“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”- Carrie Fisher
This is a story in three parts. It is about Princess Leia, and Carrie Fisher, and me.
To understand it, you must put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. So now imagine yourself as a nine-year old girl named Amy. Your real name is Harmony, of course. Amy is a nickname given to you in an effort to curtail playground mockery. This effort is unsuccessful. Whatever your name is, you’re still a pudgy little scab of a girl with coke-bottle glasses and fleece Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pants from Odd Lots that you will not remove from your legs on pain of death. You cannot find the right games to play with other kids, because the “things for girls” are clearly not the things for you.
Later you will realize that your childhood was mottled by the Smurfette Principle. Once a girl has outgrown Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy, secondary sex characteristics are the only things about female heroes that anybody notices. If it was only you who noticed these things, you could ignore it, but the boys and girls you play pretend with enforce gendered norms like they are the unspoken bedrock rules of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. If you want to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you are always April, and April is always kidnapped and has to wait in the covered slide to be rescued. If you want to play Smurfs, you are always Smurfette, and you have to feign interest in the broken plastic play mirror some misguided/hopeful relative gave you for Christmas while everyone else hunts for treasure. If you’re playing with dolls, you’re playing house, and your job is to stay home and endlessly mix an empty plastic bowl until your husband comes home for imaginary dinner. It is terrible and boring and you do not make friends easily, if you make them at all.
Your mother knows how miserable you are, and makes a point of seeking out role models for you that are not governed by gendered expectations. One weekend, she takes you to the video store by the house, and it is your turn to pick the video. She picks STAR WARS off the shelf and presses it into your hands, assures you that it’s an adult movie but you will like it. The Muppets are in it! Kind of, anyway.
You watch the movie and it’s like someone took your dreams of adventure and cast them far and wide on a movie screen. Fantastical creatures! Robots! Space swords and blasters! The movie is a technicolor kaleidoscope of imagination and fun, and right in the middle of it is your first-ever real adult female hero: Princess Leia Organa, rebel leader and total badass. Leia doesn’t take a knee while the clueless dudes around her do all the cool stuff. She’s in the middle of it, kicking butt and taking names alongside the male heroes you’d normally be compelled to cheer for. You watch the first movie and you’re struck by her total heroism in the face of all adversity. The princess orphan, cool and cunning, leading a rebel alliance in defiance of the scariest villain you have ever seen in your young life. You watch the next movie and thrill to her adventurer’s spirit, her stoicism, her bravery in the face of losing her friends and her true love to an unbelievable betrayal. You watch the final movie and your heart sinks to see her kidnapped and imprisoned, just like every other Smurfette who’s ever disappointed you, until she busts her own ass free and STRANGLES THAT BLOBBY MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE CHAINS THAT BOUND HER! HELL YES SHE DID.
You watch the movies over and over. You don’t tell people how much you like them, because even at that age you kinda know that it’s lame to love Star Wars and double lame for girls to love Star Wars. But that does not stop you from filling an entire sixty-page spiral bound notebook with what you later will understand is fanfiction. The Adventures of Layla Skywalker will probably not be considered for the Star Wars expanded universe anytime soon, but it is still your proudest achievement. Layla lives with Yoda on Dagobah, and she’s the hired gun that Jedi call when shit gets too real with Darth Vader. Her mother Leia always has good advice on dealing with dorks and nerds in the galactic senate. (Also, for some reason, Darth Vader is alive and Leia and Luke are married? The author may not have been paying a ton of attention to continuity.)
In the end, Lando Calrissian pledges his eternal love and devotion to Layla, and begs her to settle on Cloud City for an eternity of playing house together. But Layla knows the galaxy needs her more than Lando does, and she departs for adventures unknown.
Literally unknown, actually- I ran out of paper, so I don’t know what happened next.
That was the first time Carrie Fisher saved my life. Leia gave me permission to dream of fantastic stories where women get to be heroes for once. My love of her opened me to other female heroes: Batgirl, Storm, and even later Sailor Moon. It also gave me a valuable early warning as to how toxic dude nerds can be, as none of them were ever willing to acknowledge that the metal bikini they loved to jerk off to was being worn by an intergalactically-trafficked sex slave. It was educational, is what I am saying, and affirming at a time when I really needed it.
But that is not the only time Carrie Fisher saved my life. The second time requires some context to be understood, and it wouldn’t make sense to a child. So we move into part 2 of the story, in which you are now an adolescent. How’s being fifteen going for you, Harmony?
Spoiler alert: it isn’t going great. The good news is that you’ve started using your real name. The bad news is that you’re still aggressively nerdy, pudgy and bespectacled, and wounded by the world around you at every turn. Your mother no longer has the time and patience to seek out role models for you, as she is occupied by a mysterious and chronic health condition. This condition is resulting in her dying or killing herself or making a big deal out of nothing (depending on whom you ask). But she knows that her daughter still needs guidance. She knows that you love to write, and that you are naturally funny, and she feels that you deserve an audience. Your favorite thing to read, other than Lois Duncan novels, is The Onion. So your mother writes to the editorial board of The Onion, explaining her ongoing illness and her gratitude for the laughter their work gave to your family in a difficult time. She also mentions that her talented daughter wants nothing more than to write for them someday- a wish you had never shared with your mother before, though it seems obvious in hindsight. In response The Onion editors send an absolutely lovely letter of encouragement, a box full of print-editions and Onion books, and your most prized t-shirt for the next two years.
You come home from school one day and your mother presents their gifts to you. She is so proud of herself, and moreso she is hopeful that this might be The Thing That Finally Cheers You Up. You are cautiously pleased- you’d been waiting for Our Dumb Century to turn up at Half-Price Books for months now! -but you are also mortified. How could your mother tell these unknown people about her illness and your sadness? Where the hell did she get off allowing them to send her books and merchandise? You weren’t charity cases! Didn’t she know there were children in sub-Saharan Africa who had never even heard of satirical newspapers?
In response, your mother sighs and rolls her eyes. You will always remember exactly how she looked at that moment. She sneered at you in a somehow loving way, cocooned in one of her omnipresent shapeless t-shirt nightgowns, the outline of a morphine pump snuggled up to her breast like a sugar glider. Her ever-beautiful french tipped nails (a home job, thank you Sally Hansen) tapped on the side of her drug store cane. She fixed you with a shut-up look, then she said:
“Listen. This all sucks. It’s not going to stop sucking. You’re going to have to keep dealing with it. Why not get what you can out of it?”
You remain embarrassed, but you also read and reread the gifts from the Onion until they fall apart in your hands. You begin to write your own satirical articles on your home computer, hidden in a folder marked “Homework”, your ambitions guarded from others in the same way that most people your age hide their porn. You dream of the mythical Midwestern metropolises- Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh -and of a life that could be sustained there by your gifts. You dream of laptops and coffee shops, of a byline in italics. You let yourself hope.
Then she dies, and everything changes.
What does any of this have to do with Carrie Fisher? Good question. Let’s jump ahead one more time.
We are in the third and final part of this story. You are now Harmony at the age of thirty. You will not be surprised to learn that you are still fat and bespectacled, but you have at least begun to dress for it, and you are now comfortable telling your bullies where to shove it. Your twenties were long and weird and difficult, but they spat you out on the other side in the skin of an adult. You are now a woman with a dog and a master’s degree and a husband and a real job and maybe the beginnings of a drinking problem- but that’s a worry for another time. You have done all of the things that were supposed to make your life complete, and yet.
You are still depressed. You are used to being depressed. You have stopped fighting it. Depression is the annoying sit-com neighbor in your life, a schmuck in a Hawaiian shirt who crowds your every move and turns everything you touch to shit. He pops up at the worst times, ruining everything with predictable hijinks like some kind of bizarro Steve Urkel. Sometimes he stays out of the plot for minutes at a time, and you almost think he’s gone. Then he’s back, swinging through an open window and dropping his popular catchphrase: “Hey, why don’t you just kill yourself?!” Cue laughter. Cue applause.
Thirty-year old Harmony is exhausted by her depression. You are so tired of driving people away, of doing everything wrong, of not being strong enough. You sleep all of the time, but you never feel awake. You begin to notice things: the heights of bridges, the airproof plumbers tape that could seal the windows of a garage, the skulls and crossbones on the chemicals beneath your sink. These small details are now lit in neon everywhere you look, and on your weariest days you are powerless to close your eyes against them. In desperation you return to the therapist that kept you alive after your mother died. You ask this therapist how people ever learn to be happy, because you never did and you’re not sure you can continue to live if happiness isn’t at least a possibility somewhere down the road. You can’t handle a lifetime of endless visits from your brain’s warped, darkest-timeline companion.
You know you don’t actually want to be dead, not really, but you need something to live for or that’s where things are going to end up. So what’s it going to be?
Your therapist, thank God, does not call 911. Your therapist, bless her heart, does not make a referral to an inpatient facility where you will have to sit at a formica table and talk about your childhood while making snowflakes out of popsicle sticks. Instead, your therapist asks you to think back to the last thing you did that made you really happy. What was it? How did you do it? Why did you stop?
Your mind immediately darts back to that spiral-bound notebook of galactic fairy tales, the first thing you ever wrote for yourself. The drafts of satirical articles for The Onion, your teenaged hot takes on boybands and President Bush languishing on a forgotten home PC somewhere in your basement. Your early efforts at humorous internet writing, always well-received even when your relationships with editors and colleagues deteriorated due to your chronic brain fog-induced lateness and asshole tendencies. Those things made you happy.
So what stopped you? Humor always came easy to you, as did fantasy. It seemed like you could write about anything you wanted except yourself. All the stories you want to tell burn in your heart like a hot splinter, making your eyes water, begging to be drawn out. But in all of the writing you’d ever done, you’ve always created a protective layer of irony between yourself and the things you really wanted to say. You’d write under a pseudonym, or use some kind of a cutesy gimmick like referring to yourself in the second person, literally begging the reader to discard you as a matter of understanding your work. The gaps between what you write and what you are feel insurmountable, and leave enough space for the toxic fingers of your anxiety to sneak through and strangle your ambitions in the cradle. Your real thoughts feel simultaneously too raw, too personal, and too pedestrian to share.
You left your therapist’s office that day with permission to avoid hospitalization on the condition that therapy would be a long-term consistent part of your life plan, and that you would endeavor to learn how to be the kind of writer you wanted to be. To help you begin, the therapist recommended a handful of books where authors mined their difficult pasts for material. One of those books, of course, was Wishful Drinking.
You read it all in one day, and then you immediately read it again. You’re overwhelmed by the style, the wit, the ferocious honesty on display. Before Carrie you had only read narratives where depression rendered women into victims, not victors. Stories where women literally and metaphorically wasted away, imprisoned in the high tower of their sadness by a gothic villain made of misfired neurons and circumstance. Depression was meant to be a woman’s Mr. Rochester: moody, dreamy, dreary, and somehow Victorian. You weren’t supposed to be angry at the depression depicted in these stories, as unreasonable and violent and crushing as it was. Instead, you were to join the long-suffering heroine at a rain-streaked window, wringing a handkerchief in your hands, watching the dreary grey landscape and waiting for that sexy son of a bitch to show up and ruin your life again.
Carrie’s writing had no patience for self-pity and melancholy. Her work did the delicate tightrope walk of explaining her sorrows and making them understandable, while also not giving them the power to control the narrative. Her honesty and humor gave her the tools she needed to reap a harvest from her pain. When she battled the mania of her dark Urkel, she did not allow him to tyrannize her life with his mindless spasms. When she fought the dark blue depression of her Mr. Rochester, she did not allow him to make her swoon into the attic at his convenience. She broke free from them both and used her writing to wreak a deserved bloody vengeance upon those needy life-ruining bastards. She stabbed her problems in the neck with her pen and ate their hearts to gain their powers. She took her misery, devoured it, and made its terrible wrath her own- to process, yes, but also to profit.
And to do it- to really make it work -it had to be her story. Nobody else’s. No second person distance or omniscient third person tricks for Carrie Fisher. Every experience, every joy and heartbreak, every gleeful epigram and tortured pun, were in her voice. She made cheerful claim to the pain of death and addiction, the bizarre side effects of psychological diagnoses and electroshock therapy, the twisted ugly roots of a Hollywood family tree, and even the double-edged lightsaber of her time as the world’s most famous space princess. Because she claimed it as her own, she could make it what she wanted to be. She could make us cry or laugh in our faces. That was the power of her storytelling.
That’s the power I want. So I’m taking the voice of this story back.
After I finished Wishful Drinking for the third time, my mind wandered back to my mother and her command for me to extract whatever of value I could from the awful crap life seemed to never stop piling at our door. A lifetime gardener, my mother knew what kind of flowers one could grow from good manure. But it’s not in a gardener’s best interest to thank the manure, or glamorize it, or let its stink overpower everything in her life. After all, one mustn’t give too much power to bullshit.
But my mother died before I was old enough to understand what she was trying to explain. And so Carrie appeared once more in my life, in the form of a book, to give me a first-person voice and show me the way to use it. I know that I am not the only female essayist who points to Wishful Drinking as a turning point, and a blueprint for wringing comedy from the dull ache of tragedy. Carrie’s legacy is an army of princesses, yes, but it is also a quiet sisterhood of scribes: funny, damaged women who didn’t know you could talk about it like that until Carrie showed them the way. I am still learning how to tell my stories, and every word in the first-person is progress. I have no delusions that my writing will be ”important”, but I can’t help but hope it will mean something to someone someday, like Carrie’s work has to me. Leia showed me how to be a hero, but Carrie showed me how to be a writer. It turns out I need to be both. I’m grateful to have learned how from the best.
The last time I saw Carrie Fisher wasn’t a private moment, of course- when did she ever have private moments? As soon as General Leia Organa showed up in The Force Awakens, I cheered myself hoarse, along with every other woman in the audience. Our princess had grown not into a queen, but a warrior, with a new young woman looking to her for hope. I can’t prove that Lucasfilm lifted Rey directly from my fanfiction, but I would not hold it against them. I would only thank them for finally letting me see my childhood hero inspire another woman to survive. And then I would write an essay about how much I loved it, and how much I loved her, and how grateful I was to however briefly share a planet with her and benefit from the gifts that she left us.
Which I have now done. Rest in power, Carrie Fisher: drowned in moonlight, and strangled in your own bra.
Originally published at harmonymae.com on December 27, 2017.