Reviewed by Michael Northen
Content Warning: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), suicidal risk and ideation, and other topics and themes that some readers may find distressing
Stephanie Heit’s Psych Murders is based upon her experiences in undergoing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) from 2009-2014. If this were a novel, there would be two antagonists, the author’s suicidal ideations – the book’s murderer – and the medical complex that insists it can cure her if she will give her body over to them.
The core of the book is built around the three physical locations in the hospital where the therapy took place: “Waiting Bay,” “Treatment Room,” and “Recovery Bay.” As Heit says, she is inviting the reader into rooms that most people are not given admission to. Knowing from her personal experience the kind of trauma that such spaces can cause, she warns the reader at the “Admission Threshold” that they may encounter difficulties in the reading of the poems her book contains but reassures them that if they choose to enter, she will try to keep them safe and provide spaces for rest on the pages. She assures us that, unlike what happened to her, we can leave at any time.
If one wonders why Heit would voluntarily put herself through ECT, she quickly provides the answer. After talking with the reader at the “Admission Threshold,” Heit turns and addresses the murderer itself: “you wake me up and put me to sleep with your dangerous temptations and empty the pills in my waiting hand.” (p. 4). This gives Heit the writer a chance to lay out the background for the reader and to establish her frame of mind before taking us on this journey. “For now,” Heit says, “I negotiate dates and procrastinate our meeting. Sooner or later you win. You always win.”
Led into the first of the three chambers, “The Waiting Bay,” the reader quickly senses a change in the atmosphere. It is a frightening place. What makes it frightening is not gothic excess, but sterility. The style of the prose poems is clipped, detached, depersonalized. A room of bodies. “These bodies prepared for electrocution. Waivers signed, MRI’s complete.” The word bodies is repeated over and over; it extends to those working in the hospital, as well. The doctors are “whitecoats,” a nurse is “the vein whisperer,” but there are no human beings, only objects. Heit leads the reader through her experience in the waiting bay, saying good-bye to her brain and hoping her body remembers.
If the “Waiting Bay” is a temporary harbor in which she is being held, “The Treatment Room” is where the author is put adrift at sea. She warns the reader, “drive through fast.” The pace of Heit’s poems speeds up. It is a whooshing through of images, phrases, and white spaces. As Heit admits, the ride she takes readers on is a compilation of her treatment room experiences since she has no memory of most of them. It is a reconstruction of what must (or might) have happened.
I rest with all the blank spaces, neurotransmitter blips, gum eraser track marks. History as improvisation. Document gone through the shredder. Is it worth the effort to reassemble? Fluff and dust the years. Insert myself. They say it will come back . . .they share histories with me I don’t remember (p.54) Heit awakens in the “Recovery Room,” the third pillar of her book, in a low whoosh like distant sea. Slur of noise enunciates as a face in my face: (p. 86)
As in the “Waiting Bay,” she finds herself a body among a room of bodies. Again, the staccato rhythms of the poet’s words and the breathless, fragmented images evoke the confusion that she feels. One poem that might have been titled “A Litany of Don’ts” ratchets up the sense of frustration she feels until she is willing to sign anything or give any permissions just to escape. She leaves the waiting room an unreliable narrator, shored up with drugs and painkillers, once more adrift at sea.
The poems that guide the reader through the three rooms that make up the sites of Heit’s ECT experiences do not, in fact, make up the bulk of the poems that constitute Psych Murders. Between each of these rooms are poems that provide buffers, but also introduce issues going on outside of the room. It is a symmetrical arrangement with each of these interim spaces divided into two parts. Between the “Waiting Bay” and the “Treatment Room,” for example, is a series of poems on the various ways the “murderer’” tries to induce Heit to take her own life before treatment can begin. Bridging the “Treatment Room” and the “Recovery Room” is a struggle of poems that reenact the poet’s attempt to reconnect her mind and body. Finally, exiting the “Recovery Room,” Heit poses two questions to herself: “Are You Safe?” and “Do You Have a Living Will?”
Psych Murders is a powerful and disturbing book. One might ask why Heit would want to write it. On one level the answer might be as simple as Melville’s justification from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” She has returned as a survivor to let others know what the experience is about. It also opens the door to deeper questions, though. What is the nature of self and how does one return from the bardo to tell it? And if there is rebirth, what kind of language can be used to describe it? While the idea that the self is a fiction has become increasingly prevalent in recent neurological and psychological discussions, this view has been held by Buddhism for hundreds of years. And while Heit skirts any spiritual dimension to her experience, her phenomenological account, though still tethered to the vocabulary of science, allows her to depict what the disintegration of ego feels like. Her choice of poetry as the means of approaching the inexpressible allows her to do this.
Words are “taxidermy butterflies,” Heit writes. “They shake themselves loose.” “I herd words into corrals. Create new forms to hold what the body cannot.” (p. 74) Through poetry, she tries to recapitulate the feeling of the fraying of the self, the unmooring of the ego:
anything I can touch I could be steel pillar with cracks corner held up by light blue walls piano pedals & sleek lines wish list of crossed out verbs & fly jangle skeleton on a ferry undertow & over the deep parts where sharks mate this body cross-legged & then gone buzz of fluorescence somewhere, future (p. 66)
Heit’s skill as a poet is on display throughout Psych Murders. Simultaneously, I remain intrigued by her choice of the murderer analogy. The murderer, of course, is not a separate entity from the poet, as the poems addressing the murder imply; rather, the murderer is the poet herself. It is a bit like watching Oedipus, except that in Heit’s case, she already knows the killer’s identity. How then is the murderer to be eliminated?
With no other solution, Heit is driven into the arms of medical science and this provides the other reason for her having written the book. It is an invective against the medical establishment. In Psych Murders, hospitals, doctors, and the medical staff are every bit the villain that suicidal ideation is. Doctors are cocky “boys with their toys” who cloak modern sorcery in clinical terminology and look at her as fair game. At only one point in the book – when a nurse holds her hand – is there any sign of compassion. As a book that militates against common perceptions, Heit’s collection of poems is unlikely to encourage people to seek medical assistance.
Having said all of this, Psych Murders is an important book. Building upon the tradition of “nothing about us without us” within disability literature, Heit’s poems allow those who actually live with disability to speak for themselves. In the case of those diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, this is particularly relevant in an era of Covid, when suicides have risen so dramatically. It allows those who are contemplating measures as extreme as electroconvulsive therapy to take in the full scope of what they face and the choices they might make.
Title: Psych Murders
Author: Stephanie Heit
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
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About the Reviewer
Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also a participant editor in the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press). He is currently editing another anthology of disability poetry.