Yonge Street Portage | Canadian Conversations and National News: What to Keep in Mind as the Ghomeshi Case Unfolds

Posted in Guest Posts on October 27, 2014 by Diana S-V

I wrote a short piece on today’s news regarding the CBC and Jian Ghomeshi. Head over to The Yonge Street Portage to read it by clicking the picture below.

http://yongestreetportage.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/ysplogo.jpg

Forthcoming publication | Writing the Transitioning Body

Posted in Professional, Publications, The corpse with tags , , on October 21, 2014 by Diana S-V

I woke up to some lovely news this morning. My book chapter proposal “(Dis)figuring the Aporetic Subject: Body Worlds, Derrida’s Archive, and New Materialism” has been accepted as part of an anthology called Writing the Transitioning Body, which will be coming out some time in 2016. You can find the abstract here.

Review | Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory

Posted in Reviews, The corpse with tags , , , , on October 20, 2014 by Diana S-V

Image courtesy of The Order of the Good Death

For those who do not wish to read realistic depictions of death and dead bodies, you have stumbled onto the wrong book. Here is where you check the metaphorical blindfolds at the door. The stories are true and the people are real.

Chief among the many reasons that I admire Caitlin Doughty is the fine balance she achieves through her role as a death theorist. I suppose I’m a death theorist, too, or I am at least working to become one, but I also want to be a death educator, a death visionary, and a death guide. Doughty’s own work (the “Ask a Mortician” web series, her excellent blog, and her founding of The Order of the Good Death in January 2011)  and her involvement with affiliated projects such as Death Salon sees her take up these roles with the intent to change the West’s death-phobic culture through public education. From the biomedical to the technical to the sociocultural, Doughty’s pedagogical approach to deathcare and dying is consistently accessible—entertaining, topical or vignette-style information sessions during which common foundational/technical questions about deathcare practices and traditions are addressed. For the layperson to the rigorously self-educated and everyone in between, Doughty’s approach carefully orients readers and viewers towards the realities of deathcare and says, “Here’s how we do it. And here’s how we can do better.”

In some ways, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is no different. Longtime followers will recognize Doughty’s trademark style: frank, thoughtful, precise when it comes to details and terminology but lively, too, with a healthy dose of black humour. I suspect that for some, Doughty’s levity will be deemed too much to handle or inappropriate. Yet the relationship between humour and the topic of death and dying need not (and should not) be one of mutual exclusion. If there’s one thing that Doughty’s book reveals in jarring detail it is the absurdity and, indeed, the failure of contemporary deathcare practices in a society too terrified of death to remember what it means to “take care” of the dead into our own hands and, in turn, to take care of ourselves in the face of our own inevitable death. If I could point to one statement in Doughty’s book that encapsulates this, it would be the end of the chapter “Pink Cocktail,” which covers the history of chemically preserving corpses and a detailed description of contemporary embalming from reception to viewing. Doughty begins the chapter with the example of the Wari’ people of western Brazil and their practices of mortuary cannibalism, which not only provided total disappearance of the body but the opportunity to strengthen communal bonds and effectively grieve in the wake of a death.

“Every culture has death rituals with the power to shock the uninitiated and challenge our personal web of significance,” Doughty reminds us, and after detailing the tools and techniques of the embalming trade, anyone unfamiliar with these practices may well be shocked. It’s difficult to come to terms with the image of an embalmer firmly and repeatedly stabbing a trocar into the body cavity to puncture the internal organs, sucking out the body’s fluid and gaseous materials to make room for the pink cocktail of embalming fluid. Elsewhere, we learn that corpses’ jaws must be wired and pinned shut, their lips superglued together around a mouth former, their eyelids propped up with spiked eye caps, all to produce a purportedly “natural” effect. How is this less shocking, less disturbing, less grotesque than mortuary cannibalism or the excarnation-by-exposure of traditional Tibetan funerals? Doughty’s answer, of course, is that it isn’t. Furthermore, she adds,

[T]here is a crucial difference between what the Wari’ did and the Tibetans do with their deceased compared to what [embalmers do] . . . The difference is belief. The Wari’ had belief in the importance of total bodily destruction. Tibetans have the belief that a body can sustain other beings after the soul has left it. North Americans practice embalming, but we do not believe in embalming. It is not a ritual that brings us comfort; it is an additional $900 charge on our funeral bills.

If we don’t believe in it, why do we go through with it? At its core, Doughty’s book seeks to outline the reasons why our practices are divorced from belief, and to demonstrate that the common denominator of all of these reasons is fear: fear of bodies, fear of time, fear of loss, and fear of death. It is a fear exacerbated by the gradual development of euphemisms, empty rituals, the funeral business as business, and (if I may be frank) the entitlement that most North Americans feel to the longest life possible for themselves and for their loved ones. How can we retain the love and care that sits at the heart of loss while facilitating healthy grief? How can we remove the corpse from systems of capital exchange and euphemism? How can we envision a return to practices of caring for dead bodies that acknowledges the truth of their material condition instead of hiding it, running away from it, or manipulating it into a facsimile of the living?

Doughty’s book, and her broader project, seeks to answer these questions by providing us with information about how and why deathcare is the way it is, and encouraging us to seek an alternative. One such alternative is Undertaking L.A., a culmination of the vision developed over the course of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Doughty’s current project. “The principle behind Undertaking LA is placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, the death itself, and the subsequent care of the dead body,” and while I can only imagine how difficult it must be to navigate the state laws that govern what can and cannot be done with bodies, this project could have a tremendous impact on how we approach deathcare. It could set a precedent for similar funeral services in other states (and even here, in Canada) and contribute to making deathcare more affordable and community-oriented. I am eager to see the project as it develops, especially given my burgeoning interest in the kinds of deathcare and funerary practices available in my own city.

However, my greatest motivation for vocally promoting Doughty’s vision of what deathcare could and should be has less to do with deathcare and more to do with end-of-life care. I was wondering if Doughty would address hospice, palliative, and old-age care practices and their relationship to the funeral industry, and I was not disappointed. In the book’s penultimate chapter, Doughty speaks plainly: “[B]ecause of advances in medical science, the majority of Americans will spend the later years of their life actively dying.” For the few lucky enough to have access to and receive adequate care in these years, the end of one’s life may be comfortable. But Doughty’s account of her experiences with corpses bearing decubitus ulcers (bedsores) brought me to tears, and I quote it here at length:

[T]he decubitus ulcer presents a unique psychological horror. The word “decubitus” comes from the Latin decumbere, to lie down. As a rule, bedridden patients have to be moved every few hours, flipped like pancakes to ensure that the weight of their own bodies doesn’t press their bones into the tissue and skin, cutting off blood circulation. Without blood flow, tissue begins decay. The ulcers occur when a patient is left lying in bed for an extended period, as often happens in understaffed nursing homes.

Without some movement, the patient will literally begin to decompose while he or she is still living, eaten alive by their own necrotic tissue. One particular body that came into the preparation room at Westwind [the funeral home and crematory where Doughty began her career] I will remember for the rest of my life. She was a ninety-year-old African American woman, brought in from a poorly equipped nursing home, where the patients who weren’t bedridden were kept in cheerless holding pens, staring blankly at the walls. As I turned her over to wash her back, I received the ghastly surprise of a gaping, raw wound the size of a football festering on her lower back. It was akin to the gaping mouth of hell. You can almost gaze through such a wound into our dystopian future.

We do not (and will not) have the resources to properly care for our increasing elderly population, yet we insist on medical intervention to keep them alive. To allow them to die would signal the failure of our supposedly infallible modern medical system.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about the deaths of four of my grandparents, who all died within a short span of one another and who had vastly different end-of-life experiences. I wish that I would have had Doughty’s book in my hand to help me articulate my thoughts when my grandparents were dying, to put my anger into words when my mother told me about my Oma’s bedsores and how she would cry at being touched when they were at their most painful.

If for no other reason than that no one (elderly or otherwise) should have to endure that kind of pain, I highly recommend that you read Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and become acquainted with The Order of the Good Death. For most of us, death is terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be, and this remarkable book by Caitlin Doughty tells us why.

Acknowledgements

Posted in Professional on September 25, 2014 by Diana S-V

I’ve just received the news that my much-delayed and extremely difficult-to-write field study has received a pass from my committee members. While as this year’s requirements go the oral consultation of the field study and the development of a short thesis prospectus are still to come, this is the last serious pass/fail component of my doctoral program until the dissertation defense.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank a number of individuals for their support during what turned out to be an unexpectedly challenging time, both emotionally and intellectually.

To my committee members for their patience, understanding, and excellent guidance.
To my friends and colleagues, whose kind words and advice on fronts both personal and academic reminded me of my own capability, courage, and good fortune.
To the family that has my back even from three provinces away, and celebrates every achievement (big or small) as if it was a massive victory. You don’t always understand my project, but you have understood and supported my passion for it from its inception.
To my beautiful cats who remind me that I need not take everything so seriously, and that there is always time in the day to connect with another living being.
To my partner. You have been my anchor and my greatest comfort.

I’m grateful to each and every one of you.

Now, to business! I came across a number of surprising, interesting texts related to my project over the course of the summer from all different genres (philosophy, comparative literature, cultural studies, literary criticism, and some histories and memoirs). Starting next week, I’ll be posting reviews of these books for your perusal, beginning with Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. I’ve been a great admirer of Doughty’s work for some time—in addition to being a mortician and thanatologist, she is the founder of The Order of the Good Death, an organization committed to combating the phobia of death in North American culture. If the book is anything like her “Ask a Mortician” video series, I expect it to be a great read that balances sensitivity and gravity with Doughty’s trademark humour and strangeness.

From Rabble.ca | “On apologies and apologia: Why making fun of sexual harassment is not ‘satire'”

Posted in Professional with tags , , , on September 4, 2014 by Diana S-V

A colleague of mine at Western University and I penned a short piece for Rabble’s “Campus Notes” blog in response to the Western Gazette frosh issue article on dating your teaching assistant. Click the picture below for a link to the article!

 

Title page from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

A rapist tried to steal my body. Instead, he stole my words.

Posted in Personal on August 22, 2014 by Diana S-V

[Trauma warning: sexual assault]

You workshop titles. You workshop styles, and sound them out in your head.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Trauma.” You will write like Murakami on a good day. Frank, honest, weird, imagery like a brick to the nose. You have not written enough fiction or a good enough memoir to write like this, and so you scrap it.

“Nancy Drew and the Case of the Rooftop Benzodiazepine.” Classic, old-timey, perhaps humorous. Black humour. You mentioned black humour to your supervisor when you told him what had happened, who said, “This is in no way funny.” He also said, “Fucking bastards.” It felt like a kindness and a relief, that curse. Honestly, humor may not work for this. No, it’s a bad idea.

“PTSD; or, How I Learned to Stop Intellectualizing Trauma and Start EMDR.” This will be five thousand words in which you try to discuss not intellectualizing trauma. It will turn into a five thousand word diatribe that intellectualizes trauma. You wish to break your bad habits. You will tell your therapist that you avoided this title and style. It is she who has recommended that you write, finally.

“Trauma in the Big Apple: A Wild, Frightening Text-Based Adventure!” You have friends who would appreciate a text-based RPG version of your story. You do not have the time for this. You must write this, now, in any way that it comes out. Is it perverse to hope that it will be good reading? Does it matter anymore?

You storyboard, and you make an outline.

An afternoon in early June. You forget the exact time. You wake up face-down in a pool of your own vomit in a hotel room. Your left hand is in the brushed-steel garbage pail, which is itself around a quarter full with vomit. Your right hand has a death grip on the hotel room key. When the key card is finally released, the joints of your fingers ache.

Someone gave you a benzo last night in an attempt to have sex with you without your consent. This is the second time in your life that this has happened to you. The first time, your would-be rapist did not succeed, that is, if the barometer by which we measure the relative success or failure of a rapist to date-rape a woman is anything along the continuum of sexual assault. Because when you were drugged the first time (at seventeen) and the second time (at twenty-seven) and on neither occasion were raped, the rapist did not technically achieve their goal. But if the barometer by which we measure the relative success or failure of a rapist is the victim’s loss of control, their sense of powerlessness, their body succumbing to the biochemical mechanism of the toxin that has been mixed into their drink—then, yes, you would have to say that the rapist succeeded, if only partially.

It was not the three men from the conference, because the only time you left your drink unattended was to go over to them. It was not the bartender. You do not think it was the bartender. It would not make sense if it was the bartender. But it could have been him. It may have been the men by the pool table, or the chess set. Maybe it was the one man from the conference. Three weeks after getting drugged, you will have a flashback of this man whispering in your ear that he wants to finger you under the table near the couch on which the two of you have been seated for the last twenty minutes. You will vomit again, in your mouth, when you remember this. Vomit becomes the visceral, knee-jerk reaction to your flashbacks. When you read the introduction to Powers of Horror, one of your favourite pieces of writing, you will be unable to read all the way through it without vomiting. This will continue into August. When you finally manage to re-read Powers of Horror and not vomit, you will close the book and sob on and off for three hours with a mixture of gratitude and shame—gratitude because it feels like a victory, and shame because reading without vomiting now qualifies as a victory in your work and personal life. Shame because it did not happen sooner.

You make a scene.

You went to the conference closing party on the roof of the Hotel Empire. It has a large, fluorescent sign on the roof. You ordered a single gin-and-soda that cost eighteen dollars. Later, in a moment of curiosity, you will research the puzzling cost of this drink and discover that you were drinking Death’s Head gin. It comes in a skull-shaped bottle. You cannot even take morbid delight in the fact that you were drinking something kitschily related to your research. Eventually you and the three men from the conference will arrive at their hotel, The Hudson, and make your way to The Library Bar, one of the hotel’s rooftop bars.

You will admire The Library Bar. You love the ladders and the wood in the room, and while you think that the chess set is hokey, the low lighting and warmth and all the books lining the high walls makes you feel glamorous and at home. You are in New York for the second time, but it is the first time that you have been there alone. You have not traveled alone since the summer before moving to Ontario for your Masters degree. You went on a two-week vacation to England that you paid for yourself working fifty-hour weeks all summer at a restaurant that objectified your body, but which netted you enough of an income to move to London and make a small dent in your debt. You went to two conferences for a field in which you no longer work. You went to Birmingham, London, Coventry, Liverpool, Stratford-upon-Avon, all on your own dime as a last hurrah before you moved.

You construct a timeline.

In The Library, it does not take you very long to realize that you’ve been drugged. You vaguely recognize the feeling from the first time, when you were surrounded by friends who realized what was happening and kept you safe. They held your head while you threw up, fetched water for you, and didn’t allow anyone else to come near you. They washed your face and chest and hands, and one of your female friends removed your eye makeup so that you would not wake up feeling like a mess or have sore eyes in the morning. There will be no one there for you when you wake up the second time.

The room feels warmer, you begin to feel drowsy, and the lights begin to take on more of a glow. The halos of light around the yellow lamps get slightly bigger. Blinking is no longer seamless. Instead, it feels more like a camera shutter clicking closed and then opening again. Your limbs become heavy and clumsy, and you begin to feel sick to your stomach. You have been drugged. You take five minutes or so to ensure that your purse, your wallet, your hotel key, and your phone are all with you. You stand up suddenly from the couch where you are sitting with the man who has just asked you if he can put his hand down your pants in a bar. Standing up is a good idea, but the speed at which you’ve moved is not. You tip gently to one side and put your hand on the couch to steady yourself. You adjust your feet so that they are squarely beneath you, mumble a goodbye to the man on the couch, and start to wheel around the bar. You are wearing flats, which you later realize may have been the difference between you falling down (and not getting up, and getting raped) and moving out of the bar and to the elevator.

The nicest of the three men who have come to this bar with you, the one you think is cute and who will later become a Facebook friend. This man catches you right before the elevator doors. He tells you that he was looking in all the different bar areas for you and his two friends. Earlier in the evening, the men (who are old friends with one another) have entertained you by singing as a barbershop trio despite not having seen each other in many years. They have good singing voices, and you are impressed. This one has the nicest voice. You tell him that you have to leave, and that you don’t feel well. He looks genuinely sad that you are leaving, and you are surprised when he later adds you to Facebook. You do not tell him what has happened to you, but you give him a hug, and you mean it. He really does seem nice. He wishes you a safe ride home, and thanks you for coming out with them.

You are in the elevator, and this is the part of the evening that gets blurry. You take an elevator down to a floor that you will later remember had an escalator all lit up with bright green lights. You will exit the front doors of The Hudson, and there will be a cab waiting for you. Perhaps not for you, but it is waiting and it has an open door and you stumble to it. After you sit down in the cab, the rest of the night becomes a dark, blank hole until you wake up the following afternoon. You will later have flashbacks from your time in the cab. The cabbie calls you “lady,” and tells you that Canadians are his favourite customers. He asks if you’ve gone shopping, and if you want to teach. He is Trinidadian and has driven a cab in Edmonton for a few years. He said it was too cold for him.

One thing that you do not remember, that you forget more than once because it is not your memory in the way that the rest of the night is a memory that belongs to you, is that you called the man who was your lover at the time from the cab. You have to ask him more than once to tell you what you said when you called. Your inability to hold this information in your mind embarrasses you. You are tempted to call him now and ask him again (this must be the fourth or fifth time) exactly what you said when you called him from the cab, but you do not. You do not want to bother him with this again, because you know it will make him sad and because it is late at night. It is he who has, more than anyone, helped hold you together over the last two and a half months.

The flashbacks come more frequently when you begin EMDR therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it is used primarily for individuals who have PTSD. Your therapist suggests it, after telling you that she believes you have intellectualized your experience in New York to the point that you can no longer process it as something that has happened to you. She is not wrong, and the EMDR helps, although it takes some time. It is a therapy that relies on narrative and signification to function, as are most therapies and methods, and it makes sense to you as a researcher. You hold the most traumatic image you can find in your mind: the sight, the smells, the sounds, the way it made you feel, and try to understand the negative connotation attached to that image.

You set the stage.

You are in a pool of your own vomit. You have just woken up and pushed yourself up, and you are staring at what’s come out of your body below.

The room is cold. The air conditioning is on.

It is very sunny in the room.

The room smells stale. It smells sour and sick and there is a tang in the air that makes your eyes water.

Your face is wet, and so are your hands and hair and chest. You are covered in your own cold, wet vomit.

“I have no control. I have lost control. Someone has stolen something from me. I am ashamed.”

This is your focus for your half-hour sessions of EMDR. You watch as your therapist moves her fingers back and forth in front of your face while holding this image, these senses and sensations, this horrific mantra in your head for twenty seconds at a time. When she stops, you close your eyes.

“What does that bring up for you?”

I want to know who did it.

I feel cold.

I feel sick to my stomach.

I want to know if I called my mom or my lover first after I woke up that afternoon.

I am angry.

I am afraid to go out.

I can smell the vomit again.

I want to know who did it.

I feel sick to my stomach.

I want to know who did it.

I am afraid.

I am ashamed.

I want to know who did it.

I want to know.

I want to write again.

I don’t want to know who did it.

Now, I can tell my story.

I was drugged in New York City in The Library Bar on the rooftop of The Hudson on the night of May 31st after the Derrida Today conference. I was drugged with benzodiazepine, to which I have an intolerance and to which my body reacts violently. In the aftermath of this event, I completely scrapped a final draft of my completed field study because it no longer looked or felt like a worthwhile project. I hated every word I had written, and I did not believe in the project as it was then envisioned. It sounded juvenile to me, and foolish, and naive.

Once back in Canada, I avoided certain friends, certain activities, talking to my committee about the delays, and attempted to maintain a facade of normalcy, competency, and composure. In the meantime, I was engaging in harmful and self-destructive behaviours, suffered from a sudden and overwhelming resurgence in mental health issues including but not limited to disordered eating, extreme body dysmorphia, physical self-harm, negative self-image, lashing out at those closest to me, and an overwhelming sense of guilt.

I was incapable of writing prose. I wrote over a hundred pages of notes toward the new draft of my field study, a fifteen-page document. For most of June, I could not read most of the works relating to my project because they either made me so anxious that I vomited (Kristeva, Abraham and Torok, Freud, Lacan) or made me cry uncontrollably because I felt that I had failed in work that I once found relevant, affirming, and beautiful (Derrida, Baudrillard, Deleuze). In July, I finally began to write properly again, though at an agonizingly slow pace. I am normally an organized and fairly fast writer. I have developed and sustained a successful, reliable academic writing process that—aside from minor tweaks—has changed very little over the past six years. I now no longer know what works and does not work, but I am beginning to learn and start over. I finally started going to therapy in mid-July. I should have gone sooner, but I had hoped to struggle through on my own and “solve” the attempted sexual assault and its consequences on my own.

I have written this account for three reasons. The first reason is that it complements the sessions of EMDR that I have been doing with my therapist. The second reason is that I hope to finally finish my field study this weekend, and while I had wanted to wait until after it was sent away and received a pass, I think that I needed to write this first. The third reason is that I am in a position to share my experience with those who may have experienced something similar. Mental health issues, your sense of personhood becoming (incorrectly) devalued by your inability to produce good writing, the fear and the resistance to getting help earlier, the shutting oneself away in the hopes that isolation will help you process what has happened to you—I am not the only person who has gone through and continues to go through this. I want people to know that there is no shame in struggling with depression, there is no shame in being a victim of rape or attempted rape, and there is no shame in needing to sort out your personal life in order for you to find joy and value in your academic work again. My field study is a piece of writing of which I am fiercely proud. Every word has been a struggle, and the fact that I can read through my near-completed draft, and find my own ideas to be beautiful and important and valuable again is a triumph that still causes me to occasionally choke up with gratitude. A rapist tried to steal my body and my words, and I cannot let him win now.

If you are in London and area and have been the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, and you need support, guidance, and resources, I strongly encourage you to contact the Sexual Assault Centre of London. They have a 24-hour crisis and support line, resources for youth and male survivors, and can connect you with other local organizations depending on your needs. If you are a student at Western University, there is a hub of on-campus resources and mental health services here. You also have access to Middlesex County’s Canadian Mental Health Association and all of the resources connected to it here.

Salut

Posted in Potent Quoteables, Theory on July 16, 2014 by Diana S-V

Today is Derrida’s birthday.

Bon anniversaire, J.D.

In quitting us, you leave us facing the obscurity into which you vanish. And so: salut, obscurity! Salut to this erasure of figures and schemas! And salut to the blind whom we become. The blind were a theme that you favored: salut to the vision that did not cling to forms or ideas but that let itself be touched by forces.

You practiced being blind all the better to greet the clarity that only obscurity possesses, which is out of sight and envelops the secret—a secret not concealed but evident, the manifest secret of being, of life/death. And so, salut! to the secret that you safeguard.

— Jean-Luc Nancy

from “Salut to you, salut to the blind we become”