Joan Rivers: In Therapy

The famous comedienne died in 2014 at the age of 81. In the 2008 broadcast of her counselling session with psychologist, Pamela Stephenson, Stephenson highlighted the recurring theme of betrayal in Rivers’s life. What most readers might recall about Rivers is that her former husband , Edgar, killed himself, and was survived by she and their teenage daughter Melissa. According to Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Rivers admitted that she never got past the second – anger. In fact, this anger had preceded his death because she blamed him for the loss of her talk show for which she was under contract with Fox. the couple’s relationship became so strained that they were on the verge of separation. In effect,

when he died, she was left bereft of a husband, career and the connection with her daughter with whom she became estranged. Melissa blamed her mother for her father’s death.

Rivers confessed that her coping mechanism was comfort eating, bulimia and retail therapy. Although humour can be a coping mechanism too, there are certain experiences we endure for which no laughter can be summoned. At the nadir of her distress, she contemplated suicide. It was the love of her beloved dog which ultimately deterred her. Later she developed a close therapeutic alliance with her psychologist but he later died of AIDS at the age of 34, and in an ironic role reversal, it was Joan who was his source of strength and consolation when he was on his deathbed. Stephenson identified this as yet another betrayal.

However, what becomes clear over the course of the interview is that it is the theme of rejection which underpins her dysfuntion. She was rejected by Johnny Carson, her comedy mentor, her employers – Fox Studios, her daughter and perhaps the most bitter of all – her husband who was not willing to eke out a miserable existence to provide her at least with the companionship and morale support she desperately needed. Very often those who are suicidal see it differently – they have an acute sense of shame for being a burden on those they love the most.

But the ‘mother of all rejections’ was her self-rejection – Rivers hated her body, and would often fit it into her comedy routines. She spoke about her thighs, her fat, breasts and her face – the latter of which was subjected to several nips through cosmetic surgery. Stephenson surmised that she might well suffer from body dysmorphia. Ironically, we gain the impression that this sense of physical inadequacy was inculcated by her mother ; she refers to herself as being a beautiful baby who suddenly grew fat and unattractive. This would have sown the seeds of her lifetime’s struggle with accepting her physicality. 

But it stands to reason that if you have experienced rejection in your primary relationship – the relationship with yourself – how can you then avoid rejection from others. People will treat us the way we treat ourselves, not the way we wish to be treated. As Dr Phil McGraw states in his book ‘Self Matters’, we teach people how to treat us and a lot of what others pick up is sub-consciously passed on from us to them.

Joan portrayed herself as the ‘laugh-a-minute’ lady who could find humour in almost anything despite the harrowing experience of being a suicide survivor and having struggled with suicide ideation. We saw her as the ultimate performer who amused us, but did we really see her? Perhaps she felt that she needed to assume an act in order to be accepted.