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Fame: The Highjacking of Reality

By Justine Bateman

New York, NY; Akashic Books, 2018, 208 pp., $26.95, hardcover

Oh, the machinations of fame! The attention and recognition it serves up leads to one's best life. Well, not so much, says Justine Bateman. Who? That name sounds so familiar, you may think, and for good reason. Bateman designed it that way--sort of.

Bateman, to refresh the collective memory, was one of America's great young television stars of the 1980s. The fresh-faced embodiment of teenage popularity, Bateman played Mallory Keaton on Family Ties, perhaps the standout of the Americana sitcoms that united the country during the Reagan years. It was also a show that launched Michael J. Fox into fame and represented the brewing conservatism of the 1980s. And the resulting whirlwind that ensued for Bateman (and Fox) created a new "imposed reality": fame. A cage, a catapult, a condition. And, subsequently, the subject of Bateman's non-memoir/memoir-slash-treatise on this state of being that compels and unravels so many people.

FAME--all in capitals, as written in the book--is for Bateman a condition actively set upon a person. It's not a personal characteristic, nor is it an occupation. FAME is external. "You had no choice about it being sprayed upon you," she writes. That spray is Bateman's verb of choice to describe her experiences of fame neither belies it being an act of projection nor dispersed and fleeting like a mist. Bateman very much digs into the ineffable and intangible of fame, and from this choppy collection of sequential essays emerges an expository treatise on why, basically, being a famous person sucks.

Out of the gate, Bateman demands that the reader understand that this is not a celebrity memoir--"I fucking hate memoirs!"--though, of course, Bateman screaming about this in a full chapter suggests that, in fact, it is. Bateman also makes clear that this is a reflection written from the other side of fame, a resulting totality or descent fit for Dante. In a chapter/essay titled "Leper," Bateman even recalls the time circa 2006-7, when she went to a celebrity birthday party filled with A-listers wherein she could "feel them peel away from me," while being subjected to the dreaded "Are you still acting?" line of questioning--that innocuous-seeming bit of small-talk that instead delivers a cruel message that she no longer belongs.

Bateman was, at her height (which she dates from the early '80s to the mid '90s), one of the most-recognized faces in America, complete with adoring fans and obsessive stalkers. She recounts how her being and body were public property, available to all without her permission. Interesting without explicit declarations of gender discrimination, Bateman engages in a feminist conversation about the degree to which she had control over herself or her image--which is to say that she had almost none. That mandated availability manifested in the anger fans felt when she turned them down for photographs or the sexual fantasies disrupted after meeting her in person or even the "worst dressed" moniker she was awarded for her skin-tight fashion choices. In perhaps the most laid-bare essay in this book (entitled "Acid"), Bateman discovers in a Google search an auto-complete of "Justine Bateman looks old" that bubbles up the feelings of inadequacy, irrelevance, and insecurity she felt under FAME--but also illuminates the entitlement of the public to critique her looks even after she's retreated from public eye. Women are hardly more than their appearance, Bateman reminds.

Bateman describes a painful process, led by angst and fear, through which she began to fade from the limelight, mostly by her own accord but not without judgment and scorn from others. Post-heyday, Bateman landed at UCLA to obtain a degree in computer science. She reports that she was at the forefront of the digital media revolution in the mid-aughts. She also became a wife and mother, continued to (occasionally) act in television shows like Arrested Development (starring her brother Jason), wrote screenplays, directed films, and shaped culture behind the scenes. Over time, as she details, her push out of the inner club of celebrity eventually allowed her to settle into her true self. The condition of FAME doesn't allow for personhood or personal agency. "You are not real," writes Bateman, so how could one lead a fulfilling life under FAME? Bateman believes it's not possible. So how FAME came to be the apotheosis of success, as it's touted in the popular imagination, piques Bateman and comes under scrutiny here.

Though Bateman forewent hard data of celebrity's far-reaching influence, she uses her own experience as example enough of America's obsession. Walking through the familiar trappings of stardom--false friendships, abusive management, trust issues--Bateman underlines with grit the misconceptions of being a luminary which oft lead many to its pursuit. "There is nothing interesting about FAME. It will not fix your problems," she bellows. "We have put such a false, bloated value on FAME that our entire society is missing out on the true gifts and talents of many," she concludes through raw emotional unloading and theoretical interpretations.

Why not listen to a woman who's led an interesting life, particularly post-fame, by cultivating her own sense of self and contributing to the cultural landscape in various ways?

Bateman's bleeding prose is more of an address than a tale to be told--literary conventions of narrative aren't enforced in these pages, the whole of which reads more like a blog than a "book." Bateman plays with sentence structure (the ones not found in grammar books), is quite fond of ALL CAPS and speaks more than writes in a conversational style that maintains the cool distance of an evasive narrator. It's not a pleasure to read, but keeping her distance is, in essence, the point of her book. Advice over admiration. Insight over "it girl." Familiarity without fame. In the end, Bateman is offering what another fame-eschewing American intellectual sought in his moment of reflection: "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth." For, as Bateman reinforces, truth leads to freedom that fame tries to intercept.

Reviewed by Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner has written about the arts, culture, and creators for nearly a decade for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and plenty others.
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Title Annotation:Justine Bateman's "Fame: The Highjacking of Reality"
Author:Baumgardner, Julie
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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