How to be Subversive: an online MadZines workshop with Dolly Sen

Subversion is a feature of some MadZines we’ve been reading in the MadZines project over recent months.

Dolly Sen, one of our MadZine collaborators, is an expert in Mad subversion. We invited Dolly to explore subversion with us at an online workshop. It took place on 23 March 2021 in conjunction with the Critical and Creative Approaches to Mental Health Practice group in Lancaster and Asylum magazine. There were thirteen of us there, including Dolly.

Subversion (from the Latin word subvertere, ‘overthrow’) refers to a process in which the values, principles and norms of an established social order are contradicted or reversed, in an attempt at transformation. Dolly explains subversion, in relation to her own work, as ‘turning what’s hurting you against itself’. In this blog post, Dolly speaks about her early experiences, how she began to find her voice and shares some of her recent subversive activism work with us. . .We share what we learnt from this.

How things began

“I had a really awful childhood, to be honest. I developed psychosis when I was 14. Because I refused to go to school, social services got involved. They sent me to a child psychiatrist.

Because I wanted to talk to someone about my experiences, I was glad to see her. But, as I entered her room, she didn’t make eye contact. She had a clipboard in front of her, and she said: ‘What’s wrong with you then? Why are you being a silly girl and not going to school?’

And I am really angry. Because, if I had met somebody then who was just a decent human being and wanted to help me, my life might have changed.

I spent the next 16 years just sitting in my bedroom, too scared to do anything. I was an extremely shy person. I was diagnosed as having severe social phobia. For example, if I was on a bus and someone was sitting next to me and it was my stop, I was too shy to say ‘Excuse me. Can I get off?’. So I’d go wherever the person sat next to me went.

That led to some interesting journeys. Some long, but interesting journeys.

In between times I had to access services. I attempted suicide and stuff like that, so I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I was so shy, so passive, a very well-behaved mental health patient, except when I was in high distress.

My medical notes, from when I was in hospital, are a poem of compliance. They say: Tuesday compliant. . . Wednesday, compliant. . . Thursday, compliant. . . . You don’t get a sense of who I really was”.

A decision point

“On my 30th birthday I made a choice – either to take my own life or to give life the best shot that I could. If I was going to wait for psychiatry to cure me, I was going to be waiting for a long, long time.

So I decided to develop my social skills. I talked to old people at bus stops. I went to mental health coffee mornings and I made my first few friends. At one, I met my first publisher, Jason Pegler of Chipmunka publishing, who came to promote his book. We had a chat about writing. He asked me to write my life story. And so I did (in six weeks, believe it or not). And he said, ‘We’ll have a book launch at the local pub. Do you want to invite anybody?’ Well, bearing in mind that I was quite a shy person, and my life had been a social desert, I didn’t know many people to ask.

‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘I’ll invite a few people too.’

An encounter with Mad Pride

“So, at my book launch I had to read a little bit of my book. I was very nervous. Jason had invited a group of people from Mad Pride, which had been going a few years before I met them.

They were the kindest, funniest and cheekiest people, and so generous with their feedback. They introduced me to the idea that when things are not good enough, they have to be changed. They were creative in their approach. For example, they had attempted to inject the statue of Winston Churchill with a huge syringe. I thought it’d be interesting to get to know them.

One of the most important things, if you’ve been in the system a long time, is to have role models – people who can show you that the life expected of you, by services or your family, is not necessarily the life you have to have.

So, from being a really shy person, passive, complicit – through getting involved with Mad Pride and the music gigs that they put on – I started to change my thinking, about creativity and protest and stuff like that”.

I Can: from frustration to subversion

“I’ve done the media thing. I’ve done the steering group meeting thing. I’ve done the coproduction thing. I’ve done the petition thing. I’ve even done the protesting outside the Maudsley thing. But, when you do stuff like that, people just write you off: ‘Oh, it’s just a loony, acting out’. So you have to be a bit more clever with your protests, as a Mad Person. I use humour, and I use subversion.

People say you can’t change. If you’ve got a label, the expectation is you won’t do much with your life. You’re also taught, as a Mad person, to hate yourself, to be a person that has no control and no right to do things. Well, I say please don’t listen to that. Because I know that no-one’s special. I’m not an out of the ordinary person. I just thought ‘I can do it’. And then I did.

The thing I love about humour and subversion is that psychiatrists, if you make them a figure of fun, don’t know how to handle it. However hard they try to put ‘Making Fun of Psychiatrists’ into the DSM, they can’t. Because they know that I and other people like me will make fun of that”.

Sectioning the DWP

“Last year I sectioned the DWP (the Department of Work and Pensions).

I can’t change the way they work. They are too powerful. But, as one person, I stopped them for a morning.

And I had crying security guards. I’m feeling a bit bad about that. But they are working for the DWP, so I don’t have that much sympathy.

I had a receptionist coming out with steel barriers.

Also the police were called. But I used my cheeky grin. I’m always polite to people. So I was polite to this very small copper. I explained to her what we were doing. And why we were doing it. And she said: ‘OK. You can go’.”

More acts of subversion.

“I saw this bouncing character.

I’d just been discharged from services and funnily enough the reason I’d been discharged from services was because I seemed a bit happier.

I wasn’t.

So I thought, a way of handling that situation was through subverting this Mr Man. See here for some other examples: Mr Men do Psychiatry.

You can subvert anything. So I’ve copyrighted my madness. If anyone want to use it, like a psychiatrist or anyone, they have to pay me. Helen and Jill are paying me cos they’re using it at the moment.

I also subvert stuff like the forms you find in the mental health system. I was on the other side of the fence as a trainee clinician once. One of the things that I hated was risk assessing people, so I thought I’d turn that on its head.

If something – a risk assessment form, for example, – is presented to the world and you can see that it’s bullshit, how can you show that it’s bullshit? That’s what you need to ask.

If something is causing you distress, causing you pain, or taking away from your power and autonomy, then you can turn the tables, as I did with my TIARA risk assessment form. Perhaps my favourite thing that I’ve done is when I tripadvisored my stay in the Maudsley hospital about fifteen years ago. They are still upset about that!

The first ten years of my subversive art is in DSM69. I was a bit silly because I thought DSM 69 was a cool title. But what I should have done was called it DSM 5 or 6, whatever is going to be the next DSM. Because the DSM people would have had to ask me to use that title, or they would have had to skip a number. We all have our regrets!

Although my work is really serious, I always try to do it with a light touch. It is my humour that has saved me most of all. I love this quote by Aldous Huxley..’”

Dealing with negative reactions.

“When I started doing creative stuff and protest stuff – it was quite a while ago now – I would get upset with any negative criticism. William Burroughs said there are people in this world who are in the ring, fighting the fight. And there are people in the comfortable seats who criticise. Sometimes the world is not as binary as that, but sometimes it is about the bullfighters and the bullshitters.

It’s worth understanding that whatever you do in life, if you want to make any change, you are not going to have a passive lake to row across. You have to be ready for people to drag you down. You just have to look at any woman on twitter. The stuff some women get for just saying, ‘why can’t you be nice to each other? why can’t we have equality?’ is really horrific.

One thing I’ve realised is: it’s going to come but it’s not personal. It’s more about them than me. I have had threats to my life. People say, ah, you’re just a big fat dyke. I say. ‘Yes. . . . Next!’ I’ve found a way not to get upset about it.

It’s the bullshitters not the bullfighters that usually are the critics. And they don’t like your power. So if anyone does criticise you, they don’t like the power that you have. I think it’s also, getting older, my skin has become a bit thicker. Let them make the noise. If they’re going to hand me a bit of shit, I don’t have to take it.

I’m not scared of people, at all. If there was a whole stampede of nuns – like 20 people – running towards me I would be scared. But on a one-to-one basis I’m not scared at all. Because I realise what my power is. And if you don’t react in the way that they expect, they don’t know what to do.

I am a survivor of childhood abuse. Being a gay person, being a person of colour, being disabled, growing up, you have this message: ‘You’re not good enough’. And actually, one of the most subversive things you can do is say, ‘Fuck you. I can’.

People say, I can’t do what you do. But it’s my beautiful revenge. When I am on my deathbed I can say, I at least was myself, and I tried to help people and I was a pain in the arse to people that wanted to harm me and that wanted to harm other people.”

Dolly’s inspiration

Dolly can say, on her deathbed, that she was a source of inspiration to lots of other people too. She has certainly inspired us. Our MadZines workshop with Dolly provided some space for the sharing of examples of subversion that we had ourselves encountered. People started to think about actions we might take locally – drawing attention, for example, to the impact on people with mental health problems of the recent Police and Crime Bill. We wondered, for example, about subverting local landmarks. For example, the Eric Morecambe statue in Morecambe

We discussed how a spoof on the ‘Through the Keyhole’ TV programme could be used to show the reality of an inpatient unit, asking ‘Who would run a ward like this?’. We commented on how the names of local in-patient units might be re-named as a subversive act. We spoke too about how subversive actions might gain publicity through being pegged to other newsworthy developments.

Our session with Dolly has provoked a lot of thought and discussion. These are some of the things we’ve been grappling with.

  • Where can one find subversion in MadZines?
  • Does creating zines help people to say ‘I can’?
  • How is subversion used in MadZines to craft contention about madness and distress?
  • How does zineing, as a form of subversion, differ from other subversive acts?
  • How is zineing, as a form of subversion, used in conjunction with other subversive acts?

Thoughts? Ideas? Answers? Please get in touch!







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