Emma Forrest’s new memoir, Your Voice in My Head, deals with bulimia, self-harm, attempted suicide and heartbreak—the latter brought on by actor Colin Farrell—but whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for her. “If the things that happen to me in the book are the worst things that are ever going to happen to me,” she says, “I’ve been f–king lucky—I really believe that.”
Her long brown hair tucked into a woolly hat, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter is speaking over dinner at a low-lit brasserie in west London, near the house where she grew up and where her parents still live. She’s on one hour of sleep, having just flown in from California, but nonetheless enthusiastic, startlingly forthright and unsentimental. Just as in her writing, she balances her tales of horrific events with lacerating humour. Returning from the ladies’ room at one point, she muses: “The problem with writing a book that deals with bulimia is that whenever you go to the washroom, people think you’re throwing up.”
She’s spent the past few years, in fact, with bile being cast in her direction: in 2008, when she revealed her history of mental illness in an Observer article about Britney Spears, she encountered “a lot of griping English people” unmoved by the pain of someone who got to go to the famously expensive clinic the Priory. In the same year, when her relationship with Farrell was revealed by the press, she was vilified by the actor’s obsessive fans online for being “fat” and “ugly”—neither of which she is or was.
From a distance, at least, Forrest has led the kind of charmed life that seems designed to make people envious. At age 13, she interviewed Nigella Lawson for her school paper; impressed, the celebrity chef recommended her to the Evening Standard. By 16, she was a full-time columnist for London’s Sunday Times; her first novel, published at 21, was inspired by her job speaking to famous musicians at home and on tour. By 22, she was based in Manhattan, writing for the Guardian. Two novels later, she was working as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, hanging out at the Chateau Marmont (where she’d stayed for a summer at age 10 with a friend whose godfather was Jack Nicholson), and counting Minnie Driver and Rachel Weisz amongst her celebrity friends.
But at every step, there were problems. She refers to her parents’ house in London as “the home of teenage self-loathing, and the place where I thought I invented bulimia.” Promoting the book while staying there now, apparently, puts her in a “psychological minefield.”
Forrest began cutting herself when she was at the Sunday Times, where members of the paper’s old boys’ club were “horrible and judgmental… saying things like I had slept with the editor to get the job.” Bereft of friends her own age, she felt drawn to the more damaged celebrities she interviewed: she idolized Richey Edwards of the band Manic Street Preachers, who was famous for his tormented lyrics and self-mutilation. On the road with infamous hip-hop outfit the Wu-Tang Clan, she was “courted” by the often-arrested rapper Russell “Ol’ Dirty Bastard” Jones. “He was always trying—you would imagine this sentence would end up, ‘He was always trying to get into my pants,’ but he was always trying to hold my hand, and that’s it—he held my hand. And then I went through what I went through, and I realized this man was really psychiatrically ill and was used as a court jester by his band, and it makes me really mad in hindsight.” When she interviewed singer Macy Gray, who is described in the book as talking to the wall and mumbling into her hands, Forrest thought, “There but for the grace of God,” and stopped cutting herself for a while.
While working on her intensely personal second novel, Thin Skin, she encountered writer’s block for the first time. As writing had been both self-expression and therapy, this block precipitated a downward spiral. Her roommate discovered her unconscious after she cut herself and took an overdose of pills. She was put on suicide watch at the hospital, and, as she writes in her memoir, “a drunken volunteer nun” accompanied her to the washroom. ” ‘Jesus loves you!’ she trilled. I imagined a toilet-bound Christ as peeping Tom, all unwashed hair and heavy breathing.”
Forrest’s shockingly funny observations are one of the strengths of her writing. Occasionally in Your Voice in My Head, she’ll insert a flippant line just when events are becoming serious, pulling back from their implications. In person, she’ll even joke about her mental illness, as if to put others at ease (“Am I crazy? Are these both pepper shakers?”).
At other times, she’ll unflinchingly look you in the eye and describe her darkest hours in crushing detail: “I remember looking up [Web] pages where I know that it’s gonna say how ugly I am, and ‘How could he ever have been with her?’ It’s the same feeling as when I used to be bulimic and I’d look in the mirror with vomit on my face and burst blood vessels in my eyes and go, ‘That’s you. I caught you. That’s what you’re really like.’ ”
Forrest met Farrell at a party in L.A.; she describes him in her book as looking, at the time, like “the world’s campest terrorist.” They fell in love nonetheless. Throughout Your Voice in My Head, and in person as well, she refers to the Irish star as “Gypsy Husband,” or “GH”—a nickname he gave himself.
She met him at a happy time, when she’d stopped cutting and making herself throw up, and she’d felt stable enough to cut back on her visits to her psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Rosecan (“Dr. R” in the book). When Rosecan died, unexpectedly, of cancer at age 56 (having chosen not to reveal his illness to his patients), Farrell, she writes, penned poems for her and tried to convince her “that Dr. R’s keeping his sickness a secret was not a betrayal.” And soon, he was trying to convince her to get pregnant. The couple named their prospective daughter in advance (“Pearl”); Farrell bought a baby coat. But one day, returning from a movie set, he explained to her, out of nowhere, that he needed “space…all the space.”
Forrest describes this time as her “lowest low point,” where her self-esteem plunged and she even flirted with suicide again. And yet she looks back at Farrell with a degree of fondness: “I don’t say he’s a prick; he’s a smart and lovely and sensitive man, and I can’t believe he crushed my heart.”
She’d started writing her memoir when they were together, as a way of working through her mental illness and commemorating her time with Rosecan; after she lost both men, writing it became a means of coping.
The book recounts her difficult return to health and happiness. At one point, she’s admonished by a colleague of Dr. R’s to stop trying to psychologically profile Farrell; that their time together can be viewed as having been “only a movie.” The defence mechanism helped. Actors, she has concluded (referring to Heath Ledger, a friend of an ex-boyfriend, whom she last saw, with “grey” skin, a week before his overdose), are “very often ghosts… They’re vessels for their gift, and they don’t understand their gift, and it makes them unhappy.”
Your Voice in My Head has been labelled by the Observer as a “misery memoir.” Forrest riles at the label: it’s “a way to be dismissive of women’s voices,” she says. “There’s always a tag for women. I saw 127 Hours and I liked it, but that was based on a memoir [in which] a guy was really f–king stupid… he went and did this without telling anyone where he was going. Into the Wild, same thing. Why isn’t there a whole category of male memoirs about being a macho, immature idiot?”
Forrest says she hopes Farrell reads her memoir and “sees the purity of it… GH’s all-time favourite song is Diamonds & Rust, which is Joan Baez’s riposte to Bob Dylan for the way he just left her behind. Every time I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to be so upset,’ I just thought, ‘No one who likes Diamonds & Rust that much could really fault this book.’ ”
She also transmuted her feelings into a buoyant screenplay: Liars (A-E), which was two weeks away from being filmed by director Richard Linklater when its production company, Miramax, got into dire financial straits. Its heroine gets dumped by a musician who looks like “the world’s gayest terrorist” and who tells her he needs “all the space.” With a friend, she goes on a road trip to reclaim things she left with a series of exes—the concept is part revenge, part redemption.
Recently, Forrest optioned Your Voice in My Head to producer Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Shaun of the Dead); she and director Joe Wright (Atonement) have worked on a treatment. Wright’s idea, it seems, was for “GH to play GH.”
And how would she feel about that? “I’m just like, ‘Whatever’s good for the art,’ really, and I know that I deserve a punch in the face for talking about art at all. I say in the book, I have no shame, I have no dignity. I never have. I just have writing.”