Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Everything's Major: An Interview with Comic Artist Sara Lautman from Doll Hospital Issue Three

Interview from Doll Hospital Issue Three, available in full here.

As I write this my scalp is bloody from hair pulling. I have tried hat wearing,pony-tail styling and good old fashioned guilt tripping but I cannot stop ripping my hair out. And that embarrasses me. Like a lot. It pains me more to admit that my hair looks flat and patch-y after a hair wash than it does to think-piece about suicide. It humiliates me more to visit a hairdresser and have them inspect my damage than to cry in public or whatever. Trich is ugly. And I don’t want to be ugly. I want you to like me. Any number of sins can be excused as long as they are aesthetically pleasing. And I fucked up by not being the pretty kind of sick, my trich living in conversation with my own funky physical health to create a distinct brand of Not Cute. It kinda feels like a contradiction that people on Instagram or whatever say they like my hair? That they wish theirs was as thick and curly. But a woman’s self destruction is raciaised so the compliments I get for my hair and my desire to destroy my hair are one and the same y’kno?

So yeah, trich sucks, everything sucks, but Sara Lautman, the comic superstar creator very much does not. Her work on memory, moomins and mental health have appeared in a bunch of neat places including Jezebel, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, she runs the zine series Macrogroan, collaborated with Sheila Heti to create the cut up story piece‘The Humble Simple Thing’ and her comic on trich is my favourite thing ever. We talked about self-destruction, stigma and Charlie Brown and it was super cool and awesome so maybe the world isn’t entirely awful after all.

Bethany Lamont: Comics (and actually beyond that cartoons and picture books too) are so good for expressing the impossibility of trauma and the ridculousness of mental illness. Like whether that’s Peanuts (I love your self portrait as Charlie Brown picture by the way!), Rory Hayes, Nekojiru, or that Robert Crumb documentary that took me like a week to recover from. What is it about the genre that lends itself so well to that stuff?

Sara Lautman: I’m not sure exactly, although I know what you mean. Maybe it has to do partially with the advantages of the medium and partially with the temperament of the artist. Different artists have their own unique advantages and tools. All the artists you mention here deal with showing pain differently. For Rory Hayes the writing of pain is more expressionistic, and the comfort element seems to be in mark-making. With Peanuts, the expression of pain is humor and the comfort element seems to be in somehow getting through or around
the isolation of that pain to some kind of fellowship. All the characters in Peanuts are defined through their unique weaknesses and problems. Linus needs his blanket. Lucy’s love is unreciprocated, and she is cruel. Sally hates school. Charlie Brown is Charlie Brown. Humor is a magic flute that lets people connect with one another in the midst of pain. Crumb, I think is a little different, because he is both a mark-maker and a humorist. He needs a lot of comfort. This is probably the category I identify most with. There’s a Lynda Barry quote about how being bored feels like “a cheese grater on your face” but then at least if you’re doodling, it’s like “sandpaper on your face”. It’s a little bit better.

BL: The murkiness of memory is a recurring theme in your work and as a mentally ill woman who struggles with experiences of unreality, trauma and dissasociation I struggle with this in my work so much! I question the validity of everything I experience which in turn makes me not want to fix it in a static space like art and writing. Is this doubt and weirdness something you embrace or is it still a struggle?

SL: Embrace. I’m not writing any memoir comics right now, so it hasn’t been a big issue recently, but I think that the adjustments my mind makes in memory are interesting. I like them. The most interesting is the difference between what I think happened and what someone else thinks happened. If I have access to someone else’s version of something, I want it. That’s the best case – getting multiple versions of a memory. But I don’t feel harassed by a need to “get the truth”. I’m a bad journalist. I suppose it is always a low frequency struggle, but the struggle is the fun. (Or the point/journey - however you like to think of it.)

BL: I know you’ve written about queerness and comics before-queer is an identity I go back and forth with but that’s another story haha-and I was wondering if you consider comics themselves to be a queer medium?

SL: Comics and queerness are the same in some ways – but I feel like I need to be more specific about the comparison. Comics used to be marginalized, now they’ve been accepted as a valid, even prestigious, art form. Creating an assimilation analogy between comics and queerness seems misplaced to me. Comics aren’t people. Comics makers (and readers and publishers and editors and everyone) are people. Underground publishing, feminist comics, and showing lived queer experience through the medium of comics had real influence on the lives of real gay and trans people. I guess at this point I’m excited and fascinated by ways in which queer comics makers helped us (and by “us” I mostly mean “other queer comics makers”) live another day, to make more comics, and be more gay. I’m less interested in formal qualities of the medium that might let us call it “queer” – like, a neither/nor quality of comics being “a third thing” is interesting, but not the coolest part of how reading or making comics relate to being a dyke or genderqueer or trans. All the queer cartoonists I know are engaged in very personal, socially inclined work! I sense that the queer comics world is not bloodless, or obsessed with formalism. It’s all genre mashups, autobio, porn, deeply invested research projects. It’s great. The opposite of bloodless. Bloody.

BL: You point out in your comic ‘The Itch II’ that “trich is a disease that makes you destroy a highly commodified part of your body” which makes me think of the media sterotype of fetishised white sick girls. As a mentally ill woman there’s an expectation of prettiness and like...blondeness, that our struggles are a visual cue for some random dude and trich seems to work against that myth of mental illness as an exaggerated version of some fantasy idea of femininity.

SL: Exactly! That’s why it’s so unwelcome. Because it’s very difficult to spin or reposition as something that flatters a male gaze point of view. What would a way to do that be? The career woman so driven that she has plucked herself bald. If the ultimate male construction of acceptable female mental illness is a depressed waif, maybe the archetype that follows anxiety and action is much more threatening. It’s more active.

BL: In ‘The Itch II” you say that “trich is defined by its stigma” that it’s “so utterly untalked about that its support culture is defined by shame”. I’ve been thinking a lot this for this issue of Doll Hospital, why there are certain parts of my mental health I’m embarrassed about and like it’s so bizarre I’ve written about suicide and extreme trauma a bunch of times, but for some reason I draw the line at trich?! And it’s like....??????

SL: Totally. I was nervous about making that trich comic. I think making it in pictures – and this goes back to your first question – let me feel safer than I would if I had just been writing text. The illustrations are sort of a diversion from the text, which feels much more intimate to me. I’m not really sure why. Maybe because writing represents a processed version of my thoughts, and drawings are a purer, more complete expression of my id? It’s ironic that I should feel more protected exposing a “pure id” thing. I think the real exposure, the real risk, is in people seeing the choices that I’ve made in editing and writing text. That’s scary. With drawings, it’s more like, well! Here’s my gross mind! Can’t help it! Of course, that distinction has a lot to do with my personal attitudes toward writing and drawing.

BL: It’s so true that the movie Young Adult is the only media depiction of trich anyone is aware of. I’m actually making a documentary on movies and representations of mental illness with my friends Cat and Claire so we’re sifting through a ton of misrepresentations of particular mental health narratives but like with trich there doesn’t seem to be ANYTHING!? Why do you think that is?

SL: I know! I could not believe it when I saw that movie. Diablo Cody is great, and a brave writer for doing that. There are so many reasons trich is invisible. From a writer or filmmaker’s perspective, I imagine that pulling in trich would be scary because showing something so socially loaded without precedent is a lot of pressure. Plus, like you noted before, even within the secret society of trich, the conversations center around shame. So even the safe spaces, for all the considerable good they do, reinforce closeting. It’s really bad.

BL: On a practical note do you have any advice on dealing with trich? Whether that’s resources of organizations or just like random things you’ve found to be useful?

SL: I’m not up on the current strategies. I did try taking that supplement called NAC – I have the bottle right here, it still has
some pills in it. Let’s see. NAC stands for N-acetyl Cistene. It might be snake oil. I read a bunch of testimonials and the results
of an iffy study from the U of Minnesota before I bought it. It was like seventeen bucks. It’s supposed to help “curb unwanted behaviors” so that could mean anything - a placebo effect is definitely part of the story here. I tried it for like two or three months and then I started forgetting to take it. I should have kept a journal while I was taking it because I can’t remember if it worked or not.

I haven’t really found an effective way to really get control of it. So far, my problem hasn’t been consistently intense. It gets worse when I’m very anxious about something. It was worse when I had a car. I’d always be at it when I was driving.

BL: How do you keep on creating art when struggling with mental illness? Because a combination of shame, self loathing and zero motivation to even get out of bed means I never seem to do anything? How do you do it?!

SL: Back when I started drawing seriously, every day, I did because it helped. I’m grateful that I’m able to spend as much time drawing as I do in my life now. At this point, there’s a greater momentum and investment behind the whole enterprise, so pushing myself to make work is not the difficult part. As for the rest, it was a learning curve. Daily exercise is major, eating food that doesn’t make you feel awful is major, getting enough sleep, major. If you use meds (I do), managing that is major. Seeing friends is very major. Everything’s major.

Psychosis or High Self Esteem? A Doll Hospital Issue Three Essay (cw suicide)

Artwork by Maggie Webster, Doll Hospital's graphic designer, 
essay from Doll Hospital Issue Three, available in full here.

I am too mentally ill to be a mental health advocate. I am at a nice mental health event with nice people doing nice things. But I am drunk. I am drunk and I am not nice. They are wearing t-shirts to show they work at mental health charities and are therefore nice people with nice jobs. I do not have a job. I never have a job. I am doing a PhD to distract people from this. A PhD is not a job, a PhD is barely an ‘is’. I am so drunk and they are screening ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ to raise awareness on mental health and we think it’s funny to start hissing ‘TRIGGER WARNING: Steve Carrell’ in each other’s ears. They do not include actual trigger warnings but they do read poetry about supporting your mentally ill loved ones but no one loves me because I am too annoying.

Steve Carrell in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ tries to kill himself, not for love, but for losing out on a McArthur genius grant. Sylvia Plath first tried to kill herself because she got rejected from a creative writing programme. [1] The next time I try to kill myself may or not be on the same lines. (The last three almost-kills were rubbing against that chorus so I think if I’ve got myself into that little death rhythm.) Sylvia was the girl who wanted to be God, (“this is a portrait of the artist as a sick colossus” says a man about her journals. [2]) But Sylvia is the girl I cannot love because I am petty and nasty and see her as competition, see her as the pretty ex-girlfriend I need to one-up. I have girl hate for Sylvia Plath, which is not altogether healthy, but I am not one bit healthy so this is not surprising.

People say her death solidified her work, a living body for a body of work, but how can I nudge that body out of the equation for people to be my best friend instead? Because the answer is not to kill myself but to kill Sylvia. Burn the book and burn the body. A slippery slope my psychosis is happy to slide down.

What a sick thing to say! You should be ashamed of yourself! Says the imaginary reader in my head because no one reads my work because it is evil and foul and bad and just altogether not good in the slightest.

The intrusive thoughts and the intrusive reader are an altogether identical structure. It is all psychosis, all psychotic, every step stub of the way. But the joke is on you (which means the joke is on me because you are not real.) Because I am ashamed of myself! I am! I am! I am!

I am ashamed of being too sick but mostly I’m too sick to feel shame so it balances out I guess.

A common conspiracy theory for the extraordinary and otherwordly is mental illness. The character is not special, they are just crazy enough to think they’re special. Harry Potter is a not a wizard, he is a mentally ill muggle with a persecution complex. He did not go to Hogwarts he went to a mental institution:

“It became clear to me that the entire Harry Potter series is an extended metaphor -- a coded transcription, really -- about a boy with severe mental illness, suffering from delusions. If we interpret the story as Harry’s fantasy, then the Dursleys are Harry’s real parents, and the Potters are imaginary.

The Durselys either can’t cope with the increasingly-delusional boy living with them, or perhaps they are merely abusive, and it’s the abuse that’s making him delusional. In any event, the parent-figures constantly mistreat him, favor the brother, and inflict endless cruelty and humiliation on him. One day, Harry snaps, and Dudley (who is really Harry’s brother) is severely injured, in a way requiring repeated hospital treatments. As a result of this incident, Harry is taken away to a “special school.””[3]

All art is an exercise in faith. Faith that what you’re doing won’t suck. Faith that you’ll live to finish it. Faith that the work will last long enough to share it with someone. Faith that it’s worth sharing with someone. Even if that someone is you yourself alone. But when does faith, so pure and true, turn into the dirty delusion of my own egotism, my own mania, my own psychosis. How sick do you have to be to think you’re special? And how sadistic do you have to be to tell a psychotic to believe in themselves?


They told me I was sick. Crazy,

I guess. And that Sunnydale

And... all of this. None of it

was real. Just part of some

delusion in my head.


Come on! That’s ridiculous!

What, you think this isn’t real

just ‘cause of all the vampires

and the demons and the ex-
Vengeance demons and the sister

that used to be a ball of universe-
destroying energy? [4]

Everyone loves the co-mobid clusterfuck of ***art and mental illness*** mistakenly believing that sickness is a cup and string connection to the divine. This is psychosis for the non-psychotic. (How I wish it was my psychosis!) Olden day people thought genius lived in the walls. I think people live in my walls. I think I am a genius. I think I am the voice of my generation but really I’m just hearing voices again.

“But Florence [Foster Jenkins] and Ed Wood

were troubled, and troubling. Although it’s easy

to mistake them for punk desperados, their drive

was actually weapons-grade self-deception. Wood

believed he was making great movies; Jenkins

heard an angel every time she sang, with strenuous

efforts made by those around her to stop her ever

learning that the world heard different. None of

that makes their stories less fascinating. But to go

through life as a laughing stock, in a fog of clinical

delusion, is surely, at heart, a horror movie.”[5]

I am no more a writer than I am a God. But my mind has tricked me into thinking I am both. The glee I had on a National Express coach at twenty in the realization that I was Jesus Christ himself. Earlier this month I was so overwhelmed by the brilliance of a Valentine’s card I made with glitter glue and pink paper, so convinced it would be archived in museums, held in special collections, that it lit the match of a manic episode that took days to come down from.


‘Cause what’s more real?

A sick girl in an institution?

Or some type of. . . supergirl.

Chosen to fight demons

and save the world?

(smiles, distantly)

That’s ridiculous. [6]

I think I am a writer. I think I am a genius. But I think I am Jesus so to hold weight to my thoughts is to sink your body like a stone, like Virginia Woolf in that lake where she died. (She thought herself a loser even though she was the real deal and I think myself quite brilliant even though I am a sea slug so thoughts can think a lot of things). ‘Oh you have lost all your confidence!’ says my mother as if that isn’t a good thing. As if to have such confidence in such a fantasy isn’t repulsive bordering on obscene.

My craziness is what causes me to create, but it is my craziness which speaks the lie that anything I create, anything I think, is of any value. I blow my nose and threaten to self-destruct when it does not win a Nobel. And no one will publish my essays or my manuscripts and my first novel has been rejected over 100 times, and I am trying so badly not to finish the second so this sorry process doesn’t have to start all over again. The thing that sustains me is the thing that will kill me and my next automated rejection letter may be my suicide note. 


I think I read this somewhere but is this actually true? Does it matter?


John Carey, The Sunday Times, quoted in: Stephen Moss, ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath’,

The Guardian, 4th April, 2000


See—‘What Harry Potter Is Actually About. Childhood Ruined’. Tickld. 2015

Reddit, Fan Theories, ‘The Harry Potter series is about mental illness’. Hogwarts is a mental institution. 2014.


Normal Again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 17


Danny Leigh, ‘Why Hollywood Loves Losers’, The Guardian, 17th March 2016.


Normal Again, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 17

Doll Hospital Issue Three: Editor's letter extract

An extract from my editor's letters for our most recent issue of Doll Hospital! These subjects continue to poke at my mind so I thought I'd share it here in case you feel the same?

Full issue in digital form available here, it's 162 pages full colour, with a pay as you wis option and I promise you it's awfully good! Hate screen stuff? Then you can get hard copies of issue two here also!!!

But okay enough rambling the editor's letter itself:

A common dismissal of mental health narratives is that they are overly self-centred but, despite all my unapologetic essays on my experiences on actual freaking narcissism, I 100% disagree. It is only through engaging with mental health narratives and connecting with others experiencing mental health struggles similar to my own that I’ve been able to look beyond myself, my own illness, my delusions and flaws and egotism, to see something bigger, an interconnected galaxy of mental health stories that I am (thankfully) only a tiny part of. 

I didn’t used to think like this. My delusions, psychosis and generally obnoxious nature, paired with our capitalist culture of individualism made me insufferable for so long! Because, even as mentally ill people ourselves, it’s easy to buy into dodgy narratives if they can make us look ‘good,’ or throw other mentally ill people under the bus if they’re making us look ‘bad.’ I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually, as the stigma for mental illness is so great that it’s easy to avoid accountability for hurtful behaviour in order to prove all those guilt-tripping ‘mentally ill people are bad people’ nonsense statements wrong. But accountability is not ableism and I’m not interested in reducing myself to some corny neurotypical ideal.

Mental illness has, to put it mildly, not been, y’kno, **great** for me. And I don’t think it’s made me that fun to be around either. Complex PTSD results in some not good stuff y’kno? And I keep thinking about those amongst us who are seen as too ‘scary’ to be mentally ill, whose trauma and mental illness has resulted in negative, even violent behaviour to those around them, so they are reduced to phrases like ‘evil,’ ‘monster,’ and ‘psychopath,’ and as result are seen as lost causes, incurable, ‘born bad.’

It is perhaps more comforting to isolate these incidents, to separate them from cozy Etsy-store-style mental health brands, so we in turn can deflect accountability from ourselves and forget we exist in conversation with the communities around us, and as a result of fucked up coping mechanisms and internalised bullshit from a hostile world, hold that same capacity for hurtful behaviour. These conversations are difficult, uncomfortable even, but they’re the ones we need to be exploring if we are to move beyond troubling ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ binaries (a subject so brilliantly explored in Loletta’s ‘Good Depression/Bad Depression’ essay in this issue) and towards a mental health conversation that is truly reflective of the pressing realities of trauma and mental illness.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Moral Panic and Mental Health: Unsympathetic survivors and unwilling viewers

Okay! Continuing in the spirit of updating you all on everything I've done in the past year another lecture/powerpoint/class plan for you! Again for undergraduate students at Central Saint Martins ^____^

People who self diagnose on the internet-clip from 0:27-1:38

Open Sourcing Horror: Understanding Internet monsters, gross out videos and traumatic images

A class I gave back last autumn (and will be giving again **this*** autumn!) for undergraduate students at Central Saint Martins, as the idea of like content exclusivity ***especially** in academia is gross and elitist and as all my work comes from blogging anyway it only makes sense I share it here too! Sorry the image quality is not great ;____;