Spalding Gray is a genius. The trilogy he created with Elizabeth LeCompte and the Performance Group, Three Places in Rhode Island, and its epilogue Point Judith, took the details of his own life and transformed them into a metaphorical and dizzyingly theatrical meditation on life and art, religion and madness. The subsequent series of monologues, 3 x Gray, went further in its use of personal material; addressed directly to the audience, his often comic reminiscences on topics such as Sex and Death to the Age 14 and Booze, Cars, and College Girls expanded the boundaries of autobiographical performance. Now he has pushed even deeper into his psyche to produce a kind of writing that fuses emotional recall and erotic fantasy, and in doing so retrieves the subject of childhood sexual memories from the cliché of Freudian psychology.

At the Mudd Club last Thursday, Gray gave the first New York reading of Seven Shots from a Family Album (tentative title). Written in a language at once precisely detailed and surrealistic, and declaimed almost as poetic incantation, the work tells the story of an American family – from Ted and Jean’s courtship and marriage to Ted’s death and reincarnation. The most startling sequence, “Go Wake Jessie, We’re Going to the Beach,” describes this bizarre breakfast scene: the couple’s prepubescent son Jessie climbs onto the table and shits on his cornflakes and then jerks off on them while his parents laugh merrily; Jean pulls up her skirt, exposing her shaved crotch, and masturbates while Ted gives his son a hickey; Ted suck’s the boy’s neck so hard that all his organs come out; Jean pushes all the organs back into Jessie and “heals” him. I’ve never encountered writing that so carefully balances comedy, horror, and eroticism. Gray articulates primitive sexual fantasies in a way that is direct, imaginative, and psychologically accurate where, say, Henry Miller’s writing is merely pornographic and John Rechy’s is hostile. 

“It’s the first fiction that I’ve written,” said Gray when I called to ask how he categorized the piece. “I’ve been keeping a diary for four years as part of the memory work I’ve been doing for the monologues. Then when I was in Amsterdam for a month this spring, I suddenly came into it from a fictional point of view. I had been reading some Williams Burroughs for the first time – The Exterminator and part of The Wild Boys. The way he structured these units of fantasy was very inspirational to me. I knew there were things that couldn’t be told in an articulate way before an audience that came out when I was writing – all I needed was a structure. When I got that, I just wrote the thing in two weeks, automatically – I would sit down wherever I was and write it. I think it all started last summer when I was in residence at Connecticut College. I met a woman who had pretty legs and approached her in that crass New York way and asked her to go to bed with me. She said she wasn’t that kind of girl. Her name was Jean.”

Soho News, July 23, 1980