The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, September 19, 2016

I'm Crazy But I'm Not Wrong: Stranger Things and Mental Illness

Spoilers for Stranger Things and Hannibal follow; trigger warnings for gaslighting, medical abuse, and narratively satisfying vivisection.

"I'm not crazy!"

It's a line you hear a lot in everything from urban fantasy to horror to paranoid conspiracy thrillers. The idea is to communicate that what's happening is real, and not just a delusion.

As far as throwaway utilitarian lines go, it's fine enough I suppose, but I think we can come up with a better line. Stranger Things, a Netflix original series which is so aggressively 80s that I keep expecting while watching to spontaneously be enveloped in black leather and chrome, might give us a bit of a glimpse of what a better line might be:

"I'm crazy, but I'm not wrong about this."

The basic narrative of Stranger Things follows a group of kids and adults battling against a Sinister Government Conspiracy and the Horrifying Extradimensional Monster that the government creeps have unleashed. And also there's a girl who can flip vans USING MIND BULLETS.


What's really notable in the series is that major protagonists are, in fact, crazy, in the sense that they struggle with a variety of mental illnesses and traumas predating the start of the story proper. But that doesn't make them wrong. You can be both mentally ill in this show, and a main character, and correct about government forces fucking up your life. This is important to me as someone mentally ill in an exciting variety of ways, and as someone familiar with gaslighting and people taking advantage of my own uncertainty about my perceptions. This show, in setting out a narrative where people are explicitly suffering from various conditions, and who have to fight against those trying to take advantage of them because of this, is doing something important culturally.

A real good starting point for analyzing this is one of the show's absolute best characters: Joyce "Wallfucker" Byers.

Joyce is the mother of Will Byers, a young boy who, on the way home from a game of Dungeons & Dragons, is abducted into the Upside Down, which is basically like our dimension but covered in the sentient fungus from the Super Mario Brother's movie LISTEN IF THIS DAMN SHOW CAN DO A BUNCH OF DEEP-CUT REFERENCES SO CAN I.

Joyce does not take Will's disappearance well.

Now, we're given an understanding throughout the series that the other folks in the small sleepy community where everyone lives that Joyce is seen as kinda weird. We're given lots of suggestions that Joyce is someone who has a history of mental illness of some sort, and even in moments when she's doing relatively ok she seems to have some executive function issues when it comes to basic tasks.

What we get with Joyce then is a character who is definitely not normal. Joyce is not a normal person, or really a mentally healthy person.

What's really important here is that despite the fact that Joyce is sort of an odd person, she's not fundamentally incorrect about what's going on. And when Will starts trying to contact her through the medium of flashing electric lights (which in turn draws the attention of the monstrous inhabitant of the upside down, the Demogorgon), she's brought face to face with inexplicable events.

Well, inexplicable if they're happening to you. Not so inexplicable if you're standing on the outside and already think of Joyce "Lemme Axe You Something" Byers as kinda nuts. It's very easy for people outside of Joyce's head to come up with explanations for what's happening, and none of them involve government conspiracies or the Shadowfell.

For Joyce, though, the question of whether or not she is delusional is secondary to the possibility that she might be able to get her son back. She explicitly acknowledges the possibility that she might be crazy, but that is a risk that she's willing to take if it means she has even the slightest chance of saving Will.

Joyce's ultimate adversary in this is a group of government agents who are quite happy to do things like, say, create fake corpses for preteen boys. Or well, they're her adversary in one sense. See, Joyce is aware that the body of Will that she's presented with partway through the series is not her son, because these government agents aren't all powerful, they can't perfectly recreate the body of a boy they've never seen. So, instead, they have to create a fairly unreliable copy.

We get an interesting moment in the morgue where Joyce asks to see a birthmark on Fake Will. Will Not. If you will. And Jonathan Byers, her other son, leaves the room. We follow him out of the room and into his conversation with the sheriff, Jim Hopper, cutting us as viewers off from the direct result of Joyce's question, leaving the response ambiguous. Joyce eventually storms out, declaring "I don't know what that thing in there is but that is not my son."

And at that moment, Joyce's ultimate adversary ISN'T the shadowy government agents.

It's Jonathan and Hopper, who immediately try to placate her, neither bothering to ask her why she's so convinced that Will Not is a fake. No one even bothers to ask how she knows--Jonathan certainly doesn't ask what happened with the birthmark--they just immediately start rationalizing why they don't need to take her seriously.

So one of the core ideas here is that the agents are able to do whatever they want because they can take advantage of the fact that no one is going to believe the people they're running psy ops on. They're picking vulnerable targets, people who can be easily dismissed by others. The horror of this is NOT that Joyce Byers is a normal person being made to seem crazy. The horror is one that is much more true to fucking life: Joyce's very mental illness is capitalized on to discredit her experiences.

We can see this dynamic, too, with Jim Hopper, which is almost satisfying in a way given how fucking useless he is in the first few episodes, and given how he plays into the tactics I've just described. But, in fairness, we're presented with lots of reasons to be a bit more sympathetic to Hopper as the show goes on. Let's catalogue Hopper's problems:

Hopper seems to drink quite a bit, seems to be taking a LOT of medication (and apparently has a history of "going off his meds" according to his deputies), has a pretty lackadaisical approach to his job, and is dealing with some fairly significant and long lasting grief issues. Hopper seems to have moved back to Sleepy American Townlandia from The City after the death of his daughter, leaving a failed marriage in his wake. He seems to have retained a lot of issues from this, and he's kind of a fucking mess of a person, and the early episodes don't really telegraph a whole lot of competence. In fact initially he seems like kind of a huge asshole, helped along by the fact that his deputies are both massive toolbags and I can't deny that I pegged him that way too by association.

So Hopper is another character whose lack of credibility in the eyes of other characters is taken advantage of by the agents. The agents actually get hold of him twice. The first time, having apprehended him busting into their secret facility, they actually just let him go, dropping him back on his couch surrounded by beer bottles and pills and so on. The plan here seems to be to just fuck with him to get him to a point where he doubts his own perceptions of reality--you know, gaslighting, like what characters continually do to Joyce. And the plan when he and Joyce are captured a second time seems to be to make everyone else doubt his perceptions of reality--the agents imply that they plan to drug him, to set him up as "a junkie." (Which... whether he is or not doesn't matter so much from the perspective of Hopper's character arc, but I never got the perception that he is in fact a junkie: the pills he has seem to be prescriptions of some sort. But is it really that hard to tip people's perceptions from "he's on medication" to "he's a junky"? The truth of his struggle is irrelevant to the way his struggle can be capitalized upon.)

Again what is interesting about Hopper is that he's someone struggling with all kinds of shit, someone who is occasionally unreliable when talking with other characters. He's someone who can be taken advantage of not because he's a Sane Man Being Made To Seem Crazy but because he already seems crazy, and people are dumb and easy to dupe into thinking that people struggling with mental illnesses can't be trusted.

This is made more threatening by the fact that we've seen the agents succeed at this before. We meet the mother of Eleven (the girl who can shoot mind bullets) whose mind has been turned to mush, probably deliberately. This is someone who was involved in CIA drug tests (which, just a reminder, that's shit that actually occurred in actual history! You might say... that Stranger Things have happened EEEEH? EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH?) whose body was plundered and violated by them without limits because, well, who would believe a junkie? We know what they can and will do to preserve their power and secrecy.

The overarching narrative is to a large extent about the treatment of people who are different. This is kinda the point of the episode 'The Monster.' The Monster is... HUMAN BEINGS! And also the faceless human plant thing that plants slug babies in people's stomachs! BUT MOSTLY HUMAN BEINGS! I mean look this is nothing revolutionary but it is always satisfying to see the series make a statement that taking advantage of the weak and the sick makes you monstrous, and I do think it takes a new edge in this context of the neurodivergence of the primary characters.

Jonathan Byers is probably autistic, and he's treated like shit. The kids are nerds who all have their particular differences, physical or mental, and they're treated like shit. And the people who torment them are drawn in this episode into association with the agents. What links them all together is the sense of entitlement to the bodies and minds of others. The agents merely are capable of operating on a level of state-empowered ultraviolence paired with the ingrained social politics of neurotypicality/divergence--operating a more sophisticated level, in other words.

And the greatest trick the devil pulls isn't to make people believe he doesn't exist. It's to make people believe that THEY'RE the real devils. The most sophisticated tool in the arsenal of the users and abusers is to take advantage of people who are already vulnerable and convince them that they are the true monsters. When Eleven tells her friends (friendsish--we'll get back to this momentarily) that she's the monster, it should be understood in the context of the other abuses seen in this episode, and in the context of the violence done to her. She thinks she's a monster because that's how people keep fucking treating her! In particular, it's how people keep treating her when they have a VESTED INTEREST IN DISGUISING THE MONSTROSITY OF THEIR OWN ACTIONS.

This makes 'The Monster' in particular basically a compressed and less gruesome (and, tragically, less homoerotic) version of the first season of Hannibal.

Let me parse this out a bit.

Hannibal season one is a narrative of the neurodivergent used as raw material for those more capable of manipulating others. The show is primarily a police procedural of a sort, focusing on serial killers, with the title character Hannibal Lecter working with the FBI while secretly being a brilliant and sadistic murderer and cannibal in his own right: the Chesapeake Ripper. Hannibal is fascinated by Will Graham, the main character of the series, a mentally ill teacher who is uniquely gifted when it comes to profiling serial killers, and much of the first season involves Hannibal slowly chipping away Will's psyche because, in essence, he can, and because he has a position of trust and power--that of psychological counselor--that allows him to fuck around with Will's brain.

But Jack Crawford, Will's handler at the FBI, is also well aware of the fact that Will is not doing well psychologically, that the procedural aspect of the show where they track down various serial killers is wearing him down. What Jack wants from Hannibal is for Hannibal to keep Will working, to keep him just functional enough that they can keep catching the Bad Guys. Beyond that, it doesn't seem like Jack cares that much what Will's mental state is.

So, in a sense Jack Crawford is also treating Will Graham as raw material for his use, as a tool that can be manipulated because Will is vulnerable. And Will is aware of his manipulation, and resentful of the way his trust is constantly undermined. Hannibal in turn is able to make use of that resentment to manipulate Will.

And then on top of that we have the other exploitations in the series. Hannibal's use of people as weapons. Freddie Lounze's use of Will as a sensational story for her tabloid journalism site. And above all else, we have the creation of a fake Chesapeake Ripper. Abel Gideon is a surgeon who had a mental break and murdered his whole family. Having been sent to an institute for the criminally insane, he runs into Doctor Frederick Chilton. Chilton... I'm not really sure if Chilton exactly believes what he's selling, but by god he sells it to Abel Gideon, who's coercively convinced by Chilton that he is, in fact, the Chesapeake Ripper. As a result, Gideon starts murdering people elaborately.

The real Chesapeake Ripper isn't pleased by this.

But what's really interesting here is the fact that Chilton both feels that he can get away with "discovering" the Chesapeake Ripper, and he can get a whole lot of acclaim and attention from this discovery. So, Abel Gideon isn't exactly what you'd call a nice person. But nevertheless, what is done to him is a gross violation of his humanity. It is monstrous. And it's hard for me at least to not watch Gideon surgically removing organs from Chilton's still-conscious body without at least a little bit of satisfaction. At the very least, the show makes it clear that a lot of the carnage that follows is a direct result of the fact that he's an entitled little shitweasel who uses his patients for his own ends, because he thinks he can do it without repercussion. Even when Gideon realizes what has been done to him, Chilton still believes that he can be cleared because, well, why would someone believe a nut job like Abel Gideon?

We have thus a whole series of exploitative dynamics going on, and the end result is disaster, murder, and mayhem. But what's remarkable to me here is that this is a narrative explicitly about the treatment of the mentally ill as subhuman. It seems unclear whether the ostensibly crazy people are comparatively the most lacking in empathy. Certainly in many cases it's hard to see them as the most coldly exploitative. The mentally ill in this show are raw material, material for use. And the horror of the show is that these are people who are mentally ill in one way or another, shows as victims of cynical and exploitative sane people. Realistically, the likelihood of someone neurotypical being psy-op'd and painted unfairly as One Of The Crazies is pretty trivial. On the other hand, when we have an entire culture that treats being on medication as shameful but being "off your meds" as catastrophic, when we have an entire culture that sees resistance to authority and independence as not a predictor of successful recovery but as an excuse to hospitalize people against their will, the danger of medical abuse becomes profound.

Let me tell you, suspicion becomes a survival mechanism, but it also becomes an inroad to horror. There's nothing quite like prodding for context until the point where a psychologist admits that if you answer her questions in a particular way she'll have you hospitalized, regardless, apparently, of your preferences. I remember standing on ice in winter and hearing it crack in slow motion under my feet. It's like that. It's just like that.

It is a meaningful horror because we live under a very real threat of being used and manipulated and abused within a culture that normalizes this abuse.

Which really helps us wrap back around to Stranger Things to see one major problem with the narrative.

It's really fucking straight.

Oh, wait, no, no, that's wrong. I mean, well, no it's not wrong, it's a huge frustrating stumbling block in the show, but it's not what I actually want to talk about.

No I want to talk about Eleven's story arc and the way that even in giving her agency, the show still positions her humanity as primarily derived from use-value and her willingness to be of heroic utility for the main characters. Eleven's humanity seems to some extent to be subject to approval based on whether or not she acts in ways that the main adolescent boys can parse as Good Friend Behavior. This is a problem for the series because the primary villainy of, you know, the villains is that they torment her for twelve years and use her to spy on Russia. And then to open a gate to the fucking Negaverse.

Their villainy is derived in large part because they exploit her.

And while it is important that Eleven's self-sacrifice at the end of the series is done of her free will, I go back and forth on whether or not the treatment here feels exploitative in its own way.

The problem as I see it is that we have a character here who's been primed to see her worth as a person as derived from her use-value. And if she's being presented narratively with a series of choices that determine whether or not she's got humanity by whether or not she behaves in ways others understand as heroic, then well... it's not REALLY a choice, is it? It's a choice between being isolated from humanity, or being used, in effect, by others (because that's what heroic self sacrifice is--and every use of her powers is a sacrifice for her, of her strength, of her energy, of her comfort, of her physical body).

This isn't to say that no one should ever give of themselves to others but it is so, so crucial to me that it be understood that when you are ill, the stakes are just different. Because it is so hard to maintain just a baseline fucking Acceptable Human Quotient, to keep up the Human Suit so that the villagers don't get out the torches and fucking pitchforks, and in that context the demand to be a Heroic Self Sacrificer takes on a coercive tint to it, one that I think we do in fact see the boys engage in throughout the film.

I mean does Mike really like Eleven as a person or does he like her as a tool to finding Will? We might have found out if the show had spent some more time focusing on their baseline fucking ability to form a meaningful friendship instead of shoehorning in some bullshit trite romantic nonsense that only exists because writers can't see two people of opposite assigned gender identities without immediately fucking SHIPPING THEM.

Whoops saltiness at str8 shit crept in here after all. There's just no escaping it, just like apparently there's no escaping the faceless flower monster that is heterosexuality. You thought it was accidental that the Demogorgon's head kinda looks like the flowers from Pink Floyd's The Wall but YOU THOUGHT WRONG!

As long as we pass for normal, in essence--neurotypical, and also passably cisgender and heterosexual--we can be treated as human. Failing, as I often do, to understand social cues, to disguise my feelings, to be pleasant and get along, to understand and express my needs clearly, to follow conventions that seem stupid and arbitrary, to do basic personal maintenance tasks... these things lower the Acceptable Human Quotient. I think that there is a pressure to bring those numbers back up by offering oneself--one's mind, one's time, one's body--to others in an unhealthy way.

And some of what the show does narratively with Eleven ends up drifting dangerously close to that dynamic. The fact that there are elements that push back against that just makes it in some ways more frustrating, because it feels like the show is stumbling into its own path here, tripping over itself. The ideas the show has are not just good but deeply important and significant, but I think it could've been teased out a bit more strongly, and Eleven's arc right now is woefully woefully incomplete.

But that's what the second season is for, I hope. I know I'll absolutely be tuning in again, and urging everyone around me to do the same. Because even when the show stumbles, I think what Stranger Things offers is an important narrative, where we actually see the way people who are mentally ill and who aren't neurotypical are vulnerable, and we see the narrative assert that even if you struggle mentally, that doesn't make your experiences wrong.

You can be crazy, and you can still be right.

Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article as well as the very rough draft of my next project; you can hear the podcast for this article for $3. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme, as well as my previous collections on My Little Pony and on toxic masculinity in superhero media, Neighquiem for a Dream and My Superpower is Manpain.

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