When Mystical Creatures Attack!

This book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in 2014.  It is also made me extremely angry.

There were actually some funny parts (the opening, and titular essay/chapter is notable, as is the faux-horror story about the killer Bible manikins), but I do not see the "provocative" or "dark" humor running through this book as so many others have.  A dark cloud of rage overwhelms this book, because I am very offended at the way the author portrays mental illness.

Books end up on my to-read list any number of ways; I don't recall how When Mystical Creatures Attack! landed there, but when I saw the library had a copy, I figured I'd try it.  Besides, it was pretty short, and it was supposed to be funny, right?  Even if I didn't like it, it was probably harmless, right?

It's hard to summarize the story because it is actually composed of essays.  The narration shifts often, the point of view jumps make it really unclear who or what is the topic of this particular chapter-essay, and there's a big time jump about two-thirds of the way through the book.  Essentially, it's the story of Laura Freedman, a high-school English teacher who has bipolar disorder (BPD), and some of her students.  It's 2004 in McAllen, Texas, and everything's going to pot.  Ms. Freedman has a mental break in class, one of her students impregnates several other students, one of whom figures out that she's been sent to a hospital, and begins writing her letters.  There's also a weird subplot with Freeman's diary and how she wrote nasty things about all of her students.

The stories are ... fine, I suppose, but many of them reek of resentment, while others just trip merrily by, perpetuating stereotypes with a smile.  Evidently, we, the readers, are supposed to conclude that McAllen is a godawful place where all people do is take drugs, go to church, have sex, get pregnant, and die splendidly pointless deaths.  One of our main characters, Janice Gibbs, starts "dating" Danny "Captain Impregnator" Ramirez just to spite her father, even though her father lives in another state, working at the jam factory.  She thinks that by dating a "bad boy," her father will dump his fiancée.  Impeccable logic, that.  And I know teens do wildly stupid things for attention.  But this just rings false.  Her subsequent pregnancy, determination to starve the baby to death, miscarriage, firing from her job, addiction to drugs, and arrest all stem from this one decision to stop being a poet and start being "bad."  She also has to fend off advances from a socially-immature guy who thinks that stalking is a completely appropriate way to demonstrate the depth of his affections.

But none of that even touches the big problem with the book, and that's Laura's mental illness.  Laura says that her mother was a manic-depressive, and so is she, so she's bound to end up like Mom, "hung" from a rafter in the basement.  First of all, I know this is excessively pedantic, but people are hanged and clothing is hung.  It is, according to the dictionary, an option to use "hung" for people, but the preferred usage is "hanged."  To be reading an award-winning book by an MFA, I would expect "hanged," unless that is simply too stodgy for those artsy MFA types.  Sometimes I felt like I was reading directly from the @GuyinyourMFA Twitter feed.  In addition, the super-smart Laura calls President Reagan "Ronald Regan."  Copy editor, anyone?

Secondly, the terminology "manic depression" is pretty outdated, and I'm unsure that someone in 2004 would use it to refer to their own diagnosis.  They'd probably say "bipolar."  The book does use that term, specifically in Laura's admittance document at BRIDGES, the world's most amazing capitalistic cognitive therapy center ever!  Patients earn Wellness Points by doing "good things" and can pay for privileges with them.  Not only does Laura hate the Wellness Points system, but she also tells Janice, via letter that having her meds straightened out leaves her feeling "exsanguinated."  Then, another mix of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics makes her "[energized] yet artificial; I do not recommend."

Later, after she leaves the hospital and starts living with her boyfriend, Ben, we see glimpses of Laura's journal.  She somehow manages to hide that she's bipolar and tells him that her Seroquel are for epilepsy (?!?).  She also starts seeing her dead mother, Olivia.  We also learn that on "March 8th--Dr. T upped the Lithium.  I don't feel a fucking thing."

Ah, there it is.  Right there.  You saw it coming, right?  With exsanguination and artificiality?  But now we arrive at the point.  Meds make you not feel anything and this is Bad with a capital B.  How many books have you read where the MC has a mental illness, goes off meds, "experiences life" for the first time and somehow, with magical thinking, overcomes their illness?  Yeah, pretty much all of them.

That, my friends, is an offensive and positively steaming pile of horse dung.

If you're the kind of person who thinks that people who are depressed should just "be more positive" or that people with bipolar are "making it up" and being "stifled" by meds that "inhibit their creativity," then maybe you shouldn't be reading my reviews.

Let's break it down.  This is the 21st century.  People with bipolar disorder are not demon possessed (a very unhelpful suggestion my mom once received about my little brother).  They are not overly moody.  There is a chemical imbalance in their brains.  When there is an imbalance, it needs to be corrected.  Granted, these imbalances can cause patterns of behavior that may benefit from therapy, but no amount of affirmations can even out dopamine levels, or stop your serotonin levels from bottoming out and then shooting up.  Just like someone with diabetes might need to take insulin to regulate their body's malfunctioning production, someone with a mental illness like bipolar probably needs to take a medication that affects a chemical that the body is not producing or processing correctly.

People who take medication are not weak.  Do not demonize medicine.  If you're going to preach at me about the healing powers of vitamins and essential oils, please see Cary Grant above.  Anti-psychotics, SSRIs, and MAOIs save lives.  My brother would surely not be alive today if he didn't have medicine that kept him from the delusions of invincibility so common on a bipolar high, or the crushing weight of a depressive low.  To be honest, I probably wouldn't be here either.  I take medicine for my severe depression, and it's really nice to be able to make it through the day without wishing I were dead.

And another thing: if a person with BPD, for example, takes meds regularly*, they probably won't have paranoid delusions about how their baby was switched in the nursery, how it should die in a garbage can, or how they are fated to die just like mom.  Because that's the story the author gives to Laura Freedman.  She cannot escape her BPD because her mom had it; she will commit suicide because her mother did.

Laura being a "crazy person" is the conceit of this novel.  It takes people with mental illness and puts them into a sort of vaudevillian freak show.  Hey, look at that crazy lady!  She sees phoenixes and her dead mother!  Wow, what kind of literary meaning can I give that?  Hoo boy!  This is so deep and literary.

I am curious as to whether the author knows someone with BPD, or if it just seemed like a good idea for a character.  If you haven't lived with it, it's really, really hard to portray it accurately, particularly because it affects people differently!  This is what writers and readers are asking for with diversity in books.  We need writers who either have the experience or are willing to dig deep and portray this pain accurately.  I don't need any more stigma in my life.  I'm so tired of people whispering that my brother has "bipolar" because, evidently, saying it at a normal volume will summon the devil or something.

Until I sat back to really think about the book, I didn't realize how angry it had made me.  Now you know.  Just because it's blurbed by George Saunders doesn't make it good.  Just because it won an award doesn't make it accurate.

*Laura going off of her meds is actually pretty typical, because once you start them, you feel better, and then you think, "Oh, I don't need these!  I'm healed!" when in reality it's an ongoing thing.  I know--I've done it.  It is not pretty.  People: if you need medication, please take it regularly.  PSA over.


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