I have nothing to say on Fisher’s performance as Leia. Leia I know only as a pop culture icon, a Halloween costume; two plaited doughnuts and a Friends episode. I know she means a lot to a lot of people, however. I know kids who grew up in the 70s adored her; I know fans paid thousands for cosplays and meet-and-greets and that the instalment of the franchise in cinemas now has her digitised presence. Tributes from her fellow cast and crew members have poured forth.
But Leia wasn’t the Fisher I held close. The first time I encountered her, the big brown eyes and the flared nostrils and that husk’n’cackle, was in 2006, watching The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Stephen Fry visits a manic Fisher at home. I didn’t recognise her but I recognised the mania. Who was this woman? Immediately I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of interviews and performances. Hour passed. My eyes went wet with laughing, then dried with tiredness, and the black outside turned grey and flat. I crawled into bed and felt somehow changed. Somehow, and it might sound trite but who cares – she’d say it as it was – less alone.
Fisher always spoke about addiction and mental illness straight up: “I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that. I am still surviving it, but bring it on.” Fisher was saying these things years before the rest of us; before celebrity as advocacy; before think pieces; before people were awarded with actual awards for it (she has an hilarious bit on being named Bipolar Woman of the Year).
We saw her at her best but she showed us the workings out too.
Her creative writing about mental illness was brilliant. There aren’t many people who can write it well; who can peel back the truth of it and get to the rawness and somehow make it soft, or at least, make it not as raw, touchable; but she did.
Often Fisher made it funny too, which is an even greater gift. Her 2008 memoir Wishful Drinking – what a title, what cover artwork – is a great example (“No matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra”). Her 1987 semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, detailed time in rehab. Her second memoir, the Princess Diarist, revealed her affair with Harrison Ford, writing of her feelings for him (“at least five, sometimes as many as seven”).
I read an interview this week in which the British prime minister, Theresa May – stay with me – said she had “never had a female role model”. Bizarre. I’ve lost three of mine this year alone: Victoria Wood, Caroline Aherne and now Carrie Fisher. Because Fisher was a female role model for me. She pushed back last year against insidious sexism (“stop debating whether I aged well”). She was a woman with mental illness who refused to be painted as an hysteric, a histrionic; sexist archetypes beloved by the early psychoanalyst set. She was successful not because of a gold bikini or because of famous parents but because of smarts and talent and, yes, beauty, and wit and determination and kindness.
She crackled with life on this planet, in this galaxy. One of the things she would say to reassure those with mental illness was: “you can lead a normal life, whatever that is”. Hers was an extraordinary one.