The Ethical Mathematics of MadZines: a guest blog by Rachel Rowan Olive
In this guest blog Rachel Rowan-Olive explains her approach to crafting MadZines about difficult topics that might, in other contexts, be deemed too ‘risky’.
Making stuff is risky. Saying stuff is risky. You can say things that hurt people; you can make things that trigger people. You can make things that give people hope but you can also say things that increase people’s despair. This is particularly knotty when you’re dealing with art and writing about mental health, as MadZines do.
So there are some pretty solid ground rules I work to. No graphic details of self-harm. No details of suicide methods. Nothing which could give anyone a new way to harm themselves they had not thought of before. Not giving potentially dangerous “targets” like weights or calorie counts when talking about eating disorders. Beyond that, relatively little is off-limits for me, although I try to talk about my own experiences and not talk over other people’s.
Some things I have to say, I can only say via zines: I do display my work in curated spaces and I write for publications, but that often involves making decisions on what to include based on criteria I either don’t understand or don’t agree with. I literally make the spaces inside my zines with my hands, and that means I get to decide what goes on those pages.
In 2017 I made a zine called “A is for Awkward: an ABC of madness”. It’s an A to Z of stick figure cartoons about the frustrations of navigating the UK psychiatric system, its accidental hilarity and orchestrated misery. In my world, B is for the boredom of rinse-repeating the same miserable thoughts day after day; R is for ‘reasonably well-kempt’, a quote from my first psychiatrist’s mental state examination of me. C, of course, is for cunt. Four years later not much has changed in the system, but I have had a lot of conversations with fellow mentals off the back of that zine, and a lot of shared laughter. Sharing it has given me moments with my head above the water to gulp in air, so I can survive the next time an interaction with the system ducks me under.
However, when I exhibited a version of the zine in a group exhibition, it got taken down after people complained about the swearing. The complaints were not from fellow artists or survivors, but from therapists who rented rooms in the space it was on display.
Similarly, pieces I write for publication are often a negotiation between my instinct towards extreme bluntness and editorial anxieties about the effect on their audience. Editors are wizards who take what you write and make it better (writers who hate editors usually under-estimate how much they need them). That said, wizard/writer relations are not always harmonious.
For instance, when writing about suicide bereavement in service user communities, I was told I had to write something hopeful: otherwise we might make people more likely to end their lives by reinforcing their despair. I couldn’t say that I was angry with clinicians for not saving my friends, even if I qualified it by saying that not all my feelings about this were fair.
I don’t believe anyone has a right to a platform (people who believe that are often found complaining about being silenced in weekly national newspaper columns). And I’m not interested in controversy for its own sake. So I don’t have a problem with any individual venue taking my work down beyond being a bit miffed at rejection, or irritated they didn’t explain their boundaries before I fell foul of them*. But I do find myself asking, why is my swearing so much more offensive than the things I’m swearing about? Why does it bother you that I used the word “cunt” but not that I was driven to use it by a psychiatric system that veers from neglect to abuse and back again in a constant, exhausting cycle?
I suppose it boils down to me struggling with our differing perceptions of risk. The risks that worry editors, curators, and other people in charge of spaces and platforms are what I call positive risks: the risks of doing or saying something that has a bad effect. I care about those too, which is why I have the ground rules I mention above. But there are also negative risks, the risks born from silence: the things that don’t get said because nobody will accept the risk of publicising them; the pain of living with those things alone. There are plenty of arenas where risk aversion regarding which views you platform is a good thing. The world would be a better place if more editors were wary of publishing eugenicist ‘race science’ or perspectives on trans rights that frame the very existence of trans people as a ‘debate’.
But when it comes to mental health, I live daily with the negative risks. It hurts to feel like your experiences are damaging to others; to be constantly tempering your fury and your despair. Sometimes it feels like my emotions are poison because they are not granted space unless I shrink them and preface them with empathy for the people and systems who hurt me.
Most of the people gatekeeping publication and gallery space do not count these negative risks, and I doubt they have to live with them. My calculations start from a fundamentally different place. Sometimes I need to say things that aren’t fair or reasonable. I need to be angry, and I think people need to know that being angry is allowed when a terrible thing has happened. I need to take the piss and make silly jokes. This is not because I like being angry or unfair (although I do quite like being funny) but because it is impossible to move through those feelings and out the other side if there is no space to explore them. Maybe therapy is where some people do that, that is, if they’re able to access that kind of support. But if we can’t put those feelings out in public too, how do we know we’re not alone? How can we build solidarity between survivors if our experiences stay locked in a therapist’s filing cabinet?
The piece which wasn’t hopeful enough for the editor ultimately found a home at MadCovid: it is often survivor spaces like these which strongly overlap with zinester spaces. I think this is because they think enough about those negative risks to weigh them against the positive ones in a meaningful way. After writing that piece I made a new zine, “Believing”. It’s about suicide in service user communities too. But it’s also about how we love each other in a system that hurts us; how we try to move forward with our lives knowing that there might never be justice; how caring for each other does not mean it’s ok that the mental health system fails us so badly.
The tears and laughter I share with other survivors over a good zine are unlike anything else. Sometimes it feels like the only thing the system cannot coerce us out of is our joy in each other. I can’t imagine being able to explore that outside of the physical space I make for myself in zines, or the mental space survivors make for each other in collective projects like Mad Covid.
Zines are the space where I do my own ethical mathematics: I decide which risks to include in my calculation. When you exist within systems that control your life – the welfare system, the housing system, the psychiatric system – being able to choose what you say and how you say it matters more than anything.
*Since I have a “Borderline Personality Disorder” diagnosis, I feel like I have to pre-emptively say that feeling a bit miffed or irritated about rejection is not pathological, thank you very much.
Rachel draws, writes researches and teaches on mental health, politics and pets and is one of our MadZine collaborators. You can find her in her Etsy shop.