Autodidact: self-taught


The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls

by V. L. Craven

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls


[Trigger Warning: This is a review of a book that includes suicide, anorexia and cutting. All of these things are discussed to some degree in this review.]

Here is a wallpaper of Emilie Autumn playing the violin if you’d like a moment to decide if you’d like to continue reading.

Emilie Autumn Wallpaper wall.alphacoders

Wallpaper by wall.alphacoders

All right then.

After a suicide attempt our heroine checked into a hospital in L.A. where she was told she would be held no longer than 72 hours. What that meant was, ‘You will be held for 72 hours after we begin treatment, which will happen after we find a bed for you in the Psych Ward and bother getting around to you.’

No one told her that, though.

Whilst waiting for bed upstairs, she’s given her very own Spartan room in the ER, where a kindly nurse allowed her to have a red crayon. This makes her very happy because at least she has something to do now. (She’d arrived with a bag containing some books and her notebook and those had been confiscated, leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind. Nothing is a better idea than leaving a suicidal person alone with their thoughts.)

Asylum Red Crayon

image from

The book is written from the notes she took with her crayons (she gets others later).

Then! She’s finally taken upstairs and given a bed in the actual psychiatric ward. Frabjous day! But there are two areas–one for the ‘normal’ crazy people and one for the criminally crazy people–the violent ones. But crazy is crazy, right? And they needed to put her in a bed. So…

Did I mention it’s co-ed, too? And the hits just keep coming.

The nurses decide to let her have her notebook, during the day, at least, and then they put it away overnight. And Emilie with an ‘ie’ begins finding letters from Emily ‘with a y’ every morning.

Emily with a y’s story remarkably mirrors Emilie’s except she lives in Victorian England and circumstances have landed her at the Asylum for Wayward Girls, which is where young women with mental illnesses wind up.

It’s nice to have something to occupy her mind, but something distinctly odd is going on. Is someone on the nursing staff gaslighting her or has the madness of the others infected her, as well?

A lot of the pages have very small text.

A lot of the pages have very small text.

Though she is confined in the genteelly named Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Emily with a y’s time is no less fraught. It is run by the imperious Dr Stockill, who is clearly up to something nefarious, and his straight-out-of-Dickens mother Prudence Mournington, who has sorrows of her own.

The girls–of which there are thousands–are helpless at the hands of the doctor, another one called Dr Lymer and a surgeon brought on later who has all the gentle kindness of a slurry scraper.

Emily’s story is just chock full of information about what mental asylums were like back in the day. Hydrotherapy, deplorable hygiene, forced hysterectomies (since the uterus was the cause of female insanity) and of course…

Leeches! Don't forget to bleed!

Leeches! Don’t forget to bleed!

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Emilie shares with us the anxious boredom of life in a mental ward. She shows us her diaries on cutting, suicide and drugs (she’s only ever taken prescription pills for mental disorders–not recreational pharmaceuticals).

The staff are convinced she’s anorexic and there’s a delightful foray into her trying to explain exactly why she can’t eat what they are providing her and it has nothing to do with an eating disorder. But that’s what an anorexic would say so they watch her anyway.

Her diaries are honest and I suppose they’d be heart-breaking if you’d never experienced the compulsion to cut or been suicidal, but from the point of view of someone who has it was more like reading my own thoughts finally expressed perfectly.

For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone easily sent back down the dark rabbit hole. Autumn herself offers a disclaimer saying she doesn’t advocate suicide or self harm but that the book is meant to educate and I would definitely recommend it to a person who loves someone struggling with mental illness.

Asylum Diary pages

Speaking of rabbit holes, there are nods to the Alice in Wonderland books, as well as some of the characters of Autumn’s stage shows like the Plague Rats. I am unfamiliar with her music, though I’ll be rectifying that posthaste. Her two pet rats Sir Edward and Basil play important roles, as well, in the Victorian side of the story, where they can speak and help out Emily with a y.

There is artwork on nearly every page–drawings and illustrations done by Autumn herself. There are only a few photographs taken by other people. Many of the illustrations are placed on the page in a way that looks three dimensional.

Asylum camera

This little photography booklet, for example.

The physicality of this book is to be considered, as well. It’s described as weighing ‘nearly five pounds’ which sounds like a lot, but until you hold it and realise just how light most books are… Well, I like books that can double as blunt weaponry. The pages are heavy-weight, glossy stock that I found myself absent-mindedly stroking. I was surprised it didn’t have a sewn-in, blood-red, silk bookmark, but I’m not bothered. It’s one of those books you have to keep smelling. I molested this one quite badly, I’m afraid.

Asylum Lithium

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is half memoir and half Victorian fantasy. It’s all wonderful. To paraphrase Nick Hornby: This book wasn’t just up my street–it was on the front step, peering in the letterbox to see if I was in. It’s a cross between Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Tim Burton if Burton went somewhere really dark. Like, REALLY dark. And without a torch. This dark:

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn't blend in with my theme.

I had to put a caption around this so it wouldn’t blend in with my theme.

It’s available from Emilie Autumn’s website . On sale as of this writing, it would absolutely be worth full price. Two thumbs up and 5/5. I raise my teacup to you, Ms Autumn.


What the Internet Did This Week

by V. L. Craven

If you live in the world, you have to deal with other people. Some of those people are going to be awkward. Fear not! Lifehacker has given us:  The Awkward Human Survival Guide , which has tips for coping with people who don’t know what to say/don’t know when to stop saying things/only know how to say the wrong things.

From the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum  FB page:

The Poe Murders is a graphic retelling of many of Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery and horror stories meshed into a single tale. The stories included in this graphic-novel are: The Cask of Amontillado, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, The Purloined Letter, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven, as well as others. The graphic-novel will be told in the style of a mystery, in which the characters are searching for the mysterious source causing rational men and women to commit these horrific murders.

They have a limited time to raise the funds necessary; if you’d like to contribute for swell prizes go to their  Indiegogo page .

TEDx is the body that licenses people to have TED-style talks in various parts of the world. When it came to the attention of the TED folks that some pseudoscience was making its way into these talks, they issued this  letter, which is an excellent introduction to critical thinking. Hat tip to Lifehacker’s article:  How to Avoid Bad Science in TED Talks

The Most Common Grammar Gaffes Writers Make and How to Avoid Them . Nothing particularly new on this list, though these are rules that bear repeating. The thing that most WTFd my face was the first line of the article, which was, ‘In 2011, the publisher of my book  Enchantment  could not fill an order for 500 e-book copies.’ How… ? I mean… Nope, ‘How…?’ is all I have

Speaking of writers, here  are some beautiful posters of quotes from famous authors. All of them are elegant, but this is one of my favourites:

Tolstoy Poster



Darkness Visible

by V. L. Craven

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron
001. For the thing which/I greatly feared is come upon me,/and that which I was afraid of/Is come unto me./I was not in safety, neither/had I rest, neither was I quiet;/you trouble came. –Job
002. Only days before I had concluded that I was suffering from a serious depressive illness, and was floundering helplessly in my efforts to deal with it. I wasn’t cheered by the festive occasion that had brought me to France. Of the many dreadful manifestations of the disease, both psychical and psychological, a sense of self-hatred—or, put less categorically, a failure of self-esteem—is one of the most universally experienced symptoms, and I suffered more and more from a general feeling of worthlessness as the malady had progressed.
003. Aided by the minor tranquilizer Halcion, I had managed to defeat my insomnia and get a few hours’ sleep. Thus I was in fair spirits. But such wan cheer was an habitual pretense which I knew meant very little, for I was certain to feel ghastly before nightfall. I had come to a point where I was carefully monitoring each phase of my deteriorating condition.
004. …I was close to a total ignoramus about depression, which can be as serious a medical affair as diabetes or cancer.
005. At any rate, during the few hours when the depressive state itself eased off long enough to permit the luxury of concentration, I had recently filled this vacuum with fairly extensive reading and I had absorbed many fascinating and troubling facts, which, however, I could not put to practical use. The most honest authorities face up squarely to the fact that serious depression is not readily treatable. Unlike, let us say, diabetes, where immediate measure taken to rearrange the body’s adaptation to glucose can dramatically reverse a dangerous process and bring it under control, depression in its major stages possesses no quickly available remedy: failure of alleviation is one of the most distressing factors of the disorder as it reveals itself to the victim, and one that helps situate it squarely in the category of grave diseases. Except in those maladies strictly designated as malignant or degenerative, we expect some kind of treatment and eventual amelioration, by pills or physical therapy or diet or surgery, with a logical progression for the initial relief of symptoms to final cure. Frighteningly, the layman-sufferer from major depression, taking a peek into some of the many books currently on the market, will find much in the way of theory and symptomatology and very little that legitimately suggests the possibility of quick rescue. Those that do claim an easy way out are glib and most likely fraudulent. There are decent popular works which intelligently point the way toward treatment and cure, demonstrating how certain therapies—psychotherapy or pharmacology, or a combination of these—can indeed restore people to health in all but the most persistent and devastating cases…
006. The intense and sometimes comically strident factionalism that exists in present-day psychiatry—the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology—resembles the medical quarrels of the eighteenth century (to bleed or not to bleed) and almost defines in itself the inexplicable nature of depression and the difficulty of its treatment. As a clinician in the field told me honestly and, I think, with a striking deftness of analogy: “If you compare our knowledge with Columbus’s discovery of America, America is yet unknown; we are still down on that little island in Bahamas.”
007. In my reading I had learned, for example, that in at least one interesting respect my own case was atypical. Most people who begin to suffer from the illness are laid low in the morning, with such malefic effect that they are unable to get out of bed. The feel better only as the day wears on.
008. …if these states of excruciating near-paralysis are similar, as they probably are, the question of timing would seem to be academic.
009. But my behaviour was really the result of the illness, which had progressed far enough to produce some of its most famous and sinister hallmarks: confusion, failure of mental focus and lapse of memory. At a later stage my entire mind would be dominated by anarchic disconnections; as I have said, there was now something that resembled bifurcation of mood: lucidity of sorts in the early hours of the day, gathering murk in the afternoon and evening.
010. …it was past four o’clock and my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world. … I was feeling inn my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain. … That the word ‘indescribably’ should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience. For myself, the pain is most closely connected to drowning or suffocation—but even these images are off the mark. William James, who battled depression for many years, gave up the search for an adequate portrayal, implying its near-impossibility when he wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience: ‘It is a positive and active anguish, a sort of psychical neuralgia wholly unknown to normal life.’
011. The pain persisted during my museum tour and reached a crescendo in the next few hours when, back at the hotel, I fell into the bed and lay gazing at the ceiling, nearly immobilized and in a trance of supreme discomfort. Rational thought was usually absent from my mind at such times, hence trance. I can think of no more apposite word for this state of being, a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced by that ‘positive and active anguish.’ And one of the most unendurable aspects of such an interlude was the inability to sleep. It had been my custom of a near-lifetime, like that of vast numbers of people, to settle myself into a soothing nap in the late afternoon, but the disruption of normal sleep patterns is a notoriously devastating feature of depression; to the injurious sleeplessness with which I had been afflicted each night was added the insult of this afternoon insomnia, diminutive by comparison but all the more horrendous because it struck during the hours of the most intense misery. It has become clear that I would never be granted even a few minutes’ relief from my full-time exhaustion.
012. …self-loathing (depression’s premier badge)…
013. …my failure to have an appetite for the grand plateau de fruits de mer placed before me, failure of even forced laughter and, at last, virtually total failure of speech. At this point the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond a hoarse murmur; I sensed myself turning wall-eyed, monosyllabic, and also I sensed my French friends becoming uneasily aware of my predicament.
014. [regarding parties and celebrations] I would respond like the zombie I had become. The weather of depression is unmodulated, its light a brownout.



by V. L. Craven

“The Real Depression Story” by Peter D. Kramer 8 January, 2010
001. …it is well-established that antidepressants work for dysthymia chronic or frequently recurring minor depression…
002. …some overviews have found Paxil to be among the least effective of the antidepressants.
003. …antidepressants do little to end isolated episodes of mild depression…
004. While Paxil did moderate depression, the drug’s greater effect was in changing personality. The principal outcome for subjects who responded to Paxil was a decrease in “neuroticism”–essentially, emotional vulnerability in the face of adversity. The patients with less neuroticism seemed to be protected from future bouts of depression. They also became more extraverted. In other words, Paxil was less good at ending episodes of depresson than at making patients resilient via personality change. A second intervention tested, a form of psychotherapy, showed the reverse. It had more effect on depression and less on personality.
005. If we look only at the two recent studies, we might draw puzzling conclusions about antidepressants. They help with acute severe depression. They help with chronic minor depression. And yet they do little for acute, isolated bouts of minor mood disorders.
006. The American Psychiatric Association is updating its diagnostic manual. Very likely it will make a move toward “dimensional” modes of illness, in which a large number of factors will be taken into account in the course of making a diagnosis. For depression, the factors may include social anxiety and emotional fragility, so that personality traits linked to mood may enter in out concept of the disorder.
007. …are patients with minor (but not chronic) depression prescribed antidepressants? Older surveys found that they were not. In practice, all depression is undertreated. To me, the real news of the month is another study, from the University of Michigan in the Archives of General Psychiatry . It found that only one in five Americans with depression has received even one adequate course of treatment in the past year. The criteria for adequate treatment are modest: 60 days of antidepressant with four doctor or nurse visits over the year or (for talk therapy) four mental health visits lasting 30 minutes or more.
008. Here are some of the study’s findings. The average person diagnosed with depression had severe depression. Thirty-four percent of the depressed received any medication, with 11 percent receiving adequate medication. The comparable figures for psychotherapy were higher (44 percent any; 19 percent adequate). Only 9 percent of patients got the gold standard, adequate drug treatment with adequate psychotherapy. If you look at minority groups, like blacks and non-Puerto Rican Hispanics, the numbers are cut in half, almost no one gets good care.
009. To me, that’s the story that matters. Most depressed people don’t get evaluated; most who are evaluated don’t get treated; and most who are treated are treated poorly. As for whether medication helps with minor depression, that question may be less important than another one. If we were to treat all patients well–if with the mildly or moderately depressed we were to start with psychotherapy and then, if that doesn’t do enough, weigh other options–in that situation, ought we to consider antidepressants?


Death is for the Living

by V. L. Craven

Last June [2007] I had my first psychotic episode; during which I tried to kill myself. I know that sounds highly dramatic, but that’s what happened, apparently. I say ‘apparently’ because I have no memory of it. I left work two hours early one day and when my husband came home at 5pm I was nearly unconscious and vomiting profusely from alcohol and pills. I had also been cutting myself. What I remember is going home at 3pm and then being in a hospital bed at 11pm. Then there’s another blank space followed by being at home about twelve hours later. Roughly eighteen hours are missing; though it was a very active eighteen hours. I’m amazed at the thought of being physically present for such a momentous occasion as my near-death while remembering nothing of it. It’s like seeing yourself in pictures in a place where you can’t recall being.

The entire episode is something that puzzles me. It’s been a bit over four months and I’m just starting to get my head round it.

What I’ve been thinking about most (besides how badly I feel at scaring K, my husband, so much) is when people say, regarding death, “At least they didn’t suffer.”

Suffering can only be appreciated from the point of surviving said suffering. If I had died that day I would have had no memory of being crazed or whatever was going on and so it wouldn’t’ve made any difference if my last moments were spent shouting at the universe or quietly meditating. Suffering before death is only important to the people who are still alive. Once you’re dead that’s pretty much it. Whatever pain you are in ceases to be once your heart stops beating. I used to be of the mindset that a person not suffering just prior to death was vastly better than being in horrible pain just before. Now I see that doesn’t matter. This is a good thing and this is why…

I’ve known two people who were murdered. One was killed during a robbery at his workplace and the other was killed in his bed while he slept*. I used to think, “Well, at he least was asleep and had no idea what happened,” and, “Christ, how horrible to know you’re going to die–to spend your last moments fighting and pleading for mercy.” But now I see those thoughts are only tormenting/comforting the living.

In Judaism, the funeral service and shiva are for the living–to support those still alive–not really for the soul of the person no longer of this earth like in Christian ceremonies. The deceased has far better things to be getting on with. I’ve always found wakes and Christian-style funerals to be wrenching to no good purpose, though I can see why some people feel compelled to say goodbye to their loved one. I would not begrudge people wishing to say goodbye to me even though I wouldn’t have been in the room for some time.

Unlike the previous post (a quote from a dear friend) I have no great concept of what happens when one dies other than decomposition to the organic matter from which one came. To me, you get your time on Earth, spend it as you will. When you’re gone some people will remember you kindly and others won’t care one way or another. That’s fine with me. Hopefully no one will be actively glad I’m gone, but if that is the case, I won’t give two shits by that point.

The idea of suffering v. not suffering prior to death not being of any consequence was a real eye-opener for me, as I’ve been socialized to think that one’s last moments are best if they are peaceful. It’s better to go quickly rather than painfully. Now I see that’s more about the living. The people who survive you don’t want to see you suffer–they don’t want their last memories of you to be horrid. Your last memories won’t count for anything because you won’t know about them once you’re on the other side.

You may say: You’d feel different if you’d actually died, but I have. I was clinically dead (drowned) when I was five years old. I remember the drowning, but there was no white light or whathaveyou. That experience was similar. I was swimming, swimming, swimming and then nothing and then I was on the beach, awake and surrounded by people. No breathing or heart-beat for several minutes. Death is a nothingness that happens when it happens. In many ways I find this comforting…

Anyway, just some thoughts I wanted to put out there/down for my future self.

*For those who care–the people who murdered my brother-in-law and my friend have been put in prison.
[This post is from a previous blog. Original post date: 18 October 2007]


Falling into Depression

by V. L. Craven

From The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

Depressives use the phrase “over the edge” all the time to delineate the passage from pain to madness. This very physical description frequently entails falling “into the abyss.” It’s odd that so many people have such a consistent vocabulary, because the edge is really quite an abstracted metaphor. Few of us have ever fallen off the edge of anything, and certainly not into an abyss. The Grand Canyon? A Norwegian fjord? A South African diamond mine? It’s difficult to even _find_ an abyss to fall into. When asked, people describe the abyss pretty consistently. In the first place, it’s dark. You are falling away from the sunlight toward a place where the shadows are black. Inside it, you cannot see, and the dangers are everywhere (it’s neither soft-bottomed nor soft-sided, the abyss). While you are falling, you don’t know how deep you can go, or whether you can in any way stop yourself. You hit invisible things over and over again until you are shredded, and yet your environment is too unstable for you to catch onto anything.


Plath’s Bell Jar

by V. L. Craven

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s fictionalized autobiography about descending into madness (depression). The first time I read it, though I’d dealt with depression a few times already, I still didn’t ‘get’ it. This time around I absolutely got it, for better or worse. The quotes I’m putting up are the ones that most accurately capture the experience of depression, from my point of view.

Only I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn’t get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more.

I felt very low. I had been unmasked only that morning by Jay Cee herself, and I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.

I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.

For me it was eight.

I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do.

Andrew Solomon talks about this in Noonday Demon–about how one begins to feel crushed by all the things one cannot do–even things one doesn’t want to do, but will never be able to.


Darkness Visible by William Styron

by V. L. Craven

One of the books in the series on depression I’m reading is William Styron’s Darkness Visible , which is his account of his own battle with depression. This bit describes some of the phenomena caused by depression:

But my behaviour was really the result of the illness, which had progressed far enough to produce some of its most famous and sinister hallmarks: confusion, failure of mental focus and lapse of memory. At a later stage my entire mind would be dominated by anarchic disconnections; as I have said, there was now something that resembled bifurcation of mood: lucidity of sorts in the early hours of the day, gathering murk in the afternoon and evening.

Styron’s experience of the gathering murk is dissimilar to the typical horrible-morning-fine-evening experience of most depressives.

What I like about this excerpt are the bits and bobs that come along with depression–memory loss, loss of voice, general confusion. It’s not as though depression messes up your life by making you think: Iamdepressed, Iamdepressed, Iamdepressed ad infinitum, therefore rendering all other thought impossible–it’s more of a dense fog, where no matter which way you turn you can’t find your way out. Then, whilst trying to find your way home, someone asks you questions and expects you to engage. I’m sorry, but this fog–as amorphous as it is–requires all my attention.


Noonday Truth

by V. L. Craven

From Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression :

[Maggie Robbins] “You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a grey veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness, and that now you’re seeing truly. You try to pin the truth down and take it apart, and you think that truth is a fixed thing, but the truth is alive and it runs around. You can exorcise the demons of schizophrenics who perceive that there’ something foreign inside them. But it’s much harder with depressed people because we believe we are seeing the truth. But the truth lies.”

But the truth doesn’t lie–people that are clinically depressed have a clearer view of reality. They did a study (I believe at Harvard, but it may have been another university) where they had ‘normal’ people and depressed people play a game where you kill zombies. At the end, they asked everyone how many they had killed and the depressed people were more accurate than the non-depressed people, who wildly over-estimated their zombie-killing effectiveness. This suggests that the normal folks are the deluded ones.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, ‘If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.’ Perhaps it should say, ‘If you’re not depressed you’re living an illusion.’

People need hope in order to get out of bed in the morning. That makes sense, really. But when you’re depressed everyone else appears to be toddlers–oblivious to reality. You want to kill their inanity and show them the truth because you’re seen it. Welcome to the Church of Low Serotonin. Witness our truth and drain the colour from your world.

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