Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

Memoirs and Mental Health

Up until this past year, memoirs have never really been high on my to-read list. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to have stumbled upon that seemingly long-ago post on XOJane that inspired this endeavor. I’ve read the stories of fascinating women leading amazing lives. There’s a body positive mom who was tapped for a TED talk, a barrier breaking TV host and journalist, a descendant of a Nazi officer trying to make sense of her family’s past, an iconoclastic, world-traveling artist, and the Queen of the Geeks, to name just a few (full list here). And no matter what kind of lives these women are living, they all share common characteristics: they foster community, they inspire their readers, and they all have experience living with mental illness.

Artists across all media and genres seem to share a collective experience with mental illness: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Art has been therapeutic for people living with mental illness since long before we had words to define them, which explains the tendency to create as a method of coping. But as much as art is therapy for the artist, it’s a catharsis for the audience. Art is the light in the darkness, the words, pictures, and sounds of what lives inside our own minds, letting us know we are not alone at the moments we most need to feel a connection.

Mental illness, which is so unfairly stigmatized, is not like diabetes or cancer or high blood pressure, the physical ailments to which it is so often compared. The organ affected by mental illness is the one programmed to detect problems, but if someone lives long enough with depression, anxiety, etc. they become almost impossible to dissociate with reality. It makes de-stigmatization all the more important, so that those who suffer will know that living in pain and fear isn’t permanent, and that they can move beyond it. It is only by allowing us to speak our truths that we can relieve the burdens of others.

Healing is not linear. If you have mental illness, even if you are being treated and feel in control, you will have another valley. Do whatever you have to do to ride out the darkness safely. It has passed before and it will again. If someone you love is living with it, you will say or do the wrong thing. They will be unresponsive and emotionless and maybe even mean, but don’t stay away because of it. Everything passes, even the worst of times. And the stories shared by the wonderful, wise women I’ve read this past year are proof that life, ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, strange life, is possible and rich in all its complexity. There is never a need to opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there is great need to join the chorus of people living with mental illness and their loved ones, stripping away the stigma and sorrows until we no longer suffer losses because of it.

Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer

Available for purchase here.

When Meg Wolitzer released The Interestings (pick up that pilot, Amazon!), I fell instantly in love. She’s one of the authors I can actually list when I’m asked what my favorite book is (although why people use the singular is beyond me), and I stumbled upon this rerelease of one of her earliest novels while spending a perfect rainy day wandering the aisles of Barnes and Noble (bliss).

Swarthmore College is home to gifted intellectuals, old buildings, beautiful trees and the three notorious “death girls”, young women who are each fascinated by a gifted but troubled poet–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Lucy Asher, the latter of whom is as fictional as Claire Danziger, the primary death girl of the narrative, who finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the the brief life of her idol, pulling her away from her friends and her schoolwork, as well as a blossoming new relationship.

To be honest, Claire’s boyfriend is the least interesting thing about her, and could be lifted right out of the book without damaging the story at all–it might even improve. He has shades of the dreaded Nice Guy syndrome: Claire treats him pretty horribly, but he in turn keeps imposing upon her the normal girl behavior he’d like her to display, while she’s been upfront that she’s gloomy, quiet, and reserved.

More compelling is the symbiosis between Claire and Lucy Asher,  too young to be a contemporary of Plath or Sexton, but just as darkly brilliant, just as tragically gone. Claire’s obsession with her leads to finding a job with the Asher family under false pretenses, but Claire is just the logical extreme of a society that implicitly loves it when our stars burn too brightly. We romanticize the tragic loss of a brilliant life cut short, imposing a beauty that doesn’t exist.

In her time with the Ashers, Claire begins to see both herself and Lucy for who they really are–women confronted with the reality of life and the bleakness inside them, both trying so very hard to cope with the darkness they face. Lucy, unable to articulate her fears and needs, was ultimately beyond help, but Claire’s time with her family proves healing not only for Claire, but for Lucy’s parents. It’s the greatest lesson we can learn from the tragic loss of suicide–how to prevent it from happening again.

 

 

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Available for purchase here.

There is nothing more profound than the bond between parent and child. It’s one we hope lasts beyond time, place, and even death.

It’s the premise of Sharon Guskin’s novel The Forgetting Time, the story of four-year-old Noah and his bizarre phobias and violent memories. It’s at once a spiritual saga and compelling soft science fiction, but above all, it’s the story of mothers, loss, and healing.

Much of the story is wrapped in an elegant spoiler, and I can’t go too far into the review without ruining the story for readers. Suffice it to say that Noah, the child at the center of the novel, is not only his mother’s son, but his very existence is a balm for the grief and guilt of another mother, forced into her circumstance of loss by the carelessness of someone else.

Guskin’s novel touches on topical points of interest–race, class, single parenting, gun violence, toxic masculinity. I don’t know if it could ever truly be written in any other time, and it could easily become preachy and self-effacing, but the themes lying underneath are timeless and universal, and Guskin’s words are nuanced and delicate.

We come from a very binary thinking place, and as such we are quick to take a position, defend it, and cast the naysayers as our enemies. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this phenomenon, and probably guiltier than some. It all results in sound and fury, the problem increasingly challenged but never changed. There’s a solution hidden in the nebulous place occupied by empathy and thoughtfulness, but it takes a great deal of setting aside our own egos to arrive there.

Shelter by Jung Yun

Available for purchase here.

Wealth covers a multitude of sins. We resent the wealthy, both angered and frightened by their ability to control our fates with a flick of the wrist, but they pit us (we and us being the 99% of the population whose bank accounts are more concerned with rent and food than with transferring cash to Zurich) against each other in our open bid to join their ranks.

That’s the nature of American capitalism. John Steinbeck said it best: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Kyung Cho, the protagonist of Shelter has spent his adult life living on credit in an attempt to emulate the lifestyle of his parents, Jin, an unpopular but brilliant professor who rakes in millions with his patents, and Mae, Kyung’s mother who devotes herself totally to Jin even in the periods when she’s the object of his abuse.

The novel opens with Mae, naked and bloody, staggering onto her estranged son’s property, nearly catatonic with fear and grief, sobbing about how Jin is even more badly hurt. What follows is a saga of violence, from the brutal beating suffered by the Chos and their housekeeper, to Jin’s history of abuse and monetary manipulation, to the quieter emotional violences enacted across lines of race, class, and family–Kyung’s wife Gillian is totally in the dark about her husband’s history with his parents and wonders why they can’t turn to his parents for help with their astronomical debt, or as grandparents for their young son. Gillian’s father and brother don’t like Kyung, Mae adores Jin at the expense of her relationship with her son (alluded but never named as Stockholm Syndrome), and the poor, undocumented housekeeper is first victimized by home invaders and then by the bureaucratic process that dehumanizes both her and her experiences.

All throughout, material goods and favors are used as a panacea for emotional connection, and as compensation for emotional abuse. And because the characters crave them, the wheels of change are never fully set in motion, which portends a truly compelling end.

 

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Available for purchase here.

If you are a patient type of person, you can pace yourself by reading one of Benincasa’s essays every week. 52 essays–a year of quality, no-nonsense examination of life as an artist.

I read this book in a day and a half. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s one I’m sorely lacking, if only because Benincasa is an incredible writer, and if there is such a thing as fate, her book came into my life at a good time. Writer friends of mine are seeing greater and more visible success with their work, while I feel stalled and blocked on mine. Artists are supposed to be collaborative, not competitive, but there’s a greater, human compulsion to compare ourselves with our compatriots, and it’s a struggle when you find yourself lacking.

Which is why Benincasa’s latest venture is a prescription strength cure for Imposter Syndrome, that insistent little voice in the head of everyone who dares to call themselves an artist (maybe other professions, too, I don’t know. I do know I never felt this way claiming myself as a teacher.) Real Artists Have Day Jobs is a reminder that creating art makes you an artist. Not supporting yourself with art, not having it recognized as such, not your first gallery show, publication, record/role/whatever. Most creators of art are working crap jobs with crap hours, living in tiny apartments or with family, and they are no less valid than artists who show at MoMA or write really excellent books.

Benincasa also gets personal, detailing her struggles with mental health and her experiences as being a part of what I call the invisible queer–queer identified people who “read” as straight, and come out over and over again throughout their lives, who have their identities invalidated when they enter certain relationships.

It’s also important to recognize that Benincasa needed to be her age and have her experiences in order to write this book. I felt a keen sense of failure when I turned thirty having not published a book or otherwise made a name for myself as a writer. After 29, nothing we do is really considered precocious or impressive for our ages. Young as I am, I no longer have the benefit of youth.

What I do have, thanks to my widening perspective due to this yearlong sojourn into the world of women writers, is the knowledge that I am ten years more accomplished and interesting than I was at twenty. I can cave under the weight of my lack of accomplishment now, or I can work steadily, knowing that my best is still ahead of me. I choose the latter.

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Available for purchase here.

Susannah Cahalan is alive today because she couldn’t draw the numbers on a clock.

In her early twenties, Cahalan, a woman emblematic of youthful American success–well-educated, ambitious, working as a journalist, living in New York, recently embarked on a serious relationship–started having memory lapses, hallucinations, episodes of rage and violence that led to her institutionalization, with the going theory being psychosis or schizophrenia.

To call Brain on Fire a memoir could be a bit misleading–Cahalan’s account of her disease, diagnosis, and recovery is largely informed by her family and friends, as well as Cahalan’s accounts of taped interviews she watched without recalling. She has enormous chunks of memory missing from her time in the hospital, waiting to discover the cause and cure for the erratic symptoms that sent her life into a downward spiral.

The importance of advocacy when it comes to mental health is beyond words. While many of Cahalan’s symptoms were textbook for a diagnosis of schizophrenia, many could not be so easily explained and were glossed over. Only because she so ardently did not fit the profile for schizophrenia, and because her family advocated so passionately on her behalf, did Cahalan live to become a major advocate for others with her condition, ultimately coined by Dr. Josep Dalmau, as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

It was another doctor, Souhel Najjar, who first thought to give Cahalan the clock test, a diagnostic tool used primarily for patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. When she lumped numbers 1-12 on one side of the clock face, it was the clue doctors needed to eventually deduce that half her brain was swollen, and she was perilously close to death.

Though expensive, Cahalan’s treatment was ultimately straightforward, and today she’s one of the leading awareness raisers of the autoimmune disorder that almost cost her life. It’s sobering to consider how many other Cahalans out there died because they were poor, or uninsured, or lacked support. Even in the early stages Cahalan was accused of “partying too much”.

With this book, though, and her testimony, those who find themselves lacking her resources now have one in her. The more we speak about health, especially the aspects that have been stigmatized by society, the few tragedies will come of a system that’s quick to both dismiss and fail its patients.

 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

Some books are the literary equivalent of a slice of birthday cake: sweet, delightful, easily consumed in one sitting, an escape from the ordinary and necessary solely by its luxury.

This is no such book. Americanah is a Thanksgiving meal, composed of many parts that must be delicately balanced, heavy with its importance, the focus of the celebration, and, when well done, ripe with layers and textures that can’t be quickly or easily absorbed.

Nominally focusing on two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, the continent-spanning novel is really Ifemelu’s story, leading the reader down the philosophical questions of identity through race, culture, mental health, family, love, and purpose. Zigzagging between her young life in Nigeria with her first love and her emigration to America in college, the novel opens as Ifemelu is closing up the boxes of American life and planning to return to her native Lagos, where Obinze, her first love, has returned from humble circumstances in England to become a wealthy and powerful developer.

Obinze’s story is one of growing up, trading his youthful ambitions and idealisms to become a success in the eyes of his friends and loved ones–rubbing shoulders with the crooked elite of Lagos, marrying an appropriately beautiful woman and setting her up in a similarly beautiful home, even having the requisite adorable toddler, but he faces a yearning similar throughout all art and life–the desire to be happy even among the trappings of a “successful” life. He’d have the richest introspective journey of all the characters of any other work, but in both narrative and substance he comes second to Ifemelu.

Ifemelu grows up under the influence of her beloved Aunty Uju, a mistress to a powerful politician whose fortunes turn when he dies. She’s forced to flee the luxurious home she’s built for herself in Lagos for the US, where bureaucracy forces her to start from the bottom. All the while, her niece is growing, absorbing the lessons from her aunt’s tragedy, and falling in love with Obinze, a boy whose mother is as compelling, engaging, and inspiring as he is. If Uju is the superego of life’s possibilities, Obinze and his mother are the id.

Nigerian politics turn Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s university years into a slow slog of lounging and listlessness while the turmoil of government continually keeps the resources out of the schools. Ifemelu turns to the promises of America, and once accepted, finds her very sense of self is upended in the culture shock–Ifemelu is Black.

Blackness, common to the point of being a given in Nigeria, is loaded with implications in the US, a lingering scar from our fraught history, and Ifemelu, being African in America while not being African American, has a unique insight into the ways race and class intersect and diverge in the day to day dealings of being Black in America. She doesn’t bear the brunt of slavery, but deals with its ramifications, she hears barbs from white people both well-intentioned and deliberately obtuse or cruel. And lest anyone believe she’s landed in some ass-backwards town where hers is the only dark skin to be seen, she spends her first years in the US in New York and Philadelphia.

During her student years she experiences the horrifying gamut of sexual objectification and violence, unemployment that threatens her future, and her first experience with depression. Though she struggles, she also finds purpose: her unique experience gives her an unparalleled voice to speak to issues of American race and class. When the novel opens, she’s a celebrity in the blogosphere, a thread she maintains even after she returns home.

Nigeria is not different when Ifemelu returns home, but it is to her, because she’s now the title “Americanah”, a foreigner in her own home, and sees Lagos through American eyes. She again turns to her laptop to speak her truths in the way others can’t–for her whole adult life, Ifemelu is a woman caught between cultures, part of yet separate from that which is familiar.

It would be wrong to talk about Americanah without mentioning something specific to Black women: hair. Black women’s hair in America is so fraught with political and social commentary that Ifemelu’s braiding appointment provides the framework for the first half of the novel. Being white myself I’ve never considered that what I do with my hair is anything more than my fondness for a given aesthetic, but for Black women, whether their hair is relaxed and assimilated or worn natural and proud, hair is a matter of identity politics. I’ve seen in more recently read works by Issa Rae and bell hooks–whole chapters are devoted to hair. That their hair is so symbolic is a thing of beauty and power, but I’m much more interested in what percolates beneath it.

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

Available for purchase here.

Continuing my reviews of short stories from yesterday, Danticat’s collection of stories culled from the brutal revolution era of Haiti read more like poetry than prose. She manages to make prison, death, and exile the stuff of fairy tales, all the more poignant because the brutality is caused not by trolls and dragons but by mere mortals.

How Danticat manages to find the beauty in the brutality is something to marvel at, but she finds it, and grants her characters an almost maternal tenderness that their real-life counterpoints would’ve ached for. Each story is a self-contained miracle, strung along in the greater narrative and referencing each other, but still existing whole and separate from each other.

The most heartbreaking story is at the end, not the tale of the drowned refugee, or the mother concealing her profession from her son, the woman and daughter struggling with prison, the tiny corpses mistaken for living children, but the story of the modern young woman living in New York, a consummate American in all but title, for whom her mother’s stories and traditions are nothing more than an affectation, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes endearing, but always old-fashioned and unnecessary.

It’s both a tragedy and a triumph when the subsequent generations are able to relegate their painful histories to the realm of school lessons and and mythological stories. All the pain and sacrifice becomes worthwhile, and also marks the end of the suffering. But there is no appreciation, no real life respect, for what the mothers and fathers of today went through to bring us to our modern lives, not unless they take the time to heed the words of a truly gifted storyteller.

Danticat’s title comes from the Haitian tradition of asking a group if they want to hear a story (Krik?) for the audience to respond that they do (Krak!). There’s an elegance to using the traditional structure to tell the stories of people who are rarely heard in mainstream America. The title itself demands that we pay attention to what we can’t be allowed to forget.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Available for purchase here.

There’s a method to the way we talk about mental illness. We deny it, we blame it for the crimes committed by people who have no known history of suffering from it, and when it claims the life of someone through suicide, we question how such a tragedy could happen to such a great person. And by and large, the cycle never alters or accomplishes anything that supports a greater social understanding of what mental illness actually is.

The best way to educate yourself is to go straight to the source. Even the most decorated doctors can only expound on talking points like symptoms, family history, and neurophysiology. But if you want to know what it is to live with mental illness, seek out the wisdom of someone who lives with it.

Jenny Lawson, who authors the hugely and deservedly popular site The Bloggess, condensed the stories from her life as a wife, mom, and writer into Furiously Happy, a chronicle of her everyday mishaps and foibles and their effects on her, her precocious daughter, and her perpetually put-upon husband Victor. On the surface it sounds like a mommy blog with a healthy twist of geek (Lawson is a personal friend of nerd king Wil Wheaton), but in actuality Lawson suffers from anxiety and depression, and despite her light heart and numerous cat-related anecdotes, her life is irrevocably affected by living with mental illness.

Lawson makes the reader laugh ten times as often as she induces tears, but her more emotional passages pack a punch. It’s easy to get swept up in her zany humor and the reactions of her husband, the long-suffering straight man to her wacky wonderfulness, but whenever one starts believing that perhaps depression is as easy to accommodate as say, a peanut allergy, Lawson delves into the dark spaces that she occupies in between snuggling koalas and searching for humanely taxidermied raccoons, when she struggles with the urge to self-harm and the need to hide away from the world while she rides the wave of anxiety until the tide comes back.

In all her writing, Lawson provides a touchstone, a reassurance that those who suffer do not do so alone. She offers a chance for those who similarly struggle to see her in all her highs and lows, the opportunity for them to whisper to themselves “Me too.” She has created an online community that builds people up and offers support when the real world gives neither.

Lawson is, of course, only one voice in the community of mental health awareness. It’s a group as diverse as any other. But in the effort to understand the lives lived with depression, her work is a perfect place to start.