Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction

Complex and hopeful stories of the madwoman artists

Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf. Billie Holiday, Diane Arbus. We know the story of the brilliant woman who destroys herself. The woman artist who is, borrowing from Helen Stratford’s Suicide The Musical, “Controversial while alive but sanctified in death.” In this powerful and unique collection edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev, we hear from nineteen writers, artists and thinkers who are alive and well—and indeed, often controversial. Contributors including Kate Bornstein, bell hooks, Nan Goldin and Eileen Myles investigate connections between creative and self-destructive forces. The authors forsake narratives of glamorous doom to outline more complex and hopeful outcomes for the madwoman artist.

The theme is approached from a variety of angles, with a few interesting surprises. Annie Sprinkle presents artistic documentation of her recent treatment for cancer. Nicole Blackman chronicles correspondence with teenage girls who reached to her for help following performances of her fictional piece involving anorexia.

Many entries deal with experiences of childhood trauma and the eating disorders, substance abuse, cutting and eventually art that follows. Playwright Carolyn Gage offers a beautiful essay describing her childhood “sacred ritual” of enacting elaborate dramas with dolls. Live performance of her later plays—rooted in that same impulse—became communally as well as personally cathartic. Particularly striking is a bold, hallucinatory and moving piece by poet Patricia Smith, whose desire to write ultimately supersedes her desire to kill herself.

Smith articulates a theme: the need to create a language for oneself. Punk cellist Bonfire Madigan not only develops an idiosyncratic musical language, but also rejects the lexicon of clinical psychology, inventing her own vocabulary for her shifting states of mind. She replaces “depression,” for instance, with “deep pressing end.”

Live Through This doesn’t present art-making as a deus ex machina at the end of an otherwise self-destructive story. Often the destructive act—especially cutting—is figured as a necessary step in self-actualization, possibly art in and of itself. The incision etched into flesh is not necessarily a punishment leveled against the body, but an awakening of the body. Not a fatal omen, but rather the first character in a new language to describe suffering. As the mark changes, as skin grows over wound, the mark also grows—into a story of recovery.

(Seven Stories Press, 2008)

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