from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Mood: a memoir of love, identity and mental health’ by Roz Bellamy

Bellamy Roz. Mood: a memoir of love, identity and mental health. Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2023. RRP: $34.95, 230pp, ISBN: 9781743058701.

Jenny Hedley

In their memoir Mood: a memoir of love, identity and mental health, Roz Bellamy cannot reconcile the chasm between the best-practice teaching methods they learned during their Masters and the raucousness of their high school students. In the classroom Bellamy faces youths who ink swastikas, who play games in the yard which stereotype Jews as literal money-grabbers and joke about the Holocaust. Feeling trapped in a job that delivers a steady barrage of hate speech, and which recreates the trauma of grade-school bullying, it is no wonder that Bellamy sees no way out. Many mental health memoirs skim over embodied sensations of grief, despair and suicidal ideation but Bellamy makes known the physicality of despair: teeth that grind, neck held tight, hunched posture. Mood is a compelling and vital testimony to the devastating effects of bullying. Though, while it takes us to difficult places, it is also is tempered with humour. For example, when Bellamy’s psychologist probes to see whether they are looking after themself, they are ‘embarrassed by the term self-care, not sure that it fits with [them] lying in a bathtub eating chocolate’ (13). Beyond the classroom, Mood titrates between past and present to tell the story of Bellamy’s reckoning with grief and their relationship with wife Rachel; it traces experiences of mental ill health from childhood through counselling and various diagnoses. As Bellamy seeks treatment for anxiety and depression, they revisit their teenage fear of being shamed for their queer identity and bisexuality, while at the same time facing the impacts of intergenerational trauma. Mood illustrates the slipperiness of medicalising mental health, where gendered and societal biases factor into diagnoses, and where a patient’s perfectionism can stand in the way of their own treatment. Bellamy writes, ‘Whatever my diagnosis is, and whatever diagnoses mean, I want to be transparent: to tell people about my mental illness and why it sometimes makes me want to die’ (198).

For those of us living with mental health conditions it’s easy to blame one’s behaviour on a disorder, but Bellamy takes ownership of how their anger affects Rachel: ‘When I’m calm, later, I realise how much this is a pattern of abuse’ (125). They tell Rachel, ‘I can’t process my existing trauma so I guess I add new traumas to the mix instead’ (199). Even as Bellamy is finally diagnosed and medicated, they have mixed feelings around the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) ‘pathologises normal human responses to trauma and oppression’ (208).

In recent years, there have been a spate of memoirs whose metanarratives partially hinge upon diagnoses according to the DSM. While re-examining life in light of diagnosis allows a writer to understand how they’ve been disabled by a world that is structurally ableist, as a neurodivergent writer I cannot wait to move beyond the place where we must explain the way our brains work for a supposed neurotypical audience. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that thirty to forty per cent of the population is neurodiverse and yet the neurotypical-biased design of the publishing industry mostly ignores this readership, instead packaging writing which does as much explaining as it does storytelling. Who are these medicalised memoirs written for? Bellamy writes that their hope is to help others understand how ‘to get to the other side when it feels impossible’ (198): a worthy goal. But I sense that the voice rendered for the page has been tempered for personal reasons, or to conform to the unrelenting standards of the publishing industry. Or both.

On a personal level, Bellamy confesses to withholding worst-case examples out of respect for their wife. ‘It will take a long time to get to a point when I feel free and ready to tell the stories I want’ (170). On a craft level, I think about the constraints of form and use of language. In one brief passage, Bellamy shares writing from a manic period which is stunning in its poetry:

My grief is tied to wattle at the end of winter and jacaranda as spring turns to summer, both of which I associate with loss. Corporate promotions, like McDonald’s Monopoly, start to take on a dark, forbidding shape. (197; italics in original)

What would happen if such passages were allowed to intrude upon a book, without disclaimers categorising them as ‘manic writing’? What if a writer’s extremes could bleed across pages without apologies or asterisks? I anticipate a time ahead where the chaos or dissonance of the mind is reflected both in form and content, without the need for diagnostic explication.

Because many forms of neurodivergence have overlapping characteristics, it feels relevant to reference a trend concerning autism memoirs which Caitlin McGregor synthesises in their essay ‘Mad Pride’. In this close reading of Clara Törnvall’s The Autists, Clem Bastow’s Late Bloomer and Sandra Thom-Jones’ Growing into Autism, McGregor shows that although each resists triumphant endings and allows for temporal dislocations, the narrative arcs are all similar: ‘the feeling different from others in childhood, the burnout leading to official diagnosis in adulthood, and the subsequent looking back on one’s early life as the pieces all fall into place’. Obviously, this déjà vu formula is what sells: hybrid research memoirs which hinge upon diagnosis, plus recontextualisation of self in a disabling world. These books have their place, as McGregor notes, both in reaching differently brained readers, and in helping the literary landscape to achieve an understanding upon which future books can be based.

For now, DSM-speak is necessary because the majority of medical studies which led to the establishment of diagnostic criterium have been concerned with the neuropsychology of cis white men. Maybe by populating the field with memoirs of women, non-binary and trans people whose minds work differently, in the future we might tell stories where our mental health conditions, neurodivergence and disability are incidental to the stories we tell, and are revealed in tells that are obvious for likeminded readers. Unfortunately, until the publishing world is less commercially minded—a stance which precludes books that require an added layer of processing for the so-called neurotypical—we’ll have to keep spelling everything out in technical terms. We cannot just write as we are, in case we confound our supposed audiences.

As an industry, it is up to each of us to do better, to allow our imaginations to expand to accommodate what readers do not yet know they want because they’ve not been allowed to see it. Already, I see hope for Mad writing, especially in poetry. Admissions: voices within mental health features over a hundred poems, essays and fictions that breathe into this space. Poet Emily Sun’s Vociferate 詠 is a brilliant example of work whose neurodivergence reveals itself through associative thought processes and a mental dexterity whose seamless integration of high and low culture performs a sort of echolalia. Where Sun’s mind flutters and flits, the results are so entrancing that one might willingly follow her performative chain of thoughts as in pursuit of white rabbits. I see hope, also, in Beau Windon’s work. His essay ‘Neurodiverging into He[arts] and Darkness’ won the 2022 Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award in the category of self-told stories by writers living with a disability. Adapted from Windon’s Honours dissertation—which provides a framework for neurodivergent writing through the lenses of mask, filter and heart writing—this inventive piece does away with the disguises we are asked to wear to conform to societal expectations. Writing straight from the heart, Windon’s word play, internal monologue and double/triple entendres make reading a delight for the brain, which is made to gallop, stutter and meander a course that is at times obsessive, ruminative. Reading works like these which move beyond medicalisation to perform neurodivergence, my heart grows two sizes bigger: I have never felt so seen.

Works Cited

McGregor, Caitlin. ‘Mad Pride’. Sydney Review of Books, 13 November 2023. Sourced at: https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/caitlin-mcgregor-clara-tornvall/

Stavanger, Savid, Radhiah Chowdhury and Mohammad Awad, (eds). Admissions: voices within mental health. Perth: Upswell Publishing, 2022.

Sun, Emily. Vociferate 詠. Perth: Fremantle Press, 2021.

Windon, Beau. ‘Neurodiverging into He[arts] and Darkness’. Melbourne: Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards, 2022. Sourced at: https://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/Neurodiverging%20into%20He%5Bart%5Ds%20and%20Darkness%20by%20Beau%20Windon.pdf

Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in OverlandArcher MagazineCordite Poetry Review, Diagram, Mascara Literary Review, Verity LaAdmissions: voices within mental health and elsewhere. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son. Website: jennyhedley.github.io/

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