Book Review: The Princess Diarist

I’ve got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.” -Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist

I read Carrie Fisher’s most recent memoir The Princess Diarist over my holiday break. As the hilarious passage above illustrates, the writing is classic Fisher – self-deprecating humor and honest criticisms of herself and those in her circle.

The book primarily centers on Fisher’s remembrances of filming the first Star Wars film and her affair with co-star Harrison Ford.  When she was cast in Star Wars, 19 year old Fisher was a student at the London School for the Dramatic Arts. She had previously only appeared in one film, 1975’s Shampoo with Warren Beatty. Following casting, she was advised to lose 10 pounds (which seems a bit ridiculous, since Leia spends almost all of episode IV in a very forgiving white robe).  Fisher subsequently spent time at a “fat farm” (what today we would call a luxury spa) in Texas with (bizarrely) Lady Bird Johnson. Her relationship with Ford began after a cast party for George Lucas’s birthday (open bars lead to bad decisions) and continued over the course of several months. Ford was 15 years her senior and married with two children at the time. In Fisher’s self-effacing recollections, the affair was one sided – Ford was almost comically stoic, frustratingly taciturn, and had no emotional attachment to her. Their relationship ended unceremoniously on a plane ride back to LA when shooting wrapped.

The Princess Diarist isn’t just about Fisher and Ford’s dalliance (although that’s the aspect of the memoir that’s gotten the most play in the media), but more about what it’s like to be a 19 year old with very famous parents struggling with insecurity and imposter syndrome. Fisher never discusses imposter syndrome explicitly, but it’s evident in several excerpts from her journals at the time. Professionally, Fisher never thought she would get the role in Star Wars or any other film – other actresses were prettier she reasoned, better trained, had more previous experience. Imposter syndrome manifests itself in her relationship with Ford as well. Prior to their relationship, Fisher had only had one drama school boyfriend and didn’t consider herself to be in anyone’s league. She writes in her journal from the time:

“Because what can you do with people who like you, except of course, inevitably disappoint them?   It’s very dangerous to have someone like you, because one day he’ll find that you are not the person he thought you were. He’ll end up having only one thing in common with you and that’ll be a shared sense of contempt and disgust for you. Of course you knew all along how foolish and worthless you were, but you just hope that if you crouched down behind yourself enough he wouldn’t see it.”

This passage (and many others in the journals) will resonate with those who struggle with anxiety and/or imposter syndrome. Fisher experiences what many of us will at some point in our lives: the palpable fear that your existence is a tenuous house of cards that will fall apart with the slightest perturbation. It’s the fear that someone will pull back the layers you’ve carefully constructed and confirm that yes, you are as bad as you think you are. Carrie Fisher is all of us at 19. She’s many of us now.

Fisher has always written and spoken very openly about her mental health issues and The Princess Diarist is no exception. Her commitment to destigmatizing mental illness (Fisher struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction for much of her life) will be part of her lasting legacy. “I do believe you’re only as sick as your secrets”, Fisher once quipped. I’m glad she shared hers with us.

Fisher also doesn’t shy away from eviscerating the double standards of Hollywood. While Ford at 75 is still regarded as a sex symbol/leading man, Fisher is stuck consistently explaining to fans and interviewers why she doesn’t look like her early 20 something self. Fisher, who watched her own mother be discarded by motion picture studios in the early ‘70s after reaching the ripe old age of 40, knows better than anyone that the notion of an expiration date for women in the entertainment business is alive and well.

Ultimately The Princess Diarist isn’t a romantic story or salacious in any way – if you’re looking for tabloid fodder on the details of the Ford/Fisher affair, they’re not to be found here. The Princess Diarist a “just the facts, ma’am” rendering of events that happened almost 40 years ago. The book excels as an exercise in self-examination and the universality of experience. “What would I be if I weren’t Princess Leia?” Fisher writes. “Someone who didn’t have one piece of fan mail to call her own? Someone who didn’t have to defend her right to not look good in a bikini over forty-five?  I’d be me.” Carrie was always Carrie. A font of hard-earned wit and wisdom, it’s sad that she departed earth so soon. But her writings (The Princess Diarist was her 8th book) and Princess Leia will be with us forever.

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