'Missing Richard Simmons' And The Nature Of Being Known
The six-episode podcast Missing Richard Simmons dropped its final episode on Monday, two days ahead of schedule. For a project nominally devoted to finding out more about what happened to one-time fitness guru Richard Simmons, it wasn't very satisfying by that standard. Host Dan Taberski concluded, in effect, that Richard Simmons was safe and physically healthy and had withdrawn voluntarily from public life without much fanfare, which is ... pretty much what we already knew. That's what Simmons had said in a call to Today that Taberski played again and again. That's what the police had said after they checked on him. Stripped to the frame, the beginning of the podcast gave the back story, the ending mused about the anticlimax of it all, and the middle largely traced a couple of more sensational theories for which Taberski ultimately didn't find any evidence.
But as unsatisfying as the show was as a mystery, it was fascinating as a study of what we ask of public figures — of what we feel entitled to ask of them.
If there's one thing that the podcast showed, and in fact if there's one thing on which Taberski rested his thesis that Simmons' withdrawal was worthy of further investigation, it's that Richard Simmons gave a preposterous amount of himself away to the people who bought his products, came to his classes, went on his cruises, and simply told him how much pain they were in because they thought he would understand. The thesis of the show is largely that a man who was so close to people and loved being close to people would never just stop doing it.
It's one of Taberski's apparent blind spots that Richard Simmons didn't connect at this profound and personal level with all fat people — he connected with a certain kind of person who wanted and reached for something personal from him. After all, plenty of people just watched the videos. I should know; I can still do "It's My Party" from Sweatin' To The Oldies. But there was a kind of Richard Simmons person who wanted to touch him, stuff dollar bills in his shorts on the cruise ship, and talk to him on the phone. And the way Taberski tells the story, Simmons turned himself inside out trying to give every one of them whatever it was they wanted.
I interviewed Judy Blume a couple of years ago and asked her whether the intimate connection readers felt, particularly as young people, with her books like Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret made her their assumed confidante in a way that was overwhelming. "Yes," she told me without hesitation. "For a while there, I got too involved with some of the kids who wrote to me. I got very emotionally involved with them. I had to go to a counselor to help me, because I'm not trained in the helping professions." She said she needed to understand how to "be supportive, and yet step back. Because there were a couple of kids I wanted to save. You know, I wanted to bring them to live with me ... this never would have worked out."
I wanted to bring them to live with me. It sounds remarkable, but can you imagine what Judy Blume's mail must have been like? I cannot imagine it didn't daily consist of someone is hurting me, someone is hitting me, I feel alone, you are the only one who understands me, you are the only one who I'm telling this to, you are the only one I trust. And these were kids.
What I thought over and over while listening to Missing Richard Simmons is that Richard Simmons may have been the Judy Blume who never got the counselor. Who tried to save everyone.
I don't really believe in the old Andy Warhol prediction that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. What I believe is that fame will be indeed be served in small portions, limited not by time but by scope. If that's the case, then instead of being famous for 15 minutes, many will be famous to 15 people. Or perhaps 1500 or 15,000 people — a small enough number that you can move through most of the world unnoticed, but a large enough number that the circle of people who follow you with intensity necessarily includes people who don't know you. What to do about that is something I think more and more people have faced.
The emotionally healthiest people I've ever met who are in the public eye are the ones who are capable, figuratively speaking, of extending a toe in front of them and scratching a line in the dirt. They know how to say, "We can shake hands across this line, we can talk across this line, and we can express gratitude to each other across this line, but I wouldn't ask you to babysit my children, and you can't sleep on my couch." It's not apathy, it's not superiority, and it's not disdain. It's a recognition of the physics of personal connection. There is only so much energy. There is only so much to give, and there is only so much you can turn yourself inside out for so many people before something runs low, or runs out.
Taberski presumed some pathology in Simmons' disappearance, but doesn't seem to have worried about what was happening before that, despite the fact that there were red flags all over his very own descriptions. In arguing that Simmons should have said goodbye (or, more precisely, should have said goodbye differently), he likened Simmons' relationships with the people he called and counseled and coached over the years to two things over and over again: friendship and therapy. Weren't they friends? Wasn't it like therapy?
Friendship isn't therapy. Holy moly, people, if you never believe anything else you read on the internet, believe that friendship isn't therapy and therapy isn't friendship. When you're asking both "weren't these friendships?" and "weren't these therapeutic relationships?", you are diagnosing in real time the problem with the direction such things can go. Without professional structure and rules, it's not therapy. Without reciprocity, it's not friendship. I know almost nothing about my therapist's life; that's by design. He wouldn't be invited to my birthday party; that's by design, too. I only ask my friends to listen as much as I will listen. Were these people listening to Richard Simmons as much as he was listening to them?
It's hard to feel bad for people who receive other people's admiration, and it's hard to feel bad for people who make a lot of money by being beloved. No argument. But while what Simmons did may be different from a musician or a novelist — or someone who makes a podcast — I'm confident he had something in common with many of those people, which is that what meant the most to him was what his work meant to others. I can tell you that I have pinned to my cubicle walls almost every paper note and letter I've ever received from readers and listeners. But, speaking metaphorically, not every expression of gratitude arrives on paper, which you can keep with you, pinned to your life indefinitely. Some thank-yous arrive written on rocks, and if you feel obligated to carry all of those rocks everywhere you go for the rest of your life, if you can't learn to look at them, be grateful for them, and set them down, even they become a lot to carry.
The more the gratitude is for what has already been done, the more it is written on paper: I'm so grateful for the thing you made; it meant the world to me. That is weightless; it is wonderful. The closer it gets to expecting something from you in the future, something that must continue, the more it is written on stone: You're the only one who understands me. You're the only reason I can get out of bed every day. I have a feeling Richard Simmons received a lot of gratitude written on stones, just as Judy Blume did, but it certainly sounds like it was much harder for him to put down.
The sad thing about Missing Richard Simmons is that if Richard Simmons finally decided to drop all of those rocks and rest — whatever state he was in when he did — then nothing makes it clearer how he got to that point than someone making a hit out of demanding over and over some kind of explanation. Perhaps he finally drew a boundary. Perhaps he finally put his sneakered toe out and drew that line in the dirt, in which case it's uncomfortable to think the response was, "How could you?"