Giving Up the Ghost: Sissy Spacek’s Texas Legend

Wood County never had much to claim. It’s in a region where every small town is the Something Capital of Texas — pancakes, yams, dogwoods, peanuts — and there was the occasional pro football player or politician, but nothing made us as proud as Sissy Spacek. All you ever had to do to get out of a biology lesson at my high school was mention her to Coach Dobbs, then he would set aside his textbook, lean against a lab table and speak of her the only way anyone in East Texas speaks of her — in the superlative. She was the kindest, the sweetest, the most talented and charming, and if she walked into this room right now, he’d say, she’d be just as gracious and down-to-earth as she’d been at 17. And while I don’t doubt that Coach Dobbs was right, she never did walk into that room. I spent my whole life in East Texas and never once saw her, or knew anyone else who had in the last 30 years. But for whatever reason, living with her ghost was enough to sustain us.

My family lived outside any city limits in the Piney Woods. There was really no single town to attach our affiliation. Our postal address was Big Sandy, my siblings and I went to school in Hawkins, and Mineola had a movie theater and an Amtrak stop. Sissy came from Quitman and everybody knew it. Quitman had the courthouse and a Ford dealership. Two nights a week there was a Cajun buffet on the square, next door to the Democratic Party headquarters. And once a month Mr. Dunahoe, who owned the insurance company, hosted a bluegrass show behind the Dairy Queen on the condition that the house band let him carry out his guitar and sheet music to perform “Corinna, Corinna” in his chirping baritone. When, at 15, I failed the written test at the Wood County drivers’ license office, I cried in the car anticipating my older brother’s taunts, and my mother drove us out of town past Sissy Spacek Drive. I couldn’t help but read it as an imperative.

After my freshman year of high school, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t athletic and joined the theater group. We put on one production a year, for the annual One-Act Play competition. Our director had a great affection for odd British comedies, so our performances were of the works of Michael Frayn and Noël Coward, but every year, without fail, one high school or another chose Crimes of the Heart. There were certainly plays you saw repeat and cycle through over the years, but a year couldn’t seem to pass without someone at the Distict or Regional or Area level attempting to mimic Sissy’s Babe McGrath. Our company would get together before competition to watch the movie adaptations of our opponents’ plays. We’d talk about the challenges like we were authorities on the subject, probably to make ourselves feel better. Did they honestly think they could pull off The Crucible in 40 minutes? Were there really enough guys at that school to manage One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? We’d watch Crimes of the Heart every year, none of us understanding it, but each certainly pretending to.

It was around that time I decided I wanted to be an actress, too. A girl who graduated a few years ahead of had tried it and came back to visit our theater class. She’d cut her hair and changed her name and showed us her head shots with the resume printed right on the back. She talked to us about Los Angeles and getting auditions and how she’d had a small role on Malcolm in the Middle. I smiled and nodded and thought, good for her, but told myself I’d never do a sitcom. Sissy didn’t do sitcoms.

At 17, I got a part-time job at a video store. Between our two-night VHS special and my employee discount, I could take home tapes after every shift for 50 cents each. Of course, I fixated on Sissy. I stayed up late in my bedroom, watching my way through her career on a 13-inch television with a busted tracking button, keeping the volume as low as I could so my parents wouldn’t know I was up. But even then she was little more than an object lesson, the one person who existed as evidence that it could be done.

While I watched those movies so obsessively, there was a lot that I didn’t understand, that was completely inaccessible to my teenage mind. Luckily, where there was Badlands and 3 Women, there was also Trading Mom and Blast From the Past, and that dichotomy is a product of that thing in Sissy Spacek that keeps Wood County attached. It’s not particularly that she’s immensely talented or that she’s famous, but that she is all the things we are proud people assume about Texans. The thing is, no one loves Texas like Texans do, and no group loves its own stereotype quite like we do. There’s something to being Texan that Sissy understands — something about its vastness, how it’s part of both the South and the West, how it gives us that rapid speech with drawling vowels. We’ll take the giant belt buckles, the pioneer spirit, and the work ethic. We’ll take the strong, obstinate women, and count Sissy among them. Because despite notoriety, she will still walk up on stage with James Lipton or Charlie Rose, with that long, unkempt hair and the bangs she probably trimmed herself, slouching in those baggy Oxford shirts, and exude everything we like about ourselves.

Lesley Clayton hasn’t been on stage since her turn as Dotty Oltey in Noises Off her senior year. It was a pretty good way to go out though, because she did alright and repeatedly got to kiss Stephen McNeely. Since then her fiction has appeared in Esopus, Knee-Jerk, and Spork Press. She’s a founding contributor at WOMANZINE.