Sheila Weller’s recent book, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, showcases the warmth and inner strength of the late actress, our hero, who lived with bipolar and championed honesty, humor, and awareness.
Journalist and best-selling author Sheila Weller has written about the lives and cultural impact of famous singer-songwriters of the 1960s (Girls Like Us) and pioneering women in broadcast news (The News Sorority). Her latest book, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, profiles the late actress—a hero to the bipolar community for her sharp-edged candor about her own struggles.
What attracts you to writing about successful women?
Complicated women, women who have achieved, women who reflected their culture in one way or another and had interesting personal, professional, and emotional lives—that fascinates me.
And why Carrie Fisher?
She had challenges to overcome, and she did so much work as an entertainer, an author, and a script doctor, and she did a great job in destigmatizing [mental health conditions]. Because she was so honest about living with bipolar disorder and addictions in her December 2000 interview with Diane Sawyer, she really kind of broke through in a way that has helped bring us to the place we are now with celebrity interviews on TV, ads for bipolar medications.
Do you have a favorite performance or work of hers?
I loved Postcards from the Edge. [Editor’s note: In this semiautobiographical comedic novel, first published in 1987, a young woman from Beverly Hills reflects on her life as she goes in and out of rehab.] By turning the focus on herself, by making fun of herself, she would make other women feel less ashamed of their own issues, whether it was neuroses, mental health challenges, family issues, weight, age. She did that in many of her books and stage shows, most strikingly in Wishful Drinking.
What struck you the most about Carrie as you researched?
Her honesty. Her humor. Her charisma. She was incredibly generous—with gifts, with flowers, with money, taking care of a friend dying of AIDS. With her bipolar, she would buy 25 dresses and then say, “Here, you take one or two or three.” She was very warm with people she met briefly, Star Wars fans, up-and-coming actors and producers, people who gave her awards. She was interested in them, concerned about their lives.
Also her ability to make peace with her parents in different ways. I think a lot of women related to her push-pull with her mother [actress Debbie Reynolds], her co-dependence, but they don’t know about her complicated relationship with her father [singer Eddie Fisher].
What would it surprise us to know about her?
Carrie did a lot of tweeting—a lot of emojis. Her dog had his own Twitter handle. She criticized social media for the pain it could give, though. Toward the end of her life, she spoke out against the idea that as a woman in Hollywood, you have to be young, to be thin, to ask for less money than men. But being age-shamed and weight-shamed hurt her. She would cry about it.
Did you know much about bipolar disorder before starting this book?
Not much, no. I really had to learn it as I went—the fact that it’s typical to reject the label, that there’s no cure for it, the challenge of meds and finding the right ones, what happens when they stop working. And as Richard Dreyfuss put it, the exquisite state of hypomania. Carrie was honest about going off her meds and enjoying her hypomania.
What is the best lesson for us in Carrie’s life?
The way she kept persisting. She inherited issues that most people would not want to have. She had challenges she overcame notably and with incredible accomplishment, but also was honest about when she didn’t do that, when she deviated from the perfect path. I think her honesty and humor were very healing and relieving for a lot of women especially, but also men, who also deviated from the perfect path.
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