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Jane Pauley: Interview by Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman

The past three decades saw the wedding, divorce and death of Princess Diana; military victories and defeats; the impeachment of an American president; the rise of cellular phones and personal electronic devices; and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These were decades of huge triumphs, like the end of the Cold War. They were also decades of vast grief, as with the explosion of the spacecraft Challenger. More than anything, though, the past three decades distinguished themselves as modern through an emphasis on individualism, as evidenced by the growth of personalized technology and the explosion of consumer choices.

Jane Pauley covered the occurrences of the past three decades. In some ways, her life parallels the trail of events she presented in national news. Her journey has seen triumphs: marriage to cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the birth of three children, acceptance of multiple Emmy awards, her own daytime talk show. At other times Pauley has struggled: a severe outbreak of hives required the prolonged use of steroids, and she was temporarily hospitalized following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Above all, however, Pauley has a flavor that is all her own. Eschewing the paparazzi-filled lifestyle of many celebrities, she opts for a quiet and private family life. She pursues stories with human interest rather than cut-throat investigative journalism. She is true to herself in an industry that demands an image.

Pauley got her start at a local television station in Indianapolis, then quickly moved to Chicago to join an NBC affiliate. She went on to become a mainstay of the network for more than 25 years. She joined Tom Brokaw on the Today show in 1976, and for 13 years she set the style for morning news with her dry humor and her interest in human connection. She later became an original anchor, alongside Stone Phillips, for NBC’s Dateline, where she helped the newsmagazine show get off the ground and move from a weekly format to a daily. Then she launched The Jane Pauley Show, a daytime talk show that aired nationally.

Recently Pauley published her memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, which describes, among other stories, her experience with bipolar disorder. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD, talked with Pauley about her marriage, her illness and recovery, and the career she’s built as one of America’s top newswomen.Chet Cooper: We enjoyed the chapter in your book that explained your interview style and how you take a conversational approach rather than using a prepared list of questions. We work much the same way.

Dr. Gillian Friedman: We have a tendency not to stick to an agenda.

Jane Pauley: If I look at questions in advance it’s generally to eliminate questions like Who was your favorite interview? or What’s the meaning of life?—things I have no business commenting about.

Cooper: But we’re going to ask you those. (laughter) No? Okay then, it was great meeting you…(starts to leave)

Pauley: So that’s it, I guess. (laughter)

Friedman: Let me start off asking about your book. When reading it, I was surprised at how quickly you decided you would talk publicly about your diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Pauley: When I was diagnosed, I had already been involved for several years in a writing project. I’d even conceptualized it as a book, although I was a bit self-conscious that I didn’t know exactly what the book was about. (laughs) I think I’d recognized between the lines that there was something more to my story than even I knew. I couldn’t have told you what, but something was propelling me to write.

When I got sick, my illness was just going to be one of the chapters of the book. I remember sitting in a doctor’s office and his advising me what to tell my employers about my illness. He suggested we call it a thyroid problem—and that would have been completely true, as the basis of the episode probably did begin in some autoimmune disorder related to the thyroid—but his face fell when I told him I was already writing a book! I didn’t mean I was writing a book about having bipolar disorder. But if I was going to write anything about myself, I couldn’t leave out such a significant part.

Cooper: Were you at all self-conscious about revealing this personal experience?

Pauley: No, and why I was so unselfconscious about it I can’t really explain. Except that one of my idiosyncrasies as a celebrity has been my ambivalence about being a celebrity. I’ve always had this need to bring myself down to human size. Perhaps it was my Indiana upbringing—humility was far more valued than grandiosity. When my daughter was little she accused me of being a bad celebrity. She meant I didn’t go out of my way to get my picture on magazines—and parenthetically, nor hers. (laughter)

When I decided to write about my illness, I thought to myself, everybody I loved, the people I most cared about who might be hurt by a revelation—my friends and my family—they already knew. I felt confident that, as Bill Murray might say, “That won’t hurt ya none.” I knew how the media worked and what kind of coverage it would likely get, and I knew the effect—even if short-lived—would be to address the stigma many people with mental illness face. Most people would still take my doctor’s advice and lie about the true nature of the illness because they have to. I can’t say it was a decision I agonized over much, if at all. I instantly saw a unique way to redeem a really horrible situation.

Friedman: Do you mean that since you already had this unpleasant event occur, you might as well get some social good from it?

Pauley: Absolutely. What else was I going to do to make a positive contribution to society? Other than trying to be a good mother and vote regularly. (laughs)

Ironically, a former president of NBC News once said I had the best mental health in the business. I was proud of my mental health and the fact I had my feet on the ground—proud in the unhealthy way people are prideful. When I was diagnosed, I saw it as an opportunity, and I was absolutely right.

Cooper: Were there any negative reactions to your disclosure?

Pauley: Very early on, one newspaper described my revelations as a gambit to publicize my new show. I thought, what great news that is, that mental illness can now be a gambit—never mind stigma, it’s a publicity gambit. Of course, I knew that wasn’t true at all. At the time, there were several celebrities who were struggling with what were clearly various kinds of illnesses, and the tabloids were chasing them and using words like wacko and crack-up and so forth. I remember being stunned, and I still I am, that newspaper editors let words like those into big headlines.

Some celebrities have to hide mental illness, because a movie star might not get insurance for the next film project. The studio might not hire an actor with a confirmed mental illness. I didn’t have to deal with that, so I really didn’t see where the penalty was going to be. How was talking about it going to hurt me?

Friedman: Some people might be afraid to be perceived as unreliable or unable to follow through on a project.

Pauley: Yes, especially younger people and people whose careers are just getting started. There’s a reason they have to use euphemisms. One day I noticed four different celebrities were taking breaks from this or that for exhaustion. Whatever you call it, I sympathize with anyone who wants to be treated privately.

I was blessed that I was able to get sick and get well privately. I think if you’re sick you deserve some consideration, no matter who you are. I would love to see that as a campaign—that newspaper editors can’t allow that kind of headline. After all, what percentage of their own readers are wacko and experiencing crack-ups by their same definition?

Friedman: According to studies, about 15 to 18 percent of their readers.

Cooper: Not to mention their employees and their family members. I have never understood the mentality of greed that leads people to exploitation in order to sell more of their product.

Pauley: It certainly does sell, but if someone points out the obligation you have to your community, and if you choose to ignore that obligation, then we have the right to shun you. I am not talking about shunning the people who buy the newspapers or magazines, just the people publishing who stoop that low.

Friedman: When Senator Gordon Smith, from Oregon, introduced legislation in Congress to create mental health awareness and prevention programs on college campuses, he talked to the Senate about the suicide of his son, who had bipolar disorder. It was undoubtedly gut-wrenching for him to discuss publicly the death of his child. I was appalled to see some attacks that he was grandstanding and that it was inappropriate for him to bring up that personal experience. Plenty of other legislators have talked about their own experiences with other illnesses; for example, several senators have talked about battling prostate cancer. But those revelations didn’t seem to produce the same negative reactions as Senator Smith’s discussion about mental illness.

Pauley: It’s just ignorance. I don’t know who wrote the specific things you’re referring to…

Cooper: It wasn’t ABILITY!

Pauley: (laughs) In my case, the fact that there were a handful of people who chose to make the basest, lowest interpretation of my motives pales against the greater majority of media and individuals who have had the opposite reaction.


Cooper: Do you feel as though you’re now a mental health advocate?

Pauley: In a general way, I think I represent that there are successful people with mental health issues living among us in society. As an advocate, though, I really haven’t found a direct set of levers to adjust and push, although I was involved in the Children’s Health Fund and their work with depression even before I got ill.

Friedman: Even though you are not generally selfconscious, are there ever moments when you fear you might be judged? For example, I get migraines, and preventive treatment of migraines is with psychiatric medications. Every time I see a new doctor or go to the dentist or go to pharmacy, everybody knows I’m on psych meds. It’s not that I really care that much, but I can’t completely eliminate my discomfort in that initial instant where somebody knows something about me and might be making snap judgments.

Pauley: I think everybody’s got an equivalent like that. Think of the young woman picking up birth control pills—maybe she is taking them because her dermatologist is prescribing them for acne. There’s always the pharmacist who could be wondering why she’s taking them.

I tend to use the same pharmacy. I know what you’re feeling—there is a moment where there isn’t any privacy, and I’m not anonymous. But I know they’re my allies.

Friedman: I agree. But I’m embarrassed to say I wouldn’t feel the same way filling blood pressure medication. It’s the fact that you just don’t know who’s going to have an unreasonable reaction and who’s not.

Pauley: Yes. I assume there are people somewhere around my life who were freaked out by what happened to me but were too kind to say anything. But I’m far more concerned on a daily basis with whether I feel right. I’m always scanning for signs of the illness, kind of taking my own temperature. If I am in a group of people or maybe a meeting and it’s going well, I may still have a sense that, I know they don’t feel the way I do right now, and that makes me sad. I didn’t use to be bipolar—I wish that were still the case.

As we’re speaking now, I feel unusually clear. But sometimes there are meetings where I feel more cotton-headed, and I think it’s still normal, but I know it’s different from the way you feel—although maybe not, if you’re coming down with one of your migraines.

Cooper: Did you just call her cotton-headed?

Pauley: (laughs) Yes, and I felt completely comfortable with it.

Friedman: (laughs) Well, I am a little clearer now that I’ve had my first cup of coffee.

Cooper: How did you meet your husband [Garry Trudeau, creator of the cartoon Doonesbury]?

Pauley: When I started the Today show, Tom Brokaw was the brand-new host. He had just come out of the Watergate controversy where he’d been a White House correspondent for NBC, so he was really experienced and well-respected. I was this kid who just arrived on the Today show, and nobody could quite figure how that happened, least of all me. I had come to New York with no resources, and I was very grateful when Tom and his wife Meredith took me in and helped me get a nice apartment and a small amount of furniture. Then, about six months after I had been here…

Cooper: … they got you a man?

Pauley: (laughs) They got me a boyfriend. No, they had a small dinner party and Garry was there.

Cooper: Was it planned?

Pauley: I think it was planned. It absolutely was a setup. And it worked! (laughs)

Cooper: Does Garry’s sense of humor carry over when he’s not writing his strip?

Pauley: Yes. Humor is an incredibly important part of our marriage. I think he married me because he thought I was funny. But we’re different. He likes to have parties; I really don’t. My parents’ relationship was something like that. Daddy loved to be with his friends and have parties, and my mother was very shy and played the organ at church. I tend to take her part, and Garry loves to have parties. We’re renewing our wedding vows on our upcoming 25th wedding anniversary.

Friedman: Congratulations.

Pauley: Thank you. I think it’s a big perfect excuse for Garry to have a party! (laughs)

Cooper: So you think the marriage will last?

Pauley: (laughs)Yes. It shows every sign of it. I mean, he got through the period when I was sick.

Cooper: When you were becoming hypomanic, did he understand what you were dealing with?

foreward by Noelle Kelly


continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe

Other articles in the Jane Pauley issue include Letter From The Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Whats up Doc?; Headlines: MS Cruise, Breast Cancer & Court Ruling; Michael Rogers-A Journey of Self-Discovery; Butterfly Power: Native American Healing; Bipolar Disorder: Standup Comed Showcase: Sixth Annual Event; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences... subscribe!


More excerpts from the Jane Pauley issue:

Life Rolls On: Surfer Jesse Billauer

Coming of Age: Statewide Independent Living Councils

Harriet McBryde Johnson: Civil Rights Activist

Americans with Disabilities Act: 15 Years


Senator Harkin: Setting Our People Free


Employment: Building Healthy Relationships

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