Bring Back All the Dead Writers

Content warnings: suicide, addiction, drug use, institutionalization, police arrest trauma, sexual assault, child abuse and alcoholic caretaker mention

I need rest. Moving rest, sitting down to read rest, feeling rest, playing rest, listening rest. In some ways, I think everything I do is rest from something else I’m doing. I had been on an R.E.M. kick and, on a whim, looked up what films their songs had appeared. One was The End of the Tour, which shows the relationship between David Foster Wallace and an enthusiastic journalist covering his rapid fame, following the release of Infinite Jest. I googled Wallace before I watched the film, as someone had recommended his books to me, but I had not read him. Like a true nerd, I often start with Wikipedia, and my eyes started at the top of the page: simple data, like birth and death dates. I noticed quickly he was just over forty when he died. My stomach sank a little bit immediately, with the knowing of kin. I googled it quickly, and confirmed: David–another writer, another addict, another crazy person like me, had died by suicide.

I think back to my first year of college. Walking around on just one extra hit of LSD, trying to “ground” so I could finish my Logic homework after yet another weekend like this. I think about the cops who had knocked on my friend’s door, with me on the other side, upstairs, naked, in bed, and the cop who threw a bathrobe at me after he was ferried away in a torrent circle of grunting cops. I think about why I would still name that person a “friend” after he had raped me. I think about all the things that brought me to his bedroom: keeping my mom awake as she drove drunk. Me sparingly, but cuttingly, teasing my brother for walking on his toes, but also sticking my hand to keep him out of traffic. Staying up until 12 and waking up at 4 to study for a physics exam. Because 4. and AP classes were going to get me out of there. My dad meeting with us, like an angel who came only for a few hours after school every Wednesday, but if he stayed, closer and longer, became a devil. The sweet older cook who sold us cigarettes in town, who we went to, maybe for the tobacco, but, more likely, because he listened, and he would let us lay down to rest in his wide diner seats. 

In the film, Wallace sums up his time on suicide watch in a psychiatric institute: “a pink room with a drain in the center of the floor, which is where they put me for an entire day when they thought that I was going to kill myself. Where I had nothing on, I had someone observing me through a – through a slot in the wall. And when that happens to you, you become tremendously, just unprecedentedly, willing to examine some other alternatives for how to live.”

The movie’s portrayal of David’s experience at a late-seventies psychiatric treatment hospital rang in my ears alongside other stories of older friends from the Haldol era, from photographs of mad folks forced to stand on blocks for hours, with their arms outstretched, about the “safety checks” I knew so well: every two hours someone opening my door, all night, flooding my room with light. And they wondered why I still wasn’t sleeping, and gave me more pills.

These stories make me think about a definition of ancestors: people who have sacrificed so that future generations can thrive and have a better life. Respectability politics would have us believe that passive suffering and victimization is not a contribution, but hearing this story I suddenly knew where I had been, for 2 week periods for forced treatments, in, then out, then in again. For a few cycles of this. Then 4 months. Then out, then in again, then getting sexually assaulted by a doctor on my way in for 16 months. Then out. And staying out long enough to find those “other alternatives for how to live”. 

I couldn’t say I was initially desperate to find these “alternatives”. I didn’t believe they existed in the padded walls and plastic plants and the art therapy rooms where I had to be quiet and speak only in turn. They definitely weren’t in the pills that kept me awake and made my skin crawl and felt like there were wads of cotton in the nerves running through my arms. They weren’t in the “healers” all forced to wear nameless, professional clothes, and they weren’t in closed circuit air vents and meals at prescribed times. I can safely say that, as flawed as the system is, our art therapists, psychiatric nurses and techs are often doing their best, and there slipped whispers of healings and their own humanity in through the cracks. And I can say, without a doubt, I did find healings in my conversations with the other interned.

With these things forced on me as “high medicine”, I sort of stopped believing healing exist. But, I am grateful I squirmed and resisted, to keep the hope of these alternatives alive. Once I had given up completely on what was being offered to me, I learned to keep quiet about what was really happening to me, to start lying about my symptoms, so I could get out of these prisons. As scared as I was of being inside my brain and body, maybe I didn’t want to heal, because the system had isolated me, alone, with a paradigm that equated healing with assimilation. Instead of ending suffering. Instead of changing, healing had been brow-beat into me as being changed. Becoming normal. Losing myself. 

After I was released, I immediately went off my birth control, forced on me because they believed me so sexually uninhibited I would get pregnant while in a locked psychiatric ward. My depression and psychosis improved immediately. My relationship with the psychiatric system was so broken I hid from my prescriber that I had conducted my own taper: removing one medication at a time slowly, spacing out and breaking my pills in half over the course of many weeks, on my own. I even quit smoking cigarettes afterwards. He eventually noticed I hadn’t refilled my prescription, and he said “we could have talked about it, but I guess you don’t need these pills right now”. When I eventually left seeing him, my mother called him up, concerned, but only after we had fought. Just like the years no one noticed I was depressed until my grades would start to slip, and when no one but my friend’s parents knew what was going on at home. We spoke briefly, and he confirmed I didn’t need him. After how many therapists, social workers, and prescribers, I had found an advocate, someone who trusted me.  

I don’t think I can truly divorce Disability Justice from the utter failure of our current paradigms, and the deep cruelty of our system, that really killed David Foster Wallace. In disability justice conversations, there is little, if any, inclusion of people with extreme emotional states. While professionals tell us that what is labeled Bipolar Disorder, Borderline, Major Depression, Schizophrenia, Anxiety, and even addictions are all medicalized as “illness”, very few of these make it into conversations around disability justice. All us crazy people are not trying to work, attend school, play outside, write a book, or have families? Today, disability is mostly talked about as chronic illness, ADHD and Autism, and I feel myself so excited for my friends and loved ones who are getting this sort of love, this attention, this inclusion. I know my needs will follow, eventually, in the wake of the room that is made in these conversations. I hope we remember pandemic lessons of inclusion of our homebound community through zoom. I worry that the dry discussions around neurodivergence make it sound so simple, like inclusion could look like us picking a dominant sensory learning type to work with, and ignore trauma. What do we need to add to our discussion of neurodivergence? I feel, often, that more is diverging than my brain; I’m not sure if I can even use that label, when my autistic and adhd buddies seem to wear it so well. I remain mad, on the margins.  

In the same way that I have not read Wallace, I have not been to Bloomington, Illinois. However, I can imagine the closing of The End of the Tour: Wallace and the reporter make peace, walking with Wallace’s dog through a light and snow-covered field in the Midwestern university town where Wallace taught. Eventually, I did find these “alternatives for how to live”. I wish Wallace had found them. How can our collective writing practice catch up with a radical view of mental health? How can we trade in this cultural norm of hypercritical writing feedback for something more caring, more accepting? When can we see writing not as an asset or liability, but a reflection of a human being, as Wallace so craves? How can we show we are truly hearing each other? 

Things are not easy these days, but they are definitely beautiful, and quieter. My nightmares are better, and I’m starting to talk about certain things unblinkingly, even naming names. I am still here, owing a lot to my white skin, financial privilege and my non-binary body (just barely) passing as cis-femme. I think we can get a little closer to this mythical “there”. The film’s final scene shows Wallace frolicking in the light of an unassuming Baptist church dance group, completely free to express himself, completely at home,  without the fears of exposure or being accepted and “cool”, which he so craves and so hates.  If we can move from the red pen to allowing every writer to be their own guide, to be loved and truly seen, perhaps David can hear us: Dance on, great ancestor. We will do our best to save each other. 

I might not like Infinite Jest. I can tell you right now it is longer than any book I can sit still for. I’m sure I’ll find some scathing detail about Wallace. He, like most famous people, was probably rapey. I am not inclined to put anyone on a pedestal, or obsess about biography. I’m also sure, without a doubt, that I want us all to have some kind of chance to be ourselves.

Published by Fern Moongaze

Wild enby traipsing the forest, awakening stilted hearts, beckoning the homebound to adventure, and igniting wild magic. And Dogs.

3 thoughts on “Bring Back All the Dead Writers

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