Writing for The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks recounts his interactions with monologist Spalding Gray:
Spalding had had occasional depressions, he said, for more than twenty years, and some of his physicians thought that he had a bipolar disorder. But these depressions, though severe, had yielded to talk therapy, or, sometimes, to treatment with lithium. His current state, he felt, was different. It had unprecedented depth and tenacity. He had to make a supreme effort of will to do things like ride his bicycle, which he had previously done spontaneously and with pleasure. He tried to converse with others, especially his children, but found it difficult. His ten-year-old son and his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter were distressed, feeling that their father had been “transformed” and was “no longer himself.”
Sacks traces Gray’s mental state to both a recent brain injury and a family history of depression. Gray described himself as a “failed suicide,” and was hospitalized several times.
He said that his mind was filled with fantasies of his mother, and of water, always water. All his suicidal fantasies, he said, related to drowning.
Why water, why drowning? I asked.
“Returning to the sea, our mother,” he said.
Anesthesia from surgery would lift his symptoms temporarily, but the darkness always returned. He would ultimately take his life.
On January 10, 2004, Spalding took his children to a movie. It was Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” in which a dying father passes his fantastical stories on to his son before returning to the river, where he dies—and perhaps is reincarnated as his true self, a fish, making one of his tall tales come true.
That evening, Spalding left home, saying he was going to meet a friend. He did not leave a suicide note, as he had so often before. When inquiries were made, one man said he had seen him board the Staten Island Ferry.
I learned about Spalding Gray’s connection to Big Fish the day after his death. Daniel Wallace, who wrote the novel Big Fish, emailed me a link to an article about Gray’s disappearance and presumed suicide, which included the detail that Gray had just seen the movie.
At the time, Big Fish was in theaters, and we were in the middle of the awards season campaign. At press events and roundtables, journalists would occasionally inquire about Spalding Gray and his relationship to Big Fish.
What was I supposed to say? I had no insight on Spalding Gray’s mental state, so I stumbled around saying nothing, or as little as I could before getting back to safer questions.
But privately, I wondered: Was it all just a morbid coincidence? Was there a thematic correlation? Or could one reasonably claim that Big Fish killed Spalding Gray, as some web sites suggested?
Eleven years later, Sacks’s article finally offers the missing context. Gray’s suicidal thoughts had arisen years earlier, and despite the efforts of Gray, his family and his doctors, the impulse to drown himself ultimately won out.
It’s tempting to imagine Gray seeing himself in Edward Bloom; both are storytellers facing their own mortality.
It’s also a mistake.
Real people aren’t fictional characters. They don’t follow a plot. None of us wakes up in the morning with the aim of advancing our narrative or reinforcing our core themes. Instead, we simply live, pursuing our interests while adapting to the changing circumstances around us. It’s messy. It’s unwritten.
As Sacks makes clear, Gray killed himself after seeing Big Fish, but it wasn’t his first attempt, and the film wasn’t the cause in any meaningful sense.
Still, our story brains want the movie to be the cause. We want A to lead to B, post hoc ergo propter hoc, especially when there seems to be such thematic similarity between the two events. As a writer, it’s an instinct Gray no doubt understood.
Even Sacks, the famous neurologist, concludes his article with the detail of Big Fish. For all his discussion of the “delicate mutuality” between the frontal lobes and the subcortex, Sacks still looks for a narrative reason to answer the question, “why now?”
And maybe that’s the right choice.
One of the key points in Big Fish is that there’s often a middle ground between the facts and the fiction, an emotional truth that is more universal and ultimately more useful. Science tells us how things work, but stories tell us how things feel.
The truth of Spalding Gray’s connection to Big Fish exists in both the realms of fact and feeling. It’s important to understand the clinical realities of depression, and also to empathize with those affected. Eleven years later, this new account of Gray’s struggle has helped me do both.