Mariel Hemingway: "Nobody talked about anything in my family"

The actress talks to Salon about depression, healing and the new documentary about her complicated family

By Laura Barcella

Published November 5, 2013 12:28AM (EST)

Mariel Hemingway      (AP/Victoria Will)
Mariel Hemingway (AP/Victoria Will)

Mariel Hemingway is a household name, but not necessarily because she wants to be. Sure, the actress, writer and mental health advocate started working young -- she earned her first Oscar nomination when she was just 18, for her role as Woody Allen’s teenage lover in Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan.” Since then, Hemingway, 51, has worn a dazzling array of hats, continuing to act but later turning toward writing, yoga and other holistic endeavors as part of the quiet, crunchy California lifestyle she shares with stuntman boyfriend Bobby Williams.

Today, though, she’s back in the public eye -- at least for a minute -- to promote the new documentary “Running From Crazy,” which opened Nov. 1. The film, directed by Barbara Kopple,  focuses heavily on Mariel, while providing a detailed portrait of her famous family’s struggles with, well, just about everything. But if there’s one thing Mariel can’t escape, no matter how far afield she’s drifted from her celebrity beginnings, it’s “Hemingway.” Her name instantly identifies her (might as well scratch a giant X on her forehead in black Sharpie) as part of that legendary creative clan that seemed to churn out greatness and despair in near-equal measure.

There have been seven suicides in Hemingway’s family, including Mariel’s grandfather, literary giant Ernest; her sister, Margaux, and her uncle Gregory. Living under the dark specter of the Hemingway name may have helped open a few doors for Mariel. But, as she explains throughout the film, bearing such a powerfully loaded name also felt like a Kennedy-level curse. That tension between the public’s stark, black-and-white perception of her admittedly sick family and Mariel’s own nuanced take on life as a Hemingway makes up the core of the film. And the film is worth seeing if you give a whit about the intersection of mental health and arts, and the ways in which dysfunction, illness and love can trickle down from generation to generation.

For her part, Mariel Hemingway, who was recently honored with a Humanitarian Award at the San Diego Film Festival, hopes “Running From Crazy” helps fuel a broader, freer cultural dialogue about mental illness and suicide. (It’s familiar terrain for Hemingway, who has struggled with depression in her own life.) I spoke with her via phone.

How did the documentary come to be? Is the story of your family’s struggles with mental illness one you had been actively wanting to tell?

I didn’t want to tell a story that made it look like we were just a bunch of knuckleheads, you know? I didn’t want it to be a bad reality show. I wanted it to be what I think it came out to be: this wonderful piece of art. The combination of [Barbara Kopple's] vision and her amazing ability to make a film -- it was really well-done and it became this great expression of what people don’t see behind a persona. It’s kind of beautiful.

What do you think is the biggest public misconception about your family or your family’s history?

On a personal note, the biggest misconception about me is that I’m independently wealthy, that I never have to work, and “Yay! Life is good.” I wish I had a trust fund and an estate [to fall back on], but that’s not the case. The other misconception is that we’re all dark and brooding and depressed and alcoholic, that we come from this Hemingway curse -- that we come from something bad.

One of the reasons I made this film is because we all come from ... challenges. I wanted to tell this story so that other people might have the freedom to tell their story. One of the things Barbara and I always said is that we have to have this conversation about mental illness -- to start bringing it out of the shadows so that people can start having a conversation. The more people talk about this, there will be less stigma. There’s a tremendous amount of shame involved when it comes to suicide and mental illness; we think, “Oh, we better not talk about that, I might lose my job.” But there are a lot of very successful, functional people out in the world suffering in silence, thinking they’re alone, that they’re isolated in some dark hole they can’t get out of.

My depression was healed through lifestyle; that’s why I’m passionate about health and wellness. I’m writing books; I have a book out called “Running With Nature” that I wrote with my partner, Bobby Williams, about lifestyle, the foods you eat, the water you drink, the air you breathe. Whether you have fun and play, whether you have a mindfulness practice, all these things work into the health and balance of the brain. I’m not saying that my way of healing is everybody’s way, but it’s certainly a piece of the equation that needs to be addressed.

How would you describe depression to someone who's never had it?

I had a long -- almost a lifetime of depression. But it wasn’t like I was in total despair. It was almost like a low-grade fever ... I got through my life. But I have survival patterns, like trying to exercise, trying to find the right way of eating, doing all these things [to try to] manage my brain, my depression, my sadness. So I was really good at living a life that helped me survive. People with any sort of mental illness often don’t feel heard. When they do talk, they feel so misunderstood; they judge themselves super-harshly.

I think that feeling [of depression] is like -- you’re tired all the time. I remember I would start a day and it was always good, like, “Hey! There’s all this possibility,” and by midday I was just trying to get through it. Just the small tasks like getting gas in your car and cleaning the windshield is so daunting to even think about. Which is a difficult concept for some people. Now that I don’t feel that way at all, I want others to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I used to wait for the days to end so I could lie in bed and check out. But I did something called Brain State Technology, which is a balancing of the hemispheres of the brain through sound.

In the movie you talk about how people thought your family was similar to the Kennedys -- that the Hemingways are considered to have a “horrible curse.” What was it like growing up with that kind of legacy? 

I was never Mariel Jones; it was always “I come from this [famous] family.” I think that [legacy] was part of the low-grade fever depression I had -- it was always there, always looming. Even though my family is so creative and wonderful and amazing, there was this looming thing that said, “You never know when you may wake up depressed, crazy, whatever.” That was hard. That’s why I recommended they call the movie “Running From Crazy,” because that’s how it felt; like I was running from something. “Please, don’t let me end up like my family; I don’t want to be an addict; I don’t want to be this.” Once I slowed down and faced it all, I said, “This is my family, this is me.” It was this wonderful realization. And I can honestly say I’m happy every day of my life now. It took going through that journey of understanding myself, understanding the things and modalities that work for me, and really being compassionate with my own judgment of myself.

Do you think fame played any kind of role in the issues your family members have had? It seems like it would be so much harder to maintain a happy face under constant scrutiny.

Of course, when you're under scrutiny ... The reaction for me was, “I’ll be perfect, I won’t do anything wrong,” which is just another form of denial about it. For my sister, it was, “I can’t handle it, I’m wild and crazy.” There was a great need for attention for Margaux but she so wanted to be loved. She felt so unloved. That is powerful about this movie -- seeing somebody in this desperate search for somebody to love her, when really the answer is self-love. That’s the transformative, joyous outcome of the film -- that I actually love myself and I couldn’t have said that 10 years ago.

I know your grandfather Ernest killed himself just a few months before you were born. Growing up, how much did your parents tell you about your grandfather and the rest of your family’s troubled history? Were they open or not so much?

Not at all. Nobody talked about anything in my family. That was the crazy thing about it, which I kind of repeated by not telling my girls that much about it. I’d tell them little bits about our history, but I thought by not telling them, I wasn’t burdening them. But when you share the depths of everything and where you come from, you help them not be afraid of what’s unknown. If you know about it, there’s less fear, and you can heal from it and move on. That’s what we’re saying about the film too, it’s not just for my family, but for you (well, not for you. But ...) Anybody can make different choices. Once you start to tell the story of your life, you get to move on from the story. Because at the end of the day it’s really just a story. Once you’ve told it, you get to make different choices. You can say, “I want to get therapy,” “I want to be heard, I want to do this, I want to live a healthier life,” whatever it is a person chooses to do, you don’t have that option if you haven’t really addressed it.

What did you tell your daughters about your family history when they were growing up? Were you scared they'd have similar mental health issues themselves?

I was nervous. I wasn’t freaked out. I told them about addiction when they were younger. I think my sister doing drugs in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s triggered a predisposition for mental illness earlier than it otherwise would have happened in her life. So I told my daughters, look, there’s this in our family, so don’t drink too much. I can’t live your life for you, but look at these things. I did talk about how addiction was a problem in our family and my belief that it caused mental illness. What I didn’t tell them was what happened to my sister. I probably didn’t know the depth of her pain until I saw that footage that Barbara found of my sister’s documentary that she’d been making on the family. The powerful thing is that I have so much compassion for my sister’s journey and why she made the decisions she did. I can see it in her face, hear it in her voice.

In the movie you mention having had occasional thoughts of suicide. Did having such an extreme family legacy legitimize suicide as a kind of escape option for you if your depression ever got really bad, or did it have the opposite effect, making you feel more committed to working on your mental health and not letting yourself get to a place that dark? 

It was only once that I was really in that space. I think  the only reason it happened was so I could understand what it felt like. You don’t make a conscious choice, saying, “This is an option, this isn’t an option.” It may seem like that, but when you're in that space, you honestly think the world is better off without you. You actually think, “God I’d be doing such a service to everyone, because I’m such a pain in the ass.” Having come out of that, there’s a lot of misunderstanding of suicide. Someone with a friend who committed suicide may think, “What a selfish thing they did; didn’t they think about the people who love them?” And the truth is, they did. Of course they thought about the people that love them. They actually thought the people who love them would be so much happier without them. Suicide is a complicated issue that needs to be addressed on so many levels.

Laura Barcella

Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and the editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop (March 2012, Soft Skull Press).

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