In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death at age 60, her new memoir, The Princess Diarist, is an unexpectedly emotional read. But the emotions aren’t grief and nostalgia so much as alarm and sympathy. Early in the book, she tells a thoroughly appalling story that she presents as a cheery little romp. In London for the filming of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, Fisher attends George Lucas’ birthday party, where she’s “essentially the only girl” in a room full of hard-drinking crew who are loudly whinging that they’d rather shoot in “a nice remote location… where there’s no bloody shortage of strange but friendly quim.”
At the time, Fisher is 19, and by her own admission, naïve and agonizingly insecure. So when the crew members briefly stop teasing her (“here’s our little princess without her buns”) and decide to get her drunk, she quickly caves, even though she hates the taste and effects of alcohol. “It makes me stupid, sick, and unconscious really fast,” she admits. “I’ve never actually been drunk—just senseless and inert.” But she wants to fit in. A couple of drinks later, she’s reeling and incoherent, at which point several men surround her and try to hustle her out of the party, “to wherever movie crews take young actresses when they want to establish that the actress belongs to them.”
Then Harrison Ford steps in, in what sounds like a real-life version of a movie scene: “Pardon me,” he tells a crew member who claims Fisher wants to get a little air, “but the lady doesn’t seem to be very aware of what she wants.” An argument breaks out, and Ford yanks Fisher away from the party and into a car — and starts making out with her. He is married and has two kids. He is 14 years older than her. She is drunk, and he just finished saying she isn’t aware enough to make rational decisions. And that’s how their affair starts: the affair everyone wrote about with a frisson of pop culture glee when The Princess Diarist came out a few weeks ago. The real-life Princess Leia and Han Solo, at the height of their youthful hotness and iconic movie star familiarity, got it on while shooting Star Wars, then kept it secret for nearly 40 years! What a story!
But there’s nothing cute about the party anecdote, which on every level feels like a bunch of older men taking advantage of a younger girl. And there’s nothing sexy, sweet, or even appealing about Fisher’s three months with Ford in her recounting here. It’s deeply weird and dysfunctional how the media has presented their brief relationship as the giddy confirmation of a collective fandom fantasy, rather than the way Fisher actually portrays it, as exhausting and gutting. More than a third of Princess Diarist is devoted to her talking in mournful circles around their hook-ups. While carefully avoiding any intimate details, she portrays Ford as monosyllabic, withholding, forbidding, and intimidating. In public, she says, he largely ignored her. In private, they had sex, but barely spoke to each other. And the only real hint of tenderness or even affection between them comes in an anecdote where she does an impression of him to make him laugh — a cute story weighed down by her desperate, miserable inner dialogue:
“If I’d never succeeded in coaxing this coveted laughter of his out into the waiting world, I would never have known what I was missing — just that I was missing something, besides his not being single or accessible or, for the most part, warm. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine his laughing wholeheartedly, or known how amazing it felt to actually be with the person you were with and feel that he liked you!”
And yet throughout all of this, the younger version of Fisher is painfully, miserably obsessed with Ford. She repeatedly spins elaborate fantasies about him leaving his wife to be with her. She blames herself for his remoteness and tries to figure out what about herself she can change to make him more engaged. She pours out her heart with a rawness that eclipses any humor, late-life analysis, or nostalgia she brings to the story.
At the beginning, Fisher teases the fact that she’s writing this latest memoir because she found the diaries she kept during the production of Star Wars. But those diaries have nothing to do with the shoot. There are no stories from the set, no insights into working with George Lucas, no reminiscing about the rest of the cast. The diaries are exclusively 19-year-old Fisher writing about Ford’s remoteness and her angst over him. She frequently drops into poetry where the naked hurt drips off the page:
The compromise I made was not an easy thing to do
It was either you or me and I chose you
Although far from a joker you spoke in wry, wry riddles
I could have given you so much but you wanted so little
I thought you might supply some tenderness I lacked
But out of all the things I offered you took my breath away
And now I want it back
Fisher’s previous memoirs, Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic, are also about heavy, hurtful experiences. In those books, she explores clinical depression, substance abuse, an overdose, the extremely public separation of her superstar parents, her father’s death, her melancholy friendship with Michael Jackson, her weight gain and obsession with her looks, her therapy and treatment, and her lifelong low self-esteem. And she does all of it with a silly, surreal sense of humor that occasionally veers into Borscht-belt hamminess. She avoids self-pity, even when she’s talking about self-loathing. Those books are a strange, sweet peek behind the endless merchandising, the iconic film images, the familiar face on the Star Wars posters. It’s hard to believe that someone held up as an icon of beauty and provocative sexuality hated her face and body so much, and that someone so frank, outspoken, and bold about the problems women face in Hollywood had so many problems with courage. If anything, her first two memoirs are inspirational, because they reveal what a strong, confident figure she was able to be while she was feeling so weak and lost.
But The Princess Diarist is another story. Fisher is cavalier and playful about the birthday party story, and she seems to completely miss the darker implications of the crew members’ behavior. She says she has no idea what they planned to do with her — “I have to believe not much,” she says, “but they were going to make a great deal of noise while they didn’t do it.” But at the same time, she keeps emphasizing uncomfortable details, like the intimidating size of the men fighting over her, or the feeling that her “fat face with a chunky body” made her tractable, even though she knew drinking was “the most idiotic choice I could make.” Her ugly details suggest that the upbeat tone is a ruse, but it’s never clear whether she’s trying to keep readers’ revulsion at bay, or whether she’s just not fully processing her own. And she approaches her relationship with Ford the same way, with vague, symbol-heavy reveries and jokes covering over some deeply uncomfortable details. In Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic, she turns discomfort into humor, but here, she turns humor into discomfort. She treats this period of her life as if it’s a sort of hilarious extended gag, with herself deservingly cast as the butt of the joke.
Princess Diarist is particularly sad in the wake of Fisher’s death, because it leaves a final impression not as the adult she became, but as the teenager she was, at her most vulnerable, uncertain, and needy. The book doesn’t have any warm and thoughtful conclusions where Fisher realizes the affair was emotionally traumatic for her, or that she wasn’t entirely to blame for it going badly. Instead, Fisher worries that she’s still awkward around Ford, and that she makes him uncomfortable. In effect, she becomes a lovelorn, awkward 19-year-old version of herself again when she talks about him. And for a capper, she suggests she’s still carrying that miserable, unfulfilling, depressing torch: “While there’s still time for Carrison to grow old together, that gateway is steadily closing. If we’re going to get back together we’re going to have to do it soon.”
In the wake of Fisher’s death earlier this week, feminist culture writer Anne Thériault posted a tweetstorm that immediately went viral, a series of thoughts about how people celebrate Fisher as Princess Leia, but the real hero is General Organa — the older, tougher, franker version of the character seen in The Force Awakens. And that’s the version of Fisher that fandom came to know — the grown woman who fought for a career that had nothing to do with wearing a space bikini, and everything to do with her outspokenness and her air of devil-may-care, life-loving ferocity. As an adult, Fisher championed open conversation about mental illness, had a lively and successful career as a novelist and script doctor, and maintained a weird, emoji-laden, but clearheaded public conversation with her fans about age, beauty, and her beloved dog Gary. She became iconic for her personality instead of what she looked like back when Lucas was ordering her not to wear a bra on-camera “because there’s no underwear in space.”
And that’s the real reason The Princess Diarist is so demoralizing — because the final word from Carrie Fisher feels like a throwback to the era of her life she seemed to process and escape throughout Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic. In those books, she seemed to have found new insight into her own identity, and a new comfort with herself. With this final memoir, though, she seems trapped in a long, painful moment of distress and confusion — one that’s been turned into a titillating piece of celebrity gossip by people who seemingly haven’t read the book.
It’s certainly possible that as an adult, Fisher became more comfortable with the Ford affair than she seems on the page. In her final interviews, she jokes about it in an irreverent, relaxed way. The things she was saying on her book tour suggest there’s another side to Princess Diarist — the part of the story where she grows past hopeless infatuation, and enjoys life on the other side. But the book leaves that story untold, and her death leaves it incomplete. There was no good time to lose Carrie Fisher. But losing her with this story half-complete feels particularly tragic. It feels like the past is having the final word, when the present makes a much more satisfying story.