Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Of course we'd blame cancer for plane crash deaths

Discusses suicide and stigma of illness.

Alistair Campbell wrote an article condemning media speculation about the mental health of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who, it would seem, deliberately crashed a plane into a mountain, killing 150 people on board. Campbell's article is entitled
Would we be 'blaming' cancer for the deaths of those people who perished in the Alps?
It has been widely shared in my circles, but I keep thinking, "Yeah, we would."

If the guy had cancer, there would have quickly developed a narrative in which, raging against his fate and embittered against the world, the chap decided to end it all and take everyone else with him. This is the basis for almost every disabled super-villain in comics and movies. When they're not warming our hearts, we expect people with physical illness to be angry, bitter and to love life and other people a whole lot less.

The media treatment of depression is significantly worse because it treats this diagnosis - a very commonplace, highly variable condition - as if that explains everything. The guy was (probably) depressed. What more do we need to know?

With cancer, the speculators would have had to expand on that - "He obviously thought the cancer was coming back" or "He was angry that he would die in his twenties while other people would experience all kinds of things he would never get to".

There wouldn't have been headlines which implied that people with cancer should never be allowed in the cockpit of an aeroplane (or presumably, in any of the many positions of great responsibility people with various illnesses regularly occupy). But narratives in which we use physical illness and impairment to explain violence and self-destruction are not uncommon.

Way too often, in describing some oppression, a minority is identified who would never receive such ill-treatment. There were a lot of articles about cripping-up - non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, usually to overblown critical acclaim - following Eddie Redmaine's Oscar win for his role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Many of these articles stated that blackface is a thing of the dim and distant past; you'd never see a white actor play a black character, so why are disabled people so oppressed?  Of course, the corpse of blackface continues to twitch, while white or mixed race actors are routinely cast in historical or fictional roles whose time and geography would suggest black or Asian characters. Meanwhile other groups - like transgender people - get to see themselves represented by their own people even less often.

The mental illness vs. physical illness nonsense is especially disparaging because it demonstrates what an extremely low bar mental health campaigns tend to reach for. They want mental illness to be treated just like physical illness. Being more ambitious, I'd like mental illness to be treated as a morally neutral personal experience, not a symbol or a story, a quirk or a weakness. Many people are able to see it as just that. Culturally, we have a way to go.

Sometimes, people are too sick to work. All kinds of illness, all kinds of work. This doesn't always mean such people don't come into work. They may do so because:

  • We live in a culture which treats paid employment as the minimum criteria for a decent and valuable human being. 
  • We live in a culture which treats all illness, but especially mental illness, as personal weakness.
  • Folk are afraid to disclose illness to employers, especially mental illness.
  • Employers often don't take illness seriously, especially mental illness.
  • Employers are often freaked out by illness, especially mental illness.
  • People don't always know how sick they are.
  • Other people, including doctors, don't always know how sick a person is.

In other words, even those who are convinced that a diagnosis of depression poses a significant risk need to care about the further stigmatization of mental illness.  And all other illness, because our culture encourages folk to push themselves and take risks where physical or mental collapse could lead to disaster.

However, depression is entirely inadequate as an explanation for Andreas Lubnitz's actions. Even in the most severe suicidal depression, there's a huge difference between being careless of other people's safety (e.g. stepping in front of a train, driving into traffic) and purposely harming others (e.g. crashing the plane you're piloting).

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mother's Day, 2010

I had read that you should try to write fiction with just one particular reader in mind, even if your reader is an entirely imaginary person. It’s a mistake, I read, to write for a broad audience. It’s easy, I read (and found out for myself) to get distracted by the idea of different people reading your work. You can’t please everyone. You may shock, annoy or offend some of them. And you don’t want to write the book that wouldn't shock, annoy or offend anyone at all. 

Instead, I read, you should identify someone who you think will really enjoy what you’re trying to do. If you don’t know anyone like this, invent them. Make them up and keep them in mind.

I didn't know anyone like that, so I made them up; my imaginary ideal reader. Not someone who would unquestioningly adore every word I wrote, but someone who would love what I wanted to achieve. I made them up and kept them in my mind. They were quite appealing to me so they became a secondary character in my novel, a love interest in a rather unromantic book.

I made them up. Then a friend sent me to their blog.


My novel was near completion when 2010 came around. I had worked so hard, for so long, with so many damn set-backs. There had been periods of months where I couldn't write, because I was too sick or because all my energy was otherwise spoken for.  There had been periods of months where I couldn't write because my confidence had been comprehensively flattened. And now, finally, I was nearly there.

A satellite image of the UK in January 2010.
This was a long, hard winter, the coldest in my life time. There was snow about for weeks. My then husband had had an argument with his family at Christmas and was spiraling into depression. In January, my friend Jack died suddenly – the third friend who, having enthused about my writing and looking forward to my completed novel, had died before I was done (I’m putting this in the context of my novel-writing; this was not my first, second or third thought on hearing of Jack’s untimely death). This was the year I would turn thirty and I started doing a Project 365, taking a photograph every day. 

There was something else going on. I would like to say that a rational calculation was taking place, but it wasn't. I would like to say that I was beginning to stand up for myself, but I wasn't. I often say, of this time, that my marriage was falling apart, but I didn't know that. Not yet.

I was very happy. I was not happy. I felt extraordinary well-loved; for much of my adult life, I’d been lonely, believing I was little more than a convenience or a useful ear to my friends, but that had all changed. Despite pessimism from my then husband (nobody will turn up and I’ll have to pick up the pieces!), I was planning a thirtieth birthday party with my three close friends. Two of them were old friends by then, but I’d only recently realised what that meant.

And thus, I felt full of love, but a love like molten lead; I was weighed down by it, burning up with it, in danger of starting a fire if I stood too close to the curtains. Sometimes I basked in the warmth and light of it all. Other times, I wanted to open a window and scream for help. That last sentence isn't a metaphor.

The last two blog posts I wrote before I finished my novel were On Not Being Beautiful #1 and #2. These are strange to me now, because what I wrote is perfectly valid, but I know they are written by someone who is regularly being told that she has the face of a Klingon, the skin texture of a pizza, her arse takes up all three lanes of the motorway or some variation of the above. At the same time, she has friends who casually tell her how good she looks, who greet her “Hello gorgeous!” or sign off e-mails, “Keep smiling, beautiful.” She's trying to navigate the dissonance.

Everything was rather like this. My friends were excited as I moved towards the end of my book, while my then husband said I wasn't going to make it and mocked every error or slur in my speech with, “I thought you were supposed to be good with words.”


During the last month of novel writing, I went a little mad and this madness was that bloody novel. It sounds dreadfully pretentious - suffering for my art - and I do know it was completely unnecessary. If my life had been better, it would have not made me sick and, crucially, my work could have improved.  I didn't have to bleed all over the page (metaphor), I didn't have to go into hell and back just to get the words down (not sure). These days I can write with greater power and much less pain and mess. Back then, I was in pain. I was a mess. 

This is the sort of thing I got up to at this time.
(A sort of pyramid made up of white blister
packs on top of a wall socket against a red
wall. A tiny metal angel looks on.)
I couldn't work all day long, but it became very much harder to shut down my mind or escape into other things. I couldn't sleep when I tried and fell asleep with my fingers on the keyboard. I lost interest in food. I was sometimes confused about whether I was living in the story of my life or the story I was writing.  

I listened to music of flight and music of falling. I did a little yoga every day and always finished playing Otis Redding's cover of (Can't get no) Satisfaction. I played the Cranberries’ No Need To Argue album an awful lot, just as the daffodils came into bloom. 

Other things too, I would understand differently later on; my long exaggerated startle reflex was now ridiculous. Someone could casually approach me, no loud noise, no sudden movement and I would cry out in alarm. Then there were moments of high drama, threats and shouting where I noticed I felt nothing - worse, I was thinking about some trivial aspect of my novel, as if what was happening in the room was some unfathomable soap opera on the TV in the background.

I was also trying to help my then husband, because he was really very unwell. Every day I spend time looking for jokes or funny stories to provide a moment's relief. I rented movies I thought he'd like and watched every one by myself first, in case there was something that would upset or annoy him. At one point, I bought him smiley potato faces in a desperate childish attempt to put a smile on his face.  

The night before I finished the novel, I told him that I was starting to panic about the deadline I had set. He responded, “I don’t care.”

The next moment, an e-mail from Stephen; How It Ends by Devotchka. I began to listen, thinking, Oh god, this is long and I have no time, it’s got accordians in it and I’m going to have to say something polite about it! but then the piano started. It was oddly perfect. I listened to it on repeat as I worked. In the morning, I played it again four or five times until I got up the courage to send the long rambling e-mail I’d been writing, complete with a 144,000 word file attached.

In this e-mail, I tried to tactfully address the fact that Stephen might recognise himself in one of the characters, but he mustn't read anything into it. After all, Stephen has a different reason to walk with a stick and references Dawn of the Dead rather than Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town as an allegory for human endurance. The personalities may be identical, but I wrote all that before I knew him. I made him up! I don't want Stephen to think I am secretly in love with him or anything. 

I couldn't say all that. So I wrote around it. At a great length. 


(The bottom of an unsent e-mail, reading
"Got to... click... send... button..")
It is Sunday morning; Mother’s Day 2010. I take this screen grab and put it on Flickr. Only one other person, apart from Stephen and I will see it and know what it means. But I am compelled to make some public record.

Then I click send.

Everything has changed. I've written a novel. I am not the same person I was yesterday, when I hadn't written a novel.

Stephen e-mails me with photographic evidence of my novel safely on his e-reader. He then sends the Thomas Truax cover of I’m Deranged in response to that weird rambling e-mail.  Half an hour later, he e-mails to tell me he’s read the first chapter. He's loving it so far.

(An e-reader held in a hand.)
I haven’t mentioned the fact that I've finished my novel to the man I am inexplicably still married to; I really hoped he would ask. But I tell him that Stephen's read the first chapter. No congratulations. He says, “Sure he’s not on top of a tall building, about to throw himself off to avoid reading the rest?”

My then husband is thinking about death a lot and imagines I have the same effect on everyone.

It’s Mothers Day. I must spend time with my mother.  

My parents and I go to my cousin’s house, where we have a meal with two cousins and an aunt (we’re supposed to be eating with my Granny, since it’s Mother’s Day, but we've managed to mislay her). We catch up with what was happening with everyone’s life, apart from mine. We talk about my sister, brother-in-law and nephew, we talk about other cousins, their partners, aunts and uncles, we talk about Granny and the great uncles and aunts. Even a couple of second cousins are mentioned at one point. Nobody asks me a damn thing.

I notice this - I do notice it, from time to time, the way my family believes I have absolutely no life to speak of - but I especially notice today because I’m thinking, 

This is the most important day of my life!

This really is. I consider blurting out, “I just written my first novel!” but I don’t. And to be honest, it’s just good to be out of the house and away from everything, to hear about other people's lives and dramas. People write books; it's not all that extraordinary. It's just extraordinary that I should.

It’s also good to have some time away from my laptop where I might anxiously await e-mails from Stephen. When I get back, he's e-mailing to complain that he had a sleep during the day and my book gave him nightmares.

The produce of my imagination has entered another person's subconscious. 


On the Monday, while Stephen is still reading my novel, my then husband and I have a big talk. He tells me that he doesn't love me anymore. I am boring, unattractive and very difficult to live with. He knows he’s depressed and things may well change in time, so there's no point doing anything about it right now.

I have heard something like this before, several times. The routine is that I go on a sort of probation; try harder, avoid pissing him off so much and after a while, I will say I love you and I’ll get it back: “I love you too.”

But this time, I take it badly. A big chunk of the lovely awful molten lead inside me breaks off, leaving a deep physical pain, a gaping aching space in my chest where there should be no space. I weep. It is like witnessing a death, the totality of loss I feel.

Yet, straight away, I feel lighter. Lighter in a lost and listless way, but definitely lighter.

A friend and I have talked about me staying with her in Wales for a week sometime. I call her and we make a proper plan.


On the Tuesday, Stephen finishes reading my novel. We talk on Skype for about two hours. He loves it. He is brimming with praise and talk of the bits that scared, moved or amused him. He is so proud of me, he gets a little choked up saying so. There are issues with pacing. There are a shameful number of typos. There are a few points of slight confusion. But he loves it. 

When we've finished talking, the man who doesn't love me anymore warns me, quite seriously, that I mustn't trust Stephen. He’s too nice. He couldn't possibly be being honest about it.  

I believe otherwise.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Two fat men: fictional bodies as metaphor and identity

I’ve been thinking about bodies, metaphor and identity, in the context of two very different stories; J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies (the same story over two books). Both have been given recent BBC TV adaptations where prominent fat characters have been played by fairly slim actors, which is undoubtedly why they have been on my mind.

 This is how J K Rowling introduces the patriarchal character of Howard Mollinson in her novel, The Casual Vacancy:
He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him; wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.
I like this, but you know, I don’t like it. Then, as the book goes on and we’re not allowed to forget how very fat Howard is, I like it even less.  Howard’s fatness represents his greed; he is a glutton and a lech, he is hungry for power and influence. He has a disgusting rash under his belly, he takes up space and tax-payer's money.

In much the same way, we know that Uriah Heap is ghoulish before he speaks or moves because he looks like a ghoul. Except even that was David Copperfield's own impression.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
A large white bearded man
in regal Tudor costume, complete
with codpiece, in case you forget.
Another fat man with a game-changing penis is Henry VIII in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies. Mantel is at a great advantage with Henry on two counts. First of all, she didn’t – couldn’t – invent his body. She didn’t choose his red hair, his colossal height, his increasing girth or his gammy leg. Secondly, most of us have a fairly clear vision of what Henry VIII looked like. Thus, there is no passage where Mantel says, Here is a man called King Henry; here is what he looks like.  His appearance, however, is mentioned often:
How colourful Henry is! How like the king in a new pack of cards! 
When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now, he is royal.
A broad man, a high man, Henry dominates any room. He would do it even if God had not given him the gift of kingship. 
Is the king’s head becoming bigger? Is that possible in mid-life?
Henry is overwhelming. He is, both literally and figuratively, the biggest man around. His clothes and physical mannerisms serve to make him seem larger and brighter.

There are other important bodies in these books; the body of Catherine of Aragon is deemed too old to play her role of bearing children. The body of Ann Boleyn, so desired by Henry, is criticised by her enemies as undesirable; she is flat-chested, she is a “goggle-eyed whore”. Princess Mary is unsuitable as an heir, both as a woman, and because she is small; a “dwarf”. Even toddler Princess Elizabeth, sharing her hair colour with her father, is described as a “ginger brat”.

But all of this information is delivered in the words and thoughts of characters. Mantel never tells us what people look like but instead, how they are seen. Sometimes, how they see themselves.

When J K Rowling invented lustful lingerie-saleswoman, Samantha, and teenage sexpot Crystal, the two most sexual and sexualised women in the novel's universe, she also made them the only two women with notably big breasts (Samantha even has sexual fantasies in which she is conscious of what her enormous breasts look like to her lover). The romantically desperate social worker, Kay, has stocky thighs.  Lovelorn teenager Andrew, beaten by his father and exploited by his far more confident best friend, has extensive facial acne.

Rowling does sometimes place visual descriptions in the minds or words of characters, but often she uses the authorial voice. Most people see a fat man and think about his penis.

The character of Tessa, described as “overweight” (that's a BMI of between 26 and 30, in case you were vague about what that looks like), sits looking at Heat Magazine in a doctor’s waiting room:
She remembered telling a sturdy little girl in Guidance that looks did not matter, that personality was much more important. What rubbish we tell children, thought Tessa. 
Tessa has a point; in this universe, people’s looks are often physical manifestations of their vices and vulnerabilities*.

My body is part of my identity. I didn't chose my face, but if you see a photograph of it, you see me. My bodily experiences influence who I am. There are folks for whom their bodies are much more or much less part of their identity; some people go to great lengths to express themselves through their looks, while others are largely indifferent. Some people feel trapped inside their bodies, while others revel in every detail of their physical selves.

However, my body is not a metaphor for anything. And goodness knows, people see metaphor in me, in my gender combined with my age, my height, my weight, my breasts, my bum, the length of my legs. People see metaphor in a walking stick or a wheelchair (hardly surprising when it's pretty rare to read fiction where these things are not metaphorical). I know people see metaphor if I wear make-up or not, the length and style of my hair, my clothes and shoes.

I'm not especially worried about the plight of fat, middle-aged white men - they are not underrepresented in the highest echelons of power, they are not a vulnerable group who suffer widespread discrimination or abuse (although they suffer some discrimination and abuse, and the BBC cast Damien Lewis as Henry and Michael Gambon as Howard, presumably because they couldn't find high caliber fat male actors in the right age brackets, presumably because such actors don't usually get a lot of work).

Meanwhile, I am fascinated by the mechanism; I am fascinated by the way rational human beings seek out meaning in accidents of genetics and nutrition. I am fascinated the way that hated figures are seen as ugly - David Cameron is almost eerily unremarkable in his looks, the silver Ford Focus of men, who you wouldn't so much as glance up at on a bus or in a pub. Yet to many of his detractors, he becomes reptilian, his eyes are too close together, his hair is receding comically, his skin is plastic.

People need to tell stories about the way people do this.

We need to avoid telling stories as if this way of thinking is entirely fair.

* When we were talking about this, Stephen reminded me of The Singing Detective, which handles skin disease as perceived punishment for various sins - the body as metaphor, at some considerable length.  This is absolutely superb but it is all about how the protagonist understands his body and illness (other characters have different perspectives - other characters apply different metaphors).