Echo answers back: my first reading of Metamorphoses

(Content warning for frequent references to death, violence and rape.)

*****

Friends, I am in love. This time it’s a poet. As anyone who follows my personal blog may have noticed, Ovid has stolen my heart. It’s rather inconvenient as he was born in 43 BC in the Ancient Roman world, and I followed on two millennia later, but I don’t care. It was meant to be.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 23, having never read a text like it before, is to have a light switched on in a dark room. No, it’s having the sun come up and illuminate your world. To anyone who loves language and stories, the Metamorphoses are an endless delight and the springboard for endless connections, reflections and ideas. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word lycanthropy, or the stories behind the words arachnid, hermaphrodite and echo?
Have you ever explained to a child that the whole world is made of atoms, which are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves; about how water dissolves and condenses as cloud and falls as rain? Have you ever thought about how the content of your own human body will one day disintegrate, the atoms in you becoming part of other people. Have you ever felt limited by your own body and have you wondered about the possibility of becoming something greater than or different from yourself? Dickinson wrote that “this quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies” but in The Metamorphoses death (and dust, and decay) is only one direction that a body can take. In this world there are multiple possibilities; people are changed into spiders, wolves, flowers, swans, water, and the whole universe is in a constant state of flux.
You’ve read and seen plenty of retellings of Proserpina’s story – from the references in David Almond’s novel Skellig to Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s iconic painting. But now you read the original tale and its full horror and beauty comes afresh. The story captures the primal anguish of rape, and the terror of a mother who loses a daughter and quite literally tears up heaven and earth to find her:

“[Ceres] had torn up two pine trees,
Kindled both in Etna,
And holding them high
Through the long nights
Lit her path of glittering frost.”
(The Rape of Proserpina)

The stories have a primal, brutal quality, like something that just happened. The word ‘Ovid’ used to conjure up to me a lot of stone statues and dry classical allusions. But read these tales from two thousand years ago and they feel chillingly real. Yes, you think. It happened like that. That’s exactly how I would have felt too.
I discovered Ovid this summer through my usual method of finding new things, which is to chase up references my favourite authors make in their books to other authors. You should also know, if it’s not obvious, that I am basically classically illiterate. I was born a bit early for the Percy Jackson stories, so my primary introduction to the classical world was reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths at age 8. I found them really dry, and couldn’t identify with heroes like Achilles or Hector or Hercules.  
I didn’t have a classical education at school either, so as a teenager I found initially that Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid were inaccessible to me even in translated form. I didn’t understand the references or who anyone was supposed to be. I was a girl from inner-city Birmingham and felt locked out of this world. “Well,” I thought, “who needs that anyway?” and I went off and read books by basically anyone born after the fall of Rome. I don’t regret that at all, but I do think it’s a shame that I was so put off by this apparent cultural and textual inaccessibility.
A friend of mine and I once discussed the class aspect of classical education, (in Britain it is generally private schools that teach Latin and Greek language and mythology, whilst comprehensives and grammar schools teach modern languages). We spoke about feeling left out of discourse with people from private schools, who were just as smart as us but had access to a frame of reference that we didn’t know about. We agreed it was unfair that knowledge of the classical world should be associated in our country with wealth and intelligence.
Of course, I still don’t think reading Ovid makes one superior to anyone who prefers reading contemporary novels, or reading graphic novels, or not reading at all. But I will say that Metamorphoses was a thousand times more accessible than I expected. Reading Ted Hughes’s brilliantly accessible and gloriously written translation has made an enormous difference for me. It makes me feel included in an ancient mythological tradition which continues to have an enormous impact on Western culture. I’m able to really understand and treasure stories that have influenced storytelling itself. It makes me realise that anyone, regardless of education or background, should be welcome to this mythological tradition.
In writing this essay I hope to share the joy I had in reading Metamorphoses, and also share a few thoughts on what it was like reading the text as a 21st-century woman. I can’t detach my reading of it from the fact that I am a feminist and a woman, nor do I want to.
Before I read Metamorphoses I associated classical mythology with films like Troy and Wrath of the Titans, and always assumed that it was mostly about buff heroic men. Which doesn’t interest me much, frankly, because my primary joy was and is to read well-written stories about women and girls. Of course, what I didn’t know is that Metamorphoses is full of strongly drawn, believable female characters. That there are transformations of gender, like Tiresias’ and the strange fate of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which imply that gender has the capability to be utterly fluid. That the stories frequently return to the violent, volatile tensions between powerful men and the women under their control.
The stories often take in other, entirely human transformations of the body and mind. Rape, pregnancy and childbirth are often inextricably linked, as they unfortunately were in Ovid’s Roman world.
Reading Ted Hughes’s version (Tales from Ovid, published by Faber and Faber) I started making notes about the prevalence of rape and its meaning as power play, punishment and manifestation of addiction. In Tereus, quoted below, it’s interesting to note that Tereus’s behaviour is utterly condemned throughout the story.

“‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.’”
(Tiresias)

“She was to blame – her beauty. But more
The King’s uncontrollable body.
Thracians are sexually insatiable…
He was the puppet
Of instant obsession…
Philomela twisted away.
Shame tortured her.
She would not look at her sister –
As if she herself were to blame.

(Tereus)

(Bolding mine).

I also noted the instances of, as we call it now, “speaking truth to power”.
Rape is a manifestation of power. It is the gods, especially Jupiter, who are the most frequent perpetrators, but the men of the stories are often no better. The poet often sympathises with their victims and allows them to speak back, even though doing so is often followed by punishment. For instance, Philomela’s wonderful speech to Tereus – where she declares that “shame will not stop her” – angers Tereus so much that he cuts out her tongue. But although the poem is titled Tereus, we know whose story it really is that we are reading. It was a very strange experience to hear Philomela’s articulate voice ringing out, and to realise the commonality of women’s experiences down the centuries:

“I may be lost.
You have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer.
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything
To your own people, yes, to all Thrace.
Even if you keep me here
Every leaf in this forest
Will become a tongue to tell my story.”
(Tereus)

Then there is the story of Arachne, the weaver, who believes herself to be better at weaving than the goddess Minerva. (Arachne notes that “I make up my own mind and I think as I always did.”) Minerva challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who is better at weaving. Minerva’s tapestry illustrates “the kind of punishment Arachne could now expect for her impudence” by showing people being turned by the gods into mountains, storks, cranes and stone. Arachne, meanwhile, creates a tapestry which graphically shows Jupiter raping Europa and other women. Minerva’s response, realising that the tapestry is technically perfect, is to tear the tapestry off the loom and “rip it to rags” – censorship at its most primal. Again, the victim is silenced but her story resonates.
The women of Metamorphoses often meet a ghastly fate. Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider. Echo, who defends her friends by telling lies, is turned by Juno into a disembodied echoing voice. Philomela transforms into a nightingale, and in the most horrific of the stories Niobe loses all her children because of her pride. They’re punished for being proud, for being talented, for being vocal, for defying the gods. These characters stand out to me; they feel much more real and more interesting than the gods. I feel that their stories are not closed, they are ambiguous and they open up in the retelling and rereading.
I am thankful every day that I fell in love with Ovid and discovered the stories of the women in Metamorphoses. Their stories resonate endlessly; they don’t win, but God, they are brave. Their stories still exist, and the telling of them (however you choose to retell them) is endlessly powerful. In her story True Short Story, Ali Smith writes about the nymph Echo and asks: “When is a short story a short story? When its echo answers back.”
I’m reminded of Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife:

Who would mourn this woman, who was thought
To be the least of losses, hardly worth a breath?
Yet I will always hold her in my heart,
Who for a single glance accepted death.
(Lot’s Wife – Anna Akhmatova)

***

Further resources
In Our Time – Metamorphoses
girl meets boy – Ali Smith
Proserpina – Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Abuse Survivor Resources

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Can you learn to love reading?

I have a young cousin who doesn’t like reading. She’ll open a book and read it to you, but after a minute you realise she’s making the story up or telling it from memory. Drag her through a text, word after word, and she quickly gets frustrated.
I’ve tutored other kids who felt similarly. They know how to read, but it’s such hard work – whether that’s because of learning disability, bad teaching, or any other reason. They have been taught to read; technically they know how to do it. But ask them questions about what they’ve read, and they go blank and shrug. To them, the page is full of traps. Reading is a horrible, grinding, plodding chore.
You can teach someone to read. But can you teach them to love reading? To read a book and understand and enjoy it? Plenty of people leave school knowing how to read, without learning to love reading. I’ve met educated adults who have never read a book for fun.
The latter always surprises me, but then I can’t remember when I didn’t read for pleasure. I thought reading was for pleasure, even though at school they said it was work.
Once I’d learned to read, I was unstoppable. When I was six my teacher phoned my parents and said wearily “We’ve run out of books for your daughter.” Dad asked if the school had a library. “She’s read the Junior Library,” the teacher replied.
Being a bookworm as a child is probably more fun than being one as an adult, because most adults aren’t really expected to read. No one will give you a gold star if you’ve read twenty books in a month. You don’t have to read for pleasure.
Why should you read for pleasure, anyway?
One could argue that reading is a necessary skill, and it doesn’t matter if you love reading so long as you can do it. You don’t have to love driving to drive a car. You don’t have to love maths to pay a bill. Reading for pleasure is just an extra.
To which my response is: what a drab, dry view of the world, where enjoying art is an extra! Where everyone reads the bare minimum only because they have to!
I think reading for pleasure is one of the best things anyone can do. Reading fiction helps you become more empathetic. Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom, it develops the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
And in daily life, we are now more than ever surrounded by words. On sites like tumblr and AO3, everyone is writing. Everyone is reading. Almost no one earns money from it. Why are we all doing this, if we’re not getting something out of it?
A love for reading is an advantage – albeit to the soul and not the wallet, although books in any format are less expensive than most hobbies. Capitalism doesn’t reward a love for reading, but then capitalism will only reward what is beneficial to itself, not what is beneficial to you.
Returning to my point: you can be taught how to read, but you can’t be taught how to love reading.
Not directly.
Good teachers can infect you with their enthusiasm for books. You can be put in the vicinity of a lot of books, which always helps.
But you’ve still got to sit down with the book and fight it out. You and the page. You and the author’s voice. You have to go forth and conquer.
To me, it seems people usually learn to love books by being… interested. There is no way to understate the amazing things humans can do if they are very interested in something. Take 
the author Sally Gardner:

I eventually ended up in a school for maladjusted children because there was no other school that would take me… I had been classified as “unteachable” but at the age of fourteen, when everyone had given up hope, I learned to read. The first book I read was “Wuthering Heights” and after that no one could stop me.

Then there’s the author Sue Townsend:

I was afraid of my primary-school teacher because, when we had to read out loud, she’d slap our legs if we got a word wrong. As a result I didn’t learn to read until I was eight, when I stayed at home ill… My mum brought a pile of Just William books home from a rummage sale and I taught myself to read with William—The Outlaw… Once I started to read, I never looked back.

I am not saying that being interested in something can always make you able to do it. What I am saying is that a love for reading cannot be taught, it is something you must discover for yourself. There are no short cuts, but plenty of rewards.
Virginia Woolf wrote:

“However we may wind and wriggle, loiter and dally in our approach to books, a lonely battle awaits us at the end. There is a piece of business to be transacted between writer and reader before any further dealings are possible.”*


*The Common Reader, Robinson Crusoe

Becoming a better reader

For someone who likes reading, I don’t think I’m very good at it. I read too fast – gobbling up reams of words, sometimes without even understanding them. I can only read for about an hour before getting distracted. I sometimes lose track of the story because I’m too busy analysing it in my head as I read it. I talk out loud to the author (“Come on, Hilary, that’s a bit sexist”) and I have been known to throw books across the room or scribble in the margins when they disappoint me.
More frustratingly, I often can’t visualise a story while I’m reading it. I understand most people can do this, but I can’t.
To me, it’s all about the music the words make.
I recently read Lucky Jim and cackled throughout, because God, even the way that book’s written is funny. It’s like a brilliantly told joke: you don’t just laugh at the content, but you laugh because the phrasing, the word choice, even the parentheses, are damn hilarious. It works as a piece of music as much as a piece of comedy. I don’t really visualise the book, I just… hear it.
Sometimes I read a story where I can tell the writer has carefully transcribed a scene which they can see very clearly: but I can only imagine a small bit of the scene at a time (rain on the window, wet fields, the branches of a tree). I can’t hold the whole scene in my head. At this point I feel like apologising to the author: “Sorry! The problem is not with your vision! I just can’t SEE things!”
So, I am trying to attune my senses. Trying to become a better reader.
That doesn’t mean teaching myself to visualise, but it does mean becoming more sensitive to the music of the words: knowing when a phrase is perfect, when a sentence’s cadence is satisfying. Asking myself, why is this sentence funny? What is it about this phrasing that makes this sentence work, while that sentence falls flat on its face? How can you tell one writer’s tone apart from another’s?
It’s difficult, learning to listen. But I know it’s possible, because at the age of eleven I taught myself to play piano.
Before then, music was a language I didn’t understand. I knew sometimes it made me shiver with joy, but didn’t know any more than that. I could hear music without really listening to it – like an English person who goes abroad and doesn’t speak the language.
Once I became more sensitive to music, it began to sound different. Colours and textures emerged from familiar songs: flights of silvery top notes, the bird-like call of a flute. Now I could tell apart the layers of harmony in a piece; I could appreciate the detailed work in a performance, its energy, its power.
But really I am still learning how to listen to music, just as I am learning to become a better reader. Everything is a learning process.
I’ve been reading both series of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader, a book which always makes me want to read more deeply and widely. Woolf wrote that it is hard to be a good reader, that “reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing.”
To Woolf, the ‘common reader’ was someone who is “guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”. The common reader is not a scholar nor a critic, but someone who reads for pleasure. This “hasty, inaccurate and superficial” reader is a kind of magpie, snatching up odds and ends for their own purpose.
I really don’t know if Woolf thought of herself as a common reader, but she certainly was not one. I think there have been few more imaginative, visionary, informed and responsive readers in the history of the world than Virginia Woolf. Take this, from her essay On Not Knowing Greek:

“Pick up any play by Sophocles… and at once the mind begins to fashion itself surroundings. It makes some background, even of the most provisional sort, for Sophocles; it imagines some village, in a remote part of the country, near the sea. Even nowadays such villages are to be found in the wilder parts of England… [but] If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the wet thick mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth…”

I could write for pages about Woolf and her clarity of vision in response to books. I am forever envious of such imaginative visual power. But I will close with the thought that there are all kinds of readers; we can never know exactly what happens in someone else’s head when they read. Maybe there is no ideal reader. Maybe reading is as personal as thinking.
How do you read?
How do you think?

Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here

After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
Continue reading

Anxiety & Me, part 3: The stories that make us

[this is the third in a series of six essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised on Bootleg Noise in the coming weeks. Part one, part two, part four]

Browsing the web after the “little bit mentally ill” incident, I found several articles by Matthew Haig describing his writing journey and struggle with depression. In an excellent piece in the Telegraph, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/wellbeing/10758065/Suffering-from-depression-It-was-touch-and-go-but-Ididnt-jump.html) he wrote that “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books, offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
I enjoyed the piece, and related strongly. During my last depressive phase, my concentration worsened: I couldn’t focus, couldn’t work much, couldn’t read much. I was unable to be interested in a book. But in April 2014, I found a copy of Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, read the first page, and was hooked.
My reading muscles were so weak that I ended up mouthing to myself as I read, painstakingly visualising the characters and highlighting as I went. But when I was done I hit the second-hand bookshops, left with an armful of novels, and became a reader again.
Yes, the stories we write and read can help us. Yes, we need them desperately.
But.
My concern is that recovery narratives like Haig’s are framed by media in a way that doesn’t reflect a common, unspoken experience of mental illness: most people have to be at a certain level of wellness to read and write in the first place.
By the time I read Alias Grace, I was already feeling better. Only a few months before, I would have been unable to read it all the way through. Going back to the books was a sign of partial recovery, not a miracle cure.
The idea that ‘art rescues people’ can spark enormous creative guilt.
I’ve talked to young artists who can’t work, study or produce because of their illness – and who worry that they’re somehow doing it wrong. But sapped creativity doesn’t make you innately uncreative; it just means your energy is being burned up elsewhere.
The idea that mental illness necessarily fuels art – that we somehow gain a deeper connection to books and writing through the experience – is one of the most pernicious misconceptions I’ve ever come across. Perhaps it’s true for some, but certainly not for all. To be honest, mental illness is so tiring and boring that it burns us out at times. And then many of us wonder if we should be fired up to create, instead of feeling totally fed up.