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I Saw Carrie Fisher Speak About Mental Illness, Spirituality and Star Wars at Harvard

Last night, I watched Carrie Fisher receive the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Hub. The event was … not what I expected.

I loved it. But it was also completely bizarre. Let me take you on this journey.

I found out about the event at the last minute yesterday from a friend; I had never heard about the Humanist Hub before, but they give out this award to celebrities who’ve been open about being atheist or agnostic. The event description made the event sound like it would be a relatively understated affair, and that Fisher would most likely discuss her own relationship with spirituality, and well as her own perspectives on mental illness and perhaps her career in Hollywood a bit. That is indeed what Carrie Fisher talked about once she took the stage, but before that point, the event was an emotional whirlwind of Star Wars fandom.

As soon as I got to the event, which was held at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, I saw multiple lines stretching out the front door, down the steps, and across the sidewalk. Amidst those lines, I saw a Rey cosplayer swirling a lightsaber. Meanwhile, a group of three other cosplayers–Leia, Han Solo, and Chewie–stood on the front steps, posing for pictures. All of these cosplayers were part of the 501st Legion, which is a group of professional Star Wars cosplayers who often get tapped for promotional Star Wars events. I soon saw that there were also several Storm Troopers, a Darth Vader, and many other 501st official cosplayers in attendance. There were also multiple cosplayers who weren’t there in a professional capacity, but were there simply to express their Star Wars fandom among like-minded folks.

I didn’t expect any of this, because this event isn’t, y’know, an official Star Wars event. But I guess any event that Carrie Fisher does might become a Star Wars event. And it didn’t just stop at cosplay! When I got inside, I saw that the entire Harvard Pops orchestra had set up in the front of the church, with the brass section in the balcony. I could tell from their warm-up that they were going to play a Star Wars song.

The girl behind me in line as I went inside screamed as soon as she saw the Leia cosplayer, while hitting her friend on the arm: “I have to get a picture with her!” She seemed just as excited to meet the 501st’s official Leia cosplayer as she might have felt about meeting Carrie Fisher. Of course, I’m not judging her for this at all, but it did make me wonder …

How would Carrie Fisher feel about all of this? How did she feel about being associated only with Star Wars, for the rest of her life, in spite of how many other things she has achieved? I would soon find out the answer to this, because Carrie Fisher addressed it in her speech–but first, I had to sit and anxiously ponder it for a while, as the orchestra played the entire six minutes of the medal acceptance song from A New Hope. Like, all the way through the credits.

But before they played that, the brass section in the balcony played a brief rendition of the Star Wars theme, during which the official cosplayers marched in formation up the aisle. (As soon as the theme began, a guy behind me stood up, as though in reaction to hearing the National Anthem. He then looked around and smiled, seeing no one else joining him, and sat back down.) After this brief interlude, a few of the Humanist Hub club members delivered short speeches about Carrie Fisher’s career. Then, the six-minute medal ceremony song played, after which Carrie Fisher came out and accepted her award.

She stood on the stage surrounded by members of the Humanist Hub, as well as almost all of the Star Wars cosplayers in attendance. They posed for several photos. Throughout all of this, I again wondered what Carrie Fisher must be thinking. But at last–at last!–she took to the podium. I knew, no matter what, that she would be honest. And I was right.

Carrie Fisher had a huge stack of papers before her, on which she had transcribed reams of notes and theories she had read about the Force in Star Wars. She read from these intermittently, with occasional gentle mockery, but also a sense of love and intense patience for the room packed with adoring Star Wars fans. She described the ideology of the Force, which is influenced by Zoroastrianism, and told us all that apparently Harvard offers a course on all of this (I hope that’s true, although I can’t find evidence of the course anywhere). She said that this was the closest she had ever come to getting a college education herself, since she never completed college; she also mentioned later that she never graduated high school, either.

Although the talk was nominally meant to be about spirituality, and indeed Carrie Fisher included many tongue-in-cheek references to the Force, most of the talk centered around her experiences with mental illness. She discussed how in her youth, she used drugs and alcohol as a means for escape, and how eventually, she stopped using them as tools to distract herself from her real feelings. She advocated strongly for therapy and for community support, stressing over and over throughout the talk that seeking help (and medication, if needed) should not be a cause for shame.

She discussed her own diagnosis, which is manic depression; although now the term used for that is “bipolar disorder,” Carrie Fisher said she didn’t like that term so much: “Bipolar just sounds like a bisexual walrus!” (Walruses do live at the North Pole.) She said that the idea of having manic and depressive episodes felt to her like a better way to characterize her illness, and that she had even given names to her ‘manic’ and ‘depressive’ sides. She gestured to her huge stack of notes about the Force and quipped that she had written them all in a state of mania, from whence she was in the process of coming down.

For most of the first half of the talk, she read from her notes about the Force, making quips and observations throughout. As she finished reading each page, she flung it into the audience, exclaiming “That’s it!” I soon realized that “that’s it” referred to the end of each page, as opposed to the end of her talk, which (thank goodness) lasted much longer than just one page. After she had completed reading as many notes about the Force as she could bear to read aloud, she moved on to a more extemporaneous discussion of her experiences, which did include some discussion of Star Wars specifically.

She talked about how once a therapist had told her that perhaps one reason why she didn’t receive a diagnosis earlier was because she was the child of celebrities; “if I had worked at a supermarket, or a grocery store,” she said, the diagnosis would surely have come much sooner. She talked about how growing up in a Hollywood environment made her feel less self-conscious about having a mental illness, since going to therapy is relatively normalized among creative people. But later in the talk, she admitted that being the child of celebrities, and becoming famous while very young, had also been damaging in other ways.

At length, she turned back to Star Wars, and her memories of it all. She assured us all that in spite of what we may have heard, she remembers more of it than we might expect. She then proceeded to deliver the entire monologue that Leia’s hologram gives to Obi-Wan Luke, word for word. I found myself surprised by how much this moment affected me.

She told some jokes about how it was nice to see the Han Solo cosplayer in attendance; “He is my husband, you know!” She then went on to clarify that she had known, ahead of time, about the cosplayers and the orchestra. The organizers had told her ahead of time about all of this: “Choices! I love choices.” This made me feel relieved, although I would guess that it probably doesn’t ever stop being surreal to be surrounded by this sort of thing. In spite of that, Carrie Fisher approached this event with humor and grace, all the while showing us how human she truly is.

During the Q&A section, a different Princess Leia cosplayer (not from the 501st) stepped up to ask the first question. The Q&A participants didn’t have a microphone, so I’m not sure of precisely what she asked, but it had to do with reclaiming disability narratives and telling your own story. Carrie Fisher agreed completely with this. Mostly I just want an excuse to include a picture of this girl’s cosplay here, so I’m going to do that (she has outer space-themed rims!!!).

The Q&A section vacillated wildly between questions about spirituality and agnosticism, then questions about mental health, then questions about Star Wars. Carrie Fisher navigated each question with equal patience and care; she never seemed irritated by the Star Wars questions, even the super-nerdy ones, or the super-personal ones.

One questioner asked her about her struggles with body image, and Carrie Fisher said that she still couldn’t stand to watch any of the Star Wars movies (including the most recent one) without scrutinizing her own physical appearance. She also reminded the crowd that she was told to lose 10 pounds before filming began for A New Hope (a lot of people gasped at this; I thought it was a well-known but depressing Star Wars fact).

In between giving more serious and poignant answers like that one, Carrie Fisher would often navigate back to telling jokes about Star Wars again, when the situation called for it. Someone asked her whether she preferred to be a General or Princess, and she chose princess, because they get to shop: “there’s no shopping in the space military!” When another fan asked if there was anything about Star Wars that she wished she could change, she said, “Well, the dress was really difficult to wear without a bra.” The audience laughed, but I’m not sure that was a joke! Sounds like something that’s worth changing, to me.

I don’t know how, but somehow, this event managed to offer something for everyone. Carrie Fisher took us all on a meandering, humanizing journey through her life, her struggles, and her successes–all while an audience full of rapt Storm Troopers looked on. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not also a part of the fandom for this movie franchise that has inextricably permeated all of Carrie Fisher’s life, everywhere she goes, forever. I am part of it, and when I heard her quoting Star Wars, I couldn’t help but feel emotional about it. But far more importantly, I got the chance to see Carrie Fisher, the human being, throwing her speech, page by page, into the crowd. I am a Star Wars fan, sure. But more importantly, I am a Carrie Fisher fan. “Fan” doesn’t even seem like the right word, really … so let’s just say I look up to her.

I am so glad that Carrie Fisher tells both jokes and hard truths about Star Wars. It must be difficult to have to do that, everywhere she goes, but she’s still killing it. I’m incredibly grateful to her for doing it. I’m not sure I would be able to have that much empathy and patience for it, after everything. But she does, somehow.

It’s worth seeing her speak in person if you ever have the opportunity. Just … get ready for Darth Vader to be there, too.

(image via Twitter)

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (, and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (