Tales from the wreckage ii: on struggles and unexpected scars

Useful background: I slit my wrists a while back. I don’t talk about it, or even think about it, that much these days, mostly because I don’t need to. But I decided, at that point, not to self-harm again.  Partly because I seem to have a push-everything-as-far-as-it’ll-go-then-stop-and-try-something-else schtick going on that’s probably pretty healthy; partly because Other People; partly because I like the sensitivity of the scars; partly because three fairly obvious eight-inch suicide slashes is plenty to make the point (and have to hide on the rare occasions I need to pretend to be a grownup.) It seemed, and seems, the right and only decision to make at the time, and I stand by it.

Thing is, that leaves me with a bit of a problem.

I started self-harming, as this blog testifies, because it was the only language I could use to describe the pain I was in to which people would reliably listen. I’m not quite the same person as I was then, and I’m certainly not in the same kind of pain – it has been noticeable the extent to which the ongoing litany of practical disasters and insecurity constituting my present life have been mitigated by the love and support of my partner and my friends. I feel loved, which to a great extent means that emotional repercussions of my present instability fade into the foreground.

But by that same token, they’re hard to miss.

I’m tired. I’ve forgotten how to sleep. Ever since ME, I have basically been able to lie down and pass out – but suddenly, now, I am mostly awake and alert, my mind flicking fretfully through plans and possibilities – where to go, where to work, what to do. Contingency plans. Places to run to next. If I’m woken or interrupted, it takes me hours to calm down enough to get back to sleep – even if my terminally insomniac boyfriend gets up to go and have a bath so’s not to keep me awake, the chances are I’ll be staring at the phone or my ceiling for hours anyway. If I’m on my own with no warm person touching me, it’s even worse.

So I’m going slowly crazy. Everything is fragile, all of the time – I am febrile and frantic, only the thin veneer of everyday separating the outside world from the flickering whirling mess inside. Touch me, and I’ll either bleed or burst.

It’s hard in unexpected ways, the homelessness and the rootlessness. Nothing is ever quite safe. I’m never quite safe. No tenet of my selfhood is unassailable by the twin agonies of being worthless to the world and having nowhere to hide from it.

The trouble, then, is how to deal with that. And I confess, I don’t know. But it’s no less significant for being entirely unsurprising that my go-to response has consistently been to reach for self-harm or suicide. There have been whole weeks where everything is punctuated by flashing cravings– or careful considered planning – for precious oblivion, whether momentary or mortal. It’s been the last place left I could go.

I’ve been properly depressed only a few times in my life. It’s odd, while being in some senses quite emotionally positive, to be continually wrestling with the same thoughts and feelings – that I’m a burden on everyone, that I’ve already failed at everything, that I’d be better off dead – and more than anything with that dull overwhelming craving for nonexistence shot through with the constantly-resisted impulse to cut. To say, publicly, that I’m not okay any more – even though, in some senses, I am. It’s unexpectedly overwhelming, and oddly destabilising. Combine that with the endlessly shifting cities and sleepspaces and you get me, unsure quite what I am anymore, or quite how to carry on.

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Wellcome Trust Mental Health Recovery Symposium: In which Sasha hears voices making an awful lot of sense

 Jeanette Winterson’s advice to anyone is ‘get born’. I am slightly more dubious about human existence, but could reluctantly compromise on: ‘get born; check your privilege; get therapy; fight for social justice; get on the Wellcome Trust’s mailing list’. Seriously. I would advise anyone and everyone interested in science, humanities, mental health, medical history or the human condition to get themselves on there – they do remarkable and pretty much unique work, not just in terms of exhibitions and scholarly funding but also in terms of symposia and research days and all manner of what on topics connecting scientific and medical research with other aspects of the human experience. They’re great. And yesterday’s symposium on mental health recovery was unquestionably a case in point.

Ostensibly the ‘soft launch’ of http://mentalhealthrecovery.omeka.net, the whole thing was the brainchild of PHD student and former archivist Anna Sexton, who’s looking at participatory archives and the ideologies of record-keeping (more detail here). Essentially, the archive shows the stories of four people with lived experience of mental health difficulties, and their critical dialogues with the concept of recovery. The contributors – therapist and academic Peter Bullimore, ’professionally mad’ multimedia artist Dolly Sen, writer Andrew Voyce and mountaineer and photographer Stuart Baker-Brown. Each structured and designed their own sections of the website. The day consisted of short lectures from each about their experiences and their take on the complexity of ‘recovery’ as a concept in relation to mental health, current medical treatment, and non-pathologising ways to conceptualise the lived experience of mental health issues. Peter Bullimore, therapist and educator, is probably going to get the lion’s share of this writeup, partly because he was the most technical, partly because he’s much more involved in the practical therapeutic stuff that really interests me, and also because while Dolly, for example, was funny and charming, anyone would get much more out of reading her story in her own words than they would out of me précis-ing her précis. [That sounds a bit dirty. It really shouldn’t.]

Anna Sexton’s introduction talked about how the concept of ‘recovery’ tied into a medical worldview often rejected by those with lived experience of mental health issues. She spoke of the problematic scarcity of the voices of those with such experience in written records, particularly institutional records for asylums and hospitals, and the consequently hidden, subsumed, fragmented nature of their stories. This wasn’t exactly part of the talk, but the few we can glimpse include the ‘Pam Maudsley diaries’, and the letters of Nora Quin to her sister from the York City Mental Hospital 1936-50. Believe me,  these are depressing; the last basically consist of Nora begging her sister to come and fetch her. Every week. For 16 years.

Anyway, Anna’s introduction was succeeded by Peter Bullimore’s talk on ‘The Impact of Trauma’, delivered at approximately 500 miles an hour, which was great for breadth of content, if less so for coherence of notes. To be fair, he got me onside pretty early on by going ‘so, I’ve heard voices since being abused at the age of 7, those are my experiences and I own them’, and appearing to actually do so. He also entirely denied the validity of his (or anyone’s) schizophrenia diagnosis, which I’m not really in a position to contest but can understand some might wish to – certainly I can see a diagnosis of some mental health conditions (bipolar, say, or OCD) would have some validity for those affected both in terms of understanding and accessing appropriate treatment. I just don’t know enough about schizophrenia to know if that would be the case (equally certainly, from his anecdata and my own unfortunate encounters with mental health services, I can see how it might cause more problems than it solves). He works across the disciplines that come under the banner of psychiatry, specialising in those who have been told they can’t recover. ‘A person’s lights never go out’ echoed through the talk; Bullimore stresses the importance of ‘reaching beyond diagnosis’ to the person, positing recovery as an entirely individual, experiential thing.

Trauma, he argues, is prevalent in those with lived experience of mental health difficulties. In his experience, sexual, physical or emotional abuse and neglect are often found in the narratives of those with mental health issues (and here I think he focuses specifically on voice hearers, but it wasn’t clear). The less severe the trauma, the less pronounced its effect in psychosis – but it’s non-diclosure of trauma, not trauma itself, which can be a trigger. Human beings assimilate and deal with traumatic incidents by revisiting them, narrativising them, sharing them, so they lose their power [this is me paraphrasing, I might be wrong]. ‘It’s not what happens, it’s what you do with it’ – if the brain can’t talk to anyone, it’ll talk to itself.

When people arrive in mental health treatment, to Peter the most important thing to ask is ‘how did you get here?’ To seek context and story rather than simply categorise and drug, or worse still write people off as unrecoverable. (It’s noticeable that all 4 of the MHRA contributors had been told this at one time or another.) But if you ask, you have to act if the person wishes you to – the next question is often ‘do you want me to do anything with this?’

Why do people – practitioners –  not ask clients for their stories? Many reasons – narrative doesn’t fit the medical model; practitioners may consider the client too disturbed (avoidance from practitioner) or too distressed (but a can of worms will always be a can of worms, open or otherwise); they may assume the client doesn’t want to be asked (rationalisation) or they may be afraid of ‘false memory syndrome’ (herewith a rant I didn’t write down, alas).

Why does trauma, particularly childhood trauma, manifest as voice hearing and other adult mental health difficulties? Trauma is a cognitive fog. If the subject dares not look at an event, they cannot see it. If they cannot see it, they cannot think about it from their growing perspective. The practitioner will often know a client’s thought process – or, in fact, emotional development – has halted at a particular point, but the client must be willing to go there (and thus feel able to trust the practitioner to create a place of safety from which to explore) to be able to resolve issues. Is the client’s response adult or child’s fear?

As long as we repress traumatic memories, we remain in the trauma. Frozen terror halts emotional development, so memories and attendant trauma can be triggered but not worked through. Talking about it people regress to age where trauma happened – ‘emotionally, how old do you feel?’ Often, people have multiple traumas, it’s not just one experience or incident, so if there are (say) ten boxes of hidden trauma, start with the easiest. People gain confidence from successfully overcoming the smaller ones to tackle the big ones.

‘All addictions are about avoidance’. The person they avoid is the person they most fear. Who are they angry with? Not necessarily the abuser, but the parents for missing it, or not listening or caring. 

Truth – what is really there? Adult or child?

Trust is the antidote to trauma, but must be earned and deserved.

Consent is crucial, it empowers – you can’t coerce somebody into dealing. 

BE AWARE OF YOUR OWN FEARS AND TRAUMAS. Otherwise you are a liability and undeserving of trust. Always focus on the bits of the story they don’t want to see – and ask them to explain in their own words. 

TRAUMA TRIAD. The adult must eventually be able to say to the visualised or remembered abuser that:

-          What you did was wrong

-          I am angry at you for doing it

-          I am going to stop you from doing it 

This helps unlock the frozen terror. You can use role play and visualisation – letters to and from inner child, significant figures, etc. People’s first question to their abusers is usually ‘why?’

You need to know that the person’s trauma is over and convey that without parenting or retraumatising. DO NOT PARENT – it keeps kids alive and adults insane. You need to support, not pick up. 

Case study: Anna, raped twice at age 14. She told her mother both times, and both times was ignored and told not to tell. This made it her fault. As an adult, she hears three voices: her rapist, a female voice telling her off, and her own internal voice. Why did her mother let her down? They still live together. She asks Peter ‘Will you keep me safe?’ (to confront visualised rapist). Put inner 14-year-old in safe place, invite adult Anna to confront rapist and explore the trauma triad. She recovered with gratifying speed, began resisting mother and developing adult autonomy.

 Image 

So, ask ‘how did you get here?’ (what has happened?)

If that is unanswered:

Who are you?

If that unanswered:

What’s your biggest fear?

 – when did it start? What was happening then? (remember avoidance). 

Case study: x, taken into custody, claimed to have shouting match with the Queen and have found the Holy Grail and left his coat over it. Schizophrenia diagnosis. Turns out he’s recently lost 5 close family members and his wife left him. Bereavement also loss of sense of identity, control, structure. Creating fantasy in order to cope, creating livable world. Three weeks of intense bereavement counselling and symptoms abated. 

DON’T WORK WITH DIAGNOSES, WORK WITH HUMAN BEINGS.

Work with people on their own terms. Often people are unable to speak about being unable to speak. Mental health symptoms are often imaginative rescue for sense of control.

Fear is transposed outward.

If people can’t respond in the terms you’re offering, change method – art? Role play? Writing?

Everybody wants to be asked. Everybody wants to be related to as themselves. Everyone Is people.

So, yes. That, in case it wasn’t obvious, is mostly a slightly more coherent transcript of my notes. Stuart Baker-Brown’s and Andrew Voyce’s will be shorter; I’m telling you NOW to go look at Dolly Sen’s stuff [link] because a lot of it’s art/image dependent, and she’s hilarious. (Her card runs: NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS CARD. CONTACT: NONE WITH REALITY. She set up Bonkersfest to subvert understanding of mental health issues with humour. She has the lyrics to Joy Division’s She Lost Control tattooed on her right forearm. We swapped doctor horror stories. She’s ace.) 

Stuart Baker-Brown has a diagnosis of schizophrenia; his symptoms aren’t a problem (‘psychosis is beautiful’) but how he’s been treated, particularly by the medical establishment, really was. He was told to give up any hope of working again and put on drugs with horrific side effects. Had grown up being told feelings, especially depression, are a weakness, and so never expressed any. He wanted hope and positivity from services, not denial of his ability to function. For him, recovery and indeed his condition have been about working out meanings for himself. 

Dolly Sen – just google her. 

Andrew Voyce, an asylum patient for 20 years before Mrs Thatcher closed the asylums, considered himself to have ‘written himself better’. A great believer in the power of narrative for communication and understanding, he has rebuilt relationships with his family on the basis of his writing, and contributed to several books about the lived experiences of mental health issues (eg. Grant, ed, Our Encounters with Madness). His definition of recovery coheres with that of Gordon McManus – effective therapy, a meaningful life, a new identity (I myself would perhaps take issue with this last bit). He’s unsure about the concept of curing a biological disease – much more concerned with the social dimension of mental illness. 

Jerome Carson, professor of psychology at the University of Bolton, bears a startling resemblance to one of the nurses at Addenbrookes, where I was an ED psychiatric inpatient in 2004 (I think), and I slightly regret not taking the opportunity to tackle him about that. (Given that his profile simply states that he worked in ‘the health service’ between getting his degree in the early 80s and his PhD in the mid-2000s, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.) He spoke about the ownership of stories about mental health, and how the concept of ‘recovery’ privileges certain narratives, and the conflict between voices of ‘professional expertise’ and lived experience. There’s been increased attention over recent years to the perspectives of those with lived experience – in Psychiatric Services journal, for example, there were 10 articles by people with lived experience for the first 50 years, 34 between 1994-2000, and 46+ since 2000.

Why is this important?

1)      Helps MH professionals learn about difficulties and experiences – enhances understanding.

2)      Gives sufferers and families sense of not being alone

3)      Addresses continual need for experiences to be shared amongst sufferers, professionals and carers.

4)      We learn by sharing stories. 

Glenn Roberts: ‘At its most arid, modern medicine lacks a metric for existential qualities such as inner hurt, despair, hope, grief and moral pain, which frequently accompany and often constitute the illnesses from which people suffer.’ Greenhalgh etc, quoted Roberts, 2000. 

Patricia Deegan, Recovery as a Journey of the Heart, 1996: ‘The goal of recovery is to become the unique awesome never-to-be-repeated human being that we are called to be.’

CHIME definition of recovery:

Connectedness

Hope and optimism about the future

Identity

Meaning in life

Empowerment.

Julian Pooley, not a speaker but an audience member, works at the Surrey Archive in Woking, which has kept mental health record s since 1700. His archive received archives from the aSylums when they shut. He collects oral histories of lived experiences on mental health – has been on R4’s All in the Mind – but expressed concern over need to have a MH professional present when essentially poking about in murky bits of people’s pasts.

(At this point I scribbled ‘look into archivist training/jobs’ in the margin. Nuff said.)

So yes. Recovery is a fraught concept, as is the ownership of stories – hopefully more will be done to redress the imbalance of practitioner and experiential accounts of mental health issues.

 

 

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on bus stops, boundaries, and bad things i learn late at night

I had an interesting journey home tonight. In the Chinese sense. It’s 2.30 – I have literally just reached the sanctuary of my room, and i probably won’t be sleeping for a while yet, despite the fact that at about 20 past 10 I was tired enough to debate breaking up the party. It’d been a lovely evening with two close friends, talking and laughing: at about half 12 we suddenly noticed the time: we all have work tomorrow, so my friend G and I walked to the bus stop. We talked about a party where my friend’s date had worn their ‘lesbian vampires’ tshirt. A passing man said ‘hey, are you lesbians?’

My (genderqueer) friend’s reaction and mine were markedly different. I stiffened, my hackles rose; I went very still and focused on the bus stop sign in front of me. My friend, however, cheerily told the man we were talking about lesbian vampires from a kid’s book series they’d never read but heard good things about, and after a bit of banter, he moved on. When he’d gone, we began exploring our different reactions. I had interpreted his ‘hey are you lesbians?’ comment as a bit sexually inappropriate, and I’d had a bad experience at the same bus stop a few days before when coming home at a similar time from the same friend’s: a man had followed me along the street and talked at me for 30 minutes, refusing to notice hints, and I’d only escaped when the bus had (at length) arrived. I’d found this experience invasive, and I began explaining to my friend all the things I do to minimise the attention I get late at night at bus stops or on public transport: tying up my long hair so it’s less noticeable, taking off my heels if I’m wearing any, wearing a jacket unless it’s unbearably hot, wearing glasses so a) I can see and b) I’m less attractive (older-looking, more serious), walking or standing with head down and hands in pockets, not looking at or responding to people.

My friend was a little surprised. They thought I was afraid of rape. I explained that yes, I was afraid of rape or violence: that’s always the underlying fear. But what you get at bus stops late at night, especially if you are a small and feminine girl – this one, anyway – is the deceptively thin end of rape culture’s abberant wedge: forced social interaction, always with an edge of imagined if not intended threat. People – usually men, often drunk men – come up and talk to you. They often don’t care if you are reading or have headphones on (I turn any actual music off in the early hours anyway, so I can hear what’s going on around me): they just want to talk to you about whatever’s on their mind, and it’s uncomfortable. I pointed out the previous incident, and another my friend hadn’t noticed until i pointe it out: a man had come up behind us, stopped, folded his arms, glared at us intently, then continued on his way. He was high on SOMETHING, and I doubt it was life; but the point is I was physically and mentally hypervigilant, keenly aware of an anxious about what was happening  around me. Usually at 1.30 am I’m shattered, and the last thing I want is to make small talk with a stranger; daytime buses are slightly different, but even then I’m not usually dying to interact with anyone. But most of the time in my experience people come up and talk at you, and they expect nice; and you are afraid to tell them you don’t want to talk, or to ignore them, or to be ‘rude’, because any random stranger, particularly any random MALE stranger, could get upset or aggressive, and that could lead to violent or rapey.  I am very small, and have breakable osteoporotic  bones, and almost everyone is bigger than me regardless of their gender – I am largely unable to defend myself against physical attack with any certainty of success.

So to me, doing what my friend did and inviting interaction is basically asking for trouble. You shut up and keep your head down and do your best to get home without any hassle. They were somewhat bemused: they get much less street hassle than I do, and attribute this largely to their more neutral gender presentation. On the rare occasions they present as more feminine, they noticed a marked increase. The bus still hadn’t come after about 20 minutes, and my friend, who uses a stick for disability reasons, was anxious to sit down. Given the previous topic of conversation, I said I’d prefer to stay upright and mobile, and besides, I could watch for buses – ‘like a meerkat sentry’, said my friend.

I had barely taken up my post opposite my seated friend, when a European man, some six or seven inches taller than me, unable to see my friend from the direction from which he was approaching, walked right up to me, and started a conversation. He asked why I didn’t walk, or some such. (As it happened, I’d walked the 6 miles or so there, and didn’t much fancy doing it again in the early hours, especially as I’d need to walk through Elephant and Castle, which scares me at night.) I looked toward my friend, said ‘and as if to illustrate my POINT!’ and then turned to the man. Mindful of our previous conversation about social coercion in spaces where women are vulnerable, and also mindful of the unusual morally supportive presence of my friend and their stick, I was exasperated and decided to see what wd happen if, for once, I refused to play ball. Refused to make nice. Just told the man straight out I had no interest in talking to him. So I did. I didn’t swear – not yet – I just said I had no interest in talking to him, and could he leave us alone. He was incredulous, and continued trying to talk – about how drunk he was, what a nice drunk he was, why was I being like that. I repeated, several times, that I didn’t want to talk to him, and would he please leave me and my friend alone. He went from incredulous to irate. He called me psycho, crazy bitch, mentally ill. He tried to engage with my friend in solidarity against me and my craziness: they rebuffed him firmly, and soon added their own wish to be left alone. He didn’t listen. He got uptight with them instead. With increasing volume and aggression, he continued to alternately abuse us for rejecting him, offer a selection of mental health diagnoses, and explain to us why our behaviour was unacceptable while his was okay. I told him to fuck off and leave us alone and walked a few paces away; he followed me, expostulating. My friend got to their feet and told him to leave us alone. At one point both parties were shouting ‘I don’t want to talk to you’: when I said ‘Stop then!’ the man said no, and told me if I’d been nice he might’ve left us alone, but since I was such a crazy psycho bitch [ - and then he didn’t finish the sentence.] My friend lifted their stick: he physically threatened them. My friend screamed ‘Leave us alone!’ repeatedly at full volume: he refused to do so and kept shouting about how stupid and mentally ill we were. At that point the wrong bus turned up, but I urged my friend onto it, because I think we’d both reached the end of our tethers; two stops later, I got off, and walked most of the way home, because I was scared he’d be on the right bus if I caught it.

I walked another four miles home, on my bad knee. And I was thinking – wow. I am used to being hassled by guys at bus stops in the early hours. It happens all the time. I do what I can to deflect it, in terms of hiding insofar as I can those characteristics which unmistakeably label me as ‘girl’, but I get it nevertheless – and usually, i am nice, and as distant as I can be, but polite. My body language with Scary Man had been unusual; whereas normally I play girl, hunch into myself, look away, shield with bags and books, I’d had Orange is the New Black on all day, and that’s full of women using the physical language of aggression. So when confronting Scary Man, I made the conscious decision to try that: to stand tall, even though I was still much shorter than he; to push my shoulders back, to walk straight up to him and look him in the eye; to speak directly. It was at that point he started to call me psycho. And I just thought – wow, this is the world we live in. If I’d been a guy, would Scary Man have started a conversation? Would he have refused to take no for an answer? I doubt it. Would he have screamed at a guy – a bigger guy than he – that he was a crazy psycho bitch? I doubt it.

Obviously, a lot of this stuff is intersectional, so let’s assume a guy of my race and colouring. It’s become a cultural truism that women, much more than men, are socialised as carers, socialised to be nice. [obviously these are a million miles from being the only two gender options,  and a further million miles from being the only defining factors determining ‘socialisation’ . I would suggest that socialisation for trans folk is probably even more complicated than for cis folk, and am thinking of a male member of my race and class and background, in order to minimise other factors at play.]  Many psychologists of gender have written much more articulately about this than can I; I’ll leave a bibliography in comments. But this goes further: here we are reaching Fugitivus’s epistemology-shattering Another Post About Rape, a world in which if a woman tries to enforce boundaries directly – even in a situation, late at night at a bus stop, when any considerate person might think twice about forcing company and conversation, because it’s evidently quite an isolating and vulnerability-provoking situation – *they* are labelled crazy, because women unequivocally and unapologetically drawing boundaries is simply incomprehensible in cultural terms. Women are nice. Women are polite. Women play nice. If I resist forced small-talk interaction, making strangers feel good about themselves as I was taught, I am crazy and should be lectured extensively on the errors of my ways. There is no space for me to refuse. There is no script.

I’m lucky: as a well-educated, presentable, middle-class white girl, I can play nice acceptably if I want. I can do ice queen. I can do apologetic. But all of those involve treating some man’s attempt to engage me in conversation as if it is welcome or appropriate, as if I have no right to those (any) boundaries,  and am requesting indulgence in being allowed privacy.

The worst thing is that I’m aware, even now, writing this, that what I’m trying to do is process, and recast what happened into terms that I find acceptable, maybe even useful. Because what really happened out there is that I tried to say no. I tried to draw a line between me and someone else, as directly as I could: using words, body language, eye contact, everything. And nothing I could do could make him listen. Nothing I could do could make him believe in my right to those boundaries. Nothing I could do could make him leave me alone. Nothing I could do could make him accept a no, or back off, or leave me alone.

Now imagine you are me, knowing that, and at a bus stop, late at night. Imagine you are me, and you know that there is nothing you can do, either verbally or physically, to make somebody leave you alone if you want them to. And now think about rape.

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tales from the wreckage: on love & survival

I can’t remember how old I was when I first read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It had just been released in paperback, so I was probably in my mid-teens. But along with all those other semi-seminal teenage cultural encounters that make up my sapiophile scrapyard subconscious[*], elements of it have echoed throughout my subsequent misadventures, bobbing to the surface at inopportune moments and knocking hollowly against the fragile fencing of my mind. Top of the list is a scene somewhere in the middle where a mother returns to her two young children, who’ve been abused in her absence by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man with whom she left them. The boy (iirc) has been rude to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, and his mother is angry: she says to him ‘every time you hurt somebody, they love you a little less.’

(In fact – I’ve just googled it, read the page if you can, Roy is genius[1] – the whole speech runs: “D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” But I think the particular inaccuracy of my remembered version is, in context, pretty telling. My words are rarely careless along axes I’ve considered, and I consider a fair bit.)

I struggled with that when I read it; I struggle with it now. Partly because the injustice and the misunderstanding and the blocked communication burn like acid behind my eyes. But also because for me, it’s not – and never has been – particularly true. For me, love sticks around. More than hope, faith, reason, certainly more than resentment or anger, possibly even more than my other two driving forces – curiosity and (the always imperfect drive toward) empathy/understanding – love stays as long as the person does. It changes, sure, changes tone and form and function, shifting like smoke around whatever difficulties or obstacles lie in its way and accommodating changes in circumstance and psyche effortlessly where reciprocated and inconveniently when otherwise. But also like smoke it clings, and it takes a bloody long reality shower to get the smell out of your hair. If it turns out my original sense of someone was faulty, which happens every now and again, then fair dos – I stand (or fall) by my judgement on a daily basis, and I’ll take that fall without a murmur. My bad. (What’s more common, and I suspect not only with me, is being aware of certain unpleasant aspects of a person without ever having them ranged against one, and then suddenly being brought up short when something that’s always been inexplicable and alien but irrelevant and thus acceptable becomes a hostile gulf, but I digress.)

It’s possible to map out the Freudian origins of this relentless, agonising, frustrating, triumphant ability to take it and take it and take it, to be beaten and banished and come back, bloodied and gasping, for more. My mother was loving and affectionate but conflicted about it, not least because my father often found her(/my)emotionality inexplicable and frustrating; both parents saw my ‘oversensitivity’ as (her)vulnerability; my rational father was in equal parts alienated and frustrated by it. Somewhere in between an unshakable sense of my own wrongness and unlovability, the conviction that love was inextricable from pain, rejection and inadequacy, was formed. And in some ways, it’s stood me in good stead. I’ve never expected anything to be perfect. I can recognise and deal with my faults and mistakes as they arise, mostly if not always without hiding or shame or unnecessary self-flagellation, because I’ve never been able to ignore my flaws, foibles and frailties. Loving and being loved by a person whom I feel knows me, romantically or otherwise,  makes me really, really happy. And it’s the flip side of the way I genuinely value the feelings of people I love above my own. I can’t ignore my own, I am incapable of denial, and these days I am just about capable of assessing degree, but when it comes to making life choices or relationship decisions I will go for the other person’s emotional wellbeing above my own almost.every.goddamn.time. (A tendency which has been known to infuriate my poor and very much beloved friends, less inclined to require self-abnegation than my inevitably intense relationships and unwilling, unendingly patient, unaskably wise witnesses to me spending more time in hell than out of it these last few years.)

In some ways, it’s got better. I have some barriers now, largely constructed around what it is reasonable to ask, and consistency, and deserving – but they’re pretty fragile, and subject to drastic relocation without notice. But still, somebody hurting me doesn’t make me love them less. Perhaps if they did so deliberately, with forethought and malice, or an unreasonable insensitivity or inconsideration. Perhaps if they did it without empathy, through thoughtlessness or assumption. Perhaps if they weren’t in pain themselves. But so much of the time, people hurt me because they too are broken. We’re all broken. Most of my loved ones, anyway, friends and lovers alike. We’re all scarred. It’s where the beauty lies. There’s a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in. I really wish, to all hell and every deity, that any kind of pain made me love people a little less, but it doesn’t. Not if I can understand it. Not if I know why. Not if I can recognise the pain they speak from because I know my own. Not if I love them. Which is the trouble, really.

There are consequences, of course. I find choosing to hurt others rather than oneself alien and unforgivable. I have nothing but contempt for those who can leave a trail of devastation in their wake without stopping to look at the damage they’ve caused, because their own path, their own pain is overwhelming. (Many people’s pain is always overwhelming. Mine is not infrequently so. Not everyone is a dick about it. And not everyone neglects to try clear up the mess.)

In the process of recent agonising breakup, beloved asked tentatively about my feelings for traumatic ex-beloved, who will himself admit that his behaviour toward me was horrific. To this day, I’m not sure he knows how much he broke me, or how hard it was to come back, and how different I am because of it. But to me, it wasn’t even a question. ‘Do you still love X?’ he asked. ‘Of course. Not like I did. But I’ll always have love for him. I don’t stop loving people.’

Which is my truth, my triumph and my tragedy.


 [*] For the curious, other examples include: Stephen Fry’s discussions of love in Moab is my Washpot, Jarvis Cocker performing Pulp’s Acrylic Afternoons, falling for Doc – yes, the seventh dwarf – at the panto aged eight because he was skinny and dark with glasses, or the first time I saw Marlene Dietrich in a pinstripe suit or Brian Molko in eyeliner. Or the scene in High Fidelity where Laura leaves her father’s funeral to fuck her ex because she ‘just wants to feel something other than this.’ Some things just resonate.

[1] “The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
― Arundhati Roy

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On sex, choices, consequences and compensations

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently discussing sex, and in particular my sexual choices and their implications. It’s something I find quite difficult, because sometimes it seems as if the way I make said choices is both relatively unusual and relatively unassimilable within any of the subcultures with which I associate myself. Namely, I’m NOT poly, despite that being the standard assumption by anyone outside the cultural mainstream. (tl;dr version = open is ok, but I can only be in love with/seriously commit to one person at once, and I find sharing Partners, capital P, difficult, as anyone unfortunate enough to be a close friend atm can testify.) Neither am I the culturally codified monogamous standard, exactly – although I’m generally pretty good at monogamy (when given the opportunity with someone I am or could be in love with, a strikingly rare occurrence), I certainly don’t necessarily limit sexual contact to within a single codified Relationship, and am probably a little too open to alternative relationship constructions for the Daily Mail’s comfort. And I’m not promiscuous, either, not that there’d be anything wrong with it if I was. I can’t do casual sex, or rather I can’t take sex casually – I can’t do one night stands with strangers, or with people I don’t already know and trust and respect (and probably in some sense love), or sex with people I feel casual about, or sex whose meaning for both of us isn’t discussed and openly consented to.

So. Where does that leave me? Well now. For me, sex is primarily and profoundly about connection. Obviously, I’m pretty appreciative of the sheer physical glory of it, my body’s pretty well wired that way. But more significantly, I’m an intimacy junkie, closeness to and understanding of others is one of my most fundamental driving forces, and sex is a unique and powerful means of achieving that. It’s a very quick way of getting under someone’s skin – finding out what they need, who they can be, whether you could love them, learning how to be with them in a fairly profound sense. And for my sins, I’m (mostly) entirely comfortable with people (or at least people I’ve decided I care about enough to want to share those aspects of myself with) having that knowledge of me – I’m at peace with my own emotional vulnerability, as  or at least as much as I’ll ever be. And I trust my own judgement.

That said, I don’t, and never have, navigated my way though life trying to avoid pain, because that’s impossible – life and pain are inextricable, you can’t defend against illness or accident or death or any of the myriad tragic coincidences that echo around us simply as a result of living in proximity to others. Life is suffering. There’ll always be pain. The trick is – and oh, how tricky it is – accepting that, and where you have a choice, choosing to be honest, and learn, and hope. And be kind. So, I’m totally with Bob Marley on finding the ones worth suffering for. People I choose to fuck (and we’re not talking big numbers here – except in cases of accident or genetic variation you have more digits than I’ve had lovers, although it depends somewhat on definition) are in some sense open door people – people whom I feel instinctively can teach me stuff about myself, about themselves, about the world. There has to be other stuff, too – physical attraction, and intellectual chemistry, and trust, and emotional resonance – but that sense of possibility is crucial. Desire itself is an open door. Of course, sometimes behind an open door there’s just a wardrobe – but sometimes there’s Narnia, and like I said, I trust my judgement.

And part of that judgement, whatever my acceptance of the possibility of pain, is by and large selecting people who will retain and act on respect for me, whatever may happen between us. Within or without a conventional ‘relationship’ situation. For my sins, I’m big enough and old enough and ugly enough by now to know that feelings and fucking are not in any way necessarily correlative; how I choose to relate them is just that, a choice. I’ve been passionately and later functionally in love with people whom for geographical/life reasons I couldn’t fuck, and slept with people I couldn’t be ‘in love’ with; in the latter case, sex wouldn’t change that, however close it brings us. My feelings for a person are what they are, and while mutual desire may open doors and/or expose lovable bits of someone it wd otherwise be very difficult to access (and these days I tend not to fuck people I couldn’t and/or don’t love in any sense, even the most diffuse) they’re not, baseline, going to change. I’m lucky enough to have a fairly if not infallibly accurate sense for how deep my feelings for someone could potentially run, regardless of whether emotional circumstances (and the inbuilt mutuality clause in my heart) allow them to do so.[1] It’s not always easy, but I know myself well enough to know that for me, self-knowledge, fleeting joy and genuine connection are often more than worth the pain of losing them. And I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people who understand and empathise with my reluctance to let sexuality either define or limit the bounds of emotional intimacy, which has been incredibly rewarding in terms of love, insight and support.

Thing is, thinking and living thus comes with consequences. For a start, as my opening paragraph would imply, I don’t fit into any culturally defined categories – I’m not a serial monogamist, exactly, or poly, or promiscuous, or casual. I’ll have sex outside relationships, but with people I care about, and mostly as an expression of what for me is a genuine impulse towards sustained closeness of some kind, even if not a traditional ‘relationship’-bound one. See previous re. trusting judgement in such situations, but it’s unavoidable that I’m therefore open to, well, getting fucked over, as they say. Secondly, people make all sorts of inaccurate assumptions. Usually along the lines of I’m wilfully promiscuous so I’m ‘easy’ – I’m not – and relatedly that sex and/or my relationships with my partners are unimportant to me, but also (in relevant circles) that I’m poly so should perforce be cool with all manner of things I actually find quite difficult.  Regrettably, this sometimes includes potential lovers, although doing so tends to remove one from that category pretty quickly – but even outside that kind of emotional loading, it’s hard to explain, and I end up on the wrong end of a number of problematic cultural schisms. The divide between girls you fuck around with and girls you go out with in the cultural mainstream, for example, that dreadful why buy the cow when the milk comes free thing – easy to say I wdn’t want to be with anyone who thought like that, and that’s undoubtedly true, but it’s never pleasant finding out one’s entire emotional capacity has been summarily negated by the willingness to express desire. The assumption that either my body or my emotions – intense as they are if you know me, hah, in both cases – are somehow worth less because I share them on the basis of closeness rather than commitment. The loss of good girl privilege – I mostly lost that a long time ago, right about the time I started talking about sex and subbing and the erotics of violence on the internet, or publishing papers on hardcore BDSM porn, but nevertheless I’m very aware that should I, gods forbid, get raped, or more seriously sexually assaulted that I already have been, it’s going to be even more impossible/traumatic to exact any form of legal retribution. (The inevitable vicious interrogation and undermining of my sexual choices/morality/selfhood would hardly encourage me to try). Being an openly sexual subject in a culture where (female?) sexuality is relentlessly objectified was never going to be a stroll over Hampstead Heath, but it’s ten times more difficult if you’re doing so outside culturally codified boundaries.

I’m not complaining, exactly. My notes for this point consisted of ‘SO, IS IT WORTH IT?’ at the top of a notebook page; within half an hour said page was covered in tiny scribbled notations of things I felt I’d gained from doing things this way. Insight. A number of close and loving friendships. Understanding, both from others and of others. Forgiveness, awareness, acceptance. Joy, contact, connection. Support and reassurance. The delight of an instinctive bond with others, lovers or otherwise, who’ve also examined themselves and their needs and their desires closely and constructed their own ways and means of working amid and around and across the monolithic cultural categorisations of acceptable, ‘normal’ sexuality.

So, is it worth it? For me, for connection, for closeness, yes. But only just, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t come at a price. And sometimes a highly personal one. For every person who’s reached out, there’s been another who’s dismissed me, or disapproved, and sometimes they’ve been people I liked or respected or desired. For every person who’s shared themselves or their stories or their experiences there’s been someone else who’s shaken their head in dismay or raised an incredulous eyebrow. Certainly I can entirely and genuinely understand and sympathise with those friends who conduct themselves otherwise.

It’s not easy. But then, what ever is?


[1] Essentially, more than I want *any* particular person I need to feel both wanted and able to give, so if neither of those exist, the feelings can’t either.

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Just like A Woman – on feminism, sexuality, culture, violence, misogyny and hope.

trigger warnings for misogyny, violence, sexual violence, general kyrarcial bullshit

That I don’t know how to start this post is somehow part of its point. Prompted by recent online discussion of feminists covering or reinterpreting misogynist works of art, I wanted to talk about the multiple intersections between sexuality, (potentially gendered) violence in my head, and the artistic and cultural representations thereof. But those intersections are so various, the layers of influence and response and impulse and connection so intertwined, that it’s tricky toknow where to begin. Perhaps, in accordance with outdated tradition/hidebound convention, with my personal beginnings.

A lot of the art and music and visual media I grew up with, and formed my identity from and around and through, has problematic sociocultural constructions in there somewhere. Certainly I’m not the only one who finds a clash of ideals difficult sometimes , and I’m probably not even the only one who’s lost significant friends over pointing this out in feminist cultcrit (my first boyfriend is no longer speaking to me after the review I wrote of the Stardust movie. Some days, I’m actually quite proud of that.) I’m by no means blind to the issues of problematic art, and I do my level best to behave according to the eminently sensible guidelines for Being a Fan of Problematic Things. But the fact remains that one hell of a lot of the media I absorbed myself in growing up can be seen to fit into the category of ‘problematic’ in some way – everything, from my parents’ beloved Stones and Dylan records to Jane Eyre and LOTR, from Joss Whedon to my beloved historical novels. I’ve been devoted to the Earl of Rochester since age 11, ffs, and whilst my adult academic self can speak authoritatively about a multiplicity of voices, satirical distance, an infinitely frustrated idealist lost amid a cynical world, there’s no denying my younger self simply forgave him his occasional misogyny for the sake of his frequent vulnerability, accepting the former as a logical result of the latter (see also: John Donne, Shakespeare, T S Eliot.)

The thing is, while I think we can all agree that Misogyny and Misogynistic Violence are Bad ™, the vast majority if not all inhabitants of the contemporary West have formed their genders and sexualities in (dialogue with) a society with a hugely significant cultural inheritance of misogyny and (often if not always) gendered violence. Of course it’s in the art, because it was there in the world.

So what do we, as responsible 21st century feminists, do about that? Refute its significance? Refuse to engage? Reclaim, reinterpret, redefine? Personally, I’d regard the first as futile, the second as defeatist, and the third as an opportunity. As the mind-bendingly brilliant Angela Carter put it: ‘I’m all for pouring new wine into old bottles, particularly if the pressure of the new wine causes the old bottles to explode.’ Culture is a toolbox, as a wise man said to me of late, and to my mind there’s no point in using only a screwdriver when you have hammers, nails and a saw as well.

Trouble comes, I suppose, if a man’s using that hammer to threaten, or to bludgeon a woman to death. I’m going to consider mostly traditional misogyny and its intersection with gender and sexuality: partly because that’s my area of expertise, and partly because I don’t really feel myself qualified to comment on much else – I have all the white/cis/able-bodied/middle- class/educated/other privilege, so there are better folk than me to comment on – for example –trans misogyny and racial stereotyping. And a lot of what I’m going to say relates to very personal responses that are themselves conditional upon my possession of those characteristics, which needs to be borne in mind.

So. A couple of things. One, no cultural work is a monolith. People respond to the same material in vastly differing ways. Cross-readings happen all the time, in ways intended by their creators and otherwise.

Take Rochester’s notorious Regime de Vivre, for example. I can’t for the life of me find a decent online version, so here’s the version in Keith Walker’s edn:

I Rise at Eleven, I Dine about Two,

I get drunk before Seven, and the next thing I do,

I send for my Whore, when for fear of a Clap,

I Spend [come] in her hand, and I Spew in her Lap;

Then we quarrel and scold, till I fall fast asleep,

When the Bitch growing bold, to my Pocket does creep;

Then slyly she leaves me, and to revenge th’affront,

At once she bereaves me of Money, and Cunt.

If by chance then I wake, hot-headed, and drunk,

What a coyle do I make for the loss of my Punck! [whore]

I storm and I roar, and I fall in a rage,

And missing my Whore, I bugger my Page.

Then crop-sick all Morning I rail at my Men,

And in Bed I lye Yawning till Eleven again.

What is it – a celebration, an ironic condemnation, an outpouring of self-laceration or self-hatred, a defiantly wry acknowledgement of inadequacy, a careless assertion of success? A takeoff of some unknown other? A cry of despair? Who knows. On the surface, it’s all casual misogyny and sexual violence, but is the narrator endorsing the behaviour he claims as his own? are we meant to sympathise, criticise, congratulate, condemn? Maybe these ambiguities are the most interesting element, reflecting the reader’s own preconceptions back at them? I’ve read critics taking all these positions, and more.

Even cultural products depicting the most unpleasant and damaging ideologies (or realities) are open to reinterpretation and cross-reading. A piece the author intended as serious polemic can be reinterpreted by its audience as satire or comedy (just read some of the evangelical Christian stuff on the net.) There are even feminist Charles Bukowski fans. The world is an infinitely various place.

And not only can work be interpreted or read differently, but it can also be reinterpreted and performed by feminist artists to give an entirely different meaning, or at the very least to interrogate, problematise and question. As an example of this, I’d like (if I may) to take you on a strange journey.

Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Womanis one of the multifarious hugely significant background tracks to my life. My parents played Blonde on Blonde repeatedly during my childhood; I knew the words long before I had any idea what they meant, and lest the onset of a grunge-and-Britpop-fuelled adolescence enabled me to escape those formative influences, my First Proper Boyfriend was sufficiently into Dylan that I must’ve heard the latter play it live about three times, mostly from the front row. So it probably isn’t surprising that it’s always had a fair amount of significance for me. I *do* break like a little girl, still, or I feel very much like I do; and  moreover that I appear to and that kind of vulnerability is part of what I (re)present to the world. As for the bridge couplet about ‘this pain in here/ I can’t stay in here’, my response to that is so multivalent as to deserve an entire essay by itself (which I will write, if you ask, I dare you.) I am also, for my sins, very aware of its potential misogyny – all that taking and faking ‘like a woman’ all those curses, ribbons, bows, fog, amphetamine and pearls  - and problematic binaries. Dylan’s vocal on the album version of the song is not particularly emotional; he leaves the accompaniment to express whatever sorrow is missing from his voice. Covers, however, are a different matter. (And oh god, there are SO MANY covers. Obviously this is a song that resonates with a wide variety of people.) Jeff Buckley’s makes it a man’s tragedy, long-drawn-out and melodramatic, almost spitting the amphetamines line and slowly drawling the chorus. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s breathy, feminine version is softer, opener, more positive in the verses; more complex, sadder and softer in the choruses, which were probably the most positive part of Dylan’s. CN Lester’s gorgeous androgynous performance gives a sense of depth and understanding, an awareness, warmth and weight absent from the original. Both Gainsbourg’s and Lester’s address the emotions implied by the lyrics in their vocals, particularly their sadness, more than Dylan does; the latter’s ambiguous gender presentation also implicitly questions Dylan’s stark binaries, opening up the song in unexpected ways. No individual piece of work is unassailable – and certainly nothing can’t be subject to reinterpretation in challenging, undermining and revolutionary ways. Reinterpretation is all part of what Angela Carter (again! Sorry) called ‘the investigation of the social fictions that regulate our lives – what Blake called the ‘mind-forged manacles.’ (In her own such investigations, for the record, she ‘found most of her raw material in the lumber room of the Western European imagination.’)

Anyway. Probably one of the most troubling aspects of engaging with work i find problematic from a gender angle is the intersection of potential misogyny and sexuality. Like everyone else in the Western world, cultural products with problematic gender/sexuality ideologies have played a significant part in the formation both of my femininity and my sexuality.  Yes, a lot of Western cultural history is problematic according to the tenets of modern feminism, and SOME OF IT I FIND HOT. And that’s ok. [1]

(There are, of course, a vast range of artists of all genders whom I find sexy precisely because of the ways they inhabit or explore the gender binary or fraught issues of sexuality, oh hai Lou Reed Annie Lennox David Bowie kd lang Justine Frischmann Pearl Jam Amanda Palmer Pulp Brian Molko, but I’m less concerned right now with work whose ideologies I can actually make a feminist case for. I’m damn glad it exists, and I wish there was more of it, and will endeavour to support and facilitate its creation. But.

I’m not arguing so much about the fairly incontrovertible need for MOARR challenging feminist art, but that work manifesting problematic ideals can also still be valuable to feministsTo recap: even the most obviously problematic work is a) interpretable in a variety of ways, b) up for reinterpretation by other artists, and now c) a legitimate source of sexual or emotional or intellectual inspiration.)

Anyway.

Some music/art I find hot because it showcases a kind of young, brash, aggressive, domineering masculinity I only in practice find attractive when it coexists with things like intellect, sensitivity and usually androgyny; some I find hot actually *because of* an undertone of misogynist threat. Which is possibly the most challenging element of this. Sometimes, art that manifests the threat of misogynist violence I find sexy directly BECAUSE of the threat of misogynist violence.

Some personal background, as explanation not excuse (for none is needed): it’s just a fact of my size and shape, let alone the longterm consequences of a decade’s anorexia, that the vast majority of ppl I find attractive, whatever their gender, could probably cause me significant physical damage if they wanted. It’s just a given. I’m not quite as feeble as I look, due to all the swimming, but pretty much. So I associate being physically overpowered with sex in a way that interacts fruitfully with my submissiveness – surrendering to people, trusting them utterly to look after (and pleasure) me, trusting them not to force me to do anything I don’t want or do things that cause me significant damage or that I won’t like EVEN THOUGH THEY BLATANTLY COULD is hugely sexy for me. And the logical correlation is that i find a *lot* of artwork with overtones of misogynist threat *really fucking hot*.

Some examples (trigger warning for sexual violence, gore, and animal abuse in the videos):

Eels – Fresh BloodThis is from an album called Hombre Loco: 12 songs of desire, many of which are in some way problematic. Note the extent to which the video for this is actually *about* the threat of sexual violence; not so much an undertone as a TONE, RIGHT HERE, IN YOUR FACE, of sexual threat. This is the most overtly menacing track – the deep rumble of that bassline – and it’s also the one that makes me alternately want to wriggle seductively and stops me like a rabbit in headlights.

Same goes for NIN – Closer. It’s brutal (the first line is ‘you let me violate you’ ffs), it’s nasty, it’s lyrically and musically and visually violent – and oh god it works. It’s worth pointing out that in the (amazing, horrific, beautiful) video it’s Trent Reznor who’s perhaps made most physically vulnerable – he’s chained blindfold from the roof at 1.48 – and the visual associations between humanity and animal and insect and bones and gore run cross-gender. But still, it’s hard to argue with the potential for violence and misogyny in the lyrics - although Reznor’s use of physicalised iconography to convey emotional states (and vulnerabilities) should also be borne in mind (The latter being, for me, infinitely the dominant factor. I’m actually tempted to do a close reading of the lyrics, complete with detailed emotional exposition of what they mean to me, but I won’t. Honest.)

Almost anything Nick Cave ever did. It’s not that I fancy Nick Cave himself, particularly, although I probably wouldn’t say no if he offered, the man’s a genius (see also: Leonard Cohen). But the overt aggression of tracks like Mercy Seat, Loverman (‘there’s a devil waiting outside your door…with his straining sex in his hand..’) or Red Right Hand (note blindfold woman in bed in the video; another song less than notable for its subtlety) is a) pretty damn hot in itself if you’re me, and b) creates a sense of violence held in check on his more tender songs that’s incredibly powerful as far as i’m concerned. (Actually, Cave might belong with the deliberate explorers of these issues; my personal jury is out on that one. And I partly think he’s a genius because he begins love songs with lines containing words like ‘interventionist’ and produces highly emotional yet relatively complex relationship analyses like ‘we talked about it all night long/we defined our moral ground/but when i crawl into your arms/everything comes tumbling down’, but I digress.)

(You may have noticed that this entire section has been derailed by my spending two hours listening to music i find hot. So shoot me. You may also have noticed that i’m a child of the 90s, musically speaking – so shoot my bleeding body, to use an inappropriately apt metaphor. I’m sure younger feminists have very similar dilemmas about sexual aggression and misogyny in hiphop. In fact, I know that,  because some of them write books…)

The sexual attraction of potential violence is not necessarily gendered – some of Le Tigre and the Kills, both female vocalists (and the latter scribes of the immortal line ‘i’m gonna stab your kissy kissy mouth…’) have the same effect – but the non-misogynist examples are not necessarily less hot. They’re just different. And the thing is, i feel that to be asked to deny the sexual pull of the examples cited above is to be asked to deny a significant element of my sexuality – the sexuality formed and expressed in a culture full of precisely these issues. And i have *no* desire to apologise for that – or to construct myself as a victim, or deluded, or without agency, in that expression. An element of violence turns me on, for reasons I have examined and explored, and that’s ok. (It’s also worth gesturing here at the theraputic potential of controlled intersections of violence, sexuality and trauma etc, which folk like Pat Califia and Meg Barker et al know infintely more about than me.) And in responding sexually – or emotionally, or intellectually – to ideologically troubling work, i am not necessarily endorsing their problematic elements, but i *am* saying that arousal, or whatever this track (or book, or film, or picture) does for or gives to me is worthwhile, and welcome, and in itself nothing to be ashamed of, unless it violates my moral code in other, unrelated ways.

Either way, I don’t think that as long as I remain aware of ideological conflicts, my sexuality or anything else should have to be negated by the problematic cultural heritage that was the background for its formation. Anything i can find in or take from problematic work, be it inspiration or ideas or argument or resentment or arousal or encouragement or whatever, is a valid tool to use for creative expression, self-actualisation, and so on. And such appreciation certainly doesn’t inherently negate the premium i place on consideration for others’ wellbeing in terms of how i move through the world.

So. I can’t help thinking that a better approach to living happily in a ideoculturally problematic environment is precisely this: to acknowledge the troubling elements of our particular cultural lumber room, take from it what we will, and make *new* work (or lives, or ideas, or love, or whatever else). Whether the new takes inspiration from the old, ignores it entirely, consists of alternative, challenging, more complex interpretations, or simply takes the form of more thoughtful, interrogated responses. To quote Angela Carter again, because she puts this better than I ever could, maybe we should be trying to ‘transform…fictional [art] forms to both reflect and precipitate changes in the way people feel about themselves – putting new wine in old bottles and, in some cases, old wine in new bottles. Using fictional forms inherited from the colonial period [for example] to create a critique of that period’s consequences.’

Culture is a toolbox. And tools build worlds.

[1] Nb. For reasons that are personal and psychological as well as cultural (explored in more detail herehere and here; good luck with disentangling the impact of intrafamilial dynamics from wider cultural context, etc) I happen to be a bit kinky, largely but certainly not entirely submissive; I can’t emphasise enough that while some of the works and issues I discuss press those buttons, some of them don’t, and some non-kink-identified folk find these things sexy too. Which a) is ok too and b) by no means implies that they are secretly in denial. People’s sexualities are just different, both in conceptualisation and in practice, and that’s rather the point. I don’t get to call someone else a pervert because x turns them on, any more than they get to call me vanilla because I don’t like canes or fancy Marlene Dietrich in a top hat.

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there are places I don’t go in case the world ends, and one of them is you

I wrote a book recently, for the irrationally compelling Edward Saperia, mastermind and madman behind Clockwork Quartet and the impractical number of Original Content London projects:  it’s called Cryptofloricon, and was probably the most fun I’ve ever been paid for. Anyway, for possibly the first time ever, I was told off for being insufficiently emotional, and this is what happened.

Be warned. There are more where these came from.

You’re beautiful I can’t quite breathe with you near. Like you’re gravity, like you’re god, everything begins and ends with you. At the corner of my eye, at the centre of my attention, your every move an earthquake, I am lost when your eyes find me.*

Desire I’d forgotten. The sudden breathless boneless longing that drags you momentarily from street or shop and melts you into the press and slide of skin and bone and weight and warmth, muscle and fingers and mouth and leaves you breathless, blinking, beached on the bare boards of your life.


Longing 
The sunlight is sharp and it cuts me, slices through flesh to the space where you’re not and hollows an ache I plaster over daily with the silt of a thousand compromises. The curve of your jaw, the set of your shoulders, the turn of your head, they echo against my eyelids as I reach blindly for reason to pretend that anything else is enough.

If only There are places I don’t go in case the world ends, and one of them is you. Still, some nights I dream of waking with your taste on my tongue and your touch on my skin and your warmth at my back and I can’t get away from the knowledge that there’d be nothing left to want.


Regret 
I’ll never undo it, never unhear, never unsee and yet I close my eyes and wrench my head from the thousand, thousand insistent echoes of all the things I could have said, should have done, all the ways I could have saved us.


Fear 
It’s already begun. The little losses, the slipping away – an absence, a hurry, a forgotten gesture and a careless word and the gradual, gentle erosion of an island shifting incrementally from idyll to prison. One day soon I’ll turn and see only your shadow in an empty room as the door drifts shut behind you.


I need you 
It’s not that words don’t make sense with you gone, it’s that there seems no sense in reading them. Nobody hears me like you do, nobody sees what I see, and so the world fades into outlines, a blur of grey generalities without the insistent bite and beat of your body and the myriad mysteries of your mind. I am lost without you, lost within you, lost where you are not. Whenever you leave, part of me goes too, and I am adrift, ripped loose, shaken and bleeding and branded with wounds only your tongue can heal.


Sorrow 
It never leaves. When I wake in the morning, I drag its heavy aching weight to breakfast, its dull depths drumming slowly at the back of my eyes. Wherever I look or move it follows, echoes, lover, loss, limit, life. It’s been years, and yet it’s still there, the desert, the desertion, every hollow heartbeat a heartbeat behind.


Despair 
It’s cold. Nothing now except the blank page, the accusing eyes, the empty hands and the last door, closing. Every breath is a body blow. I sink, searching, freezing streets and jagged skylines closing around me as the last flicker of hope snuffs out.

*Nb. ‘At the corner of my eye / at the centre of my attention’ refers to a poem by the infinitely more talented obandsoller, a sharpened diamond to my emotional bludgeon. Given the amusingly marked distinction in our styles, however, and his kind permission, I felt the theft was justified.

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