Monstering

Disabled Women and Nonbinary People Celebrating Monsterhood

Filtering by Category: writing

Spider slayer

A ghostwhite spider haunts Zev. Every time she opens her driver's door, gets ready to put her key in, there she is, crawling across the windshield. Zev kills her with the windshield wipers, wisps of eight white legs smearing.

Zev thinks she's rid of her, but she keeps showing up while she's driving to work. Zev stops driving as often. Her door handles sticky with silk. She wipes the enemy fiber off on her jeans.

Zev gets in her car and presses the gas hard. She goes 45, 50, 65 mph, sees if she can fling the ghostwhite off. But her centimeter body stays hunched on Zev's driver's-side mirror, mocking her.

Sometimes, when Zev's falling asleep, the ghostwhite rustles in her ears; its tangled threads clogging her nose, so she has to breathe through her mouth. She checks the time on her phone throughout the night. 11:30 p.m. ... 1 a.m. ... 4 a.m. The disrupted sleep sinks her eyelids. In the morning, she swallows her pills and skips breakfast.

Once Zev gets to work, she pleads for the ghostwhite to stop haunting. She doesn't want to keep killing reincarnations. The ghostwhite doesn't seem to listen. She darts under the hood, out of Zev's view.

Maybe a mother spider lives in her engine, warm and cozy. Laying millions of eggs, so they can spread throughout the entire blue body of her car, threads covering her tailpipe, webs so thick she can't see through her windows.

At lunch, Zev daydreams about poisonous bug bombs and sticky fly catchers. She'll build a miniature mousetrap and glue it to her mirror. Dangle strips of krazy glue from her tailpipe. Word will spread that she's the spider slayer. All the ghostwhites will avoid her car, their eight legs freezing when they see her parking. None will dare balloon a web parachute from the trees to her hood.


It's becoming fall—the air smells like crunchy leaves. Zev hopes the ghostwhite will stop infiltrating her sleep if it becomes the smallest iceberg. But she remembers first seeing a spider, stark white on her bathroom mirror, last winter, crawling on her reflected cheek. The same one still haunts her. Zev smooshes one crawling across her radio with napkins from her glove compartment, makes sure she's dead.

Maybe in her past life Zev was a witch, the spiders a visible path of where she walked every day, the bathroom, the grocery, the library. She must have liked them. They kept her company during her long drives into the countryside, where she'd find a space to set up her magic circles.

The witch trained the spiders to balance her weight on their tiny bodies. They lifted her as she whispered chants and secrets to them. Their many legs like thousands of caresses. She took off her crystal earrings and necklace, her skirt, and floated in the river. The water was frigid on her powerful skin. She ate wild berries while her skin dried, spiders nestling on her hairy legs.

Zev wants to feel like that for once. She wishes rolling out of her warm covers every morning wasn't like getting stuck on the ghostwhite's sticky silk: the more she struggles, the more bundled she becomes.


Months later, Zev wakes up to gray sun meagerly filtering through the fog. Thousands of yellowing exoskeletons scattered along the covers. They float to the blue carpet as she makes the bed, their bodies drowning in the fibers.

Zev takes her pills and looks at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, spiderless, a faint smile. Spider carcasses are on her toothbrush, in the toilet bowl. She tosses them all in and flushes them away. Their eight legs sucked into the pipes.

She finishes getting ready, washes her plate from breakfast, pulls on a scarf and hat, goes out to the car. No ghostwhite on the windshield. None clogging the tailpipe. She drives slowly to work, since she doesn't need to shake off her body.

Zev parks and looks in the trees. There must be thousands sheltering up there in the leaves, weaving warm webs to survive the winter. She thinks she sees one trailing through the wind on its string. For a moment, threads itch the back of her throat. She finishes her tea, scalding any remnants of web, and walks in the door.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A young white woman with her arms raised. She is smiling and standing in front of a mural of wings painted various shades of pink, purple, blue, and white. She is wearing a green cardigan, jeans, and a T-shirt with triangular prints.

A young white woman with her arms raised. She is smiling and standing in front of a mural of wings painted various shades of pink, purple, blue, and white. She is wearing a green cardigan, jeans, and a T-shirt with triangular prints.

MARLENA CHERTOCK has two books of poetry, Crumb-sized (Unnamed Press, 2017) and On that one-way trip to Mars (Bottlecap Press, 2016). She lives in Washington, D.C. and serves as the poetry editor of District Lit. Marlena is a graduate of the Jiménez-Porter Writers' House and uses her skeletal dysplasia and chronic pain as a bridge to scientific poetry. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Breath & Shadow, The Deaf Poets Society, The Fem, Paper Darts, Wordgathering, and more. Find her at marlenachertock.com or @mchertock.

stop eating my shit

CW: Body horror, death

 

i froze a pomelo to throw through your window
            i eat the glass and let it slide between my teeth
sometimes i like it
sometimes i watch Jim Bakker and his new wife
                        open barrels of imperishable food
 
it reminds me that i can't breathe
            when my head's out the car
window, going 90 down 580 east. sometimes
 
i wish for death, other times i'm just hungry
 
like that time i took a circular saw to my chest
for an overpriced hamburger and all you did was film me screaming
            WORLD STAR WORLD STAR WORLD STAR
a stranger on the internet said the embarrassment
would pass and to regulate my moods, so
 
don't ask me if i know about David Koresh
            don't make me Amo Bishop Roden
i'm not here to be put on trial
 
i just want the six-pack of Top Ramen you stole
            
            before i fall asleep forever
surrounded by trumpets and pale horses
i want people to dream of this day
                        and subsequently catch fire

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

SIERRA VENTURA is a queer performer and writer slumming it in the East Bay. She currently attends Mills College in Oakland, CA where she is studying English, with an emphasis in creative writing. She has been published in The Forum, The Walrus, and Odd Compulsion. Her work has been compiled in the following chapbooks: Subhuman Sprawl and STYLE IS A FRAUD. Her first full-length poetry collection, Rituals, can be found under your local freeway overpass.

Wolf Moon

I.

Everything smelled like smoke: the black lab, the incense-soaked tapestries, her hands, ice water. She stalked down the long hallway, blood-stained sheets tacked on walls—sniffing for smoke, yanking doorknobs and tearing curtains. She couldn't tell that the smell was her own skin turning to ash, barely holding in the pillars of flame. She dreamed of the house splitting—fissures of fire, tongue wherever teeth are missing.

II.

At nights she is a dog,
in red moons
a dark creature—
some days are longer than
others—

press my legs with your
diamond finger;
a fire lights behind my eyes
and smolders all evening.

As you get older, windows shrink
and the sky
moves closer, but never
close enough to touch.

III.

Across the salt knobs, the winged monster arose and began to eat the decaying matter of the earth—wet leaves, rotted logs oozing with grubs, detritus from the sink trap.

I spit in a coffee can and step around the mess, heels clicking against whorls in the floorboards.

I try to remember when everything began.

The apartment smells of bonfire and herb bloom and long hours of glass sucking heat and sun. I can't find the letter I am looking for—February, promises, a story about a Polish family and a book of essays.

I have a toothache every day now.

I still have a hard time talking about my feelings. My thighs stick to everything. The wings furled inside of me swell if you stand too close, rattle their cage when anyone shouts.

The blood god visits earlier every year and, honey, wolf moon cry doesn't shatter the mirror the way you dreamt it would.

Cobalt ache—silvery pang erupting up spine—cloud of blooded ash pours from splintered plate, frozen, phone mid­-ring, mouth an o of ocean and full moon blues.

IV.

There is gold inside
my thigh, between femur
and shin—I lap,
press on sliver of bone,
ivory, shy before extraction.

There is a science to
walking through windows without you.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A black-and-white selfie of author, a white femme, wearing a voluminous light-colored scarf. She has short blonde hair and a septum ring.

A black-and-white selfie of author, a white femme, wearing a voluminous light-colored scarf. She has short blonde hair and a septum ring.

JESSE RICE-EVANS is a queer Southern poet and rhetorician based in NYC. Read her work in Heavy Feather Review, Yes Poetry, tenderness yea, and in the chapbooks The Rotting Kind (Ghost City Press) and Soft Switch (Damaged Goods Press), among others. She's a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches writing at the City College of New York and the Cooper Union.

Spelling Bee Poem

turpitude / teratology / credo

First round: Synonym for depravity. Synonym for futility
of the spine, how it tries to hold the body up. Synonym
for a back against bricks, wiry boy-fingers circling a
small wrist, synonym for all that lives in me is shameful.
I'm stalling, asking for a language of origin, some river
valley to latch onto. The footing never takes. I place eighth.

Next year: The study of monsters, more specifically,
the monstrous. Everyone knows -ology, it's the rest that
evades. So I study them, mark their territory. Does my brain's
hidden camera count as cheating? Never trust the girl
with lenses for eyes. Who is monster here? Click. Beware
the type of tiny girl who knows more than she deserves.

Final chance: How to formulate belief in a land so devoid?
I am still trying, pacing the prize table, loser's paradise. Watch
me weigh my options, land first on honey-pot cookie jar, bypass
for a gift card. What a busy bee, later I'll know better. Have we
met? I study monsters, depravity. Belief is hard to come by.
I only miss the words I haven't seen.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A close-up of a young white woman with red hair and flushed, pink cheeks. She's smiling and wearing a black and white patterned blouse and lavender-colored earrings.

A close-up of a young white woman with red hair and flushed, pink cheeks. She's smiling and wearing a black and white patterned blouse and lavender-colored earrings.

CADE LEEBRON is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She holds an MFA from Ohio State, where she served as an editor at The Journal. Currently she podcasts at The Cold Take and serves as managing editor at Us For President. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Electric Literature, Rattle, and elsewhere. Find her online at www.mslifeisbestlife.com, or on Twitter @CadeyLadey.

Queen Elsa Remembers Something

CW: Disordered eating

 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Black and white photo of a woman laughing, wearing a winter coat.  Her face is partially shadowed by the coat's hood, and she is looking off to the right edge of the frame.  She occupies the bottom left-hand corner of the picture.  She is standing inside an elevator, and the elevator's reflective walls match her silver winter coat.  Photo by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri.

Black and white photo of a woman laughing, wearing a winter coat.  Her face is partially shadowed by the coat's hood, and she is looking off to the right edge of the frame.  She occupies the bottom left-hand corner of the picture.  She is standing inside an elevator, and the elevator's reflective walls match her silver winter coat.

Photo by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri.

MEGAN LEONARD's poetry is forthcoming or has most recently appeared in Transom, The Maine Review, White Stag, HOUSEGUEST, Reservoir, Nightjar, and Tupelo Quarterly. Her digital pamphlet, "where the body ends," is available through Platypus Press.

Ketoconazole

Twilight, feeling
sorry
for myself, scrubbing
runny magenta shampoo
into a hot scalp
with broken nails.
I didn't
turn the lights on,
which was fine
five minutes ago,
but now the light outside
the bathroom window
has gone
 
lavender
and the light inside the room
is creeping-dim, draining to gray.
 
The rectangle,
 
lavender-blue,
reveals
the neighbor's roof,
antenna, chimney. I am still
sorry,
smearing prescription paste
down my shoulder blades,
turned away from the shower head,
hair out of the water,
letting the bitter pink cap of foam
sink in, recognizing
the rock-bottom wretchedness
of trying to rub anything
into your own back, feeling
sorry,
light outside
 
blue now,
and in here my fingernails
are fading.
 
The neighbor's roof,
antenna, chimney now seats
two doves, one
the same mourning male I followed
from window screen to window screen
this afternoon,
listening to that low, soft call,
letting it sink in—
you-uu. uu. you.
 
These same birds stop me, sigh me
when I am frantic—
you-uu,
and here they are, resting forehead-high
in the rectangle
 
indigo now,
but they are together,
no need to call
(you-uu),
and even if they did,
who could hear it
over this water,
sorry—
 
In here, my forehead is hot
against the white tile wall.
Out there they are paired off,
placid.
 
The room has now gone so dim
my feet have disappeared,
and I am here,
rinsing, sorry,
pleading—

water take this drugged lotion,
these flaming cells, water wash me
out, refit me in a skin that keeps me safe
or—sorry—that will lie calmly
under someone else's
hands.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Black and white photo of a white woman in her thirties leaning against a white brick wall. She has long, wavy hair and is wearing pearl earrings and a dark, long-sleeved t-shirt. She is looking at the camera and half-smiling.

Black and white photo of a white woman in her thirties leaning against a white brick wall. She has long, wavy hair and is wearing pearl earrings and a dark, long-sleeved t-shirt. She is looking at the camera and half-smiling.

KATE HOROWITZ is a poet, essayist, and science writer in Washington, D.C. Her poems have been published widely, most recently in The Murmur House, Qu, and Bourgeon magazines, and in the book Unrequited: An Anthology of Love Poems about Inanimate Objects. She blogs at thingswrittendown.com and tweets @delight_monger.

New Jersey Devil Vignettes I-V

CW: Violence

 
 

I. The New Jersey Devil Buys A Hot-Pink Bike:

The New Jersey Devil lies in bed for an extra hour, downloading and then deleting bike riding apps. The New Jersey Devil finally buys a bike-helmet and digs out its bike-light from the last wheel-horse. The New Jersey Devil bikes downhill so fast its tears are shlooped up back into its tear-ducts.

II. The New Jersey Devil Gets Its Period && The New Jersey Devil Does Not Want Children:

and guesses this is how one becomes monstrous. By recognizing their humanity and then rejecting it.

III. The New Jersey Devil Rejects Its Humanity:

There is a sect of every religion that believes some human beings are monsters. Today, religion is a bathroom stall I did not cry in. A mirror I did not break with my barking fists. Two bodies half-asleep on top of sheets in the smallest room in the apartment in Philadelphia and her calling me cute like it was my name. I have never felt cute before. I have never wanted to be cute until I realized I could be. Anywhere can be a worship-space. Anywhere can be my body recoiling at its own touch and the mirror fighting back. Anywhere can be my body. My body could be anywhere.

IV. The New Jersey Devil Watches The News:

and there it is. My body dragged up from a river. My body 49 bullet holes in Orlando. My body endless histories that all smell like burning. I have been killed for loving everyone including myself. I never wanted this monster-skin. My body the river itself. My body the bullet tessellating until it looks like mirrors in the dream I have where all my friends are dead because all of my friends look like me. My body a statement given to the reporters. My body the conspiracy-theorist's photographed orb. My body what is later dismissed as a trick light.

V. The New Jersey Devil Washes The Blood Off:

The New Jersey Devil's mother told me once that guys didn't like girls with scarred up legs. Told me to be careful when I was shaving. So I stopped being a girl && stopped shaving && fell off my hot-pink bike so hard they couldn't tell where the road ended and I began. Every now and again I wake up covered in blood. Sometimes it is mine. Always it is not surprising. The New Jersey Devil scrubs the wound in the shower until it stings like mouth-candy. Until I can make eye-contact in the bathroom-mirror and see something healing.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LINETTE REEMAN (they/them pronouns) is an Aries from the Jersey Shore, so they're not sure what you mean by 'speed limit.' They have work published or forthcoming in Blueshift Journal, Maps for Teeth, FreezeRay, Public Pool, and others. A multiple Pushcart Prize and Bettering American Poetry nominee, Linette is on the executive board of the Philadelphia Fuze Poetry Slam and is sort of trying to complete a bachelor's degree, but is mostly just trying to survive in small-town America.

mothers like me

CW: Death, suicide

 

don't live / very long. we can't resist / the oven rattling / like a siren, or / the wintered whisper / of the backyard river / where our children learned / how to flirt with death / by floating, not knowing / the water of our wombs / could slaughter more, slower, / than any tidewater beast. / our babies / don't smile; they bare teeth. / our daughters don't dream / about pink-mouthed princes / but about fathers / made of fire / made for fucking. / our sons shiver / at sight of the man / in the mirror. / my son sees / his grandmother and / me, same / blue eyes and monster / -ed brain, corkscrew hurricane / not good / for mothering but great / for boiling in whatever pot / we near-deads can find. / i'm worried / if my son starts / bloating with river water, stiff / and woman-silent, / i'll mistake the stench / for a hallucination, / nightmare, / or my mother's ghost.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Close shot from bust up of a young white feminine nonbinary person standing in a white room. Their auburn hair is in a ponytail, and they are smiling with their mouth closed. They are facing the camera. They are wearing a gray shirt and a black chord around their neck.

Close shot from bust up of a young white feminine nonbinary person standing in a white room. Their auburn hair is in a ponytail, and they are smiling with their mouth closed. They are facing the camera. They are wearing a gray shirt and a black chord around their neck.

DEAN SYMMONDS is a queer poet from the South seeking zir BA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. Ze works as a Poetry Editor at Persephone's Daughters, and is an alumna of the Hollows Shout the Mountains Down Winter Tangerine workshop. Zir poems have been published in magazines like [empath], Gravel, The Album, and Crab Fat Magazine. You can find zem on Twitter @poetpersephone.

Numb is a Feeling: Embodying a Body of Pain

CW: Trauma, suicide

 
 

1. Testimony: How the Monster Came to Be (Told in its Own Words)

I am the monster no one believes in. People want to know if I am real. They tilt their heads and frown when they look for me. It's a passionate debate, my existence. They use their personal opinions to argue that I'm only a subjective experience, that my subjectivity is what invalidates me.

Whatever. I'm no fairy—I don't need them to believe in me to survive.

"Well, she looks fine to me. Looks great, actually! Looks healthy." They think they know: "Pain isn't healthy. It's ugly. It sweats and trembles, it can't smile or laugh." They reassure themselves: if pain really is a monster, they would be able to tell.

She can tell. She can tell you all kinds of stories about what a monster I am. What a big mouth I have, how loud I am, my appetite. She can tell you how full my pockets are, what a good hunter I am—that I am both here and there, both her and not her. She can tell you she didn't feel the clench of truth last month, reading Kat Duff on her red couch. Those three little words—"illness chooses us" (4)—couldn't possibly be an echo, a confirmation of what I have been saying for years: I came because her body called to me.

Did she tell you I'm a liar?

It's not her fault I'm so attracted to her. I mean, she is quite striking: that resting bitch face, trauma snarl, perfect tension of jaw and pelvic floor. When I found her all those years ago, so young and fraught, so anxious—her body, even then (especially then), following a few steps behind her, singing its little anthem of hope and longing: "There is a crack..." (L. Cohen 373)—I slipped right in. I couldn't help myself. There was a rift, a dissonance, a dislocation of body from mind. It made her charged, magnetic, tidal, narcissistic. I am the force, the field, the moon, the mirror. Her body called to me and I came. What's so monstrous about that?

Hide-and-seek. Peek-a-boo. They look and look, but they can't find me. I'm not in the blood or lymph. I'm not in the muscle fibres or bone marrow. I'm not hiding; I'm right here. The Invisible Man. I'm not the body—I am allodynia, hyperalgesia, ether and vapour, steam and dew. You can contain me, but you can't put your hands on me. I am too reactive, persistent, vigilant. I infiltrate the chemical, hormonal, and electrical systems of the body: the gland, the synapse, the neurotransmitter. I'm the captain of this Enterprise. I say when to fight, flight, freeze. I make the rules, I change the rules, I make it so! I am ambidextrous, pansexual, pluralistic, omnivore, amphibian. I'm not good or up to no good or good for nothing. I am Maleficent, Elphaba, Morgan le Fay. She can say my name as many times as she wants, but I will never grant her any wishes—I'm no Rumpelstiltskin.

How was I supposed to know she wouldn't like me? That she would look at what I'd become and say: "It hurts."

Imagine I am innocent. Suppose my motivations are instinctual, that I am compelled, not to produce answers, but to provide questions—to foment, to elicit. Imagine me celestial, alien, learning her gravity, her language, experimenting with touch and pressure, sound and light. But why? they ask. Why, why, why. A better question is What do you want?

I'd like to make a statement for the record: I don't like hurting her. I don't not like it either. Pain does not motivate, mystify, or hinder me. I am not its maker. The body makes the call—I am the response. I enforce the will of the body, whatever its will may be. I embody the forces that shatter illusions, that will boundaries into being. I may not be her body, but it is my domain, and she—whether kicking and screaming or with fucking grace—is under my dominion.

It's too late to ask how much of her is me and how much of me is her. She is we. Body is we. There is no unraveling.

There are scars you can see—the stories she has told. Beneath the bone scraped raw with trauma are the stories we need her to tell. Stories about what can't be seen. We are ready. We wait for her to be ready. "Shush, shush," she says. And I do.

2. Testimony: Resurrection (In My Words)

the longer you look at a thing/the more it transforms
—Anne Michaels 7

A recurring dream: I find myself trapped inside a speeding, out-of-control car—either climbing from the back seat to the front or at the wheel, my body pressed snug against it. I can't steer or reach the brakes. I am panicking. I know death is imminent. Never do I try to throw myself from the vehicle; it's not escape I want—it's control.

I often think about death, about taking my own life. Chronic pain is a sort of death, isn't it? A story of death, or many little deaths that, together, fundamentally change us—assuming we survive. Maybe we perish, throwing ourselves from a moving vehicle, or maybe we resurrect ourselves. Either way, we are trying to gain control. "Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurrection," wrote Wendell Berry (101), arrogant with health. Doesn't he know pain? To despise the body is not so different from desiring it. Both are fervent, impulsive. Both fixate. Both are painful: the pain of wanting, of not wanting. "In illness there is the fact that we cannot hide in our bodies or from our bodies, and also the burning desire to do so," writes Kat Duff (14). Those of us for whom despising the body is a natural response to its failure to protect us from illness all share, time and again, the same desire: revival. We are desperate for a cure, for that which will lift us up, up, and away.

In When the Body says No, author and physician Gabor Maté observes, "For some people, it is disease that finally shatters the illusion of control" (34). How long can a shattering last? Does the weight of a disease correlate to the mass of the illusion? It only takes two seconds for the glass to slip from my numb fingers and meet the floor. Long enough to catch it, if you can. Or to send it spinning. No time for an epiphany. Not until we are bent over with the dust pan.

I recently began to see a somatic therapist who practices in the lineage of generative somatics. Each session she invites me to "feel into" my length, my width, my depth, to feel my center. I struggle each session to feel anything. She says numb is still a feeling.  

An epiphany: The body is not the monster. And the monster—the pain, the illness—is not penance. My body and I were made host to a passenger whose "expressions of a disturbed physiology" (Van der Kolk 224), whose "monstrous contents ... demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality" (J. Cohen 6). I feel for the boundary at my throat: that rock wall; that raw ground where this body ends and I begin, where we throw blame across the breadth of a swallow. To what end? asks our passenger. Disembodiment is an instinctual safety strategy, that much I know. But is disembodiment a means to an end, or an end in itself? I feel for the desire under the despair. It's there. Come closer, says the body. Warm ... warmer ... getting hot. Now tell me, do you want me?

According to Shinzen Young, it is possible to "get a sense of being empowered and even nurtured by [chronic pain]," (15) that one can "experience pain as deeply meaningful" (15). Seventeen years of scoffing putters out. The monster meets my gaze. It says I can choose to abandon my denial that pain has and will only ever hurt me. What has denial ever healed?

Last night I dreamt I was pulled by a riptide from the shallows out to sea. I watched anxiously as the shore got farther and farther away. I wasn't afraid of drowning, only of never returning to land.

I often lament how pain is tidal—it leads us away from and returns us to our bodies, again and again. It is both the blanket that smothers and the impetus to burrow. This is a difficult way to live. But pain also reminds me that I am a body, that I am in a body. It is a great irony of my life that pain is what prompts me to discover how to feel, with my body, things other than pain.

"Where do you feel it in your body?" asks my counsellor. We are working on embodiment. Merriam-Webster defines embody as: "to cause to become a body or part of a body." When it's pain we're talking about, I can describe it clearly: its exact location, temperature, movement; its length, depth, width. But defining the shape of anger, for example, or the climate of pleasure, is difficult. I have learned to be afraid of feeling. Connecting emotions to physical sensations—feeling my feelings—is rarely a familiar or safe place for me. But I want it to be.

Meditation teacher Stephen Levine reassures us that "even the hardness floats in the softness (24)." So you could say that my job is to float.

Yesterday on my morning walk I began to cry, as I often do, when something I'd been talking about in therapy for several years suddenly happened. (Isn't it strange, those moments of integration, when a habit—in this case, expressions of scorn for the body—seem to suddenly shift?) All I did was pat myself. Pat pat, went my left hand to my left thigh. A moment of connection so surprising I stumbled. And then, with great intention, I patted the right as well. There there.

There is space now, between my body and the wheel. When I dream about driving I move my feet on the pedals, look left and right. I travel fantastical highways, maneuvering a familiar vehicle whose power intimidates me. Controlling the car can't be the goal; it won't happen. What, then? Do I trust where the car takes me? Do I say body, I want you? Do I say monstrous passenger, I offer you my allegiance?

For now I stroke my throat, pat myself. I practice floating. I remember that telling stories means peeling off all my layers, from skin down to bone, until the body of pain has length, width, depth, until it has a center. For now I say Monster, make me a storyteller. Lift me up, up, and away.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A grainy high contrast photo shows the author from the shoulders up. Her head rests on a small black and white zebra print pillow on a dark background. Her chin length curly brown hair rests around her face, which is brightly lit from one side, creating an impression of glowing. She has white skin and her brown eyes look directly at the viewer. Her bright pink lips are closed and unsmiling. The picture is serious in tone and communicates pride and strength.

A grainy high contrast photo shows the author from the shoulders up. Her head rests on a small black and white zebra print pillow on a dark background. Her chin length curly brown hair rests around her face, which is brightly lit from one side, creating an impression of glowing. She has white skin and her brown eyes look directly at the viewer. Her bright pink lips are closed and unsmiling. The picture is serious in tone and communicates pride and strength.

JENNIE DUGUAY is a disabled queer femme and white settler living on unceded Coast Salish territories in Vancouver, Canada. Jennie organizes a Community Care Collective, a radical form of community based care and is co-admin of the Vancouver Queer Spoon Share. Her writing has been published in GUTS, The Peak Magazine, CV2 and The Capilano Review.

 

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. "The Body and the Earth." The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba, Counterpoint, 2002, 93-108.

Cohen, Jeffery Jerome. "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)." Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, 3-25.

Cohen, Leonard. Stranger Things. McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1993.

Duff, Kat. The Alchemy of Illness. Pantheon Books, 1993.

"Embodies." Merriam-Webster. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embodies. Accessed 20 March 2017. 

Levine, Stephen. Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. Rodale, 2005. 

Maté, Gabor. When the Body Says No. Vintage Canada, 2003.

Michaels, Anne. The Weight of Oranges. The Coach House Press, 1986.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking, 2014.

Young, Shinzen. Break Through Pain. Sounds True, 2004.

A Spell to Exorcise Your Favorite Ghost

Stretch one rope thin as an oily fingerprint.
Evaluate breaking point.
If reached, proceed to next step.

Step into back-alley wicked garden full of rainbow graffiti and tangerines.
Remember black scribbly wings, glowsticks, summer bonfires, hope.
Do not remember IV drips, antibiotics, police reports.

Observe one Polaroid snapshot of the way it was.
Soak photographic memory in formaldehyde.
Tape to bathroom mirror. Look until you no longer see.

Change locks one thousand times.
Request key back one thousand and one.

Sprinkle circles of salt and holy water.
Perform Stations of the Cross past posters—Hang In There Baby.
Solve one brain teaser: A ghost is not alive.

Open fist. Release grains of sand. Do not disturb salt circle.

Tie one coffin closed with willow branches.
Weigh down with one cinder block.

Silence one million conspiracy theories.
Take newspaper clippings, photos, string down from wall
until wall is blank, white, clean.

Pull trigger of gun once—
Read word written on red flag.
Discard flag. Do not laugh at old joke. Joke was never funny.

Grit teeth.
Grind harder.
Rip out one hair, chew ten nails to the quick.
Discard fingernails. Discard everything, except for faded Polaroid photo.

Take step.
Take another, until the crossroads.
Point feet toward future.

Kiss Polaroid picture's surface.
Taste faded chrysanthemums.

Move on.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A person with long, very bright red hair smiles at the camera, wearing mirrored blue sunglasses and a black T-shirt with a white skull-and-crossbones and pink rose. The image is saturated with warm colors, except for the cool blue shades. (They're cool in both senses of the word.)

A person with long, very bright red hair smiles at the camera, wearing mirrored blue sunglasses and a black T-shirt with a white skull-and-crossbones and pink rose. The image is saturated with warm colors, except for the cool blue shades. (They're cool in both senses of the word.)

ROANNA SYLVER wrote this poem. And also sings, voice acts, draws, has several weird genetic conditions, knows too much about Star Trek, currently writes the oddly-hopeful-dystopian Chameleon Moon series, and lives with family near Portland, OR. The next adventure RoAnna would like is a nap in a pile of bunnies.

gorge

i am a femme/ sticky
such slick/ wet/ monster of all things yet to be/ good
i soil/ grow breasts on dry land,
nourish this ground i cannot always walk on.
eat my own menses/ & still claim vegetarianism
on days when i can lift my hand to my gaping mouth.
i refuse to eat/ a living thing so thank god/ for me
i have given up on saving men this year/ they are so good for the skin
i drool/ or terrify for once i do not want
i anchor/ glutton myself so deep into a Heaven where there is/ one less yearning teat/ one less thing to refuse myself of
my god/ i have never been so full
or so free
 

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 Agender Black femme sits on lavender fabric against a white wall as they look head on at the camera. They have dark brown pigtails and a blue hat. They are wearing a white short sleeved shirt and have brown lipstick on.

Agender Black femme sits on lavender fabric against a white wall as they look head on at the camera. They have dark brown pigtails and a blue hat. They are wearing a white short sleeved shirt and have brown lipstick on.

KIKI NICOLE is a yung negro artist trying to remember how to breathe in the Pacific Northwest. They are a Pink Door Fellow and a member of the Spring 2017 Queer Emerging Artist Residency cohort at Destiny Arts Center. Their work has appeared in Wus Good Magazine, Radar Productions' GLOW Queer Poetry Feature, Voicemail Poems and elsewhere. Find them in the middle of the club with a book in their hands and a subtle twerk.

The Red:

a disease, a name
               I cannot remember. It pulls
at my cheeks like an aunt I never
liked. Kisses my lips,      stains me, 
doesn’t put me in the washing machine. 

I am some kind of new territory. 
                A power struggle. Fluid. 
I squeeze at my face, and dead white fish
      fall from underneath my skin. 
Turn to crimson, then—
           iridescent. 
      They gather in pools, not rivers, 
and I do my best to hide their carcasses. 
                   I bury them in water. 
                   Shrouds of washcloths. 
                   Embalming toothpaste
                   and different creams. 

My mother calls it habit
My father calls it problem.
I call it something fairy-tale: 
                    monster. 
                         Biped wolf.  
                                 The bad witch. 
                                              Immortal.

No one seems to understand
the body doing
             what the body does
             when it's not pretty to look at. 

My hands have become
            involuntary actions, 
always looking for bumps
            and thin skin to pull back
until regret has a rubbing alcohol sting. 

I always promise myself, 
                      I won't do it again. 
But hands don't listen. Hands don't know
                      how to stop. 

Sometimes I wonder if this can be classified as anything
         other than a hoarding of body—
                      a hoarding of shame.

 
 
 A photo of a person from the chest-up, looking directly into the camera, sitting on a leather couch. The background behind her is a dark orange and an olive green. On the wall behind her there's a picture of a giraffe. There are many inanimate objects on the mantle behind her and the couch: two plants, two lamps, a bowl full of pinecones, and a small barrel that says "Golsch".

A photo of a person from the chest-up, looking directly into the camera, sitting on a leather couch. The background behind her is a dark orange and an olive green. On the wall behind her there's a picture of a giraffe. There are many inanimate objects on the mantle behind her and the couch: two plants, two lamps, a bowl full of pinecones, and a small barrel that says "Golsch".

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

LYDIA HAVENS is a poet and editor currently living in Boise, Idaho. Her work has previously been published or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Black Napkin Press, among others. Videos of her spoken word performances have been published on YouTube channels such as Button Poetry and Write About Now. Her first full-length collection, Survive Like the Water, was published by Rising Phoenix Press in 2017. Lydia currently works for Big Tree Arts Inc., and is a member of Boise's 2017 National Poetry Slam team. She really likes exclamation points and lizards.

Washed Up

What the old witch didn't tell you,
with all her sophistries and potions—
it's not just as simple as adding legs.

She unravelled you, down to your bare thread,
and now you are something new.
Broken down. Rewritten.

No more scars. No more memories
lingering in the space between scales and bone.
You are soft as a newborn.

Take your first stumbling steps
and be glad. The ground has claimed you.
The flint beneath your feet is kindness—
the thistles, respect.

You will learn breezes, birdsong,
the heat of the sun. You will learn rivers,
see how water slows and thickens.

Everything reminds you of the sea.
Salt winds lick you. Gulls
bring a flash of memory
and then wheel on.

You persevere. Move inland.
The blackthorn hedges
flower into foam.

Delirious, you recall your tail.

They find you—
unconscious, sopping wet— 
in a stagnant cattle-trough.

You wake up wound in cotton
like wind-lashed sails: you rip and twist.
A rumble of boots; a surrounded bed.

Your clicks and screeching go unanswered.
Their alien voices coo and sigh
as you stare, sobbing, at your strange toes
and slick your cheeks with salt.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A portrait shot of a person with long dark hair, light skin, and heavy green eyeliner, who is smiling slightly. They are wearing antlers and a crown of ivy, and a red and gold patterned top.

A portrait shot of a person with long dark hair, light skin, and heavy green eyeliner, who is smiling slightly. They are wearing antlers and a crown of ivy, and a red and gold patterned top.

HEL ROBIN GURNEY is a poet, performer, writer, and escaped academic. They are fascinated with myth, memory, and monstrosity—whether voicing Sycorax's last curse to Prospero, eulogising Jacobean cross-dresser Moll Cutpurse, or collaging a bilingual soundscape from the memories of a 10th-century book. The poem "Washed Up", published in this issue of Monstering, was the starting point for Gurney's poetry and storytelling project "Red Hoods and Glass Slippers", chapter one of which appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016 as spoken word solo show "The Sleeping Princess". Other recent credits include the audiovisual collaboration "Wild Winter" (2017, with Ash Welch) and the libretto for experimental opera "The Lion-Faced Man" (Tête à Tête Festival 2015, with composer CN Lester). Hel Robin can be found at helgurney.wordpress.com, or wandering around the south of England.

Women's Pool

Leg angle the hard crease between the thigh bone and the pelvic region as she talks her legs kick out she talks and kicks and the water waves between her and me there is someone fine steel snakes in the water my head aside in the night

Listen to us the wind sing lights above the pools stars out the plow opens the angle water smooth as we pick against the concrete edge smudge ourselves into the fluid at midnight hot water in our ear and we listen

Hands talk with us around and through a circle across the water and the story grows and we plunge in our fingers plunge and the water opens in an angle talk our job my lover the mother and winter in Michigan and the fear sky all angles and the folds of our skin

So this is the argument I say wax and flesh and how to mould faces in the wax that runs through my fingers and my hand swirls as I stir in hot water feet out in the fluid story and someone leaves the pool and someone vanishes, and we talk of the death mask 

Tissue paper folds out of her story dead lives loved old film reels of fire clouds the legal struggles around the right to die they brought him back again and again then he married and still he said 'you should have let me die'

that reminds us to turn and we lie in the water on our back and look at the star fire fluid in our midnight ear my head aside we kick and we listen to the sing in our heads in the wind and the skin wrinkles in the water

Turn over the page my hand floats me over turn in the water at midnight in the pool water of a hot spring near the cool stars all alone she and I write our stories in the water our bodies at angles and turn and listen and turn to the dark in the star fire

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 A large white woman in a wheelchair in a dark theatre, short-shorn grey hair, glasses, primary color clothes, with a poetry manuscript in her hand, looking at the camera.

A large white woman in a wheelchair in a dark theatre, short-shorn grey hair, glasses, primary color clothes, with a poetry manuscript in her hand, looking at the camera.

PETRA KUPPERS is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and she teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (2016). Stories have appeared in Drunken Boat, The Sycamore Review, PodCastle, Future Fire, Capricious, Wordgathering, and Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. Her Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction (2014) offers practical exercises for classrooms and studios. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias disability culture collective. She lives in Ypsilanti with her collaborator, Stephanie Heit.

Ingredients for a Fairytale

In the story
you are a princess hidden in a scullery. 
You are born deaf, you click your throat, 
learn the language of cold water, 
of torn ears, burnt hands, 
rabbits and mute swans. 

The story needs two villains,
and you fall in love with both—
the rough-shod shambling angel, 
the golden-haired monster
with damselfly wings. 

They find you hanging linen—
your brown hands, the yellowed sheets, 
your silence. 

It could be called an abduction, 
but you open yourself to the angel's red fingers,  
to the breath of the monster
on the backs of your knees.
They guide you by tugging your nipples; 
your lips swell. You sleep through mornings
held in four arms. 

In the story
you must learn you may not love like this. 
You must escape through a cave—
be blind, too, in the dark; find yourself
by touch, human and alive; come at last
to a cold morning and a peat river, 
smelling moss deep-rooted in green loam. 

Forget the story. 
You stay until they swallow you, 
the angel and the monster. 

You see what they are—they stole children
picking speedwell in a clearing; 
they took a widow's hands and a minstrel's eyes. 
And you—they take you over and over, 
and, princess, you know, and you let them. 

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 The image is portrait style. It shows the upper two-thirds of a woman in her twenties. She has her head tilted slightly to the right and is smiling. She has long wavy brown hair, pale skin, and wears glasses. Her hands are by her sides. She is wearing a dark green long-sleeved t-shirt and black trousers. She is standing in front of an elder bush and is surrounded by green leaves. Tree branches can be seen behind her, and to her right small white flowers are visible among the leaves.

The image is portrait style. It shows the upper two-thirds of a woman in her twenties. She has her head tilted slightly to the right and is smiling. She has long wavy brown hair, pale skin, and wears glasses. Her hands are by her sides. She is wearing a dark green long-sleeved t-shirt and black trousers. She is standing in front of an elder bush and is surrounded by green leaves. Tree branches can be seen behind her, and to her right small white flowers are visible among the leaves.

In 2017, ROSAMUND TAYLOR won the inaugural Mairtín Crawford award and was nominated for a Forward Prize. Most recently, her work has appeared in Agenda, Orbis, BansheeCrannóg and Magma. She has been twice short-listed for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, won joint second-place for the Patrick Kavanagh Award 2015, and is currently working on her first poetry collection. You can read more of her work on TheLearnedPig.Org (http://www.thelearnedpig.org/author/rosamund-taylor) and HeadStuff.org (https://www.headstuff.org/literature/typhoid/).

Subject

Submitted June 4, [redacted], for [redacted] (supervisor) approval and signature.

Referral: Subject's self.

Background information: Subject is a [redacted]-year-old [redacted] who presented in The Examiner's office at the urgent and repeated request of Subject's spouse's best friend. This best friend seems knowledgeable, having been a patient his whole life due to paraplegia secondary to congenital spina bifida, and is deeply trusted by Subject's spouse. Subject seeks adequate explanation for Subject's turbulent history and current social, vocational and emotional challenges, particularly that which Subject described as "an omnipotent, ever-present feeling like I am an alien on the wrong planet" [paraphrase].

Data sources: A targeted clinical interview was conducted by The Examiner, PhD, clinical psychologist specializing in the care and guidance of Asperger's and autistic patients. Collateral interviews with Subject's spouse and Subject's biological parents were conducted via telephonic communication [non-recorded]. When The Examiner reported to Subject that Subject's female parent spoke for the majority of the interview, Subject expressed surprise and said, "That is very unusual" [paraphrase].

Additionally, the following assessments were administered by The Examiner:

  • Weschler Intelligence Scale for Adults - 4th Edition (WAIS - IV)

  • Trauma Symptom Inventory - 2nd Edition (TSI - 2)

  • Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI)

  • Mini Mental Health State Exam

  • Behavioral Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF), self- and informant report

  • Selected Subtests of Advanced Clinical Solutions (ACS): Social Cognition

  • Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS, Module 4)

Records review: No records were provided to The Examiner at any point.

Purpose: Because Subject has been informed directly by peers, family members, and co-workers, as well as through experience, that Subject's way of being in and thinking about the world diverges significantly from the norm, a careful and comprehensive examination of Subject's selfhood/concept of selfhood, as well as narratives from selected informants, was conducted. Subject's sensitivity (sensory and emotional); expecting people to mean what they say literally; robust preference for order; fixations on objects/people/ideas others, particularly in her peer group, do not concern themselves with (e.g., looming global problems, local injustice, personal slight or injury); difficulty with shallow/routine social contact were all cited by Subject's spouse's best friend as warranting diagnostic attention. Subject concurred with the list, stating, "Those, plus more, are all true. And that does make me feel like an alien, but I also don't know if I want not to be."

Detection of the presence of an autism spectrum disorder requires close observation and interrogation of a subject's developmental history and patterns of behavior. The most common developmental concerns include delayed language acquisition; atypical social responsivity; sensory and somatic hyper- or hypo- sensitivity; nonspecific medical problems; and difficulties related to attention, eating and sleeping. Stereotyped behaviors, rote motor mannerisms, and unusual or restricted interests onset later in childhood.

Collated and edited report of [Subject]'s backstory: Subject is a first-born. Subject's female parent did not use drugs or alcohol during gestation. Subject's female parent went into preterm labor at 29 weeks, which scared her to death, and was given labor-prevention medication until Subject was born vaginally at 37 weeks, "beautiful and perfect, loved and adored," Subject's female parent said [direct quote].

Subject's parents reported Subject's immediate and intense difficulties with sleeping and emotional regulation; "these persist to this day," Subject says [paraphrase]. Subject's female parent was so exhausted by Subject's lack of regular sleep that she reported hearing voices. Subject's parents had to rotate dressing Subject each day because Subject's tantrums were so overwhelming. "This was easily resolved," Subject reports. "As soon as I was verbal, I demanded to be dressed only in purple. This, too, is largely still true today" [paraphrase]. Subject loved the park; when it was time to leave, Subject would shriek as if being abused and resist both parents physically.

Major developmental milestones were met easily, for the most part. Subject's female parent recalled Subject had some difficulty learning to roll over, stating [direct quote], "[Subject] would grunt and [Subject's] face would turn red. Such a contrast to [Subject's] sister, [Subject] was mad and frustrated." Subject also had trouble learning to ride a bike and kick a soccer ball; Subject remained unsure about which side of the plate to swing the bat from in softball. "This," Subject says, "is also easy to explain. I was left-handed, but every time I picked up a crayon or pencil with my left hand, my mother would take it out of my left hand and put it in my right hand. I don't blame her. It's just what her mother did to her, but, as a result, I never got confident with either hand. I can now write with both hands, it's just equally illegible" [paraphrase].

Subject acquired language early and employed it often. "The only time I would stop talking was when I fell asleep, usually in the middle of a sentence. This talking wall is still present, triggered by anxiety or discomfort. Though I don't stay asleep for long, I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime—movies, the shower, in the middle of fights with [spouse], walking across a busy street —and when I do, I sleep like a fire hazard" [paraphrase].

"Even [Subject's] play was serious," Subject's female parent reported. "[Subject] would line up LEGOs according to color and then size, and plastic animals according to the patterns on the rug or carpet." Subject reports this to still be true today, only with books and clothes. "And LEGOs," Subject states. "I still play with—and by that I mean organize—LEGOs" [paraphrase]. Subject is a deeply auditory learner. "I would be able to tell by the time [Subject] was in first grade if they'd had a sub that day," Subject's female parent reported [direct quote], "because [Subject]'s reports of what they learned that day included direct quotes from the teacher and they would be in a different inflection or cadence than how [Subject] normally relayed the day at school." Subject confirms. "If I've heard a song or seen a movie once, it's in there forever [taps right pointer finger to right temple]. I'm probably the only person who still has people's phone numbers memorized" [paraphrase]. Subject was also very good at recontextualizing funny quotes from movies into everyday life and retaining their humor.

Subject loved books, being read to, and making [Subject]'s own books, including intricate, detailed drawings. "All of that, with the exception of that last item, is still true," Subject says [paraphrase]. Subject struggled to learn to play Subject's male parent's female parent's baby grand piano. "It's hard to do different things with each hand simultaneously," Subject reports [paraphrase]. "I have inherited this piano. I just have to figure out how to get it and me in the same geographical state in our respective single pieces." Subject took private saxophone lessons and marched in the high-school and college bands. Subject taught Subject's self the flute. Subject would go through distinct phases of interests—the Beatles, the Back to the Future series, dolphins—and would want to redo the entire decorating scheme of Subject's room and wardrobe to match her fixations. "When I love something, I fully commit," Subject says [paraphrase].

"The flip side is also true; when I hate something, I repel it" [paraphrase]. When prompted by The Examiner for examples, Subject provided: being interrupted, not completing [Subject]'s to-do list each day, and having schedules or plans change, particularly with little or no notice. Having no routine at all was and is intolerable. "Hugs seemed to be as well," Subject's female parent reported [direct quote]. "I would attempt to hug [Subject] and [Subject]'s eyes would go wide and [Subject]'s whole body would stiffen. Like [Subject] did when [Subject] felt a clothing tag on [Subject]'s skin or when the seams of [Subject]'s pants or socks weren't hitting the same place on [Subject]'s body every time."

"But I'm not uniformly overly sensitive," Subject says. "Taking tests always made me crazy. I could hear a failing light bulb buzzing like a crazy bee and I could hear all the pens writing, but I can't tell if there's too much garlic in my food. I can tell if there's too much ginger, but all beer tastes and smells the same to me. I'm overwhelmed by people talking at the same time, but it takes me so long to register that something's hot that, by the time I react, I've burned myself. I'm extremely sensitive to language and how words are used. I am not approximate in my use of language; I am exact and literal, and that's how I listen to others, which a friend recently pointed out was odd since I'm a poet" [paraphrase]. Subject turned Subject's gaze toward the window, perhaps in a continued effort to avoid The Examiner's eyes. "But then, 'odd' is the reason I'm here, isn't it" [paraphrase]. Subject answered this question by the way she asked it.

Where Subject's black-and-white tendency really gets Subject into trouble, Subject reports, is with people. "I made my first friend in kindergarten, before we each got our final sibling, and, though this friendship ended a few years ago, eight months before my wedding, I still miss it. I think of [redacted] every year on [redacted]'s birthday. I still have the meeting minutes from our Garth Brooks/Colorado Rockies/NSYNC club, which held regular meetings from 1994-2000 in either of our closets. [Redacted]'s entire house was so messy you couldn't see the floor, which turned my skin into stinging ants. I tried to help [redacted] clean once; I only got a corner of [redacted]'s room clean, but it was the most organized, sparkling-clean corner that house had ever seen" [paraphrase].

When Subject learned in kindergarten that not all children were going to like Subject or one another, Subject experienced notable emotional deregulation. Each time a friend would move away or a kid would decide not to play with Subject at recess, Subject would need iterative processing. "Subject was an emotional roller coaster as a child; at some point I simply had to get off," Subject's female parent stated [direct quote]. "Subject remember that day," Subject reports. "Subject had just discovered that trees could die. Subject was three and inconsolable. It was around that time Subject started having dreams where the world was being covered in oil and everything was trapped underneath it. Subject would wake up just before Subject suffocated" [paraphrase].

Subject's male parent stated, "Subject would bring home strays—animals, kids from single-parent homes or absent-parent homes—all the time" [paraphrase]. Subject explained that Subject did that because Subject knew what it was like not to fit in. "Could have been the weird behavior," Subject's female parent stated [direct quote]. "[Subject] would pretend to be an animal, mostly a dog. [Subject] was still doing this—at school—in 5th grade!" Subject's parents had no knowledge of whether Subject was teased at school for this, or bullied in general; Subject made no comments in the course of the interview or testing procedures that could be directly related to this.

Adolescence was rough, Subject's parents concurred. "For everyone involved" [direct quote]. Subject did well at school. "Not like top-ten-in-Subject's-class well," Subject states [paraphrase], "like top-ten-percent-well. Subject could never figure out how everyone else was so smart. And it was a big deal to be smart, not just in Subject's family, but to Subject's self, too. Subject still, over a decade after graduation, remembers Subject's class ranking because it wasn't high enough (29/707). Seemed like the only thing Subject had a chance at being good at" [paraphrase]. Subject participated in swim team in the winter, after marching band season was over. "[Subject] should have been born a fish," Subject's male parent said [direct quote]. "He means that Subject is graceful and beautiful in the water, not that Subject is competitive," Subject explained [paraphrase]. "Subject is not. Subject's not good enough to be and Subject has no spirit to be. Subject's not so competitive that Subject will rearrange important plans just so Subject doesn't have to say no to another friend's request to hang out and create too much of an inconvenience for the friend. Subject doesn't want to beat people. Subject just wants to be loved" [paraphrase].

Subject's difficulty came largely in interacting socially with peers and clashing repeatedly with Subject's parents, particularly Subject's female parent. "It was really hard," Subject's female parent reported [direct quote]. "Mainly," Subject explains, "because Dad would always defer to her on all things, as far as Subject could tell" [paraphrase]. Subject's childhood friend somehow managed to start fitting in with the popular crowd. "Yeah, no way Subject would be accepted there. Subject was ignored even among the band nerds. Not really bullied, but is being ignored and not sought after really any better? Especially when you've been doing a lot of searching and going after others," Subject states [paraphrase]. Subject's female parent reported continued struggles with emotional regulation—vacillating between withdrawal and outbursts of rage at perceived injustice. "Even when it didn't have to do with [Subject], [Subject] would get so angry. Like, at homelessness, or bad things on the news. It really confused me. We were trying our hardest to give [Subject] the skills to avoid these things that were so calamitous for [Subject] and [Subject] was repeatedly pulled under emotionally by rage and grief about them anyway," Subject's female parent stated [direct quote]. Subject reports that this has only increased.

Subject's parents both noticed increased signs of hypervigilance, "which I had been under the impression was not possible," Subject's male parent stated [direct quote, laughing], after the Columbine High School shootings of April 1999. Subject was a mile away in lockdown for eight hours. "This was before the ubiquity of cellphones, before Facebook, Twitter, all of that. We heard what Subject thought were gunshots—turned out to be one of the pipe bombs planted around the city as diversions for the police—but were told nothing about what was going on. My middle school's administration said it was 'to cut down on anxiety' but Subject thinks it's because no one knew what was going on until well into the next day" [paraphrase]. Subject talked at great length about the details of the shootings, most of which Subject did not learn until very recently because "no one talked about it. If you wanted to talk about Columbine, it's because you wanted to repeat it, not because you wanted to heal and process."

Subject distinctly remembers the shift Columbine caused. "Before 1999, every child was a gift from God to be molded by their parents in concert with His loving hands, prepared for a life of glorious, easy-to-find, fulfilling service to the world, which every kid would naturally attain if given the right doses of education, discipline, and carefully managed recreation time. After 1999, any kid could be a terrorist. No one else outside of Littleton calls it that, but those of us who were there know that it was a terrorist attack, and it worked. The suspicion adults suddenly viewed kids with seeped into how we viewed each other. The news kept repeating how 'if only their peers had reported suspicious behavior.' Then what? This whole thing could have been stopped? But they never specified what 'suspicious behavior' was, so now Subject's even more alienated from people because Subject doesn't want to be responsible for the next Columbine. Subject has already felt this huge distance from people, which seems to only grow bigger with each of Subject's attempts at sincerity and expressions of longing for connection, and now, any act could be abnormal" [paraphrase]. Examiner notes that it appears Columbine is one of Subject's fixations.

Current functioning: Subject lives in the apartment Subject rents with Subject's spouse, but is currently undergoing a separation, their second one in the three and a half years they've been married. Subject reports being too anxious, socially and in terms of performance, to finish [Subject]'s master’s degree program. Subject has completed one year. But dropping out, as well as marital toil, has made [Subject] depressed. "Subject doesn't fail to finish things," Subject states [paraphrase]. "Subject even finishes reading every word of books Subject doesn't like. Subject likes the act of reading. Or Subject did." Subject could not provide examples of presently enjoyable activities. "Subject just sits around and thinks all day and it's mostly useless. Except Subject did realize recently that all that 'paranoia' Subject exhibited after Columbine was not due to Columbine. Subject knows this because it was there before the shootings. Subject's hyper-vigilance about Subject's environment doesn't stem from OCD, either. It comes from the fact that Subject experiences the world as fast, loud, bright, hard, smelly, and sharp on sometimes traumatic levels. Imagine driving at 70 miles an hour with the windows down through a tunnel and you're being passed by semis left and right. That's a good approximation for how things like normal traffic, applause, toilets flushing and airplanes passing overhead sound to Subject. If you've ever worn a suit made of camel hair or sat on a cactus, you might understand how seams, tags, and clothes that don't fit right feel against Subject's skin. If you've ever had a migraine, you've experienced what walking into a grocery store with those infernal buzzing tubes of fluorescence look, sound, and feel like to me. If you've ever had searing tinnitus, you know what a phone ringing sounds like to me. Everyday life is a rapid-fire series of blazingly intense events that do not settle into an undifferentiated blur when you've got a nervous system turned up to maximum" [paraphrase].

Test conditions: All measures were conducted according to standardized administration protocols and best practices.

Subject is tall and of lean build. Subject appears Subject's stated age of [redacted]. Subject was oriented to time, date, location, and all other aspects of reality. Subject presented well-groomed and approximately fifteen minutes late for each session. Examiner's note: When asked to proofread this report for factual accuracy before completion, Subject left this among Subject's many comments: "This is probably true. Subject used to be on time everywhere and would have to wait at least ten minutes for anyone else to show up, so Subject started loosening up about time because Subject hates waiting. But, in the name of fair reportage, it should be included that The Examiner often arrived later than Subject for testing sessions. As for the 'many comments' comment made by The Examiner, in Subject's defense, it was requested that Subject proofread for factual accuracy, which Subject took to mean not only watching out for the overwhelmingly amount of incorrect facts and correcting them—like Subject's birthday, which was listed in the header on every page—but also supplying remedial grammar support where needed" [paraphrase]. Subject readily entered the testing environment and did not appear to The Examiner to make any efforts to describe Subject's self, behaviors, or thoughts in either a more positive or a more negative manner than the truth.

Test findings, results:

  • WAIS-IV (assesses cognitive ability): High-average range (Standard score, 117, 86th percentile).

    • Due to significant discrepancy in composite scores, the General Ability Index (GAI) was calculated for a more accurate overview of Subject's thinking and reasoning skills.

      • Overall GAI score: Superior range (Standard score 126, 96th percentile).

      • GAI Verbal Comprehension (verbal concept formation, verbal reasoning and knowledge acquired from one's environment): Very superior range (Standard score: 143, 99.8th percentile).

    • Short-term/working memory (immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing and mental control in holding and manipulating information): Average range (Standard score: 102, 55th percentile).

    • Perceptual reasoning abilities (perceptual and fluid reasoning, spatial processing, visual-motor integration, non-verbal reasoning): Average range (Standard score: 105, 63rd percentile).

    • Processing speed (mental quickness; ability to fluently and automatically perform rote cognitive tasks, especially under pressure): Average range (Standard score: 100, 50th percentile).

Subject seemed distressed upon The Examiner's reporting of scores. The examiner explained that research indicates that an uneven cognitive profile is commonly seen in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder; processing speed is often lower when compared to other tasks. In other words, The Examiner stated, Subject's results were normal and/or anticipated by the research.

    • PAI: Results indicate clinically significant levels of depression. Levels of suicidal ideation significantly elevated; Subject denied plans or means to end Subject's life. Subject experiences stress emotionally as well as somatically; physical relaxation is only possible to a point; Subject does not allow Subject's self to experience emotional relaxation until chores are done and to-do lists are completed (when asked by The Examiner how often this is, Subject replied, "hardly ever" [paraphrase].) High emotional responsivity overall. It is likely that, when this manifests in relation to events outside of Subject's control (global problems, social and environmental issues, etc.), it is likely that Subject's friends observe and possibly even comment on [Subject]'s over-concern regarding subjects over which Subject has no control.

    • TSI-2: Results indicate clinically significant levels of anxiety. Levels of suicidal ideation were significantly elevated; levels of suicidal behavior were within normal limits. Subject reports brief but intrusive bursts of anger over minor events, such as stubbing a toe or lightly knocking Subject's head. It is likely that Subject does not perceive these outbursts as being entirely under Subject's control. Subject indicated difficulty in forming personal thoughts and opinions, especially when in a group, that go against consensus. It is likely that Subject lacks self-knowledge and struggles to think for Subject's self.

    • BRIEF: Moderately impaired range, as self-reported and reported by Subject's spouse. This result is strongest in Subject's ability to be flexible. It is likely that Subject's excessive attention to detail inhibits Subject's ability to multitask as well as think creatively and quickly when problem-solving, especially in a social setting.

    • ACS Social Perception: Low range overall. Results indicate inability to interpret speech in any other way but literal (i.e., Subject will experience high levels of stress and confusion when what a person expresses verbally does not line up with the person’s behaviors and actions). It is likely that Subject experiences high levels of social isolation.

      • Prosody/interacting pairs of people: Extremely low range. Subject did not score better than chance when asked to identify an emotion based on a black-and-white photo of a person's eyes when given four choices.

    • ADOS: Subject demonstrated above-average vocabulary and a stark lack of stereotyped language. It could be said that one of Subject's "fixations" is language. ("Nature, too, maybe,” Subject said [paraphrase], "but not like being in it. Subject just wants people to stop wantonly screwing it up.") Subject in general answered questions with an avalanche of detail. "Subject doesn't know what details are relevant and what aren't in order to answer questions, so Subject just states anything Subject thinks could be helpful. Subject doesn't want to seem rude or evasive, like Subject is not trying to answer questions. Subject just doesn't know the rules, which is stressful, because rules are Subject's only concrete guideline. Subject feels like Subject talks too much and then, inevitably, Subject will get a vulnerability hangover and also be perceived as rude anyway" [paraphrase]. Subject appeared socially motivated and responded to social bids from The Examiner; however, Subject displayed difficulty initiating social contact. "You just don't ask adults questions. What if you come off as rude or nosy? That monkey in the children's story? Curious George? Didn't he get into all kinds of trouble that really bawled his handler out? But Subject would ask those deep, uncomfortable questions. Small talk is a lot of effort with very little pay-off for Subject" [paraphrase]. Subject averted eyes the majority of the time and did not regulate social interaction with much detectable body language or gestures. Subject's barrage of details significantly abated during the discussion of emotional perception in others and Subject's self. The only direct quote worth noting: "Subject is suspicious of happiness. Subject doesn't know if Subject trusts it. It seems invalidating anyway; the world is in such great and unflappable pain" [paraphrase]. Subject described fear as being on a hamster wheel, and indicated its presence before making a phone call (to anyone), when thinking about close relationships (Subject fears rejection and abandonment because of real and perceived differences in functioning and understanding; Subject is socially motivated enough to feel social pain even though Subject's ADOS score does indicate the presence of an autism spectrum disorder) and when thinking about the future.

Testing; summary: Subject's developmental history gained through collateral contact with informants (Subject's parents and Subject's spouse) together with Subject's test scores suggest a diagnosis within the autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Subject is an extremely bright, socially-motivated individual with a scattered cognitive profile, including a strikingly high score in the verbal comprehension area. Research indicates that many people with ASD maybe also have a "superpower." Language/verbal comprehension may be Subject's. Uneven cognitive profiles usually involve a combination of intact rote processes and impaired capacity for abstract or hypothetical thought as well as a markedly decreased ability to empathize with others and, relatedly, a disability in Theory of Mind (ToM), or the recognition that others have distinct inner lives and thoughts. Subject struggles with detecting and interpreting more nuanced interpersonal behavior and likely puts strain on personal relationships with Subject's consistent, direct and abundantly detailed communication.

Testing; diagnosis (from the DSM-IV):

  • Axis 1: 299.80 Asperger's Syndrome.
    • R/O 309.81 Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
    • R/O 296.33 Major Depressive Disorder.
  • Axis 2: No diagnosis.
  • Axis 3: Scoliosis (as indicated by Subject's verbally conveyed history).
  • Axis 4: Interpersonal stressors, trauma.
  • Axis 5: GAF - 51 (current).

Recommendations: Subject should be allowed an individualized education plan, which includes alternative assignments to group projects, being allowed to take exams in solitude, being given extra time for exams, being allowed to audiotape all lectures for future review, and being given as much advanced notice of syllabus, quizzes and any changes in plans as possible.

Subject will be greatly helped by identifying triggers, signs, and coping strategies for varying states of emotional arousal. Passive coping strategies (how to calm down), as well as active coping strategies (how to solve problems), are recommended. Different strategies are often needed for different types and levels of agitation. It is important to understand that emotional states have physical correlates for human beings; Subject would do well to become more aware of and grounded in Subject's body.

In order to address symptoms consistent with PTSD, depression, and anxiety, Subject would benefit from work with a warm, direct, and emotionally supportive therapist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders. To refocus away from larger issues over which Subject has no control and back onto personal issue, Subject requires evidence-based treatment modalities, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Additionally, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has been shown in trials to be especially effective at dealing with feelings of sadness, emotional overwhelm, and deregulation. Referrals can be found on Psychology Today, or The Examiner is happy to be contacted for recommended clinicians. Subject will likely also benefit from social skills classes to help bring Subject's behavior more in alignment with peers to help ease social anxiety and tension in service of relieving isolation and establishing longed-for connections. Referrals to such groups can be found on Psychology Today, or The Examiner is happy to provide references.

Moving forward with a diagnosis of ASD as an adult can prove challenging. Subject and Subject's spouse are encouraged to contact the local university for family support resources, as well as The Families of Adults Affected by Asperger's website. Subject is a kind, extremely bright individual who values loyalty and honesty and has much to offer and many strengths upon which to build. It was a pleasure for this examiner to work with Subject; The Examiner can be reached at [redacted]. Should new information come to the attention of The Examiner, The Examiner reserves the right to modify the opinions stated in this report, including [redacted].

 

about the author

m.nicole.r.wildhood's work has appeared in The Atlantic, America Magazine and elsewhere; her first chapbook, Long Division, is forthcoming this fall from Finishing Line Press. She currently writes for Seattle's street newspaper Real Change and longs for authentic, bridge-building conversation that moves people toward action on behalf of those stuck in poverty, isolation or struggling with mental and emotional distress.

Inhuman Empathy

When I googled “human empathy”, one of the first results was from Psychology Today—“Human Empathy: an Essential Component for Human Society”. Have you ever let yourself feel the hatred in the world, it asks? Turned off all the noise, gone to a quiet place, and contemplated how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate?


People generally give two different definitions of “empathy”. Cognitive empathy is the ability to deduce what others are thinking, to know their mental state, to understand their perspective and thought processes. Affective empathy, or emotional empathy, is about feeling what other people feel. Emotional contagion. An infection, apparently, that is—that must be—a part of the human condition.

Immunity is unthinkable. Immunity is monstrous.


The steps that autistic and other neurodivergent activism takes towards the understanding and acceptance of different experiences of empathy are too often hampered by our feet, tangled in threads of respectability. We feel the need to insist that, whatever difference or deficit may exist in our cognitive empathy abilities, our affective ability remains collectively intact, normal, normative—or that it exceeds normativity, spilling over with emotional contagion. We might not understand what you’re thinking, you see, and that’s alright, because we all feel what you feel. We feel it to excess. We drip with humanity.

When personal experience becomes harmfully generalised—when our aim is to reassure rather than to disrupt, to widen the cracks humanity can slip through with tools rather than breaking down its barriers with sledgehammers—we leave people stuck outside, abandoning them to the realm of the monstrous.


I had to ask a friend—also autistic—to explain how, in their own terms, it feels to experience affective empathy. They described joy when friends are happy, sadness when friends are struggling: “as though it's happened to me, though the feelings are much less strong”. They might not be able to understand or translate others’ emotional state into words, but they can share it nonetheless.

Many autistic people do experience affective empathy to what we might term “normative degrees”. Many autistic people struggle with an excess of affective empathy, white blood cells struggling to fight off the emotional contagion of an entire planet of hurt. Many autistic people, like me, can say we feel glad or sympathetic when a friend tells us they’re happy or sad, but cannot understand or locate this “feeling” on the same emotional level as our own happiness or sadness. Many autistic people can flip through these different states at will, switching on and off those that are helpful or harmful in context; many, instead, career from one extreme to another without willful control.

These are categories of being that I have picked out of a swirling mess and made discrete, in an attempt to name and describe something I find unnameable, as difficult for me to grasp as the concept of going to a quiet place and letting myself feel all the hatred in the world—whatever that means.


I’ve barely begun to unpack the shame tied up in admitting I don’t know what it means to experience emotions for someone other than myself. Traditional narratives of empathy, compassion, kindness, goodness—they add up and multiply in my head to tell me that what I’m (not) feeling makes me a monster.

But compassion and kindness are not passive traits. They are active choices. I could be doing more—we could all be doing more—, but when my friends and communities help me see myself honestly, flaws and strengths, I am validated in the fact that I do support and fight for people, regardless of whether or not I can cry for them. Emotional responses and practical responses aren’t so disconnected for everyone; my friend said their affective empathy is a big driver of their compassion, whereas for me it’s about a purely objective sense of justice, and the knowledge—rather than the emotional urge—that it’s my responsibility to make things better for others wherever I can. Neither of these drivers is inherently better or worse.


Simon Baron-Cohen, a man known by pretty much all autistics and (at least in my circles) hated by most, responded to the recent UK terror attacks with a tweet that, whilst ostensibly sympathetic, essentially served as a plug for his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy. According to his own definitions of autism, Baron-Cohen, as an allistic (a non-autistic person), has a greater propensity for both cognitive and affective empathy than I do. I don’t doubt this—I’d imagine it takes a specific understanding of others’ mental state to manipulate a tragic situation into a self-promotion opportunity. Baron-Cohen is a prime example of the difference between empathetic emotions and compassionate actions, and his book—which explains violence as simply the result of a cognitive deficit in empathy—is a prime example of his ignorance with regards to that difference.

Baron-Cohen’s theories of autism, moreover, centre around the idea of the “extreme male brain”. There are many, many more problems with this theory than I have the space, energy, or knowledge to elaborate on, but its relation to theorizing empathy reinforces the deeply ingrained (and deeply misogynistic) societal expectation that a) women are natural empathizers and men are not, and b) this means that emotional labour, caring responsibilities, etc., must fall to women. Baron-Cohen is one in a sea of voices exempting men from the responsibility to act compassionately—regardless of how much empathy they experience, and what kind.


I stayed awake the night of June 8th, watching the UK election results map turn blue bit by bit. I tried, without getting very far, to trace a mental genealogy of the factors that guide the empathy of conservative voters in certain directions and not in others. I wondered why someone would feel the need to turn off all the noise and contemplate how many people hate other people and the ways they express that hate when instead they could turn on the news, or better—given who the news represents and who it forgets—, make a commitment to not only use other channels to listen to and learn from, but also take action for those in need of solidarity against societies and governments that (whatever the cognitive makeup of the individuals within them) collectively show neither empathy nor compassion towards marginalised people.

I saw the 18-25 age demographic turn out at record highs to vote, overwhelmingly, for a party that—whilst obviously imperfect—gives me as much optimism for steps towards systemic compassion as I could dare to hope for within the existing system.

When a hung parliament was announced, I went to sleep.

 

About the Author

EMRYS TRAVIS is a disabled writer and activist trying to queer a degree in Modern & Medieval Languages at the University of Camridge as much as is possibile. They also write with the Italian feminist collective F Come and work with the UK organisation Action for Trans Health.

On Chronic Pain: A Little Theory, A Lot of Magic

I cannot run. Well, I can run, but I am not supposed to. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a hip impingement—a degeneration of joint tissue in my right hip. The orthopedic surgeon held up the X-ray and pointed to a very small spot where the cartilage had been worn away. It could have been genetic, he said, it could have been doing too many splits and grand jetés in ballet. The cause was unknowable. The pain of the impingement was something I would have for the rest of my life, he said. Nothing to be done, he said, but I should stop running, should take up swimming, biking, walking instead—anything that would not be too hard on my joints.

I was never much a runner to begin with, but the reality of never being able to run a marathon in my life, even if I wanted to—to have this option closed off to me forever made me despondent. When I returned home from the orthopedic center, I fell apart in our family kitchen. In front of my father and sisters, I just cried, repeating: "Why? Why? Why?" Why was I given such a body? I hated it for its inadequacy, its stings and throbs, how it prevented me from being fully alive like other people.

To embrace the magic of my body, its particular quirks and conditions—the impingement, the ensuing tendonitis, and then eventually the dermatillomania and vaginismus and anxiety—to see this body as something to celebrate was and is complicated. There are moments when I feel utterly monstrous and grotesque—even if it does not appear that way, with my bright lipstick and cute dresses. When I asked friends for any theory out there on the grotesque body, I was directed to the philosophy of Mikhail Bahktin. I am not much of a theory person. Truthfully, I often find theory dense and difficult to follow. However, reading Bahtkin's thoughts on the grotesque creatures of folklore in his essay "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources" helped me to embrace my body as a possible site of magic.  

According to Bahktin, the grotesque body "is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body" from the parts of animals, inanimate objects, transgressing the boundaries between the inner body and the world. This can be seen, Bahktin argues, in fairy tales, myth, and folklore, in the representation of "extraordinary human beings," beings with "a fanciful anatomy": half-human, half-animal creatures, like sirens, satyrs, centaurs, elves, sprites, and giants. 

This idea—that having irregular, unusual, "not-normal" bodies could share this affinity with transformation and magic—was empowering to me. The strange, enchanting beings that populated my imagination as a girl—the fairies, unicorns, mermaids—could suddenly be held as emblems of existing with disability, conditions, irregularities. My body has felt deviant and humiliating at times, something to keep hidden and to myself. But returning to fairy tales repositioned my thinking—it helped and still helps me to reclaim my pain as, perhaps, magical.

It is striking to me, on reflection, how often bodies morph, meld, become changed and irregular in fairy tales. Bodily transformation is crucial to the protagonists in a majority of fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen: Thumbelina is born the size of a thumb and later grows wings to become a fairy; princes live as frogs or swans or beasts; the Little Mermaid loses her fishtail and grows feet, which cause her pain like sharp knives. These transformations are depicted at times as mystical and, at other times, deeply agonizing. I found reassurance even in the anguish of these stories, maybe because my own bodily changes—those of injury, aging, genetics—are painful. Fairy tales acknowledge this pain through the modes of spells, witchcraft, enchantment—a framework that excites me, as it allows me to see the possibilities in my conditions, to see them even as heroic.

Johanna Hedva's "Sick Woman Theory" thoroughly discusses this desire to reclaim "traditionally anti-heroic qualities—namely illness, idleness, and inaction" as heroic. I find so much courage and encouragement in Hedva's writing, especially when she states: "Sick Woman Theory is for those who are faced with their vulnerability and unbearable fragility, every day, and so have to fight for their experience to be not only honored, but first made visible." To me, Sick Woman Theory is inherently entwined with the bodily transformations and folkloric creatures of fairy tales. If we see heroism in facing our vulnerabilities, if we see the possibility of magic in our conditions, there is power in recognizing our abilities and disabilities as sites for beauty, strength, and resilience.

On particularly painful days, I still tend to ask myself (and the universe): "Why?" However, I am trying to bring a whimsy and imagination to my body. I visualize myself as this sparkling creature-princess with glitter and orthotic shoes and prozac pills, an image of myself as an extraordinary human confronting daily pain, a pain worthy of telling.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

EMILY CORWIN is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Day One, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks, My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press) and darkling (Platypus Press) which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling is forthcoming in 2018 from Stalking Horse Press. You can follow her online at @exitlessblue.

 

Works Cited

Bachtin, Mikhail. "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources." Trans. Helene Iswolksy. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. Electronic.

Hedva, Johanna. "Sick Woman Theory." Mask Magazine. Mask Media, Jan. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.

reclaiming my disability

news flash: you don't have a say in my identity.

humanity is made up of a plethora of diverse & complex cultures, complete with different & generally enriching viewpoints—but still, the norm is this universal society where the majority of people are fully abled & being anything short of that is considered pitiful, or worse, taboo. being impaired, whether it be physically &/or mentally, is heavily stigmatized, to the point where it seems absurd that people would want to embrace that part of their identity & be called disabled. yet there seems to be an increasing trend—for want of a better word—of people wanting to & even yearning to accept their limitations—even (& perhaps especially) when society says no.

a big part of this seemingly newfound grasp at individuality seems to be the rise of all these ‘acceptance’ campaigns—being at peace with who you are—whether it be queer, fat, disabled—&, of course, these are great! everyone should feel comfortable in their own skin, regardless of whether it’s scarred or dark. however, another—barely acknowledged—part is the increase in diagnoses of ‘invisible illnesses’—which result in you looking healthy whilst your own self is working to tearing you apart.

this label neatly categorises mental illnesses. a nod to the canon; a disgruntled glance to all the demons, sharp-toothed & blood-soaked, clouding & enshrouding your judgement. however, there seems to be an unwritten rule that physical disabilities must come with the full wheelchair & lucy, stop staring at that person! package (hushed whisper comes free if you also order a disability pass card!) & that's just not true! whilst people unfortunately discriminate & oppress the disabled, disability itself does not discriminate: it can be part of you, despite the fact that you can walk or talk like abled people.

let me elaborate: it is mainly autoimmune disorders that are met with the but you don't look sick! exclamation, accompanied by an encouraging smile—but, of course, i can only speak of my own experience. whilst such a comment may seem complimentary, it really isn't. it undermines the sheer effort required for me to turn up to & interact in social spaces. it makes things awkward when i have a flare-up, when my legs decide to randomly give way. it makes me seem pretentious for publicly taking medication. it makes me question the decision of sitting in disabled spaces on public transport, because my condition(s) mean i can't actually drive, even though i may struggle to walk, & despite the fact that i'm partially sighted, being blind in one eye. it makes me think that because i can manage with just glasses, this means i'm not ‘disabled enough’. 

because, as we all know, disability is some sort of competition, where mobility scooters & reduced/free treatment costs give you bonus points, as well as all the condescending smiles & nods! 

i’m aware that, although most disabled folks don't have the same conditions as me, they certainly do have the same challenges—trying to navigate their illness(es) in a place where you are judged hugely by outward appearances. the fact that i feel the need to push myself past my physical/mental capacities in order to adhere to societal expectations is beyond stupid, & yet the world has normalised the concept that there is a certain way to be disabled or that all disabilities look the same.

it seems my countless hospital appointments, numerous medication charts, & fatigued muscles mean nothing if i don't have a mobility aid or a companion who is given all the heroic glances & the oh, it must be so hard! comments (because, of course, it's not hard being disabled—but that's a can of worms for another day). clearly my cough/breathing assistance machine is arbitrary if it is not constantly attached to me.

i am tired. probably because of my illness—which hinders my ability to do most things & therefore renders me disabled (in case you didn't get the memo)—but also because of the pressures forced on me (& others like me) to be forced into this continuous identity crisis—well, i can't do everyday, ‘normal’ tasks, so i must be disabled, but, well, but i don't look disabled enough!

clearly, society needs to change its viewpoint. don't worry, you don't have to look so uncomfortable—i want to be called disabled! please acknowledge the fact that you recognise my limitations, validate my struggles & illnesses—but, at the same time, don't just see me as my disability. i may have weaknesses surplus to the general population, but if i can walk generally unaided, despite my condition, then i can do so much more! i am a warrior, a monster, beautiful & dismantled & wistful & disabled: this is me, & i fight to reclaim myself. only i can do that. not you, not when you've never had to be rushed to a&e, thinking you're not going to survive; not when you don't have to take numerous medications daily. not when you think disability is a synonym for inferiority. 

i accept i am disabled & you should too. i am disabled despite what you think & in spite of a heavily ableist worldview. i am disabled & i reclaim my disability—not to aggravate you, but so i can learn to be at peace with who i am.

i, a mess of shaking hands & side effects, know that recovery for me is but a dream, but at least i can recover my identity. again, i reinstate: i am wistful & disabled. 

& only i get to decide that.

"Fledgling," "Wild Seed," and Bodies That Resist

In her introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015), Co-Editor Walidah Imarisha writes, “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is speculative fiction.” Imarisha goes on to envision forms of organizing which, like Octavia E. Butler's science fiction writings, can “claim the vast space of possibility … birthing visionary stories.” She notes, in a succinct yet expansive passage, the way that Butler’s fiction “explored the intersection of identity and imagination, the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, love, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance, and—most important—hope. #BecauseofOctavia we can see that the resistances imagined in Butler’s fiction are complex, poised through and against many hierarchies at once.

This short essay will seek to examine two of Butler’s novels in light of their reimagined depiction of what has classically viewed as the “monstrous,” reimagined as bodies that resist—materially, interpretively, categorically: her novel with the shapeshifter Anwanyu at its heart, Wild Seed, and her perhaps lesser-known final vampire novel, Fledgling, with the vampire, Shori, as its symbiotic nerve center.

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