Profile: You may laugh, but she's hurtin': Roseanne Arnold, housewife, superstar, autobiographer

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The Independent Online
THIS month sees the publication of Roseanne: My Lives, an autobiography by the star of the American sitcom, which celebrates life in an ordinary blue-collar matriarchy and has won awards and topped the US and UK television ratings for the past six years.

The book arrived with much fanfare: in America, it made the cover of Vanity Fair (of course) as well as the supermarket tabloids; in England, an extract in the Sunday Times; it's one of those books hot for serialisation and with a strict embargo date. And you can see why. For though the book has a jolly cover - Roseanne and her husband, Tom Arnold, in a camp homage to Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara - its contents are shocking.

The horror set in early, it seems. After years of denial, followed by psychotherapy, Roseanne discovered that her father - a Jewish door-to-door bible salesman from Salt Lake City - sexually abused her, and a younger sister, and one of her own daughters. Her mother colluded, adding emotional and psychological abuse to the package.

At 16, she attempted suicide by jumping into the path of an oncoming car, and spent nine months in psychiatric hospital. On her release, she got pregnant, ran away from home, went on welfare and was eventually coerced into giving up her daughter for adoption.

At 18, she escaped by getting on a bus to Colorado. On her first night there she met Bill Pentland, an alcoholic night clerk at a fleabag motel, and moved in with him two days later. By the age of 25 she was a compulsive eater and living in a trailer with Bill and three kids under the age of four.

To keep food on the table, she took a series of McJobs - washing dishes, selling women's clothes in a mall, waitressing. She even - partly as a result of her 'multi-personality disorder' - began turning tricks in the parking lot.

Since then, Roseanne has battled with depression, suicide, eating disorders and drug addiction - she describes herself as former 'marijuana addict' and is currently taking Prozac and other anti-depressants. Earlier this year she returned, briefly, to mental hospital, after suffering a nervous breakdown. One of her children has been in clinic to dry out, another has been treated for emotional problems. Is that enough troubles to be going on with?

Certainly it was for Roseanne. To help to exorcise her ghosts, she has had drastic plastic surgery, including a nose job, face-lift, liposuction, breast reduction and a tummy tuck. Apparently, as she puts it, she had to 'cut away my own self-loathing' to begin 'finding comfort in my own skin'.

Even her 1990 marriage to the comedian Tom Arnold, one-time co-star and now executive producer of Roseanne, has been tough. He has his own demons, including cocaine addiction and childhood sexual abuse. 'Every guy I've ever loved has been a junkie,' she writes. 'I am co-dependent. I have a black belt in Al-Anon.' Roseanne, now 41, is desperately trying to conceive a child. Phew]

And don't get the idea that the television show is any picnic for her either. Since it began, in October 1988, Roseanne has been been fighting with writers, producers, network executives to maintain control, and to make her character strong, real, feminist and funny.

There have been happy times, of course: having children, discovering the women's movement, meeting Tom, being reunited with her daughter after 18 years.

But the overwhelming message of the book is dark. 'Every day is a struggle to remember, to hold on, to choose to live,' she writes. 'I am an overweight overachiever with a few dandy compulsive-obsessive disorders and a little problem with self-mutilation. No, - money doesn't make it better, nor success, nor even a happy marriage. Every day I teeter on the edge of a razor blood.'

Shocking stuff. It may make compulsive reading but what a shock for her viewers - all those trusting people in America and ingenues here who cluster round the set for Channel 4 on Friday nights to see an American family that may not be exactly uplifting, but which does at least work. We were led to believe that this was the real Roseanne - vibrant, grubby, blue-collar life magically transmuted into brilliant comedy. At least that was what she used to tell us.

She traded on the programme's realness. 'This show is based on my kids, our life, and me,' she once said. 'I'm she.' Roseanne the person has three kids; Roseanne the sitcom character has three kids. Roseanne is married to a fat slob; Roseanne is married to a fat slob.

Sure, the family doesn't have a ton of money. Sure, Roseanne doesn't clean the house often enough. Sure, she lets her hair get dirty. Sure, she cracks nasty one-liners. 'I figure,' she muses, 'if the kids are still alive when my husband gets home, I've done my job.' 'My husband and I have discovered a foolproof method of birth-control. An hour with the kids before bedtime.' When one child asks why she's so mean, she snaps: 'Because I hate kids and I'm not your real Mom.' When another threatens to throw herself off a cliff, she says: 'Why don't you take your brother and sister?'

But the Connor family talk and care and share and work things out. When their son, DJ, discovers masturbation, the couple react, fight, crack a few jokes, and then solve the issue. 'Everyone does this,' says Roseanne's screen husband, Dan (played by John Goodman), 'but nobody talks about it.' The Pill, cohabiting, going to college - the issues faced by the average American family - are dealt with in turn.

Indeed, her first autobiography, My Life As A Woman - by Roseanne Barr, as she was then - published a mere five years ago, was quite heartwarming.

First time round the cover was not an incongruously jolly spoof but a simple snapshot of a fat girl in a cheap sweater and a big smile. Back home in Utah family life had its ups and downs, but the Barrs were close - as the only Jews for miles, they didn't have much choice. 'I just felt like an alien from Mars,' she said.

Roseanne's talent emerged early on. From the age of three she would entertain her family on Friday evenings when they gathered at her grandmother's for the Sabbath. There were neighbourhood plays and school assemblies, starring, written, directed and produced by Roseanne.

Sure, it was no fun being a waitress but her customers told her she was so funny she should go on stage. She took their advice, did the local comedy circuit and by 1983 had become known as the Queen of Denver Comedy. In 1985, friends encouraged her to move to Los Angeles and audition for the showcase Comedy Store. She did, and triumphed. Soon after, she was spotted by a Tonight Show talent scout. By 1988, she had her own series and the rest is history.

Sure, she was a hit by a car at 16. Sure, marriage to Bill had its ups and downs. But she did it. And, God forbid, there was no therapy, or recovered memories of sexual abuse, or teenage pregnancy, or prostitution in this book.

What are the millions of Roseanne fans and Roseanne fans to make of this transformation, as dramatic, as traumatic, as grand guignol as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the Fay Weldon novel that was made into a bad Hollywood film, starring Roseanne?

'The old Roseanne is dead,' she announced last year. 'A new Roseanne is being born.' Just like that. Has she no pity for the punters? The feminist role model who said: 'I'm fat and proud of it. If somebody asks me how my diet is going, I say, 'Fine. How was your lobotomy?' ' has lost several stone, and intends to lose more. The feisty couple (Roseanne and Bill) who drove each other nuts but loved each other deeply are divorced. The ordinary trailer folk now live in a mansion - Iowa's largest- ever private dwelling. The polyester pants have been replaced - on the cover of Vanity Fair - by a black lace corset.

And the Roseanne solution to incest? Not talking about it with a friend or neighbour, but: 'Every kid that's out there and getting abused has the right to kill their parents.'

Can a woman, even a US star of the Nineties, pull all these numbers and survive as a human being and a star? As a human being, who knows. As an American star of the Nineties, almost certainly yes.

Roseanne once wrote an article for the New York Times, entitled 'What Am I Anyway, A Zoo?', in which she listed her metaphorical uses over the years. These included: 'all the latent energy and talent that resides in ordinary folks living ordinary lives of quiet desperation in better trailer parks everywhere . . . postfeminist mud pie in the eye to the Super Mom Syndrome . . . the Little Guy . . . fat people . . . anti-intellectualism . . . women's taking over prime time in front of and behind the camera . . . women who have become megalomaniacal dictators . . . Queen of Tabloid America.'

And that's not the half of it. There's also the American Dream (she made it despite the horror); the dark side of the American dream (the horror - see also the Jackson family); the Hillbilly (role model for middle America). The Jew as outcast (role model for East Coast America). The backlash against feminism (see also Madonna and Hillary Clinton). The crisis in the family. The nature of television (as opposed to big screen) stardom, in which celebrities have to be larger than life. The demon fame. This year's syndrome (False Memory Syndrome - Roseanne's parents deny it all.) The new Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball (see Vanity Fair). The post-Reagan generation (see Frank Rich in the New York Times). The Madness of Creativity (see everybody) . . .

Whichever theory one prefers, confessing to recovered memories and violent parents and childhood abuse and drug problems is now de rigueur on the celebrity circuit. Celebrities whose persona depends on their realness - notably the daytime television queen, Oprah Winfrey, another incest survivor with a symbolic weight problem - seem compelled to prove that, despite the fame and fortune, they are still like you: hurtin'.

Perversely, Roseanne's 'shocking' new biography makes her banal. If only she were an old-fashioned fat girl made good.