At the age of 3o, Selma Blair saw a fortune teller. She was a successful Hollywood actor – famous for her role in 1999’s Cruel Intentions, and about to set off for Prague to film Hellboy – but privately she was depressed, binge-drinking, and prone to periods of overwhelming despair. Seeing a psychic was in many ways a search for reassurance: about a body whose pain she didn’t understand (Blair would later be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), the scars of repeated sexual assault, and alcoholism that had almost killed her.
This is not the Selma Blair we know from the covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue, or the quirky roles that made her name. But it is one beautifully laid bare in her memoir, Mean Baby – named after the fact her perpetual frown as a newborn was said to make neighbourhood kids scream when they saw her. “From the very beginning I was misunderstood,” she writes. Growing up in Michigan with three sisters, Blair’s mother (described as her “first great love”) was the defining figure in her life and a complex presence: formidable, glamorous, fiercely loyal, and sometimes cruel.
The passages recounting her childhood are particularly strong, managing to evoke the sense of a highly spirited, funny, but troubled young soul. Blair was seven years old when she started drinking. By college, she was downing spirits – self-medication for undiagnosed MS symptoms and inner sadness. After a breakup, she took a bottle of pills followed by tequila. The efforts to resuscitate her were so intense that they broke her nose.
Written in vignettes and sharply observed, the sometimes harrowing subject matter never weighs Mean Baby down. At times, you feel like you shouldn’t be having quite as much fun as you are but Blair has a self-awareness, wit and charm that makes her sound like a competition winner despite the difficulties she’s faced. Dressing up in Princess Leia costumes with Carrie Fisher. Acne advice from Claire Danes. Rehab with Britney Spears. This is not a misery memoir – I laughed out loud more than I cried.
The final part of the story, in which Blair is diagnosed with MS, is told as openly and unmawkishly as the rest. After decades of being dismissed by doctors as “emotional” and now sober and a mother, she underwent an MRI which found six MS lesions on her brain.
Given what she’s endured, Blair would be entitled to some anger. But she greets her health problems with humour and stoicism: she sometimes wets her pants, but she tells us she’s lucky as she has more pants. And we’re lucky to be along for the ride.