Margaux and Mariel Hemingway

Mariel Hemingway is attempting the lift the “curse” of self-destruction that plagues her gifted and beautiful family. Their patriarchal figure, Ernest Hemingway, whose golden words still seduce the masses, is at once a symbol of robust life, and of alcoholism, depression, and suicide. There is growing research that indicates these traits: alcoholism and mental illness are often linked to genetics. Of course, a toxic or emotionally unstable family life can lead to mood problems regardless of the genetics – whether it’s nature or nurture or a poison soup of both, madness tends to run in families. In Running From Crazy, a Barbara Kopple directed documentary film that came out last year and is now getting a run on Oprah’s OWN Network, Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel Hemingway confronts her family’s decades-long curse of despair in an attempt to understand it and break free of it.

“Knowing that there’s so much suicide and so much mental illness in my family, I’ve always kind of been ‘running from crazy,’ worried that one day I’d wake up and be in the same position,” the actress says during a filmed support group meeting. Not only did Mariel’s grandfather Ernest commit suicide after a lifetime of depression and alcoholism at age 61 right before Mariel was born, but Mariel’s sister Margaux committed suicide in 1996 at age 42. A total of seven Hemingway family members have taken their own lives, including two of Ernest’s siblings, his father, and his son Gregory.


Ernest Hemingway

Margaux, who died one day before the anniversary of her grandfather’s suicide, overdosed on phenobarbital, but for years Mariel would not admit that her sister committed suicide until 2003, when she attended an event hosted by the American Association for the Prevention of Suicide. Mariel now feels that difficult things like this should be discussed instead of hidden away. “Nobody spoke about anything,” she said of her family’s silence about the parade of horrors they went through. “It was a different generation.” In the documentary Mariel also brings up for the first time her belief that her father Jack Hemingway (a hard-drinker who died in 2000) molested her sisters Margaux and Muffet while Mariel slept in her cancer-striken mother’s room. The subject of child sexual abuse is lightly touched on in the film, but if true, it’s just another painful reality her family refused to confront.

For Mariel, being honest about these difficult truths is the first step in keeping her and her own daughters Dree and Langley healthy. The “Hemingway Curse” looms large before her and she’s attempting to avoid it not by avoiding the pain, but by working through it. Part of that includes acknowledging how devastating and senseless suicide can be the the survivors. “Suicide has no rhyme or reason,” Mariel says in the film. “Some people think about it for years and plan it. Some people, it’s 20 dark minutes of their life that they decide to take their life that comes out of the blue. It’s very random, it’s very frightening.”

To accompany the documentary, Mariel and her boyfriend Bobby Williams wrote a guidebook to life called The Willing Way, originally called Running With Nature

From the official statement:

“In The Willing Way, Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams share their dynamic and authentic approach to living mindfully and healthfully, offering concrete action steps that readers can take and even track through a multifaceted point-earning system. Simple activities like watching a sunrise instead of sleeping in, drinking water out of glass instead of plastic, taking time to be in silence instead of always listening to things out there, eating clean food instead of processed and packaged food, and taking time away from technology to get outside are some of the natural ways to tune into ourselves and make far-reaching differences in our lives, our relationships, and our world. As Mariel and Bobby explain, change can be approached radically or gently or anywhere in between.”

A while back I had a very spirited conversation about happiness on Twitter that started with an initial question “Can we choose happiness?” I offended a few people by even asking the question because they assumed I meant that people can choose whether or not to be in the throes of clinical depression. I don’t think having depression is a choice. There are many reasons for depression that are out of our control, like life circumstances, childhood abuse and trauma, genetics, and brain chemistry. One thing we can do is choose to take care of ourselves, which is what Mariel seems to be doing.

I don’t think we can choose to be immediately happy or cheerful if we are sad or steeped in a dark mood, but I think we can choose actions that may contribute to our happiness in the future, and that may gradually help us feel better. We can recognize certain destructive patterns we have and try to break them, and we can change our attitude about everything regardless of how we’re feeling. Can these choices make you happy? I don’t think it’s that simple, but I think you can improve your overall quality of life by making little choices, like stopping yourself from guilty ruminations.

Mariel seems to be ascribing to this viewpoint by turning into a sort of determined self-help guru to stave off the grip of a black cloud. “I can fend off insanity,” she said in a 2003 interview. “I just need to stay healthy and keep my balance.”

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  • Ashley

    I saw this documentary at a film festival last year and thought it was really thought-provoking. I’m glad more people are are getting a chance to see it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it; I enjoyed your post.