Now that Canada’s most famous children’s author has confessed to being a booze- and coke-addicted obsessive-compulsive with bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies, what else is there to say?
Last August, Robert Munsch arrived at a Hamilton elementary school in a floppy white sun hat and sunglasses, which made him look like a cross between a nine-year-old camper and Hunter S. Thompson. He wore a blue cowboy shirt and white jeans with felt pen stains on them, and his 65-year-old face was boyish and unlined. In the gymnasium, beneath the posters promoting honesty and respect, a hundred-odd children sat expectantly on the variegated linoleum. Children are unforgiving audiences. They fidget and twitch and get up and wander like people in a retirement home. Raised on Disney, Teletoon and Xbox, they are accustomed to the cynical, fleeting magic of Hollywood. But Munsch held their attention.
Performing is central to Munsch’s life. His tours are booked through Jones Entertainment Group, which represents rock acts, including Alice Cooper, and comics like Howie Mandel. Munsch is the author of 54 children’s books, including the best-selling Love You Forever and The Paper Bag Princess. He sometimes performs in front of 2,000 children. The performances are essential not just to the marketing of his books, but the creation of them. In some ways, it’s where he creates himself, the version that is happiest, at least. Munsch acts his books out, the text committed to memory. He works more like a stand-up comic than a writer, trying out new material on live audiences. In the Hamilton gym, as in all his shows, he brought up kids from the audience and had them sit on a chair and then plugged their names into existing stories, using repetition and movement and exaggerated sounds to engage the kids, who started to join in. “Is there anyone here who used to pee their pants?” he asked. A surprising majority of hands shot up. Munsch rambled through I Have to Go! “I have to go pee!” he shouted, his face contorted, a pop-eyed mask that he held for three beats.
He picked out a boy named Isis who was wearing a LeBron James basketball jersey (the Cleveland version) and decided to make up a story about him. “One day, Isis wakes up and yells, ‘I can’t find my shirt!’ ” There were crises about Isis’s favourite shirt, then the story petered out. “Sometimes I make up stories and they’re good,” he later told me, “and sometimes they aren’t as good.” After an hour of storytelling, Munsch checked the time and told one more story and took a few questions (Is Munsch your real name?—yes. Where do you get your ideas?—from you kids). Half the children lined up to get something signed, then they screamed in unison, “Thank you, Mr. Munsch!” and presented him with a YMCA coffee cup.
This happy, animated public version of Munsch isn’t easily reconciled with his offstage self. For much of his recent life, he has been an alcoholic and a drug addict and plagued with thoughts of suicide. In May, he confessed most of this on a current affairs program on Global TV, surprising his many fans, and surprising himself. He hadn’t planned on this public disclosure; it simply came out. His days contain extremes: the wild enthusiasm and upper-case emphasis of his children’s books and performances set against the darkness and difficulties of his private life. The stage is a refuge; it is offstage where the monsters lie.
After the Hamilton performance, I drove around with Munsch in his Honda Accord Hybrid, looking for a Tim Hortons. He’s on a diet, down to 170 pounds from 195, aiming for 160. He exercises (walking his Yorkshire terrier and poodle) and allows himself only a bran muffin for lunch. Sitting in the glare of Tim Hortons with his ascetic lunch, he succinctly described his dilemma. “I do these shows and people like them,” he said quietly, “but afterwards, it’s just me.”