Thursday, June 25, 2009

Uncovering Feminism: Emma Bee Bernstein and a few questions about suicide

Okay, so I’m looking through the Seal Press catalog for the second time, just to see if I’ve missed anything interesting, and what calls my attention is the bio of one of the editors of a book called Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism, and I can’t necessarily tell whether the interviews will be challenging and provocative or dull and fawning -- but what I do notice is the bio for co-editor Emma Bee Bernstein -- right after her name we see the years marking her life, 1985-2008. But nothing telling us how she died. So I know it must not be what is generally considered a tragic accident (car/plane crash) or a noble battle (cancer), and I go online to find out how she died at age 23.

Suicide. But I can’t figure out why. All the available accounts -- her parents, her coeditor, her parents’ friends -- point to a particular narrative where here she was, something like a child prodigy born into a New York family of artists and writers, publishing interviews at age 12, drawn to dreaming and strident visions, traveling cross-country after finishing college at the cloistered University of Chicago to work on this new project about feminism and the future with her camera as accessory to her vision, filled with so much hope and possibility and yet overwhelmed by a monster, a monster of depression that she finally succumbed to.

I’m suspicious of this narrative. She killed herself inside the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, Italy, where she was working in a prestigious internship program. What did this final gesture mean to her? Did she leave a note? What was this depression about? Where are the cracks in the story, and why does everyone insist on sealing them up after her death? If her death means anything, can’t it at least mean that her life becomes revealed in all its complications? Would she have wanted that?

I also don’t believe in this vision of depression as a monster that challenges the hopefulness of a feminist visionary. We live in a horrible world where violence covers violence covers violence and here we are wrapped in it, no matter what. Feminism, or any intense analysis, means that you see all of the horror, you uncover all the layers, and yes you try to figure out a way to challenge the violence but you rarely succeed and you keep trying. You keep trying but sometimes it’s not hopeful, you are not hopeful and you try to act with hope anyway but really what is hope if you’re still surrounded by violence, this world, your role in it?

My question is this: how do we know that Emma Bee Bernstein didn’t kill herself because of her feminism, not in spite of it, and what would it mean to think about this gesture, in all of its sadness and yearning, as something she wanted us to pay attention to, not to cover up like an aberration?

23 comments:

Hilary Goldberg said...

yes!

CaroleMcDonnell said...

oh my!!! Good question. Not one feminists would want to ask. It's good if those who teach us can be seen to survive with the help of their philosophies. Or else, how can we trust their philosophy to help us? I can't call myself a feminist but as a Bible-believing Christian I know what it is to be idealistic. Idealism is dangerous in this world cause you are so flabbergasted when folks and the world behave so badly. Never heard of this lady though. Thanks for posting. -C

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Hilary, yes thank you :)

And Carole, I like this:

"I know what it is to be idealistic. Idealism is dangerous in this world cause you are so flabbergasted when folks and the world behave so badly."

So true -- thanks for the engagement!

Love --
mattilda

mixedqueer said...

poor kid. i was born in 84. makes me grateful that i've held on this far. life long depression is a daily struggle.

maybe she had gender issues.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

"Life long depression is a daily struggle." So true!

Love --
mattilda

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Oh, and gender issues -- well feminism usually necessitates gender issues, or one hopes so...

Love --
mattilda

Scott said...

I know little of Emma Bee Bernstein, but I do know depression because I've lived with it for most of my life. Depression transcends gender, sexuality, politics, socio-economic status, etc. Why does feminism have to come into the discussion of Bernstein's suicide? Depression is a monster that challenges hopefulness in everyone.

ww said...

This is an excellent question. I feel sometimes alienated from feminism, and from the other types of theory and philosophy and religion in the world. I don't see the relevance of art. I feel like something no one has defined yet, that shouldn't/doesn't exist. I tried to commit suicide many times... I think the pain of depression and isolation is often something those theories and isms want us to hide and be ashamed of; I think every -ism, no matter how progressive it may seem, tries to categorize people in small boxes, and hide any characteristic that doesn't seem to fit. I try to avoid them as much as possible, I'm just too strange. I'm sorry if I'm saying too much.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Scott, thanks for writing -- my question is whether, for people with a lot of awareness and critical engagement, depression actually comes from this awareness (potentially feminism, in this case) -- not in spite of it.

WW, I'm all for too strange -- too strange, indeed!

"I think every -ism, no matter how progressive it may seem, tries to categorize people in small boxes, and hide any characteristic that doesn't seem to fit." I think this is a good point...

But, with or without the -ism, I'm still wondering about this question about depression and suicide and how often we're told that it's this monster that appears out of nowhere, and then that ends up meaning that there's no way to fight it too, right? Except, it appears, by denying the awareness.

Love --
mattilda

Tony said...

Yes, I essentially feel that my knowledge of feminism, literary theory and other modern analytics have led me to place of confused depression, apprehension and wonder. In that order. - But I see that the intensity of viewing the self - deconstructing the concept of "I" - as Judith Butler says, "Feminism and the Subversion of Identity" - can lead to an awareness of the absurd in our entire system of relations.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Tony, I love this order: "confused depression, apprehension and wonder," yay for that order!

And, definitely, "an awareness of the absurd in our entire system of relations."

I'll certainly take the absurd over the hideously violent and rapacious...

Love --
mattilda

GIRLdrive said...

Hi Mattilda--

I'm Nona, Emma's Girldrive partner-in-crime. Your question is a provocative one, but as one of her nearest and dearest, I have to agree with Scott when he says that depression transcends all those qualifiers.

Her depression may have manifested in and intertwined with her feminism, but it was not because of it. Any gender-related masochism, self-esteem, body image, or sex issues are symptoms and not causes. As I wrote in her eulogy and as you'll read in Girldrive's dedication, her best and worst quality was feeling everything like a stab in the heart, allowed her to be both outrageously optimistic and maddeningly cynical.

Those reactions can also lead to incredible cliches that are often gendered, but ultimately I truly think that feminism was what saved Emma back when when she was a preteen, and her distance from its support (when she was in Venice) contributed to her despair.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Nona, thanks so much for writing!

It's interesting that you point out that Emma's "best and worst quality was feeling everything like a stab in the heart, allowed her to be both outrageously optimistic and maddeningly cynical." This is exactly what I mean to imply -- that it's this kind of outrageous optimism and maddening cynicism -- or, outrageous cynicism and maddening optimism -- that leads so many of us to feminism. And I guess I wonder if it's not something similar that leads some of us to suicide. In allowing for this possibility, I hope to open up the possibilities for deepening our feminist analysis and efforts.

And I look forward to seeing the book...

Love --
mattilda

GIRLdrive said...

Very true. One other thing--I actually don't think that the details behind Emma's suicide have been shrouded in secrecy. I was surprised to read that.

What we know is what you posted on your blog. Nobody is hiding the fact that Emma was a deeply troubled person. The suicide was acknowledged at the funeral and in most pieces written about her.

But none of us ultimately know what happened. She was thousands of miles away and didn't leave a note. As someone posted on Bilerico, suicide is the ultimate fuck you, the best way of saying "you don't know me."

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Nona, absolutely you're right that Emma's suicide was acknowledged in most of the pieces that I've seen. But most of these pieces also don't really speak to the details that led to the suicide, the specifics of Emma's life outside of the "incredibly hopeful person *except*" narrative. For example, I didn't know until now that she hadn't left a note, which of course does make everything more mysterious.

Thanks so much for your correspondence, and hope you're well!

Love --
mattilda

Jessie said...

I stumbled upon this post, and just wanted to say that Emma's mother wrote something (I can't remember where) about Emma having been in a car accident last summer, which resulted in some possible head trauma that had apparently affected her judgment. She was seeking medical attention, from the sound of it, but it seemed that maybe she gave up hope of finding respite from that. I did not know her personally, I only heard about her through a friend, though, based on what I'd heard, I wish I had known her.

Speaking as someone who suffers from depression, I think suicide more often than not has little to do with anything other than wanting to end an immediate pain. The 'isms' generally become irrelevant at that point.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Jessie, thanks so much for writing!

This is very eloquent:
"Speaking as someone who suffers from depression, I think suicide more often than not has little to do with anything other than wanting to end an immediate pain. The 'isms' generally become irrelevant at that point."

And I agree that ideologies perhaps become irrelevant as ideologies, but what I'm trying to suggest is that hope and vision and critical analysis are also intertwined with a depression that arises from this very hope and vision and analysis -- sometimes when you see what you are trying to see, what you are trying to undo, sometimes it undoes you -- or that's what I'm hinting at, anyway...

Love --
mattilda

Raymond Bianchi said...

It is tragic what happened to Ms Bernstein. But what I do not understand is was there no way to help her? I refuse to blame feminism or any ism for anyone's death. But if she was ill was there no way to avert this tragedy? Suicide is always the wrong thing..

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Hi Raymond --

Good question -- and I don't know the answer.

And just to clarify the rest of what I'm saying, I'm not *blaming* feminism for her death -- feminism is the politic in my life that has perhaps meant the most (along with a radical queer, anti-imperialist analysis). Rather, I'm asking the question whether it's the type of awareness that feminism, and any incredible political analysis, can sometimes allow, that can bring on deeper malaise. You know, like we take a look at this horrible world and know that the deepest structural problems will probably never change in the ways that would change everything, sometimes that's awfully depressing!

Love --
mattilda

reelquietgirl said...

As a student of history and also as someone who has witnessed many personal tragedies (among them 3 suicides of artists and close friends over the past 10 years) I think that my best way of straddling hope and cynicism is to look to the overall historical/cultural arches over a long period of time (centuries, eons, etc.) to see how things ebb and flow, get better and get worse, and why. Just looking at my own time period will only tell me so much, but remembering how much better I have it now than my Cherokee great-grandmother did 100 years ago reminds me that things can get better, but it might not happen overnight, and that if things get worse, striving for a better place is a good second option.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Reelquietgirl, thanks for your perspective -- I do think you're right that some things get better, but unfortunately it seems that the priorities of this country (global war, environmental devastation, etc. for the profits of multinational corporations over all else) are on a path so annihilating that it's hard to think that the overall picture is improving. But of course that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying!

Love --
mattilda

Bianca Castafiore? said...

From the opening comment of "yes!" [hellllooo?] to the last refutation of the Pollyanna Glad Game, I find both this post and this comment thread... nonsensical.

You are, in many ways, acting out the very traditions you'd likely most disdain -- from making this woman's suicide and life an inchoate mystery (or worse, a collusion of mysterious evil, patriarchal forces) to trouncing all over what we all know depression to be.

The germ of the confusion is all here in this very honest, very disappointing statement of intent:

"This is exactly what I mean to imply..."

I am getting so old, so tired; I long for people to say what they mean. That would include wishing that all who kill themselves leave the requisite explanations in written form.

It's not "nice" to drop in on a blog and spew a vent all over the place... but it is also not "nice" to play fast and loose with someone's suicide -- either to spackle in the details we prefer or to make stretch and fade away those that don't suit.

It seems that suicide as a logical extension of clinical depression makes some kind of sense to me. I don't see suicide as the manifestation of male logos...

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Bianca, I'll admit I'm confused about what exactly you're implying here, but the most mysterious part for me is the idea of “trouncing all over what we all know depression to be.” Indeed, I do not see depression as some universal concept that we are all in agreement about (although we all may suffer from it -- I certainly do!). In fact, I do not see depression as something only physically induced, regardless of external factors, but actually arising from those very external factors -- and, in our efforts to survive, thrive, challenge and transform, sometimes I do see the ways in which depression can become more overwhelming, not necessarily less so. All I’m trying to suggest here is that the idea that Bernstein suffered from “clinical depression” is not enough to close the case for me -- I feel like the least we can do is to wonder about what exactly caused her sad death.

When you say “suicide as a logical extension of clinical depression makes some kind of sense to me,” perhaps we are getting closer -- I do note that you did not say “illogical,” which a less complicated narrative would imply. Personally I do find this conversation engaging, and since it does seem to continue way past the date of the original post, I imagine others are thinking similarly. Thanks for writing!

Love --
mattilda