Friday, February 19, 2010

"i am the asylum"

*Warning: Here Be Spoilers for The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls. Don't read if you don't want the book ruined for you.* 

I finished Emilie Autumn's book several days ago.  I could not write a review until today, mainly to sort out my own thoughts.  Otherwise the review would have just consisted of the words: "Holy fucking shit."  While those words say so little, they mean so much that it would be impossible for anyone to comprehend what I really thought of the book. Those words are neither complimentary nor critical.

Now where do I start?

I suppose with a brief synopsis of what I've read without blowing the entire story:

image source: Attention Deficit Delirium
The book begins with Emilie Autumn's own interment into a psych ward after a failed suicide attempt.  She is required to stay under suicide watch for 72 hours.  Except she cannot enter the ward until a bed becomes empty, so she must stay in a sort of "transition room" for several days until a bed is ready.  When she finally enters the psych ward, instead of being put with other suicidal or depressed people or people detoxing from drugs she is placed in with the people who have personality disorders and are probably certifiably insane. She ends up having to stay there for several months even though she is just a a very sad girl, and it changes her.

Each morning Emilie Autumn receives a letter from a girl named "Emily with a y," who gives her own life story and describes her experiences in the horrific 19th century "Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls." This asylum is a concentration camp of sorts for not only certifiably insane girls, but also perfectly normal girls who were interred for disobeying the males of society concerning religion, marriage, or the like.  Emily herself is interred for jumping into the Thames while trying to escape a life as a sex slave.  At the Asylum she struggles to survive a world of leechings, chemical experimentation, insufficient nourishment and hygiene, molestation, and rape, where the treatments are the most likely thing to drive a girl mad and the only sure treatment is death.

Intermixed with the parallel accounts of Emilie Autumn's stay in the loony bin and Emily with a y's life as an Asylum inmate are: EA's "Cutting Diary," where she explains why she cuts herself and compares it to a drug addict's "fix" as a necessary way to keep her from not thinking about suicide; a Drug Diary, where EA describes the terrible experience of detoxing from medications; and a Suicide Diary, in which the authoress candidly divulges in musings about how society looks down on the mentally ill and suicidally depressed, and how no one who does not understand mental illness can comprehend the pain of those who suffer from depression.

There is so much so say and ask. How to truly begin? In constructive criticisms one is always required to approach the good aspects of the work first, then the negative, and finally offer a few suggestions.  I will attempt to do it that way.

After reading this book I totally understand almost everything that happened during the concert now.  Nearly everything has a backstory that I can appreciate, from the rats to the blood to even the spoon of which EA was so possessive.  The concert is simply the way the Asylum is described in Asylum Letter No. LV- after the inmates have taken over the asylum and are trying to construct their own sanctuary from the outside world, that male-dominated society that imprisoned them in the first place and turned those who were not already lunatics into mad girls.  It's a sort of false reality, but it is a brief respite from the world to say the least.  The inmates bake delicious treats (which were thrown at us at the concert), take tea at 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. (the latter being, according to EA, a common time that manic depressives wake up for an inexplicable reason), perform music and plays, and are accompanied in all they do by the Asylum rats and leeches, who also suffered experimentation or death at the hands of the Asylum doctors.

Spoons like this one were often filched from the dining hall by inmates and used as a form of currency, hence the possessiveness associated with it at the concert.  A very nice touch:

EA with her big spoon
EA also did a good bit of research on 19th century technology, lifestyles and the like, thrown in with horrors my mind associates with concentration camps.  Bodies are cremated, patients have uteruses removed, and inmates are photographed like Shakespeare's flower-strewn Ophelia to advertise for the Asylum's prostitution ring. I never knew there was such a thing as an elaborately designed leech jar until now:

image source: Medical Antiques
The public obsession with Ophelia and depictions of "beautiful" suicides is, according to friend of mine with an interest in art history, a very common image used by the Pre-Raphaelites.  Any further elaboration on EA's historical art research should not be done by me, as I know very little of 19th century art.

I could easily imagine the showy PDA between the band members at the concert, of which I soon got bored, is also a result of the male-dominated society that put the girls in the Asylum in the first place.  Why would you love any sort of man if those who put you in the Hell on earth that is the Asylum were all men?

EA kissing Captain Maggot
 Going to the Hospital Entries that revert to Emilie's POV, the first few days of her experiences in the mental health system in Hollywood were especially detailed and enthralling.  I actually enjoyed those modern depictions more than the Victorian ones because they were much more attached to the narrator's situation than the Asylum Letters, even if just as candid, and had better descriptions and storytelling methods.  At least, until more than halfway through the book.  Then the Hospital Entries became less interesting as they declined in detail and the Asylum story picked up momentum.

There were a few things I really didn't like or was just plain confused by, mainly about EA's trustworthiness as a source of information on her own experiences in the modern-day psych ward.  Now, I have never set foot inside a modern-day psych ward.  I don't know what it is like.  I have one friend who went to a "loony bin," as he fondly calls it, for suicide watch.  He went for the 72 hour observation, got a bed immediately, was only put with the suicidal people and those detoxing from drugs, and left 72 hours later, having received proper medication and counseling for his depression.  One thing he pointed out was that insurance companies don't pay for someone who is "just" suicidal to spend months in a psych ward.  When he went 12 years ago it was about $1000 a day.  I guess that EA went around five or six years ago, and I can't imagine that a psych ward in Hollywood is cheaper than one in central Pennsylvania, as my friend guessed.  So when Emilie complains about not being let out and essentially being forgotten by the staff, he thinks that that would be virtually impossible, because the insurance company would probably just stop paying for her stay.  

Either she is not telling the reader something about her condition (i.e. maybe she has a personality disorder herself that prolonged her stay that she is not disclosing to her readers) or she is a rare case of an individual who fell between the cracks of the system and got royally screwed over.  Whether her experience is one that is common of those who go through the system has yet to be researched, but an account such as EA's must, in my opinion, be treated carefully before being taken for its word.

I would love to interview her and ask her about it.  And ask some professionals in the mental health industry, and other loony bin inmates, about the way it works.

I also have a little beef about grammar and editing. I understand that EA probably self-published her book, which meant that she was probably the editor as well as the writer.  That's a bad combination, simply because once someone has read their own work so many times there comes a point where they begin to miss simple mistakes because they know the story so well that they read it as they think it should read, not as it actually reads.  There were a few typos, a few misuses of the word "its," for example.  Those weren't major mistakes, but careless anyway, and were mistakes that EA could have avoided with a good copy editor.  But there were also a few major mistakes, mistakes that were actually very disappointing to me.  Pages 10 to 11 transitioned horribly.  In my copy of the book, for example, this is what it says on the bottom of page 10:
"I just can't quite process this," I say, unable to give up until I either get my-
At the top of page 11, however, the sentence is not continued, and I find myself in the middle of an unrelated sentence:
"-that, you'll probably add more days onto my sentence, right?"
A copy editor should have definitely caught such a mistake.  If EA had one, that individual should be promptly fired.  If not, then EA should have hired a good one.  It happens at again on page 226, where the end of a page leaves a sentence incomplete, but does not continue on the following page:  
The only reason why I find-
The ending of the book, however, was so fantastical that I have absolutely no idea what to think of EA's sanity.  I was worried when the Asylum inmates took over the Asylum that EA was going to go for a hopeful ending, one that would not fit any of her candid accounts of her bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts and dreary outlook on life described in the other pages.  But that ending fit the Ophelia theme and the irony of the song "The Art of Suicide" that Emily with a y hated so much up until that moment. It was a perfect metaphor for the hopelessness of depressed and suicidal girls and how sometimes the only solution is to end life on one's own terms.

EA also threw any aspect of autobiography out the window with her last Hospital Entry, tying the modern world into the imaginary Asylum world of Emily with a y so perfectly that it actually had me questioning whether she was truly mad or just extremely clever.  Or both.

The book is a loyal account of what suicidal and depressed girls experience, at least from what I have known myself.  I have suffered from depression for three and a half years now.  I've experienced the feeling of not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, of feeling so unbelievably sad that one wonders how it could get any worse.  I sometimes even wonder if I had committed suicide and my continued perception of existence was really a personal Hell created for suicides where, as punishment, you relive that which gave you pain while you were alive. While I am now on medication and am no longer suicidal, I still fight to get through each day and try to make it seem like my life has meaning.  I deal with many misconceptions of my "condition" as well.  Many of my family members don't believe that depression even exists; unfortunately many people wouldn't unless they experienced it themselves.  Emilie Autumn addresses these issues and so many more in her book, and deserves praise for her honesty and straightforwardness.  I don't have bipolar disorder, and I did not go through even half of what Emilie Autumn herself claims to have happened in her life, but I understand how hard it is for depressed people to do anything.  It's amazing that she was able to write and put together an album as terrific as Opheliac, tour almost non-stop, and publish a 266-page book with more add-ons than an iPhone. 

Whether the "autobiographical" part is true, or missing some key information, must be looked into, but read if you are interested in learning more about a fucked up mental mind or just like horror stories.


  1. I've heard she's running another printing of this work of literature. I've never laid hands on it before and my palms are itching to get ahold of it!

  2. I think this is a very good and fair review. You're not kissing the book's (or EA's) ass, and I love you for that. I loved the book but am also a bit confused. Is she insane and is this really how she sees things, or is this the way she imagines things would have been, had this all happened to her. Which makes her also insane because she put such deep thought into working out her insanity, but on a completely different level. Anyway, I loved the book and I love EA's music. Good job!

  3. Such an intense book - but I'm glad someone else picked up on the typos and the messed-up transitions, that really annoyed me considering that the book cost a not-inconsiderable £35 - the most money I've ever spent on a book, certainly (thankfully for me it was a Christmas present).

    I agree wholeheartedly with your review, both the good and the bad. Whilst I enjoyed both the modern story and the fictional one, I enjoyed them for different reasons and wonder if they could have been made into shorter, separate books so that EA could focus equally on both instead of allowing one to trail off in favour of the other. However, in that case we would miss out on the surreal ending.