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Review: Psych Murders by Stephanie Heit

Wayne State University Press, 2022.
Paperback, $17.99, 135 pages.

Stephanie Heit’s prose sequence “Z Cycle” from her debut collection The Color She Gave (The Operating System, 2017) mimics the mixed phases and shifting states that a person with bipolar disorder might experience. Short choppy observations, coupled with partial sentences and phrases, compress both space and time in a manner that arguably approximates a bodymind rapidly cycling through profound somatic sensations. Case in point are the following lines:

“Spots. Blurred vision. Brain not functioning correctly but can’t focus to identify what is off.  Curb.  Stop sign.  Passing car. All in heightened animation you blink to buffer.” (50)

The phrasing is punchy. The brevity of each unit, within an already compacted prose poem sequence, articulates a near sense of bombardment, the battering of the body against an excitable mind. Words like “blurred vision”, “brain not functioning”, “can’t focus”, and “blink to buffer” propose successive moments of cognitive slips that further imply multiple contestations with the body. “Z Cycle” enacts the feeling of bodymind cycles through textual embodiment by accumulating compacted phrases. The poem also serves as an excellent introduction for Heit’s subsequent work, Psych Murders (2022), that further extends the earlier sequence’s foray into American healthcare and mental health difference. In this new collection, the poet traces her experiences of psychiatric medicine, specifically electroconvulsive therapy (also known as ECT), with careful navigation of the embodied aftermath of her treatment. The ghostly figure of a “murderer”—explained as “the gutsy antics of suicidal ideation” on the first page—instantiates a different kind of political contestation on the gendered female bodymind. And haunting the poem, alongside this murderer, are the male Whitecoats and nurses, whose knowledge of clinical care seems to circumvent the poet’s desires.

Perhaps best described as a hybrid collection, Pysch Murders bridges the already murky borders of memoir, and Mad and disability studies, with a type of embodied poetry. The collection comprises of ten separate sections, some of which echo real clinical questions: “Do you think about the future?” What brings you pleasure?” “Do you have a specific plan?” In her own words, Heit’s collection “focuses on a five-year period between 2009 and 2014 when I experienced extreme mind states and suicidal ideation” (128). Writing the personal—especially the intensely personal experience of mental health difference—carries a risk where a reader might overtly focus on locating a conflicting narrative of recovery, regardless if one is presented or not. But the strength of Psych Murders is the way that the collection denies these kinds of readings by posing subtle and difficult-to-answer questions about the spheres of modern psychiatric treatment. Namely, this collection asks us to consider the nature of care. What would it mean to refuse it? What could care—as an organising concept for empathy and kinship—really be? These questions push back on clinical inquiries of the section headings that impose an idea of bodily safety (“Do you have a specific plan?”) without attending to how the mind requires its own holdings. And underlying these questions is the dilemma: what if modern care is worse than the disorder? Heit makes these stakes clear when she registers her own feelings of abandonment: “I’m left at the ECT emergency exit,” she writes,

“Last shock done. No one to guide me through the next days, then months, then years. Whitecoat denial of memory loss. Traumatic Brain Injury. Damage. No rehab or support groups for what does not happen. Open sea.” (95)

A 2020 study showed that recipients of ETC were more likely to be white, female, and elderly in California, Illinois, and Vermont.[1] It is a gendered form of clinical treatment that Heit herself notes: “Whitecoat places his hand on her foot while she is seizing (notice the pronouns, they rarely change)” (94). ECT is also not without risks. Side effects include memory loss, autobiographical amnesia, mania, and cute pulmonary oedema. More rarely, but nonetheless possible, is death.[2] Strangely, how and why it works isn’t exactly known, although its side effects on the bodymind are clearly not insignificant.

Bodies and minds are also not separate entities although medical professional sometimes treats them as if they are. As Margaret Price notes, “mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other” so when we speak of bodyminds, we acknowledge the embodied entanglements of our psychic conditions and how they play out in the body, and vice versa.[3] In Psych Murders, the body is a graphical surface that receives violent seismic inscriptions from the “Shock Machine.” As one persona poem, written from the machine’s perspective, suggests, “I leave indelible marks” (22). In the process these inscriptions become a historical embodied text that offer insights into an unremembered past. In the poem “Dear Right Foot”, for example, Heit identifies her experience of ECT as it is expressed in a lower limb:

“I’m grateful you got to dance it out. Embody flutter and seize.  Sense yourself in time and space.  Keep the beat to an unfortunate tune, the staccato section of the ECT marching band.” (55)

The somatic imprint of the treatment forms a memory in the foot that reminds the poet of a moment she was physically but not cognitively present. Later Heit calls attention to her foot’s consciousness that she invites to stand in for her own:

“I develop pain in my right big toe joint. Attribute it to the seizures, all movement concentrated in the foot cuffed so the anaesthesia and muscle relaxants didn’t get there. it was awake for every session. It soothes me now that there was at least foot consciousness, my experiences registered by a body extremity.” (108)

Physical pain is a document of these momentary cognitive loss, but it is also a reminder of how embodiment and consciousness are not only staged in the mind but also in our body’s lower limbs. Yet the collection doesn’t rest upon these decentred consciousness. Rather, it concludes with a declarative articulation on the importance of the “I” as a way to acknowledge the fracturing that clinical medicine can impose upon the vulnerable bodymind. In the final poem, Testament”, Heit opts to repeat her various positionalities: “I am risk / I am hard sell /… I am a high functioner” (122). Repeating this “I” with its multiple medically-informed positionalities over several pages ironically serves to undercut the very ideologies and assumptions associated with institutionalised mental health. In the process, this repetition re-establishes the bodymind as a totality, as an “I” with many parts. It’s also not a recovery or recuperation. This is not a celebration.

Rather, Pysch Murders carves out a possibility for a different kind of bodymind health practice where desire and care might find a different mode of expression. As the final line of the poem declares, “I am the buck stops here” (124).


Works Cited

Heit, Stephanie. The Color She Gave Gravity. NY: The Operating System, 2017.


[1] James Luccarelli et. al. “Demographics of Patients Receiving Electroconvulsive Therapy Based on State-Mandated Reporting Data,” The Journal of ECT vol. 36, no. 4 (2020): 229–33.

[2] See M. Finnegan and D. McLoughlin, “Cognitive Side-Effects of ECT” and J. Waite, “Non-cognitive Adverse Effects of ECT,” both in The ECT Handbook, eds., Ed I. Ferrier & J. Waite (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 109–128.

[3] Margaret Price, “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain,” Hypatia vol. 30, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 269.

 

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Orchid Tierney

Orchid Tierney is a poet and scholar from Aotearoa New Zealand. She is the author of the collection a year of misreading the wildcats (The Operating System, 2019) and several chapbooks including looking at the Tiny: Mad lichen on the surfaces of reading (Essay Press, 2023), my beatrice (above/ground press, 2020), ocean plastic (BlazeVOX Books, 2019), and blue doors (Belladonna Press, 2018). Her scholarship, reviews, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Jacket2Venti, Fractured EcologiesSubstance, among others. She is the recipient of the Ohio Arts Council Y22 Individual Artist Excellence Award and a Black Earth Institute Fellow for 2022–25. Tierney is an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College. www.orchidtierney.com; @orchidtierney