In 2014 Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and creative writing professor, wrote My Body is a Book of Rules, a memoir that explores the complexities and intersections of her Indigeneity, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the trauma of sexual assault, and an eating disorder. Her memoir defies settler societal norms and narrative conventions embedded in colonialist and heteropatriarchal structures of genocide and annihilation by making space for the irrationality, deviance, excess, unpredictability, and contradiction associated with madness—madwomen in particular—and Indigeneity. In this article I explore how Washuta's memoir provides a crip mad holding space of tension and fluidity, a space that resists the binary prescriptions of rationality and irrationality, sanity and insanity, pleasure and pain, brain and body, Indigeneity and white settler identities, and recovery and chronicity.
In this analysis I employ what I call a crip mad theoretical framework to identify ways that Washuta's work, as a form of survivance, resists binaries. 1 Application of this framework encourages nonlinear but highly intentional critique, a feature reflected in the organization of this project. The focus of the analysis will be a reading strategy I refer to as "maddening," which locates and reveals mad "holding spaces" that resist individualizing and pathologizing clinical psy protocols. These protocols are implicit in the formation of heteropatriarchal, settler colonialist, and neoliberal capitalist ideologies. The communal holding space Washuta creates is an important point of resistance to sanist structures of psy compliance and recovery as well as violent erasure and decimation. As Indigenous studies scholars Dian Million (Tanana Athabascan), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg), and Andrea Smith have illustrated, settler practices of coerced assimilation and Indigenous elimination insidiously, historically, and currently target Native women (Million 2013, Simpson 2017, Smith 2005).
In many ways I identify strongly with Washuta's experience. My positionality as a madwoman fosters visceral relationship with the text, a kinship that guides my crip mad reading and allows me to locate the holding spaces throughout the text. Her contradiction, chaos, and tension make sense to me in their lack of sense. Yet, there are spaces in this memoir that remain elusive to me, where I must analyze instead as an onlooker or outside observer. It is important to note that my positionality as white directly influences my understanding of Washuta's Indigeneity. My relationship to the text is a point of tension in and of itself, as I strategically work to avoid colonizing her story, while also highlighting the integral role of her Indigenous identity in her narrative. It is a tension that will not resolve, another point that defines the crip mad holding space.
Flexing from center to outside communities and along a spectrum of identities, Washuta navigates her lived experiences as mixed race—Indigenous and white—and the tension between these two worlds. She is a distant onlooker to Native powwows and she did not grow up on a reservation. Yet, she states her Indigenous heritage (and the politics of tribal affiliation) early in the memoir: "I am three-thirty-seconds Indian: one-sixteenth Cascade and one-thirty-second Cowlitz. Since the Cascade tribe has been split into pieces, I am enrolled Cowlitz" (15). When her peers in Baltimore demand to know "how much," attempting to "split" her Native "ancestry into neat compartments," she feels violently dismembered, torn from "limb to limb" (59). Although Washuta feels threatened by these encounters, she resists the confinement and compartmentalization used to uphold settler colonialism. Instead, she holds onto her lived experience that rests in a space of fluid tension between her whiteness and Indigeneity, refusing binaries.
2. Book structure
Washuta's memoir is non-linear and mostly focuses on her years as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in the early 2000s and through the beginning of her graduate work. The memoir chapters are a series of vignettes, including journal entries and a list of prescribed medications and their effects. Every chapter begins with what she calls "A Cascade Autobiography." These short meditations on the effects of colonization and genocide on Indigenous peoples provide broad historical background as well as her personal story: she carries these effects in her bodymind and she details how she navigates both her Native and white identities within this context. As someone who easily passes as white, Washuta often questions the authenticity of her Native identity, at the same time resisting others who dismiss her Indigeneity. Across the memoir, she details the colonization and genocide of her tribe, finding parallels between the patriarchal misogyny of her tribe's decimation and her experience of sexual assault. The conclusion of Washuta's text, in which she attempts to navigate her way through the outskirts of Seattle, suggests that she is continually redrawing and redefining her map, and at times needing to start anew. Instead of a linear, clear-cut conclusion of healing and redemption, Washuta's narrative remains fluid and resistant to closure, further articulating the mad crip holding space.
3. Mad Storytelling
Beginning to describe her prescription drug regimen, Washuta writes: "Lexapro is a prescription medicine used for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Depression is a real medical condition, the other name for the dread that pulls you down melting Maryland asphalt on steaming mornings while you drag your buttery bones along, wondering who liquified your insides" (53). Juxtaposing highly affective, hence fluid and active, registers of pain, anger, and elation, with more clinical language, Washuta maddens the linear narrative of healing and redemption, as well as positivist objective accounts of her life. Washuta's emotive telling resists objectivity, her memory often coming across as fragmented, chaotic, and contradictory due to the violence inflicted on her body and psyche. Her interactions with the psy industrial complex are interwoven with both compliance and resistance, a highly charged emotional relationship that refuses the binaries of medicated and sane and non-compliant and insane.
Washuta immediately complies with the prescription regimen, taking the anti-depressants Lexapro and Wellbutrin, and expressing great pleasure in the latter drug: "You'll probably like it a lot, feeling like you're on some legal version of coke, and it's a much cheaper habit." However, her resistance to the methods of psychiatric diagnosis is evident in the following sentence: "You won't identify this feeling as mania, because your diagnosis is depression […] but nobody told you that a patient whose bipolar disorder slipped between the numbers on the clinic's mood scale survey should not take this drug on its own." The pleasure continues in her descriptions of Ativan, "a Lilliputian pill" which causes "evaporating panic" and "hypnotic sleep" (54). A month later, Washuta is prescribed Ritalin, and she finds the opposing effects of high energy, focus, and motivation quite pleasurable as well. "And when you do take that bottle home, swallow the drug as directed, and make every deadline your dog, try to save just one feeling in your gut as you model all your dresses and vacuum every inch of your kitchen" (55). The contradictory juxtaposition of pleasure and pain, and critique and compliance, exposes the unresolved tension of the crip mad holding space.
Highlighting the visceral and affective registers of Washuta's language illustrates that, despite her use of classificatory medical terminology, and her compliance with psychotropic medications, Washuta maddens her adherence to a psychiatric regimen, carving out her own crip mad holding space of tension that resists pathologization. Maddening infuses clinical objectivity with passionate overtures, disrupts linearity with partial tellings and fragmented memories, and establishes coherence through chaos and contradiction. While Washuta complies with her prescription regimen, and even takes pleasure in some of the medications' effects, she never credits the drugs for her healing or recovery. As she explains to the reader, the drugs may eventually give her a sense of calm, but her "brain" continues to "marinate" in "trauma" (51).
Part of this resistance is Washuta's engagement in a highly emotive and embodied form of storytelling grounded in Indigenous traditions of resistance. Dian Million describes such emotive tellings as marginalized because they do not subscribe to the objectivity and linearity necessary for believability. Several disability studies scholars also note the ways in which disability memoirs, particularly those that deal with madness, play with the constructs of truth and credibility, through, for example, the use of pronouns (Couser, 2009; Price, 2011; Pryal, 2011). Indeed, disabled and mad people have often challenged and subverted the social norms of credibility and authority in their life-writing. Literary scholar Susannah Mintz notes that disability narratives by women in general do not follow a linear format framing "disability as a kind of work-in- progress, a process of becoming rather than an immutable fact of physicality located beyond the scope of words to liberate and define" (4). Million argues that less linear, more emotive and embodied narratives like Washuta's are "unbelievable because any speech about being violated would be an emotional telling, couched in language of shame or pain in the fragmentation of violence and memory" (94). 2 Washuta's maddening is evident in her refusal to focus on believability and credibility, which would generally favor a clinical, objective, and linear telling of one's story. Instead, she embraces the affective and emotional aspects of her experience, changing her use of pronouns, moving back and forth in time, and relying on visceral, fragmented memories of pain and pleasure to guide her story. Washuta establishes coherence on her own terms, embracing the contradiction and chaos that often accompanies the mad and disabled experience.
4. Medicalizing Indigenous Trauma
Contrasting the doctor's diagnosis of depression and the prescription of an anti-depressant with the historical trauma of colonization and genocide, Washuta discusses her body as a site of trauma. She finds parallels between her tribe's genocide and her own sexual assault. Describing a symposium she attends in graduate school, she writes: "Sexual Violence is a form of control and oppression, of course. Sexual violence is not only an attack on bodies, but on identity, humanity and larger cultural groups of women" (93).
Throughout her memoir Washuta situates herself and her experience in various contexts, refusing to be defined by one aspect of her identity, whether it be her diagnosis, her whiteness and Indigeneity, or the experience of sexual assault. Situating her trauma and experience beyond the limits of psy practices' attempts to diagnose, contain, and treat, she describes her admissions interview at the University of Maryland. She writes:
I didn't know how to talk about the histories embedded in my bones, my great- grandmother's half silence, the damning of our language that coincided with the damning of the Columbia River, my wordless conversations with the towering petroglyph woman and unmarked rocks by the water, my belly's swell that my mother told me was an Indian thing while I battled it with Weight Watchers point counts. (4)
As she conveys in this passage, Washuta's history is marked by silence and disavowal, a silence and oppression she feels in her bones but is still unable to speak of. Her conversations of these oppressions remain "wordless" and "unmarked." Internalizing all of this she simultaneously mourns this loss, while attempting to rid herself of something that's been narrated to her as a fleshy marker of her Indigeneity, her swollen belly. Washuta feels the loss of her tribe's heritage in her bones; however, she also feels the oppression of societal standards for femininity marked on her body, her "belly's swell," a trait of her Indigeneity that marks her as other and one that society demands she treat with dieting. Dian Million extends this point, arguing that even a diagnosis of trauma still situates Indigenous emotional pain and distress in a Western construct of healing:
The shift in domestic violence law that accompanies the rise of victimology and psychological trauma also signals the movement from one order to another. It is a shift wherein the "private" domestic space of colonization also becomes the public space of trauma, where it painfully subscribes subjects for healing. (102)
A psychological, or psychiatric, diagnosis and treatment of depression, or trauma, medicalizes and pathologizes what is in fact the painful history of an entire community at the hands of colonization and genocide, often manifested in gender violence. Formerly colonized subjects now become "subjects for healing." This medicalization robs the shared experience of trauma of its political implications. Hence, in this case, the personal is denied the power of the political. By continually situating herself within the broader context of a political history of colonization and genocide, and refusing to be defined by a psychiatric diagnosis, Washuta carves out a holding space for her trauma that finds political power in personal experience.
5. Maddening Clinical Language
Washuta's juxtaposition of emotive, embodied storytelling with more clinical language is a method of maddening seeming psychiatric compliance. She additionally disorders clinical language when she utilizes the classificatory medical term "bipolar" and compares her diagnosis to a physical ailment. She writes, "Getting the brain right is the most important thing there is. Not the same as mind, the brain is a mass of tissue, another part of the body that can escape me, no different from a busted ankle or a non-functioning gallbladder" (50-51). Her distinction between brain and mind aligns with a focal point of the antipsychiatry and mad pride movements, challenging the assertions that mental illness is a purely biological phenomenon. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, for example, are understood not as neutral constructs, but as inherently biopolitical and oppressive (O'Leary, Ben-Moshe, 2019). Framing diagnoses as purely biological, erases the generational and personal trauma Washuta carries in her body. Indeed, Washuta's psychiatrist focuses solely on "fixing" her brain, continually adding to her psychotropic drug regimen and mixing prescriptions that should not be taken together. She takes the drugs willingly, feeling a desperate need to get her "head" on "straight." Still, Washuta centers herself as the expert, representing her psychiatrist as more of a prescription dispenser than an expert in mental health treatment. She writes:
When you see the drug ads, you will know why your doctor put you on Abilify: like many Americans, he saw the drug ad in which a woman pauses from her dog-walking to stand, one hand in her flowing hair and one on a leash, looking into verdant pastures and a road ahead, under the words, "Are you ready to move forward? (57)
Washuta maddens this idyllic image of wellness, and the more clinical description of a potential side effect, "feeling of restlessness," when she describes her reaction to the new medication. "[…] this 'feeling of restlessness' is much closer to a feeling that your own body is attacking the idea of the rest of the world, its limits, and its stillness so hard that you are, pretty much, the one in the choke collar, the one on the leash" (57). Contrasting her own emotional experience of restraint, and centering the reactions of her body, Washuta maddens the linear path to healing and recovery that the advertisement for the drug conveys and the result her doctor hopes for. Washuta holds space for the contradictory yearnings to align with sanity and wellness and her refusal to frame her story as a linear path to healing and recovery. Her compliance with the prescribed medications stems more from raw emotion and pain, rather than a logical desire to be sane. She even writes at one point: "I wouldn't choose sanity if I could. Sanity is smug. Insanity is vulnerable and self-aware" (91). There is also a playfulness at work here, as Washuta dismantles common perceptions of psychotropics as the key to happiness and well-being. Washuta's simultaneous compliance with her medication and defiance of linearity and traditional models of recovery and mental wellness allows her narrative to reside in an unresolved state of tension and contradiction, defining features of the crip mad holding space.
6. Beyond Binaries
By utilizing both clinical and emotive language, simultaneously critiquing and complying with her medication regimen, and vividly describing the embodied pleasure and pain of her experiences, Washuta resists the prescriptive binaries of rationality and irrationality, sanity and insanity, brain and body, indigeneity and whiteness, and recovery and chronicity that would dictate her engagement with the world. She creates a necessary crip mad holding space of tension and contradiction. This is reflected in the non-linear format of her memoir. She moves back and forth in time, infusing the present and the past, her narrative guided more by emotion and fragmented memories. In doing this she disrupts the settler colonial boundaries of past and present.
This refusal of binaries is also reflected in her understanding of her mixed-race status as both Indigenous and white. When she moves to Seattle and meets other mixed-race Indigenous peoples, Washuta no longer feels the pressure to prove her Native identity, or to choose between being Indigenous or being white. She writes: "I had achieved a new kind of belonging: a comfort with a split ethnic identity. Once I moved to Seattle and people stopped questioning, I realized that, sure, I am Native, but I am also very, very white" (88). Washuta finds comfort and ease in an identity that had previously been defined by the settler colonial frameworks of blood quantum and racial authenticity. She is allowed to move freely within this fluid mixed-race identity, rather than remaining stagnant and still, "like an artifact whose authenticity is being evaluated for inclusion in a museum" (88).
Washuta also maintains a sense of fluidity and tension with her mad brain. Despite the relative stability she finds on the drug Seroquel, she recognizes that being bipolar is a part of her identity: "You'll always be bipolar. You'll never stop gaining weight and you'll probably die of liver failure if you don't stop drinking. No drug is going to make you stop being the person you are" (57). Her assertion that she'll always be bipolar allows her to reside in a liminal space between recovery and chronicity. This liminal position is reinforced at the end of the memoir, when Washuta is attempting to navigate the outskirts of Seattle: "I prepare to drive around in the dark for another two hours, and to be bipolar forever, and to feel pain for the rest of my life, because feeling is better than not feeling" (189). This lack of closure, wandering in the dark rather than discovering a clear-cut path, admitting that her pain will never completely vanish, blurs the boundaries of sanity and insanity, allowing her to reside in both spaces simultaneously. Through simultaneous humor, darkness, playfulness, and solemnity, Washuta maddens the psychiatric protocols of recovery and healing according to neoliberal, mainstream, colonialist logics. She also finds comfort in liminal, fluid, and contradictory spaces, refusing to be defined by linear racial and medical binaries.
Washuta's highly descriptive, emotive, and contradictory narrative technique is an example of maddening the mainstream settler colonial logics of linearity, hierarchical authority, rationality, and recovery that attempt to dictate how she should engage with the world. This process of maddening creates a holding space of tension, contradiction, and fluidity that resists the binaries established by heteropatriarchy and upheld by neoliberalism and capitalism. Maddening is a technique of resistance, specifically to psychiatric protocols that demand compliance in order to be self-determined and recovered. Across My Body is a Book of Rules, Washuta's use of clinical, diagnostic language and her seeming compliance with a psychiatric treatment regimen is actually couched in resistance, inherently tied to her identity as a mixed-race Indigenous woman. Washuta's narrative finds power in contradiction, chaos, and fragmentation and a close analysis of her work demonstrates that there is still much to explore at the intersections of Disability Studies, Mad Studies, and Native American and Indigenous Studies. Washuta's work highlights the way these fields value processes of becoming, rather than clear-cut closures, the power of tension rather than resolution, and the necessity of contradiction rather than clarity. Finally, it is important to note that Washuta's voice and presence in the text, her insistence that she be heard on her own terms of engagement, is a highly political and liberatory act.
- Couser, Thomas. Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.915367
- Johnson, Merri Lisa. Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality Disorder. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010.
- Mailhot, Terese Marie. Heart Berries: A Memoir. London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2018.
- Million, Dian. Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Trauma. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2013.
- Mintz, Susannah. Unruly Bodies: Life Writing by Women with Disabilities. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
- O'Leary, Meghann and Liat Ben-Moshe. "Homage to Spencer: The Politics of "Treatment" and "Choice" in Neoliberal Times." Madness, Violence and Power: A Critical Collection. Ed Andrea Daley, Lucy Costa, Peter Beresford. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019, 115-35. https://doi.org/10.3138/9781442629981-013
- Price, Margaret. '"Her Pronouns Wax and Wane:' Psychosocial Disability, Autobiography, and Counter-diagnosis." Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 3, no. 1 (2011): 11-33. https://doi.org/10.1353/jlc.0.0010
- Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. "The Genre of the Mood Memoir and the Ethos of Psychiatric Disability." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40, no. 5 (2011): 479-501. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2010.516304
- Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822374817
- Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctt1pwt77c
- Slater, Lauren. Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Toronto: Random House, 2000.
- Washuta, Elissa. My Body Is a Book of Rules. Pasadena California: Red Hen Press, 2014.
- Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 2008.
- Native survivance is an active sense of presence over historical absence and oblivion. Survivance often is a signature feature in Native stories, natural reason, active traditions, customs, and narrative resistance and is observable in personal attributes such as humor, spirit, cast of mind, and moral courage in literature. Gerald Vizenor, ed., Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008).
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- Many memoirs about madness are also challenging this linear framework. See, for example, Merri Lisa Johnson, Girl in Need of a Tourniquet: Memoir of a Borderline Personality Disorder (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010); Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries: A Memoir (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2018); Lauren Slater, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (Toronto: Random House, 2000).
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