Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lesbian for a Year - some questions.

I've been thinking about Lesbian For A Year by Brooke Hemphill, a memoir of a straight woman who, frustrated by the single life, decided to forego men and date women for a year. I haven’t read the whole thing; this article by the author describes the basis for the book and how "Ultimately, dating women made me a better straight person."

All I seem to have here is questions:

What if a lesbian got fed up of women (it happens) and decided to date men for a year?  Would this be a marketable memoir? What would the backlash look like? Would we expect straight men to be more or less insulted to find themselves portrayed as romantic and sexual guinea pigs?

Many gay men and lesbians have spent a year or ten pretending to be straight; dating people of other genders, occasionally even marrying them. Is anyone interested in gay perspectives on the straight life and if not, why not? 

Could a woman hope to become “a better lesbian” by dating a few men? Can we only become better people by occupying marginalised spaces? If so, what hope for self-improvement among marginalised people?

Why is it that the word bisexual seems entirely unavailable to some people who experience romantic and sexual attraction or relationships with both men and women*?  Folks should be free to use whatever labels they like, but outside of single-sex environments, is it common for straight women to enjoy sex  or having romantic relationships with women? What makes a straight person straight?  

Imagine that a straight guy wrote a book, “Gay man for a year.”  He was fed up with women, finding them too demanding or fussy or whatever the stereotype may be. Then one morning after a night on the town, he wakes up in bed with a man, and decides to give gayness a go. Observing the behaviour of other men in romantic relationships, he realises something about himself before returning to the pursuit of lady-love.

Yeah, imagine that.

Why am I so certain that such a book would never happen? Why do I suspect that if a man conducted such an experiment, he might be anxious to keep it a secret from his friends, and from any future girlfriends?

Sexuality is weird and wonderful. The way our culture frames sexuality is plain weird.

C N Lester has some suggestions for alternative books they would rather read

* I assume most bisexual people are attracted to members of various genders of which men and women are but two, but in this case, it's about men and women.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Robin Williams, narratives of depression and suicide.

In the month since the death of Robin Williams, there has been a lot of social and mainstream media discussion about depression and suicide. This is a good thing. The more we talk about it, the more likely that we might move towards a position where mental illness is seen as the commonplace yet debilitating experience it is, the more likely we are to better manage these conditions as a society and the greater the hope that meaningless deaths and the devastation they cause can be avoided. 

But as with any move towards greater awareness, there are a lot of messages floating around which aren't necessarily helpful, which simplify illness and risk re-enforcing assumptions about mental illness. Emma wrote about the simplistic message that folk just need to tell someone, and I want to talk about other dominant narratives of suicide and depression.

The world at large cannot know what was going through Robin Williams’ mind when he decided to take his life. We know about some sources of stress in his life (a cancelled show, potential bankruptcy, a Parkinson's diagnosis). We know that he had bipolar disorder and a history of alcohol and substance abuse. However, there is no neat story to tell – not right now and maybe never – about what he was thinking and why he did what he did. 

However, that doesn't stop us pretending there is. 

“This is what depression feels like.”

I’ve seen so many articles with this kind of title since the death of Robin Williams and you know what?  That’s not what depression feels like. My experience of depression isn’t exactly extensive – it’s probably about eighteen months, all totted up, but even I can tell you that it feels like physical pain, also numbness, also total emptiness, also like all the colours have been toned down, also utter blackness, also a menacing figure in the corner of the room, also complete indifference, also a bell jar and a black dog. Not all at once, you understand, but it changes.  Meanwhile, symptoms vary hugely between individuals; how much a person can do, how sociable they are, whether they're sleeping all day or not at all, whether they're eating all day or not at all, and so forth. 

I think it’s immensely important to talk about our personal experiences of depression – the biggest barrier for people seeking help is the fear of judgement and misunderstanding, the belief that they are the only person who has ever felt like this (or at least the only person they know). So it really is great that people have the courage to write about their darkest experiences. 

However, framing anything as a definitive account (perhaps especially when it’s beautifully written) plays into the idea that this is a condition which looks one particular way. That readers of such accounts can know exactly how Robin Williams, or any person with depression, must have felt.  

This is especially dangerous when it comes to perceptions of functional impairment; the idea that someone with serious depression can't get out of bed, or will withdraw from the world altogether.  There's a danger of assuming our friend who is having dark thoughts but still making it into work each day will be just fine.

Fortunately, it's possible to be both respectful and compassionate without having to know exactly how a person is feeling at any given moment in time.


Yes, depression lies.  Depression can make people believe things about themselves, their lives and other people which are not true.  A truly wonderful person can come to hate themselves because of this trick. A very fortunate person surrounded by love and material comforts may hate their life because of this trick. 


Some people experience depression for random chemical reasons, as with post natal depression, but many others have depression caused or compounded by abuse, trauma, discrimination, isolation, physical illness, poverty, heartbreak, bereavement and very often, a combination of these things.  Meanwhile, depression makes a person more vulnerable to negative life events, to poverty, to exploitation, to losing supportive relationships and to other physical and mental health problems. In other words, people with depression are likely to have some very real problems in their lives. 

And people with depression are not believed.  It is much harder for people with mental ill health to get the benefits they’re entitled to.  When someone with depression takes a physical symptom to the doctor, it will often be put down to depression. When someone with depression takes a criminal case to the police, they may be told that they are an unreliable witness. When someone perceived to have a mental illness speaks out about politics, an elected official may advise them to "refrain from commenting in the public domain" as if a diagnosis discredits a person completely. 

People who live with these experiences often wind up with problems trusting themselves, rendering #depressionlies a far more complex message than can be done justice to in 140 characters. 

Meanwhile, all chronic illness lies.  Chronic pain is a lie – the point of pain is to warn you of injury or illness, so you can respond accordingly, recover and avoid whatever made you hurt in the first place. Chronic pain says that there’s a crisis now, when (often, at least) there’s no crisis at all and nothing you can do.  Chronic pain tells you to stay still when you need to move and to move when you need to stay still.

“People don’t die by suicide. They die of depression.”

Suicide is a physical act, not an internal experience. People take their lives in a great variety of circumstances. One person might plan their death a year in advance.  Another person, in the absence of any mental health problem, finds themselves in a difficult situation, panics and departs.  Suicide is not, as one commentator has it, a symptom of depression.

Suicide is a physical act at one particular moment in time - this is one reason why speculating on why Robin Williams, or any other person, died, is ridiculous. All these deaths tell us is that, at one particular moment in time, a person intended either to to gamble with their lives, to inflict severe self-injury or to end their life. Sometimes people die and those left behind have no idea what was going through their minds. Sometimes a person gets very drunk or stoned or desperate or angry and makes a dreadful mistake which would not have occurred to them the following day. The fact that a deceased person had depression doesn't mean they were in complete agony for months leading up to this event. These are tragic deaths.

I feel we desperately need to be honest about this because suicide is highly preventable. One of the great tragedies of suicide is the fact that, in very many circumstances, external events might have disrupted the act. Speak to people with a history of suicidal depression and you frequently hear stories of rescue; this event, this person, this pet, even a personal realisation that struck them at the right moment saved their life

Depression is not a simple condition and occasionally, people don't get completely better. But it's often simple kindnesses, responsibilities and thin rays of hope which enable people to survive the worst periods and regain some quality of life. 

Meanwhile, there is a hell of a lot we can do, socially, culturally and politically to help reduce the impact of depression on people's lives, so far fewer people ever get into a position of danger. Both depression and suicide are hugely influenced by sociological factors (including the way that famous suicides are reported).

Describing suicide as if it is something that just happens to depressed people is doing no-one any favours.  It patronises people with depression and renders the rest of us helpless.

Fortunately, we're not.

If you're in trouble right now, these links may be useful:

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On writing & listening to music

My iPod is rather like a vortex manipulator; the most primitive transport through time and space. Music can make me feel most like myself, my secret cool self, the self where all things are possible and then again, music can make me feel most like someone else entirely. Music in an effective way of changing gears. Music is an effective way of changing masks.

If you know what sort of music a person likes and particularly, the way they hear it, you know an awful lot about them. I find it really useful to give distinct musical tastes to characters. Outside fiction, of course, you nearly never know how other people hear music, which is why it can be so reassuring that Barrack Obama cited Ready or Not as his favourite track, yet so devastating when David Cameron professed to love the Smiths. Yet, try to consider just how David Cameron actually might listen to the Smiths. The lyrics change their meaning. The colours of the music are completely altered. Can you imagine? He hears “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” and is moved to demolish the welfare state while vilifying the poor.

The article I linked to documenting Cameron’s love for the Smiths quotes him as saying, "The lyrics – even the ones I disagree with – are great, and often amusing.”

That's interesting, because not everyone listens to pop music thinking, "Now, that's an ideological point of view I disagree with, but that cat sure be laying down some the phat rhymes."  So that's another thing to consider, when using music to tune into fictional characters; Charles Manson thought that the Beatles' White Album was all about race war. People hear and interpret lyrics differently; sometimes they don't matter and sometimes they're everything.

Tragically, David Cameron is not a fictional character, but if he were, understanding how he enjoyed the Smiths would be very useful to his creator. Playing the Smiths while writing about him would be useful. No reader need know about any of this - the subject need never be raised. But it's co-ordinates in time and space.

That having said, there's no harm in musical references. A detective with an eccentric taste in music has become a cliche in British detective fiction, but that's only because it worked so well with Morse (classical, particularly Wagner) or Rebus (rock, particularly The Rolling Stones). I’m really excited in movies and TV shows when they pick distinct music which a character actively chooses to listen to - McNulty listening to The Tokens' version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight while tailing Stringer Bell or Walter White racing along the desert highway to A Horse With No Name.

There are people – and therefore there must be fictional characters – who either can’t or don’t appreciate music (I have known a few extremely lovely and poetic people who are either deaf or just not bothered for music). In these cases, it may be necessary to plug into some other piece of culture that a character is into; a favourite movie, TV programme, a favourite painting or whatever. Only naturally, you can’t do that while writing, and it often takes more time and consideration.

Beyond the matter of character, I use music as an aid to concentration. I can only work for short spells and time, energy and peace arrive at fairly random intervals. I have to get in there as quick as I can.

This music is not music that I would particularly enjoy in other circumstances, because it has to meet the following criteria:

  1. A track has to be at least four minutes long. Longer is good.
  2. A track can't have a lot of variation - the classical music I love provides long movements, but often with too much going on.  
  3. I must be very familiar with this track for some reason, even if that reason isn't love for the music.
There's a fair amount of classic music that's good for this, as is goth music; Bauhaus' Bela Legosi's Dead goes on forever. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry's Talk About The Weather is shorter but you can play it on repeat and not notice that it's ended and started again. Dance tracks from the 1990s which became numbingly familiar on the bus to and from high school are also very useful; Adamski & Seal's Killer or What is love? by Haddaway. That kind of nonsense. 

I don't dislike this music, but if I were a fictional character, it would not be mine.  

There are dangers listening to music when writing, apart from obvious things like singing, dancing and spending half an hour rearranging a playlist before you’ve even got started.

The first is feeling it too much. When I was younger, I treated fiction-writing much as I treated dramatic performance, as if, should I only feel everything a fictional character feels, the reader would too. Only actually, feeling it all makes it impossible to write. Your tears may short the keyboard but that doesn't make for articulate prose. As music is such a catalyst to strong emotion, it’s sometimes best to listen to a tune before writing in silence. You can take notes. No, don't just copy down the lyrics - what are you? Twelve?

The second is feeling hampered by the fact that nothing you can write in words can ever be as expressive and exciting as music, because music is the bomb. You’re thinking about the way a character feels, you listen to a track and know that you cannot express their feeling better than what you just heard. It’s true, you really can’t. But music cannot tell complex narratives with all the richness that entails. It's different. You can practice your guitar later on.

The third is the temptation to nerd out about music in writing, which is always unwise when one's purpose is to get on and tell a story. There are exceptions - here is one, from Howards End