The main difference between the movie version and the book version of Postcards From The Edge is that the first one has a plot grafted onto it. It’s a good plot: Suzanne, the actress who’s making her way back from a recent stay in the loony bin following an overdose, must stay with her movie icon mother in order for the film’s backers to insure her. So the movie is about their personality conflicts: the mother (Shirley MacLaine)’s extreme need for attention, the daughter (Meryl Streep, weirdly cast imo)’s struggle to be her own person. In the film’s climactic scene, Suzanne wows the cast and crew of the movie she’s in by singing a country western song perfectly in one take. We see everyone on the set being impressed. We’re reminded that it’s a set. We’re reminded, if we want to be, that Suzanne is a stand-in for Carrie Fisher, who wrote the book and co-wrote the movie. Layers on layers of Hollywood loving itself.
Whereas in the book there basically is no plot (not a complaint), just episodic little reports on what life in the psych ward is like – not a lot about this, and not very juicy – and then a lot about recovery, not capital R, but the ups and downs of what life is like after a detour to a place you didn’t want to go and thought you’d never be. There is a little bit more reality here than in the movie, in terms of the down that follows a long period of up. For a stretch of time, Suzanne stays in bed, watching the cans of diet soda pile up on her nightstand, until finally a job offer snaps her out of her depression and she goes shopping with a friend, all cheered up.
I love both versions of this story. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I love the scene in the movie where Meryl ODs in Dennis Quaid’s bed and he dumps her at the door of the ER like a corpse and then when she comes to after having her stomach pumped she looks dark-eyed and dewy, like maybe she worked out a little bit too hard. And I love the book version’s very bleak version of 80s dating. For a while Suzanne goes out with a producer who clearly hates her, and women. Whole pages are full of their dialogue, in which he basically explains over and over why he hates her yet wants to have sex with her. She’s always running into other women he’s had sex with, like, that same day. It might be an object lesson in why you’re not supposed to date in early sobriety.
Movie and book Suzannes both pay lip service to the idea of sobriety but in terms of the plot are not beholden to discuss it much at all: they are, having had their stomach-pumping fun, now sober. No problemo. Diet soda. Going to a party and drinking water. Book Suzanne talks about going to AA meetings in a distant way, as though it happened to someone else. Of course she doesn’t describe what happened or who she met there. Even in fiction, that’s verboten, I guess? The rules around that always seem to change depending on who’s interpreting the rules.
I read Postcards as soon as I could read books again after coming out of the psych ward. Well, that’s an exaggeration. I can read books now – sort of. I used to be able to get lost in a book, to consume books. I don’t know whether it’s the brain injury part of my manic episode or the 1200 mg of lithium I now take but I can’t get interested in books very easily anymore, or newspapers, or magazine articles. This is … you know … a bit of a career setback. I’m hoping they’ll adjust my meds soon, so I’ll be able to care. But for now I only care about books about crazy people, or recovery, and they have to be very, very honest and specific. They have to be about the dosages and side effects, the feelings of blankness and hopelessness and fear that you will never be yourself again.
Of course, neither Postcards has any of that. But the movie version does have a scene where Shirley MacLaine makes a very healthy-looking morning smoothie and then adds a hefty pour of vodka to it. That kind of thing is interesting to me too.
I was all right for a while after the hospital, until somehow I slipped under something dark and black and impenetrable. The things other people did, like going to parties or art openings, seemed impossible. I returned text messages and it was like moving my fingers through wet sand. Of course I cared about someone’s news or thoughts, or some version of me cared, but the sand.
Work saved Suzanne. Being on the set of a kind of crappy movie. In the book she describes getting out of bed at 5 and taking a bath to be on set for makeup by 7. I can’t remember the last time I was conscious and ready to go by 7. At 8, I’m still hoping I can sneak in another few moments of glorious unconsciousness, the place where I am not myself and none of this is happening.
On my way to the store I try to look at trees, buildings, the sky, things I once found ambiently pretty or reassuring. They look to me like how a sky in a book looks, a boring book that you are reading aloud slowly. The store itself is too loud, too much, and the food is unappealing. How are you doing, the checker says by default. I’m good! How are you? It’s the only way to ever reply. The interaction part, needless to say, fills me with dread. The walk back from the store is so hard, the bag so heavy. Every step, every inch up the stairs. And the worst part is that then I’m back here, in my apartment, familiar and filthy in a way that I care about yet am unable to do anything about. Midday is the apartment’s worst time, when the sun is brightest and the counters look their most stained and the floor its most dusty. Can I take out a broom and do something about it? I could, but I could also lie in bed.
It hasn’t been this way the whole time, just since maybe a little before Christmas or so, when I first had two days of the blackest, no-escape depression I’ve ever experienced in my life, and that was the beginning of going up and down on whatever spices they wanted to throw on top of the Lithium: Wellbutrin, Abilify, Gapapentin, Lamictal, and in the middle of it getting Covid so now I don’t know what to blame for what.
Not every day, not every part of every day, is bad. The other day I walked all the way to the subway, the far one, and went to a meeting in Greenpoint. There is something so health-giving and calm about the air in that room, which for a basement is especially impressive. I feel panicky on the way. I do breathing exercises on the subway. Fingers pressed, inhale, fingers part, exhale. But once I’m there it’s like entering a warm bubble of peace. worth every inch of exertion to get there.
But then getting back, climbing that hill all the way up from Lafayette. I get a coffee halfway there and still when I get back I climb into bed and sleep for an hour if I can.
The kids are perpetually running around, screaming, so incredibly full of energy. The other night I couldn’t handle the idea of doing the dinnertime to bedtime slog with them so I went to bed at 7pm. I miss them, is the worst part. But when I’m around them they’re always needing things that I don’t have the energy to give them. I want to have the energy.
To think that the problem used to be that I had too much energy.
In the psych ward, the real-life one, you had to go to groups in order to earn privileges, like getting back your clothes or your phone. I didn’t understand then why some people wandered around for days in their hospital gown pajamas and no-slip yellow socks. It was so easy, I thought, to go to art therapy and make a bracelet, or to games group and do a puzzle. But some people wore their gowns the whole time. There I was, fully dressed, even wearing shoes! (They gave me elastic strangle-proof laces). Now of course I understand. If I was there now, I would wear the hospital issue pajamas, a sign to everyone who asks How are you doing? that the answer is not “fine.”
There was a girl in the psych ward I always tried to draw out in conversation but she didn’t want to talk. Her hair was often messy. I heard a rumor that she was there for ECT. I don’t think she could have talked if she had wanted to. But back then I wanted to talk to everyone.
I liked everyone I met there. Mentally ill people are some of the smartest, most interesting people I have ever met. There was one girl who scared me a little bit, an avid student who seemed happy and smiley but casually mentioned un-aliving herself if she didn’t do well on a test. And there was one older woman who wanted to chat about the magazine business, which would have been fun except I didn’t agree with her assessment of Tina Brown’s New Yorker (perfect, imo.) Other than that everyone was perfect.
Most of the people there were young, which made me feel young and thus better about being there because as long as I was young I could forget that I had children. I wasn’t allowed to see my children for three weeks, and while I could have talked to them on the phone I was afraid that I would scare them.
That was the worst part, but the second worst part was that unlike in every single movie or TV show or book about the psych ward you’ve ever seen, was that there was no going outside. No little guided tours of the green area we could glimpse from the games room. No balcony, of course no balcony, it would have had to be a cage. The doctors were apologetic about this feature of the ward. They seemed genuine when they expressed their regret that we couldn’t go outside. But it was like the way that a concierge at a not-great hotel would apologize for the pool being closed.
In Postcards (book) Suzanne’s psych ward group gets to go for a little field trip and a guy swings her on a swing. It makes the whole experience seem kind of idyllic, Magic Mountain-y, a healthful sanatorium.
Imagine -- I hope you have to imagine and have never experienced this --- not breathing fresh air for more than three weeks. Looking out the window at the sky and not being able to feel wind or rain. Right now it doesn’t sound as horrible as it was, for some reason. We all stay inside too much sometimes for all kinds of reasons.