The Return of Problematic Things

I’m in the “teen space” room of the Fountaindale Public Library, sometime in 1994. My friends and I are getting ready to play a Vampire: The Masquerade RPG, for which I’ll play Storyteller. It will be my first experience running a game for anyone other than my brother. I’m very proud of all the ideas I’ve jotted down. There’s a pile of NPCs on photocopied Vampire character sheets in front of me. One of them is a Malkavian — vampires that are good at stealth, intuition, and manipulating the minds of others through a power called “Dementation.” All vampires have a weakness linked to their clan origin; for the Malkavians, it’s an insanity that grips them from the moment of their undead embrace. I am both proud of this character, and nervous about it. I’ve decided that this Malkavian will be schizophrenic, because I know what that means. My uncle is schizophrenic. It’s not something I’ve told my friends.

One of the players is upset at the end of the session because he thinks the Malkavian NPC is a “cheat.” 

“He didn’t act anywhere near weird enough,” he explains as we walk down the library steps. “You can’t just not roleplay his weakness, Tracy.”

“But I was!”

“He should’ve, like, worn a duck on his head and called it Charles or something. That’s schizo.”

###

A few weeks later, I’m hanging out at a friend’s house after school. She is inclined to drama, of the sort that manifests in a mostly-performative appetite for heavy metal, doing her own piercings with a hot needle and an ice cube, and taking scissors to all of her clothes after buying them at Wal-Mart. She’s also a serial liar, not out of cruelty, but out of loneliness, trying to find events or experiences to make herself interesting enough for others’ notice. I’m only fourteen and deeply naive, yet even I’ve caught on to that much.

My friend invited me here because she says she needs to share a very important secret. Megadeth plays (loudly) on her boombox. Over it, she’s bellowing about how she knows she’s insane.

“I hear voices,” she shouts. “They tell me to do things. I’m giving them names. I’m up to, like, four now? I think? Oh, wait, I think I hear another one! That’s five!”

This, she insists, is because she is schizophrenic. Also, probably bipolar. Or maybe she has multiple personality disorder? Or is that what being schizophrenic is? (It isn’t.) We’re still a decade away from having the internet in our pocket, so she leaves the question in the air, unanswered, with a shrug.

When she finally turns “Sweating Bullets” down, I think for a minute before I ask my question.

“How do you feel about this?”

Her smile is positively rapturous. “It’s amazing.

###

When Braveheart hits the theaters and my friends and I see it for the billionth time (we like swords, and underdogs, and nobody outside of Hollywood knows yet that Mel Gibson is a monster). Everyone’s favorite character is Stephen, the deranged Irish berserker who pledges himself to William Wallace’s cause. He shouts disquisitions to the sky, asserting that “In order to find his equal, an Irishman is forced to talk to God.” 

Crazy Irish,” Wallace’s sergeant grumbles. 

But to the teenage crowd I run with, crazy is an endorsement.

###

I’ve written before about loving problematic things, but this time, it’s more than personal. It’s generational. It’s a whole damn phenomenon. And it’s less about “loving” the problematic thing than not understanding it in the first place.

I’m the last gasp of Generation X. Somewhere in the decades that made us, the idea that mental illness (madness, you’d call it, if you were poetically inclined or a Vampire LARPer) was freeing, or the source of cosmic insight, or funny, took hold. Madness could be encompassed by wearing a duck on your head, if you were that friend critiquing my Vampire RP, or in the lyrics of a banger song, if you were my self-diagnosing friend. Madness made you Baz Luhrmann’s Mercutio, or a Johnny Depp character, or a proto-manic pixie dream girl. Or it turned you into an oracle, a figure of tragic insight. Or maybe a no-fucks-to-give badass (remember Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon? Tyler Durden in Fight Club?). Throw in the rise of the internet and an ever-growing army of questionable resources about mental health, a sloppy use of discourse (“ugh, stack the books this way, or my OCD will go nuts”), and the entire alternative music scene from 1990-2002, and you’ve basically got a pressure cooker for young people with little understanding of how mental illness works and a deep, fascinated certainty that, actually, they do know how mental illness works. 

It seems we’ve bled this romanticizing of mental illness into today’s youth, too. A quick browse of YouTube and TikTok makes clear that youth discourse about mental illness is abundant and, to a shocking degree, badly misinformed. My son (who is 14) has had friends self-diagnose with any number of conditions ranging from depression to Dissociative Identity Disorder, and while some of them have gone on to seek treatment (through which some of them have come to realize that while they needed mental health support, it wasn’t for anything as rare or sensational as they had imagined), others have spiraled deeper into an absolute certainty that they suffer from conditions heretofore undiagnosed and unexplored by professionals. I’ve seen this phenomenon among my students, too: authentic confusion and pain eagerly labeled with the mental disorders that have been dramatized to them in ways that aren’t realistic or helpful. Ways that, frankly, incentivize identifying as ill because it’s a new way of “being special” in a world too big to make most of us feel noticed. In this sea of self-diagnoses and appropriation of the language of mental health advocacy, many people who do need help get lost in the noise of others who are seeking something different in their quest to understand themselves, or make themselves seen.

Somehow, we took the capital-R Romantic notion of the unfettered, tortured individual, the person who lives outside the norms of their society, and transformed it into this, the party that too many people want in on for the wrong reasons. 

And that’s why I’m not sure if I’m going to read this copy of Moon Knight, volume 1 I’ve checked out from the library.

###

I grew up on Marvel comics. I collected them avidly for about twelve years, pumping God-only-knows how much money and time into my regular pull titles: X-Men, Wolverine, What If?, and more. And yet, though I had at least a passing familiarity with Spider-Man, the Avengers, the Hulk, the Punisher, Luke Cage, Daredevil, and even Ghost Rider, I never even heard of Moon Knight before Disney+ announced its plans to develop it, casting Oscar Isaac in the lead.

It wasn’t until the week the show debuted and I pondered watching it that I learned the titular character, Marc Spector, has Dissociative Identity Disorder, colloquially called “Multiple Personality Disorder.”

Immediately, my desire to watch the show waned.

My mother’s mental decline, driven by multiple sclerosis, left her with Alzheimer’s-like mental and emotional issues, including depression, suicidal ideation, and obsessive-compulsive habits. My uncle suffered from paranoid schizophrenia beginning in his early adulthood, and continues to deal with its impact on his life today. Other members of my family have suffered from depression, self-harm, and traumatic experiences of various kinds, including domestic abuse and alcoholism.

I grew up watching people portray mental disorders and pain as an art object in my entertainments of choice — and I grew up participating in that culture, too.

I’m not sure if I can trust Moon Knight not to make the same mistake.

Not going to lie. . . he DOES seem entertaining.

I thought I could satisfy my curiosity and make that decision by reading up on the source material, but of course, Moon Knight runs from 1980-2018. There’s so much overlap between the pop cultural history I began this essay with and the origins of the character — is it even fair, or sensible, to expect anything other than what I grew up seeing? 

Should we, in 2022, demand something different

Regular readers of my columns might be disappointed that I’ve taken you this far without giving you “an answer.” I still haven’t cracked open Moon Knight. I still haven’t queued up the show. I still can’t decide if watching it with a critical gaze is more important to confronting my past with mental illness in media, and in my family, or if not doing either is voting with my attention, pushing the discourse away from treating mental illness as a source of narrative grist and glamor.

I haven’t decided, because all answers are bad answers.

At least, that’s what I told myself until I talked to the Husbeast.

###

My husbeast is the sort of listener who defaults to problem-solving. Unless you are profoundly clear that you only want to emote or opine, he’ll hear out your latest worries while building a mental flowchart of how you should resolve every element of your problem, or how to avoid such problems in the future.

He saw the copy of Moon Knight, and me working at this column with a furrowed brow, and after ten minutes of me gesticulating and explaining, he had an answer.

“There’s virtue in thinking about the problems media that entertains us can reinforce, and being aware of those problems helps disrupt the cycle of reinforcement, right?”

I frowned. “R-right? Sort of?”

“It’s the only way to disrupt that cycle: to consume thoughtfully. So, what if you just,” he gestured roundly, “tried consuming Moon Knight thoughtfully, because you’re aware that mental illness isn’t entertaining or exciting? It’s hard. And it’s often scary, and sad. You already know that. Letting yourself derive whatever pleasure you can from the experience and also putting yourself in a position to talk meaningfully about how the title measures up against your fears is a good thing.”

“But I don’t want to reward bad media.”

“Do you know it’s bad yet?”

I hesitated. “I’ve. . . been trying to avoid reviews and spoilers, so I guess I don’t know.”

Husbeast shrugged. “Fair. And you know what else is fair? Letting yourself be an audience. You deserve the chance to try something without taking all the possible guilt for it upon yourself. You don’t even know yet if the Moon Knight that’s out there is problematic or not. And even if it is, you can still think it through and change your mind about continuing. We’re all going to fail if the goal of entertainment is to find something pure.”

All answers are bad answers, until you realize that being aware of the problems in your choices isn’t the same as having your choices taken away. My answers have something to do with a history — as much private as public — that needs to be unpacked. It’s a history that, stubbornly, will not unpack itself. And it certainly won’t be unpacked while my back is turned.

It’s snowing in April now because the Midwest is cruel and makes little sense. It’s a problematic day, full of daffodils and sleet, mingling improbably at the same time. It’s a day I’m prepared to take on with a healthy degree of skepticism. Maybe that’s the best kind of day to start on Moon Knight vol. 1.

But he’d better not put a duck on his head, or so help me — 

 

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