This week, we’re sharing stories from David Dobbs, Rachel Aviv, Max Read, Holly George-Warren, and Bianca Bosker.
When I was 15, a teacher I was very close with killed himself over winter break. I found out about it in an AOL chatroom the night before school resumed. My friends were talking about how the elementary school science teacher had died. “The one from when we were kids?” I typed into the chatroom, sitting on the couch between my parents, as the Jennifer Garner show Alias played on our television. “Shit,” one of my classmates typed. “We weren’t supposed to tell her,” another wrote.
John Wake was my little brothers’ science teacher, and my after-school photography teacher. I leapt from the couch and called my homeroom teacher at his home. In a quiet, heavy voice, he confirmed what my friends had let slip. I screamed. My parents hovered around me, trying to understand what was happening. Eventually one of them took the phone. I was sobbing, incoherent, and couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I ran to the elevator and my father followed me. He walked me down and back up our Manhattan block in pouring January rain, his arm tight around me as I sobbed, tucked into his armpit. The next day in school I was crying at my locker and the guidance counselor walked by. He stopped and turned around after passing me, and asked if I was okay. I looked at him and said with all the raw teenage emotion in my body, “No. My favorite teacher killed himself.” The guidance counselor looked back at me, said he hoped I’d feel better, and walked away.
My own mental illness had made itself known a few years earlier. Mr. Wake and I had a special bond, maybe because something in each of us recognized itself in the other person. I had always been a Good Kid — didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, had never kissed a boy. But when Mr. Wake died, I became angry at the adults in my school. I needed them to talk about this monster that lived inside some of us, sometimes quiet for years at a time, occasionally rousing to try to kill us. When they wouldn’t, I punished them the only way my teenage self knew how: I became Bad. I smoked cigarettes in school, cut class to get stoned, threw tantrums at teachers and stormed out, showed up drunk to a school dance with the valedictorian. The adults in charge ignored my acting out, for the most part. I transferred to a new school at the end of the year, in large part because the adults who interviewed me there didn’t look away when I confronted them with my sad, ugly, unwieldy pain.
I try now, as an adult, to be sympathetic to those adults at my old school, who shied away from the conversation I so badly wanted to have. They were probably ill-equipped for it. They were probably dealing with their own pain. They probably worried that I wanted answers they didn’t have, that simply didn’t exist.
Talking about mental illness is possibly the most vital necessity for the health of those of us who have it. But doing so is terrifying. Some of the kindest and most progressive people I know have tried to tell me I don’t need medication. They don’t know how damaging it is when they say that, so I don’t hold it against them. A lot of people don’t know that resistance to medication is one of the main things that kills people like me. That depressives are prone to blaming themselves for everything, that I already have this monster inside me telling me everyday, “You just don’t try hard enough. You’re just lazy. You’re just selfish.” Mental illness is hard to understand because it’s invisible and complicated. We know so little about the science of it, and are conditioned to talk even less about the experience of it.
Talking about is terrifying because it could possibly tank your career. Who wants to hire someone who has a chronic illness that is impossible to cure and difficult to treat? Especially when that illness can make you nonfunctional? Sometimes it seems like you can’t talk about it without being defined by it. Now that I’ve told you I have depression, will you think of me as a writer or a reporter or an occasionally funny person you know online? Or will I be that woman who used to report and write until she wrote about her depression? Will editors think better of assigning me stories, worried that I can’t handle the work? As psychologist Nev Jones notes in David Dobbs’ recent piece for Pacific Standard, “The Touch of Madness,” we often tell people with mental illness to be less ambitious — “settle for jobs shelving books,” in Jones’ words. I have been a freelance journalist for six months and there has not been a single day when I haven’t thought about a therapist I saw when I was 18 who told me that my illness meant I could never freelance.
David Dobbs writes well about the “othering” of the mentally ill in his piece:
Reading philosophy helped Jones think. It helped order the disorderly. Yet later, in college, she lit up when she discovered the writers who laid the philosophical foundation for late 20-century critical psychiatry and madness studies: Michel Foucault, for instance, who wrote about how Western culture, by medicalizing madness, brands the mad as strangers to human nature. Foucault described both the process and the alienating effect of this exclusion-by-definition, or “othering,” as it soon came to be known, and how the mad were cut out and cast away, flung into pits of despair and confusion, leaving ghosts of their presence behind.
Dobbs’ piece, and Jones’ work, are specifically about “madness” — psychosis and schizophrenia — which is a different beast than depression (though depression is sometimes experienced by those with psychosis or schizophrenia). Those who experience schizophrenia — typically a more obvious, less invisible madness than depression — suffer the opposite problem: rather than being told they could just try harder, be healthier, sleep more or less, eat better, exercise more, “Western culture today continues to view schizophrenia as something essentially biologically fixed, invariably progressive, and, with rare exception, permanent,” per Dobbs. But the fundamental point — that “othering” those whose minds sometimes cause them hardship only intensifies that hardship — holds true for both experiences, especially in the West. As Dobbs writes:
When the director of the World Health Organization’s mental-health unit, Shekhar Saxena, was asked last year where he’d prefer to be if he were diagnosed with schizophrenia, he said for big cities he’d prefer a city in Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, like Colombo or Addis Ababa, rather than New York or London, because in the former he could expect to be seen as a productive if eccentric citizen rather than a reject and an outcast.
Dobbs’ piece includes fascinating historical research about the differences in psychosis experienced in different cultures and the fascinating field of “psychiatric anthropology” or “biocultural anthropology.” These fields see culture as a series of concentric circles, with the outermost containing the institutions (“government, universities, clinics”) and norms (laws and medical standards, as well as those defined by literature or history) and the innermost containing our personal social world — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, peers. Our interactions with the denizens of these circles create culture — which is precisely why “othering” the “mad” is harmful, as Dobbs explains:
When people in mental distress are shunned and relegated to a class of others needing care away from the rest of us, they are pushed outside of culture precisely when they need it most. They may seem utterly detached from reality. But they will keenly comprehend their exile.
Part of Dobbs’ story recounts Jones’ own experience with madness. I’m particularly grateful for the inclusion of what happened when Jones, conscious that something in her had changed, sought help from a psychologist who said she couldn’t help her. Jones stopped going to therapy. This is, to me, part of why not shunning the mentally ill from culture is so important. Psychologists and psychiatrists are humans just like us, flawed and weird and wrestling with a field that sometimes seems unknowable. Everyone I know who has interacted with therapy has struggled to find treatment, felt stymied by the trial-and-error of seeking someone with whom they can connect and also trust. Isolation makes that struggle so much harder.
Even when a friend helps Jones seek treatment, Dobbs notes it was “a fraught venture”:
…because, in much of the Western world, an initial medical visit often accelerates a first episode. A 2013 review, for instance, found that a first hospitalization often caused psychotic patients distress rivaling that caused by the symptoms that drove them to the hospital. The care could wreak as much havoc as the ailment.
Emergency rooms are by nature horrible places for someone in trauma, and inpatient psychiatric facilities are often not much better. It is common to treat the mentally ill as though they cannot understand their own illness. That is very often not the case, especially in the beginning of an episode. Jones always knew her hallucinations and certain perceptions were not real to other people. Her education might have helped with that, but it didn’t help her to be treated with any more respect by the healthcare system. When a friend took her to a facility for an intake appointment, the nurse ignored Jones and told her friend, “I think she’s a schizo” right in front of her.
Public violence in America is often perpetrated by people with mental illness. This results in a perception that is contrary to fact: the vast majority of us, the mentally ill, are non-violent. But when these public acts of violence happen, our culture demands an explanation. American society is disinclined to regulate weapons that can mete out violence, so the explanation becomes “The mentally ill are dangerous.” Guns don’t kill people, mental illness does.
This perception proved extremely damaging to Jones when people in her Ph.D program who she had shared her illness with became afraid that she would go the way of the rare but high-profile violent mentally ill. She was banned from campus temporarily, returned only to feel alienated, then was kicked out of her program by professors who said some of the most damaging things you can say to a mentally sick person:
“The decision strikes the committee as simple — you clearly do not have your act together and we have no reason to believe you ever will.” Another professor: “you are a burden on the instructors.”
Dobbs aptly describes mental illness as “a horror experienced in solitude.” But he and Jones also highlight how that solitude needn’t be compounded by the concentric circles of culture in which the mentally ill person exists. It is a painful Catch-22 that the sicker a person is, the more she needs to talk about her sickness, and the scarier that talk is to the people around her. Dobbs quotes Erving Goffman, author of a classic 1963 study, “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity”:
The more there is about the individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer information about himself, even though the cost to him of candor may have increased proportionally.
Being honest about her sickness derailed Jones’ life and sunk her frighteningly deeper into madness. But years later, after getting the opportunity to join a different Ph.D program, she blogged about her sickness, and it brought her in touch with a cohort with whom she could discuss her experience. She also notes, compellingly, that the defining characteristic of many of the violent mentally ill is isolation. More often than not, the backstory of these perpetrators involves stymied attempts at obtaining help. In Jones’ own story, she was aware her psychosis was not reality until she experienced cultural banishment. In isolation, her psychosis became her only reality.
Here are a few other good reads regarding mental illness.
1. “FSU Shooter’s Friends Tried To Get Help For Him Months Before The Shooting” (Michael LaForgia, Tampa Bay Times, November 2014)
I think about this piece constantly and have shared it with every mental health professional I’ve ever met. It’s an excruciating and invaluable ticktock of how a mass shooter tried desperately not to become a mass shooter.
2. “How to Talk About Suicide on Father’s Day” (Ashley Feinberg, Gawker, June 2015)
Feinberg writes compellingly not only about her experience as the daughter of a suicide victim, but the discomfort around talking about suicide and mental illness:
Suicide is uncomfortable, it’s a downer. It makes people cast their eyes away, to the left, to the right—anywhere but at you. “Oh… I, wow. That’s really—jeez. I’m sorry.” They apologize. Their eyes dart back to you, pleading. Shit. Were those the right words? Did it go away? Are you broken?
Whether or not this is actually what they’re thinking doesn’t matter. Because as soon as the word “suicide” falls from my lips, the air becomes heavy, conversations strained, and all the negative space in my head fills with one, sinking thought: “They look so uncomfortable. Are they wondering what’s wrong with me?”
3. “Should a Mental Illness Mean You Lose Your Kid?” (Seth Freed Wessler, ProPublica in partnership with The Daily Beast, May 2014)
Wessler investigates “predictive neglect,” a justification used by authorities in more than two dozen states to take children away from parents with mental illness.
4. “Homeless and Mentally Ill, a Former College Lineman Dies on the Street” (Juliet Macur, The New York Times, December 2015)
Macur chronicles the mental decline and eventual death of Ryan Hoffman, once a promising college football player.
5. “Where Psychiatric Care Is Scarce, Religious Institutions Are Stepping In” (Lindsay Holmes and Beth Shelburne, The Huffington Post in partnership with WBRC, September 2017)
Holmes and Shelburne look at an interesting antidote to the cultural or social isolation of the mentally ill, especially in cases where medical treatment is hard to come by: support from faith-based organizations.
6. “Knitting Myself Back Together” (Alanna Okun, BuzzFeed Reader, October 2014)
Okun’s essay about treating her anxiety with knitting spawned a forthcoming book of essays about crafting.
7. “The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE” (Reid Forgrave, GQ Magazine, January 2017)
Forgrave tells the heartbreaking story of a high school football player who realized the sport he loved had wreaked havoc on his young brain.
8. “The ‘Madman’ Is Back in the Building” (Zack McDermott, The New York Times, September 2017)
McDermott was a public defender when he had a psychotic break. He ultimately left that job, deciding the “pressure cooker” environment couldn’t work with his illness. In this piece, he writes about that experience, and how his mother helped him through it.
There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
1. “Dear Daughter, Your Mom.” (Sarah Smarsh, The Morning News, June 2014)
This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
2. “First I Got Pregnant. Then I Decided to Kill the Mountain Lion.” (Kathleen Hale, Elle, February 2017)
In a haze of maternal-ish instincts, Kathleen Hale hikes obsessively in search of the puma of Griffith Park.
3. “The Price: The Queer Daughter of a Queer Mother.” (Melissa Moorer, Electric Lit, September 2016)
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.
4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?
5. “The Perils of Writing About Your Own Family: The Rumpus Interview with George Hodgman.” (Danielle Trussoni, The Rumpus, May 2015)
It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.
6. “The Day Virginia Woolf Brought Her Mom Back to Life.” (Christopher Frizzelle, Literary Hub, May 2015)
I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Reveal and the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.
7. “The Unmothered.” (Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 2014)
Mother’s Day after mother-loss:
It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?
8. This Mother’s Day, Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.) and other organizations are coordinating National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:
The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”
It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”
You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific Standard. WUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.
Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.
Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.
Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?
Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.
Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.
Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.
It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.
In the introduction to her story on deep-brain stimulation for Pacific Standard, Sarah Scoles tells the story of Liss Murphy, a woman with treatment-resistant depression—in her words, a “sepsis of the soul”—who saw deep-brain stimulation as her last opportunity to live a normal life. The moment doctors turned on the stimulating current was a life-changer. But then they had to turn it off.
The doctors installed the electrodes and turned them on.
For Murphy, the moment was astonishing. A warmth surged through her. Everything felt lighter, clearer. But then those sensations stopped. The doctors had cut the current so that they could finish wiring the circuit, close her cranium back up, and insert the permanent pulse generator into her chest
After the surgery, Murphy spent a few days in recovery, and then the doctors sent her home. She would need to heal for three weeks, they told her, before they could turn her device back on. Back at home, returned to the gray world of her depression, Murphy remembered that warm, light, clear feeling. I wish that could be forever, she thought.
At Pacific Standard, Katie Kilkenny interviews Brian Reed, the host of the popular investigative podcast, S-Town, from the producers of Serial and This American Life. Reed shares his perspective on his approach to reporting the story. He relates how he earned the trust of the people he interviewed (the story takes place in Bibb County, Alabama — a poor and rural part of the state not used to outsiders) and his thoughts on reporting on someone after they have died. Warning: the interview contains spoilers.
I did find, in general, with some people down there, the “fuck it” attitude that I talk about in the story applied to talking to me. They got a kick out of me being there and having a reporter interested in their lives. That can be a lot of things — it can be annoying and it can be overwhelming, but it can also be validating to have someone listen to you as long as you want to talk, and listening to your every word, which I would do a lot of times. Otherwise it can be fun, and add some spice into your otherwise normal day, when you have this guy with a microphone following you around, and it’s funny. I think all of those were present in these relationships.
This week, we’re featuring stories from Richard Beck, Rebecca Mead, Sarah Barker, Dylan Matthews, and Sarah Scoles.
I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.
This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?
This week, we’re sharing stories by Sarah Menkedick, Adam Davidson, Ross Andersen, Victor Luckerson, and Tara Murtha.
At Pacific Standard, Sarah Menkedick profiles Vianney Bernabé, exploring what it means to be second-generation Mexican American today — a person with deep roots in Mexico and feet and future planted firmly in America. Educated, ambitious, and principled, Bernabé is destined for success. Menkedick posits that if America cannot reject this myopic resurgence of nativist (white) populism to embrace the skills and culture of Bernabé’s generation, it does so at its own peril.
Vianney embodies two fundamental American traditions: the dream of triumphing over adversity to achieve success, and its nightmare shadow of xenophobia, fear, and hatred.
What these young Latinos become will be determined not only by their own struggles and achievements, but also by the willingness of many Americans to rethink their fundamental conceptions of Americanness, to recognize the dangerous fiction of an essential, unchanging America defined solely by white culture.
Mexico gave Vianney what the United States could not: the ability to believe in herself. It did this not by granting her unequivocal acceptance or answering the persistent questions of belonging posed in the U.S., but by forcing her to come to terms with her ambivalence. It allowed her to acknowledge that she was American, but an American for whom Americanness did not mean unquestioning assimilation into white institutions, but solidarity with the many people excluded from these institutions. It granted her a new faith in herself in spite of the hatred and oppression. It familiarized her with in-betweenness, a state deeply and violently resisted in the U.S., where patriotism is feverish and flavorless, where you are with us or against us, where, at this moment in time, simply speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab is enough to elicit righteous white rage.
She returned to the United States in August of 2016, when the message being blared to Latinos was precisely the opposite: Not only were they not good enough, they were rapists, drug dealers, “bad hombres.” Vianney, with her hard-won confidence in herself, and her renewed commitment to help those left out of American progress, came home to the feverish chanting of Build the wall! Donald Trump’s victory in November — despite his losing the popular vote by a historic margin — has legitimized and strengthened a vision of the United States in which only white people belong and have ever belonged. The most popular, foundational myth of the United States as the land of freedom for the world’s oppressed has been eclipsed by the ever-present but thinly buried myth of white dominance and superiority.