Jersey Cosantino

A Mad Trans Educational Scholar’s Letter to the Ablesanism1 of the Research Community

During the spring semester
of my first year as a doctoral
student in Cultural Foundations of Education
at Syracuse University,
I was asked
in my Feminist Inquiries class
what kind of researcher
I envisioned myself to be.
Having been diagnosed with
OCD just a few weeks prior
and a few months away from a
bipolar II and PTSD diagnosis,
I found myself at a loss
as to how to respond
to this simple yet disturbingly
provocative question.
As I deepened my knowing
about OCD
and the insidious ways
it seeped, ebbed, flowed,
twisted, turned, and snaked its way
through every crack and crevice
of my being –
my conscious
and subconscious
awareness –
I felt an overwhelming sense of panic
consume me.
I doubted myself
and, what I considered then,
the absurd notion that
I could be a researcher,
someone who should be
trusted, believed,
relied upon
to explore
and explain
aspects of the vast muddied,
and, at times, furtive terrain
of the U.S. educational landscape,
utilizing the ableist and sanist
of academic analysis.
While holding close
the paradoxical understanding that,
as a qualitative researcher,
I would be on a quest for truths –
a multiplicity of truths in direct
opposition to the fallacy of a
singular, definitive,
immutable, objective,
and empirical “Truth” (Minh-ha, 1989, pp. 55-59) –
I found this plurality of truths
to perpetually co-exist
with the recognition that
“truth”, ultimately,
“does not make sense” (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 150).
Truth that originates
solely in the mind,
translated into words
“that come from the MIND
and are passed on

‘from mind to mind’” (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 136)
(in contrast
to manifesting within
and among
and interdependent bodyminds (Price, 2014, p. 240)),

is a form of Truth that is
highly suspect” (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 136).
The dubious qualities of this
singular version of Truth arise
because it lacks the embodied wisdom
and meaning-making that
a deeply situated,
“complex personhood” (Gordon, 2008, p. 4)
makes known
when knowledge is invited
to be produced
within the realm of shadows
of what “has been lost[,]…marginali[zed],
excluded, or repressed” (Gordon, 2008, p. viii)
by historical and present-day systems
of oppression.
It is from this space of embodied
and pedagogical
that I question
what it means
to be a Mad trans researcher
within an academy that relies so heavily
upon the primacy of rationality,
logic, and access to
a particular form
of validated Truth,
intended to be comprehended,
consumed, and extracted
in alignment with
and congruence to

(for, in the academy, all tangential
pathways of knowing
are deemed representative
of the wayward journey
of the confused deviant)

colonially crafted,
time constructs that suffocate
trans, queer, Mad,
neurodivergent, and marginalized bodyminds’
processes of evolving
in community
and harmony
with the “inner space…
where metaphysical knowing
resides” (Kovach, 2009, p. 57).
As a researcher who interprets
and experiences the world
within them
and around them
from the subjectivities of Madness
and transness,
I often produce works:

that seek the truth of life’s fictions and in which experiences are evoked,
not explained[,] seek[ing] a presentation that, like good fiction, is true in experience,
but not necessarily true to experience (Lockford 1998:216). Whether the events presented
actually occurred is tangential to the larger project (Lockford 1998:216) (Denzin, 2003, pp. 36-37).

Reality, for me, is oftentimes
a disputable subject
for perceptions easily fall prey
to Maddening slights of hand
wherein that which I think exists
is nothing more than a mere
audio or visual illusion;
the traces of this embodied,
and disturbing occurrence
taking residence within
my bodymind, causing
cracks and fissures
so deep
that the echoes of darkness
that enshroud me here
can sometimes feel more
comforting than the light:

But however much I refuse [brokenness] and, in those refusals, tell an important truth,
I have to say: I am also profoundly broken (Clare, 2017, p. 159).

As “I’ve come to know
that there will be
no cure” (Clare, 2017, p. 160)
for Madness
(recognizing that, “as a widespread ideology
centered on eradication,
cure always operates in relationship
to violence” (Clare, 2017, p. 28)),
it is from the precarious intersections
of choosing Madness,
wanting Madness,
desiring, craving,
and longing for Madness,
that I seek to engage
in a radical intervention
within the academy
whereby I,
as researcher
navigating the countless
responsibilities that such a position entail,
refuse to push away or disavow
my Madness
but rather claim it all as portal,
and tether
to a version of truth that I have been seeking
all along;
a truth that can only be heard,
and manifested
once (and for all) by proudly
professing that “I claim brokenness” (Clare, 2017, p. 160)
not as a binary opposition to wholeness

(a dichotomy that has been harmfully
fortified via the pathologizing discourse
and ideology of “cure” (Clare, 2017, pp. 158-160))

but rather in order “to make
this irrevocable shattering
visible” (Clare, 2017, p. 160),
not only to myself
but also, to the ablesanism
of the educational research
community as a whole.


During the fall semester
of my junior year in undergrad,
while studying abroad in England,
I visited London’s Tate Modern Museum
and was welcomed,
immediately upon entry
to the Colombian artist,
Doris Salcedo’s, installation art piece,
Shibboleth, which was a progressively
expanding crack carved into the floor
of the museum’s hall of entry.
This crack intended to represent
the exclusionary history
of white supremacist,
imperialist, and European museums
such as the Tate
that extract and consume the cultural
and artistic brilliance of the racialized
and non-normatively deemed Other,
seeking to bring about their erasure
in this imperialist wake (Tate, 2007).
The term “shibboleth” is one that I
have been obsessed with for some time,
haunted by the notion of utilizing

symbolic, cultural, and verbal representation to
(and, historically, oftentimes quite

denote in-group membership.
Witnessing this crack for the first time,
carved ever more deeply
and precariously
along the floor of this institution,
felt like a mirror
reflecting aspects of myself
to myself
that I did not yet know
the meaning of
but, nonetheless,
felt powerfully like
a calling, a (re)membering of
that which I now
call home:

In the dual relation of subject to subject or subject
to object, the mirror is the symbol of an unaltered
vision of things. It reveals to me my double, my ghost,
my perfections as well as my flaws. Considered an instrument
of self-knowledge, one in which I have total faith, it also bears a magical character
that has always transcended its functional nature. In this encounter of I with I,
the power of identification is often such that reality and appearance merge
while the tool itself becomes invisible (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 22).

Seeing myself and not yet knowing
myself was an experience of
feeling wholeness,
a wholeness so massive,
so vast,
that it was spacious enough
to hold all of the absences,
all of the longings,
the dreams, the desires
of being one with that which
dominant society perpetually
seeks to erase, pathologize,
stigmatize, and destroy.
If, “[t]o see one’s double
is to see oneself dead” for
“[f]rom mirage to mirage the subject/object
takes flight and loses its existence”,
“[t]rying to grasp it amounts to stopping a mirror
from mirroring” (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 22),
what more is left to be destroyed
if you already inhabit the cracks,
the crevices,
the interstices
between the real and the unreal,
the whole and the broken,
the sane and the Mad,
the world as we know it
and the liberatory futures
we desperately need to come?
It is in these “negative spaces” (Tate, 2007)
of the cracks and crevices,
the fissures and fractures,
that I envision locating myself
as researcher,
as storyteller,
as writer, scholar,
educator, and author.
Sara Ahmed (2019) asks us,
when transforming a system
like higher education,
“How do we counter
what has become
as hard as concrete?” (p. 196).
She goes on to answer
that we need
“dismantling projects here” (Ahmed, 2019, p. 196),
for, if we are, as educational researchers
committed to the construction
of truly equitable and just
educational models,
and institutions,
this work “requires crafting
different routes from what is
behind us: the fainter trails, the less used paths” (Ahmed, 2019, p. 196).
From a Mad trans methodology,
pedagogy, and praxis, I seek
to invite us, as an educational research
community, to not only follow
the wayward paths of the
revolutionary minded
but also, the cuts,
and crevices
carved by the Mad,
and non-normative bodyminds
through the meandering halls
of academia,
scholars who society paints as broken,
as deviant
who inhabit the “negative spaces of academe…
because they fail to make
sense in the approved ways” (Price, 2014, p. 57).
Refusing to adhere to an ablesanist epistemology,
a cis, hetero, middle-class, white settler colonial ontology,
it is the Mad trans scholars
who crave to not let their knowing,
wisdom, and meaning-making
“merely haunt [them]
and die
in [them] until [they]
no longer know how to speak” (Minh-ha, 1989, p. 9)
but rather to share it proudly with the world,
ensuring that the cracks
in the institutional foundation
become guideposts
for imagination, futurity,
world-building, and elsewheres,
expanding, widening, and broadening
so much so that the institution itself
becomes unrecognizable to itself,
a mere reflection of what it once was,
ready to be (re)built anew in accordance with
the epistemology
of the bodyminds
who have always been
whole all along.

An Afterwards that is More of a Towards, a (Multi)Directional, (Multi)Dimensional Reflection on What Has Been and What More is Yet to Come

This poetic letter is intentionally written as a challenge and disruption to higher education and the broader educational research community’s emphasis on prose-based knowledge production that, traditionally, must adhere to ableist and sanist notions of coherence, clarity, structure, and rationality. This poem acts as letter, calling, and autoethnographic embodied reflection. By placing these words on the page, I acknowledge what has been lost by translating my internal landscape onto the mediated platform of an 8.5 by 11-inch document. I always question what harms occur when we force our meaning-making, especially Mad and trans meaning-making, to fit within the confines of a page painted in white (assumed neutral and is anything but) with rigid 1-inch margins. My words, as expressed here, are marginalized by the academy and yet, on this page, maintain the existence of marginality, a marginality of absence, of silence; a boundary that my words do not dare cross as they continue to internalize and reify ablesanism in the same breath that they plot its demise. I thus, engage in this letter writing hoping to bring life to the margins, produce knowledge in the margins, and locate myself within the possibility, hope, and collective care of the margins of academe (hooks, 1984; Martin, personal communication), while also recognizing the privileges I hold here as a white scholar with class, citizenship, and educational privileges. Here and now, may the absences demarcated by the margins of these pages of this critical letter born of Mad and trans scholarship and subjectivity, be an archive of worlds to come and elsewheres of belonging, a place for us to, one day, collectively “slide at the edges [and] inhabit the clouds” (McRuer & Johnson, 2014, p. 151).


  1. Ablesanism, a combination of the terms ableism (the privileging of able-bodiedness) and sanism (the privileging of neurotypical individuals, able-mindedness, and individuals without mental health conditions), is defined as, “the stigmatizing and pathologizing ways in which mental illnesses/psychiatric disabilities and developmental disabilities are understood and reified through structures of exclusion, dispossession, incarceration, and death” (Aho, 2017, p. 1).

Ahmed, S. (2019). What’s the use?: On the uses of use. Duke University Press.
Aho, T. (2017). Neoliberalism, racial capitalism, rationality, and mental illness [Conference handout]. American Sociological Association Conference, Montreal, Quebec.
Clare, E. (2017). Brilliant imperfection: Grappling with cure. Duke University Press.
Denzin, N. K. (2003). Performance ethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. SAGE.
Gordon, A. F. (2008). Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination. University of Minnesota Press.
hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. South End Press.
Kovach, M. E. (2010). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. University of Toronto Press.
McRuer, R. & Johnson, M. L. (2014). Proliferating cripistemologies: A virtual roundtable. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 8(2), 149-170. doi:10.3828/jlcds.2014.13
Minh-Ha, T. T. (2009). Woman, native, other: Writing postcoloniality and feminism. Indiana University Press.
Price, M. (2014). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. The University of Michigan Press.
Tate. (2007). Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth I.

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About the Author

Jersey Cosantino (they/them), a former K-12 educator, is a doctoral student in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University, pursuing certificates of advanced study in women’s and gender studies and disability studies. Jersey’s scholarship resides at the intersections of Mad studies and trans studies. Utilizing disability and transformative justice frameworks, their research centers the experiences and subjectivities of Mad, neurodivergent, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals. Jersey identifies as trans and non-binary and is white with class and citizenship privilege. A co-facilitator for SU’s Intergroup Dialogue Program, Jersey holds a master’s in education and graduate certificate in mindfulness studies.

Correspondence concerning this poetic piece should be addressed to Jersey Cosantino (Mx., they, them, theirs), Syracuse University, 350 Huntington Hall, Syracuse, NY, 13244. Email: