In 2007, psychiatrist Charlie Silberstein, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital staff psychiatrist, and writer Niki Patton produced a series of filmed interviews that focused on the psychological and emotional lives of Martha’s Vineyard residents.
The painter Rez Williams explained that his most valuable quality as an artist was his self-criticism. Margot Wilke talked about her life as a (now 100-year-old) Buddhist. Trudy Taylor sang for her interviewers and talked about being the mother of famous children and, always frank, she said that it was the only reason she had been chosen.
And Mike Wallace, newsman and celebrated 60 Minutes interviewer, in one of his last one-on-one interviews before his death at the age of 93 on April 7, discussed life, death, and his battle with depression.
Ms. Patton, who had a career in film and video production before moving to the Island, told The Times this week that she and Dr. Silberstein set out to elicit revealing observations from their interviewees, not about what they were doing at the time but about their lives and experiences.
“We’d come up with questions that we hoped would dig deeper than usual,” she said, “not tabloid style, but questions that would elicit real feelings and discussion of the way things really are here on the Island. And personally, I think we succeeded in getting some unusual material.
“For instance, we talked to an artist about the rather complicated art sales scene on the Island and interviewed a lesbian about the joys and difficulties of being a single gay mother here. We interviewed a Brazilian immigrant who was illegal when he first got here, and he talked about how hard that journey is — both in the getting here and staying here.
“We talked mostly to year-round Islanders, but also wanted to take advantage of the fact that we have some very well-known potential subjects here. So Charlie got Mike Wallace, who he’d known personally for quite a while, to agree to an interview. Wallace spoke about his depression at length and about the Westmoreland versus CBS libel trial that he said first brought that depression on. While the trial seems almost like ancient history now, you have to remember that it was a huge front page story in the ’80s — and I think as famous as Wallace was as a journalist, it’s what put him in the history books.
“I’m not sure whether he’d addressed the issue before, but one of the most memorable points for me was when Charlie tried to pin him down on what looked to be a double-standard — after all, wasn’t Wallace merely being subjected in the trial to what he had done in his own interviewing all those years — grilling people and getting to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was for the subject? The viewers will have to make up their minds as to how credible Wallace’s reply is. What I also found surprising were some remarkable comments he made about how long he had lived and how he felt about that. He was 90 at the time.”
“What struck me most about Mike,” Dr. Silberstein wrote in an email this week, “was his warmth and openness. There was a reference in the interview to a young man who was originally going to talk with Mike and me together about each of their experiences of depression. The young man got cold feet, but Mike was completely open and ready to talk about any and all aspects of human suffering and his own suffering with me and the young man.
“The interview could have gone on for a long time. He was so easy to talk to. It is easy for me to imagine how so many individuals would have opened up their inner lives and secrets to him, even though they must have known at least intellectually that it would likely not make them look good. It was interesting to me that Mike Wallace — even though he knew the pain of public humiliation, which he said had led to his first depression — felt at most minimal regret about the pain that some of his interviews must have caused his subjects. Of course, I wish that I had asked him about the one time that he did regret it.
“Perhaps,” Dr. Silberstein continued, “the most interesting moment in the interview for me was when I asked him about ‘acquired narcissistic personality disorder.’ So many celebrities seem to come to expect special privileges and become indifferent to the feelings of others. I found it quite moving when Mike Wallace spoke about having been a pock-marked kid and always feeling a deep uncertainty about his appeal. I had the feeling that though his first major depressive episode came late in life, he had always struggled with inner pain and self-doubt that might have fueled his drive to succeed and to be the best in his business.”