Coven Editor’s Letter February 2016: Heroes

Hello everyone. It’s nice to be back. This month’s theme is HEROES.

Enjoy the essays,

Sarah

––

Some thoughts on heroes.

David Bowie dies and the world shifts a little bit. You wake up and check your phone; it’s everywhere. Even if you’re not a fan you are a fan. You’ve watched Labyrinth and learned at a young age that love is only good depending on how you are loved, you’ve looked into the eyes of a hundred fey men through a nightclub’s dry-ice lens, all of them bearing a trace of that dangerous, thin-lipped, sharp-toothed Bowie mouth. You’ve sobbed and broken and knitted back together psychic fractures listening to Heroes.

We’re nothing, and nothing will help us

Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay

But we could be safer, just for one day

Why were you even crying? The reason can’t be remembered now. But still, a decade later, you can feel the conflict of redemption and guilt, the relentless self-flagellation of the lyrics (We’re nothing…) and the desperate snatching at one glimmer (just for one day). The marriage of Brian Eno’s synths to Robert Fripp and Carlos Alomar’s guitars making a wall of sound that is both oppressive and uplifting at once. It’s like riding the crest of a wave that is so large and out of control, it could crush you as easily as elevate you. The hopeless hope. It reeks of forbidden love.

Bowie was possibly trying to make something sordid seem more legitimate. Heroes was recorded in Berlin in the summer of 1977, soon after Bowie caught his producer, Tony Visconti, kissing his backing singer, Antonia Maaß. Visconti was married to someone else. The affair wouldn’t last, but Bowie immortalised it. He cast it in bronze. Bowie made a brief moment heroic, made the inevitability of heartbreak a lit beacon for everyone lost in love.

––

I was so tired.

In December, I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, which came as no surprise to me and varying degrees of shock to everyone else. Sick of insomnia, sick of paralysis, sick of suicidal ideations – I was leached, empty. Devoid of feeling pleasure, constantly assaulted by uncertainty, sure that everyone hated me. I was a fake, a Caulfieldian phony stumbling through life with a shit-eating grin duct-taped haphazardly on my face.

I am put on medication. My mother asks, after all the big questions are dispensed with, if the medicine will affect my weight. Instead of the mother/daughter anger that bubbles up whenever the W word is mentioned, I don’t feel anything. In a few months, depression and donuts have added to my heft too quickly and she has some right to be concerned. The lack of tact is an inherited trait that I treasure in alternate circumstances, but I tell her not to mention it again, put my bathroom scales under the bed and continue to eat donuts whenever the hell I like. The brain needs to be fixed first.

We are a loving family, but not particularly touchy-feely, and the physical scaffolding of a hug is enough to make my shaky foundations crumble into fine sand. My bones feel brittle, my joints shriek when I move. I fall into people’s arms when they are proffered, clutching them too tight for too long with both arms. 

At home, at Christmas, I had to tell the rest of my family. The toughest and the easiest was my little brother, who at eighteen is a decade younger than me. I explained the situation, and he got it immediately. My lovely, creative, apathetic, kind, technology-mad brother knew how to be around me without prompting. At dinner one night, he could see me sagging into a trough as everyone talked over our heads, so he put one arm around me and pulled me into a spontaneous hug.

I rested my head on his jutting collarbone (all eighteen year olds are awkward bags of bones, no matter how bulky the frames or balletic the movements) and marvelled. He, so much younger, had humbled me with this small gesture of love and responsibility. My brother had somehow crossed the invisible threshold into adulthood without me seeing. I felt so small, and so proud.

He held me up when I couldn’t stand. He was my hero.

––

I am so fucking exhausted.

The depression and anxiety has receded – only slightly – and any shame left over has been washed away. It’ll take a while, but it’s going to be OK. Still, minefields are everywhere.

A well-known women’s website surveys writers to see if they have any relevant life traumas that can easily be reformed into clickbait. The editors at Bustle want to know what you think of astrology. Is your cousin your BFF? Were you awkward at school? Did you have anxiety and depression in the past? Do you have it still? Have you dated someone with a mental illness? Tell me your secrets, pour out your regrets. They’ll be repurposed later, the edges sanded into smooth, accessible homogeneity. Clicks for days.

So-called ‘confessional’ writing is popular with women – both writing and reading. As with most things that pertain to women, it has now been commodified beyond recognition. What was once the threads of anguish running through daily routine, written secretly into journals, publicly into memoirs, reams and reams of therapy sessions, private and personal blogposts – unedited, unsure – has become a money making machine. Trauma harvests clicks. We can’t get enough of it, and the advertisers can’t either. Even the word ‘confessional’ feels creepy. It makes the writing taboo, forbidden, guilty. And it turns an otherwise sympathetic readership of sisters into cruel voyeurs.

It makes me feel flat. I look at the proliferation of writings by young women and think about the male gaze; men look, women look at themselves being looked at. And there’s an element of the male gaze at play with the trauma for clicks model – the writer has catharsis, but still the writer is being surveilled. Confessional writers have to go into it knowing they will be watched and examined in a way that other writers are not. There’s no anonymity.

But then again, if you’re a woman, that might not make much of a difference anyway.

When one of your main modes of expression becomes monetised, how do you express yourself without restriction? It’s something that, even as I write this very personal piece, I still can’t reconcile, can’t reason away with logic or fervent intellectualising.

Feminist fatigue, they call it. It’s that feeling of hopelessness that draws down on you when yet another bad thing happens to us in a society that is custom-made to shit on women, and doubly so if they’re neither straight nor white. You wonder why you bother. The frustration makes you wish to be complacent. You want to will yourself not to care anymore. You feel heavy-lidded, like you could easily slip under. Nothing matters. It is a feeling, I can report, that is not unlike severe depression. It is also – apparently – what freezing to death feels like.

News breaks that, in University College Dublin, more than 200 male students participate in a Facebook group that is devoted to revenge porn, swapping sex stories and nudes that were otherwise sent in confidence. They are all in different years (though most study Agricultural Science, giving farmers everywhere a bad name). The youngest are my brother’s age – no, younger. He’d never participate in this but, I wonder, would he stand by his friends as they did something like that? Or would he call it out? I suspect the latter, but this news has so defeated me that I can’t be sure. I feel the anxiety creep in: Are men just laughing at us when we can’t hear them? A bad joke has been played on us; a trip wire, a bucket of blood.

Author Louise O’Neill posts a reaction on her Facebook page. She is very fucking tired too. Louise is greeted with support, but also derision and whataboutery. Not all men, they say. What about us good men, they say. Stop generalising. Those women should have been prepared for the consequences of sending nudes. It’s just a bit of banter. Feminist propaganda. Wage gaps. Feminazis. Asking for it.

Louise plugs away, giving measured responses that these dudes really don’t deserve. I monitor it quietly online, unable to join in, stuffing my face with icing-covered cinnamon rolls and washing it down with tea and SSRIs.

The boys don’t want to listen. Behind closed doors, they are proud of their achievements. What a legend (the bro clarion call), they say to each other. What a hero.

––

Bowie isn’t existing on any plane where he can help us anymore – there’s no musical polish to shine up this degradation. But we can do it. The fog will lift, for you and for me – I can feel it lifting now. Something is on the horizon.

I want to rip a page out of the bro book: You can be my hero and I can be yours.

If you’re feeling the same things as me, know this. I care about you. I don’t know you, but I care deeply. I want you to be OK. We can take comfort from holding each other in times of tiredness, almost certain that what we want is impossible, hoping for the best. We can pass secret signals of support, recruit others to our cause. Never together, never apart.

We can be heroes.

Sarah Waldron is the founder and editor of The Coven. She tweets here

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