How I learned to love the She Wolf: Simpson's actor Harry Shearer reveals the secrets of coping with 'his wife's severe depression'
11:22 GMT, 29 April 2012
Some of the world’s most famous comics have harboured a melancholic streak, from Peter Sellers to Tony Hancock. But not actor and comedian Harry Shearer, star of the movie This Is Spinal Tap and the voice of Mr Burns in The Simpsons.
At 68, the American says he couldn’t be happier. And it’s quite a statement considering his wife of 20 years, singer Judith Owen, has battled crippling depression for the entirety of their relationship.
Most recently, Judith, famous for her confessional lyrics, collaborated with her close friend and fellow depressive Ruby Wax on the stage show Losing It, billed as ‘a mental health comedy’.
Judith has been in therapy throughout her 20-year marriage to Harry
Judith, 44, provided the songs which, like Ruby’s stand-up, examined the poignant, dark humour in the emotional despair they have both been so open about suffering. The show was applauded by mental health charities and patients for breaking down the stigma that surrounds having such a diagnosis.
But what about Harry Did he find, as the partner of someone with a mental illness, that there was much to laugh about And how did he cope being married to a woman who once sang: ‘The more you adore me, the crueller and colder I get . . .’ For a start, Judith was not always so honest about her troubles.
Recalling their first meeting in 1992, Harry says: ‘I’d just broken up with another musician who had struggled with depression when I saw Judith performing. She was mesmerising, so I invited her for a drink and pretty soon I told her about the relationship I’d just come out of. Judith said, “That’s nothing I’ve ever had a problem with” – knowing full well she was a gold-medal-winning Olympian in the field.
‘I guess I should have seen the warning signs when she was proposing marriage within two months of our first date and the next moment she was smashing the bowls and plates in the kitchen, or crying in bed for days on end,’ he jokes.
Harry reveals humour also played a therapeutic role. In the depths of Judith’s depression, he came up with a nickname for her – She Wolf. ‘It’s from Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS,’ he says of the 1974 German cult film, in which the lead character is a beautiful yet cruel Nazi officer.
Harry plays the Simpson's character Mr Burns
Judith soon admitted the full extent of her illness. Harry says he felt relief at realising the source of her erratic behaviour and understood why she wanted to hide a problem of which she felt ashamed.
‘The hardest part was that there weren’t any signposts so I couldn’t prepare myself. Judith wouldn’t walk in with a notice around her chest saying, “Watch out, today’s going to be a bad one,” ’ he says.
Judith’s depression began at 15 when her mother – a dancer, musician and mathematician – committed suicide. This triggered an illness that often led to Judith lying in a stupor during the late Eighties and Nineties.
‘I’d be packing out Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London but when I got home I’d cry, then fall asleep through the strain of keeping up the pretence all day,’ she says. ‘My mother battled with clinical depression and anxiety disorder that was so physically crippling she slept a lot. Sleep feels safe when you’re mentally ill.’
Her mother made sure Judith and her elder sister Susan did not witness her death, ‘but it made me determined to never go down that route’, she says. ‘The disease ate her alive. She was only 47.’
Judith’s salvation was music, firstly through her opera singer father, Handel Owen, but also through hearing Susan play the piano, which Judith copied and learned by ear.
‘We watched Dad at London’s Royal Opera House every week. Music got me through many dark hours,’ she recalls.
It was in memory of her mother that Judith collaborated with Ruby – who, coincidentally, used to date Harry – to produce Losing It.
‘What came across in discussions with the audience after each show was how often it’s the carers who get the short straw,’ says Judith.
‘One of the things I feel saddest about is knowing that what Harry has been through is exactly what I went through as a child – you don’t feel as if you have any rights or you are noticed because the illness of the other person is so all-encompassing. Carers don’t get care.’
But Harry insists he doesn’t see himself as a carer. ‘I’m a partner in a marriage. I’m in a relationship with someone who has this condition. The part of Judith I can communicate with in an adult way, often through music, is the part that’s carried us through our fantastic marriage.’
Judith is beautiful and vivacious and it is easy to see how Harry was mesmerised by her. But her illness saw her catatonic for days or weeks on end and bed-bound.
And then there would be the uncontrollable rages. Judith admits she was a ‘harpie horror’ at times.
‘I’d smash things, scream and lash out for no reason other than hating myself so much. It was never a reaction to anything going on outside of my head,’ she says.
Harry adds: ‘In the early days there were plenty of times when I’d shout, “I’m through with this!” and storm out, but it never lasted. I think what saved things was that, later on, Judith talked openly about what had happened.’
Support: Judith Owen with her friend and fellow sufferer Ruby Wax
Harry believes his stoical nature stems from his childhood. His Eastern European parents were the only surviving members of their respective families after the Holocaust. Feelings were not something that were much talked about. ‘It was as if what happened was too awful,’ he says of his family. ‘My dad died when I was 12, and my mum only told me years later that she would leave the house, overcome with grief, and sit in her car so I wouldn’t see her break down. I knew Judith was going through something terrible that I recognised and I had to keep communication channels open to help her.
‘It wouldn’t help to tell her that it was a beautiful day, we lived in paradise next to a beach – there was no rational cause-and-effect process with her moods.
‘The only thing that could get Judith out of those terrible slumps was playing and writing music. It’s where I knew she was healthiest and happiest.’
He admits, too, to feeling angry, although this was never directed at his wife. ‘Anger fuels a lot of my comedy,’ he admits.
Judith has been in psychotherapy throughout their marriage – cognitive behavioural therapy being her preferred form. She describes her slow journey back to health as a ‘painful, awful slog to find out who you are and why you’re that way’. Importantly, she shared every detail of her therapy sessions with Harry the moment she got home. ‘As I got better, he knew what was and wasn’t working,’ she says. ‘When I could finally say, “I’m sorry” after many years, he knew how groundbreaking that was.’
‘Judith’s probably always going to be on anti-anxiety medication,’ adds Harry, ‘but thanks to her persistence with the therapy, she can now talk to me in the way she could only communicate with her music before.’
But while Judith was being given such support, who did Harry speak to Did anyone care for the carer
‘No. In America, men only talk to each other about sex and sport, so it didn’t seem discussing my life with Judith with a friend was appropriate.’
But he does have advice to those living with a partner suffering from depression. ‘The greatest gift is patience, waiting for that person you first connected with to reappear. You must never let go of that. I’d say to Judith, “This will pass, it isn’t you, it’s the chemicals making you act like this” and I knew I had to keep saying it until she truly listened and now, finally, it’s worked.’
And Judith ‘My depression has been the source of appalling pain, but also my music and the relationship I now have with my husband – the two most important, amazing things in my life.
‘My depression will never go – I’ll have to manage it, but I’ve finally figured out who I am. Harry seems to always have known.’