Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Meg Tilly and the Tale of the Unbroken Spirit

Thought I'd share a memorable story from the archives with you. Over the past few years, I've enjoyed interviewing various celebrities and writers for Autograph Collector. In October of 2006, I had the pleasure of meeting actress-turned-author Meg Tilly, who I had the honor of interviewing for the November ’06 issue of AC. You’ll remember the ethereal, porcelain-skin beauty from a string of memorable movie roles in the eighties through mid-nineties, including Tex, The Big Chill, Psycho 2, Masquerade, Valmont, The Girl in a Swing, The Two Jakes, One Dark Night, Sleep with Me, Leaving Normal, Body Snatchers, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Agnes of God. Indeed, hers was a burgeoning Hollywood career on the fast track.

But then, Meg did something no one following her career expected. She stopped. No more movies, no more television. No more red carpet premieres, no more paparazzi. Retreating deep into the Canadian mountains, her three children in tow, Meg eschewed the glamour of Hollywood for a simpler life as a devoted mother and to follow her heart in the direction of a new creative passion ~ writing. The result was 1994’s poignant, albeit disturbing, novel Singing Songs. The story chronicles the oft-unsettling life of a young girl named Anna who learns to persevere amidst horrific abuses and abject poverty. At the time of the book’s release, sharp-eyed critics drew parallels between Anna and Tilly’s own life growing up in a large family that moved around a lot before settling on an island off the Northwest coast. Although the similarities were obvious, Tilly repeatedly asserted that her story was a work of fiction.

Flash forward twelve years later to the eve of the launch of Tilly’s long-awaited follow-up, Gemma (Syren Book Company). At age 46, the author now confirms that both Singing Songs and Gemma, although fictional stories, are indeed based on the real-life abuses she endured at the hands of family members and extended family members throughout her childhood. Anyone who saw Tilly on an airing of The View during her promotion for Gemma could attest to the deep psychological scars the author continues to bear. But beneath the layers of emotional wounds, Tilly has used Gemma as a cathartic release of the demons of days past. Closets come in all shapes and sizes, and Meg Tilly has come out of her own closet-of-sorts to stand up and be counted among those who’ve endured similar experiences.

Gemma revisits the world of childhood sexual abuse, this time through the alternating viewpoints of both the twelve-year-old victim and her abuser. Although the images are dark and chronicle the deepest perversions of the human psyche, Tilly doesn’t hold back. She takes the readers on a harrowing journey through the mind of pedophile Hazen Woods (a character based not-so-loosely on a member of her extended family who routinely abused her as a child). We learn in graphic, stomach churning detail what makes this monster tick…how he thinks and the twisted lense he filters information through. Juxtaposed against the violent sexual machinations of Hazen, readers are simultaneously exposed to the horrific world of Gemma, the young heroine who Tilly paints heartbreakingly as both fragile and powerfully resilient. Despite the unspeakable horrors Hazen forces the girl to endure, it is her resiliency that eventually triumphs ~ much in the same way the author’s own real-life resiliency allowed her to rise above those who cruelly snatched her childhood from her. Gemma is a testament to the striking evolution of Meg Tilly, a brave and talented artist who climbed out of a background fraught with roadblocks to the development of positive self-esteem to triumph as an actress, an author, a mother, and a wonderfully realized person.

My interview with Meg was conducted over a two-month period during the summer 0f 2006, arranged through Tilly’s kindly and efficient publicist, Claire Kirch. Conducted primarily over the Internet, Meg’s personality and passion nonetheless came across loud and clear. I found myself impressed with her insights on becoming a writer and her decision to turn her back on fame and fortune to give her children a normal life. As the issue went to press and Kirch lined up the author’s national book tour, I made arrangements to meet Tilly at one of her New York area stops. At Kirch’s suggestion, I opted to meet her and Meg for the second NYC date at a small independent bookstore called Bluestockings. Located on the lower east side of Manhattan, Bluestockings immediately evokes the nostalgic ambiance of activism of decades past, with a modest selection of carefully chosen tomes on everything from feminism to queer identity. Indeed, just walking through the door one is struck by a feeling of free speech and revolution, as if the ghosts of Gloria Steinham, ACT-UP!, and the Black Panthers have taken up residence. It is a glorious watering hole of self-expression and radical thought, wrapped in the comforting vegan goodies they serve in their fair trade cafĂ©.

Meg arrived for her reading promptly at the designated start time. A modest crowd had assembled in the bookstore, and Claire Kirch recognized me right away and came over to introduce herself. I obligingly handed her copies of Meg’s Autograph Collector interview, and we chatted for a few delightful minutes about the fans’ response to the tour and Meg’s appearance on The View. Meg was then introduced and began to read passages from Gemma. If anyone wonders what a background as an actress can contribute to a career as a writer, just catch one of Tilly’s readings. She doesn’t merely read…she embodies the actual voices and emotions of her characters to create a mesmerizing mini-version of a one-woman show. One can clearly see how Tilly truly feels every word she puts to paper. Her words are intensely personal…her own creations. She doesn’t mince those words either, and one is somewhat shocked to hear the words of brutal pedophile Hazen Woods coming from the mouth of a woman who once portrayed a childlike nun onscreen. The reading is sheer brilliance. This is one of those rare occasions where the beauty of art imitates the ugliness of life to unadulterated perfection.

Following her inspired reading, Tilly takes questions from an audience that is as marvelously eclectic as the venue itself. Although Tilly professes to be shy by nature, she appears disarmingly at-ease in front of the crowd. She answers questions ranging from the generic to the personal with equal aplomb. One can clearly see that she enjoys the art of conversation and has an appreciation for philosophical and intellectual chat. I make a mental note to myself to someday sit down with Meg over a cup of the green tea she and I both have an affinity for and probe that fascinatingly open mind of hers. Somewhere in between questions, she glances up from the podium and spots me in the back of the room. She calls out a casual “Hey, Vince!” as if we’ve been friends for years, and, once again, I’m impressed with her genuineness. The questions go on for another ten minutes or so before Meg invites those purchasing copies of her book to have them signed. I hang back until most of the attendees have gotten their books signed and have expressed their admiration for her lifting the veil surrounding her own childhood abuse.

Meg warmly greets me as I approach, immediately thanking me for the interview. I counter with my own sincere thanks for the opportunity. Claire joins us moments later and we enjoy a brief chat about a particular American TV show that seems to be exploiting the on-camera capture of sexual predators for ratings. I wonder aloud if the show, which has recently broadcasted its ump-teenth installment, would indeed be helping catch those predators if ratings weren’t as good. Meg asks me how my own book is doing, which I answer by presenting her with a signed and inscribed copy. We playfully pose for a few photos ~ one with her and me holding the Autograph Collector issue with her interview, another with just her and me together, and a final one with her and me holding copies of the other’s books. Fun stuff, indeed. After all, this is Chloe from The Big Chill I’m standing next to! I’m almost sorry the event is over. There is more I’d like to chat with Meg about, some of which I’ve detailed in the letter tucked into the back of the copy of The Literary Six I’ve given her. She and I have more in common than just writing books. We’ve both come out of closets and both risen above childhood abuses ~ some similar and some different. I want her to know that I’m a fellow survivor, too. Alas, the timing is not right. There is an old friend of hers hovering nearby who clearly hopes to catch up a bit. Besides, this is her third signing in as many days and she must be exhausted. She’s hopping a red-eye flight back to her homeland tonight in order to be home in time for Canadian Thanksgiving with her family. No, it’ll just have to wait. I’ve always been a believer in the human connections we make, and when we meet someone with whom we feel a kindred spirit, we’re destined to meet that someone again.

So, resigned in the fact that there’s always a next time, I make my way back through the ever-bustling New York City streets toward the subway to Penn Station and my train ride home to my partner and puppies. As I savor the aromas of New York in the early autumn and drink in the magical twilight illumination of the cityscape as the sun sets and the flashing marquees come to life, I remember the bag from Bluestockings in my hand. Meg signed copies of both of her books for me before I left, and now I’m curious to read what she wrote. On the title page of Gemma, she writes her thanks for me coming to her signing. I reach back into the bag and fumble for Singing Songs, newly reprinted as a trade paperback. I open to the title page and draw my breath in slightly. The inscription reads:

To Vince, To us! For not letting them win. Love, Meg Tilly, October 8, 2006.
I’m momentarily taken off guard by the depth of Meg’s perception, at how so many years of pain and anguish has helped her spot the same in others. I’m genuinely moved…a little choked up even. And, as I make my way underground toward the F train platform, I marvel at the power of closet doors opening and the potential in that power to change the world one door at a time.
I've kept in touch with Meg since our interview, and she most recently (albeit reluctantly - but I'm hard to resist!) discussed her contributions to horror films for a non-fiction book project I'm working on. Happily for her fans, she's now entered the world of the Internet with her own website and has become something of a prolific blogger. Her latest release is a well-received YA book, Porcupine.

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