“You Would Call It Rape”: Sexual Assault in China Mieville’s “Perdido Street Station”

[Content note: rape, torture; spoilers for Perdido Street Station]

Cover of Perdido Street StationAfter reading almost nothing but nonfiction for years, I finally decided to check out China Mieville’s work and have developed a bit of an obsession. As in, five books of his in a row in the past few weeks.

Mieville has a talent for incorporating contemporary social issues into settings as fantastical as you can imagine (or can’t, in some cases). His novel Perdido Street Station tackles rape at the end, when the main character learns that the friend he is trying to help is a rapist.

Some background for those who haven’t read it:

Early on in the novel, the main character, Isaac, receives a visit from a mysterious man seeking his help. Yagharek belongs to the garuda, a nomadic race of people with human bodies, birdlike heads, and huge wings with which they can fly. However, Yagharek’s wings have been sawed off as punishment for a crime that he is unable to explain to Isaac due to the differences in their cultures. He calls the crime “choice-theft” and explains that among the garuda, the worst thing one can do is take away someone else’s choice. He seems horribly ashamed of both what he did and what happened to him as a result, and wants to somehow regain the power of flight.

Yagharek has traveled to the city of New Crobuzon to see Isaac because Isaac is a rogue scientist who researches arcane and experimental forms of physics, and might be the only one who can help Yagharek fly again. Isaac, horrified at the brutal punishment, accepts the huge sum of money Yagharek offers and agrees to try to help him.

This ends up indirectly leading to the main plot of the novel, which involves creatures called slake-moths terrorizing the city and feeding on people’s sentience (long story). At the end, the slake-moths have finally been killed with the help of Yagharek and others, and Isaac is finally ready to return to the problem of helping Yagharek fly again.

But then, Isaac receives another garuda visitor, Kar’uchai. She asks Isaac not to help Yagharek fly, because their community has judged him guilty and carried out the appropriate punishment. Isaac protests, saying that Yagharek is his friend and saved his life. He demands to know what Yagharek has done to deserve such a punishment, and Kar’uchai tries to explain:

“He is guilty,” said Kar’uchai quietly, “of choice-theft in the second degree, with utter disrespect.”

“What does that mean?” shouted Isaac. “What did he do? What’s fucking choice-theft anyway? This means nothing to me.”

“It is the only crime we have, Grimneb’lin,” replied Kar’uchai in a harsh monotone. “To take the choice of another . . . to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget that you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to . . . for all we individuals to have . . . our choices.”

Kar’uchai continues to explain how the garuda classify choice-thefts: for instance, some are done with respect, such as when a child steals the cloak of an adult they love to sleep with it at night. Others involve disrespect, such as killing someone. But in each case, the garuda view the primary crime as being taking away someone’s choice–to use their cloak, to continue to live, or whatever the case may be.

Isaac, still frustrated and confused, asks once again what Yagharek did. This time, Kar’uchai replies, “You would call it rape.”

Oh, I would call it rape, would I? thought Isaac in a molten, raging sneer; but the torrent of livid contempt was not enough to drown his horror.

I would call it rape.

Isaac could not but imagine. Immediately.

As Isaac tries to make sense of what Yagharek did, Kar’uchai reveals that she is the one he raped. And although she gave him the word to understand the crime, she resists his attempts to imagine the crime through the lens of his own human culture:

“Yag . . . a fucking rapist,” he hissed, and she clucked.

“He stole choice,” she said flatly.

“He raped you,” he said, and instantly Kar’uchai clucked again. “He stole my choice,” she said. She was not expanding on his words, Isaac realized: she was correcting him. “You cannot translate into your jurisprudence, Grimneb’lin,” she said. She seemed annoyed.

Isaac tried to speak, shook his head miserably, stared at her and again saw the crime committed, behind his eyes.

“You cannot translate, Grimneb’lin,” Kar’uchai repeated. “Stop. I can see . . . all the texts of your city’s laws and morals that I have read . . . in you.” Her tone sounded monotonous to him. The emotion in the pauses and cadences of her voice was opaque.

“I was not violated or ravaged, Grimneb’lin. I am not abused or defiled . . . or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was . . . judged. It was severe . . . the last sanction but one . . . There are many choice-thefts less heinous than his, and only a few more so . . . And there are others that are judged equal . . . many of those are actions utterly unlike Yagharek’s. Some, you would not deem crimes at all.

“The actions vary: the crime . . . is the theft of choice. Your magisters and laws . . . that sexualize and sacralize . . . for whom individuals are defined abstract . . . their matrix-nature ignored . . . where context is a distraction . . . cannot grasp that.

“Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims . . . And when Yagharek returns . . . I ask you to observe our justice—Yagharek’s justice—not to impute your own.”

So much to unpack in this dialogue. Mieville almost seems to be speaking through Kar’uchai, and through her cultural lens, to critique the sexualized framing of rape that is so often used in our society. In a discussion with friends recently, I noted how rape is often considered “the worst thing that can happen to a woman” purely because constructs like “purity” are so essentialized. It brings to mind the old debate of whether rape is “about sex” or “about power.” Kar’uchai introduces a new frame: rape is about theft. Specifically, the theft of someone’s choice not to have sex.

Although this sounds a little like the icky libertarian practice of viewing everything in terms of theft of property, the garuda don’t seem to see it that way. Rather, they combine what we’d call individualism and collectivism: they consider all individuals part of the “matrix” of society, but they also view individual freedom and choice as extremely important. Although Mieville (regretfully) doesn’t expand much on garuda culture apart from these passages, it seems to me that the garuda understand that the only way a nomadic and interdependent society like theirs can function properly is if its members respect each other’s freedom to choose for themselves.

Without knowing what exactly the gender politics of the garuda are, it seems that this framing of rape does away with a lot of the problems that occur in our own society. When Yagharek later reflects on what he did, there is no hesitation from the other members of his band about his guilt. It didn’t matter to them what a “nice guy” Yagharek had previously been, and whether or not Kar’uchai somehow “asked for it” never entered into the judgment. Her sexual history was never brought up, because sex had nothing to do with it. Yagharek stole her choice, and admitted to it when asked. (I do wonder, though, what would’ve happened if he’d given in to his initial urge to deny it.)

After Kar’uchai leaves, Isaac ruminates over the situation and can’t seem to find a way out of it. He thinks of his partner, Lin, whom he recently freed from her imprisonment as a hostage, and who has bruises that suggest rape. He thinks of how Yagharek fought beside him and saved both him and Lin. He thinks of Kar’uchai and thinks of her ordeal as “rape” even though she has asked him not to.

He realizes that no matter what he does, he is judging someone and something. Here his thoughts start to follow a familiar path to what we often hear when someone’s accused of sexual assault: “It’s he said/she said,” “Well I don’t know the facts,” “Who am I to judge them,” and so on:

He tried to extricate himself.

He tried to think himself away from the whole thing. He told himself desperately that to refuse his services would not imply judgement, that it would not mean he pretended knowledge of the facts, that it would simply be a way of saying, “This is beyond me, this is not my business.” But he could not convince himself.

He slumped and breathed a miserable moan of exhaustion. If he turned from Yagharek, he realized, no matter what he said, Isaac would feel himself to have judged, and to have found Yagharek wanting. And Isaac realized that he could not in conscience imply that, when he did not know the case.

But on the heels of that thought came another; a flipside, a counterpoint. If withholding help implied negative judgement he could not make, thought Isaac, then helping, bestowing flight, would imply that Yagharek’s actions were acceptable.

And that, thought Isaac in cold distaste and fury, he would not do.

After this realization, Isaac suddenly knows what the right thing to do is. He writes Yagharek a letter explaining Kar’uchai’s visit and revelation, and his decision not to reverse Yagharek’s punishment. He leaves the letter in the hut where they’ve been staying and, along with Lin and their friend, flees the city to avoid capture by the militia. The novel ends as Yagharek finds the letter, relives his crime and his shame, and resolves to live in his new home as a flightless being, a man.

While this treatment of sexual assault is not without its issues (as all representations of pretty much anything are), I think Mieville does an amazing job of having his characters grapple with the ethical issues raised. Part of Isaac’s dilemma is that he considers Yagharek’s punishment so gruesome and cruel, which influences his decision to try to reverse it. Interestingly, while Yagharek desperately wants to fly again, he pushes back against Isaac’s judgment of the punishment by pointing out that New Crobuzon’s punishments, which often involve a torturous procedure called Remaking that alters and disfigures people’s bodies in macabre ways, are really no better. Isaac, who runs with a group of radicals who protest the city government’s cruelty, immediately agrees.

I don’t get the sense that at the end of the novel, Isaac has decided that having his wings sawed off was a just punishment for Yagharek’s crime. However, he feels that reversing the punishment would nevertheless imply tacit acceptance of what Yagharek did. He is able to acknowledge that the punishment was grotesque and that Yagharek nevertheless did wrong. And as the reader, I felt sympathy for Yagharek as he tries to find his way in a new city, an exile not just from his community but from his entire race; nevertheless, I held him fully culpable for his crime.

In our own society, punishments for sexual assault are not even remotely on the level of that of the garuda. Yet people constantly bemoan how “unfair” it is to hold rapists accountable for what they did, how “tragic” it is that their lives have been “ruined.” Rape survivors are publicly excoriated for naming their rapists, as Dylan Farrow was when she named Woody Allen. Even the suggestion that people stop inviting a friend who has violated another friend’s boundaries to parties is often met with disdain, because it’s “unfair.”

Through Isaac’s moral dilemma, Mieville points out that “neutrality” in these cases is not truly neutral. It sends a message of acceptance in the form of a shrug of the shoulders.

~~~

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[guest post] Harry Potter and the Fuzzies of Altruism

Here’s a guest post from Robby Bensinger about the psychology of altruism with a little bit of Harry Potter thrown in. 

Effective Altruists are do-gooders with a special interest in researching the very best ways to do good, such as high-impact poverty reduction and existential risk reduction. A surprising number of them are also Harry Potter fans, probably owing to the success of the EA-promoting fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, calls that nice inner glow you feel when you help people “warm fuzzies“. But I’ve noticed that not everyone who’s interested in charity and social justice gets identical “fuzzies”. People with the same humanitarian goals can differ not only in their philosophy and tactics, but even in their basic psychological motivations. So I decided to construct a taxonomy of fuzzies modeled after the four Houses of Hogwarts.

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slytherfuzzies — how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals.

Slytherfuzzies are that self-esteem boost, that sense of being effective and just plain Awesome, when you successfully help people. Fuzzies are especially slytherin when people’s happiness is seen as an indispensable means to achieving slytherfuzzies (or just Victory), rather than your altruistic impulses being used as a mere means for making the world a better place. Picture Gandhi cackling in a darkened, smoke-filled room and muttering, ‘All goes according to plan…’

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ravenfuzzies — how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle.

One helps people not so much out of felt empathy as out of boredom, or curiosity, or a conviction that happy, healthy human-style intelligences help make the world a more beautiful, interesting, and complicated place. Any altruist can recognize the value of doing research and figuring out what actually works, but when you’re driven by ravenfuzzies your altruism will exhibit a ravenclaw’s detachment and openness to experience.

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gryffinfuzzies — how it feels to save the world from within a hero narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of Moral Quest.

A gryffinfuzzy can be as proud as a slytherfuzzy, but the grounds for pride are externalized — things are finally The Right Way, not necessarily my right way. Compared to hufflefuzzies, gryffinfuzzies are more bold, epic, blazing, and abstract.

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hufflefuzzies — how it feels to save the world in the form of lots and lots of sick baby bunnies.

Hufflefuzzies are warm. Personal. Social. Fuzzy. They’re probably the most common and essential source of altruism. They are units of reverse schadenfreude, of empathic joy, of emotional connection, solidarity, or belonging.

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I’m not trying to get a perfect mapping from canonical Houses to moral sentiments. Experiencing hufflefuzzies doesn’t make you a hard worker. Experiencing slytherfuzzies doesn’t make you a conservative.

Instead, I’m using the Houses as an excuse to investigate the different reasons people do good. It’s a common error to assume that everyone thinks and perceives the same way you do. If adopting a more complicated view of happy glowy squishy humanitarian fuzzies helps us better understand each other, and better reach out to people with different styles of moral reasoning, then adopt it we should!

In my own case, I seem to be mostly motivated by gryffinfuzzies. I find that especially interesting because philosophically I’m much more likely to explain and defend my ethical views in terms of the value of empathy (like a hufflepuff bodhisattva), or the value of diversity (like a ravenclaw Feyerabendian), or just in terms of my personal preferences (like a slytherin existentialist). Apparently my core moral intuitions are quite distinct from my intellectualizations of morality.

What about you? What drives you to do good? What combinations of fuzzies do you experience, and do they vary for different kinds of charitable work? Are you working on cultivating some of the varieties that you’re currently missing out on? Do my groupings make sense to you, and are there any fuzzies I’ve left out?

Robby Bensinger is critical thinking activist and philosopher. The former president of the Indiana University Philosophical Society, he does research in the intersection of science and religion, consciousness studies, value theory, and metametaphysics. (Yes, metametaphysics.) He has been heavily involved with the IU Secular Alliance for the past five years, and works much of his mischief at the blog Nothing Is Mere.

Depression and the Lie of the “Real Self”

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Mitchell of Research To Be Done has a fantastic post up about this idea that when you’re on psychiatric medications, you’re not “the real you.” I’ll shamelessly quote about half the post:

This is just a for the record, for everyone, whether you’re talking about antidepressants or any other form of medication or life circumstances: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE “REAL YOU”.

You know why? Because HUMAN BEINGS ARE CONTEXT-DEPENDENT CREATURES.

You are the real you when you’re being flirty and charming and totally hitting it off with someone adorable. You are the real you when you’re crying on the floor of your room and wishing the world would end. You are the real you when you’re living it up on vacation and you are the real you when you’re just getting through the day at a boring job. You’re the real you when you’re on vacation and hate everything about it, and you’re the real you when you’re flying through the day at an amazing job. You are the real you when you’re at a party, and you’re the real you when you’re staying in with your cat. You are the real you when you’re drinking, when you’re high, when you’re reading, when you’re fucking, when you’re lonely, when you’re surrounded by friends, when you feel absolutely worthless, when you’re brimming with confidence, when you wish the universe would leave you alone, and when you love everything about it. You’re the real you when you’re unspeakably angry and hate everyone, and you’re the real you when you’re ecstatically in love and feeling on top of the world.

“THE REAL YOU” IS A MEANINGLESS TERM USED BY PEOPLE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW HUMAN BEINGS WORK.

I wanted to expand on that idea a bit and talk about why it’s extremely harmful to people who are suffering from mental illness.

When I was depressed, I believed that Depressed Me was The Real Me. Not only that, but I believed that my depressed view of the world was The Most Accurate View Of The World. That when I was depressed and thought that everyone hated me and that I was an alien in this world who should die because I don’t belong here, that was, in my opinion, the most authentic view I could possibly have.

A large part of me feared recovery. Cheerful people grated on me, and of course, in this optimism-fetishizing culture, I thought that the only alternative to miserable depression was peppy, bubbly cheerfulness. That, after all, was what everyone seemed to want me to be, and that felt wrong wrong wrong.

There were a lot of reasons for my belief that depression was “real” and happiness was “fake.” First of all, as I just mentioned, I had a totally skewed image of what happiness actually looked like. Many people make that same mistake, of course, and it’s only now, when I’m healthy and happy but not that outwardly cheerful, that I realize that happiness just doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes it looks like hours spent alone reading. Sometimes it looks like passionate anger at injustice, and doing something about that injustice. Sometimes it looks like writing over 1,000 words in a sudden rush of ideas and creativity. Sometimes it looks like playing footsie with a partner while we do our homework in silence. Sometimes it looks like sitting at the coffee shop with my best friend, just talking about stuff. Sometimes it looks like savoring a meal I cooked myself. Sometimes it looks like waking up early on my first day back in the city, putting money on my metrocard, taking the subway, and walking up the stairs out onto the street, awestruck every time. Sometimes it looks like the moment I received my graduate school acceptance letter. And sometimes it does look like exactly what you’d think–dancing with friends and strangers at a party, knocking back shots and laughing at our own stupidity.

A second reason I believed depression was more “genuine” was that there was definitely a bit of sour grapes going on. No matter what I did, I hadn’t been able to feel happy with myself and my life since early childhood. That’s a lot of failure for a young person. So by late adolescence I was spending a lot of time being like “FUCK YOU HAPPINESS I DIDN’T WANT YOU ANYWAY YOU’RE ALL FAKE AND BORING AND SHIT.” It seems childish, but it was probably one of the only defenses I had. If I’d really known what I was missing, really felt its absence, I’m not sure how I could’ve made it through.

Third, it’s hard to ignore the fact that, even as Western culture promotes optimism and cheerfulness and happiness as mandatory, especially for women, it simultaneously elevates misery and depression to an exalted status. There’s a stereotype of depressed people as writers or artists, people who See Humanity As It Really Is and bring those insights to us through beautiful works of art or literature, and who die alone, unappreciated, perhaps drunk in a gutter or by suicide.

For a pitifully long time, in fact, I wondered if I could ever be a Real Writer if I became happy.

In his book Against Depression, Peter D. Kramer writes:

To oppose depression too directly or completely is to be coarse and reductionistic–to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. And here it is not only the minor variants–the psychiatric equivalents of tennis elbow–that bear protecting. Asked about eliminating depression, an audience member may answer with reference to a novel that ends in suicide. Or it may be an artist who is held forth, a self-destructive poet. To be depressed–even quite gravely–is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to adopt the posture of rebel and social critic. Depression is to our culture what tuberculosis was eighty or a hundred years ago: an illness that signifies refinement. Major depression can be characterized as more than illness, or less–a disease with spiritual overtones, or a necessary phase of a quest whose medical aspects are incidental.

(How can this image of the depressive exist in the same culture that stigmatizes depressives as pathetic, lazy, selfish, whiny losers? Why, you have to be depressed in the right way, of course.)

The final reason, I believe, was a property of the illness itself. The thoughts and emotions conjured by depression are so strong, so urgent, so potent that they felt more real than anything I’d ever felt before. The insights it gave me–they felt so brilliant at the time–could never come to me any other way. There was no other way to just know all these things about Life and Humanity. (This is also why I think that some of the aforementioned artists and writers might not be quite so brilliant as we may think.) When I was depressed I felt like a character in one of the Russian novels I love (where depression, incidentally, often plays a starring role). What could possibly be more genuine than this?

And during those times I’d forget how good it felt not to be depressed. I simply lost access to those memories. I wanted desperately to not be depressed anymore and I was also desperately afraid of who I would become if I were to stop being depressed. Depression skews and poisons everything. All of your memories, all of your identities, every sense you have of who you “really” are.

The result of all of this is that I felt that my depression was authentic. It was The Real Me. Recovering, especially through taking medication, would not be The Real Me.

I can’t know for sure now how that affected my eventual recovery. There are those who say that it must’ve significantly delayed it because I had to Really Want To Get Better and all that, but that’s straight-up victim-blaming bullshit. I DID want to get Better. I was just lost and confused and didn’t know what Better would even look like. And even when I didn’t want to get Better, that was a symptom of the illness itself. Depression is a feedback loop.

I do know that it made the decision to take medication (which brought me back from the brink) a lot more difficult than it needed to be. All that anxiety about potentially losing my ability to write was a waste of time and energy. Those fears that people would only like me if I was Deep and Insightful and Mysterious? They were crap.

And, anyway, here I am, nearly a year post-recovery and still writing, still being moody and weird, still doing my best not to have an overly rosy view of the world. Still ruining your fun.

But it’s deeply unjust to trick people suffering from depression into believing that they won’t be their Real Selves if they recover (especially if they recover using medication). People love to be all like “Yeah well what if anti-depressants had been around in Van Gogh’s time?” Well, maybe we’d still have his amazing art. Maybe it would look a little different. Or maybe Van Gogh would’ve done something totally different with his life and we’d never know the difference.

All I know is, no painting in the world can be so beautiful as to justify that sort of suffering.

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

The Trivialization of Mental Illness

I’m reading a very interesting novel called The Four Fingers of Death. It’s somewhat science-fiction, with a distinctly Vonnegut-esque tone to it–very sarcastic and cynical. The story takes place in the 2020s, and the author, Rick Moody, gives several hints as to the general milieu of the future. Few people have cars as gas is very hard to come by, India and China are dominating the world, and paper books are mostly a thing of the past. One little detail that the narrator mentions several times–a detail that most readers would skim over, but that the author undoubtedly meant to make a point with–was the 8th version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Currently the DSM is in its fourth version–DSM-IV–but the DSM-V is in the works. However, in the world in which Four Fingers takes place, the DSM-VIII has medicalized all sorts of everyday issues, such as a disdain for hygiene (“aggravated hydrophobia with hygiene avoidance”), opening a game of chess in an unusual way, being rude to waitstaff, and speaking unusually (“conversational pseudo-uremia”). What completely got me, though, was when the narrator diagnosed a new friend with “mixed caffeine obsession with chronic caffeine dependence” when–get this–the friend suggested that they meet up at a coffee shop!

The author’s point, of course, is easy to see. It’s a satire of the supposed overdiagnosis of mental disorders even today, and of the presence of useless and non-clinical “disorders” in the DSM. As in, hahaha, at the way things are going, soon we’ll call not showering a mental disorder! To this point, the narrator of the story mentions that everyone has been diagnosed with a mental disorder these days. The way he talked about the DSM–”I flip through it looking for symptoms I have yet to contract”–makes this attitude even clearer. Through his satire, Moody implies that mental illnesses are not something to be taken seriously.

Forgive me for making a big deal out of a (probably insignificant) novel, but this mindset right here–that mental disorders are just some sort of farce invented by people yearning for attention for their minuscule problems–this is what’s responsible for one of the biggest threats to adequate mental healthcare in America. I’ll attack this mindset point-by-point.

First of all, contrary to popular opinion, “everyone” does not have a mental disorder these days. I’m sure you’ve heard someone comment, perhaps after hearing of another person’s diagnosis with a disorder, something to the effect of, “Oh, lord, everyone’s popping pills for something these days!” No. Everyone is not popping pills for something these days. Many people do, at some point in their lives, take medication for a mental issue. But most psychotropic medications are meant as temporary solutions while the person works on their problems in therapy or on his/her own. People aren’t meant to take them for their whole lives.

And even if every single person in this country does, at one point or another, take psychotropic medication, that doesn’t mean much on its own. Almost everyone takes drugs for colds or headaches at some point, but nobody seriously advocates against this. I use the word “seriously” carefully here–a radical diet book I came across recently, Skinny Bitch, claims that we should basically never take medication for anything. It says, “Yeah, getting cramps totally sucks. It’s supposed to. Every month you endure cramps (without medication), you are preparing for the physical pain of childbirth. So suck it up. Stop interfering with Mother Nature.” Pardon my coarseness, but I actually nearly crapped myself when I read this. What?!

Most of us are glad that with things like modern surgical techniques, dentistry, drugs, and diagnostic tools (like x-rays and blood tests), we now live happier, healthier lives. Before these things were developed, people had 40-year lifespans and got all kinds of gruesome illnesses. Similarly, back in the good ol’ days, people with mental disorders either spent their lives in misery, got committed to mental asylums, or simply offed themselves, depending on the nature of the disorder. If we can prevent that by having “everyone pop pills,” so be it–at least until we can find a better solution.

Second, the fact that some mental disorders may be overdiagnosed does not mean that every diagnosis is illegitimate. Some parents, for instance, push for their children to be prescribed medication for ADHD in order to help them get ahead in school, even if they do not actually have ADHD. It should be noted that there are standard screening procedures for this disorder that ensure that people are diagnosed correctly. If a parent gets their child to somehow cheat the screening tests, or if an unscrupulous doctor prescribes medication even though the child doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria, well, guess what–these people are being unethical. That does not mean that ADHD isn’t a legitimate disorder that many people–adults included–legitimately suffer from.

Furthermore, although some people probably do “imagine” their disorders and seek treatment in order to get attention, I should point out that this can only be a minority. There is nothing at all pleasant or fulfilling about spending hundreds of dollars, taking medications that give you really crappy side effects, and telling a complete stranger about the most shameful aspects of your life. This is not fun. Anyone who invents a mental illness and seeks treatment for it as a way to entertain themselves is an idiot.

I should also point out that even though some people do falsify their problems and some psychiatrists do overprescribe, this is a general trend that you can’t really apply to individual people. Unless you are a psychiatrist, you are simply not qualified to judge whether or not a particular person’s problem is “real” enough to merit treatment. Everyone told me there was “nothing wrong” with me and that I should stop being a crybaby, until it got so bad that my daydreams changed from imagining that cute guy from class asking me out to imagining which method of suicide is most effective. Don’t be the person who trivializes someone else’s illness. Just don’t do it.

Third, Moody suffers from the mistaken assumption–shared by many people–that the trend in the field of mental health is for increasingly insignificant and non-clinical problems to be classified as mental disorders. With this view in mind, it’s easy to see how the author could come up with the hypothesis that in 20 years, a disinclination to take showers could be considered a clinical disorder.

However, if there’s any trend here at all, it’s in the opposite direction. For instance, premenstrual dysphoric disorder–more commonly known as PMS–was in the DSM until the revision of the DSM-III in 1987. Much earlier, in the 19th century, women who suddenly showed a strong desire to have sex were labeled with the diagnosis of “hysteria.” The cure? An orgasm. (This diagnosis was also a catch-all term for any medical complaint made by a woman. Obviously, it’s not longer considered a disorder.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure that nobody who has this author’s opinion of the DSM has actually looked at one. I’m no DSM expert, but I’ve looked through it a number of times, and I can tell you that very few of the disorders listed in it seem trivial to me. (There are disorders that shouldn’t be there, perhaps, but for different reasons. For instance, gender identity disorder, which refers to a very strong feeling that one has been born into the wrong sex, is probably in the DSM because psychologists have assumed that it leads to a lot of distress and problems for the person who has it. Before it was possible to change one’s biological sex, that was probably true. But today, it has become clear that if a person who’s “suffering from GID” is able to change their sex, things get better. The remaining problems are caused more by society’s lack of acceptance for trans* people than by their psychological makeup.)

However, Moody is echoing the prevailing cultural sentiment that mental disorders are nothing but insignificant little problems that people have in their daily lives. If this were true, popping pills to solve these problems would indeed seem pretty silly. However, it’s not true, and unfortunately for those of us who have to struggle to find adequate mental healthcare and to get friends and family to accept and understand that struggle, people like Moody are busy spreading this misconception around through various media–in this case, a satirical novel.

Contrary to what Moody seems to think, recognized mental disorders cause significant problems in daily living, relationships, and work. Some involve hallucinations or delusional beliefs. Some involve uncontrollable episodes of panic, which are said to feel somewhat like heart attacks. Some cause people to be unable to experience pleasure from anything they do (this is called anhedonia). Some cause people to become so preoccupied with cleanliness, order, and performing particular rituals that they are literally unable to go through the day without taking care of these things. Some keep people from getting a good night’s sleep–ever. Some cause people to try to throw up every bit of food they eat, or stop eating altogether. Some cause people to want to kill themselves.

Do you see anything trivial here? I don’t.