Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jane Sutures It Up; or, Can You Have a Personality Disorder and Be a Feminist Too?

A reader recently wrote to me in a mixture of admiration and distress over her experience of relating strongly to my first book, Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, and again to my most recent one, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet.  She loved the bold feminist protest of Jane and the raw psychological wounds of Girl.  In a voice not unlike my own as I sorted through the conflicting and confusing evidence of my relationship history in the memoir, she wrote to ask, What does this mean?  Which one is true?  Who was good?  Because I found her inquiry so challenging, I wrote back to ask if I could take some time to think it over and answer her on the blog.  

She said yes, so here goes.

Merri Lisa,
Congratulations on your great new book! I finished it a few days ago, and I wanted to write and say how much it moved me. The huge life changes that you’ve gone through were obviously shattering, yet they gave you such amazing insights. The suffering you describe was tough to experience vicariously, but your strength and bravery that were ultimately conveyed were inspiring.

You have no idea how many people I convinced to read JSIU after I discovered it in 2003. It sparked many intense and fruitful dialogues with my feminist- and non-feminist-identifying girlfriends, and even my boyfriend.
As I just said, I absolutely loved Girl, but it seemed like it was written by a totally different person. My friends and I responded deeply to Jane (all the essays, but especially the ones you wrote) because its ambivalence about men, gender roles, and feminism reflected our inner tensions and doubts. We identified completely with your searching for a different kind of heterosexuality. Your book embraced both the dangerous, unruly rawness of desire and the essential truths of feminism.
So I guess I’m left with the question of what you see when you look back at your earlier work. Is there something other than pathology to be salvaged in Jane? When you think back on how you captured contemporary girls’ dissatisfaction so poignantly, do you see anything more than just symptoms of borderline personality disorder and/or repressed lesbianism?
[Then I wrote to ask for more details on the comparison . . . ]
The differences I see in the two books have everything to do (I assume) with the changes that have happened in your life in the past five or so years. Three big ones: the BPD diagnosis, coming to terms with lesbianism/coming out, and getting married. Girl is about these circumstances, the revelations they brought, and how you still struggle with those revelations. To me, it reads like a chronicle of your 30s, while JSIU was a chronicle of your 20s.
I'm wondering about how you connect these two chronicles. Is the sole connection a therapeutic narrative that finds in Jane a repository of symptoms of BPD? Should young women who see themselves in your Jane essays get therapy, stat? :)
Again, thank you for ALL of your beautiful books. Thank you for struggling through the trauma to reach healing expression.

Amanda's questions zero in on precisely the most complex philosophical work in front of me these days as a self-identified queer crip academic feminist person-with-borderline-personality-disorder.  

  • How to write about female psychosocial disorders without reinforcing sexist stereotypes of women as inherently crazy, irrational, excessive, and generally off our rockers.
  • How to make nuanced distinctions between the feminist protest of asymmetrical and otherwise unsatisfying hetero-relationships and borderline styles of reaction to distress, which are markedly disproportionate and self-defeating.  
One might say of the borderline personality what Melanie Klein (via Joan Lachkar) says of the patient in a paranoid-schizoid position: 

She stands up for herself in bizarre and inappropriate ways.

Such concerns will be at the center of the scholarly monograph I have begun to imagine, where I will theorize in more detail the movement between shoring up identity categories while simultaneously calling them into question, staging an encounter with stigma in order to loosen its hold on the category of borderline personality, and negotiating between the perspectives of feminist critique and those of 'crip' critique to expose a gap between them that resembles the gap Cheshire Calhoun reveals between 'feminist' and 'lesbian' viewpoints on matters of sexuality.

The decision to write Girl in Need of a Tourniquet was prompted, in a way, by my realization that the bad feelings described in "Fuck You and Your Untouchable Face: Third Wave Feminism and the Problem of Romance" (chapter 1 in Jane Sexes It Up) were coming up in similar ways in my lesbian affair, a realization that definitely made me question my insights in JSIU for a while.  (Maybe the problem wasn't the guy.  Maybe it was me.  Why did I always take the faucet end of the tub after all?  My capacity for self-subordination outstretched the influence of male-dominant couplehood dynamics.)  Gender roles were no longer the obvious culprit, so I dove into the wreck of my personal psychology, family history, and ungrieved losses, leaving feminism behind for the time being.  

Yet I always conceived of this memoir as a form of feminist social commentary.  

In preparation for writing the book, I took a course taught by Deborah Siegel and sponsored by the National Women's Studies Association on how to write book proposals for trade publishers called Making It Pop, a course with the explicit aim of educating academic feminists on the practical skills of reaching a wider audience rather than restricting our conversations to the smallish world of academic journals.  In short, the feminist cultural work of the book as I imagined it had to do with countering misogynistic and mentally ableist portrayals of the borderline personality woman as 'psycho girlfriend,' a la Fatal Attraction, Play Misty for Me, and, for a more lighthearted demonization, My Super Ex-Girlfriend.  I even shopped the book to agents and publishers under the title Psycho Girlfriend Apologia for a few months.  I hoped to contribute a humanizing portrait of borderline personality disorder as a mishmash of trauma reenactment, attachment disorder, and emotional dysregulation, and to suggest that what appears irrational in her behavior has a persuasive logic to it, the flawless logic of the neurotic to borrow a phrase from Karen Horney, which is perfectly pieced together but rooted in paranoid delusions and ego fragmentation.  

After spending the requisite period of time worrying that the new book reveals the old book as precisely such a delusion, the fog of self-doubt lifted, and I saw a very different relationship between the two.  

Far from undermining the feminist analysis of hetero-patriarchal romantic narratives, power dynamics, and gender roles that appears in Jane Sexes It Up, I believe Girl in Need of a Tourniquet excavates the psychological dynamics that produced in me a hypersensitivity to the insults and injuries that come with the work of feeding egos and tending wounds, the emotional labor, that is, of hetero-romance.  

(Whenever I write or teach about hetero-romance, I find it necessary to pause and explain that I don't mean to suggest that same-sex relationships are blissful or free of conflict.  The point I'm making by identifying the subject of hetero-romance is not about drawing a contrast between straight and gay relationships, but rather it is a way to emphasize the social constructions of heterosexuality as a form of desire structured by the eroticization of gender inequalities.  Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)

It is my borderline personality that made me feel the discomfort so acutely that I was moved to produce a critical anthology on sexual politics and third wave feminism.

It is my borderline personality that works like a forked branch vibrating over buried springs of fresh mountain water, leading me to wells of emotional intensity and, at times, emotional inequalities running beneath the surface of a relationship.  

This view of borderline personality as emotional giftedness works in important ways to balance the usual understanding of borderline personality as emotional dyslexia.  My therapist said many times that borderline personality comes with gifts as well as challenges, but the public sphere has rarely made space to address borderline gifts of creativity, perceptiveness, empathy, and expressiveness.

So, should fans of Jane Sexes It Up seek help immediately for borderline personality disorder?  Is there something besides pathology and closeted lesbian desire to be salvaged from Jane?  

To the first question, I guess it depends on what parts resonated with you.  If it was the longing for a more equitable sex life, then no.  If it was breaking your favorite wine glass in the sink during a fight, then maybe therapy would be worth a try.  (What needs fixing is not the anger but the management of anger.)

To the second question, I have to admit that when I reread my chapters in JSIU now with almost a decade since its publication, I draw little smiley faces in the margins next to the previously unrecognized traces of lesbian sexuality and borderline psychology in that narrative.  Those things are definitely there.  But I consider them the queercrip excess of Jane Sexes It Up, a bit of subject matter spilling over the top of its main ideas about queer feminist heterosexualities, not the 'true' or 'real' story beneath the false consciousness of feminist critique.  

Towards the end of chapter 1 in JSIU, I asked the question on so many undergraduate Women's Studies students' minds: Can I have a boyfriend and be a feminist too?  And I offered a tentative 'yes' to acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling feminist politics with hetero-desire while encouraging women to try to do so anyway.

Now a parallel concern is unfolding in reader and audience responses to Girl in Need of a Tourniquet:
  • Can I have a personality disorder and be a feminist too?
  • Can I admit to psychosocial disability and interrogate misogyny, able-ism, and medical authority at the same time?
  • Can I claim the label of borderline without signing away my rights to a feminist perspective on relationships that drive a girl crazy?
Again, I'm gonna say yes.  

Tentatively.  Critically.  Self-reflexively.  

The path is unclear, but I think I can get there from here.

Thanks for the great questions, Amanda!  


  1. The whole idea of the typical BPD patient/client as being a woman is wrong. It has been undone in a recent study, which said that men and women have the disorder at egual rates.

    The original figure of BPD sufferers being 75% female came from looking at women within the mental health system. This added in a ton of bias.

    The more equal figure came from a study looking for personality disordered traits in the general public.

    I think you can be a feminist and a borderline in the same way you can be a Democrat, a Lutheran, or New Yorker and have BPD. The two really do't have much to do with each other. Both men and women have it equally (though some may express it in different ways).

    (In fact, just yesterday I received a letter from a sucidal male borderline (according to his diagnosis)).

  2. The question, 'Can I have a personality disorder and be a feminist too?, is not asking the literal question about whether a person can have feminist politics and emotional dysregulation at the same time. Of course she (or he) can. Rather, the question raises the problem of dealing with a long history of persuasive feminist rejections of psychiatry (and the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry) as mechanisms of social control that focus on helping (forcing?) women to adjust to heteropatriarchal inequalities in romantic pair bonds, marriage, and family dynamics in general. Many feminist theorists see psychiatry and the medical establishment as irreparably tainted by the role they've played in quieting female dissent. Other feminist theorists have countered this position by distinguishing between the potential positive uses of psychiatry and medicine in women's lives from the historically sexist deployment of these social institutions. I have gathered a shelf of books on this conflict between feminism and psychiatry and plan to read deeply on this subject over the summer.

  3. don't know if I want to go so far as to talk about BPD pride, am 9 days out of a relationship with a BPD person who cycled, at least with me, for the last time. So am in a lot of pain. But I did want to say is that I notice often BPD people have awesome spiritual powers. I don't think it is because of the BPD, I think that people who are not spritually strong are not going to survive BPD or the terrible traumas that gave rise to it in the first place.

  4. I have to say, having just discovered this blog, I'm sad that you don't keep it updated anymore. Do have you a new one? This discussion of feminist perspectives on BPD as well as the idea of BPD pride is really interesting-- it's something I'm only just now discovering.

    I'd like to add to the discussion as a man with BPD, having to deal with that double stigma, not only of having BPD but having it as a man, because it is not a traditionally "manly" form of mental illness. The traits that fall under the general banner of "neediness" are more expected from women than men. A woman is only criticized for being "too needy", but a man will be criticized for being even a little needy. The influence of feminism on our society has gone some length to transform the independent woman from a nuisance to a heroic figure, but the dependent man is still as much of a pathetic loser as he always was. He is a pussy, a mama's boy, a man-child... the list goes on. Men are seen as gender-traitors for their acting-in behavior just as women are seen as gender-traitors for their acting out.

    Despite the fact that epidemiological studies show the rates of BPD are fairly equal between the sexes, BPD is still seen as a disorder suffered by troubled young women with a history of sexual abuse. I am neither a woman nor have I been sexually abused, and yet here I am. To be a man with BPD is to be sort of invisible, especially in BPD-related literature. I don't know of a single memoir by a man on the experience of having the disorder, but to know of several by women, including yours.

    As for the question of BPD pride, I think the central issue, as with gay pride, comes down to whether or not you have the right to refuse treatment, whether or not you can say: I have a different brain from you and I want to take responsibility for it in my own way. Just as there is nothing intrinsically sick about being attracted romantically to the same sex, there is nothing intrinsically sick about having a high level of emotional insight-- sickness comes in only in how one may choose to deal with it. People with BPD are too often taught to be ashamed of their florid emotionality, of their need for close, committed relationships, even by those who are trying to understand and help them most. A certain degree of what we are taught to regard as "cognitive distortion" is really, I believe, an exquisite moral sensitivity-- an ability to peer more deeply into the nature of love and hate. Others without our gifts too often invalidate our insights as "too sensitive" or worse, "just your imagination". It's this "gaslighting," in my opinion, that actually drives us crazy when we do get crazy. It's not our minds themselves.

    1. Beautifully stated, Alvin! Thank you for this response.


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