By: David Vogel
As I started reading A Life on the Edge, a fascinating new biography of Carrie Fisher (just out from FSG), I wondered what else I could learn about someone so famously candid about her own life. Turns out, quite a bit. During a talk on the book in New York’s Greenwich Village, I learned that Sheila Weller, bestselling author of 7 books, including Girls Like Us, had been interested in writing a biography of Fisher for a long time. Their lives had many parallels, having both grown up in Beverly Hills, where their families exploded because of similar scandalous love triangles and divorce. Only after Weller interviewed subjects for this book did she appreciate the enormity of Fisher’s impact. Respect and reverence for a cultural icon comes across on every page of Weller’s engaging, introspective look at the complicated life of an enormous talent taken from us too soon.
Weller’s biography focuses on Carrie Fisher as a complex, larger than life force of nature. It details in-depth her struggles with mental health, addiction, aging, and her complicated relationship with her body (and yes, Weller addresses that infamous gold metal bikini). Indeed, the book moves gracefully through Fisher’s rollercoaster life, providing enough scintillating details to keep readers riveted throughout. Weller begins at the end of Fisher’s story, framing events with the tragic deaths of Carrie and her mother Debbie Reynolds, which occurred within days of each other in December of 2016. We see Fisher’s widespread impact through the way friends and fans responded to the tragedy. Weller then takes us back to the beginning of Fisher’s life. She was in the spotlight from the day she was born, witnessing the media circus surrounding the traumatic split of her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, who later married Elizabeth Taylor. This separation and her subsequent sense of abandonment left Fisher with permanent emotional scars. We also witness her transformation from insecure starlet to overnight superstar at age 19 in the mega-hit Star Wars, then to her later career as best-selling author of Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking. Ultimately, she became a feminist icon.
Having never met her subject, Weller pieced together Fisher’s story through interviews with such legendary friends as Richard Dreyfuss and Salman Rushdie. It is clear from the way they talk about her in gushing, effusive terms that Fisher was an extremely caring and affectionate woman who was treasured by those who knew her. As Fisher wrote in her own book Shockaholic, “When I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed, or it should have capital and its own currency.” This woman lived to help and support people, and it is one of the strongest themes in A Life on The Edge. She wanted to love and be loved and remained open about her own struggles in the hope that it would help others feel less alone.
The best sections of the book deal with Fisher’s pioneering candor about her mental health journey. As a 28 year old actor who has suffered with depression and anxiety, I was impressed by Weller’s sensitive treatment of these issues. She interviewed doctors as well as others who live with bipolar disorder, which, up until 1980, was called “manic depression,” about just how it affects one’s ability to live a balanced life. Stigmatization and widespread misinformation didn’t make it easy for people to live with bipolar disorder during much of Fisher’s lifetime, let alone feel comfortable sharing their experiences. By sketching this social context, Weller vividly paints a picture of how ahead of her time Fisher was. In a time when no one wanted to talk about mental illness, Fisher went on national news with Diane Sawyer in 2000 and openly talked about it with humor and biting wit, allowing those who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their stories to feel less alone.
Like any successful celebrity biography, there’s more than enough juicy, celebrity-filled anecdotes about Fisher’s life to keep readers turning the pages. There are many tales of her famous birthday parties with best friend Penny Marshall (the guest list seemed to include every VIP in Hollywood), details of her tumultuous relationship with (and brief marriage to) Paul Simon, and stories of her friendships with everyone from Meryl Streep to Rufus Wainwright.
A Life on the Edge is a nuanced, highly entertaining celebrity biography that does justice to all that Carrie Fisher was. It’s been denounced as “unauthorized” by Fisher’s family, former partner Bryan Lourd and her daughter Billie Lourd. They take issue with the fact that Weller did not know Fisher and does not have any connection to their family. Bryan Lourd went on the record stating, “The only books about Carrie Fisher worth reading are the ones Carrie wrote herself. She perfectly told us everything we needed to know.” However, I see no reason why they should object to this new biography. Weller writes about her subject with the utmost compassion, while crafting a compelling narrative. Come for the celebrity stories but stay for a multi-faceted portrait of a feminist hero. Fisher’s legacy can be seen today in the comedy of Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and countless other female celebrities who now have a voice to reveal issues once taboo. Weller makes it clear that these women owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Fisher for her lasting impact on the entertainment industry. There will never be another Carrie Fisher, but reading A Life on The Edge shows how lucky we were to have her while she was here.
David Vogel is a performer living in New York City. Follow him on Instagram @davogel or Twitter at @david_vogel.