When Della Barris decided at age 16 to move out on her own, her famous father didn't object. Chuck Barris gave her a trust fund and let her go out into the world alone, a regret that he shares with readers in heartbreaking and clear-eyed detail as he chronicles Della's descent into addiction and her eventual death from an overdose at age 36. Here's an excerpt.
My daughter Della was thirty-six years old when she died. Her death certificate said she died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol.
Starting with what Della could remember, like taking her first steps into my arms in a park in Beverly Glen, California, and throughout her short life, Della saw everything as a collection of snapshots. It’s weird, but that’s how she saw it. After a while, I saw my life the same way.
I took some of those pictures of Della’s life. Judy Ducharme, Della’s companion since her early childhood, took some too. So did Della. But according to my nonreligious daughter, God was the one who took all the ones we missed, and His photos, according to her, were the best. In her mind, God stood by her side from the day she was born, snapping pictures.
Della described it this way: “He uses His big box camera; a humongous, square black thing. God’s camera takes snapshots that don’t fall into your hand like Polaroids do. They pop right into your head and stay there forever.”
The snapshot of my dead daughter on a couch in her apartment was not a good example of great photography. And wasn’t a picture God, or Della, or I took. The snapshot was taken by a police photographer.
If Della were talking about this picture, I imagine she would have said, “I look awful don’t I? I know I’m dead, but still ...”
She does look awful. Her skin is gray. Her body is bone thin. Her eyes have dark circles around them. Her cheeks are sunken. She looks like a Holocaust victim. Her hair had been dyed orange so many times it is beginning to fall out. Imagine, orange hair! Why did she dye her hair orange?
Della would have said, “Because it was my favorite color. Was I weird or was I weird? No, I was stupid. I mean, lying there dead at my age in a frigging police picture says it all, doesn’t it?”
Della’s three little dogs were probably nearby, sitting around her feet at the far end of the couch. They were alive and well. Just confused and scared to death. The dogs knew Della was dead. Dogs know those things. Della’s dogs always slept at her feet when she went to bed at night. If she took a nap on the couch they slept there too.
Tom-the-dog-walker found Della when he came to walk the dogs at eight in the morning. Tom told me no matter how wild Della was the night before, or how often she fell asleep on the couch, she always managed to open one eye in the morning and mumble a greeting to Tom. That morning, she didn’t mumble anything. Tom looked at Della closely, shook her shoulders, and when she didn’t move, Tom called the police.
In the police picture, the vodka bottle with a small amount of vodka at the bottom is still on the coffee table with all the other detritus. A little cocaine remains in the Ziploc baggie next to the vodka bottle. Della obviously didn’t use all the cocaine. Only enough to kill her.
My mother, Della’s grandmother, thought Della committed suicide.
“Why would she do that and leave her three dogs behind?” I asked my mother. “Della loved her dogs. I’m sure Della would have thought of her dogs before she did anything like take her life, don’t you?”
“No,” answered my mother. “Suicidal people don’t think about things like who will take care of their dogs when they kill themselves. Suicides don’t give a damn about dogs, about themselves, about their parents, about anything. Della was too inconsiderate to think about anything or anyone but herself.”
The Los Angeles coroner thought Della ingested too much vodka and cocaine.
I wish the coroner would talk to my mother.
There were two men in Della’s life at the time of her death. Tom-the-dog-walker and Strickland-the-dope-peddler. Tom-the-dog-walker was a really nice guy, and a peaceful soul. Strickland-the-dope-peddler was a scumbag and had an aura of violence about him.
Neighbors told the police they could hear Strickland and Della shouting at each other two nights before the dog walker found Della dead. Strickland was a good shouter. He was also good at scoring drugs, but not much good at anything else. I would like to have thought Strickland was guilty of something regarding Della’s death, so I could have beaten him within an inch of his life, but I don’t think the idiot had anything to do with it, other than contributing drugs, which in itself was major.
After waking up Thursday morning, the day before her death, and seeing what she saw, Della cried out for help. She called Judy Ducharme. Della was sure Judy would come to her apartment and comfort her. Judy was the only “family” Della had in Los Angeles at the time. Judy Ducharme was like a mother to Della. She was someone Della could talk to, and Della needed to talk to someone. Judy would have been able to console her. Judy was good at that.
But Judy was sick and couldn’t come.
Della was gone the next morning.
Judy never forgave herself for not coming. It wasn’t Judy’s fault. She had had the flu and was unable to come. Also, Della’s immune system was so weak, Judy would have given Della her flu, and that might have killed Della. I’m sure Della’s death, and Judy’s inability to get to Della because she was sick when Della needed her, will torment Judy for the rest of her life.
I’m told by friends that Della was very depressed just before she died. Of course she was depressed. She was sick. She was broke. And she was burdened with a low-life lover who provided her with drugs that aided and abetted her depression. Della drank too much vodka, snorted too much cocaine, and died just like the death certificate said she did, from an excessive amount of everything.
I don’t think Della wanted to die. I think she made a horrible mistake.
Excerpt from "Della: A Memoir of My Daughter," by Chuck Barris. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
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