“Nobody’s ever tried to direct me before, except maybe Pierre Trudeau,” Margaret Trudeau says mischievously. “And we know how that worked out.”
Trudeau makes her living as a public speaker, turning her struggles with mental illness (and powerful men) into inspirational lectures. But the gig we’re discussing in this phone interview is different: On Sept. 19, she’ll appear at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Toronto, right up there with Carol Burnett, the Broad City duo and John Mulaney. To say it will not be her usual audience is an understatement.
So Trudeau has been working with her old friend and producer, Diane Alexander, and her director, Kimberly Senior (“so lovely, and so bossy!”) to shake her out of her comfort zone, mix up the chronology of her life and play her material for laughs as much as tears. It fits nicely into this current confessional moment in stage shows – Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show. And it’s working; it earned raves in Chicago and Montreal.
At 70, Trudeau’s voice is girlish and bubbly, punctuated by long, breathy sighs when things turn serious. She murmurs asides that are often hilarious, and you can hear her italics. Every sentence is like an expedition: She’ll start in one direction (say, sadness) and then tumble into irony and self-awareness before taking a sharp turn toward joy. Here are highlights from our conversation.
I hear that you feed the audience questions to ask you.
They’re the questions I thought people should have asked me all along. There are serious ones about mental health, like, “When did you first know you were bipolar?” But I also have someone ask, “Has it been difficult being so good-looking and admired all your life?” Of course, I thank her for that deep, probing question. But it’s a real one. We’re in the #MeToo days, but in my generation, in the ’70s and ’80s, beauty was the price of admission.
But you rebel against that, right? You lead the crowd in chanting “F off?”
Oh, that would be rude if it were “F off.” Goodness no, it’s just “F you.” And you and you and you. All you who stood in my way. It’s an exclamation of our anger as women. We were so bullied, pulled back, held back. Told, “You can’t do that, don’t try.” You can only suppress “F You” so long before a rebel is born. At the end, I turn it to what it should be about, not our anger but our love.
Five screens behind you show photos of you through time. What’s that like?
The evidence, shall we say, of all that I’ve been. I have too many photos; I should have a bonfire. They weigh you down sometimes. But that’s what the piece is about as well: how you can get beyond all your grief, hurt, mental illness, everything, how you can move on, how you can get your life back, how you can recover. I pull away all the pretense and everything that just doesn’t matter, and get down into the heart of what does. I do make people cry, and I’m sorry for that. But sometimes tears are helpful.
Is any part of the show tough for you? For example, you talk about your son Michel, who died at 23 in 1998.
Even after all these years, the tears wash down my face. Death is final, there are no more pictures. So every time, I open my heart to that particular pain.
Do you still speak to him, in your mind?
Oh my goodness, yes. He’s always right there with me. Anybody who grieves knows this. It’s about time. Time doesn’t take pain away. Time buries it deep in a sacred place in your heart, which you can visit and feel extraordinarily sad – but at the time of your choosing, instead of in the middle of the highway when you hear a song. At the beginning you’re so raw with your grief, your loss, that you can’t control it. Then it gets easier.
How do rate your eldest son, Justin, as a politician?
I’m so beyond politics I can’t tell you. But I was watching the recent G7 closely, of course, as a proud mom and proud Canadian. He takes such good care of himself, my boy, he’s slim and tall. His socks and ties are impressive. These are things moms look at. But more than that, I see the deep warmth in his eyes that continues, even under terrible critical stress. Justin’s able to keep hold of his deepest principles, his heart. So mom is always proud. [She laughs.] What a silly question to ask me!
Do you worry about him?
I don’t worry for any of my children. I learned that one of the biggest regrets people have at the end of their lives is worrying about things that never happened. I trust that my loved ones are working as hard as they can, being the best they can be, and I’ll help them get there. But I can’t worry. I wouldn’t be able to be mentally well.
You were 18 when you met Pierre Trudeau. How do you feel about that girl now?
She was lovely! She came out of North Vancouver, the hippie movement, the anti-war movement, and was thrown into crusty, old, formal, stuffy Ottawa. I was, “Whaaat?” I’d been raised as a feminist by my mother. And suddenly I’m confronted with a husband who I loved so much, who changed so many things in his policies, but at home, uh-oh, no, no, barefoot in the kitchen for Maggie. He wasn’t willing to allow me to work, study or do anything more than what he defined as my role. It was the beginning of me getting courage, but also the beginning of me breaking down.
Do you have any regrets?
I had postpartum depression after Sacha [her middle son with Pierre, born 1973]. Pierre and I did seek help, but that man didn’t know what it was. We know now, if you can close neural pathways that are newly opened to depression, you won’t fall into relapses all your life, as I have. My neural pathway is a huge chute, and I have to pay attention, always, at the front door. So there needs to be a lot of honesty among young mothers and their doctors, because immediate treatment can make all the difference, for the rest of your life.
Are you ever frightened of your mind, of becoming ill again?
My treatment was dual – pharmacological to balance my chemical brain, plus cognitive behavioural therapy – and as I was starting to live as a healthy person, I felt like I was walking on a tightrope to make sure every little choice I made every day was a good one, so I wouldn’t fall. Now, it feels like I’m on a big, beautiful boardwalk next to the sea. I have to be careful. But I have vision, I have light.
Is there a man in your life?
I had two marriages, and both were very happy until they were not. It won’t happen. I’m very, very old. And I’m content. My heart is full, full, full. It’s pretty high being on stage, so when I get home, I’m very glad it’s just my two cats. Oh, I’m a cat lady. I know, I know.
It won’t happen, ever?
I’m a woman who has a history of breaking men’s hearts, so why would I want to do that again? [She laughs.] I can’t even think of it. Sometimes I’m sad that I don’t have immediate comfort. I have to reach out for comfort. The cats try, but scratching my head as if I’m a cat doesn’t seem to do it.
Anything you want to discuss that I didn’t ask you?
The Globe and Mail missed a word in its review of my Montreal show. It called me “still a bit dippy.” I’m hippie-dippy. That’s where I got stuck, all that love and peace and living gently in this world with flowers in your hair.
If you had to get stuck somewhere –
That seems like a good place.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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