The Romance of Mental Illness

We, as a society, romanticize mental illness to a truly ridiculous degree. We focus on the “mad artist” stereotype– or the “mad genius”. That in and of itself is evidence of something else at work, because when you just look at the creative fields as a whole, you do run across a few more crazy people than in other fields, but the plethora of people who succeed creatively without being crazy suggests it’s not a requirement. If you actually look at the people who are currently top writers, many have had hardships of one sort or another, or drug addictions, but they’re not mentally ill, and the ones like Stephen King who’ve had drug addictions have said that it’s not a way of blotting out their oversensitivity the way we assume. (I defy anyone to read “On Writing” and still call King “sensitive”.)

If you look at the mad genius stereotype by looking at the top people across several fields, you get even fewer crazy people. There are some outliers who are difficult to work with (Steve Jobs, anyone?), but it’s realistically caused those people difficulty in their fields to be that way, and usually they’re still in some form of creative field, or a field like computers where you can again get by while being a little bit separate from the norm. This also offers an explanation for why there are a few more people with mental illness in the creative fields than in others. You can succeed in the arts while being a bit out there. Not to a truly extreme degree, even in the arts, but the people who are still halfway functional can succeed in the arts where they’re not functional enough to succeed in a 9-5 job. It’s entirely possible that there are some people who would be brilliant at corporate takeovers or setting up a plastics factory, but they’re never managed to raise themselves high enough in those fields because we don’t fetishize craziness in those fields. You’re expected to be normal if you work there.

There are several problems with looking at things this way. The most obvious is that this particular stereotype tends to be kind of a prettified version of things. People looking at this see the incredible works of art produced this way– and I don’t deny that there are some incredible works of art produced by troubled or mentally ill people– but they don’t see the burdens that one lives with when one has a mental illness. Being an artist doesn’t get you a pass when you’re in the grocery store trying to deal with how utterly overwhelmed you are by the lights and the people, or when you want to slice your skin open, or any of a host of other ways the problems interact with daily life. And art is already a difficult way to make a living; it’s even harder when you can’t cope with normal life and thus have even less safety net than people who could theoretically survive in an office job.

Would I trade mine? No, not if it meant losing the way I see the world. But mine is mild enough that despite being largely untreated (I eventually got diagnosed, and I’ve had straight-up therapy, but never any form of specialized treatment), I’m in graduate school now. Getting through school, or even just daily life, is a monumental effort for me, and even my relatively mild form causes me problems in the workplace. If it were worse than it is right now? If I were even less in touch with the plane everyone else lives on? I might change that answer.

Ways of Seeing

I have acquired a book called “Who Are You? 101 Ways of Seeing Yourself” which is a bunch of self-typologies ranging from chakras to “which element are you”. It’s mostly meant to be a game– it doesn’t take itself at all seriously and the introduction warns you that if you are a fully-realized person, you won’t fit too neatly into any of the categories (and declaring one category to fit you like a glove can be limiting, which is something I’ll revisit in its own post), but by watching for patterns and repeated traits across the various tests you can get a sense of different dimensions of yourself and what qualities are most part of you. It’s an interesting book; I expect I’ll be talking about it more as I go through it.

It opens with the most obvious way of seeing yourself you can find, which is race. It provides the basic four categories of “Caucasian”, “Black African”, “Mongolian”, and “Oceanic”, and a blurb about how even if a lot of the historical theories about race have been discredited, it’s still relevant in that racial divisions shape society. It then offers a bunch of questions along the lines of “Do you think your racial makeup has allowed you to fit easily into society?” and “Do you feel your racial makeup has made you attractive to other races?”

What struck me as I was doing this exercise is how similar racial isolation is to other types of isolation, if the questions are any indication. Because for a lot of the questions about social advantage and disadvantage, or fitting in, my answer is along the lines of “Not because of my race, but I am X”. I am at a social disadvantage, not because of my race– I’m quite white, though I’m told I’m also visibly Jewish– but because of my mental health issues. Because I have a social disorder. Because my interests don’t mesh with regular society. I’m in a group of like-minded exiles for my social structure, but it’s not because of my race.

Similarly, these are a lot of the same questions that I find on questionnaires about gender oppression. “Do you think your gender has allowed you to fit easily in society?” “Do you think your gender has denied you opportunities to excel in your chosen occupation?” Often my answer is along the lines of “How the heck should I know?” Discrimination doesn’t come with a big label. In the same way, I’m pretty sure my race is not a hindrance, but I live in one of the whitest areas on the planet so it’s probably not actively putting me ahead either.

But if we’re asking the same questions about all forms of oppression, maybe it’s time to start looking at the ways we’re similar instead of separating out. When we do concrete things, the power of numbers is what helps us, what changes minds and saves lives. When we live only in rhetoric without concrete things, which is where most of the divisions live, we’re not accomplishing anything anyway. So what is being accomplished by dividing up, doling out racial discrimination here, gender discrimination there, when the goal in the end is for all people to be together and free and equal?

Nothing at all.

So let’s stop dividing up and actually do concrete things together.

I’m going to a protest next week.

Who’s with me?

On Fandom Wars

I have been reading Camille Bacon-Smith’s Science Fiction Culture, which is a little old at this point (it was published in 2000), but a lot of the norms still hold true, so you can expect some discussion of it for a while.

Today I’m looking at fandom wars. She describes fandom wars as being something that arises when the fandom isn’t large enough to support entirely separate subsets for every schism in the fandom. If the sides of a schism can go off and have their own communities, they will do so, but the ones that can’t have the most intense fandom wars, because the survival of the fandom as a community means that they have to stay in close proximity to each other, and therefore they keep arguing.

There’s a thing that puzzles me about this idea, though, and that’s Harry Potter. Admittedly this book was published before Pottermania hit its peak, but the concepts of fandom should still be the same. However, the Harry Potter shipping wars were extraordinarily intense fandom conflicts which didn’t simply separate into new schisms, but kept arguing with each other and having flamewars, often very violently. At the peak of online fan participation, there were enough people actively participating in every major ship that they could have *easily* ignored all ones that didn’t fit with their preferred ships and still had a good-sized subcommunity. And while you will find fanfiction archives dedicated to particular pairings, the wars that large portions of the fandom kept having are legendary.

So what happened with the Harry Potter fandom to make it different from the patterns in the rest of sci-fi and fantasy fandom? Possibly it was the fact that many Harry Potter fans hadn’t previously been a part of the greater orchestration of Fandom. Harry Potter had a much broader appeal, and so there were suddenly many more people coming in at once than the existing fandom could enculturate through the usual ways of integrating new people. It also had broader appeal– there are people who read Harry Potter and partake of the online communities who get involved in no other aspect of Fandom, something that’s very unusual and suggests that something like Harry Potter which has broader appeal also takes in people who are fundamentally different kinds of people from the usual assortment of people who join Fandom.

That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, by the way; it’s just a thing. I’m making an observation. I don’t understand what would drive someone to partake in a flamewar at all, but then there’s a reason I’m posting on a blog under a pseudonym rather than in a community somewhere.

On the GLBT Community

Sexual orientation is actually a pretty poor binding metaphor for a community, particularly when you combine several orientations into the same community. Just look at GLBTQQA-whatever-else-the-acronym-stands-for-this-week. A lot of those different groups of people have different political ends, and some of them have different political ends within the groups. Yet simply by being the most vocal of the alternative sexualities, they’ve coalesced into a rough community.

Sort of. To an extent.

I have come to realize that what holds the GLBT community together is not in fact the sexual orientations of the members, but a specific political leaning which heavily focuses on oppression narratives and rights campaigns. Lately it’s been gay marriage in the news, but you also get some interesting infographics on Facebook about the idea that being gay is a choice. Now, my personal opinion is that in this day and age, anyone who still thinks being gay is a choice is the sort of person you’re never going to convince of that sort of thing because they’re so wholly convinced of their current opinions that evidence doesn’t matter. I think sending around infographics on Facebook with lines like “So when are you going to tell your parents you’re straight?” is useless.

Worse than being useless, it’s also dangerous. Because it obscures the real issues.

If we looked at the news, it would be easy to think the entirety of gay rights is gay marriage and coming out. Once in a while we get a story about gay teenagers committing suicide due to bullying. But while gay marriage is a convenient issue to rally behind, and certainly the popular issue of the day, there are so many more issues out there. Possibly ones that are even more important, and that gay marriage won’t fix– because if a hospital is refusing to admit a life partner to the deathbed based on the fact that jhes the same sex as the other partner and using marriage as an excuse, do you really think that getting married is going to stop that hospital from finding some other excuse? If teens are punished more harshly for bullying other teens for being gay, do you really not think the bullies will find another excuse? It’s Charm Bracelet Theory all over again: if a child is teased for not having a charm bracelet and comes to school with a charm bracelet one day, suddenly charm bracelets won’t be cool anymore and the child will now be bullied for having such an uncool thing, because the charm bracelet was never what it was about. It’s about the power trip.

Because I can see that it’s more about the power trip than it is about being gay in and of itself (even the ones who think it’s a sin are cherry-picking their Bible, so it can’t just be about the Word of the Lord), I can also see that the appropriate reaction to the power trip stuff is not to take up activism in the form of Hate Crimes laws and oppression theory. Something wrong with the way hospitals are treating people? Lobby for more oversight of hospitals and more strictly enforced procedures about respecting their patients’ wishes; gods know they need it. Gay teens being bullied? Lobby for proper anti-bullying statues, that mandate the more expensive and involved programs that actually work. Make it harder for them to have the power trip. Turn it into a question of injustice, not one of victimization. This has the added bonus of being a lot more likely to get results than trying to turn everything into “this is because we’re gay!” None of it is really because you’re anything specific; it’s just that you’re Other enough to be subject to a power trip– so stop them at the avenues of power.

The thing is, having these opinions makes me utterly unwelcome in a community that by the strictest definitions I should be part of. I am both bi and some unusual variant on ace or demi, so I’m right there in the acronym. But because I have these opinions, because I have no painful coming out story, and because I don’t consider these things major facets of my identity, I am generally unwelcome in the GLBT community. My voice is not only not heard, it’s actively shouted down, because my political viewpoint disagrees with the majority. I’m okay with disagreeing with the majority, really; it’s how I spend my life– part and parcel of being eccentric. But call the community by a more appropriate name, then.

Because if it really was just GLBTQQA-whatever-else-the-acronym-stands-for-this-week, I’d be welcome in it for being so.

An Expansion on Art as Communication

In my last post, I talked about Song of the Trees as a story that sings. Tonight I’m expanding on the theme a little, in a slightly more coherent matter.

I don’t normally put up with discussions of race terribly well. I think there are a lot of assumptions inherent to the modern discussion that need close scrutiny and yet can’t be scrutinized because no one in the discussion wishes to do so– and any attempt to do so lands one summarily dismissed as having an unworthy opinion. Normally, I deal by simply not playing because I know I don’t play by their rules.

But there is another avenue to get to the discussion and that’s art. Song of the Trees is a good example. It gets under the skin and forces me to look at it rather than avoid it, by placing the characters into a situation and presenting that situation and the way others treat them without commentary or rhetoric. It simply presents a situation, and leaves things to my own perception. I’ve already discussed the emotional reaction, at least.

Another example, one I haven’t discussed before: I had the privilege of seeing a performance by a singer called Stew recently. My original reason for going was to get out of a boring class function. Sure, the description sounded interesting, but mostly I wanted an excuse not to be at the class thing. I found that the lecture and music, structured as they were, again let me get into the issues without feeling the need to get into an argument or correct disagreements– again because of how how it was presented. It’s not a discussion, and it doesn’t invite the viewer to think, or react in a specific way. Nor does it dictate what reaction is appropriate. But for all that, his work manages to provoke a reaction that I think was the desired one: a sense of emotion and emotional response as well as an awareness that there are many other perspectives and that everyone has a story, and that those stories are shaped by the world around us, which is a different world for each person based on perceptions.

I am left wondering, based on this effectiveness, if we would be able to have more effective discussions on the subject if we filtered them through art more often. What would happen if we just presented progressive art, without analyzing it or discussing the themes or trying to force people to see a particular message? Could we change perceptions that way, and maybe more effectively? No one is being persuaded by the rhetoric who wasn’t already on that side, but if this can reach me, maybe it can reach other people who are on the fence or who have problems with the rhetoric but not with the ostensible agenda.

Stories That Sing

Song of the Trees is a story that sings.

The imagery of the narrator gets beneath your skin and fills you up from the inside out until you feel the feelings she felt, feel the pain and the helplessness and yes, the prejudice, until it is like acid against the inside of your skin and the story must be skimmed for the pain of the not-knowing, and the witnessing, is too great… and yet it is a story that should not be skimmed, not ever, for it is in reading it and feeling her pain that you truly begin to appreciate the words, the language, the careful choices, all of which keep you in Cassie’s head. There is emotion in her words.

Song of the Trees is a short book, a small book. It reads quickly, if you are a grown-up, and even if you are a child it still reads quickly. The words are simple and concise. It tells the story, tells what happened. And yet we get drawn into their world and their fight.

Song of the Trees is a snapshot of a culture. It carries you away to another time, another place, another person. You see a world you might never have seen. The best way to teach about prejudice, to teach the sting against the skin and the burrowing rage, to teach the deep anger that cannot be expressed for fear of retaliation, to teach the resignation, to teach the need to do something extreme to stand up for oneself, is through a book. Through a story. Let us see the snapshot. You can take a thousand screeds, a thousand angers, a thousand injustices… and you will have more impact upon your audience with one well-told story, a story that gets under the skin, under the consciousness, that allows the audience to make connections.

Take it even further, have many stories like that, so many well-told stories until we can’t say that this doesn’t exist, can’t say that this isn’t happening, and that’s when people will learn their lesson.

Song of the Trees is a story that sings.

And that is why it is necessary to read it.

Observations on Inherent Similarities

Recently I had the occasion to run into a pair of Mormon missionaries.

The only reason I know they were missionaries is because of their name tags, and the fact that they were really, really emphatic in wishing me a Merry Christmas. I was utterly thrown by the simple fact that I was interacting with Mormons and that they were behaving like actual human beings. You see, I have always heard about Mormons as people who are so utterly absorbed in their faith that it permeates every aspect of their lives; you can’t ever interact with them without it being immediately obvious they’re Mormons. In the election, it was a terrible, terrible thing that Romney is a Mormon. I was brought up hearing about how the Mormons live in Utah and practice polygamy– and even when it’s obvious that not all of them do that, the ones that don’t are still strange and crazy.

Then I ran into two Mormon missionaries. It was a very brief interaction, but they were at that moment not running about actively proselytizing, and were far more interested in getting out of the cold and deciding what to have for lunch than they were in the lives of the people around them. They were laughing with each other and they were wearing normal winter clothing. That one two-minute contact changed my entire view of Mormons. Strange as it may seem, I had never thought about them as people before, rather than a monolithic mass.

This process made me think that Mormons have a lot in common with Wiccans, at least as far as social perception is concerned. Both groups are largely judged by our craziest members– for Mormons, it’s the polygamists in Utah; for us, it’s the Teen Angst Covens and people who think they were Morgan Le Fay in a past life. People tend to view us as a monolithic mass of crazy people too, when we’re really a group with many and varied opinions and several internal schisms.

If two such opposite groups can have so much in common, it says something broader: the way people treat that which is different is the same no matter what the differentness is. Society tolerates only so much along such a narrow avenue, and then it ostracizes, and it ostracizes everyone in the same way.

Unfortunately, while we might be different from society, most of the ostracized groups (by no means are Wiccans and Mormons the only ones) are also too different from each other to work together, and this means that in the end, we all fall down before society’s onslaught.

The important thing is fighting it.

Until next time, I remain,

Philosophically Yours,