Mary-Louise Parker on Life With and Without Men

Posted by Bengtsson on November 16th, 2015

The other day in the Brooklyn Heights duplex Mary-Louise Parker shares with her two children and Mrs. Roosevelt, a cocker spaniel in a red diaper, the actress was stroking one of the oyster shells she keeps in a bowl in her living room.

“I don’t keep them all here because I worry something will happen to them,” she said.

When her father, a soldier in three wars with post-traumatic stress disorder, was dying five years ago, he wanted oysters. It was late and an almost impossible task, but he had never asked for much, and she still felt like the same little girl who always wanted to shield her father from disappointment. So she prevailed.

“He was so soulful,” she said as she put the shell back as if it were a prized animal in a glass menagerie, “with a great appreciation for people, poetry and life.”

Ms. Parker, 51, doesn’t just hold her father in high regard. She appreciates men of all kinds, and she has put it down in writing, even at a moment when men are as likely to be questioned by women as applauded.

Her new book, “Dear Mr. You,” is a collection of what she considers mostly thank-you letters to guys she has known, some intimately and some as fleetingly as an inept cabdriver she verbally abused while she was very pregnant and not at her best, in part because her boyfriend, Billy Crudup, had just left her for Claire Danes. But that 2003 tabloid incident is only addressed abstractly and with great delicacy in the book.

“You don’t get through life without being betrayed,” is how Ms. Parker sees it.

And as is clear in her hard-edge but poetic and redemptive letters, you don’t love without forgiving.

The book came about after Ms. Parker had been writing essays for Esquire, including one about her father. It’s not your typical actress fare in any sense.

But then, Ms. Parker, associated with theater more than Hollywood, is not typical.

Awkward and so unpopular in childhood that her older brother had to make her schoolmates let her sit next to them on the bus, she comes off as slightly askew and distracted in most roles, maybe a little feral. In a letter in her book to the accountant who helped her when she was broke and starting out, she describes her behavior “as someone who was recently electrocuted but didn’t seem to mind it.”

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She thinks her demeanor has to do with staying neutral in many incendiary and embarrassing childhood situations, but also “hyper-aware and always listening.” One time her father lost his temper at a librarian who suggested his beloved daughter didn’t read the books she had claimed to read. She didn’t react.

“If you’re not thinking of yourself, you’re in a better position to help someone,” she said.

Maybe this explains the radical empathy she shows for so many men in her not-quite-a-memoir, which received advance acclaim in Publishers Weekly and in a review in The New York Times this week. It also has a blurb by Mary Karr, who is working on adapting her memoirs “The Liars’ Club” and “Lit” with Ms. Parker attached to star if a series gets made by Showtime. (From 2005 to 2012, Ms. Parker starred on that cable network as a pot-dealing mother in a man’s world in “Weeds.”)

Before she played opposite Timothy Hutton on Broadway in “Prelude to a Kiss,” won a Tony for “Proof,” established herself in film and then on television in the Mike Nichols adaptation of “Angels in America” and “The West Wing,” Ms. Parker loved poetry. “I got that from my father,” she said.

She pursued acting and sex (one encounter while in a dorm, with a roommate meditating nearby) at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she found herself at home as a punkish bohemian with a thing for Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Anne Sexton and others who explored the poetry of alienation. She includes a tender thank-you letter in her book to the tough movement teacher who found her outfits so louche and her attitude so distant that he put her on academic probation. It took a while for her to see he was helping her get serious.

“How willing we are to reject the intelligence of someone who rejects us,” she writes.

Some may be frustrated by her focus on poetic uplift rather than dish (about such things as her relationship and being replaced by Gwyneth Paltrow and Meg Ryan in movie versions of her Broadway hits). Others may take issue with the idea of yet another actress vying for a piece of the disappearing literary pie.

“Listen, I have to work with plenty of actors who don’t know what they’re doing,” is all she said in response to potential criticism. She doesn’t read much about herself anymore anyway, and she stays away from social media.

“People have become so promotional, and it seems like anything you text, especially if it’s about something romantic, is like a time bomb that can explode and destroy you,” she said.

This is partly why she has remained mute about her relationship. Several years after it ended, she went to Ethiopia to adopt a daughter. In her book she writes a letter to the uncle from the village who traveled a great distance to deliver his niece to an orphanage.

She also writes a letter to a future boyfriend of her daughter, named Ash, who is 9 years old and who, like her 11-year-old brother, Will, attends school around the block from home.

“Make her unhappy, put yourself first, do that awhile,” she writes to the future boyfriend. “When she is done with her suffering,” she suggests, Ash will “not be crying or begging. She will realize she is powerful and perfect alone and that she doesn’t need you.”

Ms. Parker knows it sounds harsh. She means only to inspire and redeem.

“There are moments in life when we’re victimized,” she said, adding that being paid less than men in Hollywood doesn’t qualify as worthy of complaint, especially in comparison with girls facing genital mutilation and not being able to attend school in many countries. “But for me it’s about using your troubles for perspective and then for momentum.”

As if timed by a director, her doorbell rang. The blissful dog she was massaging looked up. Ms. Parker watched her front door open. A man in a baseball cap holding her son’s backpack put it down by the door. Some neutral words were exchanged, and then the man disappeared with the obsequiousness of a dog walker.

“That was my ex,” she said.

Moments later she was back to the main man in her life, her father, whom she thanks in her book for taking her and her mother on a trip to Europe when her plans with friends fell through, even though it was clear he could not afford it.

In a study, she pulled out a notebook that her father had filled with clippings of poems and his own openhearted musings, and she laughed at some of them. In a foyer, she pointed out a huge decoupage tree made of pictures of him with her mother. “I sort of have a crafting problem,” she said. On the wall by the piano, there was a blue neon sign in her father’s handwritten scrawl. “Reach!” it said.

“I had that made from a word in his diary,” she said.

While she has had several relationships over the years, Ms. Parker isn’t sure she will ever find a new partner and seems unconcerned. She’s still unnaturally beautiful, pale and intense, with just the slightest webs of wrinkles to ensure doubters that she is not artificially preserved.

She is happy with her children, her neighbors and her goats upstate, where she has a weekend home, and with Mrs. Roosevelt, even if she wears a diaper because she can’t be trusted. Sometimes she thinks the trouble with settling in with a man (she still has many friendships with them, but only flirts when appropriate) is that her father was so good to her mother.

“Maybe a psychiatrist would say I’m not married now because I have some sort of father thing,” she said. “But you know what? That would be the least of my problems.”

She holds a copy of her book against her as if in a hug.

The image on the cover is an oyster shell.

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