Selma Blair reflects on life, identity in memoir 'Mean Baby': 'We are all in search of a story'

Actor Selma Blair may never have seen herself as leading lady material, but she’s stepping fully into the spotlight by telling her own story.

Blair’s debut memoir “Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up” (Alfred A. Knopf, 289 pp., ★★★★ out of four, out now) offers a biting, emotionally poignant account of the Hollywood star's life, from her upbringing in Michigan to her roles in iconic films “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde.”

While Blair’s first role may not have yielded her Hollywood breakthrough, it certainly made an impact. In the book’s opening pages, she writes that she was labeled a “mean baby” by neighborhood kids, and that her heavy brow line as an infant gave her a “judgmental” glower: “I came into this world with my mouth pulled into a perpetual snarl.”

As Blair sheds the labels that have stuck to her throughout her life, she also unburdens herself of weighted perceptions, and settles into a redemptive narrative.

“We are all in search of a story that explains who we are,” Blair writes.

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In “Mean Baby,” Blair gets excruciatingly candid about the traumatic experiences that have shaped her life, tackling issues such as alcoholism, sexual violence and suicide.

Blair reveals she got “very drunk” during a Passover celebration at the age of 7, laying the groundwork for a pattern of alcohol dependence throughout her youth and adulthood.

“When I drank, I didn’t know what drama I would find, but I knew it was drama that I would feel,” Blair writes. “I needed it. I looked forward to it. It was always my way out.”

Blair illustrates how her alcoholism compromised her sexual autonomy as a young woman, making her acutely vulnerable to the harrowing realities of rape, including a violent rape during a spring break trip in Key West, Florida, when she was in college.

“I have been raped, multiple times, because I was too drunk to say the words ‘Please. Stop,’” Blair writes. “It was always awful, and it was always wrong, and I came out of each event quiet and ashamed.”

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Blair brings clarity to her past suicide attempts, showing how these dark episodes belied the emotional distress she was experiencing at the time. During her freshman year of college, Blair said the personal devastation of her then-boyfriend wanting to break up prompted her first suicide attempt.

“I don’t think I wanted to die in that moment,” Blair recalls of the attempt. “I just didn’t want to be in pain anymore.”

Blair would attempt suicide again on her 22nd birthday, after feeling "crushed" that the man she was dating left her for another girl while they were out at a bar. This attempt inspired her to check into an inpatient rehab facility in Michigan, where she benefited from the self-accountability of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“With the introduction of AA, I felt hope for the first time in my life,” Blair reflects. "Back then, when I was unknown, the tools of AA forced rigorous honesty.”

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Although Blair found stardom alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe in the teen drama “Cruel Intentions,” the actress incisively pulls back the curtain on her Hollywood experiences in “Mean Baby”: from being framed as a potential physical threat to Drew Barrymore, to biting supermodel Kate Moss in a London hotel suite following a Marc Jacobs show.

And while Blair always saw herself as the “sidekick” instead of the ingenue, she says she found solace in this role, as well as a genuine kinship with her famous peers.

“The truth is, I don’t know that I would fit in elsewhere,” Blair writes. “It’s much easier here, in this setting where people need a bit of a label to be understood.”

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Selma Blair steps fully into the spotlight in her debut memoir “Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up,” out now. The actress offers a biting, emotionally poignant account of the her life, from her upbringing in Michigan to starring in iconic films like “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde.”
Selma Blair steps fully into the spotlight in her debut memoir “Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up,” out now. The actress offers a biting, emotionally poignant account of the her life, from her upbringing in Michigan to starring in iconic films like “Cruel Intentions” and “Legally Blonde.”

Blair also talks about navigating the pitfalls of celebrity during the 2000s, an era notorious for its unforgiving media scrutiny – especially toward young women. Following a “bad” drinking binge, Blair said she checked herself into the Malibu rehab center Promises, coincidentally at the same time Britney Spears was recuperating at the facility (Blair also admits to throwing a pair of Spears' wedged flip-flops in the trash – as a gesture of fashion altruism, of course).

Blair said she tried to keep news of her rehab stint limited to her inner circle.

“I didn’t want to be labeled, as either an addict or depressive, because I worried the stigma could impact my ability to get work,” she writes. “I was in a state of constant terror.”

One of the roles that cemented Blair’s notoriety was Vivian Kensington in the 2001 comedy “Legally Blonde.” Scoring the part was a stroke of good luck, Blair reveals, after the role was initially offered to “Russian Doll” star Chloë Sevigny, who passed. The demure aloofness of this character solidified Blair’s Hollywood label, which itself was an extension of her childhood identity.

“I never had an arsenal of gentle, weightless, girl-next-door glances," Blair writes. " Always the mean baby, I played the girl who was misunderstood and set apart. She is all the women in my life – my mother, my sisters – or a ridiculous child woman making her way. Or all these versions combined.”

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After years of navigating symptoms that were “dismissed as ‘anxiety’ and ‘emotional,’ ” Blair was given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2018, which she says validated her struggles and affirmed her humanity.

“I was overwhelmed by a sense of relief, like the way you feel when an ocean wave breaks right at the shore before taking you under,” Blair writes. “Now I had a map to follow. I had information. A label. This time, one that fit.”

Fully embracing her chronic pain was a breakthrough for Blair, who said she quickly learned as a young child that she “couldn’t show pain, and I certainly couldn’t talk about it,” citing an instance in which her mother made light of a pain she had in her left leg: “To do so would only provoke laughter.”

Blair went public with her MS diagnosis in October 2018, going against the cautious advice of her doctors, who worried that disclosing her condition might diminish her career prospects.

“‘You’re an actress; your body, your voice, it’s all you have,’ ” Blair recalls her doctors telling her at the time.

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Blair says that while she “can’t be a spokesperson” for every person living with chronic illness, she hopes to “erase the stigma attached to MS, bring increased awareness to those living with disabilities, and help people who are coping with chronic illnesses.

“When it comes to chronic illnesses, there’s a lot of shame in disclosing one’s experiences,” Blair writes. “People judge. People dispute your symptoms. People say things can’t be proven. Let me assure you, this stuff is real.”

The brilliance of “Mean Baby” lies in its bruising honesty and introspection. By providing an unflinching chronology of her personal experiences – triumph, devastation, and all the messy gray areas – Blair offers the reminder that while we may be a patchwork of our social experiences, we always possess the ability to transcend the labels and reclaim the truth of who we are.

“We all have (a story); I carry mine inside me. You carry yours inside you,” Blair writes. “I can hear mine now, in my own voice. Strong and clear. All it took was to stop listening to the stories everyone else told about me.”

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Selma Blair talks past trauma, Hollywood in debut memoir 'Mean Baby'