Posts Tagged ‘Depression’

The thing about depression is that even though you know – or hope you know, when your thinking moves beyond reason – that there’s a difference between it and you, it’s very, very good at persuading you otherwise.

Depression is insidious, laying quiet siege to the deepest foundations of brain chemistry – mood, motivation, memory – and steadily repurposing them as weapons against yourself.

Depression is a one-two punch, first making you feel incapable of enjoying the many things you love, then branding your fear at trying them (lest the fear prove true) as laziness: a self-fault, rather than yet another symptom.

Depression is a weight on your chest from the moment you first wake up, pinning you to the mattress with the realisation that nothing you could do today will possibly matter or make you happy, so why not just stay where you are?

Depression is sleeping either fourteen hours or four out of every twenty-four, and still feeling equally tired.

Depression is struggling to distinguish between apathy, selfishness and self-care while knowing they’re sometimes the same.

Depression is not so much wanting to die as wanting to press a button that makes everything stop, but there’s only one button that does one thing, and the more you hurt, the harder is it to remember that pressing it can only take your pain at the gross expense of transferring it to everyone you love.

Depression is an all-encompassing fear of failure: fear that your success is either insufficient, meaningless or fundamentally invalid; fear that there’s no point in trying; fear that you’re incapable of doing anything at all, and always were, and always will be.

Depression is thinking you might not be a real person, after all.

Depression is an absence of emotional object permanence – if your friends and family aren’t expressing affection right now, then they must feel none – coupled with a deep discomfort whenever you’re offered praise and reassurance (as you clearly don’t deserve it).

Depression is telling your child, “Mummy’s sick today.”

Depression means looking for tiny victories: taking a shower, making lunch, laughing.

Depression means walking each day as if across fragile, cracking ice that covers a roiling dark.

Depression means finding your own purpose in impermanent things and states of being, over and over again.

Depression means hanging on.

Depression means hanging on.

Depression means that every day doesn’t have to be a good one, but perhaps today might be.

Depression means moving a mountain when you throw off the covers, running a gauntlet to get dressed, a marathon to get outside.

Depression means breaking your heart, your resolve and your limits in the hope that, like a fighter’s knuckles, the microfractures will steadily heal you stronger.

Depression means a signal beaten back by noise, but your brain is a broken radio and your heart is the hand on the dial, turning and tuning for music in static, for bursts of speech that say I’m here, I’m still here.

The thing about depression is that I have so many words in me, so many wants and so much will, but my body is broken, my brain is part of my body but I am my brain in a way I’m not my stomach or elbows or aching ribs, and my brain is broken, my brain is trying to fix itself, my body is trying to heal a wound that isn’t a wound because my pre-installed virus scanner reports that there isn’t an injury here, just an old, inferior floor model; my body will not execute the commands I can’t route through my broken brain: there’s a barrier there, a pane of glass between me and the way I ought to feel about books and fish and Wednesdays and the smell of petrol; there’s a barrier between how I ought to feel about the way I’m feeling and how I’m feeling; I’m ripping away at my mental lantana almost as fast as it grows back, but the deficit is full of thorns and weeds running riot in overgrown places; I wish I could riot; I wish I could convert the way I feel in dreams to the suffocated waking hours spent with my eyes cracked open and stinging like two spoiled oysters, but the thing about depression is that it’s a civil war where you’re fighting both fronts in the battlefield of your broken body: each backfired nerve is a gunshot, and I don’t want to salt and burn the earth like a demon’s grave or an enemy farm, but what does that make me afterwards? I ought to lie down, depression says, but darling, these white bones were sown in bloody soil from dragons’ teeth, and though the marrow aches at night, at least

I can still feel.

 

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In news that should come as a shock to exactly no one, I can be kind of an asshole. What may come as a shock, depending on how long you’ve known me, is that I’m arguably less of an asshole now than I used to be. In my teens and early twenties, I said and did a lot of things I now find abhorrent, sometimes out of carelessness and not knowing any better, sometimes as a result of having internalised a bunch of toxic bullshit, but sometimes just because I was being an asshole. And the thing about being an asshole – or one of the things, anyway – is that, even when part of you knows exactly what you’re doing and why, there’s another, louder part that doesn’t give a shit, or which conveniently chooses to reserve your shit-giving capabilities until such time as being an asshole is definitively proven to correlate with Having Fucked Up. Being human is not an exact science, and some things can only be learned the hard way, by making a wrong call and gauging its wrongness in retrospect.

Consider the following small act of assholery, performed when I was sixteen:

During a conversation with a close friend – and for the life of me, I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation; only that we were talking about another, mutual friend who’d been having a hard time – I said, in a somewhat offhand way, as though it were obvious, “See, you’re more sympathetic, and I’m more empathetic. You see what’s happening to [friend], but you don’t really feel it the way I do. We’re just different like that.”

Part of me really believed this; or at least, believed it sufficiently in the moment, in the context of that particularly complex relationship, to have said it out loud. Nonetheless, even had it been an entirely accurate judgement – which, for the record, it wasn’t – saying it like that was still a dick move. I can’t even call it a backhanded compliment, because in my mind, it was very clear that empathy was the more desirable trait. I was rather asserting a form of moral superiority over my friend: my kindness is better than your kindness, my understanding of people more intuitive. The irony of making such a claim in a knowingly hurtful way wasn’t wholly lost on me, but I felt slighted by her, and so couched a negative judgement in language which pretended an objectivity I didn’t remotely feel.

My friend was visibly irritated by the remark; hurt, as I’d secretly wanted her to be, and forced onto the defensive. I don’t remember the rest of the exchange, but that moment has stuck with me. Even though I knew the comparison was an insult prior to speaking, it wasn’t until afterwards that I really understood what it meant to have said it anyway. I’d been an asshole, plain and simple: the opposite of empathetic, at least where she was concerned.

Reading Amy Sterling Casil’s recent SF Signal guest post, Special Needs in Strange Worlds: We Are All Disabled, therefore, this incident sprang instantly to mind. Says Sterling-Casil:

I have a severe, lifelong disability that could have cost my life on several occasions. It’s the reason I write what I do and am who I am. But it also means I can’t write the kind of thing you’re often presented with as reading material.

What’s my disability? I’m 5’6″, pretty much fit, active and healthy. Decent eyesight for an old lady. Okay hearing despite numerous loud concerts and shows during my youth. I don’t even have cancer or heart disease after smoking like a fiend nearly all my life. My liver even functions, although it shouldn’t.

I’m very fortunate.

But I hear you. Even when I don’t want to. I feel you. Even when I don’t want to and shouldn’t. I am empathetic. That isn’t the same as “sympathetic.” Many who are like me don’t make it out of their late teens and early 20s because of associated risky behaviors.

That sound you hear, dear reader, is my gritted teeth grinding together.

Let me put this bluntly: empathy is not a disability. Even if I take Sterling Casil at her notably unsourced word and accept her premise here – that empathy, as a specifically defined condition, is a direct, causative (rather than correlative) factor in the suicide and/or death by misadventure of young people – that does not make it a disability. Depression, along with various other mental health conditions and disorders, can be a form of disability, but whether we define it as such depends largely on who “we” are and our reasons for doing so. According to the UK government, for instance:

A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010.

Your condition is ‘long term’ if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months.

‘Normal day-to-day activity’ is defined as something you do regularly in a normal day. For example – using a computer, working set times or interacting with people.

By this definition, I am – or have been – disabled, and yet I have never identified as such. Partly, this is because there’s an enormous cultural stigma around the acknowledgement, diagnosis and discussion of mental health problems as, well, actual problems. Even during my worst depressive episodes, it would never have occurred to me to think of myself as disabled. It’s a relative of the same prejudice which biases us towards assuming that disabilities are necessarily visible things, like missing limbs or striped canes: if a stranger can’t tell there’s something wrong with you, this logic goes, you must be totally able-bodied. Note, too, the wording: able-bodied, as though disability doesn’t apply to minds. But while I’m all for a more lucid, open dialogue about mental health stigma – or many such dialogues, even – it would be counter-productive to insist that anyone who fits the above definition (for instance) refer to themselves as disabled, regardless of their own beliefs or preferences.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, there’s enough anti-disability sentiment in the world that, for many people, being open about an “invisible” disability can have real consequences: the loss of a job or promotion, for instance. Words, too, can have a powerful impact on our sense of self depending on what they mean to us and – crucially – the circumstances of their application. For instance: I identify as queer, both because it’s a useful shorthand for expressing two facets of my personhood (bisexuality and genderqueerness) without requiring that I specify either, and because, growing up, it wasn’t a word I ever heard used as a slur. But for other people, that’s not the case, and the fact that I’m happy to self-identify as queer doesn’t mean I’m going to foist that label on someone who thinks of it as an insult. By the same token, however, I don’t appreciate being told, as happened recently – and by a straight person, no less – that it’s offensive and wrong of me to call myself queer, because it was once an insult. (This person, who was in all other respects a charming, lovely individual, literally fled the room rather than continue the conversation when I suggested that, as I was talking about myself, perhaps I should have some greater say in the word’s applicability than he did.)

All of which is a way of saying: if identifying as disabled is going to cause someone more problems, practical or emotional, than it solves, then I support their right to avoid the term without accepting that the concept of disability must therefore, of necessity, have negative connotations in all cases. The diagnostic applicability of a word is not the same as personal acceptance of it, and in keeping with the vital Hippocratic sentiment of first, do no harm, I’d rather err on the side of the individual.

But, as it happens, I do disagree with Sterling Casil: because while I might, on the basis of personal experience, accept the idea that empathy can be a correlative factor in depression, and is therefore potentially relevant to individual disabilities, I do not for a red hot minute believe that empathy alone, as described by Sterling Casil, is a separate disability. Sadness is not the same as depression, no matter how intensely we feel it, regardless of where it comes from. Sadness can be part of depression, certainly, but on this point, I’m putting my foot down: the two words are not interchangeable.

I first started to think – maybe you’re not just “sensitive,” Amy, maybe you are truly different –when I was at the Denver Worldcon in 2007. Wow, almost 10 years ago! I ended up as the “expert” on a panel on what I’ll call gene therapy…

Afterward, a young man came up to me, as if I was some kind of expert. This scared me; I soon realized it was he who was scared.

“Do you think they’ll come up with a cure for autism?” he asked.

“It’s possible,” I said. “A lot more likely than for something like Down Syndrome even though there is no single cause for autism.”

 My son Anthony was born with Down Syndrome. This young chap would never know that, nor would he care if he knew.

First: the only reason “this young chap would never know” about Sterling Casil’s son – assuming he doesn’t read her post now, of course – is because she didn’t tell him, not because of his autism. I don’t fault Sterling Casil for declining to share such a personal piece of information with a complete stranger, but I fail to see how his ignorance is somehow remarkable when she was the one who opted not to remedy it.

Second, and far more importantly: the assertion that the man “would [not] care if he knew” is, quite frankly, so much offensive, inaccurate bullshit. Dear Amy Sterling Casil: making a snap judgement about a stranger’s capacity for compassion on the basis of their autism doesn’t make you “sensitive” and “different”, especially when you uncritically replicate the assumption in print – it makes you an asshole.

The young man wouldn’t meet my eye. He said, “My wife and I both have autism. We want to have children but we don’t want them to have it.” Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, he touched my arm.

As Jim Hines has already pointed out, not everyone with autism is touch-phobic. This is, again, a bullshit judgement.

He was so very frightened!

And this, right here, is the point where I saw red. Because, look: okay. People have different writing styles. And maybe, if I’m being very charitable, this sort of construction is part of Sterling Casil’s; not having read her before, I wouldn’t know. But to me, everything about this simple statement screams paternalistic condescension, and thereby betrays the awfulness of her assumptions. This isn’t a calm judgement, but an exclamation: he was so very frightened! The use of the double qualifier, so very, instead of just one or the other, and especially when followed by an exclamation mark, is a construction you commonly find in children’s books, not in reference to grown adults. It’s minimising language, the kind of thing you can imagine being said of Tom Kitten or Timmy fallen down the well: he was so very frightened! And then there’s the absolute narrative certainty of it: he was, not he seemed or he looked. Nothing in Sterling Casil’s previous description of the man speaks to visible expressions of fear: contextually, it doesn’t feel like the right word at all.

Maybe it’s just a literary failing: poor sentence construction utterly unaffected by subconscious bias about what autism is and how it functions. But somehow, I doubt it.

“There’s a reason God made autism,” I said. I had already come to believe this was true.

“I don’t believe in God,” he said.

No. Okay? No. This is an asshole thing to say – a dick move of the highest fucking order. It doesn’t matter if Sterling Casil believes it to be true: if she really felt the man was “so very frightened” of his own autism, of the mere prospect of passing it along, why on Earth would she think he’d find that assertion comforting? Never mind the declarative, false assumption that the man shared Sterling Casil’s faith sufficiently to be comforted by it in the first place: he’s asking about a cure, and you’re telling him God doesn’t think he needs one? Wow.

Here’s a thought: if you can’t set aside your personal faith, or lack of same, in order to comfort someone with different beliefs – or worse, if it never even occurs to you that this might be the best approach – then maybe what you’re feeling isn’t empathy, but arrogance.

Some time later, I realized. He came up to me because of who I am, and said what he said, because of who he was. And my response was made for the same reasons.

I’ve read these sentences about forty times now, and I still can’t decide if they’re meant to imply that the entire exchange was preordained in some sense, or if it’s just a pointless acknowledgement of the fact that our personhood necessarily impacts our actions. Either way: um.

Autistic people have massive gifts. They are able to do things, think, and see the world in amazing ways. One of my favorite films, one which we view in some of the classes I share with students, is The Temple Grandin Story, starring Claire Danes. Temple’s wonderful teacher, portrayed in the film by David Strathairn, tells her mother (also wonderful, played by Julia Ormond), that Temple is different from other children. Both mother and teacher agree that Temple is: “Different, not less.”

On the one hand, yes: being autistic doesn’t make you lesser than anyone else, and it sure as hell doesn’t preclude being talented. And certainly, an autistic perspective can have some decided advantages over a neurotypical one, depending on the person and the context. (I say can rather than does, not because neurotypical is better more often – it isn’t – but because different people are always going to have different strengths and weaknesses in different settings, regardless of attribution.) But on the other hand, I can’t quite shake my suspicion, especially given the film comparison and her earlier, stereotypical assumptions, that Sterling Casil is romanticising autism as the diagnosis of savants.

Abed - mildly autistic super detectives everywhere.gif

This conversation with the autistic young man was one of my turning points. It was then that I realized my perceptions really were different from most others. I had the opposite of autism. And even more: we are all different.

Again, as Jim Hines has already pointed out, empathy is not the fucking opposite of autism. That some autistic people might not express their empathy in ways that are easily recognised by neurotypical persons doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, or that autism is somehow defined by a lack of it. The fact that Sterling Casil implies this to be so is doubly concerning when you consider how quick she is to associate an absence of empathy with sociopathy:

I suppose what bothers me most, now that I do understand these things, is that there is so little value in our society to the humane core that is inside nearly all of us. I see clearly, and hate, the sociopath who pulls our strings, making us dance to their wicked puppet rhythms. How many stories, how many films, how many TV shows do they get? It’s exhausting.

Right. So, just to be clear: some people are absent a “humane core”, which Sterling Casil associates with empathy, but which “the sociopath who pulls our strings” presumably lacks.

UM.

A few psychologists call people like me empaths. I brought up “sociopaths” because like empaths, sociopaths also readily perceive the feelings and motives of others. Unlike sociopaths, empaths have no desire to harm others.

I would be deeply interested to know which psychologists Sterling Casil is referencing here, as her sentence construction leans on this vague reference to academic authority in order to support her subsequent claims about sociopaths. Given that sociopathy, contrary to the assertions of Steven Moffat, is itself a highly flawed, disputed and arguably outdated term, I’m inclined to view this whole claim with a suspiciously raised eyebrow.

Some of us experience barriers and risks because we are so easily influenced by the feelings, ideas and emotions of others that we may lack a strong sense of self.  We are also highly susceptible to substance abuse and other forms of risk-taking behavior. There’s little to no scientific research done on us and nobody but we few survivors genuinely understands how difficult it is to be this aware of others and their feelings and motives.

The bolding and italics in that last excerpt are mine. Self-diagnosis of mental health conditions is one thing; inventing an entire condition seemingly out of whole cloth is another. The language Sterling Casil uses to describe empathy in the first half of this paragraph is both vague to the point of uselessness – what the fuck does that mean, “some of us experience barriers and risks”? – and worded to sound like an actual, academic definition; and yet, in the very next sentence, she admits that no such thing exists.

One researcher who has published a significant body of work is Dr. Ron Riggio at Claremont McKenna College. Ron believes that empathy is an essential leadership trait.

A quick Google search about Dr Riggio yields, among other things, a 2011 article whose concluding statement would seem to be the exact opposite of Sterling Casil’s claims about empathy – namely, that it’s a discreet and specific disability. Having spent the rest of the piece discussing the three different types of empathy invented by someone called Mark Davis – Perspective-Taking, Personal Distress and Empathic Concern – Riggio concludes by saying:

In reality, we all have some level of each of the types of empathy. The key is to understand the ways that we are empathic with others, and to realize the strengths and limitations of each type of empathy.

So… not what Sterling Casil is asserting, then. In fact, I can’t find a single piece of Riggio’s that categorises empathy as a disability at all, nor can I find any such claim made by another academic. No, Sterling Casil doesn’t explicitly argue that empathy as disability is Riggio’s thesis, but he’s the only authority she mentions in her entire piece, and as such, I’m inclined to think she’s gone looking for piecemeal opinions to support the idea that her particular brand of empathy makes her special, rather than acknowledging that empathy is a thing that most people have, but which they express in ways not necessarily identical to her own.

It seems to me that assuming strong empathy to be a unique, special and rare quality possessed only by a “few survivors” is a failure of empathy and imagination both.

Even a hundred years ago, those with autism were so isolated and so misunderstood that the chances they would have the freedom and safe lives to build, make and create were slim and none.

Again, where the hell is Sterling Casil getting this from? I’m not denying that many people on the autistic spectrum have both struggled and experienced discrimination at various points in history as a result of their condition, but as the term autism has only been in use since 1911, discrimination against the autistic as a specific group is a very recent phenomenon. More likely, as per the earlier example of different skillsets and perspectives being strengths or weaknesses in different contexts, their treatment was much more contingent on intersectional markers like gender, race and class (as, indeed, is still the case): a wealthy male aristocrat with idiosyncratic behaviour was much more likely to be accepted on his own terms, for instance, than a poor woman who did likewise. This generalised assumption of victimhood is so historically unsophisticated as to be fundamentally inaccurate – just another way in which Sterling-Casil badly misunderstands her subject area.

Our lives have changed and grown because of the FLK’s (Funny-Looking Kids) and FAK’s (Funny-Acting Kids). They are precious, valuable, essential.

What in the actual fuck is this nomenclature doing in a supposedly pro-disability piece? By all means, let me know if I’m missing something – if these are terms affectionately coined and used by those with disabilities in reference to themselves – but on the face of it, situated in the utter mess of this article, my reaction is one of stunned disbelief.

Humanity will deserve to leave this planet and go to the stars, and we’ll be able to survive and thrive—because of people like me.

On the basis of this piece, I beg to differ.

(This is an asshole thing to say. I’m aware of that. Let’s call it a little contextual irony.)

How can I possibly say we are all cripples?

Oh my god.

When a physically able person sees someone in a wheelchair and feels “sorry” for them, they should consider the different perceptions that wheelchair enables them to have. They see and hear things those who stand and walk do not. They get to live a different life. Different, not less.

I am not physically disabled, nor have I ever been. But I’m pretty fucking sure that, however positively or negatively one feels about using a wheelchair – about whether it’s something you “get” to do, as opposed to a thing you have to do – it doesn’t grant you magical powers of intuitive perception. Rather, I’m given to understand, the things one hears in a wheelchair that other people don’t aren’t secret universal truths, but condescending assumptions about their capabilities, ableist slurs and abuse, a whole lot of height-related awkwardness, and patronising platitudes from people who want to use their existence as an inspiration. Everyone lives a different life, but that doesn’t mean there’s any utility in erasing the complications that particular disabilities, and our attitudes towards them, frequently present. Acknowledging the fact that people in wheelchairs can live rich, full lives on their own terms doesn’t mean there aren’t wheelchair-specific problems still to navigate, or that it’s wrong for some people in wheelchairs to wish they didn’t need them.

The opposite of feeling instinctively “sorry” for a disabled person isn’t assuming they’re totally happy with their lot in life and the unique perspective it affords them, but is rather to treat them like a fucking person: that is, to not make judgements about how they might feel about themselves – or anything else, for that matter – on the basis of first appearances and their membership, visible or otherwise, of an enormously diverse group.

I wrote one well-known story called “To Kiss the Star,” about a young woman named Mel Armstrong, wheelchair-bound, blind and spastic with a heart defect. Mel won the lottery to be housed in a hardened spaceship —to get a perfect, near-immortal cyberbody—and travel to the stars. Hot damn! Mel doesn’t want to go. She’s in love with John, a handsome young man who’s been visiting her out of a partially misguided idea of charity. John’s been lying to Mel, as people will do. By the end of the story, it’s clear who the real cripple is. Not Mel – she can and will go to the stars.

The “real cripple”? A minute ago, that was all of us – but now, all of a sudden, the word has acquired a decidedly negative inference. John is the “real cripple” – the person who’s ultimately wrong and defective, despite being able-bodied – and do I really have to explain why that particular construction is still situating disability as a bad thing? UGH.

As Toni Morrison perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have said, so in my world, she has said, “I write in order to find out what I know.”

As Amy Sterling Casil perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have meant, so in my world, she has said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Now, after writing this, I understand why I am so little satisfied – these days, even disgusted – with fictional stereotypes. These stereotypes are an imposition of a limited, false image or idea on others. I like to think that some day, these falsehoods will no longer be sold as “entertainment.”

Stereotypes like autistic people being bereft of empathy and disabled persons having emotional superpowers, perhaps? DO GO ON.

Differently-abled or abled like the majority on the ability spectrum, we can learn how to use the senses we do have better. Just as those who have lost their sight experience greater perception in other senses, and just as those who use wheelchairs see the world from a different perspective.

Dear Ms Sterling Casil: being blind does not make everyone Daredevil, because not everyone who loses their sight does so in the same way, at the same time, under the same auspices. Also: enough with the wheelchair perspective! It’s starting to feel perilously like a height joke.

Viewed with the strongest perception that we can have at any given time, there is not one of us who is not a “cripple.”

And when everyone’s super, no one will be.

Also, uh. You realise there’s still a need to make specific accommodations for people with specific disabilities, right? That the issue doesn’t magically disappear if you randomly declare everyone disabled?

To overcome our mutual disability, it isn’t about the so-important “I” or “me.” It’s about “we.” It isn’t about what you want, it’s about who and what you are as well as everybody else.

We’ll never get off this planet, much less do the part life has given to us, if we keep on thinking about our isolated selves.

In other words, nobody should talk about their particular problems or specific needs, because treating disability as an amorphous, generalised concept is much more useful than acknowledging those it affects as individuals.

Money’s one thing, Vernor. Getting over our damn selves and feeling what others feel and respecting that: quite another.

YOU DON’T SAY.

Here’s a moral for you: Assholes can still exhibit empathy in other contexts, because being empathetic doesn’t magically stop you from being an asshole – even and especially when discussing your own empathy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go shove my face in a pillow and scream.

ETA: I’ve gone through and changed Sterling-Casil to Sterling Casil, as I’d evidently been spelling my interlocutor’s name with a hyphen that doesn’t belong there. Just because I think she’s wrong doesn’t mean I can’t get her name right.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape/sexual assault, spoilers for Uprooted.

Recently, I contributed to a tumblr thread about our unfortunate cultural habit of romanticising abusive behaviour in stories meant primarily for teenage girls, and how this can have a very real, very negative impact on their ability to accurately identify abuse in other contexts. I highly recommend reading the other responses in the thread, as many women shared their own, similar experiences of being confused on this point as teens, while Cora Buhlert also wrote an excellent follow-up post about the conversation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year or so, not only because I’m interested in feminism within SFF, but also because of my own personal history.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand consent the way I do now, because nobody ever explained it to me in anything beyond the most basic, Rape-Is-A-Masked-Man-In-The-Bushes way. I watched a lot of TV shows where young women were raped and murdered by men who were, overwhelmingly, strangers, and I read a lot of books – quite a horrifying number, in hindsight – where the abuse and coercion of women was incorporated as a normative aspect of fantasy worldbuilding, but very seldom interrogated. It’s not as if I was consciously expecting these stories to provide me with guidance about my then-fledgling sex life, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a surplus of knowledgeable, approachable, non-judgemental adults lining up to advise me, either. My brain was a sponge: I learned without meaning to learn, in a vacuum of intention to either teach or critique. Sex ed at school meant a basic knowledge of STDs and contraceptives, a basic knowledge of anatomy, and some truly horrendous Behold Yon Horrible Consequences videos filmed in the 1980s about the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t think the word consent was ever used, even when we talked about rape: the binary question, rather, was whether you should say yes or no at a given time, and why drinking at parties was a bad idea because you’d be more likely to say yes and regret it later.

The idea that anyone who coaxed that drunken yes from you might be guilty of rape or assault was never mentioned. If it had been, I might have made some very different choices as a teenager. Or maybe I’d have done the exact same thing, but understood immediately what it meant, instead of locking up for an hour nearly fourteen years later, covered in cold sweat at the belated realisation: oh. Oh. Naively, I’d thought I was done with such bleak epiphanies the first time I backdated my earliest forays into internet chatrooms and realised that actually, yes: those men were, in all probability, paedophiles. The teacher in his thirties who praised my thirteen-year-old “maturity” was not just an adult wanting to be my friend, and the men aged eighteen and over who’d ask for cybersex certainly weren’t.

Culturally, we have a lot of sexist baggage about women turning thirty and what it’s supposed to mean, but nowhere in all that baggage have I ever seen mentioned the likelihood of looking back on my early sexual experiences and realising, all too late, like a brutal, cascading suckerpunch, how fucked-up most of them were. That I would, at twenty-nine, rediscover a poem I wrote at sixteen – a poem I’d read multiple times since then, had showed to multiple adults since then, had always held up internally as an example of my early skill – and almost fucking vomit to realise how clearly it described a sexual assault. I was crying when I wrote it, raw and blank in the aftermath of the event itself, and – I remember this vividly – utterly confused, because I didn’t know what had happened. How can you be nearly thirty before you understand a thing like that?

I am, I’ve come to understand, a peculiarly repressive person. I hide things from myself. For all my ferocious introspection, I can be singularly self-deceptive. I wonder at the trait: was I always that way? Is it learned or innate? What quirk of blood or history encapsulates this appalling, unuseful talent? It feels like such an incongruous thing, especially given the strength of my memories. But perhaps that’s the problem: at the time, the things that appal me now weren’t appalling at all. They might have been unpleasant, even ugly or frightening, but they were also, in the context, normal, and as such, I didn’t question them. I remembered them as acceptable, as things that just happened, and even when the feelings underlying those verdicts were – are – turbulent, a second, more intelligent ruling is nonetheless hard to make. I was depressed as a teenager, and inasmuch as a facet of that depression was situational, I thought I understood the whole, both then and afterwards. Instead, that sadness – that very real, rooted sadness, both temporal and ephemeral – acted as a masking agent for other, more particular injuries. At the time, there was no need to wonder why sex could leave me heartsick; I felt that way often enough as it was to see nothing extraordinary in the confluence.

(Oh, young thing, no. Don’t boast of the bruises you didn’t want. Your loneliness ached, I know, but less than their acquisition.)

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. I did things differently there.

*

Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content. Yesterday – partly to test this hypothesis, and partly because I just wanted to – I embarked on my third reading of Katherine Addision’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which, both stylistically and structurally, is utterly removed from fanfic’s conventions, but which is similarly subversive of genre.

Given that I devoured it, thrilled and rapturous, in a single sitting, I’m inclined to think the problem is other people.

I hate not finishing books, but lately, I’m all out of fucks to give for stories that don’t include me in the narrative. After struggling with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars in parallel, hoping to find enough thematic points to compare and contrast that the one might jumpstart my interest in the other. And part of me wants, really wants, to read them both – not just dutifully, but because I don’t feel fully entitled to discuss them otherwise. But god, god, where are the rest of the women, and why are the few we see surrounded by men? Where is the queerness hiding, and why do I have to sift for it like some unlucky prospector stranded at the ass end of the gold rush? Why, Mr Kay, are you taking me away from your (thus far) single female POV character to show me what her would-be assassin thinks of his attempt on her life, even and especially when he dies at the end of the chapter? All his exposition did was silence hers, and as she’s apparently The Kind Of Woman Other Women Hate, I’m holding out little hope that the next fucktillionty pages are any better.

And thus, Uprooted. I wanted to root for it. (Heh.) Every ten years, Agnieszka’s village has to give a girl to the Dragon, the wizard who protects their valley. After a decade in his service, the girls come back, unharmed but changed, only to be replaced by a new apprentice. And this year, everyone thinks that Kasia, Agnieszka’s beautiful, clever best friend, is the one he’ll choose – only for Agnieszka herself to be taken instead. The writing is lovely, the pacing fluid, and we’ve already been reassured that the Dragon doesn’t assault the girls he takes, that he leaves them dowered and educated and self-possessed, and oh, I was so ready for this to be a story I loved –

But it’s not. It can’t be. The Dragon is an abuser – is grossly, violatingly abusive – and yet the narrative blooms with cues that he’s meant to be Agnieszka’s love interest, burning touches and flashing eyes, and of course, of course he’s centuries old and handsome in a young man’s body (you’re so mature for your age!) and no, this is not what I wanted – is, in fact, the exact fucking opposite of what I wanted – but what if I’m the problem? What if the novel is going to interrogate these tropes, this awful problematic idea of abuse as a prelude to romance, and I bow out too early?

I went to the internet, source of my current wisdom and early folly. Internet, I said, speaking as if to a magic mirror (wireless, wireless in the wall, who’s the truthiest of all?) – internet, does Agnieszka end up with the Dragon?

And lo, did the internet answer: pretty much, yeah. Sorry.

Now, I love Naomi Novik, and YA, and romances, though it took me a good long while to really admit the latter, and thanks to the aforementioned years of narrative conditioning, I have a pretty high tolerance for Partner A initially treating Parter B terribly Because Misunderstanding or some other reason, even though it sets my teeth on edge. By which I mean, I hate it intellectually, but there’s still a firmly-established emotional bedrock for pushing through regardless, on the offchance that we eventually get to a half-decent explanation. It’s actually not as weirdly hypocritical as it sounds: a lot of us have grown up feeling conflicted about the toxic tropes of our youth, as compelled by their unhealthy hold on our formative memories as we are repulsed by our subsequent understanding of them, and as such, it’s not uncommon to see them being… de-escalated, seems the best word for it. We know they’re fucked up, but we kinda want to use them anyway, because all the intellectualism in the world can’t make us rip out even the most diseased aortal tissue wholesale; it hurts too much, for one thing, and for another, it won’t grow back. And so, instead, we try our best to manage their perpetuation carefully: to sand off the worst, most unforgivable elements and mitigate the rest through lovingly tailored contexts. You can just about graph it, sometimes, the way those old tropes change from book to book, as newer authors learn their lore from newer permutations. It’s a form of literary evolution not unlike the Belyaev fox experiment: each new generation of readers learns to love the least-aggressive tropes from a litter of mixed novels until, one day, a thing that once bit savagely will whine and roll over for belly rubs.

Uprooted, though – Uprooted retains its teeth. And even knowing why, by this selfsame logic, other readers were able to skritch it happily behind the ears and carry on, I don’t think I can be one of them.

When the Dragon brings Agnieszka to his castle, he doesn’t tell her why he picked her. For the first few days, he barely speaks to her at all. When he touches her, he grabs her, hard. He insults her, viciously and constantly, berating her as stupid and ugly and useless, though he doesn’t stop to explain what it is he wants from her, or why she needs to learn. He forces her to dress in clothes she finds uncomfortable, expects her to cook his meals for him, but insults her efforts. And Agnieszka, right from the outset, is frightened that he’ll rape her – in fact, she doubts the safety of the girls in his care from the very first page:

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?

We see her doubts again, on page sixteen:

Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”

But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married – to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.

Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave – I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing – his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and – 

I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up.

This isn’t just a vague fear, but one the narrative makes explicit: Agnieszka is, very graphically and very, very literally, afraid of being raped. And contextually, she has every reason to be! The fact that the Dragon doesn’t take her to bed the second they get to his tower is hardly proof that he has no intention of doing so later; and certainly, it’s within his power to make her do whatever he wants.

As this scene, on page twenty-eight, makes clear:

I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible… 

He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”

Listen: at this point, I don’t give a flying fuck that, for whatever reason, the Dragon seems to think Agnieszka is a spy. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, because whoever she really is, she’s still a girl he’s got pinned to a bed, and he’s still making her feel sexually afraid of him in order to try and intimidate her into answering. The idea that his incredibly intimate rape threat is somehow justified by her potential treachery is, frankly, sickening. Never mind that, after she runs and accidentally spills a potion over herself, he leaves her frozen in stone for half a day without any explanation or apology; never mind that he physically makes her crawl around him, belittling her competence all the while. Agnieszka is so miserable and terrified that she wants to kill the Dragon, even contemplating suicide when she can’t go through with her plan. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, but to me, it felt like a slap in the face:

…I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.

I even turned and looked out the window, miserably…

So, to reiterate: the Dragon is treating Agnieszka in such a monstrous, abusive, bullying fashion that murder and suicide have both crossed her mind as options; she’s frightened he’ll rape her still, and he’s used that fear to try and make her comply with his wishes.

And then Prince Marek arrives, and actually tries to rape her.

To make this even more horrible, up until his assault, Agnieszka had been contemplating going to Marek for help, only keeping quiet because she’s afraid he won’t believe her. She’s heard stories of his exploits, thinks of him as a hero, and apart from anything else, he’s the only other person she’s even seen since the Dragon took her away.

Here is what happens (TW for assault):

He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest…

It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I supposed in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.

But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.

“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.

I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength.

At this point, Agnieszka uses one of the few magic spells the Dragon has taught her – a spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him – to recover herself. Marek is so stunned that she has a chance to bash him over the head with the abandoned dinner tray, and he goes down hard, unconscious. Agnieszka, not unsurprisingly, is both frightened at the prospect of having killed a prince and shaken at having been nearly raped. So when the Dragon enters and discovers the scene, does he treat her kindly, even dispassionately, while he tries to heal the Prince? Or does he behave like a cruel, abusive, victim-blaming asshat?

Oh, yeah. Welcome to door number three.

I stood hovering anxiously over the bed, over both of them, and finally I blurted, “Will he -“

“No thanks to you,” the Dragon said, but that was good enough: I let myself sink to the ground in my heap of cream velvet, and buried my head on the bed in my arms sheathed in embroidered golden lace.

“And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself in that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?”

“It was better than staying in the one he tore off me!” I cried, lifting my head: not in tears at all; I had spent all my tears by then, and all I had left was anger. “I didn’t choose to be in this -“

I stopped, a heavy fold of silk caught up in my hands, staring at it. The Dragon had been nowhere near; he hadn’t worked any magic, cast any spell. “What have you done to me?” I whispered. “He said – he called me a witch. You’ve made me a witch.”

The Dragon snorted. “If I could make witches, I certainly wouldn’t choose a half-wit peasant girl as my material. I haven’t done anything to you but try and drum a few miserable cantrips into your nearly impenetrable skull.” He levered himself up off the bed with a hiss of weariness, struggling, not unlike the way I’d struggled in those terrible weeks while he – 

While he taught me magic. Still on my knees, I stared up at him, bewildered and yet unwillingly beginning to believe. “But then why would you teach me?”

“I would have been delighted to leave you moldering in your coin-sized village, but my options were painfully limited.” To my blank look, he scowled. “Those with the gift must be taught: the king’s law requires it. In any case, it would’ve been idiotic of me to leave you sitting there like a ripe plum until something came along out of the Wood and ate you, and made itself into a truly remarkable horror.”

While I flinched away appalled from this idea, he turned his scowl on the prince…

“Here,” said the Dragon. “Kalikual. It’s better than beating paramours into insensibility.”

So, to be clear: not only does the Dragon neglect, at any point, to ask if Agnieszka is all right – not only does he belittle her for defending herself, and continue to bully her intelligence – but he blames the assault on her choice of clothes, and then refers to the prince, not as her assailant or rapist, but as her paramour, a consensual term that utterly minimises what just took place. Their subsequent conversation reveals his belief that Marek, who assumes the Dragon takes women “to force them to whore for me”, would have seen bedding Agnieszka as “cuckolding” him, and therefore a sort of petty revenge. Again, this is desperately minimizing language, even in context: at no point is the attempted rape named as such, and despite the fact that Agnieszka has spent literal weeks in fear of being raped, the rest of the conversation – and, indeed, the events of the following chapter – appear to show her experiencing no emotional consequences at having that fear made manifest. Instead, the Dragon continues to bully her, and badly, when she fails to make her magic work:

He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers – “My father’s a woodcutter,” I said – “Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled. But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now that I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.

I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn’t wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art…

It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish.

At this point, it was all I could do not to fling the book at the wall. It’s Agnieszka who’s been sexually assaulted and belittled, but the sympathy here – and worse, given in her voice! – is all for the Dragon: language that tries to excuse his abuse as the understandable frustration of a perfectionist, Agnieszka blaming herself for not being good enough, for daring to have interests and talents beyond what he expects of her, even though he’s done literally nothing to show her kindness at all. Are we meant to find it a sign of progress, that she doesn’t mind his shouting? Are we meant to feel well-disposed towards such a vile abuser, or ought we to be rooting for her escape?

My instincts were telling me one thing, and the narrative another. Which is why I went on Twitter and asked if their relationship becomes a romantic one. Universally, the response came back: they get together, it’s implied they’re still together at the end, and the Dragon’s early mistreatment of Agnieszka is never satisfactorily addressed.

And I just – no. No. I do not want to read nearly four hundred more pages only for this level of vicious cruelty to never be called what it is. I do not want to read about a sexual assault victim falling in love with an abusive rape-apologist and think about how romantic I would’ve found it all, when I was Agnieszka’s age; how romantic some other girl might find it now, who won’t know any better until she’s nearly thirty, too. I do not want to soldier on for the sake of those amazing feminist virtues I’ve been told the rest of the novel somehow, separately, embodies, because if I’m going to read a book that deals with rape and sexual assault, I would like it, please and thank you, to actually call it those things, or at least to behave as though belittling a victim of same in their immediate fucking aftermath isn’t an acceptable gateway to romance.

Fucking hell. I just want to read a book that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being either punched for existing, or treated as though I don’t. We’re SFF writers; we literally make up shit for a living. Why does everything have to be so brutally fucking difficult?

 

 

 

Trigger warning: discussion of depression, suicidal ideation.

The greatest trick depression pulls is convincing you it doesn’t exist; that the baseline misery it enforces is normal at best or irrelevant at worst. Even when you know, rationally, that self-blame is itself a symptom, still you second-guess yourself. You think the problem is something else: that you’re fundamentally lazy, or melancholic, or both; that you’re simply not sleeping properly, or exercising enough, or taking the right vitamins. The idea that these deficiencies might be symptoms rather than causes crosses your mind, but you don’t take it seriously; it feels too much like giving up, like letting yourself off the hook. You want there to be something concrete you can do to improve things, a button to press or routine to enact that will suddenly make things better (not that things are wrong, exactly; the fact that you’re constantly tired and sad and anxious and mentally composing suicide notes at the grocery store while simultaneously berating yourself for being so melodramatic because obviously, you’d never really do something like that, is neither here nor there), and if there isn’t – if there’s nothing you can physically do – then that means you’re powerless, or possibly broken, and who wants to have either of those things confirmed?

So you don’t say anything. You move through a world whose gravity seems to pull you down with greater force each day. However much you sleep, it isn’t enough. Your temper frays. You never feel replenished; only drained, as though some vital well at the heart of yourself has run dry, and nothing you do has the power to fill it back up. One by one, your appetites fade: you can’t read, or write, or eat, or shower, or dress – do anything, really – without feeling like the world has vampire teeth in your jugular. Your joys are either tepid and flat or, very rarely, brief and manic. Nothing feels real. You wonder if you’re a sociopath, because shouldn’t love feel stronger than this? Or maybe you just made terrible choices, and everything is all your fault: maybe you just have to live like this forever.

And then, one night, you burst into tears for a solid ten minutes while reading a story that’s set at the beach, because you miss the sun with a visceral ache, like something that’s been pulled out of you, and for the first time, you seriously consider the idea that there might be a tangible reason for all of this. Sure, you’d thought of it before – you knew what Seasonal Affective Disorder was, even brought it up with the doctor the one time you went in to talk about depression, when they shrugged and said maybe, but also gave you some brochures about free counselling and the option of going straight to pills – but the fix seemed ridiculous. Buy a magic science light, as though a fucking lamp could possibly solve your problems. But you’ve been exercising every day, taking iron and Vitamin D and magnesium supplements for months; the recognisably post-natal aspect of your depression stopped a while back; by every external measurement, you should be in an excellent place, and yet you feel worse than ever. You’ve tried everything short of an anti-depressant prescription, and if that’s going to be the next port of call, then why not give the light a shot first?

So you buy the light, plug it in at the desk you haven’t properly used in months, and sit. It’s bright and warm, and something in you relaxes. You start smiling. Within twenty minutes, there’s a tingling sensation all along the skin of your neck, familiar and alien, and it takes you a while to place it: this, for you, is happiness. You used to feel it outside, in the sun, on hot summer days, and always assumed it was a purely aesthetic reaction, your body responding to the beauty of blue skies and warm skin, but in this moment, you realise it’s so much more than that. You don’t just miss the sun; you need it, and suddenly it’s here again, for the first time in what feels like forever, and oh.

Oh.

It’s like waking up from a coma. You clean the fridge, then clean the kitchen – tasks which, even hours ago, felt utterly insurmountable. You dance to music, just because. You play with your child, and not only doesn’t it drain you; it delights you, and you no longer feel like such a broken mother. You sleep better. You start to write again. You keep up the exercise, but now, the high you feel while moving doesn’t instantly drop away when you finish. You tell a friend, still struggling to believe it, and she tells you that exposure to sunlight is linked to seratonin production: the chemical that literally controls your ability to feel happy and energised.

Oh.

You use the light every day. After two weeks, you start reading novels for pleasure, a practice you’d more or less stopped, and which had stated to feel like pulling teeth. (It doesn’t, now. It feels like coming home.)

You are whole. You have SAD. You have a magic lamp.

And it’s going to be all right.

WIN_20150219_172431

 

The Silence Speaks

Posted: December 12, 2014 in Life/Stuff
Tags: , , ,

So, as keen readers of this blog will be aware, there… hasn’t been much to keenly read of late, on account of the fact that I haven’t been writing anything. Or I mean, I have been writing; just not here. Without wanting to turn this into a round of Writer’s Excuses, the past few months have consisted largely of a crisis of confidence that can roughly be summarised as Me vs. My Brain, with the winner as yet to be determined. I’ve written a lot of fanfiction since midyear, because it’s the only type of writing that I haven’t come to associate with pass/fail pressure, and as such, it’s been the one thing keeping me both sane and even mildly convinced that writing is a thing I can actually do. Everything else has been like pulling teeth. I’ve run late on pretty much every deadline, either self-imposed or externally set, since about June, which I hate, and it’s now reached a point where my inbox is full of unanswered correspondence and supposedly simple writing tasks (proof this, approve that, respond here) that are actually paralysing me, because part of my brain is just constantly screaming shut up you’re fucking hopeless you can’t do this, and, yeah. It’s not fun.

But I’m getting better, as evidenced by the fact that I’m actually writing this post. Slowly, slowly, I’m starting to get things done again. If I owe you a reply or writing, please be patient with me. I am trying – you have no idea how hard I’m trying right now – and I promise, I haven’t forgotten; I’m just struggling. But I’ll get there in the end.

Look: I have issues with the whole high school thing.

These issues are wide-ranging. They involve mundane, unintelligent and generally backward curricula, antiquated teaching methodologies, the negligent pay scales for teachers, the lack of reward and prestige for education as a profession, the bastardisation of learning into something that is neither relevant to grades nor recommended that teachers embrace in their own lives, the structure of a system that creates year levels on the basis of age rather than ability, the general social malaise of throwing a whole bunch of teenagers in the same deep pool and yelling SWIM!, the generational incomprehension of techonological and social media as an advanced medium of bullying –

OK. I could go on.

You get that.

But here’s the thing:

High school fucking sucks, man.

We all know it.

Every teenager knows it.

Most adults with actual memories of their high school years, no matter how rosy-lensed, can acknowledge it.

And yet our ability to change that system? Even in the smallest ways?

Is seemingly non-existent.

I have cared about the shitness of high school since I was thirteen. That was eleven damn years ago, and I am still howling into a void. In abstract, it should help my case that so many things are so obviously wrong with the system. In the Land of Government and Educational Bureaucracy, however, that’s actually a massive hindrance, because in a society where ripping a major institution down, salting the earth and building afresh is less an option than it is political suicide, there’s no obvious starting point for reform.

And so people do next to nothing.

Because it’s easy.

Because there’s no viable mechanism in place for doing more.

Because optimism with regard to educational reform is seen as naivety.

Because making things better is too fucking hard.

Well, you know what? I’m sick of that excuse.

I am sick of people whose jobs it supposedly is to support and create a culture of knowledge saying that teenagers and their problems are just too hard; that poverty, cruetly, violence and bullying are just too hard; that creating curricula that are relevant, engaging and intelligent is just too hard; that basically doing anything with anyone between the ages of twelve and nineteen that might be of any use to their future selves or lives beyond the most basic social interactions, arithmetic and language skills – and sometimes not even that – is too hard; that spending money on schools and technology is too hard; that talking to actual teenagers about the circumstances of their education is not only too hard, but impossible, because they can’t be trusted to tell the truth, and everyone knows they just hate high school anyway.

Well, here’s a goddam radical thought: maybe high school is worth hating.

I am sick of homophobia and bullying.

I am sick of a system that seems to be based entirely on Lord of the Flies being a valid basis for social hierarchy.

Years of insomnia. Years of random cruetly, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and ignorance. Years of hearing that at some point, every bright, funny, clever or caring person of my acquaintence had been found in the garage with a noose around their neck, standing on a chair and trying to knock themselves out by sniffing petrol fumes so they wouldn’t feel their hyoid break, or cutting themselves with scissors because it was the only sort of pain they could control, or drinking themselves insensible and weeping on school nights because they couldn’t function otherwise, or taking pills and curling up in the dark like Sylvia Plath, or walking along the edge of cliffs and daring themselves to jump off, or burrowing down inside themselves because it hurt like fury, like glass in the heart, and even the other downtrodden would mock them as protection against further mockery themselves. Years of waking up with less right to sick days than an underpaid temp worker, struggling through depression, illness, fear and uncertainty because you’d get a black mark if you dared show up without a doctor’s certificate, and nobody there to point out that colleges don’t give a flying fuck for your attendance record; that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of laminated cardboard your parents keep in the attic, and not the be-all, end-all of your academic existence.

No. Fuck that noise, and fuck it sideways.

High school students of the world: you are not prisoners. You are not stupid. You have rights. You have opinions. You know what you feel. The rest of us have either forgotten or are in the process of forgetting, because where you are now? It’s about survival. Once you’re out of the jungle, you don’t go wading back in to fight the tigers and tame the lantana. But that’s why those things persist. You get out, and you’re safe, so you forget. You see the little tweaks and changes on the news, and you forget how bad it really was. You grow up. You start to doubt your teenage intelligence. You wonder if it was just because you were seventeen and an idiot that you hated your creepy geography teacher, the one who knocked the girls’ pens off their desks so he could peek down their shirts when they bent over to pick them up, or that you couldn’t find any practical or intellectual application for what you were asked to do, or that nobody would listen to you or had the power to do anything when you told them you were depressed or being bullied.

Fuck that.

Speak up.

Speak up, because your voices are the ones that matter.

All the debate about schools, about curricula, about subjects and bullying and sex and homophobia and ignorance and bad teaching – all of it affects you. More than anyone else, it affects you. But you are being left out, because you are students, and cannot be trusted to have intelligent opinions. Like prisoners, it is assumed that your sole goal is escape. Let’s slide right by the point where that comparison means many adults subconsciously think of schools and jails as being fundamentally the same, necessary-but-evil types of correctional institution. Yes, lots of teenagers are wankers. I know it, and so do you! If that weren’t true, then bullying wouldn’t be a problem. We would live in a candy-cane world of pixies and chocolate, and ride unicorns to school. Being a teenager doesn’t make you automatically right, either. We’re all still learning about life, after all. Personally, I maintain that any person who thinks they’ve reached a point where learning has become optional is (a) deluded and (b) most probably (see above) a wanker.

But here’s the secret: a lot of adults are wankers and/or wrong, too, and many of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Perhaps more importantly, they have never had your teenage experience, and are therefore categorically unable to learn from it. There are also good adults in the world – adults who care, and try, and are nonetheless thwarted by a system that desires they do neither – and those adults deserve to be rewarded. But that cannot happen unless you stand up and make your opinions known.

So: right here, right now. Stand up.

This is what the internet is for.

Read. Learn. Protest. Rebel. Think. Question. Argue. Care.

The future is yours, and unless you do something about it? Continued suckage is a definite option.

Be clever. Be subervise. Be creative.

Fight back.

Not on their terms.

But on yours.

And win.

 

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.  Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.