Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bluebird Theory: Borderlines and the Quest for Happiness

I want to return to the idea of borderline personality in the key of blue from a different angle that still has to do with moods but also has to do with the cultural politics and diagnostic pathologization of emotions.

I am a diehard Six Feet Under fan.

The cold blue tones of its opening sequence and the music with its weird minor chords and music like bottles clinking together hypnotized me.  Even its Christmas episodes were ironic and angry and rude.  Think Billy, post-mental-hospital-inpatient-stay on "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (2002): "Happy's a concept I try not to buy into.  It gets me into trouble."  Billy's bipolar expeditions took place years before my diagnosis as borderline, but the pain he felt and the anti-social behaviors felt and sounded familiar.  If I were Claire, I would have dated him too.  Several years later, with my diagnosis and three therapists behind me, I would know better and walk away from Billy.  He is the siren song of the abyss.  Plus, I'm gay.

Anyhoo, his words about not chasing happiness still strike me as right on.  Pursuing happiness has translated in my life into a series of addictions of the opiate and amphetamine variety, as well as the headlong dive into various illicit affairs, a structure of desire I think of as the crack cocaine of romance.  That's not happiness's fault, but it was borderline personality hedonism which I mistook for happiness for a long time, even though it hurt and made me miserable and sick.

Fact: My grandma gave me a glass bluebird when I was a teenager to remind me to look for happiness.

Fact: When I moved away to graduate school, after an early marriage, divorce, and major episode of depression, I put the glass bluebird in a drawer as a gesture of protest.  There is no bluebird, I wanted to say.  There is no happiness.

Fact: After I ended an affair with a woman who dated me for about 18 months while choosing not to leave her long-term partner, I got a big fat bluebird inked into my shoulder and told people it was the bluebird of happiness which eludes me.

Now we have entered a moment of bluebird of happiness critique both in the mainstream publishing industry and in the world of academic theory.  Ariel Gore's book, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, has garnered many positive reviews for "filleting the bluebird" (pardon the gruesome meat-eater imagery):
  • “Everybody, it seems, wants to know why women aren’t happy. But Bluebird suggests that maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. In reframing the age-old, exasperated query of what women really want—from themselves, their partners, their jobs, and their families—Gore’s exploration of happiness offers a probing, inspiring, and deeply humane alternative to the powerful positive-thinking industry. Bluebird is radical in the truest sense—and as a recovering pessimist, I'll be keeping it handy.”   —Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial director, Bitch magazine
  • “Ariel Gore expertly fillets the plastic bluebird of happiness to reveal its faintly beating heart. Eloquent and sensitive, Gore is one of the best feminist writers of our times.” —Susie Bright
In an interview on Feminist Review, Gore responds to a question about whether smart and happy can go together in women's lives:
  • In American culture there has been a massive campaign to sell us all on cheerfulness. It has been an important part of capitalism and has been part of the oppression of women. Women have been endlessly told by others what we need in order to be happy. Maybe they say we need a husband or children or a fantastic career or a spotless kitchen or multiple orgasms. In any case, we are being told what is good for us. Of course we rebel against false cheerfulness and being told what to do when it's wrapped in the nonsense of it being “for our own good.”
I picked up my campus mail yesterday and to my delight, my copy of Sara Ahmed's new book, The Promise of Happiness (2010), had arrived.  I am cuckoo for cultural theory, so this is the bluebird critique I am frothing to read.  She completely thrilled me with her last book, Queer Phenomenology, so I am already on Team Sara Ahmed before cracking this new book.  Feminist theorist Rita Felski sings its praises in an endorsement of Ahmed's "bold critique of the consensus that happiness is an unconditional good" and celebrates the intervention not only into "happiness studies" but also into the wrongheaded assumption that feminism "destroy[s] women's happiness."  So, yay.  These are great lines of inquiry and I can't wait to read more.


Billy Chenowith lingers.

And this is not really a book review.

The queer, feminist, and queer feminist critiques of happiness overlap with borderline personality concerns, but they are not exactly the same, so I am moving towards something like a queer feminist cripistemology of borderline personality and the bluebird of happiness phenomenon.  (Note to self: finish reading Robert McRuer's Crip Theory.)

I don't want to suggest that I am anti-happiness, or that my next book will be the borderline personality version of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, or that I will write a memoir that reads like the long groan of the toothache, to borrow an image from the Underground Man himself.  Yet the story of borderline personality is, for me, very much the story of pursuing the bluebird of happiness and then shouting angrily when it flies away instead of sitting companionably in one's lap like my true spirit animal and dog of my heart, the shih tzu.

When I got the bluebird tattoo, I meant for the ink to function as a sort of totem, a commitment to searching out happiness and refusing the lures and pleasures of despair.  I went out to a bar (no place for bluebirds or recently broken up borderlines) and kissed a strange girl who did not celebrate my bluebird tattoo but offered me this rejoinder: "But you must also wrestle with the raven."  Of course I immediately thought I loved her, or could love her, and I longed for a more thorough conversation about bluebirds and ravens and the meaning of life, punctuated by more kissing.  Alas, she was straight and did not take my calls, so I had to figure out the answers for myself.  Four years later I still don't really know what she meant, but I think it had to do with balance, and maybe with the dangers of fearing the loss of happiness. 

Here is my contribution to the field of Bluebird Theory.

For the borderline personality, the problem is not happiness or sorrow (or dating married lesbians or kissing straight girls, although neither of these activities helps).  The problem has to do with peripheral or secondary emotions.

Fear of happiness, fear of sorrow, fear of heartbreak, fear of loss.

Borderlines are emotion-phobic.

Scared of feeling something good and then losing that feeling.  Scared of expecting a particular feeling and ending up with another.  Scared bad feelings will never end.  The glass bluebird and the one inked into my shoulder are not celebrations of happiness for me, they are totems against ever feeling bad, and that's crazy.  Or, in more professional terms, that's schizotypal, avoidant, and emotionally self-injurious.

Picture me scuttling away from the light like a spider, scuttling away from the human hand like a hermit crab, or walking sideways towards my attachment figure with the odd gait of a woman with disorganized attachment disorder.  I don't want to wrestle with the raven anymore than I want to worship the bluebird, actually, but I don't want to fear the flight of dark and light in and out of my life anymore.  Maybe my first stop on the summer pleasure reading train should be Miriam Greenspan's Healing through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair.  Not exactly a beach-lite title, but if it lightens the load of emotion phobia I carry inside my hermit crab shell, I will gladly make room for it in my straw tote underneath a brightly striped towel and take my mood/identity/attachment disorder on a mental vacation.


  1. Kudos to you, my friend! Your article answered some deep seeded questions. May the bluebird always rest on your shoulder to remind you that, with fear, comes courage. <3

  2. Thanks Heidi! Tell me more. What were the questions?

  3. As long as there are bluebirds, there will be miracles and a way to find happiness.
    - Shirl Brunnel, I Hear Bluebirds, 1984

  4. Here's what's really funny, and what I meant to say in my blog post: the bluebird tattoo? it's a stencil . . . of a sparrow . . . so there was clearly some ambivalence towards a too-simple icon from the get-go :-)