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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Review: ‘Mean Baby,’ by Selma Blair

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Once Blair makes the cross-country move, her book loses some of the spell cast by the early section. At one point, she uses the phrase “all the charming people I had shared something with during my Hollywood life” — that’s the vibe of these pages. Blair sometimes acted out when she drank in public. She went through a stage where she bit people in greeting or affection; Kate Moss bit back.

This was behavior she now sees through the lens of her illness; it was also an expression of her awkwardness. People don’t always get Blair, who yearns to be seen. As she settles into her career, filmmakers cast her time and again as another version of the mean baby. But the fashion photographers who shoot her see beyond the label. (Blair cares about clothes and is prone to delightful designer analogies: A black eye patch she wears as a child has a point in the center, “a bit Gaultier, like Madonna’s cone bra”; a huge moth that shows up years later by her pool has the swirls of “a Proenza Schouler print.”)

As Blair enters her 40s, the symptoms that have plagued her for years — nerve pain, numbness, depression — worsen. “I am in pretty intense pain,” she posts on Instagram, and her friend Elizabeth Berkley sees the posts and suggests Blair see her brother, a spinal neurologist. He sends her for an M.R.I. And then, finally, somebody really sees Blair — inside her skull. The imaging shows M.S.-related lesions on her brain. The scan is her “new fortuneteller,” the diagnosis her new label, “this time one that fit.”

The rest of the book chronicles Blair’s life with M.S., including her commitment to speaking openly about her experience of the illness, which has included a punishing stem-cell transplant. Early in the memoir, Blair quotes Didion’s famous dictum “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” These days, we tell ourselves stories on multiple platforms in order to live. Blair also told hers in a recent documentary, “Introducing, Selma Blair,” an intimate film that does some work the book doesn’t. From the memoir alone, I didn’t get a visceral feel for Blair’s symptoms — like what a feat it has sometimes been for her to even climb the stairs.

When Didion wrote about why we tell stories, she was reflecting on our need to bring meaning to our experience — to impose “a narrative line upon disparate images.” M.S. is the line Blair imposes in “Mean Baby.” The illness that attacks her spine is the spine of her story, offering perspective alongside structure. “I have no ability to organize. I can only choose one memory at a time,” Blair writes of the way her mind works these days. Where the book reflects this is also where it has the most power, in the memories Blair handles one by one.

“People with M.S. spend a lot of time in their homes,” Blair observes. And at the end of this generous, moving book, that’s where she returns. Here, she roams intuitively, assuredly, between present and past. A reflection on bathing, on submerging herself and feeling “cool and young,” reminds Blair of how her mother loved baths and would instruct the housekeeper to always leave a “trail of Ajax at the bottom” of the tub. But Blair’s mother was also afraid she would die in the bath, especially during thunderstorms. She’d ask Blair to wait outside the bathroom, where Blair would stay, “ear pressed to the door,” vigilant. She writes, “That is my life: anticipating the lightning.”

In the film, Blair points from her brain to her mouth and says that she’s “losing access to my speech from my brain to get it to you.” Though Blair was describing a symptom of M.S., a disease that I do not have, the sensation was familiar to me in a symbolic way; I’ve often felt as if I have a faulty connection between brain and speech, and this is part of the reason that I write. For years Blair looked to astrologers, mediums and healers to tell her story. She was “looking for the right person to relay the drama of my life.” She herself is the right person. When she made that gesture from her brain to her mouth, I thought, That is also a symptom of a writer.

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