Spalding Gray’s body was identified this past Monday, having been pulled from the East River after he committed suicide. Pitchaya Sudbanthad remembers the actor and monologuist.
He moved to New York. It was a real city that he could comb with his eyes and travel with his feet, and it was something so big and so fluid that he felt like he couldn’t withdraw enough words from himself to contain it. He often drifted around the city, which he felt he could never get lost in. He was familiar enough with the streets, but the city was too large and wild to ever be the same each night. He looked everywhere he went, hoping to find the happy accidents that could bring him the peace he wanted. He waited for the perfect moment to arrive.
In the movie The Killing Fields, Gray had a small role as a U.S. consul. He told Sam Waterston about the village homing device for U.S. bombing raids over Cambodia. There is a scene where he is alone on the floor, snuffed, like the world has fallen on him, and he gets up and walks through the disheveled consular office with resignation in his eyes. The character that Gray played knows Cambodia is lost. He knows ugliness has marched on Phnom Penh, and it will stay. Before he leaves the office, he touches the head of a Buddha, the way you’d touch something for the last time. Then he abruptly walks out the door.
After shooting for the film ended in Thailand, Gray went out to a beach in Phuket and swam in the Andaman Sea. He later told us in the monologue Swimming to Cambodia that this was a place where the perfect moment made an appearance in his life. He floated in the flawless ocean and felt his fears melt away. He called it a fantastic sleep. Years later, he returned. The ocean was slick with boat gasoline, and cheap hotels had replaced the coconut trees. He got back in his cab and drove away.
His mother killed herself when she was 52. She closed the garage door, started the car, and died. When he reached the same age, he was filming the movie King of the Hill, in which his character cuts his wrists open. The bloody make-up on his arms took two hours to apply. After the filming was done, he walked back to his hotel, never removing the fake wounds. A homeless man ran away from him. The staff, knowing he was fresh from a shoot, said very little, and unsatisfied, he walked to a drugstore nearby. He held up his arms to a pharmacist about his mother’s last age who offered him ointment that would have been useless if the cuts were real. He hadn’t thought he would live that long, but he did. The genes in him had not triggered the destructive sequence he believed he had inherited. He hadn’t begun to have the visions of Jesus Christ his mother had had, so maybe he was safe.
But memory was a part of him that he couldn’t contain. It wound around him and choked his head with regret. This he told us many times. Onstage, where he sat with his tabletop set-up of a microphone, glass of water, a pen, and a notebook, he rehearsed his life over and over for us. He gave it shape and projected what he saw into the darkened theater. He breathed faster. He didn’t look at the notebook. In his head, he could see everything so clearly. He stitched together what he saw and threw those naked pieces of himself into the audience, who went for it, like lions. He had enormous pain that he turned into laughter. Why did he do this with his life? Maybe, if he threw enough out to the audience, there’d be nothing left to throw.
What I think happened was that those parts of him regenerated. They grew like buds every time he tore them off. He had multiples, and those multiples of him had lived the same life as he did, each with his memory intact. He flung them into the theater. He had to keep on doing it. He didn’t drink the water on the table, but I think he liked having it there. Water was his element. When the shows were over, I imagine he went home and played with his children, who made him feel better, for a while.
In the filmed monologue Gray’s Anatomy, Gray slides in and out of view. One second his face is lit by bright lights, then he disappears into a shadow, barely visible. The only constant is his voice. He is talking about his sight. His left retina needs to be scraped, and he avoids the doctors’ advice to operate. Eventually he has the surgery, but his left eye isn’t cured. Everything is still blurry. So he walks around with a clear world in one eye, and a fuzzy dream in the other. At the end, he talks about how he’s sitting on a bench in Central Park after the bandages came off. He puts his hand on his left eye, and sees children playing and birds flocking in the air. ‘Ecstasy,’ he beams. He puts a hand on his right, sees an irresolute world and says, ‘Despair.’ Ecstasy. Despair. Ecstasy. Despair. He calls it the perfect yin and yang. Like many of us, he struggled to keep this precious balance.