We all go a little mad sometimes.
January 12, 2009 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Were the mother and daughter subjects of the documentary "Grey Gardens" mentally ill?

I know they're something of cult heroes to some people for being outlandish and quirky, but I was aghast at the mental condition these women were in at the filming of the documentary. And these very different reactions people have to these (staunch) characters sort of confuses me.

My therapist boyfriend suggested that Little Edie Beale had a lot of Axis II stuff going on with her lack of boundaries with her mother and her constant attention seeking behavior. It also seems that his musing on the possibility of a "folie a deux" between them is shared by others who have seen the documentary.

But I noticed some more stark qualities that were more than just personality based quirks. (And, surprisingly, I'm not talking about the raccoons living in the attic.) It appeared to me in one scene that Little Edie had a hard time with time/date orientation - and she even at one point talks about how hard it is to tell the past from the present. Her extreme anger at the discussion of the previous caretaker, Tom Logan, seemed curious and not wholly rational.

Does the more recently released follow-up documentary shed any more light on this? Were there other indications of mental instability that professionals might investigate further or use as guides for developing a diagnosis (aside from, you know, living in squalor)? IANAD, but maybe you are. And maybe this will help me form a more coherent reaction to this documentary.
posted by greekphilosophy to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I believe "hoarding", is an offshoot of obsessive compulsive disorder.
posted by timsteil at 3:17 PM on January 12, 2009

Yes. At least that was my reaction upon seeing this, first in film school in 1986 or so, and again more recently.
posted by fixedgear at 3:24 PM on January 12, 2009

Best answer: IANAD, IANEBD. Short answer: no, they were not all there. And were either of them living alone, they would no doubt have been dysfunctional, but somehow the two of them were able to lean on each other codependently and be almost functional. Almost.

I think the movie's popularity has a lot to do with this borderline state, itself a large gray area, that we flirt with in our own lives, fantasizing about our own steady decline. Where is the line between a harmless tic and pathology? How does one really know how many cats is TOO MANY? We all have our symptoms and quirks and unfulfilled desires, and we fear that they will devour us, and we also fear that when this happens, it will be apparent to everyone but ourselves. The Beales are staunchly nonconformist -- how much of their squalid lifestyle is pathology and how much is pure obstinance? There are moments when they're clearly trying to hurt each other, preying on each other's vulnerabilities. Is this abuse? Is this just typical family bullshit?

I think that what makes the Maysle's film brilliant instead of exploitative is that there is no judgment. They are presented as being themselves, warts and all. At times they are very happy being themselves, other times they're very unhappy. I love the fact that when the Maysles screened the movie for the Beales, the women loved it and declared that it would be a hit. And it was. That's the craziest thing I've ever heard, but it turned out to be true.

(I've always wanted to know more about little Edie's hairlessness, which I assume to be the result of unchecked trichotillomania...)
posted by hermitosis at 3:31 PM on January 12, 2009 [15 favorites]

Little Edie had a hard time with time/date orientation - and she even at one point talks about how hard it is to tell the past from the present.

That's another one of those things to me that is sort of brilliantly ambiguous. On one hand, yeah, it could be symptomatic of something, but we also know that Edie is given to particularly romantic turns of phrase in her self-expression. When she doesn't know what to say, she just says cryptically poetic things that she thinks will make her look deep and smart.
posted by hermitosis at 3:36 PM on January 12, 2009

Best answer: Previously.
posted by bluefly at 3:36 PM on January 12, 2009

I think the movie's popularity has a lot to do with this borderline state...

The Jackie O angle has a great deal to do with it. Sordid Lives Of Rich People always puts asses in seats.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:38 PM on January 12, 2009

And sorry to keep butting in here (you can tell I am passionate about this movie) but their house doesn't look like a hoarder's zone. There's a colossal amount of empty space, and what little they seem to have is just old junk, there doesn't seem to be anything new that they care to hold on to. However, it's possible that when Jackie O had her cleaning crew in they removed a lot of stuff, so I don't know.
posted by hermitosis at 3:41 PM on January 12, 2009

Best answer: Well I think that was the point of the documentary, to point out the grey, fuzzy, undefined area. Maysles (the filmmaker) likes doing this (eg, the last shot of Gimme Shelter where Jagger looks into the camera with this confusing expression (after just viewing footage of a murder)).

If I remember right, those ladies had rodents living with them. They left food out, some specifically for the rodents. There were some health issues like bedbugs, lice or something? And wasn't the state, city or country warning them about a public health violation? At minimum this is anti-social and probably acceptable out in rural New Mexico (not that I'm repelled by this sort of lifestyle), but they were in a well-to-do-ish Long Island community.

Again, I think one of the points of Maysles work here is that it's really difficult to make these types of societal judgements.

I hope I'm not far off with the details I noted above. I really need to see this again.
posted by ezekieldas at 3:49 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There was a show about the making of the movie and the new musical on Independent Lens on PBS. The makers of the film said they didn't think that the Edies were mentally ill and gave various reasons why. I honestly don't remember the rationale, but you can read more about the show here.
posted by fructose at 4:18 PM on January 12, 2009

To answer your question about the follow-up documentary - no it doesn't address the question of their mental stability and is really just more footage for those of us that wanted to see more of the ladies.

Interesting question since it never actually occurred to me that they had mental problems. I just saw them as two extremely eccentric ladies, but that is a gray area itself isn't it?
posted by Julnyes at 5:03 PM on January 12, 2009

Histrionic Personality Disorder?
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:00 PM on January 12, 2009

Best answer: hermitosis - that's the house immediately after several thousand dollars of clean-up and repair. That is not how they lived. Between the time of the filming and big Edie's death, is got worse and worse. Local newspapers of the time have photos of the before - you see some of those stories on the DVD, but not that you can freeze and read... IIRC. Lee Radziwill was going to pull the plug on permissions - although I'm not clear what authority she had, maybe just good will of the Maysles - if they shot one frame of what the house actually looked like.

The Maysles say great things about everybody, and I don't fault them for that. At least one of their editors (they Maysles don't edit their own films, they just shoot) says that, when she reviewed footage for the DVD, she suddenly realized that Edie had cancer. It was right there in front of them and she never noticed. It seems she felt guilty about how she looked at them during the excitement of the time, after she saw it objectively and realized what was going on.

However, I do take issue with the filmmaker's public view that they "needed each other" and were attached. The relationship was entirely poisonous, and years and years of little Edie's life were wasted. I know a half-dozen children of divorce whose dumped-for-having-an-affair-or-twelve mothers did something very similar - and if those parents had some cash and a mansion they probably would have taken it that far. As it was, they had to keep their shit sort of together and hold a job and convince the courts to let them keep the daughter. It's not historically unusual for a parent to decide that one child can give up life and be their personal slave, but it's still mentally ill.

Little Edie was, by all accounts, pretty normal but high strung - which is pretty normal for rich girls. She went to schools and did well and wrote papers and went to parties like everyone else. (There are actually some films and letters from her young adult life floating around.) Then she was forced to move in with her mom. There's a lot of psychology devoted to children of abusive/controlling/crazy parents and I think people who work in that field would recommend lifestyle changes, at least, for little Edie at Grey Gardens. If nothing else, some clothes that fit and running hot water.

Look at the amount of conversations are about not wanting to be there. Look at how much she wants to dress up and be admired. Don't you think if she had been in control in any way, she would have been wearing clothes that fit and had her hair done?

To me, it looks like Edie could have had a couple of small screws loose, and Big Edie was just so furious when she was dumped, that her rage, cancer (which eventually killed her), alcoholism, and other physical issues took their toll.

There's some suspicion that the Health Department interest was motivated by police interest in local kids using the house to sell and smoke dope. Did you have that mother in your neighborhood?

The Maysles say that Edie was just fine on her own after she moved to Florida, but it does appear that she had community supervision. (That is friends of the family and friends of those friends and the super checking in on her and comparing notes.) I have never come across a useful account of her move from Gray Gardens to Florida so it's hard to say how agoraphobic/thrilled she might have been.

But who's to say that Edie wanted anything else once she got to Florida? I mean, if you have cash and people to look our for you, why not live that way?

But what they did to that house!
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:00 PM on January 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm going to go a step further and say that their eccentricities and behavior were further obscured by their wealthy and privileged upbringing. Their speech, cadence and shared experiences are so remote from most of us to begin with, that I think we manage to look past or romanticize many of their strange behaviors. If anything they reminded me very much of the family in, ironically, Rory Kennedy's "A Boy's Life," which is another great documentary exploring the edges of mental illness. In a way it is almost the polar opposite of "Grey Gardens" in that it takes place with an impoverished family in the deep South and you're left wondering through much of the film whether the mother daughter pairing are poor and ignorant or have some sort of borderline mental illness.

Actually more I think of it, the two films have a whole lot in common, with the latter showing the dark side to borderline mental illness and not celebrating its eccentricities.
posted by geoff. at 6:02 PM on January 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wanted to duck back in and thank everyone for your responses. I knew I'd find valuable information here in the green and this definitely helped me clarify some things (from both a social and cinematic perspective!).
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:46 AM on January 13, 2009

Perhaps too late but here's a chilling domestic scene. The daughter isn't nuts, but mom is doing her best to snuff out that sanity.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:02 PM on January 13, 2009

Here late, but I wanted to say that I grew up around a lot of freerange crazy people, and I find that movie unwatchable. I guess if you don't know crazy like I know crazy, the class stuff masks the illness.
posted by daisydaisy at 11:30 PM on March 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

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