Lessons in Becoming Myself
by Ellen Burstyn

Riverhead Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-5944-8268-7.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 02/05/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

Down in the basement of my house, there is a room where I store my archives: every script I've ever worked on, photos taken of me and photos I've taken, diaries, journals, appointment books, calendars, and notebooks from all the way back to my beginnings. (p. 3)

So begins the life story of Ellen Burstyn, as told by Ellen Burstyn in free-flowing narrative. The reader is given a glimpse into the most private parts of Burstyn's life, starting with her earliest memories. Burstyn actually began what became this book in 1980. As her opening remarks tell us, she had a lot of documentation with which to work. Just as important as her physical records, though, are those she finds in her "inner archive."

When I need to access a particular emotion for a role, I imagine taking an elevator down to my inner archive, where I quietly flip through the files until some memory rises up and offers itself. Then I move into that event and it comes alive in me. (p. 3)

Burstyn also has a remarkable memory for conversations and many of these find their way into her writing. She claims to have trained her memory--a good trait for an actress and also for a memoirist.

This is a searching, self-introspective account. One might liken it to reading someone's journal or diary, so intimate are the glimpses into her most private experiences. She "speaks" to her audience (her readers), but just as often seems to be addressing herself, questioning a choice she made, second-guessing her reaction to an event, or wondering aloud why some things have been so hard to learn. She gives a great deal of attention to presenting and explaining the various faith beliefs and credos which she encountered and studied throughout her life. She identified herself as a Sufi, a searcher for truth in its purest form. "I learn from all traditions without being restricted to just one way," she says. "Truth has no boundaries." (p. 403) Burstyn has little use for organized religion, whose dogma and rules she finds confining.

Having seen Ellen Burstyn in a wide variety of movie roles, I would have thought she was a confident, secure, strong woman. Now in her seventy-seventh year, she may be strong, but that was not always the case. Becoming herself has been a life-long process, and often a grueling journey.

It would be impossible in a short time to present all of the life issues Burstyn addresses in her memoir. However, there is one which I believe played a huge part in not only who she became, but also how she got there. From her earliest days, she identified truth, or the lack of it, as a major issue with her mother, Coriene. Dishonesty was a huge factor for young Edna Rae Gillooly/Ellen. While demanding absolute honesty from her children, Coriene then perversely demanded that they lie for her. Coriene also lied about them, even denying their existence if it seemed expedient, going so far as to introduce Edna to a gentleman friend as her "neighbor down the street." Coriene thought that acknowledging her children might adversely affect her chances of getting a marriage proposal. Of these practices, Ellen said, "Her deceit did so much harm. It created a negative atmosphere of anger, resentment and hostility that pervaded our home and had abiding repercussions for all of us." (pg. 18)

Indeed, much of Burstyn's searching throughout her life centered on finding truth in many manifestations. She attributes the early and constant honesty issues with her mother as one of the main reasons she chose to be a Sufi.

Burstyn does not glamorize her life. She shares her failures as well as her fame. She is open about the abuses she suffered both as a child and as an adult. On one hand, she knew how destructive it was, but on the other, she couldn't seem to break away from it. It's a continuing theme of her life story. At one point, she acknowledged, "it would take many years before I stopped seeking out the pattern of relating to men that I learned at home...we just keep repeating it because that's what we know." Her relationship with Neil Burstyn caused trauma for years; she actually feared for her life at times. She admitted to being in denial over the severity of his condition.

Another recurrent theme is that of learning from mistakes. Burstyn freely admits to many of hers. She struggled with giving up to men what she perceived rightly as her power, simply because they were men. "We learn from our mistakes" she says. "This was one of mine that I repeated over and over until I got it right. I've heard it said that when you make a mistake and don't learn from it, the next time you have to repeat that lesson, it will be even harder." (p.295) Later she asks "Who knows what mistakes we need to make in order to learn the lessons we came here to learn?" Who among us cannot relate to that? Likewise, she sees the people in her life as teachers. Her mother may have been harsh and unloving, but she gave young Edna the impetus to leave home and make something of herself. A homeless person teaches her how vital it is that we are seen, that we are acknowledged as fellow humans. The book's dedication simply thanks "all my teachers."

Lessons in Becoming Myself is a good read presented by a woman who has finally come to know herself. The pace of the book is steady and she maintains the reader's interest by being so transparent and open. Few of us, I believe, could read this book and not find some commonality with this icon of film and stage.

She ends this account of her life thus far with these words "I know that becoming conscious is a never-ending process. My prayer is that by the actual end of this life, I will exit wearing my own true face and be completely unmasked. Authenticity has been my aspiration." A fitting and yet ironic commentary on the life of a consummate actress, a woman who has worn many masks so successfully in her chosen profession.

Born Edna Rae Gillooly in depression-era Detroit in 1932, the author has worked in the entertainment arena for many years. Leaving home at age 18 to find her life's calling, she worked as a model and a waitress to support herself. Being driven and persistent, she eventually starred in myriad films, television and stage productions, and has won an Academy award and many other accolades. Ellen Burstyn is an accomplished actress, and an influential member of the film community. At age 77, she still works and is co-president of the Actors' Studio.

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