The Practice of Creativity

The lesson about repressed creativity from Gray Gardens

Posted on: May 6, 2009

     I had vaguely heard of the 1970s campy cult classic Gray Gardens. That documentary chronicled the decayed lives (physically and metaphorically) of former socialites Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edie Beale (Little Edie). But, I had never seen the documentary or ever thought about their lives as examples of repressed and frustrated female creativity in the early 20th century. In the recent HBO film, Grey Gardens, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore play this dysfunctional mother and daughter duo and provide new insights into what held these women back from giving the world more of their unique vision. The film begins with Little Edie’s late teenage years and tries to fill in the mystery about their lives prior to the 1975 documentary. Drew Barrymore who was the driving force behind bringing their story to light prepared for the role by reading all of Little Edie’s journals and living as a recluse for several months (like the Beale women did for decades). Both actresses give spectacular performances and although I’m sure the story takes some license with the actual facts about the Beale women, they portray complex three-dimensional beings.
       The narrative subtheme that really caught my attention was how actively blocked Big Edie was from pursuing her dream of being a singer. She married a wealthy man who wanted her to assume her rightful place (according to gender norms of the 1930s) in the home. He did not want her to sing, dance or talk about her past life as a performer. He wanted her to be a “proper” woman. She tried to explain to him and Little Edie that her singing “was something she liked better than anything else” and that she loved singing and performing ever “since she was born.” Lange’s portrayal of Big Edie as a natural performer and entertainer is compelling.
    Big Edie made, what some might call, an unconscious false bargain-protect me and make me secure and I’ll only do my creativity on ‘the side’, or as ‘a little show’, or ‘in the shadows’. In the movie’s presentation of mother daughter dynamics, Big Edie gives mixed messages to her daughter about the possibilities of living a creative life. On the one hand she recognizes, nurtures and indulges her daughter’s creative self, yet constantly makes her dependent on her as the source of fulfillment and protection. Little Edie is creative in many different mediums and dreams of making a life as a dancer and actress. Big Edie tells her daughter that she too, can make a “bargain” for wealth and comfort and do her passion on the side. These are definitely shadow bargains and over the course of the film, we see that they both pay a high price for amputating their creative self for protection (Big Edie says to her daughter ‘Find a man to give you a long leash’), wealth (which runs out after a nasty divorce) and safety. Little Edie retreats into the fantasy world that her mother creates for her instead of finding if she can make her dreams real.

About this archetypal story, I find myself thinking about Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ work on how women make false bargains (with others and themselves) about their creative lives. She uses the fairytales of The Little Match Girl and La Llorona to make her case. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Estes states:

“A woman must be careful to not allow overresponsibility (or overrespectability) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She must simply put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes that she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments alone.”

The writers adeptly imply the culture’s limitations on women’s autonomy and self-determination during their lives. It’s hard to imagine what their lives might have looked like if they had been able to resist the culture’s negative messages about creative and ambitious women and their own self-doubts. They were ill-prepared to live an independent life. They had little street-sense (because they were always sheltered and cared for) and they both might have had some mental health issues that could have surfaced while pursing their dreams.

If both of them would have followed their dreams, they might have completely flopped but I think, in the end they would have been happier, less insular and less self-destructive. By the end of the film, Big Edie has metaphorically cannibalized her daughter’s creativity for her own selfish psychological needs; she uses her daughter’s creativity to evade the world and turn inward becoming physically dependent on Little Edie. Although Little Edie never married, she carries on an unconscious false bargain with her mother for decades–sacrificing her dreams and desires to placate her mother’s failed life. It was very hard to be a witness to their cramped lives and the pain in not expressing what they wanted to give to the world. Barrymore effectively conveys the rage of the realization of  a false bargain with one’s creativity and a life half-lived. 

The ending, however, suggests that although the deep impulses to a creative life can be blocked, thwarted and repressed, they never are completely exterminated. The 1975 documentary and its subsequent success helped launch Little Edie as a underground cult star. She begin her public creative life in her fifties and lived on to finally perform on stage, write poetry and be absolutely fabulous until her death in her early 80s. Knowing that Little Edie was finally able to live out some aspects of her dream to dance, sing and entertain filled me with a deep sense of joy. I’m glad that at least one half of the Beale duo got a taste of creative freedom.


2 Responses to "The lesson about repressed creativity from Gray Gardens"

I really enjoyed this piece. I must say that this blog is very timely for me. I believe there are no coincidences. And I am happy to have come across your words. Your mention of Dr. Estes’ book “Women who run with the Wolves” was the last confirmation I needed to go and pick up this book. The Universe/heavens have definitely led me in the direction of that book. Although I have not completed the book I feel as though I am returning to my true nature/self as I read this book and your blog. This passage makes much sense to me and I find it hard to put into words the level and depth to which I can relate. My heart feels more positive to know that there are people in the world who help to restore that which has been repressed over time.

I truly believe that the world experiences a great loss when women bargain and sacrifice their creative expression and freedom. One lives a life of suffering when trapped in the boxes of “overresponsibility” and “overrespectability”, etc. If I am not myself in this world & express all of me (desires, creativity, etc.) then I am not giving life to myself. In other words, I am not living.

I will check out this documentary.

Hi Rebecca,
Thanks for the kind words. You may want to check out a great book called :Singing at the Top of Our Lungs. It’s about women, love and creativity (and the false choices that women women feel that they have to make). Two women academics and artists designed a survey of how women understood their creativity and then did in-depth interviews.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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