Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Book: Dark Sparkler

Author: Amber Tamblyn

Type of Book: Non-fiction, poetry, confessional

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I spent at least a dozen hours investigating the “Search” suggestions on pages 101-108 and didn’t even make it through the first page due to all the horrible yet interesting rabbit holes I found myself falling down into.

Availability: Published by Harper Perennial in 2015, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read this book last summer but my overall disorganization as of late worked in my favor for once because some of the content in this book is rather topical right now (I really need to start discussing books the day after I finish them but we can talk about how much I suck in another entry, I promise). The #metoo and #timesup “movements” have brought institutionalized sexual violence and harassment in the entertainment industry into a sharper focus than I could have ever thought possible. The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has been absolutely surreal to witness, but it helps explain why Mira Sorvino sort of disappeared from movie screens after winning an Oscar. I always liked her and now I know Weinstein systematically blocked her from access to high profile roles because she preferred not to have sex with an aggressive ogre of a man. The sentencing of Larry Nassar has lit up Twitter with people cheering as a man who molested at least 140 gymnasts was dressed down by the judge in the case. No matter what the industry is, if it is fueled by young, fit, attractive people, you can count on the industry attracting predators.

But predation can take many forms. A parent, a manager, a director, drug dealers, a world that devalues older women. As topical as this book is in many regards, the women Amber Tamblyn discusses in these poems aren’t exclusively victims of sexual predators. The women who inspired the poetry in this collection experienced a variety of miseries in a world that chews people up and spits them out for all sorts of reasons. Tamblyn took the stories of these girls, teens, and women who achieved some fame, however small or fleeting, and showed the damage done in a way that, strangely, honors humanity as much as revealing interesting and at times salacious stories.

My interest in books is mainly prose – I am not as learned in poetry as I am in prose fiction and non-fiction. But there are still poets whose words speak to me. I focus on specific poems by those poets, seldom embracing their bodies of work as much as the poems that contain those lines that mean something to me. Wilfred Owen (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning…”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.”), and EE Cummings (“Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat ‘there is some shit I will not eat'”) are great examples of poets who produce specific lines that resonate with me deeply, and Tamblyn manages to create lines that similarly resonate. One in particular I will discuss in a moment.

This collection reminded me in many ways of Mikita Brottman’s short story collection, Thirteen Girls. I found myself curious about all the women in this collection, as I did when I read about the women who fell to serial killers in Brottman’s penetrating look at victims and the ways they are remembered. The titles of the poems are the names of the women they are about, and there were enough stories of women and children whose sorry tales I knew before reading this book to ensure I felt the power of the poems Tamblyn crafted to portray them. Seeing the most troublesome parts of their lives depicted in poetry forced me to rethink my attitudes towards some of the people Tamblyn wrote about.

For instance, “Lindsay Lohan.” Her poem is blank, an expanse of empty page under the title. At first it seemed almost like a joke, a jab at this crash-and-burn starlet’s lack of gravitas in her current role as media laughingstock. But upon reflection there was so much more involved in leaving the page empty. She’s still alive, still crashing and burning, and there is no sense that there will soon be an end to the wreckage of her life. As much as she is mocked in the press, she’s had the sort of life that should inspire empathy. But that doesn’t happen. Many people look at her and see a clown, a rich white girl who squandered all her chances, and there is some truth in that, but it’s not the sole truth about her.

Amber Tamblyn’s a few years older than Lindsay Lohan but they had similar beginnings – both had roles on soap operas when still children, and both began to get roles in movies geared toward younger audiences. How did Lohan end up a joke and Tamblyn end up still working, albeit writing and producing as much as she acts? Lohan’s shitty parents, determined to make a buck off their kids, played a role, as did the company young Lohan kept. Few made it out of the early-era Paris Hilton mob unscathed. Factor in drugs, mental illness, and a complete inability to keep addiction and illness under control and you end up with Lohan. Tamblyn’s parents knew more about the entertainment industry, and she was shaped by counter-culture influences that while embracing the entertainment industry still kept an honesty and authenticity about their lives, the sort of authenticity that makes hanging around with Paris unappealing.

It’s often a thin line that separates those who rise above and those who sink down and even her relatively fortunate background didn’t save Tamblyn from being hit on by James Woods when she was a teen. Knowing she and her friend were sixteen, James Woods evidently tried to lure the two to go to Las Vegas with him. She told him she was sixteen but that didn’t deter Woods. James Woods called Tamblyn a liar but she hit back harder, and interestingly he shut up when she did. After she refused to give any sort of quarter to his response that she lied, he likely thought the better of continuing the dialogue because the fury she unleashed upon him was both beautiful to behold and resulted in other actresses joining the #metoo revolt in his name, notably Elizabeth Perkins.

If Lindsay Lohan ever spoke up about the men whom her parents essentially sold her to in order to reap the rewards of her fame, would you care? Would you laugh? Would you think she was embellishing the story? She’s now essentially a yacht girl, and if you don’t know what that is, go look it up and ask what kind of shit must happen for an actress who started off so strongly, who had talent and beauty, to end up living such a life. By leaving that page blank, Tamblyn lets the reader construct their own poem about Lohan and that poem for me is the following haiku:

“Her talent spent up,
she’ll pay out ’til the fated
knife or overdose.”

And yeah, how you decide to fill that blank page says a lot about you. Lest you think I am saying that as I pat myself on the back for being enlightened enough to feel sadness at the waste of her life, I too still look at Lohan as more a cautionary tale than a human being. She’s not easy to feel sympathy for, and I have no idea if that is her fault, my fault, society’s fault, or even a fault at all. Maybe sometimes some people inspire less care and concern and that’s just a hard truth that no amount of hand-wringing and enlightenment can correct.

In a similar vein to Lohan, consider the case of Savannah the porn star. Her poem is a sad girl two-fer. Savannah the porn star was born Shannon Michelle Wilsey and chose Savannah as her screen name. She was a beautiful girl and in her brief period of fame, crossing over from porn star into mainstream fame in a way Marilyn Chambers did before her and Jenna Jameson did after her, she performed in over 100 films.  She was one of the first Vivid Girls working for Vivid Entertainment, a porn studio that is considered higher class and enforces a similar look among performers, though the expansion of porn into online and international markets has lessened that appearance stranglehold in terms of hair-length and racial appearance.  Savannah became a rock star girlfriend, she developed a drug problem, and she committed suicide after she crashed her car following a night fueled by alcohol and cocaine. She was hysterical, certain her face would never recover and that her career was over, so she killed herself.

I knew a lot about Savannah the porn star before I read this book. During one of my intractable insomnia spells, I fell down a “horrible deaths in the porn industry” rabbit hole.  I spent far too long over too many nights reading about the many porn performers who had terrible ends.  So I know off the top of my increasingly dark-filled head that when Savannah’s death was reported, Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw Magazine, ran an article entitled “Ding Dong The Bitch Is Dead.”  He mocked her suicide, in which she shot herself in the head, by stating that they always knew she was an airhead but she proved it by blowing her brains out.  Shannon’s father took her off life support and evidently keeps her ashes surrounded by photos of his daughter before she succumbed to porn star suicide at age 22.

Twenty-two.  She was younger than I was when I graduated from college.  One hundred porn films and more under her belt, legendary bad behavior influenced by a toxic industry, terrible boyfriends, and drug addiction, and at the end of it all she was still somebody’s little girl who died far too young, no matter how little esteem Al Goldstein held her in.

Tamblyn’s poem about Savannah, entitled “Shannon Michelle Wilsey” is an imagining of the letter Savannah would have written to the child actress from whose starring role she took her stage name.  The poem is a letter to Bridgette Andersen, who portrayed the lead role in the film Savannah Smiles.  In this film, Andersen portrays the six-year-old Savannah, who runs away from her preoccupied, wealthy parents and ends up in the care of two men who escaped from prison. She was inspired to run away after watching an episode of “The Little Rascals,” an early example of how child fame can utterly fuck the lives of the kids who achieve it. A series of child-movie mishaps follow and Savannah has a lot of fun with the felons, who buy her ice cream and give her a puppy and eventually return her to her mother and go back to prison full of memories of the adorable little girl who brought such happiness into their lives.

This is some of what Savannah the pornstar wrote to Savannah the fictional little girl who ran away to find happiness:

I know just how it feels

to want nothing more than to be loved.

What we have in common gives us our appeal –

the fact we never got enough.

They say it looked like a big flower had sprung

in the place where I shot myself dead,

just like those ribbon pigtails clung

onto either side of your head.

Bridgette Andersen is dead, too.  She died at age twenty-one.  Heroin overdose.  She followed the trajectory of many child actors:  plenty of roles while her cheeks were still chubby, increasingly fewer roles as she grew up, estrangement from family, rehab, then an overdose that ended it all.  The poem in her voice is one of the most aggressively upsetting in the collection.  From “Bridgette Andersen”:

A child-star actress is a double-edged dildo.

(Insert a metaphor about getting screwed here.)

No one should have to look back to see

the bright future ahead of them.  The future holds

then pushes you away.

I’m gonna tie those pamphlets for cures

around this needle

and wave the white flag.

The poem dedicated to Heather O’Rourke, the little girl from Poltergeist who uttered the eerie and iconic, “They’re here,” is calmer, tamer than some of the other poems in this book but took on a darker hue for me when gathering my ideas for this discussion.  The Pizzagaters, assisted by the blogger on Crazy Days and Nights (CDaN), have created a horror story around Heather O’Rourke’s death that I refuse to repeat here or even link to in any way because it’s just that fucking horrible.  It’s very unlikely to be true, it’s beyond disgusting if untrue or not, but can any of us deny now that something evil, so terrible even I will not discuss it, cannot happen to a famous child?  Can we look at the utter disintegration of some of these child starlets and not wonder what the hell happened to them?  Christ, the mess of Amanda Bynes sure makes me wonder what the hell happened to her when she was a Nickelodeon actress. And Heather’s poem in this collection is all the sadder because in it she calls out to Dominique Dunne, the actress who played her older sister in Poltergeist, who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend.  John Thomas Sweeney served a mere three and a half years for murdering her in cold blood.  Dominique has her own poem in this collection.

One of the reasons you should read this book – aside from the topicality of some of the poems and the skill with which Tamblyn writes – is to see which poem resonates with you the most.  Two in this collection will stay with me for a long time.  The first is “Thelma Todd.”  In a bar once owned by Thelma Todd, the speaker, who one is hard-pressed not to think is Tamblyn herself, is cornered by a drunk colleague, who spells out the reality for actresses in their twenties.

I’m in some charcoal hallway, cornered

by an actress in a bandage dress,

burned one too many times, whose cocktail is doing all the healing,

sloshing on about the good ol’ days,

back when we were all periodless and vivacious,

our winning auditions clinging to our underwear.

How we’d piss victory,

brush the rejection from our hair.

She wants to know what I think of Annie–

how vulgar her success is,

what a tragedy it’s all become,

am I also allergic to her over-enunciations.

The poem goes on.  The actress in the bandage dress thinks Tamblyn, if she is indeed the voice in this poem, needs to lose weight and get a boob job because she has only five years tops left in her career before she will be tossed into the bin where actresses in their thirties are thrown.  Also note the anger at one who managed to succeed – no doubt Annie is Anne Hathaway.  Once a darling, now often mocked (and part of her cultural decline is linked to her work with James Franco as he shat up the Oscar ceremony the two hosted, and who is now himself in the hot seat for being less than gallant and decent with women who have less fame than he does), she was replaced by Jennifer Lawrence, who is herself now on the receiving end of endless criticism because she’s too this or too that.  This poem illustrates perfectly how it is no one, no actress, no matter how successful, can ever win.

Oh, and Thelma Todd?  She was known as the Ice Cream Blonde and was an accomplished comedic actress, acting alongside the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. She was found dead from either deliberate suicide or drunken accident, after inhaling carbon monoxide as she laid across the backseat of her car, locked in a garage.  The coroner left out the evidence of her having been severely beaten before her death.

The other poem that spoke to me is “Jennifer Davis.”  If Jennifer is real I was unable to run her down, specifically, but even so there is something about her poem that is very real and stuck with me.  I think part of it is my affection for The Mountain Goats’ song, “Up the Wolves,” a song of absolute rebellion against abuse and those who condone it.  But parts of it were the jangling images, reminiscent of the chaos of Grace Krilanovich’s ambitious but incomprehensible stream of consciousness from the mind of a deranged young woman in The Orange Eats Creeps.

Jennifer Davis is confronted by a woman named Alison, who recognizes her but cannot place her.  Is Jennifer famous, wasn’t she in something once?  This is the acting equivalent of walking up to a writer and demanding to know what she wrote that you may have read, and why can’t you find her books in Barnes & Noble.  This is the part of Jennifer’s reply that comes close to the EE Cummings quote from Olaf that has been with me since I was a teenager:

Take it from an actress who never wanted to be one, Alison:

What I’ve been in and what you’ve been in

ain’t nothin’ compared to what we’ll be in someday.

A fistfight with Heaven’s entry fees.

A wolf prison when the moon finally throws us its bone.

A wolf prison when the moon finally throws us its bone.  Jesus.

If “Jennifer Davis” is not based on a woman with that exact name, I also suspect that “Laurel Gene” and “Elizabeth Pine” are not poems based on specific women either.  I couldn’t run down “Miriam Lebelle,” or “Martha Anne Dae,” “Cindy Jenkins,” or “Julia Thorp.”  I also found out some unpleasant things about people I didn’t know were dead. Even the sweet, innocuous stories can end very badly.  If you are as old as me, you may remember Samantha Smith, a little girl who became a “peace ambassador” after writing a letter to the Russian president in the early 80s.  I didn’t know she died in a plane crash in her teens.  Discovering the back story to “Susan Peters” was an absolute nightmare of bad luck.  And many names you will know from the start: Marilyn Monroe, Sharon Tate, Jayne Mansfield, Jean Harlow.

I don’t recommend that you try to research names unfamiliar to you until you’ve read this book and digested it because searches on those unfamiliar names lead you to discussions I would burn to the ground were the internet as flammable as it so often seems.  Is it snotty to say that otherwise decent reviewers don’t fucking get it?  I’ve felt this way before but I feel it very strongly in regards to Tamblyn’s book because if you don’t understand the meta at the back of the book, the search lists, the emails Tamblyn sent to friends, the facts she compiled about the subjects of her poems, and the sweet notes from her father encouraging her, then you fail to see that this book is about Tamblyn herself and all those she knows, that the process of writing this is a behind the scenes trailer akin to those that show how a movie is made, the flubs, the work, the exhaustion.

Some also think the poems are too self-indulgent.  Which is funny for me because I think that may be the best criticism of every book discussion I’ve ever written.  But if this collection is self-indulgent, who cares, because every beautiful love poem comes from a place of individual pleasured experience and every nightmarish dirge comes from a place of personal misery.  Self-indulgent isn’t a criticism if the words speak outside the singular experience and address a commonality of being.

Amber Tamblyn’s body of acting work isn’t that appealing to me though I saw her in House, M.D. and she ably played her part.  I’m not the target audience for shows like Joan of Arcadia or films like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  Her book is a revelation to me, though, the rawness that is often married with accomplished wordsmithing.  It is a book that spoke to me, almost directly at times, because when you boil it down to the bone, these stories are the stories of women everywhere, of little girls killed by parents, of teens who overdose, of adults who are murdered, or slowly die in a bottle when they outgrow their use to whatever industry that once valued them.

We’re all flawed, we’re all replaceable, and with the invention of Instagram everyone everywhere can critique our noses, breasts, asses and skin.  We’ve all realized at some point we are on display and that the audience viewing us may not be interested, may not even be friendly.  But at least we, those of us not making money through our images, can turn off the critique, can extend our shelf-life by entering into careers less oriented around our appearances.  If you are an actress you are double disposable and people will mock you if you object.  They’ll mock you when you get old.  They’ll back you into a corner and then say you painted yourself into it because you refused to get a boob job or suck a dick for a role.

What I found interesting in terms of my reaction to this book is that I had to confront that I was sanguine with the cost fame extracts from the sorts of women who are the names in these poems. I’ll be honest – it was hard for me to muster much sympathy for a few of the top accusers in the Harvey Weinstein case. It was a shitty reaction, but it wasn’t uncommon. When a rich, beautiful woman, a woman who can hire staff to cook for her, clean for her, massage her sore muscles, schedule her hair appointments and pick up her kids reveals she may have engaged in a Faustian bargain with a wealthy producer I reflexively think that the woman paid a price willingly because the cost of dignity and sexual integrity was worth the life of fame and fortune.

I tend to feel that way about men, too. Their Faustian bargains are often different – often not as sexual in nature – but it’s undeniable that to succeed in certain realms one must engage in distasteful behaviors to win over the psychopaths who run most industries in the world.  You avoid those industries if you don’t want to pay that price.

And that’s a problem, isn’t it? To realize one has become so jaded that one simply expects the trade of dignity, bodily integrity, and moral conviction in exchange for success, that success means appeasing and bargaining with the wicked.

And for every Gwyneth Paltrow, who becomes wealthy and golden (though often still mocked), there are the women in this book who made that Faustian bargain and did not reap the rewards. Sometimes they didn’t even know there was a bargain in the works, several never wanted to shake the devil’s hand at all, and those who did so willingly probably knew no one would give much of a shit when their luck ran out.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the rich and famous sometimes.  I’m finding it a bit easier after reading this book.  Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

  1. Even before the accusations came out against Harvey “Watch Me Jerk or I’ll Put You Out of Work” Weinstein, it seems to be common knowledge that the entertainment industry chews people up and spits them out. Child stars, especially. For all my problems with the current zeitgeist, at least there seems to be an attempt to take that a little more seriously.

    Speaking of Amanda Bynes and Nickelodeon, there are rumors going about that Dan Schneider, one of the major producers, is a pedophile who has molested teen actresses in the past. If confirmation of that doesn’t come out soon, I think it’s safe to say is just rumors. I don’t he’d be able to slide at this point.

    Either way, this does seem like a good book. I’ve been trying to read more new poetry and my library has this, so I’ll definitely check it out.

  2. I just wanted to say that I have so much love for Lindsay Lohan that sometimes my heart can hardly contain it.

    This book sounds fantastic. I’ll come back and say something about it when I’ve read it.

  3. So I did read this book and I did enjoy it a lot. Not as much as you, but it was pretty good. I probably would have found the overall book more interesting if I had taken the time to do all the searches in the epilogue, but I was already burnt out from researching the actress in the actual poems and it was due back at the library.

    The fake actresses mixed it (if that’s what they are) made the research kind of frustrating. Maybe that was the point, but trying to dig up names that just lead to reviews of this book made me feel like I was wasting my time. I still researched every actress though, and most of it was rewarding, if depressing.

    I did also call the number from the Barbara La Marr poem. To my surprise, it was a working number to the cemetery she’s buried in in LA. I’m not sure if that’s clever or just stupid.

    I think my favorite one was the Judith Barsi poem. All Dogs Go to Heaven was probably my favorite movie as a kid and reading about her backstory was just so sad. She really captures that. I liked the Li Tobler poem a lot too. The imagery in it is fantastic and it fits her story so well.

    I certainly second the recommendation.

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