Tag Archives: mental illness

Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall: A long digression about the horrors of graduate school

I have a PhD and I don’t have a faculty job. I do have a job in the academy with an academic leaning, so I’m considered an ‘#alt-ac’ (if you needed a label for me). There are a set of feelings I am meant to feel about this so-called slide in circumstances: shame, bitterness, regret, anger, sadness, overwhelming ennui, etc. I’m supposed to have horror stories of graduate school – nightmarish committee members, or a protracted and impossible thesis writing experience, or denied funding, or destroyed mental health.

Too bad I suck at the post-PhD dinner party game of reciting the escalating list of terrible things that happened during graduate school. I had a reasonably good time in graduate school: a fantastic supervisory committee who supported me in my work as well as in my recognition that I wasn’t going to go tenure-track, stable funding*, supportive family/friends/relationship,  and the self-awareness to know my thesis didn’t need to change the world (though it did change *my* world…) it just had to get… done. Plus I got to spend four years reading novels (and starting this blog!) and thinking about them in coffee shops whilst going to the gym whenever I wanted and staying out to all hours drinking pints and pretending to care about theory. I cannot overstate my privilege. Both as a graduate student (privileged to have the lucky set of circumstances I had during school) and as a person that could be a graduate student.

Even still, reading Suzette Mayer’s Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall gave me anxiety nightmares. Our protagonist, Dr. Edith Vane, is a tenured professor at the fictional Canadian Inivea University. Her life – like the building she works in – is crumbling. Her long-awaited book experiences a troubling release, she is being threatened with ‘refreshing’ (a euphemism for firing) and she suffers from debilitating anxiety that impacts her personal and professional lives (of course there isn’t much distinction for her). She reminded me a fair bit of Stoner, the 1965 gem about the failed academic just trying to get by. A resonance that affirmed that while the structural conditions of the university have certainly changed in the intervening years, the pressure to publish and to be (seen as) successful have continuity.

The structural conditions are where this book does well enough. It pays attention to the economic disparity within the university between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ disciplines. It lays bare the demand for professors to outwardly demonstrate their perpetual productivity at the expense of actually being (let alone being productive) and with the consequence of radical deterioration in mental health. It calls into question the inequality within their ranks from adjuncts to administrators to endowed chairs. That said, it largely ignores the experiences of students – there are scenes of teaching, to be sure, but students are largely impediments to Edith’s happiness in their constant demand for feedback and for higher grades. That is to say we aren’t invited to consider how the crumbling structural conditions impact on learning. Which is fine. This book doesn’t need to be about that. Just pointing it out for all my (potential) teaching & learning readers.

So right. The crumbling structural conditions. For a book about an English professor I have to admit I found the mapping of plot and theme in the book incredibly… obvious. The physical building of Crawley Hall is haunted and falling apart. Edith, proxy for academics everywhere, is falling apart. The pathetic fallacy is noted. Again and again. I get it. I got it. I get it again.

So if it does okay in showing us some of the issues in Canadian post-secondary, it doesn’t fair as well is in the plot, writing and character development. Which is to say, unless you are a former academic yourself, hell bent on some masochistic exercise in reliving the trauma of your own experience, I can’t offer much encouragement to seek this one out.

*I feel a bit defensive about this part. I was crushed each year to not receive the giant scholarship, but got by on the usual TA stipend and by working part time. But because I *didn’t* get external funding, I *had* to work part time. And this part time work turned into the full time job I got before graduating. And my career now. So… thanks for not funding me, I guess?

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All My Puny Sorrows: What Do We Mean When We Say “A National Conversation” (About Assisted Suicide and Mental Illness)?

Screen-Shot-2012-10-15-at-13.38.53You’ve heard it before. The refrain that “it’s time to have a national conversation about _______.” The call from pundits, activists and politicians to engage the nation in a discussion about race, or poverty, or legalizing marijuana, or smoking, or texting-while-driving. Or assisted suicide. What is less often said is what we mean when we say “a national conversation.”

Imagine it. Imagine the nation (once you’ve sorted out what you mean by that) engaged in a conversation. How would it happen? Where would it happen? Who would be invited to bring their voice and their perspective? How would it shift beyond you presenting your point of view, me presenting mine a little bit louder, you returning with yours, louder still? How, in an era of social media feeds filled with identical opinions to our own, would we ever escape our own existing political and social persuasions? With the decline (disappearance?) of shared, public social spaces that invite the free interaction of people of different social, political and economic backgrounds, how do we have a national conversation beyond the echo chamber of ourselves?

Oh I know you’ve already sorted it out. You’ve realized this is a book blog and I’m an earnest (if irritatingly one-tuned) champion for the power of novels to make our individual and collective lives better. Yep. I think one of the few ways we have a national conversation about a particular subject is to read about it in a shared literature. And then talk about it with friends, at book clubs, in libraries and with strangers.

Picture me: I’ve just finished Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows. It’s a book about sisters, art, love, mental illness and assisted suicide. Our protagonist, Yolandi, summarizes the central problem of the novel:”She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.” In effect her sister, Elf, wants to die, and Yolandi wants to stop her from dying (or to make her want to live) (and these two things are different). Until Yolandi isn’t sure if she wants to stop her, or to make her. Maybe she wants to honour Elf’s deep, desperate, sincere and considered desire to end her life.

So I’ve just finished the book and I’m feeling very much like this is a book I need to talk about. And I’m in a bakery in little town and the woman behind the counter notices I’m carrying a book. She asks me about it, and I tell her “meh, it’s just okay, but I just finished an incredible book, All My Puny Sorrows, about [see the summary above]”. And we spend ten minutes (not that long really, but long enough – try it) talking about the central problem of the novel. She presents her view – one shaped by a Christian faith, her own experience with anxiety and a concern about abuse. I present mine – deep confusion, worry that ‘allowing’ assisted suicide for mental illness entrenches ideas of mental illness as an irrecoverable state, a committed belief in the importance of respecting individual’s choices (and, indeed, contributing to contexts where individuals might make their own choices). We talk and we listen and neither of us leave the conversation any more sure about anything.

I admit this experience is rare. Short of teaching novels (ah! another way we have a national conversation: the classroom!), I don’t often go around talking to other people about the books I’m reading (okay, you’re right, this blog definitely counts as me talking to other people about the books I’m reading). But I can’t put it any other way: All My Puny Sorrows demands discussion.

It is not an easy book. Other reviews have pointed out moments of humour, but I admit I missed these – or perhaps I just didn’t recognize them as moments of levity – caught up as I was in the… impossible (perplexing seems too small a word) experience of Elf, Yolandi and their family. I suppose the closest approximate to its humour would be the viral comedy set by Tig Notaro that layers tragedy upon tragedy until the sheer weight of the suffering can only be hilarious because otherwise would be to succumb.

Of course I’m reducing the book by saying it’s about assisted suicide and mental illness. It’s about a whole lot more. Questions of familial loyalty (what would you be willing to give for your family member?), the relationship between art/genius and suffering (that old trope), the ‘treatment’ (both in the clinical sense and the representational) of mental illness. The affiliative (friends, brothers-in-law and lovers) and filiative (sisters, mothers, father) relationships that not only shape our identity, but gather up the pieces of it in both hands and sort of cluster-squeeze us back together when we crumble apart.

One of the other questions that threads the novel is to what extent we inherit our suffering. The novel does not dispute the inheritance of mental illness, but it asks a different kind of question about inheritance of suffering. Instead of associating suffering in a one-to-one relationship with mental illness, the novel asks whether the psychological and physical pain of mental illness might be one kind of suffering that is passed on through genes, while another sort of suffering – that of loneliness, or alienation, or loss – might be another kind of suffering we – inadvertently – give to our children. The suffering in this novel is, then, both related to mental illness and much larger than mental illness. It is much larger than Elf, and lived by the other characters. It acknowledges and creates space for Yolandi’s suffering, her mother’s, Elf’s husband, and ours as readers.

It becomes a question then of when we – you and me as individuals – find our suffering (whatever its cause) to be so great that we do not want to live with it any longer. The novel asks us to stop and fully consider: What do we owe one another in these moments – these enduring moments that become a lifetime?

Miriam Toews has brought a compelling voice to the national conversation about assisted suicide. As we head into a federal election, we’re presented with another occasion to engage in national conversations. We can use elections as an opportunity to ask ourselves and our neighbours about what we want for and from our national government, and what we are willing to do and give to make this happen. You could do worse than to read All My Puny Sorrows and then talk to someone else about it. We might just end up having a national conversation.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner