There’s a great deal in Kathleen Turner’s fascinating recent interview with David Marchese. So naturally if you’re a beautiful actress people will react, comment, and draw their own conclusions about what’s really important. I find it desperately sad when I see what the headlines are saying in response. Read it for yourself and perhaps you’ll think I’m a nutbar, when you see what I chose as the most significant aspect of the interview.
A couple of days ago I shared a link on Facebook concerning opinions about great Wagner performances on record and DVD; and to be on the polite side I said that Wagner’s a bit of an inkblot, in his ability to elicit reactions and interpretive responses that seem to run the gamut, everything under the sun. He’s a mirror. Maybe I’m seeing that here too, that Turner is a lightning rod who draws all sorts of responses.
The headline responses I saw on google just now surprised me:
- that she had three men competing to get her into bed
- that she was busy righting Elizabeth Taylor’s wrongs
- that Donald Trump’s handshake is somehow important
- that the actors she liked or disliked are somehow important: although I grant you, that’s certainly important to her, given that she had to work with Nicholas Cage, Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, et al.
But what did Turner mention in the interview four different times? Rheumatoid arthritis (aka “RA”). Perhaps the RA isn’t news to you, as I see –via Google again—that she has talked about it before several times. I never noticed before today, when I also dug up another interview from years ago (which you can see at the end of this blog).
With arthritis, you’re caught in a kind of trap, that I can express from my own personal experience. I did not have RA like Turner. I have Ankylosing Spondylitis (or “AS”) and the occasional symptoms of Osteoarthritis (“OA”) one sees at my age, roughly the same as Turner’s age. My AS hit in my 20s, knocking me for a loop because
- I had pain
- I didn’t know what was causing it
- Doctors couldn’t figure it out either
I was freaked out, and only figured it out in my 30s, after being puzzled for more than a decade. I had suspicions earlier but also huge arguments with the doctors until the diagnosis at the age of 36. Before the diagnosis I only wanted to be well, to be able to fit in and be healthy rather than to be disabled. At times I was limping, or in so much pain that I literally couldn’t walk. Even after the diagnosis –when I now had an excuse and an explanation—I still wanted nothing more than that the disease would go away or be invisible, because I wanted to go back to being healthy or at least to fit in by being an imitation of a healthy person, to get my life plan back on track. It became a performance, an act, dissembling at times, walking carefully to conceal the limp: doing my best to resemble a normal healthy person. It’s a sort of reversed disability drag we do, where we attempt to be healthy while concealing our pains & our symptoms. Or sometimes we let it show when we want people to know we’re in pain. But like so many things we do, there’s a performative aspect to it.
Imagine the pressure to conceal your reality, when you’re judged on your beauty? At least nobody mistook me for a beauty queen.
Many of the experiences Turner shares resonate for me, decades later, because inside we’re all facing the same questions & challenges. For example, in analyzing the impact of RA on her career she says
“The hardest part was that so much of my confidence was based on my physicality. If I didn’t have that, who was I?”
Her analysis is so simple, really, but fundamental. The problem she doesn’t articulate (at least not in this interview) is that we’re living with these changes, with pain and the simplest daily challenges. She says it so eloquently when she says
“For me it’s can I hold a pen? Can I stand up? Can I climb those stairs?”
There is a horrific description of her working life, trying to cope with pain and the impact of medications that she had to take to get through the day, leading to some conflicts with colleagues. And alcohol rears its head, first as a mis-perception people have, observing her, unaware of the real problem (RA and the meds for chronic pain), then as an alternative pain-relief strategy. Again, I know this first-hand. In my 20s when I was living with pain and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, I went through a period when I was an alcoholic. Beer was my solution (although technically, I suppose beer is a suspension, not a solution….: at least the nerds will get the joke). And of course some people end up hooked on pain meds instead. Turner says she avoided OxyContin or Percocet, which she felt would have led to addiction. I can identify, as I took gentler meds –if you can call Naproxen “gentle”—for twenty years, until I finally heard it might be possible to control my AS symptoms with exercise & diet. So far so good.
But even so, we are a funny society, expecting quiet stoicism of our citizens. I don’t think we are yet open to helping one another with certain problems such as chronic pain. Or maybe it’s a question of knowing the right language. I still haven’t found it and I don’t think Turner has either, because it appears that there’s more interest & attention for negative stories about drug abuse or feuds with other actors, than something as complex as arthritis & health. Hopefully there will be real empathy in the future for others undergoing these complexities. Auto-immune disorders are better understood now, meaning that the choices we’re offered are better too.
Now I need to go back, to re-visit all her films. I must try to see if I can detect any body language that might be pained, to see if her expressions or voice betray any of her visceral suffering. She’s a whole new person in my eyes because I realize now, there was so much going on under the surface. I am no Hollywood beauty, but i do know a bit about living with pain. It’s the reason I’m always eager to talk to people going through a health problem or a bad back, the reason I’ve worked extra hard at the University in my daytime occupation to try to make the workplace safe. As a society we still have a long way to go before we really make it safe for people to work & live. Someday I hope it won’t be necessary to have to explain the kinds of things Turner is talking about in this interview, that were swept under the rug or misinterpreted dismissively. And I’ll be eager to look up other interviews she’s given, because I am still learning, still sensitizing myself after years of stoicism. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a pain management strategy.
While Turner won’t be playing the kinds of roles she played in her 30s, I sincerely hope that she’ll get film work again, so I can see her and hear that voice. I’ve missed her.
Oh and I wish I’d seen this great interview Turner did with George Strombolopoulos sooner.