Review: ‘Mean Baby’ by Selma Blair

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Once Blair makes the cross-country trip, her book loses some of the charm cast by the first section. At one point she uses the phrase “all the lovely people I had shared something with during my life in Hollywood” – that’s the vibe of these pages. Blair has sometimes acted out when she drank in public. She went through a stage where she bit people as a form of greeting or affection; Kate Moss fired back.

It’s behavior she now sees through the prism of her illness; it was also an expression of his clumsiness. People don’t always understand Blair, who yearns to be seen. As she settles into her career, the filmmakers have repeatedly cast her as another version of the bad baby. But the fashion photographers who photograph her see beyond the label. (Blair cares about clothes and is prone to delightful designer analogies: a black eye patch she wore as a child has a point in the center, “a bit Gaultier, like Madonna’s conical bra; a huge moth that appears years later by her pool has the swirls of a “Proenza Schouler print”.)

As Blair enters her 40s, the symptoms that have plagued her for years – nerve pain, numbness, depression – are getting worse. “I’m in pretty bad pain,” she posted on Instagram, and her friend Elizabeth Berkley saw the posts and suggested Blair see her brother, a spinal neurologist. He sends her for an MRI And then, finally, someone actually sees Blair – inside his skull. Imaging shows MS-related lesions on his brain. The scan is his “new fortune teller”, the diagnosis his new label, “this time the one that suits him”.

The rest of the book chronicles Blair’s life with MS, including her commitment to speaking openly about her experience with the disease, which included a punitive stem cell transplant. At the beginning of the memoir, Blair quotes Didion’s famous saying “We tell stories to live”. These days, we tell stories on multiple platforms to live. Blair also told hers in a recent documentary, “Introducing, Selma Blair,” an intimate film that does a job the book doesn’t. From the memoirs alone, I didn’t get a visceral sense of Blair’s symptoms — like what an achievement it was for her at times to even climb the stairs.

When Didion wrote about why we tell stories, she was reflecting on our need to make sense of our experience – to impose “a narrative line on disparate images”. MS is the line imposed by Blair in “Mean Baby”. The disease attacking his spine is the backbone of his story, providing perspective alongside structure. “I have no organizational skills. I can only choose one memory at a time,” Blair writes of how his mind works these days. Where the book reflects this is also where it has the most power, in the memories that Blair deals with one by one.

“People with MS spend a lot of time at home,” observes Blair. And at the end of this generous and moving book, that’s where she returns. Here, she wanders intuitively, certainly, between present and past. A reflection on the bath, on getting overwhelmed and feeling ‘cool and young’, reminds Blair how much his mother loved baths and asked the housekeeper to always leave an ‘Ajax trail at the bottom’ of the bathtub. But Blair’s mother was also afraid of dying in the bath, especially during thunderstorms. She would ask Blair to wait outside the bathroom, where Blair would remain, “ear glued to the door”, watchful. She writes: “It’s my life: anticipating lightning.

In the movie, Blair points from her brain to her mouth and says she “loses access to my speech from my brain to get it to you.” Even though Blair was describing a symptom of MS, a disease I don’t have, the feeling was symbolically familiar to me; I’ve often felt like I have a faulty connection between brain and speech, and that’s part of the reason I write. For years, Blair turned to astrologers, psychics and healers to tell her story. She “was looking for the right person to relay the drama of my life”. She herself is the right person. When she made that gesture from her brain to her mouth, I thought, that’s also a symptom of a writer.

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