Fear and loathing of people with mental illness in Feminists’ reading of Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces: an unauthorized biography


Before I explain who I am and what right do I have to be writing an “un-authorized” biography of Shulamith Firestone (SF), consider the following paragraph (and the two badges to the right of this post):

SF “plunged out of history” sometime between the late 70s and early 1980s due to mental illness, which was probably caused by her long ideological fights with feminists, only to come back in the last 10 years of her life to write her second and last book, Airless Spaces. This is a “scary” book “not about feminism or politics but about her experience with schizophrenia.” It “seems designed explicitly to discourage sympathy” for people with mental illness, for it “makes us feel wary of forcing these short, terse, anti-pitying vignettes of illness and hospitalization into political or personal symbolism”. Airless Spaces is by no means an intimidating work”. She died of ‘complications’ with mental illness.

[All quotes above from Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces by Sianne Ngai. All quotes on this post will come from that article, the focus of my discussion about feminists reading of Airless Spaces because it’s the one I found to be the most offensive.]

A not so ‘beautiful mind’: feminists angry at their ‘fallen icon’

That is how current and future bios about SF will end if her last 20 years of life continue to be ignored or covered up, reduced by some intellectual feminists to two or three unsympathetic sentences about her mental illness. You see, the lives of highly intelligent men with mental illness (mi) can be made inspirational, as in the movie A Beautiful Mind, their work saved from the ‘stain of mi.’ and actually presented as its magical product. Women’s, their mind and work are professionally ‘deconstructed‘ (as in butchered) by the ‘razor-sharp’ feminist critique, then presented to you as unappealing, irrational, devoid of inspirational qualities to others: in other words, without the tiniest smidgen of saving grace.

I can see where this ‘feminists anger’ at Firestone comes from. They imagine their icon, the fiery SF who challenged the male oligarchy at age 25, been passively carted out to a psych ward and involuntarily been pumped with psych meds.

In “Hospital” the characters are all dosed with medication, can’t sleep, gain weight,”

Not a salutary image to celebrate, is it?

It is as if they feel shamed and betrayed by her:

Nothing—not gender, class, race, or sexuality; nor shared or common oppressions based on these categories of social difference—defines the people in Airless Spaces more than the hospital does.”

How dare Firestone expose her ‘weakness’, and in a non-feminist book to boot.

Except that it is an illusion, not a reflection of reality. That image, represented in Mrs. Ngai’s reading of Airless Spaces (AS), is the artful construct of the ‘fear and loathing of people with mental illness we all carry hidden in the depths of our mind, using all the stereotypes and prejudices it has filed away for years in our mind’s rotary file cabinet.  You (general you)  didn’t get that image from reading AS; it has been there in your mind long before you read it. You just stuck SF’s ‘ugly photo’ in it and called it “SF’s plunge out of history“.

Airless Spaces: the object of Feminists’ scorn

The paratexts of Airless Spaces are hardly inviting: unhappy title, hospital-blue cover with dull, barely-distinguishable beige print, and large, anxious, unhappy-looking close-up of Firestone on the back cover.  “

https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1347425556l/667855.jpg

Todus criminalis, She just could find absolutely nothing positive to say about the book or author: bad from front to back cover and everything in between.

A feminist attack on an ill ‘sister’ can hardly get any more vicious and callous than that: Mrs. Ngai wrote that ‘lovely’ opinion in the belief that SF was alive, which means that she must have considered the possibility that Firestone would find her article and read it. It seems as if she intended to shame her publicly for becoming mentally ill and for daring to write about it. It’s the old story: people with mental illness can’t expect compassion from a normal and rational society, especially if you are a woman.

Mrs. Ngai expressions in her judgment on AS and Firestone through out her post is precisely what Firestone is depicting in AS: the destructive impact of social fear and loathing of people with mental illness on the dignity of a human being. I can see just about every ill feeling and stereotype about people with mental illness in Mrs. Ngai’s “paratext”. Here are some:

That the problems of psychiatric patients and mentally ill people in general are not worthy of our attention (“hardly inviting”) and not worth reading about their life, not even if that patient is the (former?) feminist icon herself. “But not depression about feminism or politics.”

All of them are “unhappy people” 24/7 by nature of the illness (not maybe because the hospital staff walks all over their civil rights and dignity 24/7),

Psychiatric hospitals are disgusting (“hospital-blue”) because it houses ‘irrational people’, not because of what happens to them in there.

And the mother of all covert expression of fear and loathing of people with mental illness laid down in digital ink by a feminist:

anxious, unhappy-looking close-up of Firestone.”

Mrs. Ngai might as well have quoted Firestone directly from AS:

she looked like an escapee from a loony bin”. [The jump suit}

The real ‘paratext’ in “she looks anxious and unhappy“ (a purely emotional assesment), based on Mrs. Ngai attitude displayed in her post, is ‘she looks like a crazy woman and I’m afraid of her, I don’t wanna look at her’.

t’s not just the content of the stories in Airless Spaces, or their sense of simultaneous pastlessness and futurelessness that I find depressing.”

Is there a difference?

But one can’t blame only the intellectual feminists, young and old, for uncritically petrifying in history SF the human being as a the feminist icon whose only legacy is that at age 25 she wrote in the 70s the ultimate feminist theory book, Dialectic of Sex (DOS), and initiated the 2nd wave of feminism, while dismissing her last 20 years of life as barren of any intellectual or humane worth. There are also political forces concealed in plain view feeding that attitude.

One of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of the powers that be are those which can be deployed hidden in plain view; it explains the military obsession with ‘stealthiness’, e.g. stealth war planes and ‘invisible soldiers’. Fear and loathing of the mi is one of those weapons, just as the war on feminism has been a stealthy one all along too, masked  as ‘culture’. One could  argue that it has been so effective against feminism as to finally getting feminists to self-destroy, for there is no “explicit” difference between the religious fanatic misogynist’s attacks on SF and her work, and the attacks some  feminists are now perpetrating on her on account of her mental illness. The outcome is the same:  discrediting a feminist and her feminist ideas as mental illness, and slowly  caving in the movement by autophagia. DOS is not evidence of her ‘early’ mental illness, and AS is not the crazy rantings of a mentally ill former feminist icon.

When feminists with mental illness have the courage of raising the topic of mental illness they risk public shame and ridicule from both the misogynists and the intellectual feminists in their small intra-self-bashing circle, as is happening to SF.

I sometimes wonder if these feminists share also the same goals with the misogynists, because for the life of me I still can’t see how the feminists’s cause can be advanced by openly setting out to viciously demolishing their own ‘icon’ as a ‘pathetic mentally ill woman’. It makes me imagine that Mrs. Ngai has a photo of Donald Trump on her desk; I don’t know.

THIS POST IS ALL ABOUT YOU, NOT HER

So to finally answer the question above, I’m, as in Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the “complete unknown” woman/case manager to who Firestone dedicated her last book, Airless Spaces (AS). That fact alone allows me to talk with ‘some authority’ about the last 10-20 years of her life. But if you don’t buy that, I can talk about her thanks to my right of freedom of speech, the same one that allows some intellectual feminists to, um, how should I say it, trash her and AS

Bear in mind, though, that I’m not an intellectual, not in the elitist sense of the word – OK; I’m not an intellectual, of any kind. I’m sure that my basic level of ESL ‘gramar’ and poor composition skills tipped you off, didn’t it? Please, keep this in mind; I’m setting up a point for the ‘book dedication’ part.

In truth, this post is not a biography of any type about SF. If you want one, read AS (again), this time not as a female version of The Shining, but as her autobiography; I’m sure she wrote it with that in mind, including a chapter explaining how she thought her mental illness developed. But nooo, you can’t even see that in there because to you her life stopped to have any importance once you learned she had become mentally ill:

the book particularly discourages us from reading it as the story of Firestone, the Feminist.”

In fact, I’m writing this post in part because I dread imagining the type of bio the anti-feminists intellectual feminists will be writing about her life.

I’m not writing this post as a bio of Firestone because. not only I don’t have the intellectual skills  necessary for that, but also because I was not the only person involved in facilitating her temporary recovery, though I will be using some of my experience with her to make some points on the second part of this post.

So why am I writing this now, twenty years after the facts?

First, I recently noticed (online) an interest in the life and writing of Firestone, prompted undoubtedly, among other reasons, by the current national and global political conditions. As it turns out, Firestone’s political ideas are far from dated (she’s still dangerous). Second, I have also been reading online with profound consternation an implied judgment from some feminists that her last 20 years of life have no value to society, not worthy of being recorded and studied with impartiality as her earliest feminist material because, as the prejudice goes, people with mental illness can produce nothing of value for society: they are merely a scary burden to it; and that AS is neither a feminist nor a political book but a mere collection of “scary” (take notes, Stephen King) and depressing fictionalized stories about her experience with schizophrenia.

To change that type of prejudice and save Firestone’s whole life legacy, the facts of those 20 years of her life must be made public by those who have them. I recognize that Mrs.Ngai makes the point that she could find no information about Firestone’s life post DOS and that “How the narrator or characters became hospitalized to begin with, is a question Airless Spaces never asks us to ask,” (I don’t see why she couldn’t ask the question out of her own curiosity; well, I know the answer.)

“My surprise encounter with her name on the spine of Airless Spaces made me acutely aware of my ignorance.  What exactly happened, in the interval between 1970 and 1998, to Shulamith Firestone? “

That’s why the facts of those years must be made public: not being available facilitate these uncompassionate analysis of her life. Facilitate, not eliminate: even with the facts these feminists will continue writing in the masculine style: totally emotionally detached from the humanity of their ‘objects’ and without an ounce of compassion for the suffering of women, particularly feminist women who are not engaged in useless discussions about feminist theories.

Who has those facts, then? Mainly her family, her friends in and around her support group, and I as the ICM (intensive case manager) of Visiting Nurse Services (VNS) who enrolled her in the program. And why haven’t these people written about this part of SF’s life yet? Again, due to my poor composition skills you will have to read the answer to this question in the second part. First, I will be discussing in this post my ‘informed’ (!) opinion about:

  1. The political reasons why SF’s last years are being dismissed by some feminist as of no value to their feminist imperative.
  2. That some intellectual feminists’ misreading of ‘AS’ as the irrational schizophrenic rantings of a ‘has been-feminist icon‘ is clearly not a matter of lack of literature skills, but betray unexamined attitudes of fear and loathing of people with mental illness.
  3. That to correct this sorry state of affair – the denigration of SF’s whole life and legacy by feminists because of her mental illness – the people who were with her need to tell their experience for the record. I have lost contact with them; my hope is that somehow they bump into this post and consider meeting as a group to tell the story of SF’s dignified struggle with m.i.

With all due respect to Susan Faludi, her compassionate article after Firestone’s passing, for which she interviewed all of us who were with her the last 10 years of her life, should not be the last words from us. We all refused to discuss with Mrs. Faludi details of Firestone’s illness. Maybe she should be the professional writer to put our collective experience in an article for reference to future writers of SF bio. By now, 20 years after the emotional shock of her passing, we should know how to tell her story and how is her life inspirational without getting into lurid details of symptoms and delusions.

THE ROOT OF FEAR AND LOATHING OF PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

I said at the beginning of this post that one can’t blame the feminist intellectuals for dismissing SF last 20 years of life as the ‘useless’ years of SF the mentally ill.

The culprit for this sorry state of affairs is humanity’s perennial fear and prejudice about people with m.i. (By prejudice here I mean ignorance, but not in bookish sense; ignorance as in lack of understanding of how we contribute to the suffering of other human beings with our unexamined emotions, deeds -of speech and body – and beliefs.)

Those two are as potent today in this brand new millennium as they were two hundred years ago. They exist today, undisturbed and unquestioned, in the mind of most intellectuals, be it feminists or  intellectuals in every field of studies –men and women; in those themselves suffering the symptoms of mental illness and in the minds of their supportive friends and families; even in the minds of mental health practitioners and service providers.

Not even today’s ultra-modern science and psychiatry have been able to make a dent in our collective and personal fear and loathing of  the m.i. This is not only because they are intent on nourishing those traits for political and monetary gains, but because ingrained human fear and loathing of mentally ill people are impermeable to science in many people.

This fear and loathing is the outcome of plain fear and prejudice: the ineradicable hallmark of the human condition, across the political spectrum from extreme right to extreme left and everything in between, in men as in women. They are the emotion which, left unchecked, becomes a weapon against humanity. For example, fear and prejudice are the indispensable emotions which greedy men in power successfully manipulate with propaganda in order to convince the rest of a reluctant humanity to accept fighting against each other in these men’s wars for profit, since WWI (the war that ended all peace) up to our current ‘war on terrorism’.

What is the impact of these traits in our society?

It is common knowledge that these two traits, when unexamined or challenged, have negative ethical and moral consequences that affect us all at both the personal and social levels. As they relate to people with mental illness, social expressions of fear and prejudices about them (manipulated or not by the NRA, e.g.) are powerful psychological triggers of deep seated feelings of shame in the minds, not only of the victims of these expressions, but in their families and friends as well, which of course may lead to feelings of guilt for harboring those feelings.

Speaking of the NRA, we have seen how they use the media to manipulate public fear of the mentally ill to sell guns and to get political support to pass laws that blame the mentally ill for all mass murders committed with weapons –whether by people with m.i or not – so as to deflect any responsibility away from the CEOs of the arms manufacturing industry. Their propaganda is crystal clear: buy guns because mentally ill people are a fearful and dangerous bunch whom we must be legally free to kill in self-defense.

On the other hand, this fear and loathing can defeat the moral value to society of a healthy sense of shame and regret, which is to refrain from acting with cruelty and disregard to the well-being of others out of personal fear of being rejected by one’s peer.

There is no limit to the evil that can be inflicted on others when one lacks the ability to feel shame and regret for one’s own acts of cruelty, especially if it can be justified as necessary. We’ve seen this with American psychiatrists feeling proud of torturing mentally ill children in Willowbrook in the name of ‘science’, and politicians and ‘men of science’ (pharma, i.e.) bestowing awards on these psychiatrists for cruelty perpetrated on behalf of science. It was all done on account of social fear and prejudice of people with mental illness: the doctors, themselves morally numb to the atrocities they were committing, convinced the public for a long while that it was done to protect both the children and society, and as ‘research to cure the illness’.

The difference between the actions of these American doctors and those of Dr. Mengele and Hitler’s ‘final solution’ to the problem of mental illness -proudly and yet covertly gassing those poor souls out of ‘necessity’, to keep the white race pure – is really tiny: only the methods changed. The immoral arguments were the same, science to protect you from the mentally ill, i.e.

But is it still going on?

You bet your derriere it is.

Modern treatment of Dystonia

 

Evolution through time of western methods for treating mental illness. Not much has change, has it?

The only thing that has changed is the wording in the contract that the family of the mentally ill signs consenting to invasive ‘neuroscience’ research of the mind and mental illness on their child: it’s not the ice pick anymore; it’s more like GOD in a white coat in the lab with new millennium type of cutlery.

In its seemingly tamer form, we see today in the public ‘critique’ of some intellectual feminists the impact of unchecked free-wheeling shamelessness in justifying contempt for people with mental illness. For example, Mrs. Ngai can justify her own “inability to understand, relate or feel compassion for them not perhaps as a result of her own unexamined personal prejudices but as a natural and legitimate response to these people’s ‘irrational’ behaviors.

it compels a strangely anti-empathetic empathy, an empathy with its explicitly anti-empathetic affect.

Now that’s spinning. The idea that Firestone set out to write her story with the intention of making you feel “anti-empathic” and ’empathic’ at the same time is one that only a feminist who set out to analysis AS as The Shining could come up with. It is “strangely” indeed; it is irrational thinking on the part of Mrs. Ngai.

This shamelessness in blaming the victim of our prejudices in turn makes us callous and unsympathetic towards their plight in the hands of the state psychiatric system, accepting the state’s false justifications for the inhumane and barbaric treatment of people diagnosed as m.i we have seen through history, and even today. We then feel compelled to cover up their condition to hide our shame or, like in Nazi Germany, we look to other side when the atrocities are being committed.

And that’s how we have ended up today hiding SF’s last 20 years of life, the years of her courageous and dignified struggle with m.i. and the mental health system. Of that I am in part to be blamed. 

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL’ : IS IT TRUE ANY LONGER?

If the personal is political – the feminists’ favorite slogan – then it should stand to logic that living with mental illness is political. After all, this particular illness is not like, let’s say, diabetes; e.g. no one is afraid of a diabetic who doesn’t take his meds, and no diabetic person gets their civil liberties routinely trampled by the government when they get ‘symptomatic’.

And for crying out loud, are young feminists unaware that throughout history women who refused to stay in the kitchen were punished by labeling them mentally ill, and then lobotomized in the mid-1900s?  Do yourselves a favor: if you haven’t done it yet, please, don’t read “scary” AS as entertainment, watch the 1982 movie “Frances”.  Chances are you will miss the in-your-face politics and feminism in it too, but at least you will lay off of Firestone.

 

Movie trivia: in ‘V for Vendetta’, the character ‘Valerie’ is an homage to Frances Farmer.

Feminists are concerned with the connection between politics and the personal, yet they have persistently failed to make that connection in their reading of AS. Firestone made the connection; it’s the raison d’être of Airless Spaces precisely because the relation between the state’s routine daily trampling of one’s personal liberty and dignity  is seldom as explicit as in life in a state’s psych ward. Same with the politics of women’s oppression, it is not ‘explicit’; it is cloaked as ‘culture’, at least in the USA.

Why are feminists failing to see a ‘feminist’s dignity’ in AS?

Alas, it’s not because of their unexamined prejudices towards people with mi; it must be because she failed to “explicitly” make the connection for them by, for instance, entitling the book ‘feminists and psychiatry’ or put the word ‘feminism in the book spine. It is as if for feminists intellectuals a woman’s suffering and abuse is of no importance if she is a mental patient, especially if that woman is a feminists who dared become mentally ill and write  a book about it.

I don’t consider it preposterous to read AS as Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, with the added bonus of the author observing herself and reporting her own actions and thoughts.

There is no passive SF in AS. Read The jump suit again, this time not as a female version of The Shining, and consider using a writing style different from men’s. Mrs. Ngai only focus in her reading of AS was ‘did it help the feminist cause?’

“it could be argued that Airless Spaces shouldn’t be read as a tragic allegory of the stalling or historical foreclosure of the radical feminist project.”

She missed the human aspect of AS.

Next week I will continue with a discussion of how Shulamith Firestone’s life is inspirational.

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