Grey Gardens and Mental Health
Were the Beales mentally ill?
I wandered aimlessly through the DVD section at my local library, scanning the different movies I had never seen. As I quickly thumbed through the different titles, I stopped dead in my tracks at Grey Gardens. I knew a little about Big Edie and Little Edie, but I had never watched the famous documentary.
Here is the little information I had about the Beales. I knew that both women aspired to be famous singers. When Little Edie turned of age, she moved to New York City in hopes of hitting it big on the acting circuit. Big Edie fell into a depression of becoming broke after her divorce, and begged Little Edie to return to help her with the huge estate, Grey Gardens, that was left to her after the separation of Little Edie’s parents. After Little Edie returns, they both have no means of income, and continue to live in the home, turning it into a impoverish situation teamed with underlying hoarding issues. Little Edie was the first cousin of Jackie O., who generously stepped forward to clean up the estate after becoming famous by the media for their unsanitary conditions in the 70’s. After the place was cleaned up, this documentary came about.
I grabbed the DVD and headed towards check out, proud of my find. This was the equivalent of the modern day reality show, and I had never missed a Real Housewives of Insert City. How had I gone my entire 33 years without seeing this film for my very eyes? Although I somewhat knew of the story, and with my experience working in child welfare with families that hoard, I had an expectation of what I would see.
I arrived home and popped the DVD into the player, and settled in to give it my undivided attention. What I saw was so much more than what i had expected. I completely understood what made them seem captivating, and left people so curious about the family. I watched in awe as Big Edie sang along to a record she had produced years ago, in a delusion that she was a missed talent. As she sang, Little Edie would follow, being critiqued at every turn by her mother. They would bicker back and forth, and when Little Edie would get a moment from her mother, you could see the feeling of imprisonment behind her eyes. At times she would express how she was stuck here and wanted nothing to do with the estate, but then in turn would look to her mother for affection affirmation that she had a true talent that could make her famous. It didn’t phase either woman as one of their many cats defecated in their bedroom, and showed how they fed raccoons that would come out of the walls in the attic.
After the film, I had to do more research. Were the women mentally ill? It was never addressed in the film, and at the time, mental illness was not understood in any way. The only information I could find was that at some point the media accused Little Edie of being diagnosed with schizophrenia, although there was never a record of this. According to several sources from my research, neither woman had ever been diagnosed with mental illness, nor attended counseling.
I took this time to think to myself, if I was going to give them a diagnosis, what would that diagnosis be? I did see a severe depression going on at the Grey Garden Estate. Both women had no type of financial support, and research proved that they were selling off their belongings little by little to continue to be isolated in this home, just for the sake of being able to say that they owned a mansion by the sea. Delusions were definitely in place for both ladies, not recognizing that their daily routine was a health hazard to themselves. It was rumored that Little Edie wore the scarves with her “costume of the day” because she had set fire to her own hair, angry that she was in seclusion with her mother. Other research said that she had alopecia which caused her hair to fall out, but the first seems more believable. Big Edie finally died a few years after the documentary, and Little Edie sold the Grey Garden Estate to someone with the intention of not bulldozing the dilapidated mansion. I believe it still stands today.
In the end, I don’t know if they had serious mental health issues, or just lived the “artist life” as Big Edie liked to call it, but their like was definitely found to be profound to many in the era that it happened. I would love to travel back and sit down with the family during this time, getting to observe them in their natural state, to bring so much more to the story of the Edie’s that we never knew.