Monday, August 4, 2008

The fine art of literary sabotage

Your penance, pious sir, served cold.

Way back in 1986, when I was living in the US, I began a two-and-a-half year ordeal of anguish and torment known at the time as major clinical depression. Suicidal, aggravated by anxiety. It was triggered by too much change, too fast, including change of residence and community, financial vulnerability, and, all in one week, the discovery that my partner was unfaithful coupled with the first cluster of heart attacks and strokes that ended my father's life. During the worst of it I was able to sleep maybe one out of three nights, wept uncontrollably, lost weight to the point of anorexia, could not hold down a job, lived in spare rooms or on couches in the homes of compassionate friends, and was unable to understand a calendar or prepare a meal. I could go on, but you get the idea. It was chemical-imbalance hell.

But it was an exceptionally vivid hell, an ongoing hyponogogic state of living out, while awake, the dreams denied to me in sleep. I was uncoupled from structure, wandering through the jungle of a mind projected outward into heightened awareness of the unrelenting sensory bombardment that is life without filters. Meet my friend Psychosis.

One way open to me for hanging on to some sense of the person I used to be -- and would never be again, because the experience permanently rewired me -- was to try to describe what I was staggering through. I ended up writing what became a book, half of it while groping my way through that wasteland, the other half after emerging: so that I would recognize the symptoms if they crept up again; so others would have some kind of map if they were still lost; because I had found nothing in print to help me except medical literature written from the outside. Those who have survived that brain tornado usually want to forget it as soon as possible. There are few accounts available.

I called the book Grief Sweat, after the sweat bath healing ritual of the Irish and other indigenous peoples, including those in what is now North America. I offered it to a publisher, it was accepted, and released to the public in early 1991. At first all went well.

"It's being said...."

But a few weeks after publication, while I was in their offices signing copies, one of the owners hovered near me and mentioned, tentatively, that "It's being said that this book is very different from your past work." I said well, yes, I was mentally ill when I wrote it, totally crazy, I would probably not write anything like it again, and that was fine with me. But then she said, "It's being suggested that you didn't write it." I was startled: "Who said that?" She responded that the identity of the person didn't matter. She just needed to know whether it was mine. "Of course," I said, "Who else would have written it?" I offered to show her my rough drafts, but she shook her head and turned away. I had to leave it at that.

But it didn't get left at that. In the months that followed, an older and respected patron asked loudly, in public, in my face, whether I had written Grief Sweat. She then dismissed my offer to provide context for a specific poem by shouting at me with hostility and walking away in disgust, saying, "He's right. Somebody else wrote it." Another person informed me that two poems in the book, in separate sections, had the same title, as if that were evidence of fraud. I simply explained that I had done that on purpose, because they mirrored one another, wondering whether anyone would notice, and that now she had done so. Even my new sweetheart reported to me, with great discomfort, that she had been told that this book was "different," and that the difference was a problem. Later I overheard someone speculate that this new person in my life might be the real author.

I didn't know what else to do but keep my dignity. At the time it seemed that to demand to know who was spreading the rumour, to confront them, to refute the lie, to speak out from the hurt I was feeling, would only be to descend to the level of whomever was taking this low road of gossip and insinuation, the individual who wasn't courageous enough to speak to me directly in the first place. To suggest that what a writer has produced is not authentically her own work is the worst thing that can be done to her. I thought that maybe, if I didn't dignify and anchor this slander with defense or repudiation, it would fade.

But it didn't. I now believe that the innuendo directly influenced the publisher's decision to not submit the book for any awards except one that wasn't a good match. Why take the risk that it would turn out to be plagiarized, or ghostwritten? It also may be the reason for an abrupt decline in sales of Grief Sweat after that and the lack of response to a chapbook published the following year. Attendance at my readings plummeted. I was embarrassed when a sponsor reserved an auditorium and only four people showed up. I turned away from poetry to study Irish traditional singing and carry out a long research project on the Great Famine that resulted in a non-fiction manuscript.

When in 1998 I was approached by a supportive press about a chapbook and happened to have enough poems for a collection published that year, they called me one day with some urgency wondering whether I had seen a certain review of it and were relieved when I said no. But by then I had Internet access, so I searched for it on the Web. The reviewer sneered at the new book, dismissing it as thin, weak, and disappointing. He wrote triumphantly that it was not on the level of Grief Sweat, as if that confirmed all suspicion. Another reviewer called the new book "long-awaited." I had no idea.

"I only said...."

Meanwhile, I found out who had started the rumour. Two friends suggested I go with them to one of his readings. I had once thought him a friend, or at least a close colleague. He and his cohort of buddies avoided me afterwards, chortling among themselves in a corner of the room. Another poet whose work I admired stopped to say that she liked Grief Sweat; she didn't care what they were saying. I thanked her, without asking the pressing question: What are they saying?

I wanted to leave, but my companions insisted that we go to an after-reading party, and, once there, to wait until nearly everyone else had gone home. So I was sitting on a hassock, a cat on my lap, when it happened. The host, standing next to the guest of honour, nudged him and whispered, "Go ahead, ask her." But the guilty party withered, hunched his shoulders, looked down, stepped back, and stammered, "I only said it was different from the manuscript I saw." "Oh?" I said. The host covered this embarrassment by saying quickly, "Jody, you're one of my favourite poets." "Thank you," I said, standing up, putting the cat down, and agreeing with my companions that it was time to go.

"Oh?" I said. Because he had never seen the manuscript. Early in my ordeal I had shown him a handful of new poems, asking whether it would be considered ethical to combine them in a collection with others from a limited-edition chapbook that was long out of print. But two years and many poems later, when I inquired whether he had time to look at the finished manuscript, he said he didn't. So he had never seen it.

Now I knew who had done the deed. But I still don't know why, except the usual possibilities of envy or competition, elevating oneself by degrading another. In the years following, the perpetrator tried in his way to make amends, without ever apologizing or taking responsibility for the damage he had done. The damage continues, because for those who have picked up even a faint whiff of his slander, there will continue to be doubts about what is probably the best book I have written, or will write.

I have no respect for him. In my humble opinion, he is small, pathetic, and false to the core.

A coda to this story is at the opposite end of the spectrum. During the first year after it was published, I was congratulated on the street by a poet/publisher who said she was glad Grief Sweat had brought me so much fame and fortune. I was puzzled and said only, "Thank you," as she walked away. I should have caught up with her and asked, "What fame and fortune?" Not long after that, a poet and filmmaker gave me a lift after a performance and said they were happy to hear my book had won a major prize. I said, puzzled again, that none of my books had ever won any prize. I asked, hopefully, whether it could have done that without my knowing? They shook their heads and we all lapsed into silence. It turned out that another rumour was circulating that Grief Sweat had won the National Book Award. Years later an interviewer began her questions with that assumption, which I quickly corrected. So who started the second rumour? It seemed to have been generated from the guilt field of the first.
-- Jody Aliesan