Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Dead Like Kurt: Surviving The Celebrity Suicide

[written last summer for doll hospital journal issue 5]

cw: csa, addiction, rape, suicide



I’d like to be an enfant terrible, but I have no friends, and I do drugs in my room, and
not at parties, like the normal people do. I do not want to be a female reader of male greats,
a female writer of male greats, and even though all I do is just get raped, I don’t want
to smack down a c bomb in a sentence like a dog stretching out for approval. I’m a dumb
bitch, getting chased out of art house cinemas and feminist photography talks. I say I’m a
genius because I’m deluded, but the places that like smart people don’t like me, and a lady
said she’d scalp me if I fiddled on my phone during her short film screening, the bright
light rectangle eclipsing the velvet curtains and Guardian readers. I cried and left. Thin
skinned and unwanted I was asked to leave. I made a scene while the silent films sang.

Every time I leave the house it always goes so badly.

I go see a Nirvana tribute band with my best friend. We wear plaid shirts with
an irritating irony, playing at an edgelord act neither of us can pull off too well, joke about
acting like it’s the real Nirvana and actually Kurt never died and is performing in Bristol
pubs and we’re going to freak out and be like ‘holy shit Kurt’s alive!!’ like he’s Jesus and its
nearly Easter anyway so that works, kinda, and how we should a make a movie about an aging
Nirvana tribute, following the Kurt tribute and how his kids hate him and he’s clinging
on to the nineties, like how Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’ is clinging on to the eighties.
We get ID-ed even though we’re 25, a sign of our immaturity, perhaps. I’m still using my
provisional license with its mad-eyed Manson stare as I never learnt to drive. We ignore the
dads and daughters on wholesome days out who are trying to achieve something different
to whatever the hell we’re trying to do. Fake Dave Grohl leaves half way through
to pee and we’re pretty sure Fake Krist Novoselic wants to leave too. “How many songs
did Nirvana have?,” he pleads to Fake Kurt, who looks nothing like Actual Kurt, like we
at least wanted him to try, then fail. Maybe have a blonde wig that would fall off half way
through, a hokey American accent that breaks and burns, but his hair is short and his accent
is Northern English not North American and where’s the fun in that? “We’re under no illusion
that we’re the real Nirvana”, Fake Kurt sighs. Possibly in response to an increasingly violent
crowd. Maybe they really did think they were seeing the real Nirvana. People get thrown
out, get rowdy, get mad. Fake Dave is gone by now and some kid is playing the drums
instead, Fake Krist must have left too, some punk guy from the audience takes his place,
crowd surfing over the barrier and picking up his bass. Fake Kurt is the only one left.
His mic has been turned off but he’s saying something about rock n roll like it’s Reading
1992. We’re obviously loving it and ask a bouncer if all tribute acts turn out this lively
and he looks at us like we’re crazy and we are.

They didn’t even play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ but we leave happy that we witnessed
something disintegrate so spectacularly.

It is uncomfortable to romanticise a terrible thing, an obligatory small print to state
the inappropriate impact of creating myths and magic out of the devastation of others,
but it is also important to admit that alongside shot gun suicides and knife blunts
to the heart that being alive can also be the terrible thing. That trying hard can be the awful thing,
that washing daily can be dirty,that sobriety is a sort of purgatory and that some people just
aren’t going to be very happy however hard they try.

I’m so happy cause today
I found my friends
They’re in my head.

There is a lie, a kind lie, a lie told in a gentle voice on bent knees to the ugly, unpopular
ones that if they consume enough culture they will eventually be loveable, likeable. That you can enter the cinema through the side door if you can’t get in at the front without a member card. That if you do your cultural homework during your teen years you will emerge out the other side as an engaging adult. But adolescence never meant very much to me, I’d already lost my innocence on a number you count on one hand. I was an aged child with a ten-thousand-yard stare, before becoming a childish adult, stunted by a trauma I was too messy to manage.

It’s amazing how a single song can contain these impulses, how the rhythm of suicide matches the receptive riffs of pop punk, nu metal, grunge, all those maligned genres, making ‘Adam’s Song’ a perfectly shaped bowl to pour your suicidal ideation into. Its high-pitched impotence, domestic
banality and Nevermind references trace a map of masculinity to attach myself onto. In movies, they always show a person’s suicide against a repeated record, like when Brittany Murphy in ‘Girl Interrupted’ is found dead, ‘End of the World’ by Skeeter Davis plays on loop. In real life, this
happens too. I wanted to die with Tom Hopper in my ear, and was so knocked back to realise that in 2000, another young man had died with Blink 182 on repeat, using the same method I had planned.

It would be nice to shut up about suicide, to outgrow Nirvana, not to wallow, to create wholesome work, to have optimism to give. To be the kind of personfucking dense enough to refer to the body of work Chester Bennington so carefully created as ‘teen angst’, like he wasn’t a CSA survivor too, like Elliot Smith wasn’t too, like that doesn’t leave you, like Chester didn’t die by suicide at the age of 41 and not 14. Like we just write about killing ourselves because we think it’s fun and not because we’re hurting.

The first thing you learn when you start reading about Sylvia
Plath is that she killed herself when she was 30 years old.
If she had lived longer, would she have written something
completely different from The Bell Jar—something
more optimistic?
Stephanie Kuehnert, 27 Club, Rookie Magazine, August 2013 

Some people want to die, and need to talk about it. Some people need to find others who feel that way too, imperfectly engaging with an iconography of mental illness that, thoughpoisoned by capitalist profit and a whitewashed landscape of rugged masculinity, does at least offer a sign that their internal suffering — so exhausting and isolating — exists beyond them. Am I even allowed to say such things? Can we find a space between not idealising, enabling and encouraging self-destruction and openly admitting that some of us really want to die the majority of the time? And not because we’ve been duped by movie montages but because mental illness is real, the world is
cruel and interpersonal violence is killing us.

Meet Lil Peep, The Kurt Cobain of modern rap
/ Farewell to rapper Lil Peep, Kurt Cobain of
generation Z.

Though I do circle around suicide in both my life and writing, I do not feel that the act of
representing one’s (difficult) life is glorifying any kind of certain death. If anything, it’s
keeping me here.

I didn’t necessarily care about the dying young part, 
but I na├»vely believed that livingfast was a necessity for making art. 
People like Courtney, Kurt, the Beats, Hunter S. Thompson, 
and everyone else I was reading and listening to at the time 
seemed to bear this out.  I needed experiences to write about, 
and they had to be outrageous to be interesting.
Being healthy meant being ‘normal,’ 
and I’d bought into the myth that ‘normal’ people couldn’t be creative.
Stephanie Kuehnert, 27 Club, Rookie Magazine, August 2013 

But I am bedridden and batshit crazy and healthy is not an option, even though I’m being
a good girl and taking my pills and going to appointments and saying earnest things to doctors that smack of desperation like, “hey at one point does it get better? What do I need to do? I’m doing mental illness right now? Right?” But this is returned as a wrong-addressed parcel and I am informed that some folks cycle into suicide like the seasons. That I just need to accept that I want to kill myself sometimes, that death will visit me every few months, a smiling Groke, till she slides off with a few dead plants but no mortal damage.

Kurt and Elliot and David and Ernest. Good working-class names, for good working-class deaths, the kind you need to use your hands for. Practical, like making a chair, taking a carpentry course, chopping wood, shooting game. An object fetish for the options of one’s execution, handed over to the consumer repackaged and replicated like an Ikea flatpack.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Anne Sexton, Wanting to Die

A fetish for the impact of that object in crime scene photos of corners of the body that touched the object that would leave you feeling grubby. White socks and blue jeans and arm hair and trainers and
a medical tag and a K records tattoo. Do we consume images of death to feel a closer proximity to our own? Perhaps this is how we can understand the (unquestionably grotesque) impulse to buy,
wear and Instagram a t-shirt with Kurt Cobain’s suicide note printed on its chest. (Yes, this did actually happen, I know, I know.)

Lil Peep’s Online Store Sells Out Hours After
Death. Lil Peep Posthumous Merchandise
Line Announced Less Than 2 Weeks After
Rapper’s Death.

Of course, this monetization of personal tragedy is fucked up, of course, of course, of course. But talks of ‘glamorization’ and ‘romanticization’ do not answer the question of why the commodification and consumption of such suicide objects and events are happening. Who is wearing such items? And why?

Okay, so I turned twelve in September 1994.
Being a teenybopper tween during that era
was pret-ty dark. The cutest rock star, Kurt
Cobain, shot himself in the head, and my
friends and I were wildly interested in this.
How could we not be? Murdering your life
had officially gone pop! Courtney Love was
reading Kurt’s suicide note on loud speaker
TO DIE” posters were stocked at the mall.
I bought one! Kurt was wearing green
Converse One Star sneakers in the suicide
photos, so I bought green Converse One Star
sneakers-and so did my friend Lauren. And

then so did my friend Samara!
Cat Marnell, How to Murder Your Life

We love to shame these people, especially young women, the girls who wish they were ‘Dead like Kurt’, who line up their Amys and Janises and Jimis like American Girl dolls, to coax them to say these unspoken things, to wear these subjects on their chest, only so we can scold them for it. As if they are the ones who have produced this peculiar cultural sign making of suffering, this hostile world that is nudging young people ever closer to their own demise. I may not want green sneakers
or a suicide shirt, but I do want to be dead like Kurt. I am obsessed with guns. Shotguns that sleep in sock like coverings like sleeping bags, handguns in tin coffins in attic openings, YouTube cowboys killing tin cans in their backyard. I am an angry young man at the end of my days, every day. And the hypermasculine rock star death contains my worst impulses, my worst selves, makes me realize
that if I was the man I would like to be, with the money and freedom, I would be living in isolation in some filthy place, because if those genie wishes came true I would be able to go back to the substance abuse and the capped life expectancy unchallenged.

Like Ernest Hemingway was manly.
The beard and the guns
and the wives
and the little short sentences
He shot himself.
A short sentence.
Anything rather than a long sentence,
a life sentence.
Death sentences are short and very, very manly.
Life sentences aren’t.
 Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Introducing Myself '

I probably shouldn’t talk about suicide. After all, I am not a responsible parent, a wellmeaning
teacher or a struggling teenager. (Or a writer, or a rock star, or a novelist, or a poet). To claim such a position would be dishonest. I am an irresponsible and isolated trash panda in their mid-twenties wearing an oversized white t-shirt that reads ‘cat food ’ accompanied with an image of a cat made of noodles sitting in a bowl. Not an educator or an artist. This is the question of mournable bodies, a definition tied to the white supremacist fantasy of the productive body, a subject distanced from the social and political realities of the suffering in this world that would cause a person to exit from it. After all, whose absence is worth noting? And why?

I have been actively suicidal since childhood, life has not been good to me, my brain hates me, my body hates me, I keep trying to leave but somehow I am still here, in this terrible place. But why? It
is so clearly counterintuitive to live with its stomach ache and sexual violence. My only explanation is that life is poison and I’m an addict. Only a crazy person would want to stay alive and, oh boy, am I crazy!

I’m so crazy I’m in the mental hospital, the embarrassingly in-depth medical report that follows being the closest I’m getting to a New Yorker profile piece. I mumble something about my paranoia and psychosis, experiences that have been identified previously as paranoid schizophrenia. But they ask me more questions, or I answer them differently, I don’t know, but I am given a tin foil balloon of pink and silver that reads “Congratulations, it’s a cluster B personality disorder!”

This is not to equate my craziness as currency, my suffering as authenticity, my misery for depth, a stance so boldly called out by Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World’:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want
poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I
want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re
claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly,
“I’m claiming the right
to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and
ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis
and cancer; the right to have too little to
eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in
constant apprehension of what may happen
to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the
right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of
every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.
“ You’re welcome,” he said.

Because this is no call to arms, no road map for freedom, ‘John the Savage’, in his self flagellating
light house of isolation dies by suicide in the following, and final, chapter. No solution to the capitalist indulgence of positive consumption is offered, no resolution is given. To identify and acknowledge the reality of one’s suffering through an individual martyrdom is no solution. Violent,
judgemental and cruel, John is just another Shakespearean tragedy fanboy and Huxley has no time for pretentious, performative  nihilism. (We could even read the pairing of the white bread name of ‘John’, with the questionable, colonizing slur of ‘savage’ as a criticism of rugged white masculine
individualism, with its colonial fetish for ‘primitivism’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘returning to nature’.) Huxley reminds us it is one thing to recognise that such slings and arrows exist, another to elevate them to the divine. That corny Fight Club nihilism is just as dodgy as aggressive, anti-septic optimism.

Because despite all the Instagram reminders that it’s ‘okay to be sad’ I’m increasingly realising the thing I need to learn is that it’s okay to be happy. And despite my depressive illness I really am an optimistic person, the kind that talks to dogs and points at the moon. And though I slip into suicide
episodes every few months despite being on the ‘right’ medication, and receiving the ‘right’ kind of therapy, my greater struggle was the bursts of joy that popped out in the in-betweens. It’s okay to not be okay but it’s also okay to be okay...even for a little bit. And it’s okay to enjoy that okay. Okay?

The first ever Valentine’s day I spent in a relationship and my biggest crisis was whether to share the roses I was given on Instagram! Though I justified this as a sensitivity to others, I realise that this is part of the very same toxic trauma that made me sick in the first place. That I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to be happy, to be loved. To experience such affection was wicked enough but to be publicly admit it was an abomination. Public self-flagellation is one thing, but public celebration? No way! And I’m sensing that these suspicions sprout from the popular model of social justice that so loves to martyr
the already-troubled, and particularly the multiply-marginalised, woman.

I have often felt the call of self-destruction: the
temptation to reach into your gut, pull a kidney
out, let a thousand strangers touch it with their
grubby fingers, then put it back in, knowing that
none of those strangers will be around to help
you through the subsequent infection. This is the
real danger: I’m just another girl, unless I can
offer myself as a human sacrifice, or (as is often
the case) let myself be offered.
Sady Doyle, ‘Our Fascination with Female Train Wrecks’

Die young stay pretty. Or whatever the quote is. But I’m not pretty to begin with, will be never be pretty, could never be pretty. To reclaim prettiness for the racialised has its virtues, but I am not virtuous and I’m as ugly as they come and not only am I staying ugly, with my hooked nose and wonky spine and scarred skin, I’m staying alive. Stay alive get uglier. Get so ugly! Grow horns and fur and cloven hooves. Grow third eyes and extra limbs and a pointed tail! Grow it all because ugliness has a lust for life that the inherently morbid nature of the beautiful does not. Cat Marnell has lived long enough to publish an autobiography, and even Lana the dead girl, singing to us through a Ouija board of a back catalogue, has a lust for life.

And in this yellow school bus of a life you’re stuck next to me! And I’m terrible company. And I’m the girl who tweets about killing herself every seven seconds only to live to be 10 thousand! And we’re staying on this bus, and no one’s getting famous, and no one’s opening a window, let alone
getting out, and it’s magical and miserable at the same time, to quote Taylor Swift, as hey she’s here too! But you’re not going to meet her and neither am I! And the wheels on the bus go round and round!

When Fiona Apple sang “I just want to feeeeeellll everrythinggggg” she didn’t just mean the suicidal sucker punches but the good times too, cool bands when you can feel the guitar in the square space between your left nipple and your right, watching a really rad movie for the first time, Autumn, when it’s really bright but also really cold….there are so many things… so yes I want to feel everything and I want to stay alive, both during the times it feels like the world is an axe murderer knocking at my door, and when the light is so hazy, and the air is so soft that expressions like ‘it felt like a movie’ and ‘perfect moment’ do not go unwarranted.

Like Cassie from Skins so sharply said ‘I had to stop before I died, because... otherwise it wasn’t fun.’ and I need to remember this when both drugs and disordered eating are more appealing. And though I already held the Neutral Milk Hotel line of ‘always sober/always aching’ as proof of how fucking miserable getting clean is (God I hate that expression! I was never dirty!). Or the fact
that I genuinely ranked toxic masculinity masterpiece ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ as a relatable resource for overcoming addiction:

How’s being sober?
Fucking sucks.
Boring, right?
So boring. I wanna kill myself.

Thanks Leo! And I do wanna kill myself, or get high to forget that I wanna kill myself. And much like Leo’s Jordan I do not want to die sober! But I need to feel this ache, have always needed to, even when it hurts so badly. I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me, and the next and the next, until there are no more years, and no more days, and no more world, and we are just bits of stars, and dinosaur bones, or whatever humans are made of, and I will love you forever. The end

Thursday, 6 July 2017

‘Come with me let’s die anywhere else’: Suburbia, Searching and Not Getting Out

Do you have a friend who is so completely cool you have no idea why they would even answer you facebook messages?!

This is how I feel about Claire.

And not only does this human disco ball acknowledge my disgusting existsence but I also get to work with her on cool projects!

Like this zine!

And like the documentary Sad Girl Cinema, which I **cannot wait** to show in full btw.

The essay I contributed for Claire's pop cultural pilgrimages zine (which you can bag here btw! Also pls check out the second issue of FYWL as that is genuinely one of my all time fave zines ever ok?? I was lucky enough to write for the first issue!) is one of my favourite essays I've written, as it genuinely just feels so much...a part of me? I do hope you like it:

‘Come with me let’s die anywhere else’: Suburbia, Searching and Not Getting Out

Content warning: rape, childhood sexual abuse including that of an infant

In 2004, there was a song that a bunch of people liked which I thought was ok. The song was by a band that I thought was ok. I also thought the band was Christian (coz their name had the word ‘prophet’ in) which made them ok. I saw them headline a festival and it was ok. Ok. Ok. Ok.

Eight years on, their lead singer, Ian Watkins was charged in court with conspiracy “to rape a one-year-old girl, of two incidents of conspiring to engage in sexual touching with two young children; possessing, making and distributing indecent images; and possessing “extreme” animal pornography.”[1] He pleaded guilty to “conspiring to rape a child, three counts of sexual assault involving children, seven involving taking, making or possessing indecent images of children and one of possessing an extreme pornographic image involving a sex act on an animal.”[2] Two female fans of his band, the Lostprophets, stood on trial alongside their idol, such was their devotion to Watkins they had “sexually abused their children at [his] behest and were prepared to make the children available to him for sex.”[3]

Described as a "committed, organised paedophile" and "potentially the most dangerous sex offender" ever seen by the Senior Investigating Officer of the case, the judge lamented the fact that the case had "plunged into new depths of depravity".[4] Watkins is incarcerated in HM Prison Long Lartin, a Category A men's prison in an English village, serving 29 years. He discussed his crimes over a recorded phone call in prison, to a female fan, describing them as "mega lolz". The expression "mega lolz" had previously been sold on Lost Prophets T-shirts. His band had even performed against a backdrop of the phrase when playing on the main stage of Reading festival in 2010. In a report on this incident the Guardian described Watkins as a “paedophile rock star”.[5]

All future tour dates were cancelled and the group disbanded. Two years on it was reported a new single had been released on Spotify but it was revealed to be a hoax, simply the original recording of Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’.

But let’s go back to that single. Before I rebranded my apathy of a Download headliner (there were fireworks at the end! I was bored!) into a self-righteous psychic act. The ‘I’ve always known’ attitude to the celebrity rapist a worse and weirder incarnation of the ‘I liked them before they were cool’ outlook. Taken from the album ‘Start Something’, which has a record cover of comically Gothic script, a heavily edited black and white photograph of a young person in a studded belt and black hoodie stands in the middle of an empty road, sky scrapers stretching out behind them, their eye scribbled out in that corny Sex Pistols styles. A parody of 2004. With Good Charlotte and Hoobastank on a back-up.

Reviewing the album, the BBC described it as “tactically worded to the point of genius”, remarking that regardless of quality the Lostprophets work is “ludicrously bankable music, after all. A painstaking chemical compound of technical hardcore guitar and emo-ish vocal pleading.” In short, they concluded “Resistance is pretty much futile”.[6] Johnn Loftus develops this in his single review of Last Train Home, writing that:

"Last Train Home" was an absolute masterpiece of pop single mixing board surgery, flawlessly, brazenly binding the properties of three of California's most marketable acts into one monster of a post-grunge anthem, sung by a bunch of immaculately T-shirted dudes from Pontypridd. Beginning with an instrumental run through its unstoppable chorus, the song drifted into faraway echoes of piano as vocalist Ian Watkins emoted vaguely meaningful lyrics like "Love was once apart/But now it's disappeared". But pretty soon it was time for that chorus again. Lusty shouts of "We sing!" matched hard-cranking distortion, gave out for a brief interlude, and exploded once again in an absolute flurry of Linkubustankian triumph. The kids loved it, and by May 2004, "Last Train Home" had peaked at #1 on the Billboard's Modern Rock singles chart.[7]

Last Train Home was reflective of a particular brand of 00’s desperation where the endless circle of a chorus, a whirlpool of a shout, that presented a ride home to your suburban bedroom as an exit ticket to somewhere greater. Was every teenager in 2004 so desperate for escape that they took a rapist for their ticket out of here? And why in retrospect did I think it was okay that all my other girl friends in school were dating leather trench coat clad creeps in their twenties?

But there's still tomorrow
Forget the sorrow
And I can be on the last train home
Watch it pass the day
As it fades away
No more time to care
No more time, today
-Last Train Home, Lostprophets, 2004

The singles that sang most powerful were those that professed escape in one’s return, that presented the journey home, vomit stained and alone as a hand to hold us and a finger to guide us. All as Alex Turner sails backwards down a highway, his eyes on the club as the car heads home. The meters rising and the memories merging. He didn’t want to leave.

And so why are we in a taxi?
'Cause I didn't want to leave
I said "It's High Green Mate, via Hillsborough please!
Artic Monkeys, ‘’Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured, 2006

And another last train home rushes by for Jamie T, one of the leaders in the spoken word world of white, drunk (vaguely) working class young men, lost forever in the public transport system of the 00’s:

Drunk and being sick, I feel like shit
I gotta quit I hope I haven't missed the last train
Gonna be stuck in Hampton Wick,
With the boys across the platform
Shouting lightweight prick
I'm a featherweight champion, cheap to get pissed
Jamie T, Sticks n Stones, 2009

It’s easy to sing and hard to leave. The area I’m from is called Downend, isn’t that the best combination of words? Down-end! Dead end! From my childhood window I can watch the glowing lattices of the bus windows jumble down the highway. There is not so much to say about a suburb on the outskirts of Bristol, with its post-war builds and largely white and working to middle class population, but it’s my area of expertise as I’ve never managed to actually get out of it. Getting out is a myth, of the working class kid, of the first generation kid, I am a failure of both. Succeeding only in the accomplishment of being a free school meal kid with an Oxford education that rendered me back home with my family. You never left the suburbs but at least you didn’t end up back in Syria. Syria! A civil war that is not civil in any sense of the word.

Getting out is also a recovery myth. Escaping trauma. Healing, recovery, therapy, all subjects I fail fantastically at. And it is my 25th year in this place and the 10th Anniversary of ‘Skins’, a distinctly Downend drama of Bristol 00’s youth, lead character and eager extras alike, acting as an alumni of my comprehensive school education. House parties spent trying not to stare at E4 superstar celebrities. It was even prestigious to be an extra in Skins. I auditioned for a casting with a school friend. It was a weekend. We got the bus. I couldn’t act and we didn’t get it but we were there and that was enough. ‘Has every Bristol teen come out for this?’, rolls the eyes of a London television executive. But she didn’t understand. It felt like we were a part of something.

The people of Downend are eager to escape. Each year a new reality television contestant from my road, a new person to vote for on ITV or Channel Four, a new campaign poster in the fish and chip shop. Each year they come back. We never win and they go back to their childhood bedrooms and I go back to watching strangers, not neighbours, on the television.
Who can save us? And from what? I’m not entirely sure what we’re escaping from but I know it’s urgent. This country is frightening and though I am meant to ‘go back to where I came from’ the only place that will ever be is suburban Bristol. It really does feel like the end of the world.

“In the dark halls of the museum that is now what remains
of Auschwitz, I see a heap of children's shoes, or something
like that, something I have already seen elsewhere, under a
Christmas tree, for instance, dolls I believe. The abjection of
Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case,
kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed
to save me from death: childhood, science, among other
-Julia Kristeva, Approaching Abjection

2016 was universally understood as the Worst Year Ever for its unique blend of far-right triumphs and music legends passings. What cannot save me from death, but was promised to save me from death: pop music, glam rock stars, youth culture, movie stars, good manners, celebrity endorsements, a vague liberal sensibility that positions cultural consumption as a radical act, an ‘edgy’ sense of humour, revealed to be wholly unironic in its adoption by the far right, a cute sense of style. All proven meaningless in one year. All proven meaningless as the 45th  President sang along to 3 Doors Down.

The conversation around Bannon’s clothes reminds me a little bit of the meme about two photos of Drake, one in which he’s dressed to the nines, one where he’s in sweats, captioned, “Get you a man who can do both.” Maybe the American public is just confused because we’ve never encountered such an effective “man who can do both,” where both is “look ridiculous” and “push through hateful policy.” Shouldn’t the former prevent him from doing the latter? If someone’s maybe a Nazi, isn’t he supposed to at least dress well? Like all things Trump, this is unprecedented, and Americans are struggling for the appropriate reaction.[8]
- Heather Schwedel, Should We Care What Steve Bannon Wears in the Oval Office?

Steve Bannon is not dressed for a Rolling Stone shoot, he’s dressed for the apocalypse.[9]
And though we ‘need the psychos when the apocalypse hits’, as those around me have enthusiastically assured me when I question my worth as a disabled woman in a hostile world, I do worry about my place in all of this. I’ve never been branded amongst the well-mannered mentally ill but I do not think the political violence of the far-left is an option for someone already so traumatised as me. Clips of Bane, the Batman supervillain, have been shared in comparison with the 45th and there is one line I think of especially, ‘I was raised in the darkness, you merely adopted it’. So mall goth, so Lostprophets! But as a survivor who did not really survive, who could unironically say she was raised in the darkness, whose hyper vigilance has nearly broken the nose of my beloved, I do not see a punch as a great way to go for me. Though there is something striking about a Neo-Nazi’s description of his relationship with an internet forum’s cartoon frog interrupted by a smack on the nose (that contrast between the imaginary safe space of ideology and the reality of its opposition) it’s not a path I would personally go for.  All violence is poisoned for me because I am poisoned, with the violence of a political movement distinct from the violence of the abused. In short, I’m too feral to go anti-fa. Too crazy to be anyone’s comrade.

This is the violence of traumatised embodiment which means the only space I can destroy is my own. I’ve tried to cut myself out of this and consume my way out of this. And through my cut-up body I cultivate a loneliness that makes me corny. That makes me sit on the plastic green grass of a windowless museum and watch screenings of Woodstock like it means I was there. That makes me seek the morbid fandom of Paris, with its celebrity grave stones and a love for a place so heavy that is has the power to destroy it entirely:

When locks first began to appear more than five years ago, some “could be seen as rather pleasant, but as years passed they took on such proportions that they were no longer acceptable for the cultural heritage” of Paris, Mr. Julliard said.

Most of the locks look rather flimsy, bought for 5 or 10 euros ($5.50 to $11) along the quays on either side of the Seine, but with hundreds of thousands hanging on the bridge, they were too heavy for its elegant ironwork. There was a constant risk that batches of the locks or even a whole panel could have come crashing down on the boats passing beneath. For some time, the city has periodically replaced whole sections of the bridge, only to see them fill again with locks.[10]

I see it too, in the work Juno Calypso a feminist photographer who took herself on a one-woman honeymoon, photographing herself in the love spaces of the coupled, heart shaped tubs and mirrored ceiling, made up and alone. Her photographs speak of “the area in between desire and disappointment” where images are both “sad and sexy”.[11] The sad lap dance. The way Donald Trump has warped the words ‘so beautiful’ beyond meaning. (Coincidentally it seems that the children of Syria are in fact beautiful, if still utterly unwanted, but only when they are dead.)

Desire is a death space and fandom is a failure, but there is hope even in heaven. In Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ lies the party town of San Junipero. A gay girl afterlife of neon beaches and makeover montages. Heaven is a place on earth, if only in our head. Because pop fandom is a queer kind of dysphoria, all the day dreams, celebrity ships, the unrealised crushes, unreciprocated love, parties no one came to, weekends spent alone, bodies we could have been, living forever in paradise, finally finding their potential, finding their form. The impossible redemption is realised. There are pink signs and white sands and blue light and everyone is young and everything is fun. I want to live there, or maybe I always have or already do.

But until I can be a full time San Junipero resident I stay in the suburbs playing video games in the dark. ‘Night in the Woods’ is my favourite, an indie side scroller that follows a college drop out cartoon cat named Mae aimlessly wander through her suburban home town of Possum Falls. She shoplifts from Hot Topic, plays bad bass and disapoints her parents. There aren’t so many jobs, or mobile phone reception, and her mental health is getting bad again. There’s monsters in the woods, and they’re swallowing up the unwanted and the unproductive. And there’s this one song her band plays that I keep thinking about, that keeps playing in my head:

“I just want to diiiie anywhere else–If
Only I could diiiie anywhere else–So
Come with me, let’s diiiiie anywhere else
An-y-where… just not here”
-Die Anywhere Else, Night in the Woods

[1] John Hall, ‘Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins remanded in custody after appearing in court accused of conspiring to rape one-year-old girl’, The Independent, Wednesday 19 December 2012
[3] Steven Morris, ‘Lostprophets' Ian Watkins admits sex offences including attempted rape of baby’, The Guardian, Tuesday 26th November 2013
[4] Ed, ‘Ian Watkins could be 'most dangerous sex offender I have ever seen' – officer’, The Guardian, Wednesday 18th December 2013
Ed. ‘Lostprophets' Ian Watkins sentenced to 35 years over child sex offences’, BBC, 18th December 2013
[5] Ed., Convicted paedophile Ian Watkins told fan: 'It was mega lolz', The Guardian, Wednesday 18th December 2013
[6] Jack Smith, ‘Lostprophets Start Something Review’, BBC, 2004
[7] Johnny Loftus, Last Train Home: Song Review, All Music
[8] Heather Schwedel, ‘Should We Care What Steve Bannon Wears in the Oval Office?’, Slate, January 30th 2017

[9] “He’s not dressing for workplace success, to climb the ladder, to score points with the boss—he’s dressing for the apocalypse.”

-Heather Schwedel, ‘Should We Care What Steve Bannon Wears in the Oval Office?’, Slate, January 30th 2017

[10] Alissa J. Rubin, ‘Paris Bridge’s Love Locks Are Taken Down’, New York Times, June 1st 2015

[11] Quoted from Juno Calypso’s Arnolfini Talk ‘Performing for the Camera’, January 2017

Friday, 7 April 2017

Typography and Trauma: Conversations on Doll Hospital Journal, Writefest 2017

I was so lucky to skype with the folks at Writefest about all things Doll Hospital Journal. Here's a rough transcript of what we chatted about :)

What is Doll Hospital and why did you start it?

Doll Hospital is an art and literature journal on mental health (though it’s of course great if people beyond that frame of experience enjoy and appreciate our work too!) We consider both I suppose ‘traditional’ notions of ‘mental illness’, by which I mean individuals such as myself who might consider themselves as ‘mentally ill’ as well as broader questions of survival and self-love within a hostile world.

I’m not going to say we’re the final word on mental health or anything ridiculous like that. It’s easy for small press publications to set unachievable and arrogant goals, it’s a little bubble so it can be tempting to see yourself as fancier than you are. However, with any publishing project on marginalised narratives I think it’s better to see yourself as part of a wider conversation and constellation of publishing and creative projects.

I started Doll Hospital from a space of my own mental health struggles and of wanting to find a platform to explore themes of trauma and stigmatised mental illness beyond online magazines, where I found myself to self-censor, to rebrand myself as more appealing, more sane in order to appeal to both comment sections and a performative politics of respectability and also beyond me live tweeting my suicidal ideation at 3am on my Twitter.

How many people work on each issue?

On average we have around sixty contributors per issue, with each issue spanning around 150 to 170 pages. Behind the scenes, I manage and edit submissions, seeking editorial and proofing help from, on average around half a dozen editors and proofers. Though I may have an editor credential on my mast head I have complex learning difficulties, an element that is rarely considered within publishing. So while I think I have a pretty good eye for exploring and curating mental health narratives, I struggle so much with practical issues such as spelling, formatting and some other quite ‘basic’ tasks. I remember in issue one before we got proofing help I spelt the word ‘depression’ wrong in the contents, I was so embarrassed so I’m so grateful for that side of the Doll Hospital team!

Beyond editing I work chiefly alongside Maggie, our amazing graphic designer, this is definitely my favourite part of working on Doll Hospital! We work on unique spreads for each and every piece to do each story justice within a print medium and to provide a visual narrative to our readers. We do all kinds of fun stuff like scanning cute fabrics for backgrounds, sourcing interesting illustrations, handwriting titles and poems (though that’s Maggie’s speciality-my handwriting is rubbish!), choosing cover art and so on. Visually we are definitely inspired by the beauty and texture of the Rookie Yearbook series and I’m so grateful for the support of their editor Tavi Gevinson gave us when we were starting off.

What do you look for in submissions?

I don’t have any pre-set notions of what a ‘submission’ should be, I hate the idea that a work does not have ‘value’ because it does not match some pre-set aesthetic credentials set by an editorial team, which itself turns so called inclusive spaces into weird cliques.  There’s a worrying history of this within feminist publishing history, whether that’s Sassy magazine’s alternative cool girl mentality or the trauma anthology genre of the 1980s, where personal stories were rejected because a survivor’s story was not written ‘sophisticatedly’ enough (which is a issue that Kali Tal, an amazing trauma theorist and an inspiration of mine, interestingly critiques in her book World’s of Hurt). Really I want our contributors to guide this process not me, if they have a story they want to tell I just want to be here to help facilitate the process.

What challenges have you run into when either finding pieces to publish or publishing the journal itself?

Funding a print journal if you don’t have disposable income is super tough! We fund printing costs for our hard copy issues issues through hard copy pre-orders, whilst we sell digital copies of our journals on a pay as you wish basis, which helps us pay for things like postage so we can send free hard copies of our journals to our staff and contributors.  It’s a shoestring budget but I try to make it work. For instance, we launch digital copies of our issues before the print version goes out and once print versions have sold out, people can still access the digital copy.

We’re very lucky that we’ve never been short of amazing pieces to publish, we’ve had so many incredible submissions across all mediums, whilst my own interest in mental health and wider self-advocacy work for marginalised folks means I always have an endless list of people I’m keen to reach out to. In this sense I think submission wise the most frustrating part is lack of time and resources! We actually had to close our submissions for writing works as I just couldn’t keep up and that kind of sucked. I need a time machine and a pot of gold or something!

What role do you think literature and art plays in one’s mental health?

That’s a tricky one, and something I think all creative folk with mental health struggles circle around this endlessly. We are taught that literature and art gives our struggles ‘value’ which is a structure I would query, it feels like a scam, mental illness isn’t a coupon you can exchange for a prize winning novel or something! I think this artificial heritage of ‘the tortured genius’ can limit our creative freedom, it’s easy to find yourself comparing yourself to tragic characters in movies and feel like these totally ficticious individuals carry more weight, more credentials than our actual lives!

However, I don’t think it’s as simple to say that to engage with this history is to ‘romaticise’ it or even that to ‘romanticise’ something is always a bad thing, the people who adore this work are often mentally ill themselves, especially mentally ill young women, teenage girls. It’s meaning and role is reinterpreted and reinvented by the viewer to create a world that is a little bit more beautiful for those who are far too lonely to find the ‘real world’ to be enough. And yes I am partly talking about myself here! I’m a total pop culture geek! Even with corny things like the Suicide Squad movie I love watching them and thinking about them and what they mean to people.

There are a number of issues related to mental health that are included in the magazine. How do you decide which ones to include? In other words, do you try to include pieces that cover a whole slew of mental health issues, or do you aim to publish the best of what you receive, regardless of which issues are covered (or not covered) in each issue?

I don’t have a pre-set idea of what mental health (or broader oppression experiences) should and ‘will’ be included, our submitters guide that, I don’t start with certain pre-set ideas that seems weird to me, you can’t theme this stuff, you just give people the space and the platform to tell the stories they need to tell. The range happens naturally because everyone has different experiences, different intersecting oppressions, different struggles. You can’t force that to happen.

When it comes to submissions I actually have a ‘no rejection’ rule, I mean right now we can’t look at writing subs as we simply don’t have the space, but when submissions are open whoever reaches out to us is going to be in Doll Hospital. Maybe that’s not ‘practical’ or whatever but I don’t care. If someone wants to be in the journal then they’re in! If a piece is not quite developed or suitable for publication straight away then we’ll work with them until it is, even bringing in different artists for cross collaboration to support them in their storytelling. If the original piece submitted is not quite right then we will ask to see additional work. We live in a disposable culture where we judge someone by one email, one draft, it’s a case of taking time to collaborate and connect with each of our contributors. I know what it’s like to get rejection after rejection, how crushing it is, to enforce that kind of mentality in a journal which works within anti-ableism advocacy….well that would be messed up and nonsensical!

How do you think the magazine addresses issues of helping people to understand mental health versus sensationalizing it? And connected to that, do you feel like the magazine is aimed more for people who have a mental health issue or is it to educate/bring awareness to those who do not have a mental health issue?

Doll Hospital is created for those struggling with mental health and the psychological impacts of intersecting oppressions, it’s not so much an ‘awareness tools’ for able-minded people, for people who are not struggling, though if individuals outside of mental health and survival struggles, appreciate and our educated by the work in Doll Hospital that’s great.

The ‘awareness’ model of mental health often feels a little strange, like I am altogether aware I’m mentally ill (!) but how are we going to use this *awareness* to change the world around us to make it more liveable? Awareness without action is not sustainable support for those who need it most.

One of the most common models of this is these ‘talk about mental health day’ iniatives, I can’t help but find these sanctioned mental health awareness days a little frustrating, to me it feels like those who are struggling *are* talking, not just 1 day but all 365 days a year, it’s just that our needs are not necessarily being listened to, ask anyone in Britain who is struggling to access mental health care via the NHS, mentally ill individuals are reaching out, seeking to bring awareness to the struggles they face, but due to profound cuts to disability support these voices are not being recognised or can’t be addressed without the resources needed. Jade, a doll hospital contributor, actually wrote an amazing essay on this issue in Doll Hospital Issue Four.

But in regards to the question of sensationalising mental health, like I said before, I personally don’t think a mentally ill person looking to express their experiences needs to be shut down under the lines of sensationalisation, or romanticsation, that’s an able minded issue, that romanticsation of mental illness as like a tragic super power or whatever. Yes, those of us are isolated may gravitate towards certain aesthetic models of expression, certain pop cultural symbols, but that’s a question of making life a little more bearable. I think people who get mad at mentally ill teenage girls for being to into like…Winona Ryder or Courtney Love or… whatever need to get their priorities in order.

 What do you think about using humor when writing about serious subjects?

Humour is a subject I think about constantly in regards to mental health and trauma, I’m actually writing my entire PhD on it as it happens! I also wrote an entire essay for Doll Hospital on navigating trauma and cultivating survivordom through comedy characters like Bernard Black in Black Books, Mordecai in the Regular Show and Charlie Kelly in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Though I should say I’ve recently got pretty disillusioned with It’s Always Sunny I stopped watching after the first episode of the most recent season as it fell into that ‘say anything as long as it’s presented as a joke’ model, not only is this just lazy writing, I think this does the power of comedy a disservice! Because the whole point in humour is that it *does* have power to both enforce and subvert existing belief systems, to topple the powerful and belittle the already vulnerable, to dismiss something as ‘just a joke’ (which is so often the standard trademark of a school bully) fails to realise how powerful humour really is.

One of the reason I became drawn to humor was through the act of nervous laughter, I effectively got ‘told off’ in therapy as I nervously laughed when describing an traumatic event. I was told that I was not taking my childhood sexual abuse background seriously enough! Like what the fuck does that mean? What’s the correct way of dealing with such a difficult thing?

I love comedy and humour because I hate the politics of respectability that tells us there’s one ‘right’ way, one ‘respectable’ way to address such a deeply personal issue.  

How do you organize each issue?

Each issue has certain standard features, at least two or more interviews, a mental health themed playlist, a roundtable discussion that discusses a marginalised mental health experience, an editor’s letter and of course as much awesome art, comics, poetry and essays on mental health and survival experiences that we can fit in!

I always try and balance text with the visuals, not everyone likes to read, not everyone as a result of mental health can concentrate on a long form text piece, or a result of associated learning or developmental disabilities finds reading a lengthy essay a realistic feat, so for every essay we include I make sure we also have a range of comics, paintings and illustrations that tell a story too.
However, in terms of accessibility for improving our issues we’re working on translating our issues into screen reader form so Doll Hospital readers who are blind or visually impaired can enjoy the artwork too. This is a longer process than I would like though, I wish I’d translated it all already by now! I’d also be so interested in translating Doll Hospital into different languages however my translation skills are non-existent sadly!

What do you hope Doll Hospital will accomplish (or continues to accomplish) in the future?

Oh gosh, honestly when I started Doll Hospital in 2014, nearly three years ago, I had no expectations it was just a tweet asking if anyone wanted to make a mental health zine with me, I didn’t realise it was going to materialise in such beautiful and unexpected ways. Similarly I have no expectations with what and how Doll Hospital will develop or divulge in the future, I’m just happy to be here.