fashion photo she showed him of herself, bleeding from self-inflicted cuts, in her underwear. With Dr. R's help, she "fell out of love with madness” (as he put it); just months before his death, she published an essay empathizing with Britney Spears' descent into mania and praising him for saving her from a similar fate. And then he was gone, leaving behind not just a devastated Forrest but a host of bereft and rudderless clients. Discovering the others' outpourings in the guest book underneath his New York Times obituary was, she writes, “like growing up and realizing that other people have read The Catcher in the Rye, not just you.”
Forrest's new memoir, Your Voice in My Head, which traces the long history of her depression and evokes her struggles to stay sane without Dr. R, is so intense and compelling, so dark, hilarious and wistful, and so likely to be picked up, highlighted and worried over by every neurotic I know, I almost feel sorry for New York City's mental health practitioners, who probably should have had some sort of advance warning that it's coming. It's a testament to the author's empathy that she's able to incorporate other patients’ eulogies into the book without robbing them of their power or giving off the slightest whiff of gimmickry. When I marvel, in an extended email interview, at how naturally their stories and hers coexist, she says, "I think of all us disparate lost souls who sought solace at East 94th Street as a Robert Altman movie, with intersecting lives and sorrows."
As a veteran of head shrinkery, and a lifelong master of sickening self-analysis, I've read my share of psychotherapy narratives. The doctor's-eye-view can be illuminating, but clients' stories, unless there's some hint of boundary transgression or other weirdness, tend to be dully self-involved and trite, either so insular as to have no relevance to anyone other than the teller, or as universalized and didactic as a religious tract. There are exceptions—I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Girl, Interrupted have their moments, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some—but the only one I know that rivals Your Voice in My Head for sheer tear-jerking power is Annie G. Rogers' (strange, uneven, haunting) A Shining Affliction.
Have I buried the lede? By the standards of the slicks and the gossip blogs and anyone who likes her mental-health-on-the-edge stories sexy, gossipy and celebrity-studded, yes, I've buried the lede: Colin Farrell. Forrest was dating the famous (and infamous) actor when Dr. R died, and was still sick with grief when Farrell broke it off. She doesn't name him, in the book or in interviews. "It probably seems maddeningly coy," she tells me, acknowledging that "there are photos of us together all over the net." But she doesn't have to confirm, if she doesn't want to. The timing of Dr. R's death and of the media reports on the rise and fall of her and Farrell's relationship leave no doubt, for me at least, about the identity of the boyfriend she calls her "gypsy husband."
They hook up after Forrest has been living in LA for a while, holding down a screenwriting gig. She calls back to New York for increasingly infrequent, lighthearted phone sessions with Dr. R, and she's so content with Farrell and with her work that when Dr. R dies it takes several months for the news to reach her. Soon the gossip blogs learn that she and Farrell are dating. Commenters characterize her as a fat, ugly groupie-slut-opportunist. "Maybe we'll get lucky and she'll take an overdose of lithium," says one, with a smiley. Some hardcore haters research Dr. R, whose specialty was cocaine addiction, and the rumor spreads that he's been treating her for drug abuse. Forrest and Farrell stick it out for a while, but the relationship ends suddenly, some months later. Boarding a plane, Farrell texts "to say he'll be in my arms in a few hours and our life together will begin in earnest." Then he shows up, shaking, at her apartment and says, in the parlance of heartbreakers everywhere, baby, “I think I need some space.”
I'll join Julie Kane in being outraged if Forrest's book is reviewed as "the Colin Farrell story,” because “his is not the Voice of the title,” and because it's the story of Forrest's pain, not his. But I was surprised, having only a vague negative impression of Farrell before reading Your Voice in My Head, at how charming, intelligent, and likeable he seems—before he calls things off and stops returning her texts, anyway.
He encourages her writing. He promises, from a film set on the other side of the globe, to send her the moon. Wrapping up Indian leftovers too quickly, he and her dad label one carton, by turns, “Mystery,” “wrapped in a riddle,” “cloaked in an enigma.” When she learns Dr. R has died, Farrell, off working on a movie somewhere, FedExes her a single Werther’s toffee. His obsession with starting a family, and in particular his insistence on buying a coat for their future daughter—whom he's already named Pearl—when Forrest isn't even pregnant and tries to discourage him, is as alarming as it is touching, but it really is both. Relatively few pages of this slim, finely wrought book are directly devoted to their relationship, but in that small space Forrest transforms him from an abstract distasteful celebrity into a guy you wouldn't mind having a beer with.
I tell her this. "Colin is one of the most beautiful souls on the face of this planet," she says. "You know, even beneath mental illness or alcoholism or homelessness, people still have their personalities. And even in his long-gone period of public acting out, there's not a person who worked with him who doesn't love him, because he is such a gentle, funny, humble eccentric. It took a long time, but my heart now feels full when I think of him. When you fall in love again—which I have—it's funny the other things that come back in with that open-ness. You have this ghost chorus of the lovers who came before, but they're benign now, they're good spirits."
When writing a memoir, Forrest says, "you must point out your own flaws before anyone else does… [A] reviewer gasped that I'm obsessive and self-centered — I did say that about myself in the book." And it's true: Your Voice in My Head is relentlessly candid, self-deprecating, wise-cracking, and introspective. "I would flash my thong at the President," Forrest writes, all sympathy with Monica Lewinsky. "Obviously I would." In email, she elaborates: "I'd have done exactly, exactly what she did, certainly at that age. The FBI said she had the profile of a stalker, but that's ridiculous because all spurned 24-year-old girls have the profile of a stalker."
For anyone with a self-destructive streak, it’s been strange to watch cutting become, among cultural cognoscenti in the aftermath of the Goth era, a big, tired joke, a shorthand for a kind of over-the-top, self-indulgent, depressive fucked-up-ness: "she's a cutter." "Or is this only in New York," I ask her, "where everyone is jaded and unsympathetic?"
"I honestly didn't know that," she says. "I did recently read a member of the screenwriting 'Fempire' joking that they stick together because otherwise they'd be cutters. And I thought, Oh, okay, I am a cutter, I guess that's why I'm not invited to the Fempire. I haven't cut in many years now but I would describe myself as a cutter the way someone who hasn't had a drink in two decades identifies as an alcoholic. It's a default position when the going gets rough. Always what you yearn for even if you never do it ever again."
I'd never heard of the "Fempire." I look it up, and write back: "Nothing against the women who belong to it, riding from theater to theater in a white limousine together on opening night to gauge first audiences’ reactions, but it sounds awful, like the sort of group that could actually drive me to pull out a razor. Maybe it’s just me. I've never been much of a joiner."
But Forrest is quick to make clear that she's not at all opposed to women banding together for support. "Kirsten Smith, who wrote Legally Blonde and The House Bunny, has been supporting my writing for years, since she read [Forrest's first novel] Namedropper," she says. "I love her as a person and as a writer."
In our exchanges, Forrest is friendly, but reserved—guarded, even. No doubt her caution is partly the hard-won wisdom of a practiced interviewer—now 33, she entered the world of celebrity journalism half her life ago; one of my personal favorites from her archives is her profile of The Game author Neil Strauss—but she is also genuinely averse to saying anything that might cause anyone anguish. "It's hard to talk about Dr. R outside the book," she tells me, "because I know it's such a roller-coaster of emotions for his widow. It's easier when I know she has time and space."
For all the brazenness and candor of Your Voice in My Head, I have the sense that Forrest is slightly uncomfortable commenting on some of the passages I quote back to her. "A lot of the book came as something of a fever dream," she says. "There would be pages at the end of the day that seemed to end up on my screen by osmosis, things I don't remember typing." Which is to say that Emma Forrest, like any writer worth a damn, is her most fascinating, honest, open self in her work, not in interviews.
"You've written this deeply revealing book, and now you're being expected to answer all kinds of questions about it. Is that uncomfortable?" I ask her. "Like, 'Jeez, I've already told you about my suicide attempt, the flower I cut into my leg, all the cakes I threw up, my sex life, and which movie scenes I've masturbated to. What more do you people want from me?'" She says, "having worked in newspapers from 15 years old for over a decade instilled this psychological assumption that whatever you write just gets thrown out the day after it's printed. That isn't true of a book, obviously, but I'm not worrying about permanence as I write." Elsewhere she's admitted, “It’s obviously complicated to talk about the stuff that I’ve written about. But this is the deal you make when you publish.” And she told the Globe & Mail, “One psychologically dangerous terrain for relapses is talking about it, and now I have to talk about it for a year.”
Despite the originality and precision of her work, her ability to conjure a scene in three sentences, and her skill at describing powerful feelings through vivid and surprising metaphor, Forrest doesn't seem to share more self-consciously literary authors' interest in holding forth on technique or genre or (that evergreen debate) the value, or lack thereof, of MFA programs. Apart from Your Voice in My Head, Forrest has published three novels: Namedropper, Thin Skin, and Cherries in the Snow. Asked which she finds harder to write, fiction or memoir, she says, "Fiction is harder, for me anyway. I can't keep track of anything, how old people are or what page I'm on or which country I'm in."
Is writing fiction less emotional for her, then—more straightforwardly and dispassionately a construction—than autobiography? "It changes. Sometimes constructing a really good cup of tea is a damn emotional experience for me!"
I want to tell her how much I love this aspect of her book—that she infuses everyday tasks, like making tea, and familiar places, like the 6 train, with a palpable melancholia; "I saw the pain and sadness in everything," she writes in Your Voice in My Head, "and swirled it round my mouth like a fine wine." But it's hard to talk coherently about that way of looking at the world, what I think of as a sort of emotional synaesthesia, without sounding crazy, so I keep pressing on genre: "I ask because for me fiction is infinitely more difficult. [I've been very publicly finishing up a novel for years now.] Probably because I endlessly pick at and analyze my actual experiences before putting pen to paper, nothing I write about them, no matter how screwed-up they were, is as destabilizing to me as what surfaces when I’m writing fiction, and I’m always curious to know which form is more difficult for any writer who does both." She's not especially interested in this line of inquiry. "Where I was, memoir was the only way to go on this particular story," she says. "Alexandra Pringle, my British editor at Bloomsbury, thinks the previous books I wrote were a dress rehearsal for the memoir."
Does she agree with Margaret Drabble that depression is useful for writing in that it "strip[s] off ways of getting through life that prevent you from having to think"? (“Happy and buoyant don’t force you into action on the page,” Drabble argues.)
"I didn't find depression useful in any way whatsoever," Forrest says. "I found being able to figure out the alphabet of depression, to name it, to find the right words to describe it to others, that I found useful. I just re-watched Fatih Akin's Head-On, and he just names so much, so many things that have been terrible and abstract, he puts the right words to. It's a film I find so painful and so comforting because of that."
That same descriptive power is what sets Your Voice in My Head apart from so many other memoirs. A few sections made me flinch, literally flinch, I identified with them so fully. Kenny Shopsin, owner of the late, lamented, demented West Village diner, compares Forrest to Marilyn Monroe and then, when she thanks him, says, “You’re all velvet and Velcro. Men want you because you’re sexy and broken and when it gets too tough they can say ‘Hey! This toy is broken!’ and toss you aside without feeling bad.” This makes her “sadder than anything I've ever heard.”
"Mania," she writes, "flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake." "The thought of suicide is masculine energy, with manicured nails, like a mafioso." After she gets out of the hospital, "There's an element of being so frightened of myself that I'm gratified to find I frighten the public at large." What was it like, I wonder, for Forrest to dig far enough into herself to expose so much after losing her lover and her psychiatrist with a few months of each other. "Methodical, sort of beautiful, like a ritual. It hurts to lift that one foot you have in the spirit world and come back to earth, to keep both feet in reality, to become earthed. So writing those passages actually eased that discomfort, that transition for me."
When Your Voice in My Head appeared in England, Julie Myerson—a novelist who notoriously wrote a memoir about disowning her teenage son because of his “addiction to cannabis"—reviewed it, portraying Forrest as a self-obsessed star-fucker. "What are we to make," Myerson asks, "of her constant need to have men—and especially famous men—desire her, and then hurry off to catalogue it all in a tone that's a little too close to crowing for comfort?"
It's true that Farrell isn't the only famous man Forrest has been involved with—not, apparently, by a long shot. An (unnamed) writer and former crack addict Dr. R convinces her to break things off with is rumored to be Aaron Sorkin, and she's admitted to having, "for whatever reason, several movie star boyfriends." Given that Forrest wrote a novel called Namedropper, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she's heard variations on Myerson's accusation before. But she's been interviewing actors, musicians, artists, and other celebrities since she was a teenager, and she's a successful novelist and a screenwriter; obviously she's going to know famous people. And Your Voice in My Head depicts plenty of relationships with guys who are just guys—if, often, deeply messed-up ones. Reading Forrest's book it's obvious that she's naturally gregarious, a true extrovert, as likely to strike up a conversation with a diner owner or a group of teenage girls in team uniforms as she is to talk to celebrities. Let me put it this way: when someone asks to pray with me, I run the other way, but to this day Forrest is grateful to the pretty young woman in the "omnipresent Juicy Couture tracksuit” who came up when she was sobbing on the sidewalk and “prayed until the bus came.”
"Oh yes," she tells me, "I have no boundaries whatsoever, I will let anyone in and I'll steamroll my way into your life too. One of the best writers I know is Jon Ronson and one of the best actresses is Rachel Weisz—I don't think they know each other—but both of them, any cab I've ever shared, I noticed they always ask the driver his life story. I think it's a lovely quality that correlates directly to their work."
Like her friends, Forrest is curious about other people's lives. She remembers their words and their anecdotes, is interested in their complexities. And anyway, aren’t we all self-obsessed? A few years before his death, David Foster Wallace spoke of a “natural, basic” and “socially repulsive” self-centeredness that causes each of us to believe that we are “the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” What’s brilliant about Forrest's book is that she's upfront—and funny and insightful and lyrical—about her neuroses, her compulsions, her need for attention, but she's also willing to consider everyone else’s assessments and everyone else’s pain. "In my reading at least," I say, "you’re writing not to take revenge on those who’ve wronged you but to lay yourself bare, figure yourself out."
"No, no revenge," she agrees, "none needed. The people I really have something against, I just don't write about. The grey areas, good people doing bad things, bad people doing good things, that's what I like reading about, listening to, or watching. Have you seen Fishtank? That's a film that's feels like a novel I wish I'd written." I can see that, so much so that I'd believe her if she said she had written it.
"Reading Your Voice in My Head," I tell her, "made me want to learn needlepoint and make a wall hanging of the note you wrote yourself after the sobbing-on-the-sidewalk incident:
Fuck it, then. I choose this.
It chooses me. I choose it back."
She likes this idea: "To go with the people who have the last lines of Ulysses tattoo'd on their wrists. 'Yes I said, Yes I will yes.' Kate Bush incorporates it into her song 'The Sensual World' which I listened to six times today on the bus."
Dr. R’s is the Voice of the memoir—the voice in her head. So did writing the book end up being her way of continuing the conversation with him? "That was really the point," she says. "I was so scared of losing his voice. I had to internalize it, lock it in and make it a part of me, before it began to dissipate. Also, he thought I was a good person, and that meant the world to me, it was sort of a revelation. That was something I was afraid I'd lose track of, too. That I might go back to being that girl who'd look in the mirror with vomit on her face and burst blood vessels in her eyes and say 'Ha! I caught you—the real monstrous you.'"
Photo by Seamus McGarvey.