One of my most precious possessions is a still from the
classic 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, created for me
four decades ago by a besotted admirer, the oddly effete son
of a burly local sportscaster. It is a close up from the final
scene at the asylum, of Cesare, the mad doctor’s imagined
murderous somnambulist, peacefully examining a flower. It
is my favourite moment in the film, a counterpoint to my
own greatest childhood nightmare. Here, the monster is, in
reality, a gentle soul. I had always feared the opposite, that
someone would one day see the monster lurking inside me.
But what I couldn’t possibly know at the time I fell in love
with that image was that, like Cesare, I too would one day
be committed to a psychiatric unit.
This is the opening paragraph of my essay, “Unravelling the Self”, which is included in the newly released volume from Dodo Ink, Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health. Contributors include Neil Griffiths, Kirsty Logan, Sophie Mackintosh, Monique Roffey, Alex Pheby, Marina Benjamin, Juliet Jacques, Susanna Crossman, Tomoé Hill, Emma Jane Unsworth, Yvonne Conza, Rachel Genn, the film-maker David Lynch and many more. Mental health is a topic that is drawing a growing audience, but with this anthology editors Thom Cuell and Sam Mills, hope to reach a more literary readership who wish to reflect on the issue at a greater depth.
Trauma approaches its title subject from a wide range of perspectives: psychological or physical, intimate or public, buried in childhood or immediate—triggered by the pandemic or politics or the messy business of living. There are deeply personal accounts of childbirth, relationships with fathers, with lovers, with sexual violence. Some essays engage with history, others with literature or current affairs or potential means of healing the pain. Moving through a PDF of the collection I am struck by the extraordinary variety of essays. I have only read a few, but I hardly know where to turn next. There is so much to chose from and until I have a hard copy in my hands I will wander the detached landscape of the typeset file and read at will.
In her thoughtful introduction, Jenn Ashworth places the collection in a timely context—after all, many of the essays, including my own, were written long before the arrival of 2020 and Covid-19. She brings my essay into the discussion as follows:
In ‘Unravelling the Self’ Joseph Schreiber provocatively returns
to previous diagnoses and the gender assigned to him at
birth in an attempt to construct a present free from the
constructions of others. ‘Do we ever know who we really
are? What does a diagnosis truly hold? How much does it
form your identity, become something to cling to define and
explain the strange and uneven way your life has unfolded?’
I have resisted writing about my experiences with mental illness at any length. There is, to this day, much unresolved trauma. My essay here traces the intersection between bipolar disorder and gender dysphoria. Both are an essential part of who I am, but I no more identify as “trans” than I identify as “bipolar.” To say identify implies choice. And choice triggers guilt. Guilt longs for absolution, absolution that may be beyond reach—as it proved to be for me. In this piece I write about madness, gender, grief and the trauma I am still trying to articulate.
If asked I would say that I have never regretted my decision
to transition; it was, for me, after decades of unnamed
gender insecurity, the only thing I could do. Once I realized
testosterone would allow me shed my skin, metaphorically
speaking, I could see no other path.
I had never thought about grief, or rather that grieving was
something I would be allowed to do. To assert a transgender
identity, to transition and leave one’s birth gender behind
is supposed to be an act of affirmation. It’s something for
others to grieve. But, if I am completely honest, there are
moments when I do wish I had never had to transition at all.
If you are interested in this multifaceted anthology, it should fairly easy to obtain in the UK, beyond that Book Depository might be a good option or Kindle if you prefer an ebook.