An Accidental Cowboy, by Jameson Parker (St. Martins, 277 pgs., $24.95)
Actor Jameson Parker has come out with a memoir, An Accidental Cowboy. Remember Parker, the costar with Gerald MacRaney of the hit 1980’s television series Simon and Simon? The show “where people got shot all the time”? Haven’t seen much of him lately? Reading this book, you’ll not only catch up with Jameson, you’ll follow a healing journey that’s quite unique to a Hollywood veteran.
On a muggy 1991 night in Studio City, Calif., three years after Simon ended its seven-year run, Jameson Parker became a gunshot victim and nearly died. Earlier in the day Parker’s wife took the dog out for a walk. A neighbor rudely insulted her. When Parker came home she told him about it. Parker decided he would go have a talk with the guy. He walked to his door and knocked. The man appeared, looking strange. After a brief exchange of words, the man pulled a pistol and shot Jameson near the heart.
Parker made it home before he collapsed at his wife’s feet. Physicians stopped the bleeding. Modern medicine stepped in and saved the day. The culprit was sent off to jail for a long time. Case closed?
Parker thought so, and he even returned to acting. But a few months later, while on a movie set, he found himself awash in anxiety and depression. His sleep thereafter was filled with nightmares.
Parker decided to take some time off. He pulled up stakes with his wife and traded the glamorous life of Hollywood for a remote valley in the Sierras. They left the sharks behind and made friends with wild cats, elk, deer, coyotes, cattle, and horses.
The lifestyle was initially relaxing. But without the schedules, routines, and craziness of celebrity life, Parker’s normal defenses broke down. He fell into periods of depression and confusion that seemed debilitating.
Parker was diagnosed with depression and sent off with a bottle of anti-depressants. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that in any given year, 9.5 percent of the population, or about 18.8 million American adults, suffer from a depressive illness. What was not recognized was that Parker’s problem was a deeper wound.
Slowly, on his own, following what Joseph Campbell called the “left-hand path” (or self-discovery as it comes), Parker diagnosed himself as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS). The gunshot and near-death experience were still with him.
People normally associate PTSS with veterans of war, but the range of victims is much broader. According to NIMH a person can suffer from PTSS if he or she has been a victim of rape, sexual abuse, physical or emotional abuse, violent crime, an airplane or car crash, a natural disaster or fire, a war, or a situation where survival was in question. Even witnessing any of these events can bring on NIMH (this includes watching coverage of catastrophic events like 9/11).
Psychologist Dr. Samantha Dowdall has discovered that a number of women suffering from sexual abuse have used seclusion in the woods as a form of therapy. However, while fresh air and natural surroundings are nourishing, people in retreat also soul-search; they question who and what they are. At times, this makes for tough going.
Dowdall’s research agrees with studies by New York psychologist Lawrence LeShan. LeShan studied people who survived life-threatening illnesses. He found that his subjects could be grouped into three types: 1) those who fear death or want to die; 2) people who want to live for others (not themselves); and 3) those who want to live for themselves because they want to “sing their own song” for the joy of being themselves (regardless of what that means).
Types 1 and 2 almost always died. Type 3 people were able to recover by way of self-healing.
The Dalai Lama recently advised people in the U.S. suffering from the trauma of 9/11. He said: “The negative event, try to transform into a source of inner strength.” Attaining such a transformation, or attaining a type 3 attitude, may involve significant changes. Parker had already given up Hollywood. What else could he do?
Parker found that he needed a strength-giving identity to become his foundation for healing. So, he immersed himself in the vanishing world of the cowboy. He met a cast of characters more unique and astounding than any he had met on or off the set. In time, the wit, wisdom, and guts of the cowboy culture became his healers. Parker discovered that cowboys are tough, but that they had heart (a definite sub-culture of LeShan’s type 3 individuals).
Reading Parker’s prose — eloquent for a first book — you cannot avoid being touched as a tough-guy screen star bears his soul about life and death. This book is inspiring — tailor-made for anyone who has heard the quiet voices of unrest calling in the still of the night. It will give such people courage — although you don’t need to suffer from PTSS to benefit from Parker’s story.
Studies show that spending as little as half an hour a week alone in a natural area can be as rewarding as an hour in psychotherapy. An Accidental Cowboy will inspire people to carve out that time, and even to be brave enough to allow the healing force of nature work its magic.
If that sounds too new age for you, rest assured — Parker still likes his whiskey, fishing, and guns. But where the wild once brought him to his demons, he now has a love for the “remote and lonely places.” He’s also only a part-time cowboy. His other job is hosting A Dog’s Life on the Outdoor Life Network.
An Accidental Cowboy will help readers better appreciate the Greek phrase vix medicatrix naturae, the healing power of nature. Parker’s is a true hero’s journey.