Sabrina Chapadjiev on creativity & self-destruction, pt. 3 (of 3)

by on Oct.01, 2010

The following is the final part of a three-part excerpt of my interview with musician/writer/performer Sabrina Chapadjiev for Mildred Pierce. Here are the first and second parts.

These questions are about Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction (Seven Stories Press, 2008), an anthology edited by Chapadjiev that collects stories, essays, and art by mostly feminist and queer artists and writers who have lived through periods of self-destructive acts.

Sabrina Chap / photo by Justin Walker

MILDRED PIERCE: I appreciate the approach you (and the majority of the authors in the book) take to self-destruction, challenging the ‘bad bad’ psychological and social discourse on self-destructive behaviors that can be quite necessary — at the same time avoiding romanticizing such behaviors. Why do you think so much of the discourse around these issues is so simplistic and moralistic?

SABRINA CHAPADJIEV: I could talk for hours on this. But I will say that it is changing, and that we’ve come a long way in understanding/talking about mental health in the past twenty years. I am not an expert by any means, but I give a lecture on the history of sanity, specifically focusing on the gender difference in sanity/mental health through the years, and these moralistic and numbingly pedestrian outlooks on self-destruction stem from a place of power, which to me was the main way mental health was seen in the past. ‘Insane’ people were weak, ‘sane’ people were powerful. But who got to decide? Well, men, first and foremost. And then Religion took a stab at it. And then Freud came and since then we all want to fuck our fathers and have penis envy, and then there’s now.

For years, the pen of psychiatry was held by primarily by men. Before that, exclusively by men. Only women could be deemed ‘hysterical.’ It was primarily a ‘female disease’, this thing now called ‘mental instability.’ Though self-destruction is something that both men and women experience, there is definitely a gendered difference on how forms of self-destruction have played out. Cutting and anorexia — two primarily female related forms of self-destruction — are damned because a lot of the people studying it have been male, or been working in a relatively extreme male work-force. I think this moralistic misunderstanding is a form of patronization and an attempt of ownership over a woman’s true experience of the world.

Basically, it’s condescension, but a condescension that has been qualified over years of gendered or religious theology over mental health.

Again: I’m talking from an understanding of how females have been seen in the whole self-destructive manipulation. Dudes have their own problems. There is a lot less problematizing of male self-destruction — in fact, it is glorified. I do believe that female self-destruction is shamed and male self-destruction is either glorified or is simply not demonized in the same way.

The writers and artists collected here are all female, genderqueer or trans. Do you see self-destruction as a particularly female or queer issue?

No, I don’t. I see how the discourse around self-destruction varies from gender to gender for sure, though. I haven’t spent any time studying male self-destruction. I know a few facts, and could theorize a bit — but accurately, I can’t speak on it.

Either way, the very term ‘self-destruction’ is called into play when I have to talk about it.

Basically, I’d always felt that men are less self-destructive, and more plain-out destructive. Nicole Blackman has a wonderful moment in her piece when she talks about how when a man hurts, he turns it outwards — ‘fuck you’ — and a more female response is ‘fuck me.’ I thought a lot about my own experience with self-destruction in doing this book, and I know that I made a conscious decision to experiment and do damage to myself instead of turn it out in the world, and looking back, I realize it is because I only felt I had true ownership over myself. There wasn’t anything else in the world that was mine to destroy.

Speaking blatantly, it is still very much a man’s world. He often doesn’t feel that the only terrain he has to experiment with is his own body. He feels the world is his. Women have only recently been allotted ‘equal’ space in the world, and only theoretically. Men do still destruct, for sure — and there’s even more I could say on the differences between how they do versus how women do, but I’ll stop there.

In terms of the queer experience of self-destruction — that’s harder. I come from a very feminist background — again — the seeds for me even beginning collections of feminist writings comes directly from Ladyfests. I run in queer circles. I turned to my allies and heroes/heroines with this book, and many of them are from a very super queer/feministy sensibility.

That was problematic in editing the book — as a lot of the women are queer and their self-destructive tale often dove-tailed with their queer identity. So then all of a sudden, it was ‘and then I realized I was queer.’ Now, I’m fine to identify as queer now, but I remember when I wasn’t. And I also know a lot of suburban, self-destructive ladies who are straight who’ve had severe self-destructive problems. Suddenly, the queer experience was being tied up in the narrative, and not in a positive way. At one point, I really was crossing my fingers for more straight authors, just so some young woman reading the book wouldn’t think, “I feel this way, maybe I’m gay.”

On that point, since I culled a variety of my original authors from the Ladyfest scene, which was not just a predominantly queer scene, but also a predominantly white scene, I had to focus quite a bit on finding stories from other cultures. Self-destruction is a weasel-y thing from culture to culture. It changes from culture to culture. In fact, that is also why this book specifically focused on American women, something I don’t point out explicitly in the book, but was a very focused choice. In terms of racial differences in understanding self-destruction, bell hooks touches on that theme in her essay. She mentions how to even cry in her household meant you were white, because strong black females do not cry.

In terms of the trans relation to the book, well, that was something that Kate Bornstein touched on briefly. She mentioned that beyond her other self-destructive rituals, she had gone through intense surgery for her gender change. I mean, hell — that is a form of self-destruction for sure — but it is framed quite positively because it was on the course to becoming who she wanted to become. But how is that different? In how it’s framed?

Either way, I’m not qualified enough to talk about the trans experience of self-destructive behaviors, but Kate is right: transitioning is a form of self-destruction, and — in tune with the book — it is also the only way that some people can become who they truly feel they are.

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  1. Sabrina Chap! a teaser « mildred pierce zine

    […] In the works for MP4 is an interview with Sabrina Chap, musician, playwright, burlesque performer, writer, editor, all-around dynamo. She edited the anthology Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction (Seven Stories Press, 2008) — I’ve posted her responses to questions about the collection over on Montevidayo in three parts: one, two, and three. […]