Poverty, Academia, Depression, and Shame. Part III

[Read Part I, and then Part II.]

Part III

Depression—I am not an outlier.

I have been an extremely high-functioning depressive most of my adult life. Until I wasn’t.

We falsely assume that all depressives are sad, melancholic. And while it may present that way, the primary symptom of my depression has always been anhedonia, which is a psychiatric term to explain an inability to feel pleasure. It’s a particular kind of numbness to the joys of life. And while I could certainly always laugh, when I look back at these depressive episodes there is a pattern of decreasing creativity where I became mechanical, dazedly executing routines of work and school. Because I have always been something of a workaholic, few people would notice when I began to feel anesthetized to life’s challenges. My default autopilot functioned in high-performing drive.

Until it didn’t.

In 2015 I began to feel bad. Not depressed, at first, just bad, with a confluence of physical symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease named thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease, which can cause depression. [You can read the full saga here.] When the brain doesn’t get the hormones it needs from the thyroid, it causes micro-inflammation that can result in cognitive problems: memory loss, faltering for words, inability to concentrate, and, in my case, a profound, dangerous, depressive episode. I began to fantasize about being dead. Not killing myself, necessarily, but the death of my aching body. I imagined lying down and sinking beneath the floorboards, resting between the stories of buildings, slowly decomposing. Or being on the grass and disintegrating into the earth, worms eating my flesh, body becoming a liquid that seeps deep into underground caves of total darkness.

It was comforting.

Two years after my diagnosis (almost to the day) I am doing well medically and mentally. I look back at periods of depression in my life (though none were even close to being as severe as this last one) and wonder what would have been different had my thyroid disease been treated earlier? My physicians do not think that I have a mood disorder and have put anti-depressants on stand-by. For the record, I will pop those pills like candy if my doctors recommend it. I cannot risk falling into such a deep hole again, because I am barely surviving the aftermath of the last one. If it only takes one family crisis for students from poverty to drop out, I am doing my damndest to white-knuckle my way through to the end.

Illness derailed my plans to such an extent that my finances, living, job, and school situations are all currently uncertain. This is causing a punishing amount of stress. I am far more concerned about not having a place to live than I am about my exams. I feel caught between immediate short-term essential needs and long-term goals for life. While this tension is not new, I am, admittedly, deeply exhausted that it is familiar territory. When does it end? I’ve been working since I was twelve years old. When you are poor, thirty years of work is not an investment that produces dividends, because the work you are likely doing has no mechanism for advancement. You cannot domestic-service your way up to even the working class much less the (disappearing) middle class.

Part of the reason I went to graduate school was because it can elevate your social status. It wasn’t the main reason, but a fragment of the appeal package. Twenty years ago, in my angriest days before going into therapy, my bachelor’s degree was a process of first thinking that I wasn’t good enough, then thinking everyone was stupid because they seemed far too naïve about everything, then maturing (a little) and realizing that my upbringing gave me a specific kind of perspective that was useful, and rewarded. I still think everyone’s naïve. But now I also include myself.

Here’s the rub: I’m not an outlier. A colleague of mine attempted suicide and they were withdrawn from their PhD program, and they then attempted a second time. I cannot view this incident as anything but a cruel warning to the rest of us. It’s not faculty that receives those calls from a concerned family member. They don’t get asked to be there for a twenty-four-hour suicide watch. And they are certainly not the ones that witness the intense shame that comes along with feeling like you’ve failed. [My colleague is doing well now—(un)fortunately the suicide attempts prompted expedited medical intervention.]

Graduate students are suffering from a convergence of factors that has produced statistically significant problems. It’s a crisis of mental health. Academia doesn’t know what to do with the hoards of depressed grad students wondering if they’ve wasted years of their life in pursuit of jobs that no longer exist, being not adequately financially supported, in a society that doesn’t recognize their achievements, while under political attacks on higher education from far-right rhetoric, where faculty pays lip service to addressing privileges but that is not reflected in how students are treated. Beyond the data and think pieces are actual graduate students, trying to survive this brutal environment.

Can we not do better? I sit here asking myself if I will be kicked out because I didn’t perform as well on my comprehensive exams as I admittedly know I should have. It’s not even remotely in character for me to submit sub-par work, but for the past two years, I have not been functioning at my usual high-performance badass self. And I’m okay with that. It was a deliberate decision to centralize my medical recovery over phd-ing, and so I hit the gym in favour of books. It may have been necessary, but it also means that I am now unclear of how to negotiate finishing my thesis, trying to support myself financially, and not slipping back into harmful, workaholic patterns. That’s how I got in trouble in the first place, autoimmune disease or not.

Many professors have extolled my potential and expressed that it would be a shame if academia “lost me.” I never want to appear ungrateful for their encouragement or support. I’ve received quite a bit. I mentally compose thesis acknowledgements that carefully lists everyone that encouraged and helped me. My mother has been the most consistent of emotional supports, taking money off of her high-interest credit card to pay my rent when I first got sick. [And just to be clear, I love her deeply and will defend her fiercely. I can talk shit about my childhood, but you most certainly cannot.] You can’t do this alone. You need people in your corner to survive academia, because there will be plenty of people who are not. (And to those weak-ass haters I offer a dignified *snort* and a gracious Go Fuck Yourself.)

I don’t have answers. A draft of this last section has been sitting on my laptop all week, as I was hoping for some insight into how to complete this brief miniseries of emotional exposure. None arrived.

I imagined I’d write this piece from a position of power, somewhere along the line of post-graduate and into successful professional career. That scenario is one that proves I can overcome my conditions, and a plea to help those students that I know are struggling. In my fantasy Oscar acceptance speech (for adapted screenplay of my book, naturally) I say, “Grad students, this one’s for you. Don’t let academia kill you. Don’t let it kill parts of you. Stay alive. I love you.”

Instead I offer this: if anything here has made you uncomfortable, don’t rationalize it away. Don’t blame it on my all-too-present-these-days rage or upbringing or stress-induced academic paralysis. If you are faculty or grad student or adjunct or chair, don’t feel bad or contempt, but instead sit in that unease. I am not an outlier. We are all around, looking at this system of higher education and how it fails us, choked by a problem that seems too big to fix. We are looking at you—the words you say in class, the policies you enact, the readings you assign, the students you favour and those you do not, the money you disperse, the chances you give, the blinders you put on—and we wonder if academic brilliance justifies all the times we’ve swallowed our dissent because you have far more power. Choose the tension. Because while pity may be useless, discomfort most certainly is not. And I want you to be uncomfortable.

Poverty, Academia, Depression, and Shame. Part II

[Read Part I here.]

Part II

Falling into Academia

It took me ten years to finish my bachelor’s degree. I was full time for a little while, then took several years off, travelled, worked, and wondered what do to with my life. During the entire bachelor and then magisterial degrees of full time course loads, I also worked at least forty hours a week in the healthcare field doing administration. I took out government-backed student loans to pay for tuition, and one for a computer, because the banks wouldn’t even give me a credit card, much less a student loan to support myself.

I was an alien. An avid reader since I was girl, I had no problem with comprehension of the ideas—I was rarely confused about what was being taught—but I didn’t know how to write an essay, or construct an argument, or even study properly for memory tests (I still struggle with this). Many of my earlier papers had comments such as, ‘This is a good idea, but you didn’t quite argue for it.” Or “You have a unique perspective here, and the paper is well-written but entirely unstructured and therefore also confusing.” Finally, by chance of taking an elective that fit my schedule, I registered for a class called “How to Write an Essay,” and suddenly I was a straight A student, and was being encouraged to apply for a master’s degree. I’d never thought about it before. But I was beginning to love writing. The ideas were exciting to me. I’d never liked any of my jobs. I didn’t quite hate them either. They kept me not-homeless. That was enough for a poor kid who heard her mother cry over not being able to feed us after she paid rent. I struggled mostly with that tension between having to work so much just to barely survive and the increasingly intoxicating dream of going to grad school. In academia I felt invigorated by the challenges it presented. It was rewarding. It was the first time I’d felt that.

Ideas are like a drug to me. What I love most about academia is being able to look back in time and space to trace how one small idea can morph and transform through people. How an idea discards aspects of itself, or gets encrusted with other ideas, and then embedded unto persons, nations, identities. How one idea can cause devastation or ecstasy or both, depending on how it has negotiated the inevitable shifts of time and space. Ideas are living, breathing things.

Despite this newfound appeal, fitting in was a struggle. Beyond the fact that I had no notion of how to be a student, there are several incidences that highlight how much of growing up in poverty made me feel so out-of-place in university.

In the early years of my first degree, in a Feminism and War class, the (white female) professor showed a clip of an African-American mother beaming with pride that her son had finished military academy. The young man was pictured at his graduation ceremony, face grinning, chest jutting out, and standing upright in his uniform. The instructor, pointing at the mother, admonished, “Women are just as complicit in the military industrial complex. Here’s this mother pushing her child into state-sanctioned murder for the glory of some misguided national fervour.”

And I thought, What the FUCK is this lady talking about?!?

I was flummoxed that an educated person utterly failed to see that “national fervour” was likely the least important reason that this family expressed such pride in the young man. To me, it was obvious that joining the military was an opportunity for him, a chance that offered experience, education, and respect that he might not otherwise have had. I know that face; my mother wore it too when my brother joined the military. “Finally,” my mother had thought, “this is a stable career where he can make something of himself.” And he did.

It frustrated me not only to disagree so vehemently with this professor, but that I never spoke up or felt comfortable sharing my dissent, not in the discussions, nor in our written assignments.

Nowadays, we call this particular kind of bias “White Feminism,” wherein (more often that not) middle class white feminists are oblivious to the issues faced by persons of a different race or class. Their pronouncements on the world reflect solely a concern for the well-being of other middle class white feminists, despite overt claims to wanting “equality.”

“Well, I’m certainly not a feminist,” I thought at the time.

Over and over and over again I felt alienated from what was being discussed and how it was not related to what my own experience dictated. Every time we talked about “the poor” or “disenfranchised” I would look around and think, “You stupid motherfuckers. You have no idea. You really have no clue. I am right here. Sitting right beside you. And the things you think about me are not just wrong, but insulting.” They were either bizarre claims to how lazy poor people were, or, there was this look of guilt on someone’s face, and both reactions made me nauseated. But I didn’t speak up. I was too angry to name myself as someone from this “sub-class,” because even if didn’t feel ashamed of my upbringing, I didn’t know how to argue for my perspective. I wasn’t emotionally equipped to challenge my professors and classmates, especially as I knew it would only draw pity. Fuck your pity, I would think at them. It’s useless.

It got better in grad school in terms of the content, the professors’ awareness, and the class discussions. At least there I was reading scholars that wrote about things in a way I resonated with. They echoed similar frustrations and problems within academia. But here’s the thing about higher education; the ideas written about and discussed in grad schools across North America do not reflect the institutional ethos. The entire system is based on the model of a privileged elite class of a student that is solely a student (not also working, or also a single parent, or also taking care of family members, or poor, or facing institutional sexism and racism). The demographics of university attendees have changed drastically, but the structure and policies are slower to adjust. So when a student fails out, universities never quite look at the systemic factors that contributed to this. I cannot tell you how many times in my life someone told me, “But you’re so smart!” when they learned I dropped out of a high school, or had difficulties in my bachelor’s (and now again, having real issues in my PhD). My mental response was always, “Intelligence has nothing to do with it.” My verbal response was usually some non-committal deflection.

The blunt truth is, you need far more than talent to succeed in academia. You need external financial support (even if you’re funded), and strong emotional support across the board (your family, your professors, your friends). The odd outlier makes it through without these things, sure. But they are the extreme exception.

There is an extensive list of Things Poor Kids Don’t Know about higher education, because they are either too embarrassed, and more often than not, don’t know which questions to ask. Most of these things have to do with money.

I didn’t know that you might not get paid right away if you start a job at the university in September, because it can take up to two months to get you on the payroll. If you have no savings and no one in your family has money, how do you pay your rent when you’re waiting for Accounts Services to process your funds?

I didn’t know that good grades could equal cash. How would I know that? It’s not clearly written anywhere because every school has a different budget and undisclosed process for how they disperse funds. No one told me. I didn’t know enough to ask. It’s just one of those things Everyone Knows (except for poor kids).

I didn’t know that I was expected to build my academic CV without being remunerated for the work. They tell you to apply for conferences, but what you find out is that you have to pay up front (conference fees, airfare, hotel, etc.) and only get reimbursed (maybe!) several months later and not in full. They tell you to submit papers for publication, but you will likely not get paid for them. I haven’t received one penny for any of my published articles or book chapters. They tell you to get involved in activities (student conferences, editing the graduate journal, etc.) but that is as a volunteer. None of these things contribute to credits on your transcript. All the things that you are expected to do take time and effort, but detract from your schoolwork, and also cost you money. But they sure do help you get a job after you graduate (so you are told).

I didn’t know that I should prepare, somehow, for unexpected illness. I’ll discuss more of these details in the next post, but the gist of it is, when I got ill (physically ill with an autoimmune disease but followed by a far more serious and dangerous depression) as my funding was running out, it derailed my entire life because I couldn’t work and didn’t have enough money to support myself. I literally paid my rent off of my (co-signed by my brother!) credit card because my meager savings barely lasted a few months and as a student I was in this non-class of a social category, ineligible for unemployment insurance, disability, or even welfare. And even then, my disdain and self-hatred for even considering going on welfare given how I grew up made me feel like a failure. I never want to go back to those conditions. They were traumatic enough the first time around.

Now, today, I feel profound humiliation that I have to convince my department that the stress from not knowing if I will have rent money affects my schoolwork. I try to give myself practical pep-talks: you have friends you can stay with if you don’t find a job; no one is going to let you go homeless; your animals will be okay because you’ll never let anything bad happen to them; you are a trained professional with exceptional skills and that is valued; you love teaching and can do that in many non-academic capacities; your health is amazing right now because you’ve spent the past two years actively working at getting physically and mentally better and you did that shit so good for you; and finally, you’re still a bitch that knows how to hustle when she needs to, and that shit never goes away.

 

 

Poverty, Academia, Depression, and Shame. Part I

These series of posts are profoundly embarrassing to write. It’s about me being poor. In academia. With depression. And the ensuing shame that comes in tandem with this avalanche of circumstances. But I think it’s worth the risk for the greater conversation about academia and poverty. Over the next few days I will post parts II and III.

First, let’s discuss poverty.

Poverty limits long-term thinking. If your entire lifetime has been living paycheck to paycheck, immediate need to immediate need, you do not develop the imaginative skills to conceive of a future, let alone a successful, fulfilling future. My mother was alone, had three children, and a serious un-diagnosed and thus untreated mental illness. As a child we lived in tents, cabins, and shitty, rundown houses that often lacked heating, electricity, and plumbing. She had major depressive episodes and sometimes screamed in the middle of the night, for hours (we would lie in bed, fearful, until it passed). She struggled to feed and clothe us on her welfare check. The dishes would pile up for days and weeks on end, until we were eating out of old margarine containers and lids, and then pots and pans. She did try to enforce organization and chores. They never stuck. We learned that we could easily break her down, and did so regularly. (I’m sorry, mum. What a little bitch I probably was. Snarky, smart-mouthed, and manipulative from the get-go.)

We had no rules. I mean that quite literally. I cannot remember a time that I was forbidden to do something. It is easy to hide this under the guise of my mother’s apparent hippie tendencies. But the reality is, she had difficulties with parenthood. It was overwhelming to her. We, her children, developed a particular kind of constrained maturity common to kids living in unstable households.

On drugs my mother said, “I did a lot of drugs and half my friends are dead. So take that into consideration if you try them.” She was clean by the time she had kids. My father continued to use well into his fifties, and died from complications from Hepatitis C three years ago (we were estranged; he never once contributed financially). On sex my mother said discouragingly, “I hope you are in love when you lose your virginity because I sure wasn’t.” I never discussed my sexual or romantic life with my mother because from an early age she openly shared hers with me. This is not that unusual, I learned much later when I went to psychotherapy (which I highly recommend). It’s called parentification, whereby a child assumes the role of the primary caregiver. Our dynamic was not quite that reversed, but I certainly bore the brunt of my mother’s emotional turmoil, learning about her codependency viscerally far before I could put a name to the behavior.

So I became an extremely responsible adolescent, but in a skewed way. I dropped out of high school at the age of fourteen and worked as a full time nanny for about a decade.

Those homes taught me a lot. I wasn’t simply a “mother’s helper.” At that young age I ran the full activities of an active daytime household. I changed diapers and sprinted after toddlers. I read stories and played. Brought kids to school and sports games. I cooked and cleaned. Wiped tears and snot and vomit and piss and shit and blood from their constantly spewing bodies. I have heard that high-pitched scream from an unsatisfied child far too many times. It still irritates my eardrums and the back of my throat. When some asshole would make a comment about how I “probably watched soaps all day” I was deeply resentful and angry. Childcare is tough work. Good childcare is grueling. (Go thank your mothers for doing it and not strangling you.)

I took pride in my work. I enjoyed it. The parents commended me for my competency, maturity, and resourcefulness, and I liked that praise. It felt good to be thought of as responsible, smart, and capable. In retrospect, it also allowed me to witness how these children’s behavior differed from my own. They played and spoke with a freedom that was alien to me. Their daily conduct did not contain looming anxieties or pressures. Home stability allows this kind of freedom—they were at liberty to imagine any kind of future they wanted because they had the absolute (and entirely unacknowledged) confidence that their parents would take care of them. I was jealous of that.

I did eventually take high school equivalency classes due to unusual circumstances. My mother insisted that I consult a psychologist because of my truancy, where I tested at the collegiate level for language and imagination (though poorly in mathematics). Because of this, the psychologist recommended me for a scholarship at a private night school. I wish I had fully understood what that meant at the time. The name of that school—an elite one, accessible solely to the wealthy—could have propelled me into academia sooner (or another career entirely). But I was incapable of conceiving the true nature of the social boost I had received. I recognize it only now that I am in academia. In an alternate timeline, I hide my upbringing, use the name of the school to get into a posh bachelor’s program, network with the rich kids, get hooked up with a well-paying job, and am well on my way to legitimate wealth.

But that’s not how any of this works. My terrible teeth and awkward second-hand clothing choices betrayed my impoverished upbringing. I was articulate, perceptive, and just a little too honest in a way that signaled I was “not one of them.” This is still true. Though now I use it to my advantage. That kind of insight is one of the things that academia truly does reward. I mean, if you make it through. Because the other reality of poverty is: poor kids in higher education are one family crisis away from dropping out.

Here’s the real goddamn kicker that few people realize: even if you do possess the ingenuity to visualize a prosperous future, your survival instinct is so strong that it strangles that potential dream. “Do not dare to hope,” that voice says, “Lofty ideas aren’t for people like us.” Your entire experience has dictated that you will be let down, because those kinds of Good Things—you know, the good jobs and the opportunities—do not belong to you. It is not solely that you don’t have an uncle/sister/cousin that could get you a job interview and put in a good word (though this is also true), it’s that you have to re-train your hardened survival instincts to act as if those things belong to you. The impulse is to immediately shut down any thought about improving your circumstances because it’s painful to picture something better. You cannot bear that kind of disappointment. It’s not that you think you don’t deserve it, it’s that you have noticed that people who don’t deserve it get it all the time. You know that the world is unfair and unjust. Buck up. You are a hardened bitch that no one can hurt (anymore).

If you are never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you don’t begin the process of wanting to be anything at all. I was in my twenties before I even allowed myself to daydream about more. And I did that because I was profoundly unhappy in my secretarial jobs (one of my first depressions). The work did not challenge me in any intellectual or innovative way beyond me being “good with people,” and I was good with people because I had been a nanny. A tantrum is the same at any age, whether the person is two or sixty-two, and I could always maintain my cool and deescalate tense situations. I was also perceptive. Precarious childhood circumstances attracts dangerous characters with unsavoury motives, so when I clock someone correctly it is because that type of radar is now embedded. But this also means that I am too cautious, too guarded, and am sometimes jealous of friends for their ability to take risks, fall in love, move to another country, and be bold in ways my predisposition tells me not to be.

In order to succeed, kids from poverty have to re-learn the borders of acceptable risk. Re-programming is all the more difficult without financial stability. When you are living on the margins, where one small bad step could mean homelessness or worse, even that tiny little step towards something better seems too great. Risk-taking is a luxury that poor kids cannot easily afford.

Academia and a Convocation Bacchanal

I am a highly trained professional with exceptional skills.

Academia both creates and erodes confidence in this fact. Yes, fact. (For those that need to hear it.) If you’ve made it through a PhD program (or even if you didn’t) you have demonstrated all those wonderful buzzwords such as talent, drive, ambition, hard work, and dedication. But between you and I, just us squirrel friends, every PhD student I know views systematic issues within academia as personal failures. And when we interpret these broader problems as somehow a lack of individual moral character and integrity, the ensuing depression and self-doubt corrodes our very motivation for being in academia in the first place.

I don’t know all the reasons others decided to do a PhD. I did it because I fell into it, of sorts, then embraced it, and then loved it. Loved it so much that as I sit in my current beleaguered limbo—uncertain of where to direct my energies next—I mourn the potential loss of an academic career if I go elsewhere. If academic professions can be parsed, they come in three general compartments: teaching, research and writing, and administration. When I first entered the doctoral program I considered my prospects in these areas to be excellent: I thoroughly enjoy teaching and am enthusiastic about student ideas; researching was and continues to be a creative and fulfilling act; and I have fifteen years of admin experience in the healthcare field.

But as I near the end, facing some difficult choices, broke, tired, and frustrated with systemic failures to address the issues of doctoral programs and the dismal reality of the academic job market, I am considering all my options and asking, “What kind of work allows me to research, write, teach, and also be a funny bitch on Twitter without getting fired?” I think about how all my online content could be a detriment for some professions, but when I fantasize about my ideal job I imagine someone valuing my dick-and-fart jokes as much as they do my considerable academic skills.

My humour keeps me sane. It makes me a better teacher, too. Not because I’m entertaining, but because when I lecture I’m having fun. There is a distinct rush in being able to break down complex ideas and communicate them in clear and concise ways. This is a small talent I had before grad school, but higher education has improved and then refined this skill. And when I doubt myself all I have to do is have a conversation about religion with…anyone.

I do not teach religion. I teach people how to think about religion: how to ask critical questions, how to re-examine the questions themselves, how to challenge one’s own perceptions. One of my greatest joys in academia is to write on a student’s paper, “Good idea!” because after reading thousands of similar opinions, when I come across one that challenges me I become genuinely excited for the future of scholarship. Provided it all doesn’t come crashing down, of course. (Though it needs that, too.)

So when I get glum about my future, I dream of my graduation party. I fantasize about a convocation bacchanal the way some people dream of their marriage rite. I’m wearing a hot pink metallic 70s inspired spaghetti strap wrap dress. And vintage 70s pink sneakers. And body glitter. LOTS OF IT. Shiny green eye shadow and a wickedly perfect cat eye. Big hair. Hoop earrings.

My mom’s there. She’s in sexy new boots that she can move in. She’s the first person I dance with. Enthusiastically. Giddily. With abandon. We got through this shit together, dammit. My brothers mope in the corner until they get tipsy enough to join the fun. All my close friends are there and they better not goddamn cancel because they’re too tired or busy. This is my major life event. Consider this shit my wedding and you’re all my fucking bridesmaids. So show up and rock out with your tits out.

The DJ goes through eras to please everyone. Maybe starts with some Motown to get everybody grooving. Then moves into 70s funk. Some deep groove stanky funk too, not just the pop hits. Because my DJ is skilled, she can mix in heavy guitar riffs from Black Sabbath to please the goths. We jitterbug and shuffle, bogo and air guitar. In the 80s set it’s synth wave pop and pop pop, because Cindy Lauper and Madonna are timeless. Depeche Mode and Wham. Prince and the NPG.

But the 90s/2000s hip hop is where the party really comes alive. We get Tribe, Bahamadia, Pharaohe Monch, Jean Grae, Dead Prez, Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, Heltah Skeltah, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Black Moon, and any beat by Premier or Dilla. Erick Sermon, Black Rob, Missy, OutKast, Rah Digga, Lil Kim, Biggie, Beanie Seagal, Necro, EPMD, Jay Z, Wu-Tang, Apani, Beastie Boys, LL, Nas, and Saul Williams.

Then there’s an interlude with RnB where everyone gets to dance like Ginuwine in Pony. I MEAN EVERYONE, DAMMIT. You better practice your moves now because we are partying away the stress of eight years of the PhD, one autoimmune disease, and one severe depression.

Ideally it’s a barn party. I can miraculously afford a nearby hotel room for everyone. The bar is open and weed is legal so get as fucked up as you want. Midnight poutine is passed around to keep the dancers fuelled ‘til dawn.

At some point, at the height of the frenzy, all my religious studies colleagues perform a ritual to mark my rite of passage. They flank me as I walk between them. I am ceremoniously whipped with marked essays and printed out student evaluations, before I grab them all, throw them in a bin, and light them on fire. A crown of laurels is placed on my head. I throw pomegranates and apples into the crowd.

(In the fantasy, past students are there too and hand me papers I’ve actually graded where they didn’t like the mark and tell me, “You did your fucking job well and now you get to BURN THIS SHIT!” and push me towards the fire, papers in hand.)

Then someone yells “MOSH PIT!” and I finally get to experience this staple of white culture and launch myself into the throng of enthusiastic headbangers.

I periodically throw my middle fingers in the air as a message to all the haters, especially if I’m grinding on someone hot. There are streamers. And cake. And maybe even a food fight. (I have put down a large deposit and also grossly overpaid the cleaning staff.)

Exhausted, delirious, happy, and sweaty, we emerge at dawn to sausages and pancakes and coffee before heading to crash into a soft, down bed. Maybe the next day there’s a chill bonfire with hot dogs and marshmallows. I wear jeans and flannel. I make out with a crush or three.

I take a solo midnight nude swim in a cold lake. Plunging as deep as I can, I compel my lungs to breathe underwater—the way I imagined doing as a girl. This time it works. And I stay for hours, exploring the muddy depths, growing webbed fingers and gills behind my ears.

When I return to the quiet, comfortable gathering of loved ones murmuring around the dimming fire I never tell them that I am now transformed, part amphibian. I keep this secret. It’s mine.

Life continues. I work. I make decisions towards my goals. I flirt. Pay bills. Help my mom. But now I am a Doctor.

Cimminnee in the Multiverse

I need a job. Like, badly. Currently in the homestretch of the doctoral degree, I’m in this bizarre liminal stage where I am both thrilled and distressed by all the possibilities. Where do I go from here?

Inspired by the excellent show Russian Doll lead by the talented Natasha Lyonne (we share a kinship for smart bitchiness in my fantasy life), here are some alternate universe future selves.

***

The Witch Doctor

She has published both her scholarship and works of fiction. She teaches university courses on magic and popular culture as an adjunct professor. Dressing like a pin-up, she poses seductively for alternative e-zines in her cool thrift-shop-decorated Victorian apartment as they write up flattering profiles about her. Her blue humour has miraculously never stood in the way of an academic career. Labels that she negotiates seamlessly are: feminist, witch, burlesque performer, academic, writer, and animal rescue advocate. She’s dating multiple interesting people and is sexually satisfied in every way.

***

The Sarcastic Bitch

She writes for a comedy show where she translates her superior research skills and expert knowledge into biting social commentary via dick and fart jokes. She wears pyjamas a lot. Even to work. Her Twitter feed is fire.

***

The Depressive Void

She took an administrative job out of economic necessity and, despite being good at it, the uncreative and unchallenging aspects of her work have slowly eaten away at her sense of self and purpose. If she acknowledged how disappointed she was by life she’d be dangerously depressed, so as a coping mechanism she obsessively trains her body, joining the Crossfit cult. She’s boring. She suppressed her humour so as not to make waves at work and is now incapable of talking about anything but fitness and clean eating. She’s proud of her RRSP.

***

The Perpetual Graduate

Stuck in a time loop of higher education hell because she did a post-doc, she oscillates between hope for a stimulating future where she can apply her skills and creativity and the crippling terror of never accomplishing all the things she wants in life. She doesn’t like her senses dulled one damned bit, but then weed became legal in Canada and she found herself starting smoking in her goddamn forties and is struck by how fucking fun it is. She never did drugs as a teenager because her parents were addicts that couldn’t get out of poverty, but age has elicited compassion for them. She has an intellectual crush on Neil Gaiman that induces intense fantasies about some of his characters. Her animals are her best friends. Her mom comes over to clean occasionally because she leaves her dirty dishes for a full week and it’s gross. She has seventy bucks in her bank account.

***

The Yvette

She never overcame her upbringing and is back on welfare like all throughout her childhood. She’s regressed and deliberately chooses second-hand clothes that reflect bad eighties fashion. Her hair is big and dry and permed. She carries her inhaler next to her cigarettes. She started a web series titled, Putains All De Way S’Ti, where she calls all her friends whores as she drinks Labatt gossiping at the kitchen table, interjecting curses in joual, tabarnak. Despite the frenglish, she insists that her speech is du bon français crissement ben parler, calisse!

***

The Hermit

She published her memoir to widely popular acclaim, then felt exposed and vulnerable by seedy Hollywood attention, retreating instead to an isolated private life. With the proceeds from her book, she bought land and a hobby farm in rural Canada, keeping company with animals and books. Occasionally she agrees to the visit of a journalist or writer on the condition that they join her in the daily labour of farm work. Her careful speech and direct gaze discompose them as she answers their questions while chopping firewood. There are rumours that she welcomes members of a secretive cabal to perform occult rituals under the full moon deep in the woods of her vast property.

***

The Whore

She’s a poor grad student and needs rent money. Send her kizzash via PayPal at paypal.me/CimminneeHolt.

 

 

American Gods, Belief, and Academic Definitions of Religion

Or, How Neil Gaiman Reflects Contemporary Theories in Religious Studies

First, my credentials (not that I’d need any for blog posts); I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion and Cultures at Concordia University. I have taught undergraduate courses titled Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion and Cults and New Religious Movements in North America; published on my specialty of religious Satanism; won multiple academic research grants and awards of excellence; and generally sit in an area of scholarship where I study weirdos of all kinds (said with great affection).

This informal essay attempts to highlight the academic theories of religion as echoed in the television show American Gods (based on the Gaiman book of the same title). Examining narratives in popular culture is a means for revealing the concerns and interests of its audience: what concepts and themes do people consume, absorb, and then manifest, and why?

Disclaimer: I have not (yet) read the book. Gaiman’s works (unsurprisingly) have overlaps with my academic interests, as they often reflect similar concepts and ideas that rest in the tension between contemporary popular culture and new religious movements—especially those groups and persons of the self-identified “magical” kind. As I’m currently trying to get through my doctoral comprehensive exams, I have to get super tight with Judith Butler before I can enjoy things like reading for pleasure. So, a copy of American Gods is currently waiting for my time and attention, as it stands on my bookshelf in good company, next to a small collection of miniature witches.

Holtzmann’s there in case things go awry.

Ok. To begin, please indulge me in a brief pedagogical exercise. In my very first lecture, on the first day of class, I often ask students to call out defining traits of religion. Let’s do this now, as a group. Go ahead. Mentally think them at me. I’ll wait.

In the dozens of times I’ve asked this of an audience, they produce these characteristics, that, put together, we (popularly) conceive of as “religion.” I usually write them on the blackboard as I hear them:

Rituals/rites of passage

Community/church                          God/divinity

Morals/ethics

Leader/founder                    Book/scripture

I then stand before the classroom, point to these words—these supposed traits of religion—and ask one revealing question:

“What religion does this look like?”

After a pause, one brave person will answer “Christianity” or “Monotheism.” And this is the moment that demonstrates my point: we perceive these particular traits as defining “religion” because of the influence of Christianity in the Western world. By defining religion solely this way, we are, in fact, reinforcing the notion that Christianity is the only legitimate way to be religious.

Whether we are individually religious or not, Christian or not, is irrelevant. Broadly speaking, we absorb the concepts of our enveloping society. As Christianity has a distinct impact on Western thought (among other things), we have accepted its own internal definition of “religion,” and then (inappropriately) imposed it on other worldviews and religions. The result is that when we encounter religions that are missing these characteristics, we dismiss them as illegitimate or not real religions, despite intentions to understand other worldviews on their own terms.

This is also a problem in the academic study of religion.

In his book, Empire of Religion, David Chidester claims that the history of the academic study of religion is actually invested in the concerns and interests of the colonial empire by upholding the supremacy of (Protestant) Christianity, despite scholarly claims to objectivity. Chidester notes that early anthropologists, following pre-existing colonial merchant routes throughout the British Empire, encounter domestic religions, and deem them primitive, savage, and magical, as opposed to the enlightened, refined, and spiritual religion of Europeans. These early studies bifurcate human history, positioning (Protestant) Christianity[1] as the pinnacle of human civilization.

This history is embedded within higher education. We (the scholars) deem ourselves as having overcome and addressed this bias. However, if we still define religion in ways that apply accurately solely to Christianity, where it is an awkward or harmful framing otherwise, then we are, in fact, still advancing (Protestant) Christianity’s purported supremacy.

And this brings me to Neil Gaiman and the concept of “belief” in American Gods. Using “belief” as the rubric for what is considered religious behaviour is a modern(ish) phenomenon, and limited to the Western world. The Vikings would never have said, “I believe in Odin,” anymore than the ancient Israelites would have said, “I believe in Yahweh.” Ancient religions are imbedded within daily life and practice. The separation between what you do everyday and an ultimate claim—a “belief”—originates from a Christian theological development (and that idea was influenced by early Greek Platonic philosophy, but that’s a lecture for another occasion). In modern times, we have come to understand religion as equal to belief, without challenging the foundational premise. Is “belief” truly equal to all religion? Or is it, as I suggest here, yet another conceptual framework prejudiced by the history of the colonial empire and its interests?

The phrasing of religion as synonymous with “belief” is a methodological problem in the academic study of religion. We have taken a theological development from the Christian Nicene creed (you know the one that begins, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” etc.) from the fourth century, which is in turn compounded by the Lutheran claim of “sola fide” (by faith alone) in the fifteenth century, and then applied it as the standard by which to investigate all religious behaviour, in hilarious, confusing, and destructive ways.

We tend to ask, “What do they believe in?” when trying to understand a foreign culture. I like to tell the story of my brother’s deployment to Japan, wherein he was handed a pamphlet of information on Japanese culture, written by American corporations for their business executives. It stated: the Japanese people do not have any religion. Now, I do not know the method by which this data was gathered, but I am willing to bet that someone surveyed Japanese businessmen and asked them, “What do you believe in?” To which they likely replied, “Nothing.” This then gets understood as Japan having no religion.

But it’s the wrong question.

The question itself is burdened by the entire history of Western culture, which (erroneously) posits that religion is equal to belief. Consider instead asking, “Why do the Japanese people build temples? What is the significance of the Shinto rituals? How do they celebrate rites of passage?” And other types of questions that do not necessarily rely on a Western construction of organized religion.[2]

We even hilariously apply this concept of “belief” to wildly inappropriate areas: we say incongruous things such as, “I believe in science,” as if this statement is secular and contradicts religious worldviews. It does not. No scientist claims to “believe” in his or her work. Science is a method, a tool. It cannot be reconciled with what we conceive of as religion (in any of its forms). [Scientism, however, could certainly be viewed under this rubric.] We have adopted a phrase from one system (Christian belief) to inaccurately explain another (the scientific method) because they are in conflict in popular discourse.

“Belief”—that abstract, Christian, and central notion of religious behaviour—should not be retroactively considered when trying to understand the Vikings, Indigenous traditions, or anything divorced from contemporary Christian theological developments.

And this is where American Gods does an interesting thing. In its depictions of the old religions, it doesn’t quite explicitly state that the concept of “belief” was central (again, I have no idea if Gaiman’s descriptive words in the book had this implication). It does, though, present the dying gods as seeking adherents who “believe” in them in order to revive and reclaim their popularity. Shadow’s journey throughout the first season is to be slowly manipulated by Wednesday to eventually declare, “I believe.” “Belief” is central to how the gods seek power. So while I challenge the idea that Vikings in the Iron Age “believed” in Odin (they didn’t; the concept didn’t exist), it would certainly be appropriate for Wednesday to seek “believers” in modern times because Shadow has absorbed the narratives of Western culture that does equates belief with religion (as we all have).

Not only does Gaiman have Wednesday adapt to the conceptual framework of contemporary humans (i.e. “belief”), he also advances that modern society has shifted its definition of religion to echo another modern academic theory: that is, our society’s most “religious” behaviour is that which most occupies our “time and attention,” as Media claims. She continues with my favourite quote of the season:

The screen is the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to. Then till now. Golden Age to Golden Age. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen on their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood. (Media in American Gods)

Indeed. The television screen-altar is placed in prominence in most American homes. An alien anthropologist would look at the artifacts in our homes and claim that viewing images on screens is our primary religious activity. We’ve enlarged these home screen-altars to cinematic proportions, centralized them as our social and solitary focus, replicated smaller screen-altars to Media in other rooms, and now carry these hand-held screen-altars and incorporate them into our daily rituals.

Our obsession extends to celebrity itself. Famous people are Media’s priestly class, a means to access the divine, and we, the laity, offer our time and attention for a glimpse at the promised Good Life. We worship the cult of celebrity. We take their opinions—uninformed, decidedly amateur, and manufactured by publicists as they are—as gospel, as somehow more weighted than authorities and specialists. To be clear: celebrities are allowed to have opinions like anyone. But the general public is incapable of distinguishing informed opinion from unqualified opinion.

As celebrities are now our Priests and Priestesses of Media, we envy their position and influence. We voraciously devour their social media productivity. We fantasize about attending parties of the glitterati. We imagine ourselves as their romantic partners to such an extent that we get angry or sad depending on the status of this famous stranger’s romantic situation. We make ridiculous things called “The List.” The List, for those unaware, are names of famous people that you’d be permitted to shag if you met them in real life, with your partner’s (and presumably the celebrity’s) consent.

I cannot fathom making such a list. Even if I were, my so-called “list” of people I’d be permitted to fuck would never consist of something so banal as celebrities. If I’m going to imagine the impossible I’ll fantasize about book characters, mythical creatures, and sex that defies the laws of physics and the limitations of the known universe.

Provided my creativity is the only constraint, then, yes, I’d fuck the entire cast of American Gods ONLY IF they were actual gods and demigods. It would be my duty as a scholar of religion.

First on my list, is, naturally, Bilquis, because who doesn’t want to be all up in this exquisite cosmic vagina for all eternity?

Second, Mad Sweeney, because we all have a crush on Mad Sweeney.

I’ll be in my bunk.

Third, Media, because Gillian Anderson as David Bowie incites my bisexual impulses.

Media could transform into virtually anything I’ve ever seen on screen, like a Holodeck for sexual fetishes. Could Media also morph into the 1970s Hammer Film aesthetic? Because I have a vampire lesbian orgy fantasy that’s been with me since Ingrid Pitt.

I demonstrate my own obsession with celebrity here: images on screen are often our initial exposure to true arousal. The first time you saw something depicted on television or film that stayed with you, that marked you, is an aesthetic that remains in your personal repertoire of erotic tendencies—as highly idiosyncratic and individualized as they are, the experience of claiming that your first true crush was a television or film character is common.

Media as depicted in American Gods, though, is far more that simply our modern obsession with famous celebrities. Media represents a visceral provocation by images. For example, the first time I saw a 1970s lesbian vampire on screen I had a distinct, uncontrollable, and decidedly pleasurable reaction, far before I understood the concept of “bisexuality” or even had any mature, adult woman insights into my own grown-ass desires. And now when I see Mad Sweeney flex his muscles I think, “Oof. Pornstache got thick.” And I sigh a little, hypnotized by the beauty and sheer maleness of his body.

It is this immediacy of experience that has positioned images and the unruly feelings they provoke as a historical threat to Western monotheistic religions. It is not an accident that these religions warn against “idols” and “false” depictions of the divine. Images—especially the unsanctioned kind—incite wild emotions, they are perceived as rooted in base reactions of the body, reactions in direct conflict to loftier, intellectual, or spiritual ideals (i.e. “beliefs”).

So it’s fascinating that while Wednesday, the older god, clings to “belief” as a method to regain influence, Media, as the new god, presents herself as a series of iconic images, as they are a carnal means of manipulation and power. In their own way, Wednesday and Media are reflecting different theories of religion, the old and new, and the tension between them.

As the older religions withdraw (a debatable claim; also a topic for another time), so does our understanding of religion as “belief.” Newer religions tend to focus far more on the immediacy of experience, and centralize the human aspect and its potential (the divine plays a secondary role).

So if I were going to investigate modern notions of religion in western society, I would look at its obsessions, its common narratives, and its recurring themes and concepts. Media then emerges as the new religion. How would I apply theories of religion to television narratives as if they were canonical scripture? How would ritual theory explain people’s behaviour with screens (altars), as a means to access their divine (celebrities)? When someone fantasizes about attending a Hollywood party, is that their version of a heavenly afterlife reward for sacrificing their time and attention?

I don’t (yet) have answers. I have to get through the dissertation first. Maybe that’ll be the post-doc.

Love in procrastination,

Cim

 


[1] In this schema, those awfully ritualistic and peculiar Christians—Catholics—are also viewed in a similarly negative light.

[2] Yes, I acknowledge that in order to study foreign cultures and have your research read by a broader audience, scholars write in European languages and concepts. Post-colonial critique attempts to address some of these issues. I have no idea how successful we are just yet.

New Article on Religious Satanism

I’m delighted to finally share my latest publication, an article in the peer-reviewed journal: La Rosa di Paracelso. Click on title to access the journal and download the free PDF.

Cimminnee Holt

Abstract

The concept of “Total Environments” (1988) is outlined by Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan (1966), in response to the question: “What do Satanists do?” The query itself prompted by religious Satanism’s seemingly lack of recognizable “religious” traits: as an atheistic religion, they reject notions of the divine, demonic, and spiritual; there is no belief in a Golden Age myth to which to return; and no evangelical mandate or desire for mass conversion. What then, do members of the Church of Satan do? The answer, in part, is for Satanists to create the conditions for their individual desires to be reflected in the sensorial and material world.

This paper centralizes the sensorial and material qualities of religious Satanism as outlined by LaVey and understood by members of the Church of Satan. First, it discusses the objects used in Greater Magic rituals to demonstrate how these idiosyncratic items function as mediations of personal desire; and secondly, how LaVey’s ideas on insular spaces outside of ritual space—his concept of Total Environments—reveals that Satanists perceive their entire lives as an ongoing extension of the will. Living “satanically” in the world is a continued magical act mediated by materiality itself. LaVey’s concepts on magic contribute to the historical discourse and study of magic, and this paper suggests that LaVey’s framework can be used to study the lives of Church of Satan members as a whole. That is, applied religious Satanism is, ideally, creating a Total Environment.

___________________

From La Rosa di Paracelso, No 2 (2017) (special issue)

Diabolus in singulis est: The Devil, Satan and Lucifer

“The most recent studies by Massimo Introvigne, Per Faxneld, Jesper Aagard Petersen and Ruben van Lujik have highlighted, under various aspects, the relief of the figure and symbolism related to the Devil. Such historical importance concerns the History of Ideas in the same way, as well as that of the Western Esotericism of the New Religious Movements. It is clear, for example, that a certain conception of the devil distinguishes the work of Anton Szandor Lavey (pseudonym of Howard Stanton Levey, 1930-1997) and his Californian Church of Satan, or the films of director Kenneth Anger (pseud by Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer, 1927 – still alive), or the thought of Robert de Grimston (weigher of Robert Moor, 1935 – still living) and Mary Ann Maclean (1931-2005), as well as of the group they founded The Process Church of the Final Judgment. Diaballein, of the luciferic fallen angel, as well as an androgynous being or a “spirit of the earth or of opposition” have influenced and continue to interest the most diverse historical, social and cultural dynamics concerning the groups and various currents of Satanism, past and present.

The most recent studies by Massimo Introvigne, Per Faxneld, Jesper Aagard Petersen and Ruben van Lujik have highlighted, in different manners, the prominence of the figure and the symbology of the Devil. And in the domain of the Western esotericism and in the New Religious Movements. One of them, understand, for a certain idea of ​​the Devil marks the work of Anton Szandor Lavey (pseudonym of Howard Stanton Levey, 1930-1997) and of his Californian Church of Satan, or of the films of director Kenneth Anger (pseudonym of Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer, b. 1927), or of the thought of Robert de Grimston (pseudonym of Robert Moor, b. 1935) and Mary Ann Maclean (1931-2009), and of the group of the Final Judgment. Diaballein, of the Luciferian fallen angel, with an idea of ​​an androgyne being of the spirit of the earth or of the ‘have impressed and continued to interest the most different mechanics from a historical, social and cultural point of view, concerning groups and various currents of Satanism, past and present.”