Compulsory Able-Mindedness

CW for sanist/ableist BS and a reference to suicide.

 

I have noticed this trend lately where people talk about Madness (or usually they’re calling it ‘mental illness’) as a thing that obliges treatment. That is, if you have mental health struggles or neurodivergence of any kind, you are expected to seek treatment once you recognize that you ‘have a problem.’ Almost as if care/treatment is compulsory.

There is a theory in feminist studies known as ‘compulsory heterosexuality,’ forwarded by Adrienne Rich circa 1980. According to this theory, as Americans we live in a heteropatriarchal society that assumes human sexuality is hetero and binary, and thus our baseline of understanding is heternormativity: intimate relationships are (or ought to be) between ‘men’ and ‘women’ only; this is what is normal/natural/good. This understanding is so pervasive that anything contrary to heteronormativity is framed negatively or rendered invisible altogether (Rich was particularly concerned with the erasure of lesbian identity and existence).

More recently (2006), disability studies scholar Robert McRuer has identified a parallel phenomenon that he calls ‘compulsory able-bodiedness,’ which he ties in with the erasure of both queer and disabled existences. In our ableist society, the norm is ‘able-bodiedness’ (or as others of us call it, able-bodymindedness); if you are in any way outside the norm, the expectation is that you will seek to fix it in order to become as able-bodied as possible. For some of us, our ‘unwellness’ or disability or disfigurement is such that it cannot be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured,’ and in this case this means such bodies (or bodyminds) should be hidden away from public view.

“Like compulsory heterosexuality, then,” McRuer explains, “compulsory able-bodiedness functions by covering over, with the appearance of choice, a system in which there actually is no choice”(2006, 92). This lack of ‘choice’ arises from the fact that our ableist culture defaults to a question with an assumed answer: Wouldn’t you rather be normal? Able-bodied people (aka ableds) tacitly enforce the question (“[W]ouldn’t you rather be more like me?” [McRuer 2006, 93]), and assume the answer— everyone wants to be able-bodyminded, no one wants to be disabled/crazy/neurodivergent.

As an extension of critical disability studies theory on compulsory able-bodiedness, it seems logical to me that our culture is also infused with a tacit assumption of compulsory able-mindedness. Now, I am partial to Mad Studies scholar Margaret Price’s use of the phrase ‘bodymind’— which points to the intrinsic interconnection between body and mind (that is, they’re really one and the same, there is not one without the other, GTFO Descartes). However, I wanna write a bit about the notion of un/wellness in relation to the ‘mind’ to show how, for many of us, living with a ‘different mind’ is stigmatized and pathologized in particular (albeit parallel) ways from living with a physical or bodily disability. Of course, many people experience both because they have various Madnesses, disabilities, and/or neurodivergences; and/or because one affects the other (whoa, interconnectedness!)— for example, some people with physical disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy) experience cognitive impairments (e.g. ‘delayed language development’) as a result of their physical disabilities, and some people with mental health issues (e.g. depression) experience physical disability (e.g. chronic pain) as a result of their mental health issues.

I want to focus on our culture’s particular disdain for differences of the ‘mind,’— there’s even a word for this disdain, it’s called sanism (or saneism). Sanism is beliefs and practices predicated on the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘sound mind,’ leading to harm of all kinds being directed at those determined to be of ‘unsound mind.’

Sometimes, this harm takes the form of ‘treatment’ or ‘care.’ How can care be harmful? you may be wondering. Care is frequently harmful when it is a response to something perceived as a deficit, disorder, or deviance. This is often true for those of us who are Mad/experience mental health struggles or neurodivergences: non-Mad/neurotypical folks view our lives as suffering, and the ‘natural’ response to suffering is to end it. Do they necessarily inquire of Mad folks if we are, in fact, suffering? Nah. Do they necessarily get our consent before initiating ‘care?’ Not always.

Even when consent is supposedly present, we have to remember how consent truly functions: we cannot assume that a ‘yes’ is, in fact, a ‘yes’ when there is a power differential, when there is fear of retaliation, when (a history) of coercion or violence exist, when internalized ableism/sanism exists, etc. We need to be critical of that ‘yes.’ When I first consented to take medication to ‘remedy’ my madness, I was guilted into doing so. They called up my history and reminded me of how scary things could become, how much of a failure I had been, and how I had (at times inadvertently) hurt people. I didn’t start taking medication because I believed it would help me feel better or improve my overall wellbeing, I started because I was afraid of the consequences of not taking it— which, the psy folks assured me, would be devastating (joblessness, friendlessness, maybe even homelessness or, lolz, lifelessness).

The funny thing about ‘care’ of Mad and neurodivergent people by able-bodyminded people is that it often exists to make the latter feel better. Many psychiatric meds, cognitive control meds, and even some non-pharmacological therapies exist to mediate Mad/neurodivergent behavior. Perhaps those behaviors are deemed disturbing (the silences of a depressive), disruptive (an ADHD person not ‘following directions’), frightening (a schizophrenic person hearing voices), or frustrating (an autistic person not making eye contact). Whatever it is about a neurodivergent person’s way of being that is considered ‘atypical’ or ‘disordered,’ the treatment of that thing is regularly mandated by neurotypicals whose discomfort comes from being in proximity to that person. It’s less about the Mad/neurodivergent person being disturbed than it is that we are disturbing to neurotypicals. If there is one thing I hope we clarify about ‘care’ of Mad/neurodivergent people in the near future, it’s that much existing ‘care’ is intended to tamp down on Mad and neurodivergent ways of being, doing, moving, and thinking in order to help neurotypicals feel better. I’ll say it again: most ‘care’ of neurodivergent people is actually intended for the comfort and peace of mind of non-disableds and neurotypicals.

That is not to say that care and treatment are never helpful for crazy/neurodivergent people. I, myself, have found some forms of care tremendously helpful— most of them outside mainstream care, though. But a great deal of care/treatment is developed and implemented without including us, the recipients, in the creative process. Until care/treatment is reimagined and regenerated with the consent and inclusion of Mad/neurodivergent participants, it is going to continue to harm many of us. It doesn’t matter how ‘well-intended’ it is.

A final comment, for now: Mad, disabled, and neurodivergent people— including manic depressives, OCD people, autistic people, addicts/substance users, people with PTSD, depressives, borderline people, and all the rest of us— have the right to seek care and/or treatment on our own terms. We have the right to help shape what that care/treatment looks like. We have the right to refuse care/treatment. Others do not have the right to say we ‘must be treated.’

References:

McRuer, Robert. “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence” in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Edited by Sharon Snyder, Brenda Jo Breuggermann, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson. The Modern Languages Association of America: New York, 2002. Read it here: https://www.academia.edu/16338241/Compulsory_Able-Bodiedness_and_Queer_Disabled_Existence

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Feminism and Sexuality. Edited by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott. Columbia University Press: New York, 1996. PDF here: http://www.weldd.org/sites/default/files/Compulsory%20Heterosexuality.pdf; read Rich’s reflections (2004) here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/53008

 

Teachers

Fair warning: this post is like, hella sentimental. >.>

I’ve been thinking about a teacher of mine, Cora (not her real name). She is an English professor by trade. These days she is tenure-track at a big university. She teaches courses about things like visual culture, urbanism, and media representations of Blackness. Don’t swoon just yet, stay with me.

Cora was my TA for only one semester, freshman year of college. She was one of three TAs for a massive lecture course, filled mostly by freshman and sophomores who barely understood the title of the course, let alone any of its content. I was lucky enough to be in her Discussion section– we met once a week, and let’s face it, I skipped a lot. Actually, I skipped her class the least of all my classes that first year. She was challenging, clearly brilliant at the level of intimidating, but at the same time she listened to us, gave the impression of respecting rather than tolerating us. I rarely had the impression, freshman year or any year thereafter, that my teachers listened to us students, much less respected us. In general, college was about being told How Things Are; we were not there to contribute– unless the contribution was agreement, or a question eliciting more How Things Are statements.

Unlike the vast majority of other teachers I had in undergrad, Cora gave me feedback. She didn’t put up with my bullshit, and she knew when I was bullshitting because she actually read our shit. Although I was embarrassed, I was also amused when she wrote something to the effect of “You didn’t fucking read this” on a Faulkner paper that I failed. Well, I thought with surprise, They do read this shit. Kudos to any prof who does, because it really, really is shit. But without feedback, students’ work never get better. Cora went one step past feedback, though. She critiqued our minds, our worldviews, not just our papers. She critiqued them through lenses that, to my small [town] mind, had previously never existed. Realizing how out of my depth I was, I didn’t do the thing I usually do when I feel intimidated or overwhelmed (give up)– rather, I redoubled my efforts. I wanted to impress Cora, and I wanted her to like me, and I wanted to be like her.

Once, on one of my critical papers where [I thought] I was being obscenely clever and incisive, Cora wrote: “‘Question everything.’ – René Decartes.” She chose not to rip the paper apart for the piece of garbage it was. Yes, she gave critical feedback, but she also gave encouragement. She didn’t roll her eyes at my pretend-scholarly attack on some literary work that I didn’t like: she encouraged subversion. I didn’t have to be told twice.

After that class, I didn’t see Cora again until chance put me in her path four years later. I was elated to see her randomly in a coffee shop. She seemed glad to see me, too, and we caught up with each other about where we were and where we were going. I have not seen her since, although I have tried to keep up with where her career has gone (she is a badass professor at a good school and teaches awesome-sounding classes, now).

Shortly thereafter, I joined Peace Corps and moved to Cambodia. Cora completed her PhD and moved forward with her academic career. We fell out of touch again.

Some more years passed; I found myself parting from Peace Corps under dubious and humiliating circumstances. For whatever reason, I chose to write Cora. I guess I trusted her not to judge me– she’d had so many opportunities to judge me when I was her student, and I am sure that I frustrated her to no end, but she’d always responded with compassion. I wrote her and related what had happened to me at the end of my Peace Corps service, how I was struggling to get by and at the same time happy that I stayed in Cambodia. I don’t know what kind of response I expected– maybe surprised, scolding disappointment, like my mom’s reaction, or disillusioned lack of surprise, like my best friend Eileen.

She wrote back with this: “Listen to me:  You have no reason to be ashamed. You have a rare gift–the inability to accept what you know is not right, not just, not fair, not pure.” Having read that, I started crying. I felt small, unworthy, relieved, validated, protected. But I quickly sobered up. She continued:

Now I am going to tell you something: This is your life. This being on the margins, always fighting, this is your life.  Have you thought of what it will be like to live a life on the margins (as bell hooks terms it)? Are you prepared to go against the grain for the rest of your life and accept the consequences, some of which you are feeling right now? Think about that and get back to me.  It doesn’t get easier, Liz. It gets lonelier and harder. Are you O.K. with that? I need for you to really think about this and answer honestly. To some students I would say, “What are you going to do with your life?”  But to you, I have to say, “Who are you going to be for the rest of your life?”

 

Like a ten-year-old, I switched from humiliated, fearful self-doubt to look-on-the-bright-side, foot-sure self-confidence, and wrote back:

For whatever fortunate and unfortunate reason, I guess this is where I am: on the margins. But I suppose it’s all about perspective. Some day my thoughts, ideas, hopes, and such might not be “fringe” concepts, but that time is not now. I struggled most of my young adult life to fit in and not go against the grain, but failed at every turn. You’re right: that’s just not me. But I’m finally starting to accept that this is not a bad thing!

.      .      .

2011 Me: It’s hard, but everything’s gonna be okay! Let’s just keep fighting the good fight!

2017 Me: stfu.

So…

Some of the shit I wrote that Cora read, I look back on it now and I am beet-red with embarrassment. Some of it is the most gag-worthy whitestream feminist blather you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like, saying it was written ‘out of ignorance’ is a bit too kind, maybe. The residue of my privileged, white, small town upbringing (various oppressive circumstances notwithstanding) clings like smelly lakeweed too long out of the water. For a tasting sample, scroll back in time on this blog (or, for everyone’s sake, please don’t…).

To me, Cora embodies the empathic feminist ethos I wish I could achieve in my day-to-day, as well as my teaching, friendly conversations, class discussions, confrontations… Sometimes I wish she had called me out with anger and scorn, used the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘epistemic ignorance.’ These tactics can be effective, too– I know from personal experience (here’s looking at you, Dee [not her real name]). Some Crunk Feminist Collective-style, Black feminist smackdown. But I think Cora, more savvy than Morpheus, probably recognized that 2004 Liz, and even 2011 Liz, wasn’t ready for the Red Pill. Maybe she saw that my fragile ego would collapse from too much truth-telling. Maybe she was thinking, I don’t need you to spend years in self-pitying recovery, wallowing in ‘white guilt’– I need you to get over white supremacy now and do your part to tear it down. Maybe she thought I needed to figure this shit out on my own, that she couldn’t be my teacher forever; at some point, we all need to take responsibility for our own learning, using the toolbox passed on to us by our teachers. Maybe it was a combination of logics, or maybe I’m overthinking it.

Cora was right: it doesn’t get easier, it gets lonelier and harder. I wonder about how her life has been. I imagine she has struggled and fought and confronted and been forced to pick and choose which hills she wanted to die on. I imagine friends and allies were few and far between at times, but the ones who stuck around are still with her today. I imagine she has fist-pumped after victories over racist, misogynist, and especially misogynoir colleagues, classmates, and coworkers. I imagine she has cried from frustration and laughed in the safety of like-minded friends. I imagine a lot of things, and probably romanticize a lot because that’s what I tend to do with people I admire, especially teachers.

The thing that I am certain she knew at the time she wrote those words to me, and the thing I have come to realize, is that even in the depths of loneliness and failure; even in times when we are constantly losing, or feel like we are living in a hell we deserve because of self-loathing brought on by internalized misogyny or queerphobia or whatever else; there is hope and compassion to be found in fellowship and community with others. My ego got the better of me for a very long time: no one knows what I’m going through, no one sees or understands. Well that is self-isolating rubbish. It feels very true and real at times, but I’ve struck on a rare moment of optimism where I feel that I can see Cora’s next, yet unwritten letter: she’s going to tell me that although it gets lonelier and harder, we find people who share our struggles; though we feel lonely, we’re not alone. Maybe we haven’t encountered these people yet, or maybe they resurface from the long-ago, or maybe they revisit us in dreams or memories. These aren’t just consolation prizes, they are reasons to keep pushing on The Wall (as Sara Ahmed describes it).

It is safe to say that I would not have done a masters in Women’s and Gender Studies; would not be attending #NoDAPL rallies; would not be fundraising for disadvantaged students; would not be writing this blog; and would not be a member of a union without the wisdom of certain people in my life. Some of them I only cross paths with once in a great while, like Cora; some I know only by Twitter handle; some are constants, like my mom, Eileen, Erin, my sister, Karlie, Preston, Matt, and many others who have continuously listened, engaged, challenged, and prompted me, and of course continue to teach me about what’s important.

Reblog: On Being Depressed, Part I by The Belle Jar

Trigger warning: mention of suicide There’s a funny sort of paradox about depression where it’s probably the mental illness that people who haven’t experienced mental illness find easiest to identify with while simultaneously being a condition that is incredibly difficult to understand if you’ve never lived through it. I mean, I get it. We’ve all […]

via On Being Depressed, Part 1,826 — The Belle Jar

Stranger Things: More normal than you’d think.

I’ve been trying to write some kind of review on Stranger Things for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it, I find I just don’t have the energy.

So here goes. Really gonna try this time. Definitely gonna contain plot spoilers. This is probably best read after you’ve seen all eight episodes.

There’s about a million reviews on Stranger Things out there, the vast majority of them are full of positive hype, much of which the show deserves. If you like a nostalgic retro-feel 1980s homage, this is your jam. It’s Super 8 meets Stand by Me meets ET meets The Goonies, complete with an awesome soundtrack, solid casting, and an engaging (albeit not terribly original) plot. And it’s creepy. I’ve been craving a creepy show, and it’s been hard to find one that isn’t one rung down from torture porn (Hemlock Grove, what a crushing disappointment).

However.

Stranger Things has some major shortcomings that made it cringingly hard to watch at times. As happens with most things I watch/read, at one point I said aloud, “If they kill Barb, I’m gonna stop watching this.” Obviously I didn’t. :P But that I found myself saying that at all points to ST‘s first major weakness: predictability.

ST is at its heart a reverential throwback, playing on all manner of (especially Spielberg-esque) 1980s movie tropes, which as The Atlantic‘s Lenika Cruz points out, is both good and bad. The nostalgic ambience makes for an immersive environment, on the one hand. But on the other, the temptation to fall back on, er, other historically relevant tropes certainly makes the show less relatable for some of us.

I wasn’t upset that they killed Barb because I believe characters should never be expendable. Rather because from the moment she appeared on screen, she is immediately recognizable as precisely the kind of character deemed expendable in 80s cinema, as well as the present: nerdy, not conventionally attractive, peripheral, marginal. All things that I (and many other people who don’t generally see themselves represented in media) can connect with. And all things that, in combination with being feminine, female-bodied, and/or a woman, can be lethal for a character. The giveaway for me was the short hair. “This girl’s a goner,” I thought. Man, I hate being right.

It isn’t merely that characters like Barb are pathetic tagalongs, tripping up the much more glamorous adventures of their more conventionally attractive (in all its senses) counterparts– in this case, Nancy. And it isn’t that they rarely-if-ever are the hero protagonists. It’s that they have to die. In Barb’s case, a gruesome on-screen death. “Unnecessary” doesn’t begin to describe it. The creators, the Duffer Brothers, felt the need to dismember Barb and then later show us her rotting body to reinforce this violence.

“But but but,” I can hear the refutations of the DnD ST fandom begin, “the four heroes of the story are nerdy, not conventionally attractive, marginalized characters. They’re always getting beat up by bullies, their only ally at school is the science teacher.” That’s wonderful. I’m glad the nerds/misfits/outcasts get to be heroes for once (except that this is arguably another 80s trope– à la Goonies, Weird Science, Bill & Ted). But all those heroes have something in common: they’re (cis)boys. Barb can’t be a hero, or even a hero tagalong, and in fact it’s okay to disembowel her– ’cause she’s a girl. It’s pretty straightforward misogyny, really.

“But but but,” another refutation may start, “what do you call Eleven, if not a hero? And she’s a girl.” Sadly, the most interesting character in the story becomes a martyr for the boy-heroes, but not before they play out their heteronormative fantasies playing dress-up doll with her. Cruz’s review is a very solid description of ST‘s failures when it comes to El’s plotline, so I won’t reiterate them here.

I suppose some might try to raise Nancy as a girl-hero, but whatever character growth she accomplishes is certainly dampened by her choice to stick with her abusive boyfriend. To be fair, her alternate love interest is also her stalker at one point, so…

At the end of the day, it’s the Duffer Brothers who mold the girl/feminine/female-bodied characters on the show and choose their fate. The Duffer Brothers play out their fantasies (and the fantasies of countless [especially nerd] boys) in ST, through boy and girl characters alike– oh, and it is really that binary. Friendships, adventures, romances, and heroism all revolve around the boy characters.

I had other issues with ST, including the treatment of madness, single motherhood, and the show’s overwhelming whiteness. It’s not perfect, but Stranger Things is entertaining, and a wonderful fantasy, especially if you’re a cishet boy. Who knows, maybe Season Two will have something for the rest of us.

Reblog: On #NoDAPL and Paying Attention: They Sicced Dogs On My People Today

Read this piece on the Dakota Access Pipeline and Native protests against it.

Transformative Spaces

14232544_10208616269138580_3157349067699097161_n-2Dakota Access, LLC has declared war on my people — Native People — by attempting to snake an unwanted pipeline through Native land, drinking water and sacred sites. Today, this corporate force confronted peaceful Water Protecters with vicious dogs and pepper spray.

This is where we are now.

At least six Water Protectors were bitten by corporate attack dogs. Witnesses described some of the injuries incurred as “serious.” Dozens of protesters were treated for pepper spray exposure, and a horse was reportedly wounded in the attack.

But corporate violence was unable to beat back the gathering Water Protectors, and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was once again brought to a halt.

Your awareness raising has been crucial and will continue to be. We are slowly, collectively forcing the mainstream media’s hand, and visibility is so key in this profound and dangerous moment. Please keep helping in whatever ways you can. I truly believe that this battle has the potential…

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