When F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that there are no second acts in American lives, he was not (as is commonly misunderstood) saying that those lives are over after their opening acts—but noting, rather, the curious phenomenon of careers that segue directly from Act One to Act Three.
Read the last Popdose on the book about 'Animal House,' 'Fat, Drunk, and Stupid.'
This path is particularly prevalent in the entertainment industry, where it is standard procedure to skip from Promising Newcomer to Superstar (or, just as likely, to Embittered Has-Been) without any sustained period of steady, high-quality-but-low-profile work in between. Nowhere is this model more prevalent than in Hollywood, and few Hollywood newcomers were more promising—or blew their collective second act more thoroughly—than the crew behind 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
That ultra-low-budget indie feature constituted nothing less than a reinvention of the horror film, and its found-footage aesthetic spawned a new subgenre. And after that—nothing. The virtual disappearance of Blair Witch’s cast and crew from the scene—writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have only a handful of credits between them in the last decade, and the male leads have been reduced to bit parts and occasional TV work—might suggest the handiwork of some malevolent supernatural entity. But now star Heather Donahue has resurfaced with a memoir, Growgirl, that traces her surprising path post-Blair Witch.
The strength of Donahue’s improvised performance gave Blair Witch an emotional punch that sets it apart from successors like the formulaic Paranormal Activity series; it’s a raw and fiercely honest piece of acting, a facade of self-righteous ambition gradually dissolving as she realizes how far in over her head she is, descending into the naked terror of the film’s finale. In real life, too, Donahue demonstrates a knack for improvisation, for taking the unexpected elements that come into her life and following them fearlessly to unexpected destinations—like a year spent farming marijuana.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of a topic for a memoir. But Growgirl is a remarkably assured literary debut. What Donahue does here—what every memoirist does—is create a character, and convey that character in the choices she makes. And it is, perhaps, her background in improv and acting that helps her to make even unlikely choices feel real and natural. As the story opens, Donahue ends a bad relationship by driving out to Joshua Tree National Park and burning most of her worldly possessions—you know, like you do—then attends a meditation retreat where she shares a hot tub with a pot farmer named Zeus, naturally enough. Zeus is Donahue’s é into “the Community,” a loose-knit collective of cannabis cultivators in Northern California.
The Community’s horticultural shenanigans are all quasi-legal (which is to say, mostly criminal) under California’s Compassionate Care Act, which decriminalizes possession of small amounts of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. (Donahue herself has a scrip to combat her PMS; no word on precisely what grievous ailments compel everyone else in the Community to get regularly blazed though.) Cultivation and wholesaling of the stuff remains illegal under federal law, though, which leaves rather a gap in the supply chain. In the absence of any Magical Weed Fairies to transport this valuable pharmaceutical resource to market, a thriving criminal enterprise has sprung up to which the authorities turn a blind eye, leaving the Community largely to police itself. Given that said Community is a cash economy of heavily armed, THC-soaked paranoids, it actually works pretty well.
Donahue’s wry, observational style is brilliantly suited to analyzing the gender politics of the pot-farming scene. Like most outlaw enclaves, the Community is rife with sexism. These earthy-crunchy hippie types don’t go in for overt machismo, of course. No, they fancy themselves shamans, and there’s a lot of talk about Goddess-worship and the Eternal Feminine. They’re not oppressing the women in their midst by expecting them to cook, tend the children and be sexually available—no, they’re honoring their intrinsic goddess-quality. Donahue is honest about the pull of the arrangement; it would be very tempting to let someone else—some—make all the decisions for while. But she is determined to retain her agency, becoming the only independent woman grower in the Community, even as it puts a strain on her budding (sorry) relationship with Zeus.?
Part pastoral, part romance, part low-stakes thriller and a whole lot of sociological reportage, Growgirl is a fascinating glimpse into an unconventional lifestyle. Blending a whimsical voice with a rueful view of human nature, Donahue has cultivated something sweet and potent—real life, in all its giddiness and stink, not skimping on the bruising lows and the occasional taste of ashes in our mouths. Here’s to her next act.
Jack Feerick is Critic-a-Large for Popdose, and while it’s kind of you to offer, he couldn’t possibly, thanks.