Sam Shepard

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Spy of the First Person

Shepard, Sam

Last Updated: Jan-30-2018
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Memoir


Spy of the First Person is a short semi-autobiographical narrative about a man with a debilitating condition.  He spends most of his time sitting in a wheelchair on his porch, goes for tests to the Arizona campus of the Mayo Clinic, and has a “handicapped sign hanging from the rearview mirror of his car” (p. 15). The man’s illness is unnamed, but we learn that his motor skills are grossly impaired: “His hands and arms don’t work much.  He uses his legs, his knees, his thighs, to bring his arms and hands to his face in order to be able to eat his cheese and crackers” (ibid).   

The story is told from various, shifting points of view.  At times we are in the head of the protagonist.  At other times, the perspective is that of a nosy neighbor who peers at the sick man through binoculars, hence the book’s title. There is a parallel narrative about an elderly couple and the wife’s gradual decline in health.  The Southwest plays such an important role here one might even say that it too is a character. 

There are also frequent shifts of tense.  It is not always clear whether we are in the past or present.  We alternate between the central character’s fantasies, memories, and observations. The effect of intertwining voices and tenses is reinforced by the brevity of the chapters, many no longer than a paragraph.  The overall impression is that while he may no longer have full control over his body, the man has retained an active (one might say overactive) mind.

Spy of the First Person
concludes as the man’s children take him to a Mexican restaurant.  The vivid description of a meal shared with his loved ones provides a sharp contrast to the inner thoughts that provide the bulk of this book.

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Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film


This film is biographical, based on the life of the actress Frances Farmer (1914-1970), who was briefly successful in Hollywood in the early 1940’s and was then institutionalized for mental illness. She was "cured" by a transorbital prefrontal lobotomy.

The film begins with Frances (Jessica Lange) winning a high school writing competition with an essay criticizing God. This outspoken intelligence characterizes her. As a young actress, she wins a trip to Russia in a competition run by a Communist newspaper, performs on Broadway, and ends up in Hollywood. Quickly, however, it becomes clear that her unconventional behavior and attitudes make her vulnerable to people, including her overbearing and vicariously ambitious mother (Kim Stanley), who demand that she conform to more passive forms of femininity.

When Frances is arrested for drunk driving, her mother puts her in a "convalescent home," where she is given insulin injections in the guise of "vitamins." She escapes and, deciding that the pressures of the film industry are causing her drinking problem, tells her mother that she won’t be returning to Hollywood. Her starstruck mother, appalled, has her committed.

After undergoing the closely filmed experiences of the strait jacket, the padded cell, and shock treatment, all in the frighteningly bedlam-like atmosphere of the asylum, Frances submits to psychiatric surgery. This is perhaps the most disturbing part of the film. She is lobotomized in front of an audience by a mallet-wielding surgeon who boasts he can do ten patients per hour because "lobotomy gets ’em home."

Sure enough, Frances is allowed to go home. The film ends several years later in 1958, when Frances Farmer really did appear on the television show, "This is Your Life." We watch the show through the eyes of Harry York (Sam Shepard), the journalist who has always loved her, and he goes to meet her afterwards.

She has been transformed: composed and seemingly serene, but fundamentally blank, she has become a chilling shadow of herself. Early on in the film, she refuses to cooperate with a psychotherapist, saying "I don’t want to be what you want to make me: dull, average, normal." By the end of the film she has been reduced to the hollow appearance of all these things--and is grateful for it.

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