Talking about yourself at length can be a troubling habit, but Spalding Gray managed to turn it into an art form that transcended mere self-absorption. Gray's body was found in New York's East River on Sunday night and it was identified on Monday. That Gray probably killed himself comes as no shock to those who knew him. Gray had made previous suicide attempts, and his mother killed herself at 52.
Gray, who lived to 62, was a longtime Buddhist. He interviewed the Dali Lama for the first issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review in 1991. (Editor Helen Tworkov later said she was aesthetically appalled at having to use a bar across the top of the magazine to help sell newsstand copies.)
Buddhist Gateway offers a brief video clip (scroll down to the fifth item), an except from a video called Visions of Perfect Worlds, in which Gray recites Buddhist teachings on transciency. A few of its key thoughts:
We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection.
In Buddhism, it is a heretical view to expect something outside this world. We do not seek something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world: through our difficulties, through our suffering.
So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transciency. Without realizing how to accept this truth, we cannot live in this world.
New York magazine published a lengthy elegy of a feature story about Gray in its Feb. 2 issue. Alex Williams wrote:
The middle of three boys, "Spuddy" Gray was born into an almost quintessential tableau of northeastern Protestantism in Barrington, Rhode Island. The eldest boy, Rockwell Jr., is now a literature professor at Washington University in St. Louis; the youngest, Channing, is a journalist in Rhode Island. Spalding's father, Rockwell Sr., worked as a credit manager for a local corporation. His mother, Margaret, was a woman of contradictions. A devout Christian Scientist, she prided herself on being the life of any party, who boasted that she could get "more high on cranberry juice than other people could on booze."
Williams described a family friend's bleak visit to Gray's home after both the head-on collision and the horror of 9/11:
I was out at their house for a dinner party one Christmas, and it was just eerie," says the writer Steven Gaines, a friend. "Most of the time, Spalding was catatonic. He was glowering. One of the few times he spoke, he just looked up at the ceiling and bellowed, 'God save us. God save us all!' And he meant it."
Williams closed his story by describing how Gray attended a screening of Tim Burton's Big Fish and was moved by its climactic images of death. He quotes Gray's widow, Kathie Russo:
"Some friends said I shouldn't see it, but I had to, I went last night," says Russo. Holding back the tears again, she adds softly, "You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die."
Former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a bittersweet tribute to Gray on Jan. 16:
I'm in New York, where it was zero degrees last night with a wind that seemed to be hauling some large chunk of the Hudson River with it as it clawed its way down Grand Street. Somewhere out there in that grim dark is whatever remains of my old pal Spalding Gray.
Both seriously and humorously, more often both, he's been threatening for years to do himself in. Indeed, his jokes about suicide preserved him and certainly entertained me. But now that it's starting to look like he's actually gone and done it, suicide is not so amusing.