A cult has grown around the memory of dead supermodel Gia Carangi, mostly due to the movie of her life with Angelina Jolie in the title role. The film explores many facets of her troubled personality including her drug use, her obsession with her lover, her bisexual promiscuity, and her death from AIDS. Her problems, we are led to believe, stemmed from her drug use which made her irritable, anxious, depressed, hyper, and in the end terminally ill with HIV.
Many have speculated that Gia was bipolar. This could be a strong post-mortem diagnosis given her interludes of manic behavior and severe depression. A Gia Carangi fan site says
Gia frequented New York’s jet-set night spots, such as Studio 54, and developed a heroin problem during the latter part of her life. Because of Bipolar Disorder, Gia experienced extreme mood swings and would walk out of a fashion shoot if she didn’t feel like doing it. She constantly medicated herself with heroin. Carangi made several attempts at fighting her heroin addiction, attending rehabilitation centers multiple times. In 1983, she was profiled on ABC’s 20/20 magazine, in a piece focusing on the dark side of modeling. In June of 1986, she was diagnosed with HIV, becoming one of the first famous persons to be diagnosed with the disease, and also the first famous female diagnosed.
The makers of Gia completely overlook the possibility that Carangi’s eccentric behavior was driven by an organic brain dysfunction. None of the semi-fictional “interviewees” alludes to bipolar disorder though likely symptoms are depicted.
Why is this angle on Gia’s life ignored? In the post-Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” era, a certain anti-romanticism has developed around the drug culture. Many find it far easier to blame irresolution as a friend leads one down the wrong path than to admit a deeper dysfunction. It is more glamorous to be a drug addict than a sufferer of a mental illness. Many of Gia’s fans could buy into the myth that people with mental illness cannot contribute meaningfully to society as Gia did.
A few months ago I read another one of those articles which disputed Kay Jamison’s contention that Vincent Van Gogh was bipolar. The author argued that based on recent evidence that showed that Van Gogh had not committed suicide, Jamison’s diagnosis was wrong. The writer ignored all the letters and accounts of his bizarre behavior including his cutting his ear off as a message to a lover, reducing his end of life depression to grief over the death of his brother Theo. I finished the piece with the impression that she just didn’t want to acknowledge that bipolar was anything but a completely debilitating illness whose sufferers could not give the rest of the world anything of value. That the article appeared in a magazine that prided itself on its skepticism — truth-seeking — saddened me. Because this was the latest instance of its subtly disparaging those with mental illness, I have since ended my subscription.
We think better of drug addicts than we do of the mentally ill. This may be the main reason why Gia’s heroin abuse is seen as the root of all her problems when, in fact, it may have been a symptom and an attempt to curb the wild manias and low depressions that afflicted her. We cannot know for sure because Gia died before seeking treatment. Rehab programs don’t have good records of identifying those who live with conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia, rooting everything in the relationship the addict has with her or his drug and those around them. Gia’s biographers have mostly retold her story as a fable about her undefined weak character. If we are honest, however, we will not allow Gia’s memory to serve such a shallow purpose as merely warning people away from drugs. A far more potent message can be sent about the importance of recognizing mental illness in ourselves and in our loved ones. What if Gia had been put on a combination such as lithium and lamotrigine? If our intent in retelling her story is to save lives, let’s make sure that we put our focus on the right cause.