Tuesday, May 28, 2013

186: The Self-Empowered Woman: Edna O'Brien

Dear Followers,

Often when I lecture about The Self-Empowered Woman, listeners are intrigued by Edna O'Brien's life story (Chapter 17). Her latest book, Country Girl (Little, Brown & Company, $27.99, 357 pp)  is her first memoir, and a riveting tale of the challenges she faced on her way to becoming a literary icon.

O'Brien was born in County Clare (in a town that had no library, three groceries and 27 pubs) in the West of Ireland in 1930. Her mother had been a maid, and her father was a farmer who not only drank, but gambled as well (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Her family (like most of the people in the area) were devout Catholics--in her words, she came from "a strict, religious family". During her "suffocating" childhood she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy in Galway (3: Belief in The Unbelievable).

After graduation, she moved to Dublin and worked in a drugstore while studying at night at the local pharmaceutical college. During this time she discovered Tolstoy, Thackeray and T. S. Elliot's book Introducing James Joyce, which changed her life. Even though she worked as a pharmaceutical apprentice for four years, she had already made up her mind that  reading and writing would define her life (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Her first open act of rebellion was when she ran off with a much-older  (married) writer named Ernest Gebler. They were pursued by her father, her brother, two policemen and a Cistercian Abbot, but eventually got married anyway. The marriage lasted ten years and gave her two sons, but when she completed her first novel (The Country Girls) in only three weeks, her husband was furious. He told her "You can write and I will never forgive you." Their divorce turned out to be an epic battle (15: Forget About Prince Charming). 

As her writing became more acclaimed, she was forced to fight for custody of her two sons because O'Brien's husband falsely accused her of "abandonment."  Both boys asked the court to allow them to live with their mother instead of with Gebler, and the judge agreed (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Seduced by the power of words, O'Brien worked in London as a reader for the publishing company Hutchinson. At that time she read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which helped her understand "where she might turn, should she want to write herself." Even though she was only "a reader," her reports were good enough to motivate the company to commission her--for 50 pounds--to write a novel (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

O'Brien made three major escapes in her life: From the restrictive rules of the Catholic Church, from small-town Ireland to London in the Swinging 60's, and from a tyrannical husband into a life of fame and flirtation (14: Selective Disassociation). 

A prolific writer, O'Brien has always had loyal fans, as well as harsh critics. Most of her writing, like her first novel (which was published in 1960), was considered too sexually graphic. It was burned in some places, banned from the pulpit and the postmistress of her hometown of County Clare felt that "the author of such filth should be kicked naked through the streets" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

O'Brien received her first writing honor (The Kingsley Amis Award) in 1962, and her most recent was the Frank O'Connor International short story award in 2011. She has written successful novels, plays, poems and short stories, as well as her memoir. From the Irish PEN Award to the Writers' Guild Award and the European Prize for Literature, there is no doubt that the once-underestimated (and often disdained) daughter whose parents were "allergic to literature" has truly reached--at 82--the pinnacle of her profession.

Looking forward to your comments...

Monday, May 27, 2013

185: The Self-Empowered Woman: Race to Erase MS

Dear Followers,

Lisa Vanderpump
Nancy Davis

Teri Garr

A million apologies for neglecting this blog for over a month. Instead of excuses, I'll just give you an explanation--the entire month of May has been consumed with festivities. But now that Tony's birthday has come and gone--and our suitcases are finally unpacked--I can explain why I wasn't able to focus on the blog the way I'd like to.

In April, I wrote an article for The Palm Beach Post about Annette Funicello’s death from MS, and my own long-term wrestling match with this challenging disease. Then, only three weeks later (thanks to my generous friend Tom Safran) I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Rolls Royce of fundraising events, the Race to Erase MS gala in Beverly Hills.

Naturally, I was thrilled to "go back home," and have the chance to reconnect with former work colleagues as well as friends from both high school and UCLA. There were happy reunions, fabulous meals and perfect weather (even the traffic seemed good), but the red-letter event was the glamorous MS fundraiser.

This year’s event, “Love to Erase MS,” honored Jack Osbourne—who was diagnosed last year—and his mother, Sharon. I was amazed when multi-platinum singer Taio Cruz gave the kind of performance that is usually reserved for packed stadiums rather than hotel ballrooms, and then Sir Elton John sang his classic hits for close to a full hour. He told the audience that he was at the benefit to support the cause, but also because “Sharon [Osbourne] has so much information on me that I simply couldn’t say no.” He also paid tribute to her strength as a mother with a child who has been given an unwelcome diagnosis by saying, “She’s a fighter, a survivor, a crusader and a great mom.”

When I managed to speak with Jack’s mom (who is one of the stars on “The Talk”) she told me, “I honestly can’t find the words to express how overwhelmed I am by all the support we have received since learning of Jack’s diagnosis. One of the first people I called was Nancy because I knew she would lead us in the right direction—and she did. And when you look around at all the people who are supporting this cause, you just know that a cure is in sight.”

California philanthropist Nancy Mills was diagnosed with MS in 1993, and ever since then she has been working tirelessly to raise research money with the goal of curing, and ultimately eliminating, MS. About 90% of the money she raises from her star-studded events supports research conducted by America’s top MS doctors, and so far, she has raised over $23 million. Thanks to her efforts nine new drugs are now available for MS patients.

The Century Plaza ballroom was overflowing with so many household-name celebrities that I could hardly keep track of them. The red-carpet press corps unleashed a firestorm of flashbulbs at the famous attendees, who included (among others) Catherine Bell (the “Army Wives” star’s stepmother has MS), Daisy Fuentes, Camille Grammer (she told me that this was her 13th Race to Erase event), Anne Heche, Tommy Hilfiger, La Toya Jackson, Kellie Pickler, Lisa Rinna, Ray Romano, Cybill Shepard, Rod Stewart and Bruno Tonioli. Not to mention Kyle Richards and Lisa Vanderpump of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. There were hundreds of attendees at the star-studded event, but I only counted five other wheelchairs.

I was seated at the same table with Oscar-nominated “Tootsie” actress Teri Garr, who was diagnosed with MS 15 years after I was. Side by side in our wheelchairs, at a table with a huge centerpiece of orange roses, we discussed her book “Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood.” Well known for her lively sense of humor, she told me that she had wanted to title it “Does This Wheelchair Make Me Look Fat?” Her illness-phobic publisher, however, evidently nixed that idea.

Now that I’m back home, the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood MS gala already seems like a page ripped out of a fairytale. But I—like thousands of others—believe that MS will one day be eliminated. It’s the medical dream we just know in our hearts will one day soon come true. And the $1.8 million raised at the May 4th gala brings that dream just a little bit closer to reality.

Looking forward to your comments...