Why Me?[ Jodie Foster | Esquire Magazine | 1982 December ]
My brothers and sisters called me Load because of the extraordinary capacity of my diapers. Apart from that fact and a few distinguishing details here and there, my vision of myself was pretty average. Not average so-so; just average...bacon and eggs, Volkswagens, southern California sun. Sometimes, though, I look back at my life, at the way it has slowly assumed shape and color, at the places I've seen and the flickers of people I've met, and wonder, Why? Why Me? Why, when the lists were made and the heads counted, was I always chosen? Why did I always find the chocolate basket on Easter morning? Mostly the applause felt good; damn wonderful, even.
To this day I still redden and warm when someone compliments my work or asks me for a date. We all need huge amounts of love, some more than others. But there are times now when a very small child creeps up within me and desperately moans, "Why?" This is the "why" of the romantic, the idealist, the vulnerable, the pure. This is the "why" of the struggling woman-child scribbling down explanations, sensations, incantations in the night. This is the "why" of poetry, when a phrase bursts through and pierces my control. A balloon slowly deflates over a calm pasture. This is the "why" they never saw, they never see, they never will see. This is my "why," my final and ultimate cry. This one's for me.
My summer of 1980 was spent in anticipation of what I was "going to be,"how I was going to walk into the framework of the Ivy League. I bought a good deal of Lacoste clothing, pumped my three-pound dumbbells each morning, played tennis in the afternoon. I wanted to be the kind of girl who's friendly, well-liked, social. To a point, you could say that that's anonymity -- the need to be wholly accepted as an equal and yet respected for the product of your efforts. Maybe I as kidding myself. Maybe I was trying to escape from what I felt was an undeserved image. In any case, I found myself, backpack in hand, playing "Muffin" in a world I knew nothing about. I'd never been to a happy hour, a lacrosse game, a cottage on the Vineyard. For years Ihad been growing paler watching double features with my mom, then eating Chinese food from paper cartons. I knew everything there was to know about distribution profits and how to handle meetings at the Polo Lounge. It wasn't that I'd lost mychildhood or become jaded; I just didn't have a clue as to how it felt to be out of control, completely lost, without prior experience. Yet there I was, never having stayed anywhere for more than three months, never having had to cultivate friendships with people my own age. I had but one childhood friend, Clara Lisa. She was a mover too -- to Paris, to Tahiti, to God knows where. Whenever we could, we'd meet places, giggle, and jump on beds.
Yale was different from any of this. I wanted to be approved of. I attended every freshman event, every college game to make them feel that I was okay, normal, just like they were. But as the weeks went by I realized I really wasn't. I had a job to go back to, lawyers to call, photographers to pose for. It wasn't until at least two years later that I realized it was okay to be different. Better, even. Being understood is not the most essential thing in life.
As I became less and less afraid of new experiences, my personality changed. I took on a screw-the-world dress code. I hung out with people I thought were unique, nonconformist, substantially complex. They were the kind you'd pass on the way to the commons and say, "That person' s interesting . I want to get to know him." I had my first and last bout with tequila. I did ska dances in the street, water-ballooned singing groups, philosophized and talked dirty until five in the morning. The control I'd had all those years was self-imposed and alienating. Now I was able to make mistakes. In the beginning of school I had tried desperately to be five foot four. Now I was five foot four. I was elated.
It was around this time I started questioning my career. I was passionate about school. I wanted to be at Yale forever, holding people, writing down literary revelations, reading from tales of men long dead, smiling from inside out. The idea of returning to a dressing from in a Winnebago, being called Miss Foster, seemed foreign, unnatural. I didn't want to return those phone calls from home, from agents, from polite employers. All those scribbled messages just meant that I was still dependent, still theirs to scrutinize, to admire. Maybe I was kidding myself. In fact, I'm sure of it.
I was sitting in the library in March. The first weekend of the play I was doing on campus, Getting Out, had ended. I had five more performances to do. I must have been a sight. My skin had erupted from greasepaint. My clothes were torn and rumpled. I didn't like sleeping anymore. It kept me from other things. My studies never suffered, simply because they were my first priority, the easiest responsibility to fulfill. Academics was a drop in the pond compared with the demands of the social process. The fact that I decided to do a play at Yale still astounds me. Theater scared me to death; I didn't know that first thing about it. But one of my best friends was directing and many of my buddies were in it. I suppose I did it for the wrong reasons. I wanted them to love me. he audience, the actors, my pals. I wanted to be involved in a common experience, something that would melt the already thawing barriers.
The following hazy Monday afternoon I was skipping hand in hand across campus with my best friend. Someone yelled as we went by, "Hey. Did you hear? Reagan got shot." We continued on. At dinnertime everyone was asking if we'd heard what the President's condition was. Well, my radio had been busted for three months and my friend's was terminally glued to the local reggae station. "Come on. This is college. News can wait." No one seemed to mention Brady or the assailant until late into the evening. I finally sauntered home around ten-thirty. My roommate opened the door before I could get my key in.
"John," she said.
"What about him? Did he write me again?"
"He's the one, I think. It was on the radio."
"Bullshit. You're imaginin things."
The phone was ringing. I answered it. My dean said, "Don't be upset." He explained that my pictures and address had been found on the arrested man. Ifelt the tears welling up in my eyes. My body started shaking and I knew that I had lost control... maybe for the very first time in my life. I was to meet the FBI in his office as soon as possible.
"Give me a couple of minutes," I said. I ran to a friend's. I waited for her to get out of the shower as three or four loud boys listened to the news down the hall. They were drinking beer and I carried on with them for a few minutes to prove to myself I could do it. I laughed and made jokes -- like a good little actress. Then my friend closed the door and questioned me with a glance. I started to cry a bit, then my tears turned to laughter. I couldn't stop laughing. It was simply too funny, too incredibly bizarre, too painful. She thought I was going crazy. My laughter was strange and hollow, and I couldn't control it. It was beyond me. My body jerked in painful convulsions. I hurt. I was no longer thinking of the president, of the assailant, of the crime, of the press. I was crying for myself. Me, the unwilling victim. The one who would pay in the end. The one who paid all along -- and, yes, keeps paying. That kind of pain doesn't go away. It's something you never understand, forgive, or forget. It is a pain that can never be healed with a kiss from your mother's lips or a "Sssh, everything's okay." Everything's not okay! It's not.
But I didn't have the time to feel it then. There were things to be done, secrets to keep. I was supposed to be "tough," like cowboys, like diplomats, like "unaffected actresses" -- not because anyone asked me to but because I wanted to show them (God knows who) that I was strong. I wanted to show them all that Jodie was so uniquely "normal" and "well-adjusted" that nothing could make her fall. I think I believed all this, my subconscious propaganda. But the truth was that in the crunch, when the chips are down, in a time of crisis, you resort to strength you'd never dreamed you owned, like frantic mothers lifting their children from under two-ton trucks. The will to survive is stronger than any emotion in the human system.
The next afternoon I was rushed to the home of one of the bigwigs in the Yale administration. So these grown-up Yalies -- the men in hornrims and with law degrees -- were called to advise me. But nobody quite knew what to do. These academic wonders were reduced to schoolboys. There was no time for typed speeches and haughty jargon. We had to pick up the pieces, to act. I started making my calls. I talked to lawyers, to the FBI, to DAs, to anyone with some sort of experience in these affairs. They all gave me different advice and none was too sure whom I should speak to. Things were being leaked so fast that the news stations knew more than any of us on the inside. I had to read a local newspaper to learn most of the details. Maybe this is what scared me the most -- the descent of the media. They scooped up headlines and swarmed through the campus like a calvary invasion. I couldn't protect myself from being trampled.
But I organized my press conference, wrote a statement, all against the will of the officials. I wanted it over with as swiftly as possible. For the press my presence was almost superfluous; it was the story that counted -- the twisted, bizarre headliner. A compromising photo, a brief comment was all they needed. I can't say that I didn't feel exploited by these friendly men and women with Nikons and with mikes clipped to their lapels. Suddenly they were allowed to destroy my established life because it was their "job." Public figures should just expect it that way, I've been told. But the interesting thing is that -- beyond their flashbulbs, note pads, and video cameras -- the reporters were scared, too. Their faces were desperately trying to mask their terror, awe, guilt. When I saw them assembled before me, I knew that these were the faces, the uncomfortable, fascinated eyes, that I would have to meet for the rest of my life. When I saw them waiting silently and solemnly for my statement, I knew I had to play cowboy -- once again. I was Mother and they were to be reassured that nothing could interrupt my flow of life. If they wanted weakness, I wasn't about to give it to them.
After the details were delivered and the crews went home, it was time to fact the world. Until now, everyone had been kind, sympathetic, availing. My mother would take my hand and say, "Don't worry." The administration assured me that I was not alone and that they were available at a moment's notice. Even the reporters I'd come to know would pat me on the back and say, "Hang in there, kid." But their offerings only stressed the fact that I was completely alone.
I strapped on my backpack, put on my dirtiest jeans, and headed back to university life. People were pretty good about hiding much trace of interest. Some of my friends wanted to respect my privacy of the moment, some smiled and went their way. But I knew that there were two Jodie Fosters. There was one as large as the screen, a Technicolor vision with flowing blond hair and a self-assured smile. She was the woman they had all been watching. But the second Jodie was a vision only I knew. She was shrouded in bravado and wit and was, underneath, a creature crippled, without self esteem, a frail and alienated being.
I went to classes, laughed, joked, pulled all the tricks to make everyone feel comfortable. I tried not to admit that I had noticed the change. I was a returning war hero to be paraded. But I didn't want their awe. I didn't want to be a political figure, a victim of society. So I limited myself to a few companions: the boy I loved and my assigned bodyguards.
With the boy I loved I sat most of the day at the window in the Cross Campus Library. We poked fun at and successfully alienated every person who walked by. We were obnoxious. This boy and I decided, in our self-destructive, eighteen-year-old subconscious, that we needed only each other, that the rest of the population was disappointingly affected by the events of the shooting. Neither of us stopped to think that it was we who were affected. We were both escaping through our intellect, not our emotions. It was I who chad changed, not them. In time I asked myself, Why me? Why not someone like Brooke Shields? The questions made me feel uglier-- and the uglier I felt, the more difficult it was to resolve.
Six days after the shooting of the President I was onstage for the second and final weekend of my play, Getting Out. The Yale police were sent to guard the auditorium. At my request the audience was frisked for cameras. The cast was instructed that the show must go on...no matter what. It was something I had to do, some damn foolish thing I had to prove to myself. No one could just change my life, my plans, without asking me. No one could keep me down. I'm really not sure whom I was trying to impress or what I was ever doing up there in the first place. I had sworn never to do theater at school. I was going to be anonymous, remember? But it was too late for that. As long as everyone was going to stare, I might was well play the game full out.
The show went on, with the squeaking walkie-talkies and the general awkwardness of the crowd. It was the best performance I had given. The audience applauded for reasons I am still unsure of. The rest of the cast was shaky. They knew that the people in the seats were laughing at the wrong lines and keeping their eyes conspicuously toward my end of the stage. The crowd wasn't lying, they were simply impressed -- as I had intended them to be. They were in awe. I was embarrassed for them. Why did they clap? Did it really mean anything at all to them?
The second performance of the play began. Click, click, click, I heard. I could recognize a motor drive on a professional camera better than my own heartbeat. It was coming from center left -- a perfect position for anyone who had the pluck to get past the frisk in time to choose the most advantageous seat in the house. Well, you asked for it, I thought. My most vicious lines of the play were coming up and they were to be directed to this particular spot in the house. I decided that the villain was one of three people. I directed my character's biting insults to all three, until my eyes narrowed to the bearded man in the middle. No, he was not the photographer. His hands were calmly folded and his eyes were fixed. But there was something unnerving about his emotionless stare, something I didn't trust. He became the sole subject of my dialogue's abuse; but he did not flinch -- not once. The next night, again, I heard the click of the motor drive, coming from a different position in the house. The strange man I had noticed the night before was again in the same seat. "In theater," the adage goes, "one is not supposed to glance through the audience, noticing who comes and goes, who sits where." But I only knew movies. So I noticed every light change, every yawning friend, every item of clothing worn by every boy and girl, every bearded gentleman with a ceaseless stare.
At the third performance, no clicks and no bearded man were to be seen or heard. However, during intermission a note was found on the lobby bulletin board to the effect that "by the time the show is over, Jodie Foster will be dead." Iimagined something was amiss when the security guards were suddenly standing with their backs to the actors, surveying the crowd. The note had proved to be a prank, a devilish trick pulled by some bitter spectator who had found himself frisked by two college jocks at the entrance. It was ten-thirty. I was still alive, no harm done. In fact, I had made a bigger ordeal over a stray photographer: "How did you get in? Who do you work for?" (This was perhaps the beginning of a flash phobia that would follow me throughout the next year.) I found out a few weeks later that he had been let in by the producer of the play. The very same producer who confided to the press that I had a few acting problems that would iron themselves out with a little help. The tactless person who said, "At least the publicity did wonders for the receipts." And, finally, the same producer who -- as the explained with a British affectation he had picked up somewhere -- let the photographer in "because...wahl...thar was simply nawthing I could doo. Sorry, luv."
A few days after the show closed, a note was delivered under my door --a death threat in the finest sense of the term. I picked it up neatly by the corners and handed it over to the proper officials. My mother, who was leaving on the next plane to Paris, was frantic. She wanted to take me with her, "to stay...to walk to classes with you...anything!" She desperately wanted to protect me. I told her she was only making me nervous and that the rotating bodyguards were more qualified to watch me than she. This was my first life-crisis had I had to show the world that I could take it like a pro. That's what they call you when you make it to the set by five-thirty A.M. and don't complain.
The next morning I arrived at my English class a bit early Five minutes later my man with the squeaky walkie-talkie told me to stay in the corner of the class until it ended. "He has been apprehended." Ap-pre-hended, I thought. Okay, apprehended. Who?
His name was Richardson, he was from Pennsylvania, and he had a beard. The police and Secret Service had worked nonstop tracking down the letter writer, found him, followed him to New Haven station, where he had boarded a bus bound for D.C. He was picked up at Port Authority in New York with a loaded gun, hoping to fulfill his threat to shoot the President. I was too pretty to kill, he had said as he was arrested. He saw me in my play and simply couldn't. The bearded man in center left? Ten feet from death? Ten feet from a loaded pistol held by a sick and perhaps "insane" man? Ten feet? I don't care to know for sure. Richardson was released a year later on parole.
Then it hit me. It felt like a ton of steel dropping from the top of a thirty-story building. Death. So simple, so elementary, so near. Pulling a trigger is as easy as changing the TV channel with remote control. What was I trying to prove by performing a college play three days after one of the most bizarre assassination attempts of our time? Who was I trying to impress? Why was it so important to look death in the eye and hurl victorious insults? Because I was the one who always found the chocolate basket on Easter morning? Because I always wanted to be the best, no matter what, no matter how?
In the time after Richardson's "ap-pre-hension," a great change came over me, or so I'm told. I started perceiving death in the most mundane but distressing events. Being photographed felt like being shot; it still does. I thought everyone was looking at me in crowds; perhaps they were. Every sick letter I received I made sure to read, to laugh at, to read again. People were punishing me because I was there. They were sending bullets, pulling triggers, exercising the simple law of cause and effect. They were hurting me, intentionally, without any physical contact. They were manifesting a need to wound, and I just happened to be the victim. They could seemingly witness the falling star -- once stalwart and proud -- bend to their aggression. The words, the threats, the accusations were irrelevant. They all wanted me to react, to stop playing cowboy; they wanted to bring me down to their level from the great silver screen.
I could feel death by alienating and insulting the people I loved or at lease enjoyed. I could feel it by hating myself so much that I hated everyone around me for liking me. I died when I looked at myself in the mirror, the body that no longer slept, the clothes I no longer cared for, the mismatched socks, the tired expression, the reddened eyes, the languid stare. My prior identity -- the actress, the enthusiastic collegiate -- no longer existed. I became suspicious of everyone. I suppose I thought they were al informing for People magazine. There were a few, of course, who were. Maybe that People article of April 20, 1981, was the greatest death of all. An ambitious Yale senior, whom I have never met, submitted a manuscript. People simply couldn't turn down. He offered a scoop: what I was in the habit of wearing, my favorite eating places, my friends, my classes, my dating habits -- the works. And this ambitious Yale senior confirmed what I was dreading -- I had been watched. I was being watched from the first day I set foot on campus. They all noticed the color of my Dolfin shorts on the day of orientation. They had noticed which chair I preferred in the library. Strangers had scrutinized and analyzed me without my permission, even without my knowledge. No, the Hinkley ordeal did not destroy my anonymity; it only destroyed the illusion of it. Every man or woman in this world had the right to stare at, point at, and judge me because... that was my job. That's what I got paid for -- to take my lumps. I can be rejected for physical reality, the audiences's perception of who I am. Consequently, I become the property of my judges or I risk rejection.
When my freshman year came to an end in May 1981, I packed up m remnants from the "psycho single" I had been assigned -- a single dorm room reserved for emergency security risks -- and returned to L.A. For two weeks I went hiking and stayed at a health farm in the mountains. When I descended the mountain I jumped back to work. Things were essentially "normal." People were afraid of me and for quite some time I made no effort to ease their awkwardness. I just listened and watched. I heard that Martin Scorsese had been phoned by Maureen Reagan, who expressed her condolences. Her condolences! I'd even heard he'd hired a bodyguard -- something I refused to do. When people recognized me in the street they'd say, "So what, this guy write you letters or something?" They'd say "Too bad," or they'd say "Great publicity, kid." It all seemed so hilariously sad at the time. I smiled inside and felt pity for all of them -- all the people who either thought they understood or thought they knew me. I felt sorry and embarrassed for them as they simultaneously felt sorry and embarrassed for me. It was a confusing time for everyone. And if this was show business, I wanted no part of it. I didn't belong there. I didn't belong anywhere -- except Yale, maybe. Maybe. IN any case, I was glad that the shooting had happened while I was at school. Who knows what mistrust and violence I had avoided by removing myself from Hollywood. There's something about a freeway at rush hour and backdrops of ghost towns that make L.A. untrustworthy. It simply isn't a place you'd call familial or safe. If anything, Yale had been safe.
I went back to school in the fall and found everything back to normal. I started making efforts. I dressed better, I returned phone calls, I kept my room dusted and my toys in place. But by the end of the semester I found myself watching movies every night. I was getting restless. "Just school" wasn't enough. As if by a stroke of fate, a script arrived, one I liked. A Manhattan location. Starring Peter O'Toole, A chance to sing. I was ecstatic...and, for the first time in two years, in love with a project. And Svengali proved a thoroughly fun film. It made me fall in love with acting again. It cured me of most of the insecurities; it healed my wounds.
More than a year after the day of the shooting I found myself in a Washington, D.C., courtroom waiting to give my deposition. It was all very orderly, very efficient. I brought my briefcase and answered questions with a sobriety and cool that seemed appropriate. No one had told me before I arrived in Washington, of course, that Hinkley would be present. But I played cowboy and got through it all the best way I knew how, thinking this would be the end of it.
The proceedings went smoothly; there seemed to be very few surprises concerning the case, or so I thought. I went to my hotel room alone, flicked on the Oscars, and watched the lights of Georgetown grow dim before me. And it was that moment, as I watched the suited dolls below my window and the Pan-Caked presenters doling out prizes, that I knew I wasn't the only one playing cowboy. I thought about how every dealing with another human being was an unconscious act of bravado. You blink; I understand that you're thinking. Human relationships are forms of acting, only the players aren't aware of it. Interaction is a form of lying. So how can anyone trust the words "I'm not scared," "I love you," "Go to hell" if they are issued from the mouth of someone who can never be aware of his true feelings, of his underlying motives? Yes, I thought, we are all liars; it's a humancondition. I decided that night that good actors are essentially good liars. I raise my eyebrows, you think I'm sexy. I dart my eyes, you think I'm smart. Actors and nonactors all manipulate. An actor simply has more personalities and techniques to draw on. And more people to manipulate. But the most frightening thing is that when we "turn on" to the camera -- when we insult it, make love to it, comfort it -- we aren't only manipulating a lens and some glass fragments. We're talking to ten, twenty, or perhaps thirty million people. We're manipulating and influencing them all with every careless gesture and gleaming smile. That's art. That's mass media. A man can buy a poster, pin it on his locker, and imagine the most minute details about a slinky starlet. He'll know her through and through. He'll possess her external reality. So of course Hinkley "knew" me. That woman on the screen was digging in her bag of tricks and representing herself for everyone to assess, to get to know, to take home. The most intriguing actors are those who hold back and keep something -- whatever that may be -- for themselves. They are at once tangible and intangible, accessible and inaccessible, readable and mysterious, friends and strangers. And people are both attracted and extremely angered by something they can't quite "have," whether it be a piece of chocolate cake, a multi-million-dollar corporation, or an aloof young actress. I guess you'd call it playing hard to get. I guess that's what actors do. I guess that's why other people often "love" them and sometimes feel obsessed by them.
Love. Quite a word. I am sorry for people who confuse love with obsession and hurt by those who have inflicted their confusion on me. Love should be sacred. It should be uttered in a soft breath, on misty mornings, in secret hideaways. Love does not exist without reciprocation, hugging that person and feeling the meeting of two minds, two hearts, two souls, two bodies. Obsession is pain and a longing for something that does not exist. John Hinkley's greatest crime was the confusion of love and obsession. The trivialization of love is something I will never forgive him. His ignorance only prods me to say that he's missing a great deal. Love is blissful. Obsession is pitiful, self-indulgent. This is a lesson I've learned. I'll always be wary of people who proclaim their love for me. I know what love is. Do they? I've even been obsessed, which is -- you'll pardon the expression - -insane. But any emotion carried to excess is insanity. Does that make it a legal defense? If so, we all stand acquitted. Why are people so afraid to admit that they have it in them? I could pull a trigger. Am I crazy?
Now it is all supposedly over. I walk down the streets, go about my business, and don't look to see who's following. I don't look over my shoulder or sweat if I ride the subway. After a period of death-dodging you learn to believe that you've been picked for survival. Someone's not going to let it happen. There have been too many almosts. Still, there are times. I was coming back from the Svengali set one night with tonsillitis and a broken clavicle and in a fit of depression. I'd had to dodge paparazzi by lying on the floor of the company station wagon and I couldn't talk from laryngitis. It had been a bad day. So I stopped off for a coffee before packing myself into bed for a few days. It was six o'clock, rush hour, and the place was mobbed. Suddenly a flash of light blew up four inches from my nose. At four inches ,the photographer was just trying to harass me. The next thing I knew I was running down Eleventh Street, crying and tearing at this down jacket and slugging away. I slipped on the ice, right on my clavicle, and lay in the street sobbing. The photographer laughed and yelled, "I got her! I got her!" I couldn't talk because my throat and body throbbed with pain. I cried all the way home, all the way to my hotel room, all evening and into the night. I couldn't stop. It hurt so much. I hurt so much. The only thing I could whisper through my wrenching sobs was "It's not fair. It's not fair." Some days the anger and pain swell up in my and I can't hold it in any longer. My mother will hold me tightly, my fists clenched around her neck, my tears staining her blouse. She'll say "Sssh. I know. Everything's going to be all right." All I know to say is "It's not fair! It just isn't."
Someday I will look back and muse upon the curiosities of history: acting and politics all mixed up together. Anything's possible in a world in which media rules all. But for the time being the wounds still ache, the battle goes on. It seems that things calm down just as you think you can't take anymore. Then something else happens, some new event, and I find myself "taking it" once again. A stranger will approach me in the street and say, "Ain't you the girl who shot the President?"