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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
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...