Stephanie Heit's New Hybrid Memoir Poem "Psych Murders" Examines Shock Treatment, The Aftermath, and How Time and Memory Move in Unexpected Ways
What do you do when the brain “acts more colander than container?”
Poet Stephanie Heit tests out an answer: “Strengthen your faith in electricity.” Her hybrid memoir poem, Psych Murders, reports on the decision to experience and recover from electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for bipolar disorder. Psych Murders contains a number of sections, often titled with questions such as “What brings you pleasure?” and “Are you safe?”
This journey with shock therapy and other attempted remedies takes the poet to a point where:
How to swim.
Lose any sense
This path also later reaches a place where, “Hope became a location.” The poet expresses some bitterness that, “I thought they’d figure out the code. No lack of rigor. But my body didn’t respond the way the data predicted.” Still, the side effects like memory loss and frustrations do not fully define the process for Heit. Instead, Heit concludes with the poem, “Testament,” which consists of a series of “I am” statements that embrace all parts of her identity.
Shortly after the start of the book, the Murderer appears, often described in third person, but always menacing and forming his own character, as the poet observes, “…I’m not alone. I have Murderer stalking my every move.” In a distressful twist in the poem, “The Murderer: Primetime,” he gets a chance to speak and shares his goal to reach her because he states of the poet that, “She haunts me—the one who slow danced in my grip. I’ll wait.” Despite his persistence, the Murderer’s interest in suicide nevertheless does not come to fruition, a victory for the poet and us readers.
Instead, Heit describes learning to live with the circumstances. The poem, “Chronic,” shows a begrudging acceptance that:
Chronic sounds like forever. Persistent forever. With a twang to the way the “ic” sticks in the throat. Almost guttural. Starts out ok. Chron, like chronological, that domino effect, out of control falling because gravity exists. But the ending turns. I am stuck with Chronic the rest of my life. Better than Terminal unless it refers to airports. Though at least with Terminal there is beginning, middle, end. Chronic is middle with no way out.
The poet shows us how, on the one hand, Chronic comes with its downsides, but on the other hand, Chronic means being alive.
Heit is a queer disabled poet, dancer, teacher, and codirector of Turtle Disco, a somatic writing space, based in Ypsilanti. We spoke to Heit about her writing, teaching, latest book, and next project.
Q: How did you come to live and work in Ypsilanti?
A: I returned home to my parents’ house in northern Michigan after living in Chile for a couple of years. I was in a deep depression and most of my hospitalizations happened in Ann Arbor. I eventually moved there and later met my wife, Petra Kuppers, who is a community arts practitioner, disability activist, and professor at the University of Michigan. We bought a house in Ypsi as we already had a friendship web there. We love its queer community, the vibrant arts and culture scene, First Fridays, and the closeness to Detroit.
Q: Tell us about Turtle Disco, the somatic writing space that you co-direct.
A: Petra and I started Turtle Disco in 2017 out of the living room of our new house as part of our art/life practices. The people who join us often walk, bike, or wheel from close by – a local, neighborhood space grounded in disability culture. We move, write, sound, and dream, sometimes with the postal carrier or passersby as an impromptu audience. Since the COVID pandemic began, we shifted online to the “Zoomshell.” I offer a practice, Sensorial Gardens, where we tune into our inner and outer landscapes through the senses. Last week we played with this invitation to communicate with a color: “Move a color in your body; notice the vibrations.”
Q: You teach and speak about neurodiversity and mental health as they relate to writing and creativity, such as your upcoming talk at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). Would you tell us more about what and how you teach?
A: I think the best example is my performance tour with Psych Murders, which has taken me online and in person to bookstores, universities, and disability activist organizations. I embrace Mad pride and am out about being bipolar and a shock/psych system survivor. My offerings create openings for urgently needed conversation about mental health, psychiatric hospitalizations, ECT (shock treatment), and suicidal ideation. Audience members often come up to me after readings to share about their own lived experiences and that they are, as one person put it, “fellow travelers.” I also invariably have at least a couple of folks who think shock treatments don’t happen anymore. I feel like I’m doing my job when readers encounter this work as an alarm, as a call-to-action to change and reimagine the mental health system.
Q: Your latest book, Psych Murders, is a hybrid memoir poem. How would you describe what a hybrid memoir poem is?
A: The answer is a bit elusive as Psych Murders is in that slippery cross-genre realm. It definitely lives under the umbrella of poetry but also uses narrative prose devices, prose blocks, and tells the truth but sometimes slant and with invented personas. I intentionally call it a hybrid memoir poem to signal this chimeric nature. While I am telling my own personal story, it resists the rainbow arc of memoir that neatly unfolds events with a reliable narrator and ties everything up with a red bow at the end. I wanted to make it messy, to show my memory lapses, and translate an experience where time does not move in expected ways. I love poetry’s power in exploding individual moments and sensations.
Q: Do you consider yourself the “I” or the poet in the poems? Why or why not?
A: This book is a lot about what can’t be pinned down and how bodymind states shift and play. In my case, depression, mania, and mixed states can make the “I” a carnival of extremes with the added complication of memory loss from shock treatments. So, yes, this is my actual lived story; I am the person in these poems – both a stable and unstable “I.” Yet the “I” is also used in persona poems that speak through the voice of the shock machine and the Murderer (suicidal ideation).
Q: The Murderer is practically a character, and your “Gratitude” section mentions his first appearance when you were at the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia. How did the Murderer emerge?
A: Yes, I was so happy to meet Murderer when he showed up in a freewrite! I really wanted to translate my suicidal ideation and its relentless and complex nature in a legible, relatable way. I’d been experimenting with writing details of what suicidality felt like physically and in my head as a barrage of voices with their own agenda. Then, all of a sudden, there he was on the page. He wasn’t yet fully formed but already sarcastic and with some of the noir trappings I’d later develop, such as his penchant for craft ale and binge-watching Hinterland from his La-Z-Boy chair. Eventually, he got to write his own poems to complain about our love/hate relationship and how I wouldn’t friend him on Facebook. I loved that he arrived with a sense of humor, which is so valuable in dealing with such a sensitive and potentially deadly topic.
Q: As you describe in the “Notes” section, Psych Murders centers on the years from 2009 to 2014 when you were hospitalized at times and received various treatments. Did you write this book during that time, after, or both? How did the timing change your writing process?
A: I was unable to read or write during that time period due to depression and concentration difficulties. A horrible situation for a writer. I needed to wait until I was able to dip into the field of words again and create a new relationship with language. I had to adjust to my shifted bodymind with its memory loss and cognitive changes from the shock treatment damage. I required time to give me some distance and perspective on experiences that were barely in the rearview mirror. It was important to me to shape this often charged content on the page in a way that would give readers space to witness, reflect, and stay safe. The writing process had multiple stages from getting down my initial drafts to eventually revising and making structures to mindfully invite and guide readers inside this interior, electric world.
Q: One poem reads, “I keep having severe weather warnings. They’ve become weather instead of events.” Many of your poems have metaphors – the ocean, GPS, a hyena, a Ferris wheel. How do you go about identifying these metaphors?
A: They are all around me. My creative practice is one of attention, to tune and open my senses to my environment through movement and writing. What I notice enters into the work. The quote you shared was written during a Michigan winter where we were having snowstorms so often that they became commonplace. The ocean metaphors came about from being hooked to saline prior to ECT in hospital spaces referred to as “bays.” I use images as sensory invites for readers to inhabit and enter into their own version of the poem.
Q: What is on your To Be Read list?
A: Dear Memory by Victoria Chang; Pink Waves by Sawako Nakayasu; The Inheritance of Haunting by Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes; Your Kingdom by Eleni Sikelianos; and Rituals for Climate Change: A Crip Struggle for Ecojustice by Naomi Ortiz.
Q: Would you tell us about your next project?
A: I’m actually heading this month to Surel’s Place in Boise, Idaho for an artist residency where I hope to complete my manuscript “Every Horizon Turns Liquid.” This is an ecopoetic investigation that emerges out of somatic engagements along the shorelines of Lake Michigan and other real and imaginary locations.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.