Recently, I invited author Stacy Pershall to engage in a "diablog" with me on the aesthetics and politics of borderline personality disorder. I was curious to talk borderline to borderline about the writing process.
MLJ: I'm sitting here with your beautiful paperback edition of Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, thinking about your exploration of borderline personality disorder, a disorder characterized by excess, the too-muchness of emotion, the too-muchness of a personality that is loud, strange, uncomfortable to have, and often uncomfortable to be around. The question came up for me, in writing my own borderline personality disorder memoir, of how to convey the experience of this condition without alienating my readers. I remember one editor at Random House telling my former agent that she felt sympathetic to my story at first (in an early draft) but soon became frustrated and eventually just felt like she wanted to be away from 'me' (or at least the persona of me in the book). A couple of more friendly early readers translated that comment for me, urging me to figure out how to give the reader enough of the environment inside my head to get them interested but not so much that they felt overwhelmed by full immersion in the (or 'my') borderline personality experience. So, very early in the writing process, I was already thinking about how 'loud' to be in my memoir, how to write about the too-muchness of borderline personality disorder without making the book feel like too much to bear for the general reader. How much to show, what to reveal - it took a long time to adjust those levels in my own manuscript.
I have always admired authors of literary nonfiction who were willing to reveal more than is usually considered 'polite' or appropriate, feminist authors who are willing to put themselves in unflattering lights in order to explore some under-attended part of human experience. There is a book on feminist performance art called The Explicit Body in Performance, by Rebecca Schneider, where she theorizes a similar theme in more visual art forms, looking at the work of Carolee Schneeman and other artists who put their bodies into the performance in unexpected ways to jar the viewer into some new understanding of their subject matter. I think about this idea of 'the explicit body in performance' when the question comes up, as it often does at readings from Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, about how I felt about revealing such private things about myself (obsessions, indiscretions, etc.) in such a public forum. There is a reason why I include scenes and details that might strike people as too embarrassing to share, and the reason has to do with conveying the process of how I came to understand that something was psychologically wrong with me. It is not about exhibitionism, which is something I think non-borderline readers might assume, but rather about the creative benefits of borderline disinhibition.
All of this was on my mind as I read your book and encountered images of your self punishments (eating from a bowl in your room, sitting in a closet writing degrading words on yourself, and so on). I was especially interested in the last section of the book and really saw myself in the brief anorexia narrative, especially in your choice of not presenting the eating disorder as a big catastrophe but rather just another form of BPD, but I also liked the willingness to reveal the total catastrophe of the suicide attempt on camera and to permit the excess of BPD emotions to show.
My main question to you has to do with these choices: What was your process of deciding what to share, what not to share, and what tone to use when narrating your symptoms? Did you ever worry about being 'too' loud in the house of yourself?
SP: I have an MFA in electronic art with an emphasis in installation and performance, and I love that book by Rebecca Schneider! I had it on my shelf in my studio, and while I was working on my thesis I went back to it many times. I definitely consider all my work, writing included, as a tribute to the female performance artists who came before me - Karen Finley, Marina Abromovich, Tracey Emin, Laurie Anderson. Tracey Emin in particular. The piece I'm thinking of is the one where she set up a tent in the gallery and painted the names of all her lovers all over the inside. She also painted things they'd said to her, one of which was 'psycho slut.'
Another artist whose work I love is Pipilotti Rist. She made a video where she's skipping down the street swinging a giant flower by its stem. It's lit very dreamily, in slow motion, and she's wearing a frilly dress. She turns the corner onto a sidewalk next to a line of cars, and she swings the flower into the windshield and shatters it. Then she goes down the street shattering the windshields of the rest of the cars. I think both of these pieces are so transgressive, because they're women willing to express the worst about themselves.
They're revealing the two most shameful states of BPD: obsessive love and rage. Not that I am in any way pathologizing the artists or the art, of course. These are also the states people are most afraid of and threatened by in women. So when choosing how much of myself to reveal in my book, it was always all or nothing. LITHOM may be (though I certainly hope it isn't) the only book I ever publish, so I was going to get it all in lest I never get another chance. And everything's relative when you've tried to kill yourself on the internet. I finally had a chance to tell my side of the story and let other strange girls realize they weren't alone, so I went balls to the wall.
You have to. BPD is a crisis.
Especially in small towns where there's no DBT or decent pharmacologist for miles. People are dying. Teenagers are killing themselves and each other, and I'm up against assault weapons and pro-ana websites and cutting communities on LJ where they compare pictures of themselves slashed and bleeding, so I have to be equally loud. Kids nowadays have no escape from their bullies; the bullies can come into their bedrooms through their phones and Facebook and email. They're in the tent with Tracey Emin, in their most private and intimate space, with the words 'psycho slut' written on the walls. They're in the closet with me covering their skin with Sharpies.
I was incredibly fortunate to have agents who were completely behind me and encouraged me every step of the way to write this book in my voice and my intensity. The first was Katie Boyle at Veritas. She signed me in '04 after reading a manic, scattered, angry version, and told me I had to get the meanness out. The anger was fine, but I was being mean, and I had to write that draft and get it out of my system. Then I took a memoir workshop with Mindy Lewis, the author of Life Inside, and I started to turn myself into a sympathetic character. That took two more years and about three more drafts. I wrote my book seven times from start to finish, with only very small sections carried over.
Katie had to take time off for health reasons in '06, and she gave me permission to find another agent. We have remained great friends and still talk every few days, but I think at that point she was exhausted with me. We'd been through fire together. I'd bled all over her and completely invaded her boundaries. Halfway through our time together, I overdosed, ended up in the hospital for the last time and then finally started DBT. She saw me at my most out-of-control, but she never stopped believing in the book.
My second agent was Penn Whaling. She and her boss Ann Rittenberg have been full-on gung-ho supportive of me since day one, and they're delightful, intelligent women who are passionate about making good books. I've been on my best behavior with them and have been respectful of their boundaries, because I lucked out when I found them and I don't want to fuck it up. Same with my editor, who is very no-nonsense and would not for one second put up with my psychic bleeding. She made me scream into my pillow many times, but I by god kept my screams contained to my pillow and did the work she asked for, because being published by Norton is a tremendous honor and I don't want to fuck that up either. And thank god I found all of them during and after DBT, because that is the one and only way I had the non-fucking-it-up skills.
MLJ: I'm so impressed that you wrote the manuscript seven times, and that you deliberately worked to get the meanness out of it. I think mine remains sort of mean, and a lot of the meanness is directed at myself, like I went so far in the opposite direction from my original work of explaining my good intentions that I ended up draining them from the book, focusing so much on resisting self-deception that I produced another self-deception, one where I was only ever wrong and bad. An example would be the line where I describe comforting my youngest sister and then immediately undercut it by saying we were 'two losers clutching each other in the dark, calling it a hug.' But the truth is, it was a hug, and I was comforting her, and myself. Somehow I couldn't leave the good intentions in the book, like I didn't want to get caught thinking too much of myself, so I rushed to say the negative thing lest anyone think I didn't see its possibility (I struggle with that in everyday life even now). I would love to hear more about the workshop with Mindy Lewis. How do you go about turning oneself into a sympathetic character?
SP: I think the question of how to make yourself a sympathetic character in memoir is such an important one. I'm thinking of Elizabeth Wurtzel's books, Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again, and how much flak she's taken for the fact that people don't like her as a character. I have to admit I was one of those people because she was writing from a place of unappreciated privilege and because she disses body modification even though she has tattoos and piercings, although I absolutely give her props for being willing to come out about her mental illness at a time before mental health memoirs became popular.
One of the ways I made myself a sympathetic character, one of the ways I differentiated my book from others in the genre, is that I wrote about what it's like to have the odds stacked against you as far as class, educational opportunity, and wealth. I wrote about the struggle of dealing with the health care system when you're broke and uninsured. Other broke, uninsured people were looking for themselves in a memoir, so that's the book I wrote. That's the story I have to tell.
However, if there's one thing I've realized in the year and a half since LITHOM was published, it's that books are mirrors. There are always going to be people who hold your book in their hands but make up their own narrative as they read your words. Because many of our readers are struggling with emotional issues they may not be ready to face, they'll project onto you things they don't like about themselves. One reader wrote a review of my book saying that it was interesting to read the story of a woman with bipolar disorder who was more manic than depressed. I think I make it very clear in the book that I struggled with depression long before I struggled with mania, and to a much greater extent. I also clarify that I doubted the bipolar diagnosis (I have since dismissed it entirely) once I was diagnosed borderline. But that woman may well have been bipolar and had more manic episodes than depressive, and if that's what she needed to get out of my book to help or comfort herself, so be it.
I've also been taken to task for being dismissive of the South, for thinking I was too good for the place I came from. I don't think that at all, but I pull no punches about what it felt like to be bullied by Christians because I didn't believe in God, or by cheerleaders and jocks because I was smart and dressed like David Bowie. I talked about the pain of longing for more educational opportunities than my hometown could offer. That was my experience of that place, and it would have been disingenuous to say I was happy there. If that's not the reader's experience, fine. But my book's not for her, it's for kids who want to hurt or kill themselves because they're atheists queer hyperintelligent isolated in places like that. A gay boy who's now being bullied at my old high school wrote and told me I gave him hope. When I hear from those kids, it makes all the criticism completely irrelevant. One of the things DBT helped me come to terms with is that not everyone's going to like me, and that's fine.
Also, it's really important to think of yourself as a character, instead of an angry ball of pain out for vengeance. I wrote about myself as a strange little kid, which is a character readers tend to love, from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, to Frankie in The Member of the Wedding, to Matilda in Matilda. We relate to those characters because everyone knows, to some extent, what it's like to feel that others don't understand you. Whether you're the artsy kid who feels too ugly to fit in with the cheerleaders or the cheerleader who feels too pretty to be taken seriously, we all know about being misunderstood. Finding the universal truths is how you make yourself relatable to the reader. As William Faulkner said in his Nobel acceptance speech, what makes a good story, a sympathetic character, is 'the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself . . . Only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.' The story he must tell is one of 'the old verities of the heart, the universal truths . . . love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.' Those are the things we all feel. How to feel those things fully and unashamedly, those are the questions all readers want answered. It is our job, our responsibility as writers, to give them that.
MLJ: I posted a question in my last blog entry: What is blocking the thought of borderline pride? What is your reaction to the idea of BPD pride?
SP: I don't know that I'm proud to have BPD; it's just a thing that is. I do, because of my own experience of it, think it's an illness, and it's caused way too much pain and trauma in my life and those who love(d) me to consider it an asset. Now that I've learned to manage it, I appreciate the intensity of my ability to love and feel joy, and I am thankful for the traits that so often go along with BPD, namely creativity and wit. But I don't think I have those traits because of BPD, I think I have them alongside BPD. In other words, this mental illness does not give me the things I like about myself. Instead, they run concurrent, and I struggle to harness them because of the guilt and shame I feel about things I've done in the past. There will always be that little voice telling me I don't deserve success, that I instead deserve to spend my life punishing myself and denying myself happiness because of my previous terrible behavior. That's the central struggle of my life. There is always a mourning for the time I wasted being sick and a jealousy of the people who got treatment earlier than I did and therefore had those years. I compare myself unfavorably to others who spent that time achieving things, and, at 41, feel that I am very much behind. If there's something I'm proud of, it's that I'm still alive despite this, and that I found the self-awareness and humility to get through DBT because I so desperately wanted to live instead of die.
MLJ: Pride in still being alive. I like it. So what's next for you as a writer? I believe I heard you say you're working on a new book. And what else are you up to these days?
SP: Oh god, the new book! I'm fighting my way through a serious bout of writer's block. (Does any writer actually like writing?) It's a Southern Gothic novel set in 1980s Arkansas. It's about ghosts, the Cold War, numbers stations, analog technology, and Chernobyl. The brilliant Lance Vaughan, whose blog, Kindertrauma, you should read (but only when you have a million hours to spare), is illustrating it with his gorgeous, creepy paintings. There are lots of footnotes, mostly about horror movies. It was inspired by the three best books I read last year: Iodine, by Haven Kimmel, Cruddy, by Lynda Barry, and House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Took me three tries over 10 years to get through the last one, but it was worth the frustration.
As for what else I'm up to, I recently moved from NYC to DC, where people talk about their security clearance at dinner parties. It's pretty weird the first time someone casually mentions that they work for the CIA. I work as a speaker for the Active Minds speakers' bureau, educating folks about BPD, suicide prevention, bullying, and the difference between body modification and self-injury (in other words, climbing up on my soapbox for money, which, booyah.) As I write this, I'm on the Metro on my way home from teaching my first writing class to high school students as an instructor for Writopia Lab, my other (awesome) job. When I'm not writing, teaching, dancing, reading about nuclear holocaust, or proselytizing about DBT, I'm working my way through every Tim Minchin video on YouTube. He's my non-Stewart Copeland imaginary boyfriend. (Laurie Anderson and Annie Lennox continue fighting to be my girlfriend. Oh, the drama.)