Tag Archives: biography

#33: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

Jim HensonWhen I heard there was a massive biography of Jim Henson coming out, I was excited and worried.  I wanted to know more about the man who created so many things that I’ve enjoyed throughout my life, but I knew I was going to cry when they talked about his funeral.  I was also worried that he might turn out to be a jerk, even though I had no reason to worry about this.  But still, what if the guy who brought Kermit to life ended up being kind of a dick?  I don’t want that knowledge in my head.

Happily and not surprisingly, Jim Henson was lovely.

Brian Jay Jones spent several years with those close to Jim and the result is a wonderful book.  Reading it was pure pleasure because of Jones’ writing style.  It’s conversational, emotional, smart and incredibly informative and was extremely satisfying.  The combination of Jim Henson and Jones is magic and I’m so glad that Jim’s life was handed to Jones to be documented and told so carefully.

Reading Jim’s life and watching him grow from a creative child into a creative powerhouse is exhausting and impressive.  The man never stopped making things.  While he was in the middle of a massive project, he’d start thinking about how to do things better and how to improve the technology and techniques that they were currently using.  He was often a few steps ahead of what hadn’t even been made yet.  He knew that things could be done and had to wait for the technology to catch up.  He was fascinated by television and how it could be used, and later when hand held cameras began appearing, he knew it would change everything.  He didn’t live to see it, but he predicted YouTube some twenty years before it became popular.

Jim’s goal was to improve the world by learning and teaching.  He was constantly seeing what could be and was rarely satisfied with what currently was.  Pages and pages of notes were waiting to be realized.  He would have to shelve projects that proved too massive for his current budget and schedule.  He would exhaust and inspire his crew into performances and creations that no one had dreamed could be possible.  Simply by being, he created.  His employees were committed to his projects, even if they didn’t fully understand them, because they were Jim’s ideas.  They’d go on crazy journeys with him through the workshop to put together new creatures.  Even if they weren’t designing for a specific project, they’d work on the art and development because at some point, Jim would want it.  By then, they’d need to make it better, always trying to catch up to him.

Out of the workshop, Jim was quite the man.  Men wanted to be his friend and women wanted to be in his bed.  When his attention was turned to you, it made everything amazing.  Of course when you felt ignored or snubbed, it made for a difficult work environment.  Also, Jim was married with five kids.  Family was the most important thing to him and the love he had for his children was nearly tangible on the page.  He was fascinated by how they learned and interacted with their environment and would test things out on them for approval.  If it didn’t work for his kids, he wouldn’t use it.  He respected their ideas and desires, and even from a very young age incorporated them into his work.

But for Jim, it wasn’t work.  He loved what he did and couldn’t comprehend why people wanted to stop.  When you’re working on something that’s inspiring and has the potential to teach, why would you stop?  When he would go on vacation, he’d still be creating and planning, eager to get back into the workshop or studio or office to share new ideas and find out how to make them come true.

Some of them were way out there.  He dreamed of opening a night club where images were projected onto women’s bodies.  While he didn’t do drugs, except for maybe some occasional marijuana, he was always pulled in to visual effects.  He wanted this massive performance space where music and film would combine for a seamless experience.  It was crazy and people would have probably eaten every drug they could find and pack the room, but once again, the technology wasn’t there.

When it came to the business side of the Muppets, the Creature Workshop, movies and TV, Jim struggled.  He hated having to make decisions.  It was agony for him to sit through meetings or talk to lawyers when he could be working on something meaningful.  He often let things slide to other people and work was delegated over and over until it again wound up with Jim having to make a decision.  Even then, he’d often slide it to another person to take care of.  This caused a lot of hurt feelings, confusion and management struggles when he split his time between the crew in New York and his Creature Shop in England.  No one knew what the other was working on, but for Jim, this didn’t matter.  If he needed new puppets or animatronics, he’d fly to England to talk to those in the Creature Shop.  When it was time to discuss what they’d film for Sesame Street, he’d head back to New York and work with that crew.  Coming back in to the New York office, he’d run through more ideas for shows and have people get to work.  It never occurred to him that someone really needed to be in charge, and that this person was him.  He’d call in with instructions and whoever answered the phone would be the person with the information.  There were times when no one knew what the most important goals were because he had talked to several different people that week.  Still, everyone was so dedicated to him that they’d work through it and do their best to figure it out.

Jim finally became so frustrated with overhead costs and constantly trying to find funding for his work that he decided it was time to sell.  He’d been in love with Disney since he was a child and the thought of his Muppets becoming part of this magical world was comforting and practical.  They’d get the characters, and more importantly they’d get Jim, and he’d get the freedom to create and not have to run the business side.

Turns out this was a deal that took fifteen years to seal and he wasn’t alive to see it done.  Once again, the business side of his work infuriated him.  The Disney lawyers went through every line word by word.  Jim’s lawyers did what they could, but had to bring information back to Jim for approval.  Disney repeatedly tried to get their hands on the Sesame Street characters even though Jim made it clear from the beginning that they were off limits.  Several times everything almost fell apart completely, but Michael Eisner single handedly kept everyone at the table.  His sheer will and desire on getting Jim into the Disney family was powerful and Jim trusted him.

When it was announced the Jim was selling the Muppets to Disney, I was really disappointed.  I thought he was selling out and going for money.  Reading the background before I even got to the deal, I realized that it was never about money.  He wanted to continue to create and improve and by giving over the business side to a company that he loved, he’d be able to.  I’m pleased to know that I was wrong.  Jim would join Disney, he’d finish creating the Muppet Section of MGM Studios, he’d make movies and TV shows for them and he’d join the company exclusively for the next fifteen years.

And then he got sick.

Jim never got sick.  He was too busy loving life and working and it almost never happened.  On the rare occasions he’d get a cold or a flu, it wouldn’t last long.  He’d retreat to one of his homes and have comfort food until he felt better.  He rarely took any medicine, and when he did, it was nothing stronger than an aspirin.  He simply didn’t have time to get sick, and his body seemed to know it.  He ignored what was happening and brushed off people’s concerns.  He didn’t want to have attention over something like this, so he went to his New York apartment to wait it out.

His wife Jane joined him.  Although they had been separated for many years, Jane and Jim always had a special relationship.  They had children together that they both loved.  Jane was part creator of the Muppets when Jim was just getting started with his five minute shows in between the news and whatever show came next.  She filmed commercials with him.  She was the company before there was a company.  However, they were two completely different people and all the love and respect couldn’t keep them together.  Jim hated confrontation and in his personal life hated making decisions the way he did in his business life.  Jane wore her emotions in the open and would fight with him, begging him to share what he was thinking.  The angrier and sadder she got, the quieter and more closed off he became.  With two conflicting communication styles, it could not work.  However, Jim worked very hard to keep his girlfriends private.  Jane knew what was happening, but Jim would never make a relationship public.  He respected her too much.  He didn’t want to get divorced, but he realized he couldn’t be her husband.  However, she was who he would go to when it came to major decisions.  Even though she had been phased out of the company, she knew how he thought and truly knew who he was, and he trusted her completely.  When she showed up to take care of him, he let her stay.

Public opinion wonders why he didn’t just go to the hospital.  People have said that if he had just gone in that morning the doctors would have caught the pneumonia, but it never occurred to him that he was really sick.  He finally told Jane that it was time to go, but even then he insisted on walking to the car and when they were dropped off in the wrong place, he walked the blocks to the emergency room.  It was too late.  He had severe pneumonia and kidney failure.  His body was infected with a powerful strain of strep.  His lungs were shutting down.  Maybe the doctors could have caught it, but even with drugs,  it might not have worked.  He was too sick.  He died from organ failure resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.

Jim’s death was brutal.  Word traveled fast and his employees gathered in shock.  It was unbelievable.  Jim never got sick.  Jim couldn’t be dead.  It was incomprehensible that a man that powerful could die, and could die so young.  He was fifty-three and he had too  much to do.  The intensity of the shock that his friends, family and coworkers felt is heartbreaking.  I was already in tears and they hadn’t gotten to his memorial service yet.

But even in his death, he was still inspiring his family.  He had written letters to his children to be delivered soon after he died.  He told them he wasn’t scared of death and was looking forward to the next adventure.  He told them what kind of service he’d like to have and not to waste money on a casket.  He promised that if he could, he’d guide them from where ever it was he’d be.  His love continued to pour over his children even though he was gone.

I so enjoyed this book.  I think for many of us, Jim Henson is part of who we are.  We have different memories of his work and it has become pieces of our history.  Watching the Muppets can make me incredibly emotional because I remember being four or five years old and watching with my dad.  I remember sitting with my mom and laughing at Bert.  I don’t know how many times she read me The Monster at the End of This Book, but every time she did, I’d laugh at Grover and how silly he was.  Later I fell in love with the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  The sections about these movies were painful because Jim fully loved the work and was heartbroken that the movies didn’t do well and critics did not like them.  Labyrinth especially was one of his all time favorite projects and it must have broken him a little bit that it didn’t succeed.  It is a huge cosmic ripoff that he didn’t live to see it become a favorite.  He would have been delighted to see the cosplay.

I could write so much more about this book.  It was exciting to see how characters came to be.  I liked watching his performers come together.  Knowing the background story of shows and the movies made me appreciate the work even more.  Depending on what aspect of Jim’s life is interesting to you, this book will have it.

I cannot stress enough the talent and respect that Brian Jay Jones brought to this work.  The amount of time he spent with Jim’s friends, family and business associates is nearly unimaginable.  This book felt like a gift because of how carefully he wrote it and the love he put into it.  I hope Jim’s loved ones are proud of the work Jones did.

#27: Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by Alysia Abbott

FairylandThe title of this caught my eye because I thought it was about fairy tale faeries.  Then I learned it was about THE GAYS!!! and read the blurb and decided it sounded interesting.  I didn’t know anything about Alysia Abbott or her father Steve and was interested to learn more about growing up in the heart of the gay scene in San Francisco in the 70s and 80s.  I like memoirs because it’s interesting to see what you have in common with a person and how you relate to them even if their story is completely different than yours.

Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine, but of course  I still found lots to relate with.  After her father died, she read through his massive  collection of journals and created a beautiful work.  This is her story, but she has her father’s words to fill in parts she doesn’t remember, as well as being able to get his side of the story for what she does remember.  It feels like the two of them are writing the book together, and it’s beautiful.

Alysia’s parents (Steve and Barbara) met in 1968 at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  Steve told Barbara he was bisexual and she thought it was great.  The two of them moved in together and later decided to get married so they could furnish the apartment with wedding gifts and get cash from her parents.  They continued their open relationship and Steve found that he was empowered by having a wife.  He could be openly gay and people were sort of OK with it because clearly he liked women enough to marry and have sex with one.  And Barbara wasn’t bothered by the boyfriends, even if friends thought she was crazy.

Barbara gets pregnant with Alysia and wants the baby while Steve is panicked and doesn’t think it’s a good idea.  By this time in their relationship Barbara was jealous of Steve’s younger boyfriend and was going to have the baby with or without him around.  She does, and by the time Alysia is three, Barbara is in a relationship with a drug addict named Wolf.  She begins using heavily and Steve slowly finds himself as the only safe caretaker for his daughter.  Wolf is arrested out of state, Barbara goes to bail him out and on the way home she is killed in a car accident.

Steve is suddenly completely alone with a toddler.  He doesn’t fit in with his in-laws and his boyfriend has left him, unable to deal with the seriousness of the situation.  Less than a year after Barbara’s death, Steve packs the car and drives to San Francisco to build a life for himself and his daughter.

Once he gets to San Francisco, he is fully out as a gay man.  He already did come out while in Atlanta, but now he felt fully free to be who he was and to be able to work creatively in his own world.  He was part of the gay art scene and in places created it.  He was a writer and an artist and he surrounded himself with creative people.  The Castro was coming into power and Harvey Milk was starting his campaigns.  It was where Steve needed to be.

But he also needed to be a father and he struggled with this constantly.  He wanted to be a better person, to be healthy and clean and calm so he could be the best father for Alysia, but he was also lonely and wanted someone to love him.  It’s heartbreaking to read the longing in his own words, wanting desperately for someone to share his life with him and Alysia.  He seems to be constantly falling in love, but over and over he picks young men who aren’t interested in relationships, and especially aren’t interested in becoming a father.  He seems himself as a mentor to these young men and surrounds himself with other artists, hoping to guide them and help them find their own voices.  As an editor and creator of his own magazine, he does help them.  He goes on to run workshops and weekend retreats and poetry readings and much more with other artists, many of them gay, but the whole time he’s searching and longing for a partner.  I wanted him to find someone his own age who maybe had similar experiences, but that wasn’t the scene in the Castro District.  He was surrounded by young men, even referring to them as boys sometimes.  These were the men who he was falling in love with, and it wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard he tried.

Alysia also struggles with this.  She isn’t like anyone her age.  She doesn’t have a mother, which is challenging enough, but she also has to keep her dad’s sexuality a secret.  She’s already tormented at school and knows if her classmates find out about her dad, the results will be cruel and immediate.  There aren’t parenting groups at this time and she feels completely isolated.  She doesn’t know any kids with gay parents.  She doesn’t know other kids who are brought to poetry readings or left home alone while their father goes out clubbing, hoping to bring a man home with him.

She knows from her peers that being gay is being gross.  She internalizes this and when bad things happen, it’s because she’s gross.  If something breaks, it’s her fault.  She doesn’t deserve nice things because she isn’t nice inside because even though she’s not gay, her father is.  She is lonely and confused.

Again, Steve’s journals have moments that feel like a kick in the stomach.  He wants so much to be a good father, but he also wants to be fulfilled as a person.  Like any parent, there are times he wants to walk away from being Dad so he can just be him and have his own needs met.  He’s completely honest in his journals and having Alysia share her memories partnered with her father’s words and drawings, it’s at times brutal.  Their life would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances after Barbara died, and they did not have the best of circumstances.

I related a lot to teenage Alysia.  She is embarrassed by her dad, as all teenagers are, while still worrying that people are going to know he’s gay.  She goes through her own rebellion and the two of them fight constantly.  He’s never approached their relationship as an authoritarian.  To him, it’s always been a partnership and he realizes he can’t tell her to come home early when there are some nights when he doesn’t come home at all.  At this point he is sober and practicing daily meditation to keep himself healthy and has to trust that while Alysia experiments, she won’t let it get out of control.

While this normal teenage girl stuff is happening, Alysia is also watching the morality movement try and destroy what little rights the gay community has.  She sees people on TV telling the country that her father and friends are sinners and deserve to be targets of violence and discrimination.  Men are being attacked in their own neighborhoods by teenagers coming in to look for fags.

It’s interesting to read someone’s story knowing where and when they lived it.

Grateful Dead Haight Ashbury

Their house in Ashbury can be seen in this picture of the Grateful Dead.  It’s the pointy one to the right of the sign.  For most of us, this a place where people go to have their picture taken, not a place where people grew up, especially not straight girls.  I was really caught by this.  I connected to Alysia’s story and struggles, but at the same time it was like reading a political history.  These streets are where much of the gay rights movement started and it’s jarring to also remember that parents were raising their kids in the same place.  There are certain areas that I think of in terms of importance and it’s easy to forget that while great things happen, people are there living their lives.  I’m sure other readers would think I’m weird for not connecting humans to iconic places.

As Alysia gets older she falls into the familiar pattern of not wanting to be defined as a daughter while at the same time refusing to let her parent be anything but a father.  While she leaves home as a young adult, she wants to be her own person, but she struggles with the idea that her dad isn’t always a dad.

And then he gets sick.

Alysia leaves San Francisco for a few years to go to school, at one point leaving the country to live in France.  When she returns, things are different.  The beautiful young men who filled the coffee shops and bookstores are now bundled up in sweaters and knit caps, their faces gaunt and bruised.  There’s also a lot less of them.  Places that used to be filled with fun and laughter are quiet and when she asks around to try and find familiar faces she learns again and again that these vibrant young men have wasted away until they’ve died, their bodies shutting down from complications due to full blown AIDS.

She watches her community, her father’s people, struggling to care for each other.  The country again turns on them and politicians call for laws to brand infected men with tattoos to keep the rest of the country safe.  All the while Alysia prays and prays that her father won’t get AIDS.  Somehow it will skip him.

When he does get sick, she is in denial of what is happening.  She honestly doesn’t even remember him telling her or the first time she said it out loud to someone else.  He’s sick, then he’s really sick, then he’s dying.  It happens fast.

I connected to this strongly because I could understand the different levels of horrible.  Alysia is a young woman and wants her own life.  She wants to be able to completely leave home and be her own person.  She also wants a dad who doesn’t need a daughter to help him die.  She resents being the caretaker.  She finds herself yelling at him to shut up when he’s in an uncontrollable coughing fit.  Where once her father resented having to care for her, she now resents having to care for him.  I haven’t experienced this, but I could see each side so clearly.  The guilt and the resentment.  Having to be both the daughter and the adult.  She’s not even twenty two years old.

Her home isn’t home anymore.  The streets are different.  The faces of people she knows are different.  There are far too many empty places.  Soon she will be without a father.  This part of the book hit hard and it moved fast.  Alysia did a masterful job of matching the pace of the AIDS epidemic in her book, although I don’t know if it was intentional.  The language felt like it was creeping in.  There are a few hints here and there that something is happening.  Then suddenly it’s obvious and it’s too late to do anything.  And then it’s in Alysia’s life and becomes her reality.  She is twenty two and both her parents are gone.  Again, I think of the pictures of young men sick in bed with lesions, surrounded by their male friends.  I’ve never thought about daughters.  Parents and siblings, yes, but not about children.

Her father wanted a complete and full life and didn’t ever quite find it.  Even parts of his creative community turned on him when AIDS was first happening.  People he wrote and published with were now publishing works of their own about the gay cancer and how it was their own fault that they were dying.  Alysia couldn’t read about the epidemic in an unattached, curious way.  These were her people as well, even if she didn’t feel like she was part of the story.

Like I said at the start of this review, Alysia Abbott’s story is extra completely different than mine but I was able to relate and connect with her.  I’m not sure why this book caught my eye. I’m guessing I saw a review somewhere and the title pulled me in.  I’m glad it did because this is an important story.  It can be read simply as a story, but it represents much more than that.  It’s the universal story of growing up, but like Alysia says in the Epilogue, “This queer history is my queer history.  This queer history is our queer history.”

My two major complaints for this book are simple.  One, I kept losing track of how old Alysia was.  Every once in awhile she’d refer to her age, but not often.  There were years listed at times, but for me it wasn’t enough to keep track in my head.  I didn’t know if she was in first grade or fifth.  I couldn’t remember how long they had been in the Castro.  I wasn’t sure how old her friends were.

The second complaint is unforgivable.  Steve Abbot was an artist and some of his drawings are included in the book.  Many are printed so small that they are almost completely unreadable.  I imagine Alysia Abbot chose the illustrations to include and many of them are referenced in her writing, but the way they are printed in the book, it’s a waste of ink.  It really pissed me off.  I cringe to think what it will be like in the smaller paperback version.  There is no reason they weren’t enlarged or broken up over two pages.  I found it insulting that they tried to cram his work in to a smaller space.

Overlooking these two things, I’m really glad I picked this up.  It wasn’t a quick read at all, but it was worth every page.

#1: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Welcome to 2013, my pretties.  I’m already behind on my reviews, but I’m up to date on my reading, so we’re good.

Henrietta LacksI’ve wanted to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for quite some time.  It started showing up in lots of different places and on lots of lists.  I learned a tiny bit about the book and it sounded interesting, but then it was submerged in my To Be Read list and stayed there.  Happily, my book group picked it for our first meeting of the year.

For those who don’t know the story, here’s the simple version:

In the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks went to  Johns Hopkins because she knew something wrong wrong with her womb.  She was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  As part of the examination, her doctor took cell samples from her tumor and passed them along to researcher George Gey, which was common practice at the time.  After a brutal course of cancer treatment, Henrietta died, leaving behind five children.

Her cells, however, did not die.  Gey had been struggling to find human cells that would continue to grow in a lab in  order to study them.  Henrietta’s tumor cells did not die.  He was able to ship them all over the world and her cells were used in seemingly infinite biological and medical research.  Henrietta was gone, but HeLa, the name given to her cells from her first and last name, was left behind.  Her cells were used to research AIDS, cancer treatments, vaccines, the effects of radiation, the effects of weightlessness in space, and much much more.

Her family didn’t know.

Decades later, researchers noticed a genetic marker that was contaminating samples and realized that every lab had been taken over by HeLa and that many research projects were tainted with their potency.

To learn more about this genetic marker, researchers tracked down her family for blood samples to learn more about their DNA.  Her family became suspicious, wanting to know who these doctors were and why they were asking about their mother.

The result is two completely different stories that are impossible to separate.

On one hand you have medical research and the common procedures of the day.  Because of what was done, many things were created and developed that have helped people all over the world.

On the other hand you have the treatment of a black patient in the 1950s.  Uneducated patients deferred to their doctors, especially when they didn’t understand.  When a white man with a degree told you something, you’d nod politely.  Sometimes you’d follow orders (Henrietta’s cancer treatments) and sometimes you’d walk away knowing that the doctors had no clue what your reality was like and that their suggestions were pointless (Henrietta’s refusal to have her STDs treated because she knew her husband would continue to infect her).

This was the part that drew me into the book and I thought it would be easy.  White doctors used her cells for research, but they also made money.  Her family never had money, didn’t know what had happened and now couldn’t afford their own medical care.  They should be reimbursed.  Simple.

Only it’s not.

Standard practice in the 1950s had nothing to do with consent, and if doctors did request it, they still didn’t inform their patients of what was happening.  Doctors would inject cancer cells into a test subject’s arm to see what happened.  They’d then remove the lumps if they were becoming tumors.  Did the patient know this?  Probably not.  They might not even know they were part of a cancer research study.

The ethics of the time… well… there sort of were no ethics.  Everything was seen as being up for grabs, especially after it was removed from a patient.  Alive or dead, that part of you was gone from you, so why not pass it along to someone who might make great medical gains?

I was angry for the Lacks and I did want something to happen to make things OK, but I soon realized it just isn’t that easy.  The advancements that were made because of Henrietta and HeLa are astounding.  Her cells brought life to others.  The doctors and researchers didn’t stop to think about what the individual  human effect on the Lacks family because they were thinking of the universal gains for all humans.

Skloot made excellent decisions when writing this book.  She starts with Henrietta’s life; a biography of who this woman was and what she meant to people.  She then transitions to what HeLa meant, and continues to mean, to medicine.  She explains the science of the time, the doctors involved, the social obligations of the day, and how research was done.  It was easy to see how Henrietta the person disappeared when looking at HeLa.  She then moves back to the present by catching up with Henrietta’s children as they not only try to learn who their mother was, but what science had done with her.  She does jump around in time (A+ to whoever decided to add the timeline to each new chapter!) but she follows a theme and everything makes sense.

I was astounded with the amount of research that she had to do.  Not only did she need to understand the science, she had to explain it in a way that wasn’t watered down but would make sense to the reader.  She then had to explain the ethics and policies of Henrietta’s time, including the world of blacks and whites in the 1950s.  She then had to gain the trust of the family and work with them in a way that showed respect to Henrietta and her family but also let her learn the truth.  At times the book barely balances on the barest of an edge, and I could feel the anxiety and exhaustion that Skloot must have herself felt.  But then there are times when she is completely supported as she travels with Henrietta and HeLa.  This isn’t her story, but her voice is there.  Over and over I was impressed with her research, the way she structured the story, and her own voice and tone.

I wish this had been an easy read in the sense of right and wrong, but like everything else, things just don’t work that way.  I wanted to be firmly on one side, but I couldn’t.  While feeling the pain and confusion of the Henrietta’s family, I celebrated in the advancements that came about because of HeLa.  I was frustrated and grateful.  Most of all, I was on Skloot’s side as she pulled all the threads together and tried to weave the full picture.

I’m very appreciative of the work she did to write this book.  It’s both a study and explanation of medical ethics and practices over the year, but also a beautiful biography of Henrietta herself and the children she left behind.

This book is a success no matter how you approach it – medical, research and science to ethics, social standing, race relations, and education.  Ten people can read this book and have twenty different responses.

It’s a fantastic book club book and I’m glad I finally read it.