Interview with Susanne Paola Antonetta

Interviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Content Warning: This interview contains content on eugenics, homophobia, sanism, and ableism, among other subjects that some readers may find triggering.

WG: Thank you, so much, for the opportunity to talk together about The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here, and other subjects. In the section of the book called “Ars Poetica,” you state, “My fascination with the mind didn’t end when I quit putting altering substances into mine. I still need to know how it works. I wonder what in the world, given the nature of quantum reality, can be said to be real at all, a question that would have fascinated my grandmother, in a more wholly metaphysical way. I have come to think of myself more as a questioner than a writer” (7). Can you kindly share with our readers a bit more about what you mean when you say that you “think of [your]self more as a questioner than a writer”? Thanks, Susanne!

SPA: That bit was a fairly late addition to the book and I’m glad to have a chance to think about it further. My writing projects—as you indicate in that wonderful review!—are always multi-pronged. I do family history, memoir, but I put in a lot of research. Some of the science questions in The Terrible Unlikelihood have to do with whether time can be said to actually “pass,” whether we see the world as it is. These are questions with no clear answers.

Whether we can know the world, is a huge one for me. I live outside of consensus reality some of the time. I am bipolar. I call that not a disorder but an existential place, not that that can’t be at times a difficult place. Still: my world is not always everyone else’s.

The internet and the need to get people to click puts us in a world of faux-information and even if the information’s correct, can diminish wonder and reduce how we understand possibility. Pop-up news stories answer questions before you think to ask them. And those typical stories are often wrong, wrong, wrong. Like the cockamamie “your mask only protects me but not you” Covid stuff—what kind of virus is this? It can just tell which side of a mask it’s on? This economy of faux facts hurts the vulnerable. Psychiatry has preyed on that “bad brain chemistry” nonsense you still encounter. Broken brains and bad genes misinformation drove/drives eugenics, which was a huge part of the 20th century that’s spilled over into this one. So if I can encourage people to ask questions and understand uncertainty, that’s all to the good.

WG: Thanks, so much, Susanne. Thinking about your thoughtful, kind, and assertive responses to my first question, I wonder if you can comment further on wonder, curiosity, and uncertainty as major themes in your work, and as having deep ethical importance in the world, today (as always, arguably, but particularly in-the-now).

Thinking, too–on what I believe is a related note–about our shared interest in Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of formative causation , how does or might his work figure in connection with yours, in terms of wonder and uncertainty, as well as openness to change and possibility? To start, what is your “take” on his theory, and how might you summarize it for our readers—particularly those unfamiliar with his work?

SPA: Yes, wonder, curiosity, uncertainty! I have to admit, I’ve become more and more grumpy when people in conversations stop talking to pull out a phone and get an answer to something that’s come up in passing. Not, of course, if we’ve decided to look. But if you suddenly wonder if it might snow. Who needs to know instantly? That cuts off imagining your surroundings with a glittering white film, what you’ll do if it does snow, what you’ll do if it doesn’t… we are cutting short so much wonder. And have become gorgers of facts. I include myself in this. Much of it bad fact–non-peer reviewed medical news, guesses presented as headlines. We forget what I call historical humility–all the things that each generation believed that were terribly wrong. Autism and refrigerator moms. Homosexuality as mental illness–that was in the psychiatric Bible, the DSM, until the 1970s. Diseases caused by the four humours. Each generation tells itself, now we have it right. Well, statistically speaking, there’s a slim chance of that.

That’s what my work wants to provoke, I think. Some historical humility, along with some wonder. The universe may have consciousness! How amazing. Not wham, bam, “it does.” But, what a wonderful thought, and here’s how I experience it when I think of the sharp grass that ran along my feet.

Sheldrake is so difficult to explain! I’m not sure I can, exactly. I always say about him that he is very hard to explain but often easy to intuit. Formative causation and the related morphic fields posit there are influences that connect, organize, shape complex systems. It’s related to Jung’s collective unconscious (except operating on all things, so not strictly human) and synchronicity. Inventions happen in different places but at the same time. Morphic fields speak to why, if someone behind us is staring at us, we get a “feeling” and turn around. That would be a part many of us can intuit.

What I love about Sheldrake is that he is willing to look at these kinds of phenomena and try to make meaning out of them. That is the kind of thinker I want to be and the kind of book I hoped to write. Look at what’s going on right now with these “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” If you had asked someone at the Pentagon ten years ago if they existed, they would have denied it strenuously. So this theoretical general would have been less right, in a way, than Star Trek is. I felt that way about some psychics, even about the great 19th century American spiritualist, Andrew Jackson Davis and his visions. I think we can dismiss his people living on the rings of Saturn. But can popular thought intuit more accurately, with some allowances, than what our science registers? I think yes.

WG: Thanks, so much, Susanne. I am struck by your offering this deeply relevant and helpful concept of historical humility. Indeed, the notion feels apparently opposite, in so many ways, of (or, to) both instant gratification and, I suppose, hubris. For those readers who may not be familiar with some of the cultural idioms you use, can you perhaps comment further on what you’re referencing when you note “Autism and refrigerator Moms,” as well as the significance, in your view, of the 1973 removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)?

SPA: Sure. The refrigerator mom theory—that autism was caused by “cold,” unaffectionate mothers—was proposed by Leo Kanner in the 1940s and was well-accepted through the 1960s, though Kanner did go back and forth on this one more than his audience did. Just as a side note, which isn’t really a side note, Leo Kanner participated in a public debate in 1942 with a doctor named Kennedy on whether cognitively undesirable or “hopeless” children should be killed. Kennedy argued yes and Kanner no, but Kanner used arguments like the scut work that he felt those who were disabled would do that others wouldn’t, and who will do this if we kill them all? And as to the removal of homosexuality [from the DSM], this removal came largely from protests by queer activists, and the diagnosis was replaced by one that listed as a disorder not wanting to be homosexual, without any acknowledgement of how difficult it was to be queer.

I just want to stress that in so many cases like this, it isn’t a matter of a theory offered with uncertainty, but certainty. The most certain information is often the likeliest to be wrong. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was just known that those with psychiatric diagnoses had skulls that were misshapen. The research proved it. Except that it didn’t. We can imagine all kinds of things to support our biases.

WG: As I think more about your comments regarding historical humility, it seems to me that your work is so poised, always, to reflect humbly while assertively about mental, emotional, and cognitive differences and variances—aspects of and reflections pertaining to neurodiversity, in so many ways. For some neurodivergent as well as neurotypical people, looking up the weather could help one to manage (or attempt to address, perhaps?) the discomfort that accompanies certain kinds of uncertainty. Might doing so (by using a phone’s weather apps, etc.) be an opportunity to make an accommodation, of a kind, then—a way to manage what might otherwise feel undermining? How might we reconcile this potential orientation toward accommodation with a commitment to historical humility, co-existing with a sense of mystery? Can they all co-exist? I know that’s a multi-part question, oy, but whatever you want to reflect upon, here, would be great. Many thanks!

SPA: Yes, of course. Accommodations are necessities. Wonder doesn’t detract from having necessities but broadens necessity to include the necessities of the imagination. These various qualities of information have to co-exist.

The disabled have been harder hit by Covid than any population, so there’s the issue of the kind of anxiety-soothing people sometimes seek that allows in false information. Some network news-level information, of course, but lots of headlines trumpet information that will prove to be wrong because it’s poorly vetted. These are just comments though. I can’t judge this question. I use my phone for all kinds of things of that sort. I’d just throw in that what I was talking about isn’t knowing things that give you those accommodations, but this kind of scrim of factoids we live beneath these days, a scrim that is mostly inherently manipulative.

I’m reading your wonderful Flashes & Specks right now, Diane, so to make this a little dialogic, I’d observe that while your book isn’t political in the way a Claudia Rankine book might be, you do work in the pandemic, and use fire, a tough topic right now. The book doesn’t offer the gift of information, but the gift of a vision of how these tough things intertwine with your world, and our world.

WG: Thanks, so much, Susanne. What are a few ways that you feel your work contributes to what some folx call CripLit? And, is there anything else that you would like to add, as we wrap up this great conversation—for now? Thank you, for everything.

SPA: I find that for me, thinking of my work in any kind of theoretical way is really killing. I just can’t do it. But I will say I am a neurodiverse person who does not consider being bipolar a sickness or myself a mental invalid. I believe psychosis can be a meaningful experience as consensus reality can be a meaningless one. I am not anti-psychiatry in the sense that I believe no one should use it–the general definition of anti-psychiatry–but consider psychiatry deeply flawed. I do not believe I can tell others how they should handle these or any other questions, but I do always write from this place, somewhat more fiercely in the last few years.

Read a review of Susanne Paola Antonetta’s The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here in this issue of Wordgathering.

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About Susanne Paola Antonetta

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s newest book is The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here; forthcoming is The Devil’s Castle (Counterpoint, 2022). She is also the author of Make Me a MotherCurious Atoms: A History with PhysicsBody Toxic, A Mind Apart, and four books of poetry. Awards for her writing include a Pushcart Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science Book of the Year, an Oprah Bookshelf listing, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., The Huffington Post, The UK Independent, Orion, and The New Republic, and have been featured on CNN. She lives in Bellingham, Washington and edits the Bellingham Review.

About Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina ReviewWelcome to the Resistance: Poetry as ProtestDiagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone CanoeMollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: