28 November 2012

Kristen Johnston’s ‘Guts’

A promotional photo from her TVLand series, The Exes.

As Kristen Johnston admits, early in her memoir, Guts, “‘an actress addicted to booze and pills’ is relatively unheard of. And ‘an actress addicted to booze and pills who then writes a book about it’ is even rarer. And when I say ‘unheard of’ or ‘rare,’ what I really mean is ‘disturbingly commonplace.’” Indeed, the enterprising librarian could easily stock a new wing with nothing but actors’ recovery stories.

It’s the nature of the beast, as I’m hardly the first to observe: drunks are storytellers (at least, until they pass out), and recovering drunks have got at least one surefire story, recited and polished in A.A. and in therapy, in which “hitting bottom” provides a perfect dramatic climax. And what actor doesn’t like drama? Moreover, the recovering abuser has a moral justification, perhaps even an imperative: to share the story may help another abuser to find the path to recovery.

All of these things are true of Kristen Johnston’s Guts, subtitled The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster. It’s a helluva yarn, and it may help others: indeed, her Facebook page* is strewn daily with messages from readers who have found strength and courage — “guts,” dare I say it — in her honest example.

What sets Guts apart is the excellence of Johnston’s writing. That may come as a surprise: most actors, even the ones with great addiction stories of their own, need a script, the organizing discipline and the mot juste that writers provide. Johnston is the real deal, a gifted writer who just happens to be a terrific actress.

3rd Rock Memories: John Lithgow, Johnston,
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and French Smith.

Her authorial voice is so powerful and so personal that you couldn’t mistake it for anybody else’s. At the same time, her prose is so breezy and so funny, so vernacular and (yes) so vulgar that the reader may be forgiven for overlooking its rigorous precision. Her writing may seem chatty, but there’s hardly a word anywhere in Guts that doesn’t hit its mark squarely. She constructs scenes and provides background information with balance and economy, giving the reader exactly what’s needed, no more and no less, to feel along with her. I know very few professional writers who could accomplish anything comparable.

Johnston zips through her early years and her award-winning career onstage and on TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun, relentlessly zeroing in on the moment she hit bottom, while appearing in a West End comedy — and thereupon she lingers, almost exulting in the gruesome spectacle, as if she were a Jacobean playwright. When an ulcer explodes (exacerbated by pills), leading to acute peritonitis (and a godawful, foul-smelling mess), and when she undergoes emergency surgery, Johnston spares nothing, and the reader shares her ordeal in squirm-inducing detail that evokes something close to real time.

If you’re looking for cute stories about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you’ve come to the wrong place — though John Lithgow makes an appearance, caring and concerned and somewhat bewildered by the force of the demons Johnston kept (mostly) hidden for so long. Fame is part of the story, primarily because Johnston shot to stardom while still in her twenties and completely unprepared for international scrutiny. It’s telling, however, that she doesn’t place the blame on fame,** or anywhere, really. She’s trying to move forward.

Like many viewers, I’d always supposed that Johnston came to 3rd Rock from the world of high fashion, but it turns out that’s not the case at all. Her height (almost six feet tall by the age of 12) made her more the object of adolescent scorn than the focus of photographers’ lenses, and she reports that it never occurred to her that she was good-looking until she started to read the 3rd Rock scripts, in which her utter gorgeousness was taken as a matter of fact.

But Johnston was never just a pretty face, and as she tells it, she developed her sharp sense of humor as a defensive weapon, early on. Indeed, her sheer toughness is so great that her moments of vulnerability are poignant and memorable — especially as she confronts the day-to-day challenge of recovery. The book may be over, but her struggle isn’t, by any means.

Hell, yes, people are learning from this example.

In her career, Johnston learned the value of words, and she wields them deftly, whether she’s acting from a script or writing from the heart. As a person, she’s still growing, in the ways that count, and trying valiantly to make a difference in the world, whether by striving to establish SLAM (Sober, Learning, and Motivation, a New York high school for kids with substance problems), or by teaching at the Atlantic Acting School, or by writing this book. As she points out in the introduction to Guts, “Everyone’s addicted to something,” and she’s got a lot to tell us all.

Guts is now available in hardback and as an audio book; the paperback edition comes out early next year.

*NOTE: Kristen Johnston is trying exceptionally hard to keep her Facebook page personal, and not a sort of celebrity promotion. If you want to be her friend, you need to provide her with a reason — why she knows or ought to know you. (Also, it’s a very good idea to avoid the abbreviation “LOL,” since, as I say, this woman knows the value of words and prefers more expressive language than Internet shorthand.)

**Fame may not be the problem, but it doesn’t necessarily make life easier: Johnston first spoke publicly about her addiction during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, and even having prepped Dan Rather for innumerable Letterman appearances, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for her!

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