July 15, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Melissa Oliveira
When a potter says a glaze is crazed, she means that a pot’s smooth, glass-like surface has turned out cracked. Whether it appears thick as a parched salt flat or fine as a spider’s web, crazing arrives with a dreaded high, recurrent pinging from within the cooling kiln. It’s often blamed on a mismatch between clay and glaze: the inner clay body and the outer surface shrink while they cool, but if they longer “fit,” stress causes the surface to pull apart—literally, to craze. I learned this definition a decade ago, when a few hours each week sitting at a potter’s wheel helped, with therapy and medication, to ease the depression and panic attacks taking turns at the wheel of my psyche. At a glaze workshop one night, I wrote the word crazing in a slip-stained notebook, alongside percentages of flux and silica, good solid recipes that wouldn’t lead to glaze instability. Crazing is all I remember now, suggestive as it was of a rift between outer and inner, of the care given to surface concerns undone by my inability to hold it all together.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s recent Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir reminded me of this time; in many ways it is the book I wish I’d had back then. A hybrid of both personal narrative and reported facts, Quite Mad speaks directly to the “binary that exists in our understanding of mental illness… that pits the self against the disorder, the individual against their own body and mind.” The book explores this rift by blending the author’s own story of PTSD, OCD, and anxiety with research into America’s past and present treatment of mental illness. To cover so much material could have resulted in an unwieldy book, but Montgomery’s keen curiosity guides us through history, social criticism, and the author’s lived experience.
The book’s opening scenes present Montgomery in terms of contrasts: she is a young, successful PhD student who is nevertheless tortured by anxiety. Her symptoms have literally brought her to her knees, and she finds herself daily in a university bathroom stall, vomiting as her mind spins with anxious, obsessive thoughts. They have, to some degree, haunted her since childhood; her parents, overburdened by financial stress and the demands of an ever-expanding family of biological and adopted children, each with their own traumas, were “too kind”: called to help others, but with little left over for indulging anxiety. Now, as a grown woman, the symptoms converge on Montgomery.
After this “patient history,” Montgomery doles out parts of her own story, using them to segue into various topics, like how women with mental illness have fared in popular consciousness (even back as far as Margery Kempe), to America’s present-day reliance on pharmaceuticals. Montgomery writes, “We cannot accurately describe our pain, because pain exists beyond narrative”: a disclosure I appreciated, when so many stories about mental health try to force a conclusion at recovery as though the story ends there. Montgomery, rather, writes, “I did not get better,” and we see her at different stages. How Quite Mad delves into the concepts of “recovered” or “better”—and how each term is laden with cultural expectations of behavior—acknowledges both a complicated history and an ongoing personal process.
Her work about the historical treatment of women is especially strong, with sharp commentary on how “the notion that the female body was inherently ill” resulted in violence masquerading as treatment. “Why does the world we’ve created for women lead to their madness?” She writes, “Consider this: Paris, 1825. Doctors testified that if a woman insists she is not mad, her denial was absolute proof of her insanity.” From gendered drug marketing campaigns to forced sterilizations and lobotomies, Montgomery covers important ground directing our awareness to how bias, racism, abuse, misogyny, and profit-seeking have always factored into treatment.
“The stories we tell about mental illness,” Montgomery writes, “label it both chronic and curable because to talk of disease without cure is problematic for a country concerned with triumph.” Instead of triumph, she offers a reprieve whose narrative designs feel, to me at least, somehow closer to life. The “mental illness memoir” serves a special purpose for some of us; in reading them, we read for explanations, or to name our experiences, or for reassurance that we aren’t alone. Quite Mad joins several recent works, from The Glass Eye to Heart Berries to The Collected Schizophrenias which, thankfully, seem to be working toward new ways of writing about mental health.
Melissa Oliveira’s writing is published or forthcoming in Ploughshares Solos, AGNI, The Normal School, RHINO Poetry and others. Her book reviews appear in Hippocampus, The Kenyon Review Online, The Rumpus, PANK Online and more. She currently lives in Berlin, where she is working on a novel-in-stories about the divided city.
September 26, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Sarah Fawn Montgomery
Writers have peculiar behaviors, one of which is sitting alone day after day, month after month laboring over a notebook or keyboard, hoping that what we create in private will ultimately be enjoyed in public. We embrace the contradiction that writing is an act of solitude, but also a social one.
But this contradiction is not without it challenges, as evidenced by how often jarring it is to pull ourselves from the world we make on the page (even if it is nonfiction) to go about the reality of our day. More so, by how anxiety-producing it can be for the writer to move from the private act of writing to the performance of publication. Real time living hardly affords the control or revision of writing, and many writers agree that the months leading up to publication can be nerve-racking.
As someone for whom anxiety is a natural state—I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, OCD, and PTSD more than a decade ago—the marketing process for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir proved more difficult than the writing process. I’d assumed that reliving my experiences with mental illness in order to write the book would be taxing, but the thought of marketing made me experience panic attacks and the general feeling that I was being crushed under the weight of my fragile writer ego.
I don’t exaggerate! I saw things, heard things. I counted, doublechecked, twitched. Felt organs sputter inside. In sleep, I ground holes in the mouthguard designed to prevent such grinding. Being “forthcoming” was not exciting. It was miserable. Marketing proved maddening, for as a human I prefer to go unnoticed, a quiet observer made fierce by the solitude of the page, but as writers, we want to be seen.
Hallucinations aside, I am not alone: many writers have reflected on the difficulties of marketing, the challenges that come from asking for attention in a world saturated with selfies and side hustles, the guilt we feel over demanding individual praise when the world seems to be collectively falling apart. I’ve witnessed writers judge others for posting too frequently about themselves, asking them to purchase a book, or simply sharing good news. “Shameless self-promotion” begins most social media posts as a result, an apology that sets the tone for how readers engage with the content. We require, it seems, both humility and humiliation of writers if we are to reward them with a ‘like’ much less the purchase of their latest project.
Once, I was hosting a dinner party for a dozen writers when news broke that a lovely absent friend had secured a two-book deal. Within moments the atmosphere changed from one of merlot’d merriment to acrimony, and most of the table never forgave the writer for their success. It is no wonder writers pause before sharing reviews or media mentions, feel such self-doubt and shame for hoping others will celebrate their accomplishments.
At this same dinner, however, my cat spied a toy mouse on the floor, meandered over and began yowling victory as though a brutal battle had ensued, a bold albeit lazy performance that prompted delight from guests. Years later, I still wonder why our friend’s literary accomplishments seemed suspect while a housecat’s guttural gloating was cause for applause.
There is much practical advice about marketing—don’t dwell on reviews if you are lucky enough to receive them, try to work on new writing but don’t be disappointed when this is difficult or impossible, remember that “book tour” is code for awkward writers, small crowds, and strange questions that aren’t really questions. For me, however, the best strategy leading up to publication was not marketing myself, but supporting other writers, many whom were also in a forthcoming frenzy. This allowed me to engage with the literary community in ways that were sustaining rather than suspicious, and to foster connections with people who love words rather than wondering why family members I’ve never witnessed reading weren’t eager to talk about my writing. Most important, championing good work helped me remember why I love writing and writers in the first place.
I am a patient, enthusiast, forgiving reader. (I may be a better reader than person.) When I find a piece I love, I read it again and again until the muscles in my face have memorized the movement. I read it aloud, often with waving hands, to anyone who will listen. I geek out, students held hostage by my syllabus, or my partner, who cooks dinner while I pace the kitchen ranting about the best metaphor ever before finding another best
I fall hard for writers, reading everything they’ve written, swooning over their language, acquiring extra copies to fling at others like it’s December and I’m hosting my own Favorite Things episode. And yes, like anyone in love, I send mushy messages to writers I admire, though I try to keep the XOs to myself. When I encourage students to contact writers they love, they return to class shocked, whispering, “They actually wrote back.”
The first email I received from a reader about Quite Mad made me catch my breath. I was in the midst of months of mental illness setbacks, uncertain when or if they would end, gasping and heaving, existing beyond going to work and returning home seemingly impossible. I was seeing and hearing things, experiencing panic attacks for several hours each day, convinced a piece of ice was a shard of glass that had slit me belly to bowel on the way down, or that I’d drunk bleach, or that a vein was about to burst. I could not bear to exist in the cage of my body let alone think about marketing my broken self to others. Who would want to read a story about a skittish, frightened brain, a woman so afraid she could not look in the mirror without panicking?
The reader was writing, she explained, because she felt the same, because my book about panic and compulsion and trauma made her feel normal for once and less alone. And suddenly so did I—the private had become public and I had not died or caught fire or shriveled like a tuber into the earth or all the other terrible things anxiety convinces us will happen if we prove fallible.
My mental illness did not disappear with this small praise, just as the release of my book has not quelled it, but this kindness reminded me of the importance of small literary acts—an email to a writer, sharing a beautiful line with others, buying books, gifting books, teaching books.
The way I see it, we have two choices: We can ruin the dinner party by dismissing well-deserved accomplishments (either those of others, but more often than not, our own), or we can yowl. Writing an essay or poem or story, or hell, a whole book, is much more demanding than rolling over and spotting a faux mouse, yet we hesitate to celebrate.
If you are still too shy to yowl for yourself, yowl for others, and know that lovers of words will be happy to yowl for yours.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Normal School, Passages North, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery