The unexpected passing of Carrie Fisher at age 60 has left the world trying to piece together a complicated legacy. For most of us, our first impression of Fisher is our enduring one: a young woman clad in white, brown hair pulled up into iconic buns at the sides of her head. We all remember the princess of the planet Alderaan, and the words that truly kicked off the decades-long saga of Star Wars.
“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
But the life of Carrie Fisher was never quite the space opera fairy tale.
Fisher’s memoir, “The Princess Diarist,” shows a 19-year-old version of Carrie Fisher who is, in her own words, naïve and painfully insecure as she worked on the set of Star Wars. A drunken sexual encounter with actor Harrison Ford left the actress with an infatuation with the married man—one that left her emotionally empty when Ford did not reciprocate beyond physical pleasures. The hurt conveyed in Fisher’s memoir is palpable.
Later in life, Fisher would go on to discuss her diagnosis of bipolar disorder in a 2001 interview with Psychology Today. Like her father, Eddie Fisher—who left the family by running off with Elizabeth Taylor—her moods took her to manic highs that had her endangering herself, and to depressive lows that immobilized her.
Fisher would go on to rely on drug abuse as a form of self-medication to escape the worst extremes of her mental disorder, burning through marijuana, acid, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals in an attempt to “dial down” her manic side.
“Drugs made me feel more normal,” she said. “They contained me.”
Her addictions came to feel like a job as she took up to 30 Percodan a day. “It’s like a job. You punch in,” she said of the severity of her drug abuse, which eventually landed her in rehab at age 28, a tube inserted into her throat to pump the toxins out of her stomach.
She eventually found a psychiatrist who formally diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, and with the help of a support group and her friends, found a small measure of relief—but never a cure.
Not many know that one of Fisher’s secret ambitions was to write—she penned the autobiographical “Postcards From the Edge” in 1987, and the 2009 “Wishful Drinking”. In both, Fisher showed herself to be a woman who struggled, who had lost much, but yet endured.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, Fisher didn’t keep that propensity to endure all to herself. She sought to give that quality to others by transforming her hardships into advocacy, becoming a staunch ally to the mentally ill community.
Over the course of her life, she worked to undo many of the stereotypes that surround the mentally ill. Bipolar illness is absolutely devastating, yet many use the term “bipolar” to describe simple moodiness, and often, as an insult. But Fisher’s willingness to speak about her psychological problems brought the realities of bipolar disorder to the forefront of America’s consciousness, and showed that not only is bipolar disorder to be taken serious, but that it can also be treated and managed.
Fisher’s painful openness concerning her struggles left a legacy that demythologizes mental illness. She was more than an advocate. She was a warrior who very well may have saved lives.
In reality, Carrie Fisher was never Princess Leia. She was General Organa.
In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Carrie Fisher reprised her role as Leia, approximately 30 years after the destruction of the second Death Star. But this is no longer the Leia we once knew. Gone are the cinnamon bun hairstyle and flowing white robes. Gone are the innocence and the naiveté of a fledgling princess.
In her stead, we were greeted with General Organa, leader of the Resistance.
In a series of Tweets, feminist culture writer Anne Thériault posted a series of Tweets that considered how people should celebrate Carrie Fisher’s role in the Star Wars films, beautifully summing up why the better representation of Fisher’s life is the general rather than the princess.
“Everyone is sharing pictures of Fisher when she was young, but let me show you the Leia that was the most important to me: General Organa. She's not young. Not wearing a gold bikini or a robe. She's dressed to do what she's been training her whole life to do: lead the rebellion. This is the Leia that has lost everything: her world, her parents, her son to the dark side, her brother to who knows where, her lover. This is the Leia that could easily have broken down or given up. But she was stronger than literally every man in her life. She kept going. Because for Leia fighting for what is right and just is more important than her feelings or her personal life. She. Is. A. Fighter.”
Thériault goes on, concluding with, “Princess Leia was great, but General Organa was Fisher's real gift to us. And she's who I'm going to be looking to in dark times. May we all be able to get up every day and, in spite of our pain and loss and fear, put on our boots and vest and plan to destroy the empire.”
Leia, the princess, in becoming Leia, the general, no longer looked outside herself for someone to be her “only hope”. General Organa looked within. She was her own hope. And despite her hardships—including the loss of her son to the Dark Side, and, later, her rogue lover to the lightsaber of her fallen son—she kept going, kept using her skills to make the world a better place.
This is the legacy of Carrie Fisher—not the hairstyle, not the scandal with Harrison Ford, and certainly not the metal bikini. The publicizing of her mental health issues in an attempt to reduce the stigma associated with those issues should be at the forefront of what we remember.
So if you are only able to know and mourn Carrie Fisher through her roles, think of the older, grizzled woman we find leading the Rebellion in “The Force Awakens”.
Therein, you’ll find the real Carrie in the midst of the fiction that brought her to our attention so many years ago.