Reviewed by Nikki Darling
The stars whose jangled nerves led to private mental homes, such as Clara Bow and Buster Keaton, made less noise in falling than those who wrote their own way out.
—Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon
Mental illness exists in writers. David Foster Wallace killed himself.
What is this desire to be outside of your own head? What is this need to express? Are you a liar too?
In 2006 after a decade of drug and alcohol abuse I walked into my roommates bedroom in our Brooklyn apartment and calmly announced that I had been hacking at my arm with a watermelon knife. Sitting on my bed, repeating the words “I can’t trust you!” the knife coming toward my exposed wrist at full speed. Then there was a moment, which I will for lack of a better word describe as “clarity.” If anything it was a crack, a small glimmer of rationality in the middle of an insane act. I set down the knife, realized that I was being dramatic—I don’t use that word here flippantly—and tried as best as I could to assess the situation and put myself in the hands of someone more capable, to surrender: to confess. I walked down the hallway, gently pushed open Heather’s door and her big blue eyes looked up from her graduate master’s of social work homework.
By the end of that year, I had finished a stint in a posh Pennsylvania rehab, been diagnosed as bi-polar, attended weekly, out-patient therapy, was swallowing a daily cocktail of Depakote, Lithium, and Ambian while working my way through the Twelve Steps and Traditions. Slowly things began to settle into a hum of consistency, a low-frequency drone that was neither painful nor mild, but rather, regular, and aware always that is was being motorized by an almost silent whir.
I was 26.
When asked what it’s like to be bi-polar, I must first explain that there is a “spectrum” mania/depression, extended mania, et cetera. It comes in different combos and intensities; or, in layman terms, people who are bi-polar sometimes go a little crazy.
Once that has been explained I reveal which kind I am. Yet still people want to know, how does it feel? It feels like my mind is a swing that tosses wildly in a great wind, but once the wind has left and the sky calm again, my mind is still moving. It cannot stop on it’s own.
I also like to say that it’s like having herpes, you can go years without an outbreak but when you have one, you need to be careful, romance-wise.
In undergrad I studied Greek mythology, Lacan and Jung whenever I got the chance. My mind had always interested me, simply because I was often confused by it, a thing both of me and separate. I’d had a nagging feeling since childhood that I was different. Incredibly empathetic, I was able it seemed to almost read other’s emotions, prickly cold rain on my skin; my limbs hurt like I had the flu, when watching a dirty child in my kindergarten eat moldy bread and a box of raisins, soft green bruises around his arms. I had an almost telepathic relationship with animals. I was obsessive compulsive and bit the inside of my cheek raw and couldn’t stop tugging at the front of my crouch, I rubbed my left big toe against its neighbor until it stung but I could not stop. I would lie awake at night, making up elaborate stories in my head that would last for weeks, intricate narratives with ornate worlds. I would whisper to myself, spelling words with my fingertip, the pale crest of my hand caught in a beam of moonlight, cut through by the shadow of a branch. I had created another world entirely in my head and lived daytime as if it were just a trial in order to return to my real life, the one I had invented.
The flip side was that I was incredibly narcissistic, unable to think of anything except my own neurosis, or what I understood of it as a child. Other people were so painful to me that I pushed away. The world was a place filled with sadness and loneliness and I could not carry it any longer. I was crippling insecure and afraid of everything. Being left alone, separated from adults, I lived in constant fear of being kidnapped and would have panic attacks when my mother walked inside the gas station, leaving me to wait in the car. Yet I was also terrified of adults, being hit or yelled at. Before I was left alone and made a latchkey kid, I lived in a house of rage. My teenage sister was verbally abused (as I would later be) and doors were always slamming, my parents often split apart for months on end and my father would take off for Los Angeles, where he was from, leaving us in Carmichael by the river. Until he left for good.
None of this family chaos made me bi-polar but it was a recipe for unhealthy coping mechanisms that bloomed like fungus on a scuzzy plate.
Every day I try to wipe my brain clean.
The soft yellow light cut through an open window above the agent’s frizzy head. Thick waxy magnolia leaves, their deep jungle green and creamy veins fluttered against an afternoon breeze from high atop branches that canopied the house. The bungalow was run down, the edges beige, peeling paint, an old heavy metal floor heater had been covered with a silver tasseled scarf, long white candles and purple crystals rested atop.
Around the small office, which was once a living room, were stapled headshots of children. The boy who got the Fruit Loops commercial, the red headed girl who played somebody’s neighbor. Mostly though they were kids you’d never seen before and never would. I often wonder where they are. If they remember when they were black and white freckles and Swatches, curled bangs and braces, on those plaster walls. Outside was Hollywood Blvd. There was a gray cat lounged against the torn screen door. Orange and brown leaves scattered across the porch. My headshots, my own clichéd pile of hopes and dreams, resting in my mother’s lap.
“So what have you done?” she asked, looking at my photo, she pulled a drag from her cigarette and blew it sideways out of her mouth, turning my headshot slightly. She set it down and looked at me.
“You’re tall. How old are you?”
“Ten.” I repeated, looking at my mother.
She stubbed out the cigarette and continued to size me up. “You work the airport banquets?”
“Yes. I’ve done LAX.”
“And no one’s signed you?”
“No, that’s why were here.” Offered my mom.
“Hmm,” she licked her finger and picked me up again. She flipped the back over and read my resume. I was smiling at myself. I swallowed and imagined how it would feel to be on the wall.
I was introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger by one of my first two roommates, Michelle Matson, who I’d found on Craigslist in 2002. I was new to New York and new to academia. I’d left a DUI, a cocaine addiction—parlayed into alcoholism—and a job as an assistant music editor at a skateboard magazine in Los Angeles to try my hand at college, before the chance passed me by. I was twenty-two and already feeling ancient in my skin. In my 2007 LA Record column Live From New York, I described those early days in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as a time I “face-fucked” bowls of Stove Top stuffing and peed in the community walk-in closet while in a black-out.
Michelle was an art student in Manhattan at SVA, and was enrolled in a video art class. We’d watched Stan Brakhage impregnate wives then artify their labor, Judy Chicago light colored flairs in Valencia, their smoky tails dragging across dusty canyons, thick streams of rainbowed ribbon evaporating as they rose above the freeways.
I was never officially invited to watch Michelle’s film homework with her, but she was friendly and happy to share the living room couch as I was most likely on it already, either watching Freddy Krueger come at Johnny Depp, or Valley Girl for the thousandth time. It was nice to feel comfortable and I was grateful to be accepted, even in the living room of my own loft.
Then on one such weekday I was in my “nest” – how I affectionately referred to my room, a scrapped together enclave in the open loft that other people in our building called “cages” or “cribs”—when I heard her push a VHS into the VCR. I set down the copy of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, I was reading for class, peeked out of my particleboard window, and took a swig of the Corona I was nursing. Michelle had some school friends over, they were always crazy-looking, wild-haired, smart and they intimidated the shit out of me. Back in LA I’d felt like a rock star, but that kind of drug cache held no merit here. Here philosophy was currency, not how many professional skateboarders you could fuck. I was vaguely aware that people felt sorry for me in my new life, that somehow I was pedestrian and eager in ways that were embarrassing.
“Hi!” I called. They looked up.
“Oh, hey,” smiled Michelle, “we’re about to watch Kenneth Anger. Come out.”
And so I did.
My ego depends heavily on the traffic of my words. I don’t care about getting paid, I care about good writing, having you read me making it, then love me, think I’m brilliant, anthologize me, give me an agent, a book deal, 5 Under 35 or 20 under 40, or whatever numerical recipe for success. Young, sexy, moneyed, cool success with tenure and residences and three-month paid summer vacations and a nice fixer-upper in Cypress Park. Give me my fucking health insurance, mang. The kind of success my professional skateboarder, heroin-addicted ex-boyfriend had at 23, sitting on his overstuffed leather couch shooting up and watching his most famous skate scene on repeat, a pale body withering beneath him while he glowed brown and beautiful onscreen, sinewy muscles glossy in the sun. It was as if he was in the TV, reliving it, while around him spread the dirty black spotted carpet and the moisture of weed and burnt tin foil and Altoid boxes smeared with the sour smell of crack, where I smoked P Dogs and put on make-up compulsively in front of a long smudgy mirror that leaned against the wall, my knees folded behind me while I rubbed spit around my eyes to remove old eye liner, did not exist. Peach foundation smeared across my hands, fingertips like old Band-Aids, Dianetics on tape playing in the background, onscreen he lifted the board off the rail and nose blunt.
Seize your power repent.
Last October, a friend committed suicide. I don’t have much to say about it because there isn’t much to say. We both wrote theses about women who killed themselves in the public eye. She was brilliant and better than what she got. I miss her.
The wind was picking up.
Shortly after I found myself pulled into an epistolary romance with another brilliant mind, a young Southern poet known for many things except being Southern. In fact, the riddle of his work was that he was unknown. He is a specter on the page. Still he made himself sweet tea and had memories of running through cotton fields as a child. I devoured his work and we had mental intercourse on a daily basis, the only love that can truly salve a neurotic core. He’d had a nervous breakdown and left the world, gone into hiding, erased all traces of his social-media life that had been self, planted. He disappeared in a cloud of critical praise, ironic since his work is universally misread and much smarter than he’s given credit for.
He too was suffering. Anxiety and the weight of an unquiet mind, one that will not shut off for all the prayer on God’s green earth, had worn him down. He’d become a prisoner of his creative projection. He is an incredible writer, one who hid in the persona of his work and took refuge in anonymity. He asked if I was willing to sacrifice myself for success. Was it worth it to have everyone read you and think they knew you or have no one read you and be truly known by those who loved you for who you were?
I want everyone. I want to touch everything. I want to eat the world with my eyes closed. The spoils are what I’m after. You are too tenderhearted, I wanted to respond, but instead I flew the plane into the ground and ended it the only way I knew how: by being just crazy enough to know he’d never return.
The wind was now a roar.
Pushing our thumbs into bruises was the only normal that we knew. It was impossible to be quiet. The only release was with these words, bleeding like open cuts from our fingertips. I couldn’t pull him off the page and risk heartbreak. I couldn’t afford to spiral and so of course I did. I do.
I never envisioned myself a type of writer like Cat Marnell, whose work I respect and admire, pushing stories of drug fueled nights, a glam-rag confessor. I saw in my soul a writer who felt a desire to prove her intelligence, to write the critiques and quote the philosophers and show that I knew my critic stuffs, that I had something else to say, politically or socially about human injustice, but perhaps the joke is on me. It appears I am the joke.
I had a room, with all the things I had ever loved inside. There was a wooden window frame, two of them, the turquoise paint peeling, that I’d found on the street in Bushwick in 2003. I’d hung a map of California inside one of them and looked at it every day.
I was happy. I went to the 2004 Whitney Biennial and watched Kenneth Anger’s dancing Mickeys, stared at Dash Snow’s yellowed news paper clippings, contemplated Dan Colen’s spray painted rock. It made me want to kiss under a bridge. I ate pizza alone and watched cabs glide up snowy dirty streets, dogs and people shoving their way through life across slippery sidewalks. There was a Victorian coffee table stacked with books, including a rare copy of another book, written by a prophet.
What happens when the deviant culture becomes the dominant? Where will we go when we’ve plucked the wings off the flying creatures come to bring us to our knees? We walk across the shells of their bodies, of course. Their exoskeleton frames so many bones on Black Friday. We wait, baited breath for the door to open, so we can push through, closer to the howling thing.
On top of the dusty stack, below the frame, inside the book, and following a photograph of D.W Griffith’s film Intolerance, there was a quote: Every Man and every Woman is A Star! Paint your face and repeat the words.
The mind is cosmos, shining more brightly in the dark.
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Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon, (Associated Professional Services, 1965 and Straight Arrow Books, 1975)
Images/Video: Cover of Hollywood Babylon; Pixies, Gouge Away, 1990; and clip of Elizabeth Taylor from Driver’s Secret, 1974