Two years ago, Carrie Fisher had a heart attack on an airplane and died several days later. I cried that day, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot this month. D.J. and I rang in the new year watching The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and her beautiful performances in both those films made me miss her all the more.
It’s weird, missing a celebrity. I met Carrie Fisher once, briefly, back in 2007 at Star Wars Celebration IV in Los Angeles. I think I paid something like $50 to get her autograph—a price that jumped up considerably at future Celebrations. She looked tired and a little overwhelmed (I would have been too), but she still smiled at everyone and shook my hand.
I wanted to share the essay I wrote after her passing in 2017, to honor her legacy and reflect on the continued impact she’s had on my life. This originally appeared on my former employer’s blog, but I never signed anything saying they owned my work, so… here it is again.
Over the course of her career, Carrie Fisher gave life to one of the most iconic women of science fiction, advocated for mental health awareness, wrote gloriously smart, funny books and inspired generations of girls and women to be unapologetically themselves, to take matters into their own hands and to stand up for justice regardless of the consequences.
I’m not ashamed to admit I cried my eyes out when I learned of her death last Tuesday.
When I was eleven, my dad took me and my brother to see the Star Wars Special Editions in theaters. I will never forget sitting in the dark of that theater, the bombastic boom of the theme song and opening crawl, the way my heart leapt with something I couldn’t quite recognize when Princess Leia aims her blaster pistol and fires, and that stormtrooper falls.
As an eleven-year-old, my “sports” were karate and Junior Rifle League. I had a pet green snake named Sammy and loved outdoor adventure fiction like My Side of the Mountain and Jeannie of the Wolves. But the majority of the women I saw on television and in movies were damsels in distress or on the hunt for Mr. Right.
When Leia faces Darth Vader with sarcasm and wit instead of fear, I knew I’d found my heroine. That’s me, I thought. That’s the kind of girl I want to be.
I followed along in the Expanded Universe books as Princess Leia became the leader of the New Republic and led the galaxy in defending freedom against a resurgent Empire, invading aliens who believed all non-living technology was heretical and evil, and bore the death of her two sons when Han Solo fell apart and went AWOL.
Those stories are now referred to as “Legends” in the interest of clearing the board for a new, more cohesive cannon, but even in the current timeline, Leia has gone through essentially the same journey: she’s lost everything, again and again, and she still fights. In The Force Awakens we see her as General Organa, still fighting for justice, still fighting to get her son back from the Dark Side. No one would have blamed her for following Luke to some remote planet in an effort to escape, but she doesn’t. She keeps fighting.
Carrie Fisher, too, never gave up. She fought drug and alcohol addiction, severe bipolar disorder, the intensely critical eye of the media calling her fat, crazy, ugly. I’ve seen a few memes circulating of picture montages of Fisher flipping off the camera–that was what she thought of the media’s criticisms and the culture of stigma surrounding mental illness.
As someone who never quite fit in, Carrie Fisher—not just as Leia Organa, but as herself—gave me a role model. She showed me that I wasn’t alone in this big scary world, after all.
My story isn’t unique, and that’s why Fisher’s death has hit so many women so hard. Carrie Fisher redefined the word “princess” for those of us who just couldn’t relate to Cinderella or Snow White (and even, I imagine, for some of those who did relate to the more traditional princesses). She showed the world that mental illness was something a lot of other people had, and it was nothing to be ashamed of. She advocated for animals who could not advocate for themselves, and she gave back to her fans in spades (just read through this Facebook thread for proof).
I haven’t yet had a chance to read Fisher’s new book, The Princess Diarist,* but I can highly recommend her previous memoirs Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic, especially for anyone who’s ever dealt with mental illness or addiction, or felt that traditional medicine has failed them. She also wrote four semi-autobiographical novels, which you can take to mean “full of her signature wit, dry humor and sarcasm.”
The good news is that when we miss Carrie, all we have to do is pop in a Star Wars DVD (or The Blues Brothers or one of her other fantastic films) or crack open one of her books. That’s not the same thing as eternal life, but it’s more than I could have asked for.
May you be one with the Force, Carrie.
*I have read it now, and it was beautiful and heartbreaking, and I highly recommend listening to the audio book, ready by Carrie herself and her daughter, Billie Lourd.