Rambling explorations of mysterious states

Where do I begin…

When people describe brain fog, I know I’ve experienced it. That I continue to experience it with frightening regularity whenever I’m depressed. It’s taken me hours to compose an email of a few sentences, I’ve stood near the stove and struggled to remember how to make tea, forgotten the events of the previous day and struggled to remain awake through casual conversation after 12 hours of sleep.

But this is not a post about depression or recurring depressive phases. I’ve talked a lot about depression already and I’m sure I’ll continue to talk about this very prominent part of my life.

No, this isn’t about anything so clear-cut as that. This is about everything else and the in-betweens, the wreckage and the loss and triumphs. At least, I think it’s about that. I’m not entirely sure yet.

When I was 21, I had a manic phase and absconded from my first job after a mere one week. I disappeared for three weeks, existing in a plane where time held no meaning, where every second was an eon of searing hyper-awareness and the boundaries between reality and dream, fiction and life, history and present blurred in and out of existence. A time when grand philosophical questions, the hypnotic beauty of sound and the arresting vividness of colour and life submerged the understood everyday cadence of ordinary life. When terrifying visions of equally startling precision were wont to suddenly fill me with inescapable horror, on the road, in the safety of my bedroom as I wielded slippery reason as a weapon in a fraught negotiation with the terror…

Eventually, we shooed it away, this mystical mind-melding state. I went back to work. Those first few days I retained the clarity without the delusion; without the energy or attention to write, I took to making a short-lived video journal of my thoughts as I wrestled with the sudden mundanity of post-manic existence. Today I thought I might try this again after failing to rest and failing to translate my thoughts onto a blank page. But speaking took an energy I didn’t seem to possess and I gave up. These past few days I’ve existed in a strange paradox of mental clarity and overdrive and physical exhaustion. Over the past few years, a new entrant into the panoply of moods is this stranger: a weird energy in the chest that could tip into anxiety or excitement, sometimes both. But before I can say ‘mania,’ the feared trajectory is cut short by a bone-deep exhaustion, what my therapist once referred to as ‘limbic exhaustion,’ a shutting down of the nervous system and sensitivity to stimulus that provide a very odd counter to the usual exuberant energy of mania.

It’s a frustrating state to be in. It forces me into an extended period of rest at a time when my mental capacity is at its highest. It is a deep and infuriating waste, occurring as it does after a period of depression in which I am largely useless. A compounded loss.

For months, I’ve questioned every decision, past, present and future. I’ve questioned my choice to be publicly bipolar and publicly imperfect. I’ve questioned my harmless inclination to be silly or dramatic, to post videos of myself singing or reciting or reading. I’ve questioned my fitness for my choice of career. I’ve questioned the fitness and usefulness of a graduate degree in this field. I have felt utterly unskilled, unutterably stupid and broken beyond the point of repair.

Perhaps this is why I’m exhausted. Even as I write this, I’m exhausted and beg for a rest that will not come. And yet there is a sense of quick faculties, a rare certainty of intelligence and capabilities, and a muted joy.

It will all fade as everything does. But for now, there is nothing to do but observe my brain at its finest and accept that I have no choice but to allow it to go to “waste.” I am aware that some of this must be false, that I possibly don’t become stupider on regular days. But I know that my current self-assurance and quickness won’t last.

Eh, what can one do? Que sera, sera.

The Expanse

I don’t know what to do with this great expanse within me.
Sometimes nothing can fill it.
I would like one multitude less.
And yet, even as I say that,
I wince and clutch that shade of myself tighter.
For it is precious, every last emotion, every speck in this great expanse.
It is invaluable
I would be loath to lose it.
What would I do, if I were less of myself?
Perhaps I wouldn’t feel the difference, not knowing any better.
Perhaps I would feel the loss keenly without knowing what it was I was mourning.
I don’t want that reality.
I love it fiercely, the immensity within me.
It enthralls me, like the galaxy within a person.
I could lose myself within it, forever and ever.
And yet, I have so much to give;
And I give of myself freely, with no expectation of return.
Yes, I am human, but I am tremendous.
To Maya Angelou’s phenomenal woman, I raise a glass and say:
Tremendous. I am tremendously me.

It’s Complicated

Everything is ostensibly going well in my life. I’m doing well at work – in both spheres. I’ve been able to maintain this page with much more regularity than I hoped. I’ve received university acceptances. Yes, I’ve got so many scholarship essays still to write…but should that feel like an elephant sitting on my chest?

I’ve tried everything. I’ve meditated. I’ve gone for walks. I’ve listened to music. I’ve talked to friends. I feel better, but once I’m done, the elephant is back. So what is bothering me?

I suppose a part of me is conditioned to expect a fall. And I suppose another part of me is deeply convinced that I am inferior and unworthy. That’s a hard truth to admit, and even as I say it, the rational part of my brain knows it to be untrue.

That’s the hard part! Sometimes what we have rationally understood to be true takes ages to seep into our cores. I had a difficult work experience that cemented some of my worst suspicions about myself. Now, it’s going to take time to work through.

Perhaps I should give myself the grace of that time. I cannot expect to a perfectly functioning, confident superhero overnight, even if I am doing what my younger self would have considered a superhero amount of work! I am still my hesitant, rather neurotic self.

Sometimes breathing gently doesn’t work. Going for a walk doesn’t help. Talking to a friend helps, but only for a little while. Sometimes, we just are struggling, because it takes time to get over things.

And that’s ok.

Groundhog Day

No matter how many times I fall into a depressive phase, I never, ever quite know how to handle it. And there’s always a part of me that wonders if it will ever end, or if I’ll get trapped forever that way someday, like a sad, self-loathing, masochistic Mr. Hyde.

Hello. I emerge from the hibernation that happens periodically in my depressive phases, or dps, as I used to call them (the lowercase letters seemed more fitting). Almost without fail, every 3 weeks – a month, if I’m lucky – I fall deep into the abyss and become an unmoving, foggy, anguished conglomeration of self-loathing, wanting not to exist, all-encompassing anxiety or total numbness, and reduced cognitive abilities. This “writer” is reduced to taking hours to string together the most basic of sentences. Words dance cruelly just beyond reach. Small, mundane tasks like laundry and cleaning my room take huge efforts of will. Any organisational task has the power to reduce me to tears.

Should I really describe what it means to be depressed again? Perhaps it feels tedious to me because I’ve done it countless times over the years, hoping to find a pattern, some rhyme or reason that I could then game or ‘solve.’ I did it so much that when I was 16, I tore my diary to shreds, frustrated by the evidence of my time loop, the awful sameness of it, nowhere closer to finding a consistent cause.

Some of the worst of it is the overwhelming guilt. Sometimes I think, “Would I hire me? If I knew that this was what it was like?” All my advocacy crumbles to dust, subsumed by a deep conviction that I am, in every sphere of my life, unworthy. I feel rootless, wraith-like, as if I have no identity. I think, “How do other people have “personalities”? Likes and dislikes? Memories?” Everything is thrown into doubt – no, worse, it seems like none of it existed to begin with, as if my whole life up to that point has been an elaborate deception. The loop feels a lot like finding and losing yourself over, and over, and over, again.

The truth is, that despite how much I’ve grown and all the access to incredible support networks that I have, I don’t have all the answers, not even in my own life. Especially in my own life. Every so often, I still feel as if I were drowning or being waterboarded – no matter what I do, I can’t seem to catch a breath or breathe deeply into my stomach as they tell you to do. That vise around my chest only grows tighter when I’m reminded of what I have to be grateful for, because of course, I am unworthy…

I suspect that this is the case for a lot of us. That there isn’t a permanent plateau that we ascend to where we no longer face our old problems. The saving grace remains for me that I do eventually, always, emerge from the cave. It gives me so much sorrow that that isn’t the case for everyone. But saving graces are possible for everyone…I hope. I don’t want to live in a world where they’re not.

P.S. There were some extraordinary stressors this time. Scholarship and funding questions, grad school decisions, all on different timelines, this mental health page I started, that suddenly seemed overly ambitious and foolish…I would likely have had my phase anyway, but it might not have been quite as bad.

Bigotry and Ableism in the Indian Workplace

Trigger Warning: Suicide, bigotry, queerphobia, ableism

The awful death by suicide of a queer student in DPS Faridabad, India, who was bullied for his sexuality by his peers and refused accommodations for his dyslexia by his teacher has left us all shaken. There are so many layers of horror to unpack here. So much tragedy. How much the heart hurts at what this student must have gone through and what his parents are going through now.

I don’t really have the words to even describe how much it hurts every time we hear of a case like this.

Instead, I’m going to parse it the only way I know how – through the lens of my own experience, which while nowhere near this horrific, has also contained both bigotry and ableism.

For years, my depression was treated as a dirty secret. Instead, we euphemized around it: I was “sensitive,” overwrought, “too intelligent” [for my own good], “too serious.” When I wrote on my blog about what it felt like to be depressed in college, my family convinced me to take it down for fear of the stigma and reactions that might accompany such a revelation. Then came an even heavier diagnosis: bipolar.

In college, I was treated by a doctor who made it her mission to make my life hell. Sedated within an inch of my life, much more unstable because of the medicines I was taking than I was off it; I lived through some of the worst months of my life. I had no agency. Witnessing me like this engendered a deep fear of this part of myself in some of my family members – a fear that has scarred me and instilled shame and guilt over facets of myself I cannot and would not want to change.

I hid for a long time. Until I found an employer who understood, who respected me and my strengths regardless. From him, I found the courage to be more open.

That is, until I joined a philanthropic organisation that destroyed my confidence in exchange for my honesty.

If you’ve followed my blog for a few years now, you know that I lost my father a few years ago. Life has been far from easy. With the pandemic, I spent a lot of time isolated at home, as a lot of us did – this worsened some aspects of my mental health, making me more prone to fits of anxiety, and increasing the frequency of my depressive phases.

When I joined this organisation, I joined as the Communications Head. I was apprehensive about taking up such a large role, but figured that it was my usual insecurity and anxiety. Right away, I had trouble adjusting. I could not find a groove. I could not develop an equation with the person I reported to or my colleagues, who were scattered across multiple cities. I struggled to fall into the flow of the work. I struggled with motivation. I knew I was not doing my best work.

1.5 months into the job, I was told that there were “concerns about my output.” I had barely had time to settle into the role, but I felt that perhaps I was already not meeting expectations. This sent me into a spiral of anxiety that had me breaking down every few weeks. Eventually, at a stage where I was bursting into tears every few hours, I decided that something had to be done. So I reached out to my reporting manager. I wrote an honest, vulnerable email where I was careful not to make excuses and to not use the word “bipolar.” But I confessed that I was struggling with terrible anxiety and requested just a little leeway and some reasonable accommodation so that I could function to the best of my abilities.

This did not go over as I hoped. After some superficial concern expressed for my wellbeing – so superficial that even I, notorious for attributing the best intentions to everybody, could see through it – they immediately and vocally wondered about my ability and fitness to handle the role. I was stunned. I felt that I had been misunderstood and wrote another detailed email explaining why I could handle the role and why I felt that I had done some good work despite my struggles.

It was too late. They had made up their mind that I was unfit for the role. Eventually, they suggested that I do a part-time role for half the pay. Weary, and not at the peak of my confidence, I agreed. Even working a part-time role, I continued to feel anxious and misjudged. After about 1.5 months, I once again faced an anxious breakdown. Terrified to talk about more mental health issues after how they responded the last time, I told them that I had lost a close relative, assuming that this would at least ward off any intrusive questions.

I am not a liar. Any of my previous employers will tell you, in fact, that I am compulsively honest. That I felt pushed to this deception, however small, should indicate the state of my mental health and the complete lack of trust between me and my employer. I had absolutely no faith that they would receive the truth in the intended fashion.

I took two days off. The day I returned, I had a call in which my reporting manager told me that they would be looking for a full-time resource and that I could maybe stay on another month.

To me, it beggared belief that anyone could possibly react to news of someone’s loss in this utterly shameless and apathetic manner. It would have cost them nothing to wait a few days. I would certainly not have disputed their decision – I had been making plans to leave, myself.

This was an organisation that had hosted a talk with reputed mental health organization, The Banyan. A purportedly progressive social sector organization that actually does do a lot of good work. But they treated me with a degree of ruthlessness and ableism that I find absolutely appalling. There was no attempt to understand my strengths or where I was coming from, to provide the guidance I needed. I was tossed into a managerial role with no managerial experience, with the expectation that I would immediately pick up the mantle with very little guidance. When I did ask for guidance, I was told I was asking for too much. These were people working ‘on a voluntary basis,’ and so I could not expect proper management. It was my fault for not being invested and motivated enough.

This affected me enough that I reached out to my previous employer – who I’d been entirely honest with about my bipolar – to ask if I was incompetent or unreliable in some way. What I heard from him was both honest and reassuring. I did good work, I had taken active steps to manage my mental illness and my life, and there was no reason not to hire me.

I am a straight, cis, ‘high-achieving’ person who seems perfectly neurotypical. If I went through this, I can barely comprehend what queer people and other neurodivergent people must be going through.

We all express shock when an event like this takes place. What we fail to notice is all the subtle and sundry discriminations, invisibilisations, and sidelining that takes place before that crescendo is reached. I have no doubt that my previous employer considers themselves the epitome of humanity for their work in the social sector. I doubt they had any second thoughts about how they treated me or how things panned out. But I am tired, tired of living in a world that treats me as lesser for daring to be different.

Scratch that – I don’t dare.

It’s not a choice I make. I am different.

And I am no less worthy a person for that difference, no matter who might try to tell me otherwise.

The Fear of Being “Too Much”

I’ve always been a sensitive soul. Life affects me. I’m moved to tears by music, art, books, film. I’m regularly touched, hurt, offended, saddened by the state of the world. My emotions are large and intense, and much as I attempt to govern them with good sense…sometimes they just are. I’m a passionate, enthusiastic person, given to going into raptures about things. I am Anne Shirley:

“The good stars met in your horoscope,
Made you of spirit and fire and dew.”

– Evelyn Hope, Robert Browning

I’ve recently begun to speak openly online about my mental health and the fact that I’m bipolar. This was not an easy decision. For years, although I’ve wanted to, I’ve been held back by the fear that potential employers, friends, relationships, will pre-judge me if they find out. The word “bipolar” is heavy with associations, many of which I would consider inaccurate to describe me. I can quite easily, and do, “pass” as someone who is neurotypical, unless you know me closely and well. Even then, as a high achieving, intelligent, articulate, controlled person undergoing medication and treatment, it can really be quite hard to tell.

One of the ‘side effects,’ if you will, of being bipolar, is that sometimes my brain has felt like too much for me to contain. I’m very creative, and I possess a unique intelligence that means my brain is always whirring. As a result, I often feel like I’m “too much,” for myself. Sometimes, when things are really hard, I want to climb out of my skin into someone else’s. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a butterfly or a bird, soaring, carefree, without my neuroses and difficult memories weighing me down.

Since I can be so hard to handle for myself – as Kelly Kapoor would say:

NBC – The Office

This makes me think I must be equally hard for other people to handle. Despite the fact that various people have told me that I’m actually quite easy to be around, and that it gives them great pleasure to be around me, I often can’t shake the suspicion that people are being kind, almost doing me a favour sometimes, by putting up with me.

I’m tired of feeling this way. I’m a deeply good person. I’ve put so much effort over the years into being a better person. I am as kind as I can possibly be to whoever I come across. I make mistakes, but I don’t know anyone who tries harder than I do to grow and evolve.

I think it’s time to realize that I’m not “too much” – that in fact, I’m super easy, barely an inconvenience (if you get it, you get it) to be around – a miracle of love and joy and wonder, who deserves as much love as she gives out every day.

The Importance of Mental Health “Awareness”

The moon has always felt like a warm, accepting presence to me. You can understand things in the gentle moonlight that are harder in the merciless sunlight.

I was reading on Twitter today about popular account @sketchesbyboze‘s frightening experience with police who clearly hadn’t had any autism training. It made me think about all the stigma I’ve faced and how it’s held me back from being myself in various spheres of my life, whether it’s work, education, friendships or relationships.

There’s a lot of discourse online these days about how raising awareness and self-care culture alone cannot achieve better mental health in the absence of structural and systemic reform that creates access to quality care, as well as addressing the underlying socioeconomic factors that impact our mental health. I even saw someone online dismiss the idea of creating awareness in the absence of equitable access.

While I understand this – and completely agree – awareness is nothing to be scoffed at. If I’d known earlier about conditions like clinical depression and bipolar, and if there had been less stigma, I would have sought out help much earlier. I wouldn’t have been so scared of medication. And I wouldn’t have spent years suppressing every facet of myself that seemed overtly neurodivergent, without even realizing I was doing it. Apologizing for my passions, for getting too excited, for the intensity of my emotions, the expansiveness and generosity of my love for people – I still do all these things. I can’t help it. I am deeply conditioned to believe that the qualities that make me unique burden and inconvenience other people, even though friends have told me how much they love those very qualities and how much my love and care has meant to them.

I can’t help wondering what life would have been like in a world where I got help early. I began to suffer at 13 and didn’t start to receive any kind of care until I was 19 and in college. Even then, I had to go through some monstrous psychiatric care that had no respect for my agency or intelligence. I didn’t get on medication that actually helped me until I was 21. Then, I had to deal with a psychiatrist who while not as awful as the first, tended to dismiss my concerns about my continuing and severe depressive phases. I was no longer having noticeable highs, I could pass as “normal,” so it wasn’t a problem. Never mind that I’d never had a lot of highs to begin with and that my predominant complaint had always been totally numbing depressive phases in which I could barely function…

I stuck with this doctor for years because I believed him when he said this was all medication could do for me. Awareness continues to be important! Structural and systemic reform are crucial, but we cannot underestimate the importance of access to information.

Austen’s Pensive Masterpiece – Persuasion

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‘…his manners were so exactly what they ought to be, so polished, so easy, so particularly agreeable…’

‘…it was all the operation of a sensible, discerning mind.’

‘His manners were an immediate recommendation…’

‘Everything united in him; good understanding, correct opinions, knowledge of the world, and a warm heart…steady, observant, moderate, candid…’

‘…There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth or indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others…She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others…She felt she could so much more depend on the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or hasty thing, than those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.’

‘…she had been mistaken…unfairly influenced by appearances in each; that because Captain Wentworth’s manners had not suited her own ideas, she had been too quick in suspecting them to indicate a character of dangerous impetuosity; and that because Mr. Elliot’s manners had precisely pleased her in their propriety and correctness, their general politeness and suavity, she had been too quick in receiving them as the result of the most correct opinions and well-regulated mind.’

Of all the brilliant insights in all the Austen books, this is the one that has influenced me the most. I’ve seen this play out over and over in real life. I’ve made the same mistake as Lady Russell in my own way, choosing people who meet my ideas of authenticity and honesty without considering that my mistrust of a certain kind of charm and suavity also translates into a bias towards a certain kind of person. I have recalled this passage to myself many times in my life, and it has often prompted me to evaluate people more fairly.

I consider Persuasion the softest, most romantic, and most melancholic (‘a sort of desolate tranquility’) of the Austen books. There’s an air of wistfulness that pervades this final work of hers. I imagine Austen on her deathbed at far too young an age, writing this meditation on love, loss, longing, and constancy. I wonder how much of it was borne of her own reflections on connections made and missed in her youth and through her short, constricted life. Persuasion feels sometimes almost like balm, like wish fulfillment, a hopeful second-chance story of rekindled love, unconscious fidelity and lasting romantic chemistry.

And yet, like all her other books, Persuasion is so much more than a love story. It has a gentle gravitas – all her books do, but this one is weightier – and it has those character insights that are almost startling in their depth and accuracy, in their ability to stick with you and return to you over and over for years.

This has always been my favourite of the Austens. Emma is livelier and more complex, Pride and Prejudice funnier and more exciting, but my heart has always belonged to unassuming Anne Elliot with her quiet intellect. There has always been something that touched me about this book, but it wasn’t until my most recent re-read that I realized how pithy and insightful it was.

‘She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.’

Of all the Austen heroines, barring Fanny Price, whom I’ve never liked, Anne is in the most unenviable position at the beginning of the book. Trapped with a vapid and insipid father and an even shallower daughter, at an age where she’s considered to have no prospects, with only the memory of a passionate but short-lived engagement, it seems like there is very little for Anne to look forward to in her life. Yet, she tolerates her situation and the disrespect she faces with an equanimity that could be, and is, mistaken for passivity. She makes the best of her circumstances, with a quiet security in her own worth. She is gentle to people who cannot see her worth, kind and comforting where she could easily be harsh or scathing, forgiving where she could be resentful. She is no Lizzie or Emma. Where they might be goaded into a cutting remark, Anne chooses to dignify the instigator with a sort of grace. Anne could have been a Mary Sue, but she’s saved by her intelligence and humour, though her audience is often only herself. Her constant kindness and refusal to ask for anything in return result in her being taken for granted by her family, her friends, even Captain Wentworth. And yet she knows her mind and possesses a quiet – there’s that word again – assurance.

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliott, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

An entire cast serves to demonstrate Anne’s superiority of character. Henrietta and Louisa, Anne’s brother-in-law’s young sisters (Henrietta and Louisa), are introduced as ladies ‘who had brought home from Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry.’ Anne ‘would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments’. She wonders later if it might not occur to Captain Wentworth ‘to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have it’s proportions and limits…a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.’ The resolute character, of course, being Louisa, contrasted here with Anne, who was persuaded by mother-figure Lady Russell to give up her engagement to Captain Wentworth. Her father and sister, Elizabeth, are vain, shallow, selfish and spendthrift. In Bath, Sir Walter ‘had frequently observed, as he walked, that one handsome face would be followed by thiry, or five-and-thirty frights; and once, as he had stood in a shop on Bond street, he had counted eighty seven women go by, one after another, without there being a tolerable face among them.’ They disrespect and even bully her. Mary, her other sister, though more appreciative, is a self-centred hypochondriac who doesn’t pay much attention to Anne’s needs and thoughts.

Captain Wentworth represents an environment where Anne is given her due. His friends and family are both far more liable to understand and appreciate her, being themselves of a higher intelligence and better temperament than Anne is accustomed to. Admiral Croft, who takes his wife with him in all his voyages, responds to Captain Wentworth’s squeamishness about having women aboard with:

“But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”

This debate about men and women, their temperaments and their fitness for things remains a through line in the book. Anne’s capability – not only in the more traditional female role of the caretaker but also her clear-headness in times of crisis and in the face of high emotion and irrationality – are emphasized at multiple junctures. The turning point in the rekindling of Captain Wentworth’s regard for her is her handling of Louisa’s accident when he is himself overwhelmed. The others repeatedly turn to and rely on Anne for her good sense and rationality. Indeed, she often seems to possess these qualities in greater quantities than the men around her, in a way that belies her delicate and refined appearance.

The other great men-women debate in Persuasion is, of course, about constancy. In a significant conversation with Captain Harville towards the end of the book, Anne maintains that women’s feelings last longer, because they are confined to home and don’t experience the advantage of new environments and experiences. When Harville responds that books, songs and proverbs ‘all talk of women’s fickleness’ – of course, these were all written by men. ‘…the pen has been in their hands,’ as Anne says. She will not allow books to prove anything.

It’s interesting to me that Austen, that doyen of sense and unsentimentality, should propound that one never really recovers from, never forgets, love. I’ve always seen Austen as a sort of closet romantic. Yes, she writes love stories, but love stories bound in by class, endogamy, and good sense. Her heroines are eminently practical. Persuasion makes a case for abandoning this caution, but also for our susceptibility to “persuasion.” In the beginning, Anne listens to what appears to be good sense from her dear friend and mother figure, Lady Russell, and breaks off her engagement with the young, charming, intelligent Captain Wentworth. He is unequal to her in station, poor, and yet to prove himself. He is heartbroken and angered by her malleability. Anne suffers as greatly, but says later that she doesn’t regret listening to Lady Russell, that she would have regretted it always if she hadn’t.

Perhaps this is true. And yet, we see throughout the book how much Anne suffers for this capitulation. Captain Wentworth is able to throw himself into his work, to move in different circles, to make an attempt at moving on. Anne is forced to come to terms with this loss in unsympathetic and unconducive surroundings. Austen could not have made a more compelling case against the injustice of women’s limited environments if she had written a political treatise. Here, we see a woman with every natural advantage – beauty, intelligence, grace, kindness, relegated to the background and forced to interact with people who neither respect her nor can match her intelligence and perceptiveness.

Anne has only one true friend about her own age: an old schoolmate, Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith lives in tragic, straitened circumstances. At 31, she is already a widow, and a penniless one at that. She was used to affluence, now she has none. She has rheumatoid arthritis and is confined to a wheelchair in a small place with limited help. And yet:

‘…here was the elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone.’

Anne values her friend, who kindly took her under her wing after Anne lost her mother in school. She does not view her visits to her old friend as a favour or as bestowing charity, as her family views it. She genuinely enjoys the company of her friend, and is rewarded at the end by Mrs. Smith’s revelations about the true nature of Mr. Elliot’s character. Ultimately, Anne’s own kindness and steadiness of character save her – a fitting resolution!

The result of Anne’s debate with Captain Harville about the fidelity of men and women – who feels love more greatly, for whom it lasts longer – is Captain Wentworth’s heartfelt entreaty of a letter. A single page of passionate pleading, lines now forever famous:

‘You pierce my soul.’

‘I am half agony, half hope.’

I have loved none but you.’

‘A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.’

Captain Wentworth has always felt like an enigma to me. We don’t see as much of him as Darcy or Knightley or even Tilney. We hardly even see him converse with Anne. This is Anne’s book. This is in fact an incredibly effective tactic for conveying the enforced distance between them for much of the book. You feel the absence, the deprivation, the punishment, quite as keenly as Anne does. But in this one letter – in the space of a few words, our Captain reveals more character than most men do in a lifetime.

All ends well. Anne gets her happy ending. We rejoice in one of the most romantic letters written in fiction, the kind of letter every woman dreams of receiving. But for me, somehow, the melancholy doesn’t lift. I am left with that image of Austen on her deathbed, wondering how many other treasures existed in that brain, how many more characters she might have conjured with that deft hand, how much more she might have lived. How she could not possibly have known that an Indian girl would grow up 200 years later, venerating her, and learning about human nature from her precious manuscripts…

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Inspired by the cover art for Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The blurb from the back of the book:

‘The intelligent and outspoken child of radical Marxists, and the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor, Satrapi bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.’

From Goodreads:

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.’

I loved this book so much that I missed a class reading it in college. I then wrote what I consider the best paper of my undergraduate years on it (‘Using W.E.B. Du Bois’s On Double Consciousness and Gilbert and Gubar’s The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship to examine Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood and The Story of a Return‘). I felt it deserved a wider audience (though I must warn that it’s an in-depth critical analysis and so might not be interesting if you haven’t read the book), so –

Here’s an abridged version (spoilers included, this is from a critical analysis):

Conflicting identities and the contrasts between different aspects of Marji’s personality are themes that underlie all the events in Persepolis. There are multiple paradoxical identities: Satrapi is Iranian but also French, Eastern but also Western, upper class and highly educated with Marxist ideals, an ordinary adolescent and a revolutionary, a modern Western girl (in perspective and mindset) and patriotic liberal Iranian. Satrapi’s extraordinary circumstances and unusual family create a plethora of these contrasts, a situation that gives depth and pathos to the narrative and plays a large part in its readability and appeal. Much of Satrapi’s angst as a teenager comes from being torn between her Iranian roots and her desire to fit in with her Austrian peers. But it is not this single factor and circumstance that differentiates Satrapi from those around her; the Satrapis’s position, ancestry, ideals and beliefs already separate them from their neighbours and peers in Iran. Marji’s modern and emancipated outlook, a result of her upbringing, is another kind of veil in closeted Iran.

Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley argue in “Estranging the Familiar: “East” and “West” in Satrapi’s Persepolis” that Satrapi uses “trivialization” – defined by Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser as “the employment of a form – a mode, a genre, etc. – that is considered by the dominant culture to be unimportant, innocuous or irrelevant” and argued by Dana Heller to allow ‘comics to “camouflage” potentially subversive messages or ideas by conveying them in a medium generally considered unthreatening…by adopting a naïve, childlike drawing style, by using a child as the autobiographical subject, and by working in a medium associated primarily with either low-brow or juvenile readers and narratives, she [Satrapi] effectively “camouflages” the complex politics of identity and nation Marji’s story raises in the guise of simplicity and universal accessibility.’

As part of a family of intellectuals and revolutionaries, as a rebellious schoolgirl and reckless adolescent in Khomeini’s Iran, as an outsider and outcast in Vienna, Satrapi’s origins and home are Iranian, but her education, upbringing and ideals are Western. She is thus a misfit, and a ‘problem’, everywhere – in Iran and in Europe. Her racial and cultural identity set her apart from her peers. Her racial identity has subjected her to traumatic and difficult experiences, but she does not want to erase her Iranian identity – she still values it highly. At the same time, however, Satrapi struggles with her Iranian identity, at one point disavowing it – pretending to be Marie-Jeanne, French, as she talks to a boy at a party in Vienna, in order to fit in.

In Iran, Marji is trapped by the restrictive Islamic regime, unable to express herself in public; in Vienna, she is trapped by her Iranian identity and origins, unable to fit in with her (relatively) sheltered peers. Even with the ‘dropouts,’ she doesn’t quite fit – she dislikes Momo’s ‘forced nihilism’ and his absurdist philosophy, his preoccupation with death, all in the absence of any real experience with the horrors of life and war (unlike Marji). None of them have been through anything even remotely similar to her traumatic childhood experiences of war and loss and this creates a tacit barrier between them. In Iran, the entrapment is physical; Marji cannot wear or do as she pleases, she must conform to the regime’s regressive rules and mores. In Vienna, the entrapment is mental; she is lonely, trapped by her differences (cultural, educational, social) from her peers. In Vienna, where Marji is an outsider, she has this peculiar sensation as she is regarded as a curiosity, as something exotic, even by her friends, who are uncomprehendingly fascinated by her war-ridden history; in contempt and pity when the nuns insult her Iranian heritage – ‘It is true then. Iranians have no education’ – and when the girls in the café make fun of her attempts to pretend to be French.

Like Du Bois describes in “On Double Consciousness,” Satrapi is in some ways always at war with herself (‘two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings’) in many different ways. In the very first chapter (‘The Veil’) she portrays this doubling literally, with a ‘split image’ of herself: ‘one half of her is veiled against a background of Persian artwork (signifying Eastern tradition), and other half of her is unveiled against background of instruments of science and technology (signifying Western modernity).’ (Naghibi and O’Malley 231-32) This juxtaposition of East and West is one of the largest themes and paradoxes in the novel, a motif that underlies nearly all the action. The Satrapis are part of an elite intelligentsia, highly educated (in a Western/French mode), very politically aware and opinionated, and progressive and liberal. This is contrasted, either directly or as a subtext, against the regressive orthodox Islamic regime and its minions.

Satrapi’s portrayal is not a simplistic equation of the East with regression and the West with freedom by any means. Critics often use Persepolis to reconfirm their preconceptions about the West and reaffirm their comfortable belief in the superiority of Western thought and society (through a superficial reading that notes Satrapi’s appropriation of Western music and dress as modes of comfort and rebellion).

However, as Naghibi and O’Malley go on to say, this reading is challenged by what they call ‘the slippages the text generates’. The style of the cartooning is ‘part of her effort to make familiar, to universalize, but at the same time to other’, they say (p 228). Satrapi constantly uses familiar images and themes that she then proceeds to subvert in unexpected ways. This process begins right with the image of a veiled, 10-year old Marji on the cover of Persepolis. According to Naghibi and O’Malley, this is a way of ‘confronting the reader from the outset with an image of the veiled, radical other.’ However, this image is simultaneously perceived to be familiar and universal because it depicts a child. Satrapi, therefore, begins the novel by simultaneously conforming and undermining Western notions of comfort, familiarity and universality. This continues throughout the novel: ‘the assumptions of recognition and familiarity experienced by a Western reader are constantly undermined by the interjection of culturally specific and unfamiliar references.’ (p 231) Satrapi deliberately toys with the reader’s process of comprehending, identifying with, and sympathizing with the characters and events. Naghibi and O’Malley write that Persepolis refuses ‘to be wholly appropriated into a Western frame of reference.’ (p 231) The question of how to ‘reconcile’ ‘Eastern Marji’ and ‘Western Marji’ is ‘a question that frames the entire narrative’ as the two contrasting images of the author on the front cover (veiled, traditional) and the back flap of the dust jacket (hip, Western – ‘dressed in black clothes, wearing chunky boots, and with a cigarette in hand’) ‘frame the physical text.’ (p 231).

As a child, Marji consumes American pop culture exports (Kim Wilde, Michael Jackson, ‘PUNK IS NOT DED’). Naghibi and O’Malley argue that while the Kim Wilde and Michael Jackson episodes, usually taken to be a symbol of the unifying power of Western pop culture, actually only further demonstrate how different Marji’s situation is from that of most ordinary Western children. Having managed to talk her way out of arrest after being caught with a jean jacket and Michael Jackson pin by the Guardians of the Revolution, she jams out to Kim Wilde’s ‘We’re the Kids in America’ to de-stress. ‘The choice of song is ironic, of course, because the encounter she just had demonstrates that she is certainly not a kid in America.’ Again, they write of how ‘the liberal humanist reading this chapter invites minimizes differences by transforming the radical other into a domesticated other.’ However, this reading is subverted by ‘a variety of visual elements in the text.’ The blonde sweep of hair and eye in the chapter heading (‘Kim Wilde’) is a direct contrast to the dark, veiled eye in the chapter ‘The Veil.’ The
blondness of Kim Wilde on p 131 is juxtaposed with Marji’s dark hair. She is ‘mirroring Wilde,’ ‘identical yet opposite.’ This image stresses ‘difference and cultural specificity.’

This is nowhere more obvious than it is on p.102 in the chapter ‘The Key.’ On this page, the first panel shows children, promised entrance to heaven for their courageous acts, exploding on minefields; the second panel, in an almost grotesque juxtaposition, shows Marji at a Western-style party, wearing a ‘punk rock’ look. The holes in her sweater, created for fashionable effect are a ludicrous contrast to the holes in the above picture, where the children are being blown up; similarly her chain necklace is juxtaposed against the keys on their necks, and their dancing postures reflect the flying bodies from the first panel. This mirroring is intended to shock. It is not meant to be familiar, and Naghibi and O’Malley call it a ‘profound indictment; far from being a political gesture, Marji and her friends’ consumption of punk subculture becomes a
shallow indulgence of privilege.’ (p 240)

‘Marji’s rebellious spirit,’ writes Michael A. Chaney in “Terrors of the Mirror and the Mise En Abyme of Graphic Novel Autobiography.”, is not mere adolescent rebellion, but in the ‘specific context of revolutionary Iran,’ takes on ‘qualities of political subversion.’ These children are not just innocent ciphers shaped by their experiences of the world; they are active figures of resistance. Marji is unusually politically aware, reading about ‘dialectic materialism,’ being aware of class and income inequalities and having imaginary conversations with Marx. Heavily impacted by their experience of a politically unstable and dangerous environment, these children are in some ways markedly and unmistakably different from their Western counterparts.

In short, Persepolis does not indulge in clear binaries. It does not shy from ambiguity, complexity and blurred boundaries. It is never quite clear whether it is the East or the West that is the positive force, or even if there is an unambiguously and unarguably positive force. The East/West juxtaposition is one of the most important, if not the most important double identity in Persepolis. It is the underlying tension that shapes much of the text. Du Bois’s wish for neither of his selves to be lost is a desire that can be transposed to Satrapi and Persepolis. Much as she tries to fit in with her European peers, Marji cannot, and does not want to forget her Iranian identity, a situation that explodes gloriously when she yells that she is proud to be Iranian in the café.

Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship” begins by describing polarities – angel and monster and Snow White and the Queen (p 1532). In Persepolis, there are many such polarities: liberal/repressed, revolutionary/fundamentalist, etc. However, these are nuanced depictions that generally avoid total vilification of one or the other. Satrapi often comments on her parents’ hypocrisy when it comes to class issues, for instance. Even as a child she picks up on the distance between their Marxist ideologies and daily practices, and she is not shy about portraying these gaps.

As a teenager, Satrapi feels guilty about her safe life in Vienna and her struggles to fit in while her kin suffer at home in war-torn Iran. Satrapi’s stated view has been that she wanted to correct misconceptions and stereotypes about Iran through Persepolis – to give Westerners an idea of the complexity of Iranians and their views.

Gilbert and Gubar describe the ‘madwoman’ in Victorian fiction and claim that ‘she is usually in some sense the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage.’ (p 1536) In a sense, there is a version of Marji in the second book into whom she projects her anxiety and rage: this is the Marji who calls the nuns ‘prostitutes’ when they insult her Iranian background, who accompanies the school dropouts to the ‘alternative subculture’ scene in Vienna, and who peddles drugs. This is the Marji who pretends to be French and, as she contemptuously and self-satirizingly remarks, this is the Marji who survived war, bombings and the Iranian Revolution only to be ‘nearly killed’ by a ‘banal love story’ (another split this episode signifies is the one between the ‘ordinary’ teenager and the passionate revolutionary in extraordinary circumstances).

One significant instance where the passionate, principled Marji is unrecognizable is when she accuses an innocent bystander of indecency to escape arrest herself for wearing makeup. Her grandmother lashes out at her for betraying her family’s principles, and this is the only instance that she seems to be noticeably ashamed of even so many years in the future, at the time of writing the novel. This is the ‘mad character created only to be destroyed’. The reader knows by the end of Persepolis that Marji is more true to herself than she was as the anguished and displaced adolescent and young adult.

Unlike the woman writer in Gilbert and Gubar’s essay, Satrapi does not seem to feel the need to conform to her society’s (at least of origin) standards of femininity and docility, probably because of her upbringing and class. Satrapi takes pride in her outspokenness and nonconformist views. While she chooses a traditionally non-threatening medium to convey her story, the material is so potent that it is not watered down in the process. The starkness of the black-and-white imagery conversely provide a depth and sorrow to the narrative and have an entirely different effect from a written memoir. It is entirely possible that Persepolis would not have quite as successful if not for its unique use of the comic medium, so one might argue that the choice of this ‘innocuous’ medium was a deliberate bid on the author’s part to increase its reach and accessibility. Satrapi has far more agency in choosing to convey a politically charged message and than the woman writers who unconsciously or subconsciously project themselves onto the antagonistic characters in Gilbert and Gubar’s essay.

Persepolis is so powerful and layered that a number of themes and meanings can be derived from it. The East/West doubling, the class divide (as doubling, because Satrapi herself goes from being upper-class elite to homeless in the second book), and the fragmented self are only a few of the juxtapositions present. She is part of the elite, yet believes in democracy and egalitarianism, and Marxism (like her family); she is patriotic but modern and ‘Western’ in outlook and education; she is religious yet modern or ‘avant-garde’ (at least as a child). Very few of these doublings have to do with her gender, and while Satrapi definitely portrays the experience of being a woman under the Iranian regime, Persepolis is neither bound nor defined by Satrapi’s singular experience as a woman (although the work is of course undeniably shaped and impacted by it). Instead, like Du Bois, Satrapi’s feelings of displacement and not fitting into society (as Satrapi herself says: “I was nothing. I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the west. I had no identity) (Malek 379) are feelings that arise from her unique cultural and national background. Her ‘double consciousness’ arises from her awareness of the atrocities of war and the extent of human cruelty, dogma and fundamentalism. She has this ‘veil’ because she has been shaped by the traumatic experiences in her past (the bombing of the Baba-Levys’s home, the execution of her uncle Anoosh) and is still constantly reminded of what her family and friends experience back home on a daily basis. Like Du Bois, Satrapi cherishes and wants to document her Iranian roots and experience – they are invaluable and should not be forgotten (‘One can forgive but one should never forget’), as her grandmother, parents and uncle Anoosh also tell her. At the same time, there is so much that needs to change about the experience, about the conditions in Iran – just like there was an enormous need for change in the treatment of African-Americans in Du Bois’s time, and even today – that Satrapi cannot just take nostalgic pride in her childhood home and background. She must agitate for change, directly or indirectly through the depiction of the suffering that ensues from totalitarian fundamentalist regimes; she does so, just as Du Bois did.

Some reflections on my life during the pandemic

A strange thing to reckon with is that my life actually improved exponentially after the pandemic hit and not having to force myself to go out every day did wonders for me mentally and physically. Not to say that I wasn’t negatively affected at all, because I was and am still trying to process all of the subtle ways in which I was despite not being “directly” impacted myself. It’s a very complex thing because on the one hand, I started my writing classes during the pandemic, completed the Narrative Practices Diploma and made some great friends (online).

And yet there were those weeks of horror during the second wave that are seared into my memory. I’m grateful I got the chance to help, and that I found out that I’m not useless in a crisis, but I will never forget that feeling of fending off a tsunami with tweets and phone calls, being permanently on alert for anyone who might have tagged me for help, scrolling through the feed looking for SOS alerts and responding to as many as I could, waking up in the middle of the night and immediately picking up my phone, being reluctant to go to bed in case I missed something…Not to mention those reports of thousands of migrants on death march home in the first lockdown, and getting calls from desperate migrants in the city who needed food and basic necessities after they found themselves stranded and suddenly unemployed.

I have never managed to be oblivious to external suffering, but these last few years have acquainted me with the strange paradox of working in the social sector: these parallel lives, radically different. My personal life, progressing, sometimes very happy, and this vocational urgency and sadness, saving some people, losing some, able to help some, having to let others go. I always knew I’d end up here someday – all I’ve wanted since I was a child was to help – and it’s been a bittersweet, poignant experience filled with pain, love, loss and longing for a world out of reach. Acceptance is a rocky journey and always there is that utopian, childish wish for a world without such needless suffering.

But so the cosmic cycles move, indifferent to the suffering that is writ so large to us.