Toward the end of the Spring 2013 semester, Introduction to Critical Theory undergraduate students at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School read Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (Dorothy, 2012) through the lens of feminist and gender theories from Susan Bordo and Judith Butler. Over the summer months, Scanlon engaged with our questions about gender and mental illness, as well as questions about her practice as a writer.
Interviewed by Alexandria Bull, David Chrem, Jacob Cohen, Lauren DeGaine, Charlie Epstein, David Hall, Elizabeth Kichorowsky, Anna Meiners, Jade Quinn, Georgia Van Gunten, Chey Watson and Indigo Weller.
The Class: We are curious about research that may have gone into Promising Young Women. The experiences of Lizzie and her fellow patients are specific and realistic—did you conduct interviews or observations of women in mental health facilities?
Suzanne Scanlon: On the one hand, I didn’t do much direct research for this book. On the other, the book is concerned with my ongoing obsessions, among them: so-called mental illness, the pathologization of emotion, female experience and spiritual/artistic seeking. I’m often reading and teaching books related to (female) experiences of institutionalization, as fiction or nonfiction, and I know many people, myself included, who have suffered severe bouts of depression and other debilitating conditions. But also, I suppose I wanted to bring in something true and culturally specific about mental health facilities, here related to 1990s New York City, and to remove the barriers we normally place between the healthy and unhealthy. I’ve long felt the dominant medical-model framework for emotional experience to be lacking—and yet, necessary. I’ve also long been interested in literature that deals with madness, from fictional unreliable narrators (“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Turn of the Screw) to straightforward memoir about madness (Styron’s Darkness Visible or Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted).
TC: On the other hand, is there a personal basis for any part of Promising Young Women?
SS: There are feelings and experiences in the book that came out of my own experiences, or the memory of certain feelings, yet though it contains elements of my story, it’s not exactly my story—or any one person’s. I wanted it to be that and something else; I wanted to take some of what I went through as a young woman and push it—to contain the experience of many women, or human beings, so that I might speak to larger ideas.
Still, I think the more specific art is, the more powerful it can be. At least that is what I’ve experienced as a reader. This may seem evasive, but the truth is that it is hard for me to separate what’s true and what’s fiction. For me, fiction is truth! Maybe for a writer this line is blurred so early on, and so regularly, that it’s always both—it’s always personal and it’s always fiction, a construction. It all gets so mixed up in the writing process that those sorts of “truth” questions don’t matter.
I guess if I published this as a memoir, I’d have different expectations, which is perhaps why I prefer fiction. Still, I know it does matter to certain readers, the question of where I’ve been or what actually happened, and I guess this is the best (and most unsatisfactory) way I can answer that.
I remember this great interview with Eileen Myles where she spoke of the way she sees women as insiders. She reads her life as always from within some sort of institution—and that writing, for her, became about revealing the experience of being held, in that way. Whether it was a mental hospital or a camp, it was some kind of institution. That’s sort of what I was thinking about, too—that as a “promising young woman,” there were many spaces which claimed me, held me (a Catholic school, a hospital, a church, a stage) and yet the specific hollow pain (as Myles called it) of being inside those spaces weren’t represented anywhere. Myles said that at some point she decided to “camp out” in being female, to try and say what it was like in there. That’s really inspiring to me, and, I suppose at some point, I had to finally get real with myself as a writer, to reveal my own insider perspective.
TC: In Promising Young Women, you weave together fragments to create a cohesive narrative. What was your process of organizing and structuring the text into a narrative? Did you write the fragments in the order in which they appear? If not, how did you choose to order them to create such a well formed narrative?
SS: No, the only order that remains from the original ordering was “Ward Six.” That was the first piece I wrote of this, many years ago, and that remains the book’s opening. I wrote a lot more, after an initial draft, to connect the dots more explicitly. I did that after a writing group suggested the fragments were a problem. But much of this, in later revisions, was just bad writing that I needed to cut. Danielle Dutton, who does Dorothy and is an amazing editor, was able to make the fragments work together, to see the power in the fragmentation, the gaps, the space.
TC: What informs the shifts in style/voice? Is it an intuitive or researched approach?
SS: It was intuitive, just something that happened as I wrote and (especially) revised. I guess I’m not satisfied with one voice, particularly when this is a story very much about an identity informed by many identities, by the performing, trying out/on of identity. I wasn’t consciously applying theory, but if I have to explain it through a critical lens, it is likely that for me one voice is never sufficient to tell any story, that the self is a shifting, expansive construct. I love, for example, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, probably one of the first books that truly blew my mind and does each time I return to it. It is so seamless, the way Duras shifts from first to third person, the fragmentation and the digressive quality of storytelling. This is the kind of work/author that most formed me as a writer—work that acknowledges that there are multiple ways of telling a story, just as there are multiple explanations for why or how a person becomes who she becomes.
TC: From where did your inspiration for Lizzie come?
SS: I suppose from my experiences as an aspiring actress and writer and person; but also from what I’ve read, seen on film, absorbed through popular culture, girl culture, etc.
TC: We noticed that Promising Young Women frequently references outside texts and authors, including Plath and Woolf. In the lineage of women’s writing, what books or authors have you found the most inspiring?
SS: There was this moment in college, early on, when I realized that I needed to read women writers. Not exclusively, but necessarily. After my first Women’s Studies course, perhaps. I read Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras and Virginia Woolf and, well, so many others. I mention this sampling because I have very specific memories of my self, my body, in the moments of reading these writers for the first time: the specific dorm room that summer (I was 19) I read The Color Purple, the couch in the studio where I sat as I read Beloved, the same couch where I first read The Lover, the floor or corner in the studio where I read A Room of One’s Own and Pride and Prejudice. It seems so utterly central to my sense of self, my coming of age, my awareness of where I might fit in this world of women who had suffered, yes, but whose voices and work would carry me through. That might sound grandiose or sentimental, but it’s true. In a similar way, I relate this expansive sense of self, this transhistorical conversation, to a memory of listening to an Indigo Girls song in the nineties called “Virginia Woolf.” I can see myself lying on a single bed in a cement-walled room on a New York State psych ward, up in Washington Heights, listening to Tori Amos (Little Earthquakes) or The Indigo Girls. I had Rites of Passage on cassette tape and listened to Emily and Amy sing their song of tribute to my favorite writer. It makes me shiver, that I recall this moment with such clarity. That it occurred, even. In some ways, The Indigo Girls were as helpful to me as Virginia Woolf or Mary Gordon or Sylvia Plath or Duras or Kristeva or Audre Lorde. Or Prozac, for that matter. Or Zoloft or Nardil, etc.
TC: How do you approach writing from the perspective of a woman who is considered “unstable” or “certifiable”? Is the fragmented narrative related to this?
SS: I suppose I rarely thought of her as unstable. I guess that’s an outsider perspective, to see her that way—so I didn’t think of it that way, which is perhaps why it wasn’t always easy to write. This psychic space is not where I live, but I can see it, not so far off, on a continuum of emotional experience. It was important for me that the reader understand that s/he could be this person, too, given different circumstances or life experience. It’s nice that some have read the perspective as linked to the form, but honestly, maybe especially as a woman and writer (and mother!) I’ve often felt the self as fragmented. I was just talking to a friend about this, a woman writer who also has a child—about how difficult it is to move from the space of the writer/artist self to the mothering self to the professional self to the wife/partner self. It seems impossible not to feel fragmented.
TC: In the process of writing Promising Young Women and taking up issues of mental health, how did you navigate existing social discourses without perpetuating stereotypes? Did you intentionally employ any feminist epistemology of methodology?
SS: Ah, well. I think I perhaps did perpetuate stereotypes. Actresses as flaky, crazy, unstable? It’s like a Woody Allen movie. But I have often felt like a stereotype! Haven’t we all? Maybe we all want to be in a Woody Allen movie, at least once in a while.
I think I’m interested in how representation can make certain experiences more painful. The template exists before we do, and so how to extricate ourselves from the structure? It’s impossible, on some level. I had to be a young woman. I had to be a stupid aspiring actress. I had to make all of these mistakes and pursue answers and truth and salvation in all of the wrong ways. Maybe it gave me something, fed me in perverse ways even if it was/is severely limiting.
The feminist epistemology that has become important to me over the years surrounds readings of mental illness as culturally specific, gender specific. This is important in the book, I hope. I teach “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, considering Foucaultian ideas of discipline, of the female body as a site of necessary discipline. I saw Augustine recently, the film about Charcot and his star patient. The film covered much of the same territory as my book! The young woman placing faith in this doctor. “Will you cure me?” she asks. A loss of faith pushes one to this, to illness, as a new faith of a kind—a way of looking out of yourself, to another authority, to find out who you are. It’s still happening, just in different ways. In PYW, set some one hundred years after “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there are these women in a mental hospital in New York City (the epicenter of women’s freedom, if popular culture would be believed!) disciplining their bodies in various ways: cutting, starving, binging. Even being locked up, identified as ill or crazy or with “emotional problems,” allowing oneself to be named and defined this way—well, it’s a more insidious discipline.
TC: Lizzie’s voice and her concerns as a character seem to transcend her immediate context, namely the mental institution. How important is it that Promising Young Women is set in these institutions?
SS: I think Dr. Melman says something about this being a microcosm for the world at large. I wanted it to be that way—that this could be anywhere, really, and that perhaps what she is going through is very much about being a young woman (writer/artist) trying to come of age in a world/culture that is often offensive, infuriating, dehumanizing. Which is very different from being “sick.” But, at the same time, there is something honorable and spiritually valid happening there, within this flawed paradigm, a space that allows for the very slow, messy process of searching, seeking, becoming.
TC: In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler discusses identity as construction and performance. In Promising Young Women, Lizzie is, by trade, an actress and simultaneously distressed by the failures and gaps in language. What is the role of language as it relates to the materialization or denotation of identity? Are these terms—materialization and denotation—exclusive of one another?
SS: It’s huge. There are so many roles for women which offer identity of one kind, yet shut the door on so much else. These are roles I see in life, as well as on stage or in film—that you can create your own prison through language. The language surrounding women’s aging, lately, comes to mind. The pre-constructed ideas: one becomes “of a certain age,” or a “hag,” a “spinster,” a “cougar.” Language promises us that there remains something gross and pathetic in being a woman, being sexual, having a body, especially a fleshy body, getting old, or ill or excessive in any way.
So, yes, language does all of this. Language that is everywhere, all around us. Lizzie is distressed because she is compelled to use language and yet these circumscriptions make it so terrifying. That so much experience can’t be communicated makes it even more painful that the dominant discourses around, say, women and identity, are circumscribed and resistant. Not long ago, a student referred in an essay to a “40-year-old hipster dressing like a 25-year-old, in skinny jeans.” I suppose the inference was that this 40-year-old was too old to wear skinny jeans. And I thought, wow, this could be me! I wear skinny jeans (and I enjoy doing so). I am 40. What am I supposed to do? I like my skinny jeans, yet realize there is rhetoric somewhere about what to do or be as a woman (or man, in this case) in her forties, most of which disgusts me. This is not to blame the student, who receives these opinions in the way we all do, but, again, to paraphrase Eileen Myles: I want to be punk about aging—a position that, for women, is rarely presented as positive or, even, as available. The other day I thought to myself, God I’m glad I’m not 25! It was this lovely moment, and yet where is this sense, this relief, or calm or whatever comes with aging? Where is that represented as a positive thing?
TC: In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo argues that women are subject to a construction of femininity that is a double-bind: they are expected to be both feminine and masculine, traits that remain mutually exclusive in our culture. How did constructions of femininity, as well as feminist theory, influence the writing or themes in Promising Young Women?
SS: I have a memory of a doctor saying, of another patient, that she “used feminist theory as a defense” against getting “better.” It is such a weighted memory, and it took years for me to feel the problematic resonance of it. Here was this smart, older woman, someone I admired, and yet her resistance to the treatment program at large (even her ability to resist, to submit, in practical terms) bothered me, too. I feel now, twenty years later, that I would be her. That is, if you tried to put me in a similar place now—if I encountered such a “treatment plan” today (the way that it required submission and decompensation) I’d reject it, too. The defense, in her case, was against becoming totally passive within a system that required at least a bit of that.
I love Bordo, and what is so smart about that analysis and relevant to me is that yes, to be feminine requires a certain passivity, whereas to be masculine requires assertion. As a young woman, I wasn’t able to integrate the assertive self, the independent, active self. I had to grow into that, though it was in my mind and heart for years before it could be integrated into a self. You know, in the 1980s, the image offered to us of the “masculine” or even “feminist” self was very ugly—the backlash surrounding the obnoxious, hairy, man-hating feminist. I internalized that on some level. We all did. I wanted to be pretty and female and, perhaps most tragically, I wanted to believe that the men around me (doctors, professors, teachers, artists, etc.) had answers that I couldn’t access on my own.
TC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Promising Young Women? How did you overcome this difficulty?
SS: Figuring out how it all fit together. Linking the various pieces. Providing a larger narrative without succumbing to some sense of final redemption, something cloying or over-determined—and yet, finding a way for it to feel contained. Also, not allowing for overmuch self-mythologizing, resisting “cheesing out” as Danielle put it, which was perfect—and maybe my biggest fear.
TC: Do you have any rituals or routines that aid you in your writing practice?
SS: I set a timer. I give myself small tasks and deadlines. Last fall I installed Rescue Time, one of those internet blocking programs that allows/limits me to five minutes per day of certain internet distractions (Facebook, etc.). That’s huge.
TC: Do you ever experience writer’s block and, if so, what are some ways that you help yourself get past it?
SS: I read. I write in my journal, spend time alone. I run and take lots of walks when I’m stuck. I let stuff sit and return to it later. I read aloud. Another thing that really helps me is to lower the bar—there is always time to revise, so I force myself at times to just keep working through, even when something’s not working. Expect shitty drafts, be a weirdo and don’t expect to please everyone. These are pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years, things I remind myself, which help release the pressure.
TC: How long did it take you to write Promising Young Women?
SS: Two years, more or less.
Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women. Her work has appeared in BOMB, The Iowa Review, DIAGRAM and many other places. She lives in Chicago.