Here come the #HeadClutchers – images of mental illness in the media


This article came across my Twitter feed—the visual genres of disability images. Hilarious and sad at the same time. #Headclutchers. “The metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head.”

Originally posted on The Millers Tale:

If you are thinking of writing an article on mental health and illness, why not use our handy guide to some of the most popular and predominate images of this in the media- the ones that are the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head in their subtlety, bearing little accuracy to the lived experience of people. Clearly media folk are super important and very busy so we’ve decided to save you having to think at all about how you depict mental illness and mental health problems.

Let us help you with those important editorial decisions.

The first one is the most critical. It is vital that all images of people with mental illness convey the levels of despair they are in via the most terribly obvious manner and the easiest way to do this is by use of the #HeadClutch. The only decision you need to…

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Guess What Went To Press?

HWW Cover

Jordynn and I are pretty psyched that this one is finally at the printer.

Back in 2011, when I was still pregnant with my now-3-year-old and Jordynn’s baby was still a twinkle in her eye (as my father would say), we embarked on this book project.

The full acknowledgments are in the book itself, but some quick thanks are due to Carrie, Meg, Fred, our families, the rest of the team at Oxford University Press, and everyone who helped us along the way. (Of course I’m forgetting someone important here and whoever that is I’m sorry.)

We’re also super happy with the cover, which has an adequate amount of Carolina Blue.

Four Years’ Work

Image by Smadar,
Image by Smadar,

Four years ago, through my sister and brother-in-law, I met a remarkable family here in Chapel Hill. First I met Emmanuel; his wife Veronica was still working on getting her Green Card, and she and their children lived in Canada.

Emmanuel was in his late 20s when we met, a 2009 grad of UNC-Chapel Hill with a biology degree. But what most people didn’t know about him was that when he was in his late teens, he arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, illiterate, with very little knowledge of English at all.

I still have trouble reconciling that refugee teen whom I can only imagine with the man I know, father of four, scientist, loving husband.

When I met Veronica, she was reserved at first—nervous about telling her story to a stranger (and I was, indeed, a stranger). But after only a short period of time we became great friends. She is an incredible mom and works a full-time job as a home healthcare aide—work that she loves. She’s a woman I deeply admire.

And now, today, four years later, we’ve written a remarkable book together—about their escape from the war as children, about how they fell in love as teens in a refugee camp but were torn apart, about how they miraculously found each other again in Canada years later. I feel so lucky to have been the person they picked to help them tell their story. Visit the website we put together to learn more about their story and about these amazing people.

Negative Capability

Image by Author, Chapel Hill, NC
Image by Author, Chapel Hill, NC

As I walked to my local coffeeshop this morning, I saw a daytime moon and snapped this photo with my phone. The sun was, at the same time, very bright—you can see the blueness of the sky, a crisp blue that we only get in the North Carolina after the summer’s humidity has been whisked away by cold.

I’ve lived in NC off and on for most of my life, and I love it here. I’ve lived in Durham/Chapel Hill off and on since 2000—nearly 15 years now—and I really love it here in particular. I met my husband here, and we’re raising our kids here. If I weren’t completely unsure about Western religion I would completely buy into the “Southern Part of Heaven” thing they say around here when bragging about how beautiful things are.

Back to this morning’s daytime moon.

The sun and the moon being brightly visible in the sky at the same time made me think about the ability to feel two ways about a thing at the same time. It’s a thing that happens, and it’s not crazy. Keats called it negative capability. Cornel West describes it like this:

You could just called this “being open-minded,” but that’s too simple.

Here’s the point, today: I love Chapel Hill. I love The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m a light-blue-blooded Tar Heel. I’m ashamed and horrified by the academic/athletic scandal going on right now. I’m also bummed out by how the university is corporatizing its administration and adjuctifying its faculty (including me).

I can feel both ways at the same time: love, and bummed out. It’s a thing that is possible.

My husband and I are both lifetime alumni association members of UNC. We are season ticket holders. We take our kids to play on the quads and tell them stories about the old buildings. We’re proud to have attended school here. I’d be proud to have my kids attend school here.

So here’s my question for you, my readers, and for all of us who write higher ed journalism:

Why on Earth would I take time to critique higher education if I didn’t care so much about making it better for everyone? For students—first and foremost—and for faculty, staff, and everyone who is a part of this extremely valuable public good?

I wouldn’t. That right there is my mission. I want to make things better. If some dirty secrets get aired, you know what that guy in robes said about daylight and disinfectants. I’m doing the best I can with that mission in mind. I hope you are, too.

Sour Grapes, or Waking Up?

Image by Laura Collins Britton,
Image by Laura Collins Britton,

Recently, a friend I respect told me that she was concerned that my writing on academia came across as though I had “sour grapes.” She was mostly talking about the writing on this blog, although now that this blog is a series on The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, I guess she means that, too.

(Some background: She felt like she had to bring it up because we are entering into a business endeavor together. And keep in mind, she was sincerely, truly worried about hurting my feelings. Also, you can see her perspective: Is a crank a good spokesperson for your business?)

But I was truly surprised that she viewed my words as sour grapes—or as anything that could reasonably be perceived as such—in the first place. I actually think I’m kind of pollyanna-ish, once you get past the “let’s stop deluding ourselves” bit. I don’t wallow in misery, and I’m very practical. The point of this whole blog/column #freelanceacademic endeavor is not just to identify problems with our work in higher ed, but to find ways to fix them as well.

I looked up “sour grapes” in the OED, and learned that it derives from one of Aesop’s fables, “The Fox and the Grapes,” and it refers to a situation “in which someone adopts a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.” So I guess my friend is saying (and I’m inferring here) that since I didn’t get a tenure-track job, I have sour grapes towards higher ed.

But she’s wrong. You can check out my previous post, but know that, right now, I feel like I narrowly escaped by not landing a TT job. There’s something rotten in the state of higher ed, and if I’d moved my family into that dying kingdom, where would I be? Defending it like a lifeboater? Hoarding my meager riches and stomping on contingent faculty? I’d probably be a terrible person and hate myself—IF I were self-aware enough to know what I was doing.

(OK that previous graf didn’t sound very pollyanna-ish, but it does fall under the “stop deluding” exception.)

Besides, this has been the question of the day:

This question isn’t about figuring out how other people see you. It’s about figuring out how YOU see you—and what YOU want to be for YOURSELF.

I know one thing for certain: I do not want to be a tenure-track professor.

They do not hold anything that I cannot have. That’s not sour grapes. That’s waking up.

Now: Soon I will address, in a more hopeful fashion, the wonderful open pathways that higher ed holds for us. Because that hope is there. Those pathways are there. Thinking creatively about learning, teaching, finding making sharing knowledge—we have to do those things. And we can.

Also we have to eat. I’ll talk about that, too.

The Uglier Side of Academia

Image by Laura Collins Britton,
Image by Laura Collins Britton,

“The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” -James Baldwin

This quote came across my Twitter feed today.

(It was a RT by someone I follow of a tweet by someone I don’t know, so I’m preserving her privacy and not linking to her it here—I don’t link to people without permission. Let me send out a thank you to the person who passed this tweet through my timeline today.)

I’ve been in academia for 11 years. If you count my master’s program, when I had to fend off bizarre antics by two different male professors, and law school, when my favorite professor was denied tenure for being a woman (don’t make me fight you about this one), even longer.

The point is, I’ve pursued this profession for the first half of my professional life, give or take. And I can see that this profession is really ugly. But I’m wondering, today, is academia any uglier than any other profession? Or do I just see it’s ugly side because I am intimate with academia? And does everyone see academia’s ugly side?


Is it possible for a tenure-track/tenured person at an R1 to jamble along and never ever see the ugliness of academia the way we NTTs do? For it to actually not be ugly for them at all?

Like the dude who lives on Park Ave., and the homelessness and hunger and desperation and poverty are invisible to him? (I don’t like overly dramatic comparisons as a rule, but just picture the dude getting in his town car for his trip down to Goldman and never looking up from his Blackberry.)

Recently, a super-tenured dude in my division asked one of my NTT colleagues just how much we made—because he had no idea.

(I know how much super-tenured dude makes, because it is public record and because I took that public data and created a spreadsheet to compare salaries by race and sex. I enjoy staring ugliness in its ugly face.)

We he learned what we make, he dropped an f-bomb out of shock, or so I’ve heard. My Park Ave. Professor just had never thought about it. That’s his privilege.

So I think that perhaps NTTs (and others, like women who get denied tenure for not being masculine enough yes that happened and others who are so wildly underrepresented you wonder how we all survive in the academic world at all) get an even uglier side of academia, actually.

Because we have to think about it. We’re forced to stare ugliness in the face every day. And it ain’t pretty.

Sorry for the gloom. Perhaps some cheer tomorrow.

So I Wrote This Thing About Rape…

Image by Laura Collins Britton
Image by Laura Collins Britton,

Back in April of this year, I posted a short-short story (that I’d originally published in a lit journal back in 2008) as a “Prelude” to another project that I was working on. The short story tells a first-person narrative of being raped.

Sidebar: A cliche topic for a short story? perhaps, but only because rape happens every fucking five minutes, enough to make telling a rape narrative a cliche. #Rapeculture anyone?

I followed up that post with another, in which I explained the context of the short story, and why I chose to post it on my blog—because I planned on reporting the rape to UNC now, in 2014, many, many years later:

I was raped in Chapel Hill, just off campus, by a student of UNC-Chapel Hill. And UNC-Chapel Hill at that time was doing a terrible job dealing with rape in its community, and continued to do so until March of 2013, when it was slapped with a gigantic federal investigation.

I’m curious to know, though: What will happen when I try to report? How will it go? Has a professor ever reported to campus sexual assault services before?

This might be hilarious and awful at the same time.

So then I thought, why not pitch this story rather than writing it for my blog? So I did. I pitched it to my favorite kicks-ass-and-lets-you-use-swears-woman-centered-magazine The Toast, and the editor told me to run with it.

Let’s say “running with it” equaled getting my ass kicked, but I finally went through the reporting process and wrote the piece. I actually scheduled a date on my planner called “Reporting Day.” Reporting Day was a terrible day.

I was a wreck for about a week after. I was jumpy and had jitters, so I just kept telling everyone that I’d had too much coffee, which is an easy lie, since I regularly have too much coffee. I drink too much coffee on such a regular basis that my regular coffee shop has standing orders to only pour me half-caf.

The point is, for those of you who actually can remember April, and you want to read the results of Reporting Day, head on over to the Toast and check it out. Many thanks to Nicole Cliffe and the rest of the team over there for publishing it (and for paying their authors since I’m basically unemployed now).

For those of you who would like to read the short story that is loosely based on the events that led to the piece in the The Toast, here it is.

[You’ll notice I don’t allow comments on my blog. It’s good to be Queen. But I’m happy to chat with you on Twitter so long as you aren’t a jerk. I have a No Jerks Clause in the Constitution of the nation-state that I am Queen of.]