Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Interview: Mariette Hartley on Surviving, Understanding and Forgiving, Part 1

Mariette Hartley has been the comedic darling of television and movies for decades. She has starred in “Ride the High Country,” “Marnie,” “Peyton Place,” “One Life to Live” and the uber-popular series of Polaroid commercials with “Maverick” actor James Garner. Behind the smiles, she was hiding devastating secrets: familial suicide, bipolar disorder, physical abuse. It all came out when she wrote her autobiography, “Breaking the Silence,” which was initially released in 1990 and has been re-released to reach a whole new audience.

Mariette was kind enough to open up with me about her life.

Daytime Dial: What made you decide to put your life story out there in a book for all to read?

Mariette Hartley: Putnam Publishing called me in. This is when I was very, very actively involved in a career, although I still am, but people are not that sure of it anymore. And Putnam called me in, and nobody knew my life because I had been sworn to secrecy by my mother about my dad’s suicide. I was sitting there with all these big, big agents, and I didn’t have a clue about who these people were. And there was my publisher, Neil Nyren, and a couple of other people and my manager all in a small room in New York. I told them my story, and they all about fell off their chairs. And they decided they wanted to do it.

DD: Tell me about the different organizations you are involved with that help other people who are dealing with familial suicide.

MH: I co-founded the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 1987 and am the national spokesperson, although they don’t really use me enough. So, I don’t really do it through them; I kind of do it on my own. I have survivor groups. That has had a profound affect on my life. I’ve met the most extraordinary people. Some people I have no idea, honest to God, how they’re walking on this earth still — people who have had multiple suicides in their lives. I’ve learned a great deal about it. I don’t know if the right word is “healing,” but certainly listening and sharing my experiences and strength and hope with others about it. That has kind of become my life now, and I love it. It’s wonderful when you have a book out that kind of really supports that. And I love speaking to young people too about it. Secrets don’t work; you have to talk about it. For all that, and that’s kind of what it’s become. Who knew, you know? All I wanted to do was be Ingrid Bergman.

DD: You are still doing a lot of incredible acting work too. Tell me about your one-woman show, “If You Get to Bethlehem, You’ve Gone Too Far,” which you put on a few years ago to rave reviews and sold-out audiences.

MH: What I tried to do with my one-woman show is to have people pulled into a life so profoundly that they could not shake it loose. That they could not say, “Oh well, that’s an interesting play,” and go home and go to sleep. People were so pulled in by the short hairs because I really took people into my world as a 4-year-old. I became that 4-year-old girl, and I was looking up to these two parents who were played by me. I think it is extremely healing, not just for me but for others. There was one person in the audience who came to see it twice, and he was ready to die. That was the main reason why I did everything ... to show people the effect it has on one’s life, one who’s still alive and well, and had been deeply enlightened by the experience.

But even so, when you go through that experience, it’s excruciating. It’s something in which you can hardly explain to anybody unless they’ve gone through it. The problem is that there is such a sense of isolation with it that you don’t know who to talk to. You really begin to feel that there is nobody there. And of course, when my mother swore me to secrecy, there was nobody there but me. And I had no answers for it. So that is one of the reasons why I am so deeply committed to the groups, because of the people who I call my daily survivors, who have experienced it three months ago, five months ago, six months ago. I really wanted the show to be a lifesaver if it could be. And I do know it was for at least one person.

DD: Because you are opening up about your struggles with suicide and mental illness, it really lets others know that it’s OK for them to be open as well.

MH: It’s more than OK; it’s lifesaving. And I think that’s what people have to know. You can’t keep quiet about this stuff — especially mental illness. I go up and down the countryside trying to erase the stigma of mental illness, because that’s basically what my family had. My parents were not just alcoholics, they were both profoundly mentally ill. And they were covering it up because they didn’t know it, bless their hearts. They had no concept of mental illness in those days, although my father was painting a picture of manic depression. He was trying to tell us, but even then we weren’t educated. My mission now is to educate. And what the ASFP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) does, which is quite wonderful, is to support research. We support grants for college graduates or students who are studying the brain. There is a young woman at Johns Hopkins who received one of our research grants, and she is studying the suicide gene.

DD: And if they can find a physical cause, maybe they won’t have to prescribe all these drugs left and right, especially if you are misdiagnosed, like you were.

MH: Yes, and it’s very dangerous because it happens with many people. As you know, I was one of them, and that will probably be my next book. During my divorce — which was just awful, and it brought back so many memories — I ended up being diagnosed as depressed. I was given Prozac and I was given Zoloft, and this is what happens also to young people. Now they have the warning on the box, because those straight depression medicines can be extremely dangerous for bipolar. It can also show you if you are bipolar, but you don’t want to go through that. So what I tell people is that if you need to, find a psychiatrist who’s really good and give an entire family history — no holds barred. My diagnosis was absolutely by accident. But I kept after it, and it took me a good year to find out what was going on.

DD: Your grandfather, Dr. John B. Watson, the founder of Behaviorism, was of the school of thought that children should receive minimal affection. How has that affected you and how you look at parenting?

MH: I think it has affected whole eras, whole decades of childrearing, and we’ve swung back and forth and back and forth, and I really went the opposite way. I nursed my kids until they were 2 or 3, and I loved that. It was the most wonderful and nourishing experience for me and for them. And it has held all of us in good stead, I’ll tell you.

When Dad died, I was in such a state of shock about all of it. The book actually gave me a sense of perspective. I realized I did blame my mother; I did blame Big John for that. I felt that on some level Dad was really misrepresented in that household. He was also so deeply ill. And my mother just didn’t have a chance. It makes me so sad today. I was so grateful that when she did pass, our relationship had completely healed. And I was so grateful for that. She died in my arms, and my brother came down, and people were around her. It was a totally inclusive passing.

When I let myself, I can get pretty angry at the son of a gun (Dr. Watson). But I also realize that he was sick. I’ve seen his lab experiments since then with “Little Albert,” which was the famous one, all of these kids were orphans basically. When he made them afraid of these things in the experiments, he never unconditioned them. They went back to the orphanage scared to death of dogs or whatever the hell he was conditioning them to be afraid of. That was the cruelty to me. It was along with the books about not touching and not holding and all that. That must have come from his own background; I always tried to understand it with him. This strange background that he had with his Baptist fanatic mother and this father who had all these Native-American mistresses. Very strange. I have a very colorful background.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of my interview where Mariette discusses the wonderful change in her life now, the projects she is working on and those infamous series of Polaroid commercials with James Garner.


Lisa said...

Wonderful interview with one of the most talented actresses out there, and a real survivor, in so many ways! I enjoyed reading this so much! I am linking to it at our Mariette Hartley fan page on Facebook!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much - I am glad you enjoyed the interview. Tell your FB group to head over to my sister site, www.celebrityextraonline.com, to win an autographed copy of her book - only 2 days left to enter!!