Excerpt: Carrie Fisher, a rebel before and after Star Wars

With her sharp wit and humor, Carrie Fisher was unapologetically open about her battles with mental illness, addiction, and her Hollywood legacy.

Photograph courtesy Getty
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A portrait of Carrie Fisher in 1977, the year she debuted as Princess Leia Organa in the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope.
Photograph courtesy Getty

Excerpt: Carrie Fisher, a rebel before and after Star Wars

With her sharp wit and humor, Carrie Fisher was unapologetically open about her battles with mental illness, addiction, and her Hollywood legacy.

National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundaries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.

I cried when I heard Carrie Fisher died, a couple of days after Christmas in 2016. People all across the galaxy did: Star Wars nerds, avid readers of her novels and memoirs, mental health advocates, self-proclaimed killjoy feminists. The coroner’s report, released six months later, reported that traces of heroin and cocaine had been found in her system. Some fans left the club, outraged that it wasn’t a simple, noncontroversial heart attack caused by too much fish and chips (she was on her way home from London) that ended her life. But Carrie was never easy, never well behaved, never secretive about her demons. She was never not controversial in life, so why should her death be any different?

I’ve always claimed Carrie as a very distant cousin, if the definition includes going to the same film school as George Lucas, who gave us Princess Leia. I entered USC School of Cinematic Arts not long after Star Wars had become a Hollywood blockbuster and was on its way to becoming a cultural phenomenon on a par with . . . well, nothing. There had never been anything like Star Wars before in the history of cinema. We studied it as if it were a holy text. We collected arcane trivia about the production long before anyone else. (I still have an early draft of the screenplay, where R2-D2 talks instead of beeps.) I had seen the movie many times in class, but only twice at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: once, with a boy I’d met in Switzerland (a real Swiss shepherd), who wept at the wonder of it; and once with my dad, an engineer and industrial designer, who seemed to enjoy it but whose only comment was, “You know, there’s no sound in space.”

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Illustration of Carrie Fisher

There weren’t any (or many) women in film school in those days, either. I recall production classes in which I was the only girl among the nerds. No one had much to say about Princess Leia. (Return of the Jedi was still a year or so in the future, and guys had not yet beheld her perched beside Jabba the Hutt in her metal bikini.) Instead they obsessed over camera angles and the sound effects. I, on the other hand, was completely taken with Leia: a fearless, principled, snarky tomboy in eyeliner. She could not be intimidated by authority, and seemed impervious to torture. She lied when it suited her, shot first without bothering to ask questions, and failed to get all dewy-eyed with gratitude when she was rescued. She was fierce, but caring. I didn’t think Carrie Fisher was a great actress, but I smelled a whiff of smirk in her line readings. A kindred spirit.

Born October 21, 1956, to movie star Debbie Reynolds and star crooner Eddie Fisher—the most famous couple in Hollywood—Carrie never wanted to be in show business. From the day she could sit up, she had a front-row seat at the slow-motion catastrophe that is megacelebrity. Still, entertainment was the family business, and it was easier to fall into that than, say, law school. In 1975, she scored a bit part in Shampoo, with Warren Beatty. In 1977, Star Wars was released, and whatever hope she may have had for living under the radar was destroyed, along with Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. She would appear in other movies—some good ones. But to filmgoers, she would always be spunky Leia, in her drapey white gown and cinnamon bun hairstyle.

Actors Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope written, directed and produced by Georges Lucas.

In 1987, Carrie published a damn good autobiographical first novel: Postcards From the Edge. It became a pretty good movie starring Meryl Streep as a recovering addict living in the shadow of her fabulous, self-involved mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, for whom every day offers another chance for a star turn. The book became a New York Times best seller, as did her three subsequent novels and three memoirs. Her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, was a hit on Broadway; in 2015, she reprised her role as Leia in The Force Awakens to great acclaim. In 2016, she and her mother co-starred in the touching documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Whatever rifts existed from the Postcards From the Edge era seemed to have largely healed.

Layered between these accomplishments was a lot of suffering and struggle, all played out in the public eye. At the age of 28, after a drug overdose and a stretch in rehab, Carrie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Rather than try to play off her erratic behavior as mere addiction—always a more glam option than straight-up mental illness—she came out as bipolar, advocated for it, and wore her disease with grace and her trademark searing humor. “I’m actually in the Abnormal Psychology textbook,” she once said. “Obviously my family is so proud. Keep in mind though, I’m a PEZ dispenser and I’m in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Who says you can’t have it all?”

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Cover art for In Praise of Difficult women by Karen Karbo.

Carrie was a mere babe of 19 when she was cast as Princess Leia—the same age as her mother when she was cast as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain. By the time Carrie was born in 1956, Debbie was America’s Sweetheart, a stone-cold A-list movie star. She had further burnished her star by marrying teen idol Eddie Fisher, who ruled the charts in the early 1950s (between 1950 and 1956, he had 35 songs in the top 40). Their courtship consisted essentially of Eddie saying in an interview that if he could date anyone, it would be Debbie Reynolds, and so their managers arranged it. Debbie was blond and sunny. Eddie was dark and boyishly handsome. As a couple, they were white hot. One struggles to make a contemporary comparison: Britney and Justin? Kim and Kanye? Brangelina? None of these couples are surrounded by the aura of sweet, Internet-less innocence that enveloped Debbie and Eddie. Sixteen months after having Carrie, her brother, Todd, was born—and the perfect family was now complete.

Oh, those home movies. In both Wishful Drinking and Bright Lights, you can see golden Debbie with her sweet babies in the bright California sun. Pool parties, Easter egg hunts, Carrie and Todd going round and round on their tricycles. Only because of what we now know does Carrie seem more expressive and animated than her little brother. She grimaces, grins, scowls, and howls. Her dark eyes snap with intelligence. In a few shots, Carrie drags Todd around by his ankles. Debbie smiles at it all, because that’s what stars did.

In 1958, when Carrie was two, her father left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor. Debbie would go on to marry Harry Karl, whom she did not love but who was the opposite of Eddie. Karl was a shoe store magnate, a “millionaire businessman” who lost his money on bad investments and gambling debts, then plowed through Debbie’s fortune. They wound up divorced when Carrie was 17.

To my knowledge there are no studies that quantify how much a child suffers when her parents are involved in Hollywood’s scandal of the century—probably because the only children who would have been qualified to participate in the study would be Carrie and Todd. How isolating it must have been, and how bizarre. Old copies of Photoplay feature Debbie, toddler Carrie, and baby Todd on the cover, with headlines ranging from “The Night My Children Kept Me From Dying” to “What Debbie Tells Her Children About Liz and Eddie.”

One of Carrie’s first memories was sitting on the lawn watching a cameraman fall through the shrubbery, trying to snap a picture. After she could walk but was still a small child, she remembered fans would lunge over her and shove her aside, trying to shake hands or touch her mother. She believed her mother belonged to everyone but her. She believed her father left—or so Carrie would confess to him in 2010, three months before he died—because she wasn’t funny enough. Even as a toddler she tried to be amusing, to keep him from leaving.

There's a clip in Bright Lights of Debbie doing a nightclub act in 1971 or so. She’s wearing a black jacket, hot pants, and stockings—and weirdly, a white boater straight out of The Music Man. Carrie is in the audience, and Debbie coaxes her up to sing a song “for your old mother.” (Debbie was 39.) Carrie is wearing a velvet dress, as you would for a special occasion. Her hair is long and shiny, and she looks younger than 15. When she opens her mouth and belts out “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” in a theatrical contralto to rival Judy Garland’s, you can see the stirrings of her adult default attitude: “facerious,” a perfect word I made up just now to describe her singular mingling of the serious and the facetious. Look, Mom, she seems to be saying, I’m singing my heart out like some over-the-hill nightclub diva in a beaded ensemble, even though I’m barely old enough to babysit.

Carrie’s wasn’t a trained voice—nor would it ever be, since dismissing her vocal gifts was one way of rebelling against her parents. The child of two of the most beloved and celebrated singers of the age would refuse to sing! I should clarify: She would refuse to use her voice in a professional capacity. Setting aside her 1982 guest appearance on Laverne and Shirley (where, dressed in a green satin bunny costume, she sang “My Guy” to guest star Hugh Hefner), she generally used her voice as a secret weapon, like a knife tucked into a boot.

In 1973, at 17, Carrie enrolled in the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Her goal of avoiding show business at all costs wasn’t going so well. At her mother’s urging, she had quit high school to act in the ensemble of Irene, Debbie’s Broadway musical. In the racy Shampoo, she went on to play the braless and bandanna-clad “sexually liberated” teenage daughter of one of hairdresser Warren Beatty’s clients, who seduces him with the immortal words, “Wanna fuck?” She struck upon drama school in London because it was a way of getting as far as possible out of the house—while still pleasing her mother, who was also footing the bill.

She read for Star Wars over Christmas vacation in 1975, because why not? A goofy low-budget sci-fi flick? What harm could there be in that? When she received the pages for the audition and saw that Princess Leia said things like, “A battle station with enough firepower to destroy an entire system!” she thought, oh yeah. For Lucas’s part, he cast her because even at 18 she was formidable but also warm and shrewd, as a warrior princess would be.

Is there anything that remains unknown about the making of Star Wars? A quick scroll through Amazon reveals dozens of encyclopedias, atlases, compendia, and definitive stories behind the making ofs. Despite my inside track at USC, I’m not sure I can add anything new.

Oh wait, yes I can.

Carrie Fisher with her husband Paul Simon, a singer-composer and half of the musical duo Simon and Garfunkel. Their marriage would last only 11 months.

In The Princess Diarist, published a month before she died, Carrie confessed to an affair with Harrison Ford during filming. “I’ve spent so many years not telling the story of Harrison and me having an affair on the first Star Wars movie that it’s difficult to know exactly how to tell it now,” she wrote. It happened thus: After a surprise 32nd birthday party for George Lucas, they started smooching in the car, which led to them smooching in her flat, which led to “a one-night stand that lasted three months.” He was 34, married, already movie star–like. She was 19, had had exactly one serious boyfriend (from drama school)—and, although she pretended to be an experienced woman of the world, she was freaking out. She wondered, in teen girl parlance, whether he “liked” her in the same way she “liked” him. During the week they practiced their true acting skills by pretending to be two people not having an affair; on the weekend, they got it on in her flat.

He didn’t talk much. He was an absolute mystery to her, one of those strong silent types in whom we always presume there are cavernous depths of heart and soul that only we can plumb. She wrote in her diary about spending a lot of time trying to make him smile (“. . . obviously I have not heard of child labor laws”). Once, in a pub, she pulled off an imitation of his gruff swagger that had him shuddering with soundless laughter, and she counted that moment among the greatest in her love life. When the film wrapped, and so did the affair, she claims he tried to buoy her spirits by saying, “You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.” I’m sorry, but I call bullshit. That line is classic Carrie Fisher.

In 1983, Carrie married Paul Simon, the genius lyricist half of Simon and Garfunkel. (Their union would crash and burn after only 11 months.) They had met when Simon visited the set of Star Wars. He was, as she noted, a short Jewish singer, just like her father, Eddie. It was tempestuous from the start, based on a shared sensibility, a passion for words and each other and, apparently, a lot of cocaine. In fairness to everyone involved, I can assure you that pretty much everything in the entertainment world involved a lot of cocaine in the early 1980s. I was, at the time, just out of film school, and it wasn’t unusual to be offered a Perrier and a line during a pitch meeting.

Carrie/Leia started snorting coke on the ice planet of Hoth—that is, on the set—during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back. Allegedly, even John Belushi, who would die of an overdose in 1982, advised her to dial it back a little. She didn’t love cocaine, but it was what was around, and she would ingest anything that offered a respite from the intensity of being Carrie. Every morning when her eyes clicked open—that is, if she’d managed to sleep at all—a tsunami of thoughts and feelings surged into her mind, a literal brainstorm every waking moment. She’d found that LSD made her feel more normal. The spinning inner monologue was transformed into visual hallucinations. A change is as good as a rest! Plus, if she dropped acid with friends, everyone was out of their gourds, and she didn’t feel so alone. Among prescription drugs she favored Percocet, and once confessed to having taken upwards of 30 a day, just to quiet her mind.

In 1980, when she was 24, a doctor diagnosed her as bipolar. She thought he was just telling her that because who in his right mind would want to tell Princess Leia she was a garden-variety drug addict? When she was shooting the unbelievably awful Under the Rainbow, she weighed 90 pounds—I’m sure everyone thought she looked hot and fabulous—and was so sleep deprived that she had a seizure on the set.

In 1985, after filming wrapped on Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, she accidentally overdosed on the aforementioned Percocet and sleeping pills.

Afterward, she was ready to listen to her doctor. She suffered from bipolar II—characterized by more and deeper depressive episodes— and hypo-, rather than full-blown, mania. Her lows were lower and longer, her highs less manic. When coupled with all the freewheeling self-medication, they laid waste to relationships, self-regard, and good career management.

Turns out she wasn’t just a celebrity with fairly standard addiction issues, but a woman with mental illness. A far less glamorous state of affairs.

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Carrie Fisher signs copies of her book The Best Awful, published in 2004. The book was a sequel to her first autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, which became a best seller and motion picture starring Meryl Streep.

In 1987, Carrie wrote her first book, Postcards From the Edge. It begins: “Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?” Then we come to: “Instant gratification takes too long.” Then, reading farther along: “You know how I always seem to be struggling, even when the situation doesn’t call for it?”

Oh, I was jealous of Carrie when Postcards was published. First Star Wars, now a hilarious first novel that got a ton of attention, plopped onto the best-seller list, and was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep? My generous response to her success: Why does she get everything?

In the 1990s, Carrie wrote several more novels and fattened her bank account with good money made doctoring scripts. Outbreak, The Wedding Singer, and Lethal Weapon 3 all benefited from her kick and sparkle. She also fell in love with a new guy, Hollywood “power” agent Bryan Lourd, who after three years famously left her to marry a man. (“He told me later that I had turned him gay by taking codeine again. And I said, ‘You know, I never read that warning on the label.’”)

Before their split, Carrie and Bryan had Billie, born in 1992, whom Carrie raised as a single parent. This broke her heart in a way she never was able to alchemize into uproarious material, reminding her of being raised alone by her mother after Eddie left.

Carrie sought treatment, and her disease was largely under control. But bipolar disorder isn’t a tidy disorder. Your meds work until they don’t. Often, a manic state is like a flood busting through a levy. In 1998, after a particularly bad manic patch, Carrie was institutionalized. I know all this because Carrie talked about it in writerly detail on Primetime With Diane Sawyer in December 2000. I vividly remember the interview.

Carrie was 44, prettier and more charismatic than she’d been as a younger woman. She wore her hair, still brown but strategically lightened, in a cheeky bob. Her voice had become raspier with age.

She described the exhausting, frenzied thoughts that led to compulsive monologuing, which in turn exhausted everyone around her. The sleepless nights, often many in a row, and the impulse to act on every bad idea that involved shopping, traveling, and sex (“Wow! Who are you, strange man who I suddenly want to bone?”). She described the two sides of herself: Rollicking Roy, the life of the party, and Sediment Pam, “who stands on the shore and sobs.” When people said they “loved” Carrie, who they really loved was Roy. She would call friends and whisper, “Roy’s in town.” And the party would begin.

“When we were shooting Harry Met Sally, I stayed up all night snorting heroin. You can imagine how proud my parents must be,” she said.

She talked about the time on the psych ward. Every day, her goal was just to feel less. In the hospital she went six days without sleep. She hallucinated, she jabbered at the television. She felt as if she could reach out and touch her mood with the palms of her hands (it felt cool to the touch), and out her window saw gleaming, futuristic cities. Bryan visited her in the psych ward, and she begged him to take their daughter, because she never knew whether she was coming back. But she did come back, of course.

“So, happily ever after?” asked Sawyer.

“There’s no such animal. It’s everything ever after.”

A woman less difficult might have stayed mum about the whole thing. Carrie’s life may have been public, but medical records are not. She could easily have confessed to her fondness for prescription painkillers and no one would have been the wiser. There’s a certain glamour associated with excess that doesn’t quite spill over to being perceived as batshit crazy.

But Carrie was on the front lines of oversharing. She was TMI-ing in advance of the abbreviation. She had no interest in protecting her image as a sexy space princess, or even the princess of so-called Hollywood royalty. She talked about it all, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This had to have taxed even her candid nature. Carrie came of age during a time when admitting to ECT was career ending. (To wit: After admitting he’d suffered from depression and had undergone ECT, Senator Thomas Eagleton, on the ticket with George McGovern for a hot second in 1972, was booted off faster than you could say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

Not everyone celebrated Carrie’s openness. Some people found her confessions to be just too much. The Washington Post, reviewing The Princess Diarist, predicted her honesty would make readers cringe. I conducted an unscientific survey of maybe two dozen men, and found that the more hard-core their Star Wars fandom, the less interested they were in seeing Carrie Fisher in any other role aside from Princess Leia. Most were unaware that she’d become a powerful, outspoken advocate for mental illness as just another human flaw, no better or worse than any other. “I am mentally ill. I can say that,” she’d been known to say. “I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”

People have always assumed that since the Star Wars trilogy had been such a massive hit, the Brink’s truck must roar up once a week and toss bags of money on Carrie’s front porch. But the only person who got stupidly rich was George Lucas. Carrie, just old enough to vote when she signed her contract to play Princess Leia, signed away her “likeness” and all merchandising rights. She was paid scale, and had no profit participation.

In her 2008 one-woman show Wishful Drinking, she discussed this inequity, and she was not sanguine about having her likeness superimposed on a shampoo bottle (when you unscrewed her head, shampoo poured out of her neck). Or a PEZ dispenser, or a lunch pail, or all the other Leia objets that have haunted her existence, while not making her a sou richer. She joked in her facerious way about how, because she never owned her likeness, she had to pay George every time she looked in the mirror.

Debbie Reynolds poses with he daughter Carrie fisher at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2015. The duo would die within one day of each other the following year.

Still, for a 20-year-old she was rolling in dough. She blithely hired a business manager someone recommended and forgot all about it. When she needed money, she got some—until sometime in her 40s, when she discovered she was more or less broke.

She thus began a lucrative side gig as a lap dancer. For Carrie, “lap dance” was code for signing autographs at Comic-Cons, of which there are hundreds all over the world. Truly, she could have made an entire career out of signing autographs for $70 a pop. She once referred to Star Wars fame as “an under-populated, empathy-free zone.” Being female, the zone was even more sparsely populated, with Carrie/Leia its queen and only citizen.

She would dutifully show up at some god-awful convention center, where the light makes even a dewy 20-year-old look sallow and blotchy, armed with her middle-aged woman’s body, thinning hair, failing eyesight, perimenopausal irritability. She would get writer’s cramp signing pictures of her ravishing, dewy self for hours on end, weekend after weekend. Can you imagine? In this culture that values appearance above every other female trait, there she was valiantly staring at herself in that damn metal bikini, aware that not only would she never wear a metal or any other bikini ever again, but that she might not even have the courage to squeeze into a Lands’ End one-piece. This is setting aside all the men—not looking so hot themselves, let’s face it—eager to tell her how she was their very first crush.

Once, a mother brought her little daughter, dressed as Leia in a tiny robe, with tiny buns capping her tiny ears, and the daughter took one look at Carrie and started wailing, “I don’t want the old one!”

Carrie felt as if she were both Leia and the custodian of Leia; given that she was also Roy and Pam, you can see how exhausting her life could be.

In 2008, Carrie went on the road with Wishful Drinking. Developed in L.A. at the beginning of the year, it also enjoyed runs in Berkeley, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., before a limited run on Broadway at Studio 54. It closed in January 2010, and the reason I’m being so precise about the dates is so you understand how it was that tiny five-foot-one-and-a-half-inch Carrie Fisher came to weigh 180 pounds, thus committing the most unpardonable female sin in our hallowed land. For two years she was on the road. During those two years she didn’t exercise and ate large meals very late at night (room service, please). Also, for an addict living one day at a time, a pint of ice cream now and then, mostly now, seemed utterly harmless.

She was not unaware. She knew the jeans and skinny tees had been pushed to the back of her closet and she was living in leggings and tunics. But it wasn’t until she Googled herself and found someone had written, “WTF happened to Carrie Fisher? She used to be so hot. Now she looks like Elton John,” that she realized it was time to take herself in hand.

There was nothing for it but to lose the weight. And she did: Fifty pounds in nine months, at the age of 54. Anyone, male or female, able to maintain the focus and discipline to drop 50 pounds—especially staring down the barrel of 60—is a badass of near-superhero proportions. “I thought I was getting old,” she quipped.

“It turns out I was mostly getting fat.” But she was also getting old.

Using candles, cinnamon rolls, and stick-on letters, fans create a makeshift star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame to honor the death of Carrie Fisher.

When Carrie reprised her role as Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, released in 2015, Twitter erupted with the usual nasty, pointless insults. In fairness, Carrie did disappoint every male fan of the original trilogy by refusing to spend her life maintaining the illusion that she was still that lithe, slim-waisted girl in a metal bikini. She could have, you know. Rather than write books, doctor scripts, speak out on behalf of those with mental illness, parent to the best of her ability, and care for Eddie and Debbie in their dotage—for she always adored her parents, despite the crap they put her through as a child—she could have obsessively tended her figure. She could have spent her life working out multiple times a day and lived on air and cigarettes, in the manner of a working supermodel. Instead, she had a full, messy, imperfect life.

When the ageist body-shaming schmucks came after her on Twitter, she was not silent. To her “fans” who blasted not Carrie’s performance, but her body, face, voice, posture—what am I missing?—she had the following retort:

@carrieffisher: “Please stop debating about whether OR not [I’ve] aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings. My BODY hasnt aged as well as I have. Blow us.”

Carrie Fisher was not the first Princess Leia. In 1975, during casting, there was another, much younger girl named Terri Nunn whom George Lucas had tapped for the role. Nunn was 15, fine-boned and cool in demeanor. A somewhat textbook princess. She would have been fine. In fact, she looked much more like Mark Hamill’s actual twin than did Carrie Fisher. George Lucas is famously not great with actors. For all his visionary genius, he’s much better with starships, droids, and explosions. But he immediately saw something in Carrie: that she could be warm, tough, funny, and fierce, all at the same time. She was a princess with a blaster, but also a girl capable of becoming a woman who could lead people.

I hope she realized before she left us that it was her huge heart, her humor, and her complex personality that made Princess Leia difficult, and thus immortal.