A Review of Out of the Crazywoods by Cheryl Savageau

September 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

By Bruce Owens Grimm

For most of my life, I thought Tarot cards and Ouija boards were for communication with the dead. This is especially embarrassing as someone known for being interested in the supernatural. But lesson learned. What I know now is that both have the purpose of contact, connection. However, Tarot’s a reflection of our own energy back to us rather than an open hotline with ghosts. Understanding the purpose of Tarot is important when reading Cheryl Savageau’s insightful and magical memoir-in-essays, Out of the Crazywoods, as she often consults one of her sixteen decks and explains why early on in the book, “I’m trying to find my life in these cards.” She desires a connection to herself as she learns how to manage her “late in life” diagnosis of “classic bipolar” and how the diagnosis makes her “not ‘normal’, whatever the fuck that is.” It’s a conundrum that many people with mental illness deal with at many points post-diagnosis. Trying to reconcile her past and present self is the reasons she consults the cards. Her search for who she has become provides the current that propels her story.

Out of the Crazywoods contains one hundred and seventeen lyric essays, each no more than a few pages. Savageau, an Abenaki poet and artist, shows her diagnosis rippling through each part of her life in brief and stunning prose. There is struggle, as when she has difficulty keeping a job because she must run to the bathroom, a place she feels safe, due to her frequent panic attacks. There is joy as when she spends time with her grandchildren and cooking for her family. Everyday things shift around her as in the essay “Wet Ashes,” where a smell in her house confounds her because she cannot locate it, “this damn house is haunted with the smell of wet ashes.” Her husband doesn’t smell it. Savageau, who is in her mid-fifties at the time, tells her therapist about the scent and the therapist suggests it’s an olfactory hallucination, which is common for people with bipolar. However, once Savageau and her husband divorce, the stench of wet ashes disappears.

Water guides, reflects. As she says in “Bagw and Tekw,” the books second essay, “all life is water.” Savageau is our guide through her life, and, of course, this book. She states as such in this same essay where the first sentence, “we are studying language together.” This is true in multiple ways. She imparts lessons in Abenaki (“Tekw is moving. Bagw is stillness. River is tekw. Lake is bagw), in this essay as well as throughout the book. But she also provides a way to recontextualize the language around bipolar in terms of stillness and movement rather than up and down, which makes it easier for her to understand its effect on her. It’s encouraging to think of mental illness descriptors in terms of nature. Makes the ebb and flow of symptoms seem less mysterious. Yet, as she says later in the book, “It is so much easier to write about mania…because there’s always something happening…depression is the lying down of desire.” Savageau doesn’t romanticize mental illness but gives us a peek into how she processes it in poetic images. As a poet it’s simply how her brain works.

Like Tarot, a book is a form of communication. At many points while reading Savageau’s memoir, it felt like I was having an actual conversation with it. A dialogue. I wrote responses and told part of my story to her words. I don’t have bipolar, but I do have major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD. Recently, I turned forty-four and through a conversation with a friend, reflected on how many versions of myself I’ve had to let go, let die, so that I could live. It felt like Savageau understood.

Letting past selves go is not easy. In “Blackouts” Savageau “comes out” to an ex-girlfriend, “Guess who’s bi?” I enter it as a subject line on an email to an ex after my diagnosis. In the body of the note, I say, ‘polar that is.’” The two of them meet for lunch and Savageau’s unnamed ex-girlfriend says she is not surprised by the diagnosis, “she knew something was up when I tipped over the dining room table during an argument that time.” Savageau is shocked. She has no memory of this happening, “Blackouts, I’ve been having blackouts. For most of my life, probably. I am not the person I thought I was. And if that’s true, who am I?” When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, often other people want assurances that you are the same as before. However, no one needs that reassurance more than the person diagnosed. As Savageau does here, you question everything about yourself. You have to start the process of finding yourself again or maybe truly for the first time.

Writing is the bridge between Savageau’s conception of herself before and after diagnosis, it “is one of those places where I am not crazy, the madness of poetry is not the debilitating madness of bipolar.” While she continues to write, she does disconnect from the Native writing community. She increasingly focuses on her Tarot cards – her solace in her isolation. A young writer she’s mentored reaches out, drives Savageau to the mountains, “the land works its magic. I put the Tarot cards away in their boxes. I accept an invitation to do a poetry reading. I slowly climb up from underground.” The climb is not easy. What’s important is beginning that journey. Ultimately, Out of the Crazywoods is a hopeful book. Prior versions of yourself may shatter, but you are not shattered. Out of the Crazywoods ends with an essay about the word Alnôbawôgan, “Becoming Human. It is a word of inclusion. It is the opposite of stigma.” Savageau takes us with her through the whirlpools and calmness so that we may see ourselves reflected, so that we know we are not alone no matter where the current takes us.

Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The RumpusNinth LetterEntropy, AWP’s Writer’s NotebookIron Horse Literary ReviewOlder Queer VoicesGhost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.


This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

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