By Valerie Van Galder
Like many people, I was devastated last Monday when, routinely checking my email, I learned that Robin Williams had taken his own life.
Just that morning I had been at Sony Pictures where I spent many years running various marketing departments and was now working as a consultant. I had stopped and smiled at the poster from RV, in which William played a hapless but well-meaning Dad taking his family on a vacation. I thought for a moment about how I had enjoyed working on that campaign, and then continued on to my meeting.
Now I thought about how depression is often accompanied by so much brilliance, so much humor, and then, as I do every day, I thought about my dad, and the journey that had brought me to running an initiative called The Depressed Cake Shop.
Five years ago, I was the President of Marketing at Columbia Pictures. I had gotten that position after years of hard work, and to be perfectly honest, I had argued strenuously with my boss when he told me that he wanted me to take the job and leave Screen Gems, the smaller, more anarchic department I had nurtured and grown since 1999.
When he called me into his office to tell me that they wanted me to take on these broader responsibilities my immediate response was “No thanks, I love my job and my team, and furthermore, as you know, I am incredibly emotional. You will not like me in this position. It is too big, too corporate, not right for me.”
But, he and I talked over a period of time, and I eventually came around to it. I trusted him and loved working for him, and realized that I could serve as a role model for other idiosyncratic women by accepting such a high profile role in a very competitive industry. I remember so clearly walking down the hall with him as I began my new position in January, 2006. He looked at me and said “This is going to be fun.” And, for the next nine months it actually was fun. I had a wonderful staff. Marketing movies is creative, exciting, often glamorous, and we were enjoying a nice run of success.
I will skip the next part, my mother’s terrible and sad death from stomach cancer, diagnosed in October, 2006. However, it is pertinent because in 1992 my father had slipped into a severe depression for two years, and that memory had not faded for me or my sisters. As we were trying to take care of her, there was always the quiet and dark fear that he would be irreparably affected by her death, and we would lose both our parents simultaneously.
However, he seemed to be Ok in the days following her death. He was sad, but functioning. He soon had a beautiful woman to spend time with, a widow with whom he shared many interests. As much as we missed my mom we were relieved that he had someone whose company he enjoyed so greatly.
In October, 2008, everything changed. I was at the press junket for “The Quantum of Solace” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and was due to leave for London the next day for the film’s royal premiere. My cell phone rang. It was my dad. “Hi honey,” he said. “I need to talk to you about something. I can’t afford to pay the mortgage on the house or any of my bills anymore, but I am not going to give up my Angels tickets or the country club membership.”
My dad had a psychotic break that day and our lives changed forever. Suffice to say I did not make it to the premiere. I had asked my sister to check on my dad while I went to London, but I had to turn around and come home as soon as I landed, because when she got there it was clear she could not handle him on her own. That was the moment we were both plunged into the nightmare that trying to help someone suffering with severe mental illness is in this country.
At this point I will flash forward to an article that run in late November, 2008, a list of the 100 most “powerful” women in Hollywood. As you can see, I was #30.
As 2008 comes to a close, Valerie Van Galder can take a big chunk of credit for helping Sony reach its goals, thanks to her efforts with the latest Bond flick, “Quantum of Solace.” She says she owes her marketing skills to good genes — her dad is a Harvard M.B.A. and both sisters work in marketing. Van Galder’s elevation to her current international post (along with longtime colleague Marc Weinstock) came with an early challenge — selling the dark superhero movie “Hancock” this year to a global audience; it paid off, with more than $620 million in worldwide boxoffice. To her, all marketing is effectively global: “The way information travels has become a big part of our job,” she says. “There are more avenues and ways to do your job than anyone could have imagined.” In her downtime, Van Galder turns from marketing to a softer side: knitting (afghans are a specialty). Upcoming films in 2009 include “The Da Vinci Code” follow-up “Angels & Demons” and Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123.”
The Hollywood Reporter holds a breakfast to celebrate the list, and it coincided with picking my dad up that afternoon from UCLA and getting him settled back at home with a caretaker after six weeks of ect, which was the recommended treatment. I remember walking thought that breakfast in a numb haze. To everyone in that room I was a successful film executive at the top of her game. But, inside I was so scared. I had no idea how my sisters and I were going to keep my dad safe.
That entire period of my life is a hazy blur of fear and sadness, so I had to google this article this morning to remind myself of the content. I did not remember that it specifically called out “Quantum of Solace,” but I am sure at the time I had a good dark and private laugh at the bitter irony… If they only knew…
You may not be surprised to hear that less than a year later I left my job because trying to keep my dad alive was more important to me than marketing movies.
I spend a good portion of my day now thinking about depression and researching depression, and reaching out to anyone I read about working in the space — many of them my Hollywood friends — and my plea goes something like this, “I don’t know what I can accomplish. I am small, I am one person, but I have to help, do you want to join me in my little project, Depressed Cake Shop Los Angeles?”
My dad passed away in April, two days before my birthday, but he did not take his own life. It nearly brought me and my sisters to our knees, but we fought every day for him. It was hard, it was scary, we had no one but each other, but there were three of us and somehow we kept him here until he was ready to go naturally.
For 30 years I have made my living based on the simple fact that celebrity gets publicity and publicity gets attention. The only reason depression was in every headline of every newspaper last week is because a beloved celebrity took his life. I hate this is what it took to wake the world up to the fact that this is a disease that is as life threatening as any physical ailment.
This morning I read a quote from Mother Teresa.
Not of all us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love
and it seemed to perfectly capture what I want to do with The Depressed Cake Shop. I want to try do my part to help people who are suffering, one gray cake at a time.
My dad was brilliant and talented and funny and accomplished, and his depression was only a small part of who he was. I miss him so much and all of my efforts with Depressed Cake Shop are dedicated to his memory. Because he loved to inspire people by giving them framed quotes, I will leave you with another quote, this one from Dean Koontz. “Where there is cake there is hope, and there is always cake.”
Valerie Van Galder, August, 17, 2014
Valerie Van Galder has over twenty years of marketing experience in the entertainment industry. Having headed marketing for the Hard Rock Cafe, she went on to become a founding executive of both Fox Searchlight and Sony Screen Gems, and the President of Marketing at Sony Pictures
She segued into marketing consulting in 2009, working with major movie studios, top independents and filmmakers. She joined New Regency Productions in 2012, and was a key member of the marketing team for the Academy Award winning film 12 Years a Slave. and has now gone back to film consulting in order to have time to also run Depressed Cake Shop Los Angeles, a pop-up concept which raises awareness and money to support those with mental health issues. She also serves on the Board of Directors of St. Joseph Center in Venice, California.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif. over New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (2 spots left.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.
Jen writes openly here about her struggles with depression. The Manifest-Station welcomes your submissions surrounding this subject.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline– No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.