Please let me save my life

Content warning: child abuse, suicidal ideation, death of a beloved pet from old age. If reading about these things could be triggering, please take care of yourself in whatever way is best for you.

When I first started taking interview requests about Georgia Tech’s plans for fall, I thought I could preserve a shred of my privacy by not naming my disability. Not naming it in the press, that is—I’ve been open about it for years to friends, some coworkers, and even a small-readership web magazine or two. 

After all, I had submitted my letter from a healthcare provider to my boss, as we’d been told to do in May. Even that letter didn’t name it; on the Friday I finally got it submitted, we were still under the impression that, as contingent postdocs with heavy teaching loads, we would be sheltered from some of Georgia Tech’s more outlandish expectations. 

And now that I’ve appeared in two major news sources for my field, held up as an example of a “disabled” person—now it turns out that the last shred of privacy to which I was clinging has been ripped away from me. Georgia Tech’s Human Resources is indeed demanding excessive medical documentation, demanding that I, and my coworkers and colleagues across the state, outline in very specific language for them “what physical or mental impairment [you have] been diagnosed with by your physician(s) that require ADA accommodations.” (And yes, I realize that this is standard ADA accommodation procedure; but I will also point out that other schools are letting faculty choose whether or not they teach in person this fall, no documentation required.)

So if Georgia Tech won’t let me have my privacy, I’m sure as hell going to control the narrative around my disclosure.

I’ve been troublesome since I was a child, and no amount of adulthood will temper it. Before grad school, I was fired by a law firm for “insubordination”; in the introduction to my dissertation, I call myself “obstinate.” I own it. It’s what keeps me going.

I’ve been troubled since I was a child, too. It’s what 16 years of abuse, 19 more years of stalking, and a lifetime of running away from both will do to a person.

I don’t share those things for sympathy; I share them so that, when I say that my disability takes the form of chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with co-morbid anxiety and clinical depression, you’ll understand what the trauma was and why it, in the words of the ADA, “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

I’ve written elsewhere about my struggles with chronic pain, and how medication finally gave me some reprieve. I’ve written elsewhere, too, about some of the therapeutic treatment I’ve undergone in an attempt to live a normal life. But I’ve been too scared, as of yet, to be fully honest about how bad the anxiety and depression can get, about how hopeless they can make me feel, about how I’ve sometimes begged myself to make it stop.

A little over a year ago, I stopped taking my medication. I was struggling to figure out my healthcare, having bounced from grad student insurance to my partner’s insurance to my own. You’d think finally getting a full-time job with benefits would have made treatment easier; but the American health insurance system made it so overwhelming to try and figure out how to see a psychiatrist and what I would have to pay that I gave up.

I went off my meds because I couldn’t get them refilled, and at the time I thought maybe this isn’t as bad as I remember. Instead, it was much, much worse. I spent last summer and fall trying desperately to hold myself together, to stop my violent mood swings, to quit wanting to die. I never had a plan but I had an aching, world-swallowing desire: to simply stop being alive. I would cry and bang my head against the wall and wish and wish and wish that I could just, suddenly, be dead.

I’m better now. My breaking point was the death of my 11-year-old terrier/cattledog mix, the puppy boy who’d been with me for over a decade and forced my ass out of bed every single day, no matter how badly I wanted to become nothingness. I gambled on my insurance and got lucky, got back on medication, got stable. It sounds easy but it was not.

But “better” is not good. Last month, I didn’t sleep through a single night. The nightmares and 4 am panic attacks that defined my twenties recurred with a vengeance. The chronic pain too, now spiked with the maddening sensation of electric sparks along the nerves of my face. That’s my body threatening to have another shingles outbreak, because the PTSD and the anxiety and the depression all fuck with my immune system. And, maybe worst of all, the hopeless sinking sensation that sweeps my chest and compresses my lungs every time I think about the dangers––for anyone, for all of us––of being in the classroom this fall, with coronavirus still ravaging our communities.

There’s an especially bitter irony in how I’m spending this summer––pleading for my own life––when a year ago I wanted so badly to give it up. But it’s not just my life; it’s the lives of my students, my coworkers, my friends, my neighbors, the strangers I ride the bus with, their coworkers, their families, their friends.

Please let us stay home this fall. Please. Please, let me save my life. Let us all save our lives, and each other’s too.

June 2: the state kidnapped someone out from under us in Atlanta

You can see full video of the stuff I describe here, both the march and the initial attempt to stop the cops. The person filming talks to me at about 50:30, as I’m trying to get between the Black protestors and the armed cops.

I arrived at the Centennial Park protest about 4:30 on Tuesday. There was already a crowd of a couple hundred at Centennial and Marietta, massed up against the line of cops blocking Centennial southbound. National Guard was stationed around the park itself, on the other side of the fence, and they looked to be using the interior of the park as a hangout/rest area. They also had a couple guys on top of the nearby parking deck, keeping lookout.

The protestors were taking care of folks left and right–it was really beautiful to see. At every corner they had stations with free water and snacks, and they encouraged us all to grab whatever we needed. There was a curb hospital with a table and a sign that listed all the stuff they had, and kids staffing it were in medic vests. Their sign listed how to donate to them, so I tossed them $20 from my phone and immediately got a message back saying thanks and to stay safe. There was also a girl circulating through the crowd with a trash bag to collect trash from people. 

At about 5:20pm, organizers encouraged us all to start marching west on Marietta. We ended up marching for about 2 hours (wish I’d grabbed sunscreen lol)–basically up to Midtown and then back down again. There were some cops blocking traffic on cross streets, but by some I mean like 2. You can see a lot of the scenes from the march in my Twitter thread: we had a protest bus accompanying us, guys on motorcycles revving their engines in time with the chants, two guys on horses even! The cars we passed honked in encouragement and people went out on their patios in the highrises to bang pots and pans and cheer us on. 

This was all incredibly normal protest stuff. I felt a weird sense of deja vu, even, marching down Peachtree, because it’s the same route we used to ride when we did Critical Mass protests back in 2005/2006.

Anyway, we made it all the way back to downtown without incident, but as soon as we got to Marietta and Forsyth, things went bad. 

A crowd of people was gathered around two cop cars–not Atlanta PD but I guess Homeland Security. They were arguing with DHS officers, including one named Willis and another named Morales. Right before I’d arrived, DHS had snatched a kid who was supposedly running. They said he’d stolen a phone, but then they also said that they didn’t know if he’d committed a crime and they wouldn’t confirm or deny that he actually had the phone on him. He was in the back of the second car. DHS let someone in the crowd give him a card for a lawyer, and they gave us his name. 

The people around me were asking DHS to just find out if he had actually stolen the phone. We all said we’d wait until DHS did this. They repeatedly told us that we were the ones preventing them from letting him go, that we were crowding them and preventing them from questioning him. Officer Willis said if we backed up 6 feet, they could ascertain the situation and maybe let him go. (Pause for a second to ask why the fuck they didn’t do that before tossing him in the back of a cop car…) Around this time, a handful of heavily armed cops–I think GBI or state police but I’m not that sure–pushed their way through us and surrounded the car. I was at the front of the crowd, trying to put myself between them and the Black activists and protestors. The cop right in front of me had an assault rifle strapped to his chest. (You can see some of that scene here: I’m the white fingers, black shirt, and jean shorts just barely visible on the left of the third pic.)

We backed up a bit and locked arms, hoping to keep them from driving away. As soon as we’d cleared like 2 feet of space, the cops at the front of the two cars starting shoving protestors out of the way so the cars could drive off up Marietta. They’d lied to us, and they were about to just disappear this kid right out from under us. 

We ran to the front of the cars in a last ditch effort to stop them. The cops with assault rifles–these may have been National Guard, actually, I can’t really remember because it happened so fast–started shoving people as hard as they could. Like, remember being in mosh pits? They shoved me and sent me flying repeatedly, but I kept getting back in their faces because I wanted to stay between them and the other protestors. I was literally pressed with my chest to their rifles, screaming at them to stop pushing us. I dug my heels into the ground as hard as I could, but they had so much armor and force and they just didn’t give a shit.

We tried everything to keep them from advancing. One of the motorcycles from the march pulled up in front of them; they shoved me around it. At one point, several of us sat down or kneeled to try to create a barrier. The cops trampled right over us. I got dragged on my knees for a couple of feet.

I got back up and tried one more time to create a barrier that could stop them. That’s when a Black activist who had been right there with me the whole time grabbed me and pulled me out of the way, telling me that we had to let them go and stay safe ourselves. He held onto me for a minute, just long enough for me to come back to myself and realize that he was right. 

The cops did end up getting through the crowd and driving away. I don’t know where they took the guy they kidnapped. I’m about to call around and see if I can find anything out.

I have no idea who the guy was who saved me, but I’m thankful and I feel really guilty, even though I keep telling myself that it’s not my fault. We didn’t escalate things first, we just wanted to make sure the kid they took had due process. 

All of this for a fucking cell phone that he didn’t even have on him.

TL;DR – the cops brutalized protestors so they could protect their own right to kidnap a person. Fuck the police. And by that I mean abolish the police.

Donate to ATL Solidarity Fund

Mental health after a protest

Draft syllabus statement on Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter: a statement on this course and its relation to the protests

As our course topic [James Baldwin] should make clear, I believe that Black lives matter. I am a prison and police abolitionist; that is, I believe that our entire criminal justice system should be dismantled immediately, including eliminating the police and closing all prisons, in favor of alternative models of community safety and care.

I include this statement because I want you to know immediately, before our course begins, where I stand. I do not believe there is any benefit to pretending to be ideologically neutral in this space or in this moment.

If you or your friends plan to engage this summer in the protests currently underway, I support you wholeheartedly and I am here for you as a resource. I will be your emergency contact, if you need one; if you are detained, I will be your advocate (including helping you get bailed out of jail); if you need advice or emotional support, I will provide it or get you in touch with a trained professional. If you are in Atlanta, I can pick you up from any protest and get you home safely. 

If, in your capacity as a student, you disagree with me about police and prison abolition, that is okay. You will not be punished for holding different beliefs about the police in this class. 

Finally, review the non-discrimination statement. As it states, statements that are racist will not be tolerated here.

Classical Antiquity Made Contemporary

I fell in love with retold tales of classical antiquity as a young teen, when I found a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand (1987) in Second Read Books, a tiny used bookshop tucked around the backside of downtown St. Augustine. Its story is the Trojan War from the perspective of Cassandra, the doomed seer who foretells the whole war but is never believed. (Bradley had previously published her hugely popular Arthurian retelling, The Mists of Avalon. I tried to read it a few years later but it never quite hooked me. The mid- to late 90s were heavy with Arthurian legend; I remember First Knight, the Merlin tv miniseries, and a small press Arthurian lesbian romance tucked away on a shelf somewhere that I read in snatches, no pun intended.)

In college we were required to read a lot of Greek and Roman literature (in modern translation); I wrote papers on Odysseus’s misogyny and the cycles of feminine violence in the Oresteia. I was assigned to read Anne Carson and soon devoured everything of hers I could find. Plainwater was the first and my favorite. In grad school I was assigned H.D. and was surprised to find her unmistakeable but unmentioned influence on Carson. Helen in Egypt begins with Stesichorus, as does Autobiography of Red, but Carson avoids invoking H.D., even as she writes of her contemporaries.

On a research retreat I fell in love with H.D.’s scrapbook, which juxtaposes ancient Greek statuary with photos of H.D.’s family and homes. I created an art book attempting to remix the images with the words of her poems; fragments from her early work printed onto onionskin paper overlay the later scrapbook collage images. (Someday I hope to digitize my version and publish on it, a companion to the Mina Loy interactive text adventure I made.)

A page from H.D.’s scrapbook

There’s no shortage of literature where women reclaim and retell the masculine epics and legends of antiquity. Mary Renault comes to mind; between 1956 and 1981 she published eight historical novels about ancient Athens and Alexander the Great. Madeline Miller has somewhat taken up Renault’s torch in the early 21st century. Her first two novels, The Song of Achilles and Circe, retell The Iliad and The Odyssey, respectively, from the alternate viewpoints of the heroes’ lovers.

Circe threw me wildly for a loop, as I found myself crying over Odysseus (forgiven, I suppose, for the misogyny I accused him of in college). Miller incorporates later material from Hesiod’s Theogony and the lost epic Telegony, though she judiciously ends the story before the old Greek cycle of violence can set in. The final family grouping, haunted by the memory of war-crazed Odysseus, touched me deeply. Reviewers have criticized Miller for her YA-like, romance novel-adjacent approach to her source material, but I’m in favor of it. I began with Bradley, after all.

Teaching Narrative as Technology

How long does it take to go from cave paintings to the invention of the novel? For most humans, those developments spanned about 30,000 years. My first-year students and I do it in 30 minutes.

This lecture is the official start to our semester on Women, Technology, and Film Adaptation, and it’s designed to help students approach both the novels and the films we’ll study as the course goes on. In part, it’s an overreaction to the contextless way my undergrad institution approached teaching literature; in part, it’s an overreaction to the systematic estrangement of STEM and humanities fields that plagues higher ed in general and my institution in particular.

animated gif of cave painting frames that show a bison running
Cave paintings animated by Marc Azéma

I want my students to know that technology affects literature in very specific ways. I want them to know that the first narratives were visual, and that moveable type impacted literacy, and that Shakespeare’s dick jokes are part of a turn towards vernacular narrative, and finally, that the novel is actually a very specific form that has only existed for about 300 years in English. These are the foundations on which we’ll build all of our work; even though my class isn’t about cave paintings or Shakespeare or 18th century novels, it helps us to have a shared understanding of these things as a background for encountering Hollywood studio era films and the novels from which they were adapted.

I borrow my working definition of technology from Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows, about the man who made the invention of film possible:

A technology is a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.

I use this definition—which is gloriously broad—to help students reframe their experience of literature. Narrative is a technology that has evolved and changed over time. Books are a technology, and they’re affected by what other kinds of technologies are available at a given moment. Ditto film. With this reframing, these “humanities” topics are suddenly relevant to the engineers and computer scientists sitting in my classroom.

Praxinoscope gif via Giphy

We’ll return to the visual narratives of cave paintings this week when we discuss the pre-history of film technology and play with zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and other optical toys during a hands-on demonstration. Later in the semester, we’ll visit the Museum of Papermaking on campus and learn about how this material science had profound effects on writing and publishing, leading, for example, to the early 20th century invention of the pulp novel, which in turn helped create the film noir. Finally, at the end of the semester, my students will create video essays that make an argument about how a specific technology has shaped film adaptation. I hope they’ll at least entertain the idea of examining the novel itself as a technology.

Further Reading:

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is huge and hugely entertaining; I asked on Twitter when people first learned about the invention of the novel, and I feel like it should have been earlier for all of us.

Vintage Movie Monday: Vampire Circus (1972)

These days, I mostly talk movies on The Film League podcast.  But some slip through the cracks or don’t get the time they deserve.  That’s the case with this gem of a Hammer film from 1972. It was directed by Robert Young, who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P.G. Wodehouse novels and starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

But Vampire Circus is about as far from a comedy of manners as you can get. Instead, it revels in its Hammer horror style, packed full of lush but probably inaccurate set decorations, nudity, and lots of fake blood.

Set in a 19th century Austrian village named Shtetl (that’s Yiddish for town, or maybe it’s “Städtle,” German for “little town”), the film concerns the retribution taken on the villagers by a traveling circus of vampiric predators.  They’ve come in the middle of a plague quarantine, promising to entertain the residents with their carnival acts.  But the carnival turns into a rather more literal “farewell to the flesh” when the vampires begin preying on town children, using the blood to awaken the vampiric Count defeated by the townspeople 15 years earlier.

The circus proves too tempting a distraction for the quarantined town, who flock to see the show night after night.  They are astonished, but perhaps less surprised than they should be, at the strange and magical performances.  Caged animals transform into human dancers and acrobats, and a funhouse mirror becomes a deadly portal.

Soon the whole town is embroiled in the twin dramas of the mysterious murders and the suspicious performers.  The ensemble cast of this film is truly a joy to watch—despite minimal screen time for most of the actors, they convey rich and lived-in experiences.  Multiple small storylines play out amongst them, even as the carnage swells and takes over.

The town is saved, in the end, by a pure and devout teenaged couple who wield crosses against the unholy evil.  Dora defeats their dopplegangers, twin vampires who feel each other’s injuries, while Anton kills the revived Count.

Vampire Circus is streaming on Netflix right now, and I highly recommend it.  The movie is probably my new favorite Hammer film, as it successfully elevates the form above its too-campy elements and manages to elicit powerful sympathy for the large cast of characters.

Reinterpreting Jazz Age standards

I’ve been perusing Brooks E. Hefner‘s dissertation, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic”: American Vernacular Modernism, 1910-1937, as part of the research for my second thesis chapter, and the preface introduced me to several songs from the era I’d never heard before.

Hefner writes about James P. Johnson and the composition that gave the dissertation its title, “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”  Johnson is mainly remembered for composing the “Charleston,” but as Hefner explains, singer Ethel Waters credited him with inspiring “all the hot licks that ever came out of Fats Waller and the rest of the hot piano boys.”

I dug around a bit to find out more about Johnson and came across this NPR story about another Johnson composition, “Yamekraw.”  It was inspired by one of my favorite jazz pieces, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

George Gershwin plays “Rhapsody in Blue”

As NPR explains,

After his friend George Gershwin had such success with “Rhapsody in Blue,” James P. Johnson thought he’d try his hand at writing a piece for jazz piano and orchestra. Johnson’s piece is called “Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody.” It has some of the same exuberent bubble and bounce you might know from the Gershwin and it makes a fascinating counterpoint to “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The songs make excellent mood-setters for my Jazz Age reading sessions.

Internet Archive has a small selection of other Johnson songs.

Treasure Hunting in the Public Domain: Scribner’s Magazine on “The Day of the Motor”

The February 1913 issue of Scribner’s Magazine had a special theme: The Day of the Motor. Along with articles on driving the Pyrenees Route and the mission of the automobile, it includes two very different gems of magazine writing.

The first is a compelling account of “Discovering America by Motor” written by Ralph D. Paine. The author and a companion tour New Hampshire (which he deems “not as backwards as is supposed”) in a car with only 3 of its 4 cylinders working. They encounter various other motor tourists on the way, and Paine contemplates the new freedoms that motor travel has opened up:

The man behind the steering-wheel has become the lord of distances. His horizon has immeasurably widened, the highway is made panoramic and belongs to him, and the satisfaction of living has sensibly increased.

The article is accompanied by grainy photos of automobile tourists all over the country, like the one above. Mostly, though, I was struck by how consistently readable the piece was, like a Longreads article from days of yore.

The second notable piece is “Steam-Coach Days” by Theodore M. R. von Kéler, a weird and wonderful speculation piece that seems straight out of a steampunk novel of this decade. He argues that the idea of a steam-powered engine in a coach-like vehicle has been around since the ancient Egyptians (!):

It is difficult—in fact, almost impossible—now to fix upon the exact year in which the idea of a coach propelled by steam first took shape in the human brain. The most recent discoveries during archaeological investigations and excavations in Egypt and other sections of northern Africa have tended to show that a steampropelled carriage of ingenious construction was, if not actually used, at least built in model form by one of the old Egyptians.

But even better than this wild tidbit are the whimsical drawings depicting steam coaches of all manner and style (all of which apparently actually existed):

Twelve years of Scribner’s Magazine has been made available online for free through the Modernist Journals Project. Further issues are available through Google Books. (I’m kind of obsessed.)

Vintage Movie Monday: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

This saucy pre-Code comedy was originally set to be adapted from Katharine Brush’s novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  When he took the picture in too serious a direction, the studio asked Anita Loos to step in and rewrite the script.

In Loos’s hands, the film became a raunchy and fun tribute to the social-climbing red-head at its center, played by (the usually blonde) Jean Harlow.  While I haven’t checked the original book, I’m fairly certain Loos added in the humorous opening in which Lil Andrews (Harlow) wryly name-checks Loos’s popular novel from seven years earlier: “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?”

Lil is a girl with a mission: to seduce Bill Legendre, the wealthy son of her boss.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, Bill is two things: already married but also powerless in the face of Lil’s fiery sexuality.  The script hints fairly baldly that Bill and his icy blonde wife, Irene, don’t have sex.  When Lil points her lips or shockingly exposed  her garters at him, he’s violently overcome.

After a series of adulterous encounters discovered by Irene, she divorces him and is left sleeping with her adorable puppy.

Lonely in the wake of the divorce, Irene decides to try to reconcile with Bill, only to find that he has married Lil in a blisteringly fast ceremony.  The marriage is doomed, however, both by Irene’s continued presence in their lives and the social outcast status that the divorce and remarriage have caused for the new couple.

High society can’t accept Lil, whose increase in status has made her snobby but not proper or decent. Because this is pre-Code, the film has some serious fun portraying Lil’s incorrigibly sexual behavior with increasingly racy scenes of her disrobing.

After several more rounds of love and betrayal and a snazzy dance scene to Lil’s own theme song, Bill ruins her chances to remarry by exposing the affair she’s having with her lover’s French chauffer.  She attacks the once-again reconciled Bill and Irene, shooting off a gun and causing Bill to wreck his car and nearly die.

But that’s not the end of it!  In any other film, one might expect Lil to be punished for her actions; instead, she ends the film married to an even richer (though uglier) old dude while also continuing her affair with the Frenchman, now employed by her husband.

As TCM notes,

The movie, and Harlow, achieved another kind of notoriety as well. Guardians of public morals throughout the country were incensed not only by the film’s frank treatment of sexuality but even more by the fact that Lil, an irredeemably bad girl who selfishly wrecks the lives of everyone around her, doesn’t get any kind of comeuppance or learn her lesson by the end of the story. Rather, she ends up rich, happy and accepted by high society without ever having to pay for her sins. Because of this, Red-Headed Woman is often cited as one of the motion pictures that brought about more stringent censorship under the Production Code, ushering in an era of enforced “morality” and coy dodges around sex for decades to come.

In the absence of the 1928 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes film (which has been lost), it’s fun to see Loos exercise her snappy wit and racy proto-feminist politics with yet another social climber who escapes punishment in the end.