They come for the artists first

shepard-greaterthanfear-copy-768x1024Like many people across the world, the words of Pastor Martin Neimoller have been foremost in my mind these days.  Set on permanent repeat actually.  A bass chorus chanting under my daily conversations and routines ever since Trump assumed occupation of The White House, and particularly in light of Holocaust Memorial Day.

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a communist.

I am assuming you are familiar with the poem and its chilling reminder of how dictatorships begin and where they end.  If not, I advise you to commit it to memory and keep its message close to your heart in these troubled time.

But this morning I realised something important: the poem is wrong.  They—the big, faceless (well, no longer faceless, actually), all powerful, fascist THEY do not come for activists first.  They come for the artists.  Upon realising this, I felt stupid for never seeing it before.

As a second generation Drama teacher, actor, writer, singer and advocate of the arts, I have always known that The Arts frequently go unacknowledged and under-appreciated.  In my student days at an American High School, I raged about the fact that The Speech Team I competed and regularly won for never received the same sort of recognition given to the football team who regularly lost.  Out amazing, talented, hardworking Music Department had to sell candy bars every year just to afford the basics of uniforms, instruments and travel expenses.  I never once saw the sports teams having to do this.  It enraged me.

Thirty years later, as a teacher of The Arts, little has changed.  Arts programs are always the first to go.  Artists accept this.  We hate it but we accept it.  We are not viewed as essential or important or necessary to the world, no matter how deeply we know in our hearts that we are.

But this morning I woke up and realised I had it all wrong.  Not only are we essential—of COURSE we are essential—but those in power know we are.  The Big, Bad They knows exactly just how essential and powerful and necessary artists are and that’s why The Fascist They is terrified of artists.  That is why artists become targets, and not just for budget cuts.

Who did terrorists attack not once but twice, in 2011 and 2015?  Charlie Hebdo.  A magazine.  Why was Charlie Hebdo targeted?  Because of art.  According to inside sources, Trump plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Corporate Broadcasting.  Even before assuming office, Trump began a Twitter war with the artists of Saturday Night Live and Hamilton and, of course, with the press.

In the seventeenth century, Cromwell shut down the theatres.  Before him, the medieval church did the same.  Both Cromwell and the Church he despised believed the arts were sinful and dangerous.  In the cast of the latter, this did not apply when the arts were used to glorify their version of God.  Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain—all suppressed the arts through censorship and media control.  It’s practically step three of The Dictator’s Handbook: control the artists.  If you can’t control them, shut them up.

Why?

Because The Big Bad They knows artists have power.  Possibly more power than the military or the agitators of the opposition.  Art stays.  Art expresses.  Art hits us in the head and the heart.  Art makes us laugh at the people who want to scare us.  Art changes everything.

jimmy_c_anne_frank_street_art_berlin_10081In English classes, I teach about the importance of art in World War One propaganda.  How poetry and poster art rallied the reluctant to the cause.  A century later, poetry is all that remains of Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and August Stramm.  Anne Frank never meant to use her diary to change public understanding of The Holocaust, but it did.  She showed the world what it lost through the experiences of one little Jewish girl and her family.

And what did we see in the streets last week across the Globe?  Wave after wave of art in the form of protest signs.  The craft of knitting on display, topping the heads of the mob in fabulous pink.  And music: glorious, noisy chants and song.  Poetry from the podium.  Angry art on the march.

Hitler knew about the power of The Arts.  He was an artist himself and he used art to manipulate the image of Jews.  Music too became an important rallying cry for German Nationalism.

But The Art must be controlled.  It must serve The Them.  It cannot be allowed to flourish.

So what?

My history teacher was forever asking us: So What?  Why is this important?  Why do we need to know this?

Because we have to keep making art. It is an essential part of the resistance.  Keep arting, keep acting, keep writing.  Keep expressing your truth and sharing it with the world.  That last part is essential: share it with the world.  If you are not an artist yourself, become a supporter of The Arts. Go to galleries, concerts, theatres.  We need art more than ever now.

Fascists fear art, so we who wish to resist have an obligation to be their worst nightmare.womens-march-on-washington

Join The Mockingjay Fellowship Army: A YA Geek’s Survival Guide for the Wars to Come

Fiction-all art in fact-holds a mirror up to reality.  That mirror may be painfully accurate or distorted by fantasy, but either way that mirror reflects truths of humanity.  It is where we find comfort and discomfort, the world as it is or as we wish it to be, a place of refuge and a place of strength. 

Like billions of people across the world, I am struggling to come to terms with the events which played out in America this week.  Before you turn away in boredom or disgust (though I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy if you did, for the internet is dark and full of terrors at this time), I urge you to place the results of the election into a wider context.  This is not just about Trump’s election.  It’s more about what his election says about our world.

We are entering into a period of “Interesting Times” and must brace ourselves for what is to come.  You have studied the events of the twentieth century I am sure, though it is unlikely that your high school history teacher was anywhere near as brilliant as mine (thank you, Mr Walters).  A clear grasp of the events which led to first World War I and then World War II is essential knowledge for us all at this time, so if you were not paying attention in class, go back and look over your notes again.  Better yet, photocopy the notes your Hermione Granger-type friend took and study those.

Taken in isolation at the time, not one of the key moments looked as if it could lead to the global horrors that followed.  Together they did.  It happened.  And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are slow learners.  Every clock has a pendulum swinging back and forth-that is the nature of time. So, get ready.  The pendulum is about to go about as far to the right as it is able.

Read the news.  Look around you.  Pay attention.  Open your eyes, ears and mind to the new reality.  It ain’t pretty.  We are only days into the New Trump Order and already race hate, misogyny and homophobia are running rampant.  The Death Eaters are gearing up for a march toward Mordor.

Fortunately, we keen readers of YA Genre Fiction are uniquely prepared for just such a state of affairs.  All those delightful hours losing ourselves in the dystopian world of Panem, cheering on Dumbledore’s Army and following the terrifying journeys of The Fellowship are about to pay off.  These brilliant authors, these beloved characters and these rich tales of heroism were preparing us all along for difficult days.

The following is a survival guide for the wars to come.  I wish you good fortune.  I wish us all wisdom and fortitude to make it through.

thai-protesters-with-three-finger-salute-imitate-katnissRule Number One: Know the Real Enemy

When Katniss was in her second Arena, she did not know who to trust.  Haymitch’s words echoed in her head: “Remember who the real enemy is.”  The real enemy is probably not the person next to you who voted for Trump or whose parents voted for Trump.  The real enemy at the moment is the same enemy who always rears is ugly head at times like these: that three-headed hydra of Fear, Ignorance and Greed.

Ask yourself why did the middle of America vote for Trump in large numbers?   Why did working class voters in Britain vote for Brexit?  It’s too easy to say because they were stupid.  Ignorance is not the same as Stupidity.  Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and understanding, not a lack of brain power.  And it is easy to be ignorant when the popular press is all you read and it is telling you that immigrants took your jobs (sound familiar?  Daily Prophet anyone?).  The Greed and Ignorance heads of the hydra working together.

The greatest con being pulled right now is that immigrants are to blame for the economic and employment difficulties happening in the UK and the US.  But the real enemy is the greed of the wealthy business owners who moved their manufacturing to cheaper countries, bleeding the working class of their own countries dry.  These same greedy, wealthy business tycoons are also influencing or, in the case of Trump, running the governments which are convincing the people that immigrants are to blame.

Know the enemy.

 

Rule Number Two: Keep Your Friends Close.8cclhly

Frodo would not have made it to Mt Doom without Sam by his side.  Harry Potter needed Hermione and Ron.  Buffy needed her Scooby Gang. We won’t make it through this alone.

Make sure, however, that these friends are true friends.  Like-minded individuals who see the truth as you do and are determined to fight against it rather than give in to the popular opinion.  Prepare to be in the minority to start with.  You and your friends may be targeted.  Stick together.  Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville had Harry’s back when everyone thought he was lying about You Know Who.

Be that army.  

 

 

Rule Number Three: Stay True to Yourself

Lucy Pevensie, hero of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is one of my favourite characters because she stuck by her truth even when her entire family thought she was a deluded liar.  She knew that she had gone through a wardrobe into a magical land to have tea with a talking fawn and no one could tell her otherwise.  She didn’t back down and question herself.  Popular opinion did not sway her.

If you can see the hate and lies swarming around you and you know it is wrong, stick by your truth.  Don’t compromise your principles just because everyone else thinks you’re crazy or stupid.  Bigotry is wrong no matter what.  Persecuting someone based on race or religion, gender or sexual orientation is just plain wrong and you know it is.

Even Katniss risks losing herself first to the Capitol’s blackmailing demands that she quell the rebellion by becoming their pawn, then by her own demons which threaten her sanity. “To thy ownself be true.”  See, your English teacher is right.  Shakespeare is relevant.

Know your truth. 

 

dumbledores_armyRule Number Four: Don’t Give in to The Dark Side

They may have cookies, but those cookies are poison.  Another of my favourite childhood books (which you should read if you haven’t yet) is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy.  In the second book, The Kestrel, hero Theo joins a rebellion for all the right reasons, but soon becomes a monster who nearly kills the woman he loves.  Seriously.  Go read these books.

The Dark Side is a bit of theme with YA Genre Fiction.  Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Frodo, Katniss-they all face the choice of becoming the very thing they despise.  In the end, they all choose the light.

By all means join the resistance.  Go to rallies.  Organise walk outs.  Protest to the rooftops.  But keep a clear set of guiding principles in mind.  When in doubt, think on this: do you really want your good cause to be won through bad actions?

Don’t give in. 

 

Rule Number Five: Take Time for Joy

I believe, as do many others, that we are in for some hard times head.  The way might be dark and difficult, full of hard choices and ugly events.  But even in the midst of all this, take time to be happy.  Dance  at a wedding with your little sister.  Fall in love with your best friend’s little sister.  Celebrate birthdays even when the vampires are assembling a doomsday monster.  Play sports, eat great food, take lots of selfies to mark these precious moments spent with those you love.  Otherwise, what are you fighting for?

Live for joy. 

Isn’t it all a bit rapey: Sansa Stark and the Line in the Sand

got_wallpaper__sansa__season_three_by_mcnealy-d5ujhgiTwenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago).  While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin.  Yeah.  THE G.R.R.M.  The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction.  Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah.  To this my mother said one word: FICTION.

This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort.  What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate?  Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men?  Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?

‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M.  ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.

I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont.  But there is a wider issue at stake here.  What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction?  Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space?  Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?

And what do we do about rape?

This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me.  As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss.  He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are.  These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do.  Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three.  That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it.  The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).

But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”? 

I love it when people use that word.  As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived.  Rapey.  Rape-like.  Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish.  Because of the truth of it is too much.  Too much truth.

This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.  A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow.  Another woman was raped on television.  I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt.  It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.

Another woman was raped on television.  Enough.  The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough.  I get it.  I really do.  I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.

One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books.  Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion.  I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei.  Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me.  Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.

Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different.  What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark.  The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya.  Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to?  Hell yeah.  It’s far more painful.  I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly.  Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.

Another woman was raped on television.  “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue.  True.  Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated.  True.  But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.”  It was horrendous.  I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience.  When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest.   And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life.  But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television?  Should we not attempt to represent it at all?  Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?

What do we do about rape?

This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction.  I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world.  The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road.  Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.

Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life.  Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape.  For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser.  Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties.  For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types.  If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored.  To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.

But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation.  As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way.  The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience.  Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response.  It worked on me.  I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.

Was it awful to witness?  You bet.  Was it unnecessary and excessive?  Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay.  Sansa knew what was coming.  None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion.  The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together.  Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another?  Possibly.  But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality.  Why would it start now?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans.  I totally understand why, but I do not agree.  I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting.  The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it.  Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull.  I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.

If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly.  Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated.  Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience.  Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?

Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence?  Totally.  But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific.  Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out?  No.  Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?  Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity.  There is violence, suffering and horror.  Any fairytale can tell you that.  But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way.  Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show.  This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.

I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud.  I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons.  Here’s hoping.

Confessions of a Musical Junkie

I have a powerful, emotional and visceral connection to musical theatre.  When I go to see a musical, any musical, I start to cry.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a show I know and love or one I can barely sing along too; whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.  You can guarantee that, before the orchestra has a chance to find their groove, I will be in floods.  (There is only one exception so far to this rule: Miss Saigon.  I really hate that show.  And Grease but I would never willingly go to a theatre to see Grease.  Unless one of my former students was starring in it and offered me complimentary tickets and it would have to be a former student I really, really, really liked.)

into-woods-movie-release-dateIt doesn’t even have to be a live stage production.  Glee held me in its saccharine grip for three seasons.  After one episode I had to phone a friend and sob about it to him.  I went through an entire box of tissues during Les Miserables.  Even the recent televised Tribute to Tim Rice had me misty eyed.  Is it any wonder that I spent most of the two and whatever hour performance of Into the Woods quietly crying into my daughter’s hair?  (She sat on my lap throughout Act Two and, for the record, hair is not terribly absorbent. #shouldabroughttissues)

Why do I get so verklempt by musical theatre?  At first I thought it was just musicals I loved at an early age: Les Miz, Into the Woods, Chess, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita, Cats (I was nine, ok?), Pirates of Penzance, Jesus Christ Superstar…  I’m going to stop listing now because this is taking too long.  But why did I sniffle through Wicked, a show I like very much but am not particularly attached to emotionally?   Why did a scene from Lion King performed at the Tony Awards reduce me to a gibbering puddle?  I hate that stupid film!

My conclusion is that I am Pavlovianally (there’s an adverb for you) hard-wired to respond with deep emotion to musical theatre because so many of my happiest, most fulfilling moments from the age of 8-18 can be linked to musicals: shows I’ve been in, shows I’ve seen, soundtracks I’ve listened to so often they are in my blood.  When the lights going down and the orchestra tunes up I’m transported through a worm hole where sequins, recitatives and cycloramas mix with willow trees I’ve climbed, friends and family I’ve loved, opening night jitters, closing night tears, a lighting gel sample fan I carried around for years that taught me everything I know about colour, practising my tap dancing on a discarded plank of driftwood in my living room when I was ten, my dad in a pink dress playing the role of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum when I was seventeen.

Most of all, musicals remind me of my small town high school which put on a musical every spring.  Some parts of my adolescence sucked, but once a year there was a musical and all my friends were in it.  Every night we rehearsed, every weekend we painted sets, hunted for props or made costumes and every moment I remember thinking there was nowhere else I would rather be.  On my eighteenth birthday, after our last dress rehearsal of the last show I would do on my high school stage, the entire cast sang “Happy Birthday” to me and someone brought cake and ice cream and there was nowhere else I would rather have been.  Spring is still my favourite time of year and I still put on high school shows—only now I’m the teacher/director.  Magic, memory and music combine into a heady emotional cocktail, rendering me powerless to resist the siren songs.

I should pause at this point for an interval/intermission because this blog was supposed to be a review of Into the Woods and it’s turning out to be Confessions of a Musical Junkie.

IntoWoodsTitlePage1At the age of sixteen, right in the middle of my most musically emotional period, I discovered Into the Woods and immediately claimed it as my own.  Sondheim wrote it for me.  I am as convinced of this now as I was at sixteen.  What could be more Kate than a musical fairytale?  Nothing.

For me, this show is a coming of age story in every way.  The characters and story, lyrics and themes taught me a lot about the kind of person I wanted to be but also warned me about the pitfalls of growing up and making choices.  “Nice is different than good,” Little Red Ridinghood taught me.  “Isn’t it nice to know a lot…and a little bit not,” she also sings, which resonated with me as a self-confessed Miss Know It All.  Jack warned me about giants in the sky, but also reassured me that when I came back to my small world, it would seem different but dearer.  This is what every kid needs to know when they leave home to go to university.  Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife taught me about men.  Handsome princes might be good for “whatever” but it was likely that they would be “charming not sincere” and I should wait for someone in-between.  I learned that for sure.

The Baker taught me the most because Into the Woods really is his story.  In the first act he tries so hard to complete a quest without losing his moral compass—unlike his wife who is willing to do anything to get what she wants.  But when he loses her in the second act, he loses his way in the woods.  Scared that he will become “like father, like son”, he runs from the consequences of his choices.  Everyone runs from the consequences of their desire to achieve their dreams because their choices leave a big, bloody mess on the stage.  This musical is all about choices and the consequences of those choices and the realisation that while you are chasing your dreams, others are chasing theirs or just trying to keep their heads down and get on with their lives.  The final choices that these characters face are not necessarily good ones, but you can see them trying hard and that is the point.  You will make mistakes but fix them as best you can then tell your story and hopefully the next generation will learn a truth from it.  Into the Woods is a big chapter of my Bible which, I guess makes Sondheim a major prophet of some kind.

INTO THE WOODSAs with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, I was scared (“well, excited and scared”) to see the film.  I heard they had changed it, Disneyied it, sanitised it.  They didn’t really.  There were a few changes but mostly it was the musical I knew and loved with a cast cooked up in fairyland.  Chris Pine, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just perfect.  Little Lilla Crawford (I was scared at first that she had lip synced it but I looked her up and she’s totally a Broadway baby) is a gem.  I liked Meryl Streep, but as a fan of the show I wish they had cast Bernadette Peters so there could be one connection to the original play.  James Cordon continues to challenge my expectations and my biggest regret of the film is that he didn’t get to do “No More”.  Hoping for a director’s cut DVD.

As with Les Miz and Sweeney Todd and even Noises Off, I did find myself thinking throughout the film (when I wasn’t crying): great cast, great costumes and staging but can I please just see all these people do this on stage?  I’m a boards and greasepaint gal over screens and celluloid I guess.  I crave the live.

Treading Darkest Waters: on death, depression and other happy things

dark waterI met her in my fourth year of teaching.  A gifted young actress, musician songwriter, artist.  Able to communicate emotion through her talents with the kind of sincerity, depth and honesty that you cannot learn.

She was loved.  Oh dear me was she loved.  By friends and family.  Loved like crazy.

Later, I had to explain to some people who loved her—to my own students—that their beloved friend was in hospital because she had tried to take her own life.

She has been on my mind and in my heart recently.  Like Robin Williams, she was an artist.  Like Robin Williams, she suffered from mental illness (bipolar).  Few people knew it.  Fewer people saw it.  I know she tried more than once to take her own life. I am guessing Robin William’s final suicide attempt was not his first either.

I’ve been thinking too about my former teacher David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in almost the same way as Williams.  Struggles with depression, struggles with substances but ultimately the struggle was in themselves.  And their struggles were widely misunderstood.

I remember breaking the news of my student’s hospitalisation to a classroom of young people who knew her well.  After the shock wore off, they had questions.  The answers were difficult.

‘What happened to her?’ one asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well something really awful must have happened to push her to this.’

‘Nothing awful happened to her really.’

‘Why’d she do it then?’

I had to think about that.

‘She was sick.’

‘When did she get sick?’

‘Always.  Maybe.  A long time.’

My answer was pretty lame and I was losing my audience.  But how do you explain to someone who’s never been at the bottom of a well?  If you’ve never felt yourself drowning in darkness how can you empathise with someone who constantly treads black water?

‘It’s like having a broken leg,’ I said.  ‘If someone breaks their leg, you notice.  They limp.  Maybe they have crutches.  Or someone has a missing arm or finger.  You can see it.  And you know that person will have to do things differently.  Make allowances for their missing limb or digit.’

‘She had a missing arm, only no one could see it.  Every day she had to make allowances for that and worked three times harder than anyone else to go about her daily business.  Just not in a way anyone could see.’

And that’s the thing about mental illness.  It’s hard to see.  Because we can’t see it we struggle to understand.

Reading various on-line posts and messages about Robin Williams’ death, many are sympathetic, heartbroken.  Some use it as an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of mental illness and the quiet tragedy of depression which so many suffer from every day.  And there is confusion.  He had everything.  He was so loved.  He was so talented.  What a waste.  Some expressed anger that he would selfishly take himself out of the world that needed him.

But if you have depression, you cannot see any of that.  All you can see is the darkness around you and no way out.  Like the bottom of a well.  Your head can’t escape from the well.  Your body certainly won’t co-operate because all it wants to lie back, float, let the dark water lift your burden.

People with depression live like this–always treading darkest water.  Medication can lessen the symptoms.  Therapy can alleviate the helpless loneliness.  And sometimes it gets better.  Good days.  Better months.  But it’s not something you can snap out of.  It’s not simply a matter of shaking off the blues.  Depression is illness.  You treat it.  You cope with it.  But you can’t shake it any more than you can tell your sinuses to stop running because a cold is not convenient just now.  You can’t will a severed limb to be whole again.  You can only learn strategies for coping without it.

I have experienced depression in small doses on two occasions in my life: after the births of each of my children.  I struggled to bond with my daughters.  I felt useless.  There were many times I convinced myself both children would be better off if I gave them to someone else to raise.  I even had a plan for this that seemed totally reasonable at the time.  Breast feeding was particularly awful.  This reached a high point—or rather a low point—when I took a pair of scissors to my favourite t-shirt and shredded it just over my breasts.  At least it was my shirt and not my skin.

If I spoke to anyone about my feelings, people would almost always say the same thing: “your babies are beautiful, healthy and they are going to be fine.”  My babies were never a question.  I always knew they were fine and would be fine.  I was the mess.  I felt like I was slowly dying.

I vividly remember when I finally felt like a mother.  Or felt the way I thought a mother should feel.  My first born daughter was seventeen months old and we were on holiday together in New York City.  That was the first time I had fun with her.  It was just as bad with the second one, though I recovered faster.  I still have moments, rare though they are, when I make plans.  Plans that seem totally reasonable for about an hour.  I can’t image how it would feel to live in that dark place full time.

Some of my favourite authors have written about depression.  Matt Haig is one of the most honest.  Stephen Fry the most vulnerable.  David Foster Wallace the most eloquent in his own way.  Robin Williams spoke openly about his struggles.

She wrote about it too.  And I have written about her.  She was my primary inspiration for the character of Rowan in A Circle of Lost Sisters.  She is still here.  Everyday managing to tread darkest waters.