By Miriam Kramer
As an actress Selma Blair emerged in the early 1990s in such films as Cruel Intentions, a modernized version of the novel Dangerous Liaisons, and as the dark counterpoint to the sprightly character played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. An actress who always had the intensity and quirkiness of an art-film star, she embodies the antithesis of the all-American girl. Friends with Karl Lagerfeld and hip New York figures such as Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine, she also served as the face of Chanel. Her recent released memoir, Mean Baby, attracted my attention because of her unusual literary artistry and thoughtfulness, history in Hollywood, and multiple life struggles that continue despite her victories.
Her retelling becomes gradually richer and more complex over the span of her memoir. For a Hollywood-related autobiography, this work is atypical and completely absorbing on an intellectual and emotional level. Not primarily a gossipy recount of film adventures, this memoir still includes enough Hollywood for all of us who enjoy escapades. It is mostly an exploration of self, of the challenges that come our way as human beings, and the maturation, joy, and love that can develop in an individual personality and soul despite the combined hardships of abuse, depression, alcoholism, and chronic illness. While this memoir shares Selma’s turmoil and angst, readers should not put it aside as a potential downer. Her appeal lies in her vulnerability, sensitivity, and genuine insights.
Blair’s memoir title comes from the way to which she was referred as a newborn. With her facial expressions, her neighbors jokingly called her a “mean baby”— whose disconsolate, surly expression defined her from day one. Referred to by her family only as Baby Beitner, and then casually as Blair Beitner, she was not formally named until she was three years old and had to be certified for pre-school. Finally the name Selma, from a deceased old family friend, was grafted on to her shoulders. This experience began her ambivalence about her identity at an early age. Blair became one personality, and Selma was often another.
Selma started drinking from time to time at age 7 to relieve her depression and anxiety, becoming a full-fledged, if mostly functioning alcoholic as she grew older. Since her mother liked her children better when they were well-dressed and thin, she also developed an eating disorder that she only recognized in her forties. It seems evident from her writings that her mother had distinct family rules and often told her what image she was supposed to portray, along with her three sisters. Her upbringing was emotionally dysfunctional, as her rigid, distant mother enjoyed assigning her daughters designated roles within the family.
Selma was assigned the role of being depressed, neurotic, and tough. That being said, she loved her temperamental, narcissistic mother dearly, developing an odd, intense relationship in which she saw her as a role model she could never fully emulate. In growing up, she created a shell around herself, keeping her pain and secrets inside.
With a mother who never wanted to hear about illness from the daughter she deemed resilient, Selma hid the shooting pains she sometimes felt in her arms and other symptoms. Later she and her doctors would view them as a possible sign of juvenile multiple sclerosis (MS). In addition, she had an absentee, ineffectual father, growing up with a housekeeper in a middle-class household where both of her parents worked long hours.
Her artistic, sensitive nature flourished at Cranbrook Kingswood, a golden-hued prep school like the one in the movie Dead Poets Society, where she made lifelong friends. Selma finally felt nourished intellectually after having gone to Hillel in grade and junior high school, which focused on religion and required less academic prowess. Flunking out, she was readmitted to school after fighting to get back in.
There she suffered her first sexual abuse, when the Dean, whom she loved as a father figure for his intellect, warmth, and helpfulness, kissed her and put his hand down her pants when she was a ninth grader. Knowing that she would not be believed, and caring about him deeply as well, she did her best to avoid being with him alone. Yet her sense of vulnerability, poor self-esteem, and insecurity grew out of feelings of helplessness. Her experience marked her again as someone who wanted to escape into literature and other studies, and strengthened her tendencies to explore multiple identities. After finishing this volume, I wondered why Selma never directly describes her love of the craft of acting or how she learned to prepare roles. Perhaps it has just been her nature and how she was nurtured. She often refers to others’ opinions of and praise of her, and less so her faith in her own abilities.
In Selma’s young days auditioning in New York and elsewhere, she sometimes got black out drunk and was raped. At least twice she took too many pills as an ineffectual suicidal gesture. Other days she enjoyed her life as a celebrity and met fascinating artists and entertainers she came to adore. It is debatable whether she self-medicated for her slowly growing MS or to buoy up her fragile sense of self and rid herself of depression.
Along the way she describes her off-beat romantic relationships with entertainers like Ahmet Zappa and Jason Schwartzman, along with others. Her warm description of the film friends she met along the way, including Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Guillermo del Toro, reveals her as a loving figure who values her network of friends from her school days onward.
As a quirky, intelligent woman, she met and immediately loved Carrie Fisher, a similar soul whose wit, kindness, and love made her feel at home. Those who have read her books know that Carrie Fisher was a hilarious writer, despite and in part because of her deep bouts of depression and bipolarity. As a devotee of Carrie, who loved her many good friends wholeheartedly, I was charmed further. I also felt that anyone who devoted herself to studying Anne Frank as a child and avidly praised the works of brilliant writer Joan Didion was a kindred spirit. Selma eventually took on the roles of reading the Diary of Anne Frank as an audible book, one of her favorite accomplishments.
As time went on, Selma could no longer use alcohol as a coping mechanism. After having a son, Arthur, with her then-partner, designer Jason Bleick, she stopped imbibing to devote herself to her son’s welfare. After she drank once more on a plane, she woke up in the hospital the next day. Then she went to Alcoholics Anonymous, promising herself not to drink again to avoid affecting others and her son. Simultaneously, with her physical faculties getting weaker, she consulted a doctor. Finally she discovered that she had MS, which had started to overcome her life.
Most recently she has become an advocate to cure MS, even taking center stage in a harrowing documentary: Introducing, Selma Blair. In it she gives an unembellished, raw look at taking on treatments to get better for her son. After revealing her diagnosis on social media, Selma has taken many risks to slow the disease’s progression. Sadly, this development, which derailed her life, had been misdiagnosed for years by doctors and others who believed it was all in her head.
Selma’s book proves introspective, compelling, and a very well-written, easy read. I recommend it for its literary merit and her mature, multifaceted world view. Portraying herself in a raw, unvarnished light, she almost begs to be seen, finally, as her real self, but not in a pathetic way. Her courage and determination prevent her from being any sort of a victim as she pours out her joys and trials, in the hopes of helping those who might identify and learn from her challenges.
Selma ends her memoir with a letter to her son, saying “I hope you’ll experience real joy. That you’ll choose kindness over any alternative. That you’ll surround yourself with people who see you for who you are. That you won’t feel trapped, as I did. That you’ll see people who might otherwise be invisible to the world. People who are broken, lonely, or sick. People who need someone to root for them.”
In this book she advocates not only for her son, but also for those readers suffering abuse, depression, alcoholism, and disabilities of various kinds. She advocates for herself, exposing herself to the world in a relatable way, helping to dissolve the stigma attached to the hardships she has endured despite her seeming privilege. In fact, she is the opposite of celebrities on Instagram with seemingly perfect lives, those selling curated images that encourage unrealistic aspirations, jealousy, and dissatisfaction. Pick up Mean Baby if you actually want to read a beautifully written work about an adult with much wisdom to share and as much to learn as the rest of us.