Mariette Hartley spreads message of emotional health

FULLY FUNCTIONAL

June 05, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Her parents were both alcoholics. Her father killed himself; her mother attempted suicide many times. Her first marriage was to a man who beat her. She suffered bouts of depression and alcoholism.

Yet here is Mariette Hartley -- actress, author, public speaker -- boasting all the trappings of emotional health.

Her second marriage (to French producer and director Patrick Boyriven) is solid as a rock after 14 years. Her two teen-age children seem to be successfully negotiating the pitfalls of adolescence. Her career is respectable; while it has its ups and downs, it manages to pay the bills -- and then some. She looks terrific, at least a decade younger than her 50 years, with bouncy, pale red hair, freckled complexion and slim figure belying her age.

And that is the message that Ms. Hartley brought here yesterday as part of the celebration of the Sheppard Pratt psychiatric hospital's 100th birthday. You can go through hell and come out the other side. You can suffer the legacy of a dysfunctional family and end up fully functional.

"At some point you've got to get to yourself and say, 'Wait a minute, I've been handed this legacy but I have to become accountable so I don't hand a lot of it on to my children,' " Ms. Hartley said emphatically during an interview before delivering the centennial lecture at the country's largest private, non-profit psychiatric hospital.

"And that is possible. That is what I'm saying to people. It is very possible."

Although Ms. Hartley grew up in Connecticut, her visit to Baltimore was a homecoming of sorts. Her mother -- who died last year at 84 -- grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of John Broadus Watson, who was head of the psychology department of Johns Hopkins University from 1908 to 1919, when he was fired because of a romantic scandal.

In part, Ms. Hartley traces the problems of her life to Watson, known as the father of behavioral psychology, who taught that physical affection from parents is stifling to children. It was a message learned not just by his students, of course, but by his own family, where it had far-reaching negative effects.

"There wasn't exactly a plethora of physical affection in our family," she said.

Ms. Hartley spoke of her troubled childhood and young adult years as she relaxed in a hotel room surrounded by stacks of books she was signing. Her autobiography, "Breaking the Silence" (G.P. Putnam's Sons), was published last year. It lays out -- sometimes in graphic detail -- the trauma of the first half of her life.

Consider, for example, this description of the aftermath of her father's suicide. He shot himself in the head while Mariette, then 23, and her mother sat just a room away in a small apartment.

"In reality, there is nothing so awful as cleaning up your father's brains that are all over the sheets, all over the wall, all over the white living room carpet. . . . And the smell. The smell of blood, the smell that never goes away."

It isn't easy to bounce back from such a scene, and Ms. Hartley doesn't downplay the difficulty. "It's the scariest journey in the world," she said reflectively. "But you can do it. And the rewards -- I cannot begin to tell you. . . ."

Ms. Hartley shares these personal experiences, both through writing and speaking, because "to me that is what life is all about. There's no time for judgment."

But while speaking engagements like yesterday's form a regular part of her schedule, she is better known for her acting roles -- including a series of Polaroid commercials she did with actor James Garner in the '70s. She began acting as a teen-ager and built up a string of television and movie credits including "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," "Peyton Place," "Ben Casey" and "Dr. Kildare." A guest spot on "The Incredible Hulk" won her an Emmy. There was also a brief starring role in a series, "Goodnight Beantown," and a nine-month stint as co-host of CBS's morning news show.

Her most recent effort was as part of the ensemble of CBS' "WIOU," which debuted last fall but didn't last the season. Ms. Hartley grimaces when the subject of "WIOU" comes up. Well received by critics, the show was bounced on and off the CBS Wednesday night lineup before it finally bit the dust. "It was another CBS fiasco," she said. "They never supported it, no one ever knew if we were going to be on the air. They snuck us on and snuck us off."

Show business these days "is going through an enormous transition," Ms. Hartley said, "and it's very scary to some people. I find the only thing I can do is diversify."

The diversification includes a one-woman show involving music, monologues and other material drawn from more than 35 years in the entertainment business. She's been working on her singing recently, and this summer will have the lead role in "Mame" in a production in St. Louis. She also is raising money to stage a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," with herself in the dual roles of fairy godmother and wicked stepmother.

The show-biz efforts, Ms. Hartley said, will continue to be interspersed with work in the mental health field, particularly with suicide survivors and adult children of alcoholics. She remains in therapy herself. "I don't even consider it therapy anymore," she said. "I consider it availing myself of a guide."

And because her audiences seem to want it, she said, she offers herself as the best example she can give of the road to mental health.

"I talk only about my journey because that's all I know," she said. "That's what the audience always pulls me back to. There's a hunger out there for the spoken journey, just to share the experience, the strength, the hope."

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