On Still Being Here

The thing about writing a book is that you end up being good for nothing else. You absolutely resent all interruptions – work, the postman banging on the door, birds singing outside, the couple talking next to you in the cafe. One day you have the best idea of your life, but the next day you are stuck halfway through a chapter. So you text your brother (who has been reading along avidly, all this time), and fire questions at him about what he thinks your main character would do. You are asking this because you have no idea what your main character would do. You feel like Adrian Mole, who writes a story about a man called Jake wandering round a shopping precinct questioning where he came from and where he is going. Adrian abandons the story because “I don’t know where Jake came from, or where he’s going either.”

So, you take a break. And luckily, after you’ve made tea and listened to Tales of Hoffman, your main character appears. She glares at you and says “I hate my mother”. And you say, relieved, “Of course” because that’s given you your plot and the rest of the chapter writes itself. And so we beat on, boats against the current, trying not to capsize into the Lake of Unfinished Manuscripts. You can see why writers go on retreat. I sometimes fantasise about a six-week holiday, all expenses paid, up a mountain where I can finish this damn story.

The other thing about writing a book, or giving time to writing in general, is that it is a slow background process. It involves patience and trust in yourself. Sometimes I do feel as if I’ve vanished into the background to write, and worry that I will have nothing to show for it when I come back.

I find it’s hard to vanish these days and just get on with it, because I use social media, and social media is all about telling people that you’re still here and getting on with the job (or procrastinating on the job, whichever it may be). Writers on social media generally use it as a tool. They sell their books. They talk to readers. They post snapshots of their half-finished work. Some writers publish microfiction online, which is the most instant form of fiction you can get. (And I am completely and utterly all for this, although personally I would rather die than publish a photo of one of my shitty first drafts, and I use social media to talk to friends, procrastinate and vent. To each their own.)


Because writers on social media talk about their successes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “These writers all know what they’re doing. I’m not a real writer. I’m not doing anything.” Easy to discount your own background work and feel as if it doesn’t count, because your project is currently so messy that you feel shy about summing up in 140 characters or less.


We live in a culture that doesn’t reward or even acknowledge quiet background work. But then, I can’t think of a culture or a time in history that ever did; it’s just intensified now because online culture moves so fast. I feel like young writers see their favourite writers on Twitter, posting updates on their projects and thanks to their fans. We see writers publishing hot takes, 800-word thinkpieces, on an event that only happened 2 hours ago (“how did she have the time to write that?”) And we feel pressured. We feel like we should work very fast, very publically, and have something to show for it straight away. The idea of putting months of time and effort and reflection in
is, and always has been, scary to a young person. It feels like a huge percentage of your life.

And yes, it is hard to steal time from school, or university, or caring for younger siblings or relatives, and from the capitalist system we live in. It is hard to do the background work with no promise of reward, when other people seem to already be so far ahead of you in every way.

My only advice is, if you have a passion for something and you can find any time in which to do it, even half an hour in bed with your laptop – nick that time. Rob it, run away with it, use it. Don’t hesitate, and do not regret. I’ve had friends at my day job ask me how I find time to read. “I used to love reading,” they say, “I don’t know why I stopped.” But we work the same amount of hours. I don’t have any more time in the day that they do. But I choose to make time to read and write, working late at night or on the train, because it feels vital to my well-being. No, it’s not easy, because capitalism wants to steal every shred of time we have, but once we’ve nicked some time – even that half an hour, in the evening – we can do something with it.

The pianist James Rhodes wrote that we have “evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity”. He argues the time is there if we look for it.

I read an essay by a writer who commented that she spoke to a lot of people who seemed to want her to ‘write that 70,000 word novel for them’, rather than putting the time in themselves.


In EM Delafield’s
The Diary of a Provincial Lady, written in the 1920s, the narrator is stunned by a woman who says that she would write a play if she had time. (‘Would we all be able to write a play if we just had time?’ the narrator wonders.)

And I’m not knocking anyone who says they don’t have time, because I feel like it’s really universal to think: ‘if I had more time, I could do anything. Creative work is so much effort, I wish I could just finish the project straight away, and then I’d feel like I was really doing something with my life’.


And that leads us to the more important reason for this feeling of vanishing, which is that I graduated six months ago. Last year I was involved in student journalism, writing interviews and articles along with my dissertation. As soon as I finished my dissertation and exams, I locked down and started writing what Ali Smith calls “story-shaped things”. Since I have ADD, I struggle to focus on work. I figured that my ADD affects my ability to start a story and tell it all the way through. And I thought, challenge accepted, because I will
die if someone else writes these stories before I do.

So I just… wrote. Story after story after story. Bits and pieces and fragments, long tales and short: one of which grew into a book, and is still growing. Being out in the world is difficult. Writing is hard. But that’s what I’ve been doing – background work – and I feel proud of what I have so far.


I told a friend recently that I feel like everyone else around me is moving on and doing great things with their lives, and she reminded me that what you see on social media is the “best bits”. It’s a very salient point for writers and for everyone in general: most people you meet
will only tell you the best bits. Why? Because they are self conscious, they don’t feel obliged to tell you the difficult parts, they’re frightened of being judged.

I really forgot about this blog for a while, with that and the hurricane of events that happened in the last few months of 2015, but I’ve been reflecting on its purpose. I’ve decided to keep the blog as a space for short personal essays, and to update when I can. Why? Because you can say more in an essay than in a short paragraph. Because a personal essay gives you space to be truthful. Because in an essay you can write about anything.


So: hi. I’m still here.


Like the mother says in Ali Smith’s
How to be both: “And yet, here I am. Still happening.”

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Writer’s block + Perspective

Hello. I’m getting over a bout of writer’s block. I can tell you exactly when it started, down to the day and the hour. On August 15th I visited Horniman Museum, to reward myself because I’d been working hard all summer on fiction submissions. That morning I had written a short story, in a cafe, about a woman who shoplifts a red umbrella.
At the museum, I sat on a bench in the gardens with my notebook, on a hill overlooking a magnificent view of the city skyline, and wrote the first few paragraphs of a story I’d been thinking about. At this point there was a huge ripping, roaring noise and a World War II bomber flew overhead, leaving a trail of smoke. The three drunk men sitting on the next bench over cheered and pointed excitedly; the polite Thai student sitting next to me asked if I knew what it was about. We figured out the plane must be part of the VE Day celebrations. The Thai student remarked that a few days ago it had been the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. He indicated the sushi he was eating for lunch and said that this was why he was eating Japanese food today.
I remember this vividly, and I also remember walking back home in the sunshine, stopping in at Forest Hill library, (by this time it was four in the afternoon and the library was empty) and inhaling Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories. Once I’d read it – cover to cover, right there on the library floor – I was pretty sure I needed to change the umbrella story dramatically. I almost wished there was a way to unwrite it, and to write something more surreal, bold, playful instead. More like an Ali Smith story.
I took an antidepressant for the first time in over two months, went home, and didn’t write anything. For ages.
I didn’t understand why. It felt like all the small processes that go into writing – daydreaming up stories, closely observing situations, making up things about people around me, the willpower to sit down and write – had abruptly ground to a halt: like when you have too many tabs open on your laptop and it overheats. Whenever I sat down to write, I could feel some kind of deep processing happening in me. It sucked dry all my energy and left me feeling like a monkey sitting at a computer.
Writer’s block is always distressing for me. Sometimes I ring my dad and wail, “I can’t write, I don’t know what to write,” and his soothing response is, “Why don’t you just write something down and see if that helps?” Which is quite like telling someone with a broken leg that they’ll feel much better after playing hopscotch. I look up writing prompts and think, “Stupid”, I look through old notebooks and think “Ridiculous.” Then I read the news and wonder what the point of writing is: when you are such a small part of the whole, and so many people are suffering. How can you hope to make sense of such an overwhelming world?
Writing is my usual way to put my perceptions into perspective. It’s like when I lost my glasses; suddenly I couldn’t see very well, I was cranky, and I got a lot of headaches.
Writing is magic in two ways. (For me.) One, it is an escape from the world; two, it’s a way to map out my surroundings in a way that I can understand. If I don’t write things down to process them, I quickly fall into two bad thought patterns. One of the thought patterns is hyperfocusing – zooming in fretfully on small, irrelevant details of your life, which your brain gets stuck on. You end up stuck on thinking about the song “Have you ever loved and lost somebody” which you haven’t heard since you were on your way to the Fort, Erdington, in a friend’s car sometime in late 2001. Or you remember the exact wording and tone of a mild criticism someone gave you in autumn 2013 and become very fretful because what if everyone secretly thinks that and this is the most important thing anyone’s ever said and what if it sums up my whole personality oh my God…
What sums it up best is this quote from Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.”

The other bad pattern is the opposite, actually: it’s zooming out. When I’m stuck in this thought pattern, I feel detached from the details of everyday life – as though my life is a map, spread out in front of me. I keep mentally scanning this map of my life, the patterns within it, and its socioeconomic, psychological, historical influences; trying to get it all in a broader perspective, to see myself in terms of history and power structures. I guess you could call this contextualising. I end up ruminating about the amount of trouble that my generation is in, the amount of debt that we’ve all run up, how slim our chances are of living in prosperity, and our damaged global environment. And then I worry about what the future might hold for us.
But the thing about a bird’s eye view is that you can see everything, but at the same time you can’t really see anything. Nothing is detailed; everything is a sort of blocked-in approximation. I don’t believe I could live happily if I was constantly zooming out to this bird’s eye view. I envy people who can command this broad historical/theoretical/sociological perspective, but I find it all exhausting to think about. The world around me, with its proliferation of details and stories and people, is engaging and overwhelming enough.
Between the hyperfocusing and the bird’s eye view, I felt completely lost and detached from myself. Every insecurity came sneaking up on me on rubber-soled shoes; everything I’ve done is bad. I ended up reading other people’s blogs, and wondering enviously how everyone seems to have a better life than me. When I am able to write, I never worry about being replaceable; when I can’t write, I worry that everything I am and everything I do could be easily replaced.
I’ve only lost two or three weeks and it was probably a much needed break after working all summer, but it’s felt like a terrible, everlasting dry spell. I felt as though if I picked up a pen and wrote, my hand would turn to sand, the pen would dissolve into water, I would fall through myself into a pile of grainy sand.
I beat it in a simple way, anyway: I woke up this morning, grabbed my laptop and sleepily decided to write something, anything. I caught myself unawares, I think, because I went on to write three pages and feel much happier.
It was only after writing them down that it struck me I had taken antidepressants and got writer’s block on the same day. So I’ve been wondering – what if the antidepressants are connected to writer’s block? Is the medicine somehow blocking the creative processes in my brain? And if so, how come I can write now?

The thing is, I don’t want to have to choose between writing and antidepressants, especially as both are very much needed. My hope is that both my writing and mental health will settle down soon, after this period of adjustment and change. Fingers crossed.

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

Anxiety & Me, part 6: About Mr Milligan

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

I was brought up worshipping comedians.

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of Spike Milligan in a depressive episode. He looked destroyed. A sad, broken old man. And I realised something then: wherever his art came from, it didn’t come from bipolar.

“I cannot stand being awake,” Spike wrote about his illness. “The pain is too much … Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning – I go to a dinner table now and I don’t say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going – so that is depressing in itself. It’s like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is ‘good evening’ and then I go quiet.”

What on earth can you learn from something so awful?

Some would say that there are a handful of qualities you can develop, if you live with mental illness. Compassion. Empathy. Gratitude. Experience. Mindfulness.
Well, yes. But these are all things you could learn anywhere, in any circumstances. None are linked directly with mental illness, or indeed, with any negative life experience. They are all qualities that we, thinking people that we are, develop ourselves as we grow – and it’s possible to develop them even without a mental illness.

In contrast, creating art usually requires a lot of very practical skills and attributes. Like concentration, energy, stamina, and a basic belief that what you’re doing is worth the time you put in.

All these qualities are contingent on being able to sit down and work.
Which is difficult, if you’re not at your best.

If you can do it at the moment, good. If not, don’t blame yourself. Most importantly, when you can create, it doesn’t matter what your brain is like – it’s what you do with it that counts.

There is no direct correlation between being “a little bit mentally ill” and being an artist. It’s absurd – like saying that you need to have imbetigo to be a traffic policeman, or that you can only be an accountant if your dog got run over. Again: having depression or anxiety is an illness, not some kind of creative superpower.
Yes, we can use mental illness – because that’s what we would do anyway, using every scrap of experience to build something new and beautiful. Yes, we can and probably should talk about it in our work, opening up a space for those who feel scarred by it.

But let’s destroy the assumption that someone must become more interesting and creative as soon as their brain starts to riot. Forget the idea that all artists are somehow damaged, that troubled artists should feel fired up by their experiences instead of thinking “well, that was a bit shit”. Dismiss the supposition that we must all be productive all day, every day, or else we are failing. Mental illness is a fact of life; and there is a deeply personal connection for every artist between work and life experience, which defies attempts to be universalised into a feel-good message about how illness makes us braver and more creative.
It is our own talents, experiences, voices and strength that make us into artists. Not our weaknesses.

Anxiety & Me, part 5: “Dad, I’m Scared About Aliens”

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

Over the course of my life, I’ve been told frequently that OCD and depression are a personal failure. Maybe I’m not reading enough, not writing enough, doing the wrong exercise, or eating unhealthy food. Maybe I’m just making a fuss – after all, everyone gets worried sometimes, yeah? Maybe I’m just a bit of a non-starter.
“People with mental health issues must be doing something wrong!” This message has seeped into every pore of our culture, and it’s often repeated by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
No matter how much we explain that being unwell can actually prevent us from reading and writing – and drain the energy needed for exercise, cooking or work – it’s still assumed that the root cause of the problem is the ill person’s lifestyle and habits. We end up believing somehow that when we feel too ill to create art, it’s our own fault.
Anxiety in particular is often seen as a flaw, something you can get over if you try hard enough. As a child, I was told it wasn’t a real problem: “Twelve-year olds can’t be depressed! Just try and stop worrying!” I was vaguely aware one shouldn’t be constantly fretting, but assumed it was something I was doing wrong. Nobody around me talked about mental health, nobody I knew went to counselling; I was just “high strung”.
To me, mental illness meant being sectioned, like the vampy bipolar mother in Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum. There seemed to be no fictional characters who just happened to have brain issues.
And in general, I got the impression that mental illness was a sort of scary, glamorous, soul-destroying malady that only happened to grown-ups. It seemed you couldn’t really have it unless you were sick enough to be in a hospital, and all being well you should just crack on with your day and stop worrying. If you couldn’t get over it, you weren’t trying hard enough. This wasn’t some distant faraway past either. It was inner-city Birmingham in the noughties.
These misconceptions are held by people everywhere, and I have no doubt that other young artists from vastly different backgrounds are being faced with the same prejudices. Even after I educated myself and learned that anxiety disorders and depression were not flaws or weaknesses, but illnesses, I still found myself wondering why I couldn’t just get over it.
Then I wondered why my mental illness wasn’t making me more creative: instead, it often just made me restless, irritable and unable to produce anything.
Since then, I have sometimes wondered if my imaginative wordy skills are related neurologically to mental illness. I don’t know for sure – but you know what? I don’t care, either. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to be well enough to work in the first place.
Poor mental health is not a personal failure, but neither is it some perverse superpower that drives people to create masterpieces. You make your work; your sickness doesn’t.

Anxiety & Me, part 4: Tragedy and Triumph

[this is the fourth 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 three]

Mainstream media has made great leaps in de-stigmatising mental health, with many prominent celebrities like Stephen Fry opening discussion. But somehow it often seems to be mentally healthy people who feel so very, very inspired by these stories, while those of us who are chronic, or not fully recovered, sometimes get a bit frustrated with what’s not being said. Sometimes we feel unrepresented by the people who claim to speak for us.

Success stories sell – as do stories about plucky people recovering from their Big Bad Mental Health Problem. The journalist Caitlin Moran wrote a Times column about her anxiety, claiming that the problem was helped not by medication or counselling, but by telling the thoughts to be quiet; now her anxiety was “not totally over” but the “spell that kills [anxiety] is simply SHUT UP”. And her pal India Knight wrote a column, also in the Times, claiming that “everybody gets depressed…You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it. Which is, by the way, what normal people do”.

One problem with these folksy presentations of mental illness is that they assume everyone’s problems will be helped by the same techniques. More importantly, the issue is always placed firmly in the past tense: “I was anxious, but then I…”

Our culture is full of these stories. The real problem is that young, talented people with mental health problems absorb them and suddenly feel immensely pressured to recover, to be normal, or to be a success story (“if only I could just turn my depression into art…”)

Media shows us who we can be. Women artists with mental health problems – Amy Winehouse, Plath, Woolf – are often presented by media in a way that both glamorises their illness and minimises their humanity. For an example of the kind of media we’re surrounded by, look at Vice’s tasteless 2013 photo-shoot with models re-enacting the suicides of famous women artists.

It matters.

Because young female artists with mental health problems look to culture for role models, for arcs to follow, for ways forward.

And the narratives they see about people like themselves are often tragic, glamorous, but glitteringly triumphant – like the stories about Plath. Mentally ill women artists are culturally associated with glamour, genius and death. Imagine growing up with that pressure. Imagine growing up believing that all successful, happy, creative people are secretly sad, and that being an artist means dying young and unhappy.

So, there’s work to be done. Young artists need mentally ill role models. Young people need media representation of people with ongoing mental health issues leading normal and successful lives. It’s not enough to sit back, look at media representation and think “That’s enough! People are talking about it, problem solved!”
As ever, imagination and vision are key to creating new narratives for our lives.

The Great American Freakshow Trick

[note: this article will also appear at Shade, a student platform based at the School of Oriental and African Studies]

Last week I got a text from a friend who was watching an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show, featuring a group of people with facial disfigurements.

Obviously these people had chosen the platform as a way to raise awareness, my friend said, but: “it made this big show of being sympathetic towards disabled people, but it was so patronising and just came across as if their disability was the only thing of note”.

Invasive questions were asked about the guests’ disabilities. Jeremy called the women “love” and addressed questions to their carers. All in all, it sounded like a parade of the sort of subtle, but incredibly pervasive ableism in our society, which sees disabled people as their disability rather than a fully rounded human being.

Before I watched American Horror Story: Freakshow, I prayed “Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

Opinions I’d heard on this new fourth series of AHS have been mixed: disability activist friends refused to watch it because of the title alone, while others watched and enjoyed it. Another friend said she saw “no intention to shame or mock the characters”, as all the actors had chosen to be on the show. The same friend remarked that, “Hollywood does not give much room for individuals with such severe (as well as minor) physical disabilities to showcase their talent, if anything “disability” is practically invisible in such artistic areas. I was happy to see underrepresented persons on my computer screen.”

So: exploitative freak-fest? Or a sensitive show that gives work and exposure to disabled actors, like the delightful Jyoti Amge, and puts disabled bodies on our screens?

“Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

I’m not a fan of Complaining About Shows You Don’t Watch, so I sat down to watch it with zero expectations either way. Quick summary: the first episode of the show’s new fourth series is set in 1952 and follows a pair of conjoined twins – Bette and Dot – who are taken to hospital after a milkman finds them injured in their home next to their mother’s dead body. Word spreads. A freak show runner, Elsa Mars, hears about the twins and blackmails them into joining her troupe, and the plot goes on from there. There’s a silly subplot about a killer clown who kidnaps teenagers and imprisons them in a bus, (which would probably have been scarier if Jeremy Kyle had played the clown) but most of the focus is on the twins and the freak show runner.

So… is it awful? Unfortunately, yes. I am an invisibly disabled person, and I’m unhappy to say I hated it. I watched it with my fist in my mouth. I was strongly reminded of the first part of Arundhati Roy’s essay The Great Indian Rape Trick. I quote: “If you say you found the film distasteful, you’re told – Well that’s what truth is – distasteful. Manipulative? That’s Life – manipulative.
Go on. Now you try.
Try…Exploitative. Or.. Gross. Try Gross.”

I felt for people with obvious disabilities, who will inevitably in their day-to-day lives be compared to the characters on this incredibly popular show. I felt it catered to the imaginations of nondisabled viewers, and ignored the fact that disabled viewers would be watching. But mostly, as I watched it, I had the strange feeling that I was being pulled inexorably back to the Victorian age.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiousity Shop, there is a freak show owner called Mr Guffin who speaks about his difficulties with one of his ‘freaks’ being old and unwell: “Once get a giant shaky on his legs, and the public care no more about him than they do for a dead cabbage stalk.” Victorian freak shows were very popular. Not only did they feature disabled bodies, but also Black bodies – like that of the Hottentot Venus – and the bodies of trans people, were put on display for money. This continued for a long time, in fact; in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, partly set in the late 20th century, the intersex protagonist Calliope runs away from home and ends up displaying their body to tourists for money.

Another fun fact: in the Victorian age, disabled people were frequently seen as violent, dangerous, and less than human.

this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones

This attitude is reflected in the show’s portrayal of disabled people. In American Horror Story: Freakshow, a nurse at the beginning says about the conjoined twins, “If I gave birth to something like that, I’d drown it in a bathtub.” For the real-life implications of abuse on disabled people, especially children, look no further than the Issy Stapleton case and the recent incident of a mother who killed her three disabled children and was not prosecuted.

Yet this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones: we see the twins committing a murder, and a group of the ‘freakshow’ performers commit another violent murder later in the episode as retribution for being called freaks.

In real life, disabled people are incredibly vulnerable to murder and abuse, especially by carers and relatives. We are more likely to be killed than to commit murder. Portraying us as violent is another indication that this is entertainment that doesn’t really care about disabled people; the creators care about using a combination of violence, horror, woo-woo spooky music and disabled bodies to get ratings and cause a controversial sensation.

So, I’ll come out with it: yes, it is ableist. To me the point of calling a piece of media ableist, sexist, racist or any –ist word shouldn’t be to show off how offended you can be, or how disgusted you are with The Media. Sure, that seems to be why some people do it. But to me, it’s more important than my own feelings. Media isn’t in its own little, unimpeachable bubble: it’s part of the wider world and a major influence on the way we view other people. There is often a strong correlation between media representation of minority groups, and the real-life impact on those groups.

Witness the impact of South Park: children in many countries watch South Park, and it has been linked to cases of bullying. If I tell people I have OCD, they sometimes bring up television characters like Bree in Desperate Housewives who fit the OCD stereotype.
But more positively, Laverne Cox’s starring role on Orange is the New Black has given incredible media representation to trans women, which gives cis people like myself a way to relate to and discuss trans issues.

Media representation matters. Being able to see ourselves reflected in a positive light matters.

It’s great to see disabled bodies on your computer screen, but it’s not enough to put disabled bodies in your show: you have to write them as people. What I saw was a show that features disabled bodies first and foremost, and disabled people second.

For example, I expected to hear more from the disabled characters themselves, but was disappointed that actors like Amge were only given a few lines and their characters barely fleshed out. Of course, this is the first episode – which introduces a lot of characters at once – but this doesn’t excuse the fact that most of the focus was on characters like Elsa, who appeared to be normal. The disabled actors were clearly playing bit parts.

So the question is: will this show make life more difficult for disabled people?
At the end, Elsa gives a speech which attempts to justify this circus:

“I’ll tell you who the monsters are – the people outside this tent! Housewives… stupefied with boredom… as they dream of strange erotic pleasures! They have no souls! My monsters… they are the beautiful, heroic ones! They offer their oddity to the world! Everyone is living the life they chose! But you, undoubtedly, are one of those soulless monsters.”

But why does the world have to be divided into monsters and “beautiful, heroic ones”? Why can’t we all be seen as real people? Why attack women (housewives in particular) to make a lazy, clichéd point about how The Normal People Are The Nasty Ones Really? We are all – abled and disabled – human beings, who are capable of doing both wonderful things and monstrous things.

Sad that we have so many talented disabled actors in this world, and yet the only show this autumn that features a group of them prominently has the word “Freakshow” in the title, puts its disabled actors in cages, fetishizes their bodies, and portrays them as violent people who have to be “saved” by a manipulative freakshow runner.

Personally I’m holding out for a show that portrays us in a context removed from the fantastically clichéd asylum/freakshow settings. A show that fits with the modern world where disabled people are leading normal lives, with friends, families, hobbies and jobs. An acknowledgement that we exist outside of the asylum, the freakshow or the special ed classroom. Or is that too much to ask?