Thick and Thin Stories and Exploding Punk Rock Narratives

In the last couple months there have been two articles published online about the work I’ve been doing in the mental health system and they both chose to focus on the punk rock part of my story as the frame for talking about my organizing and training of Peer Specialists at OnTrackNY. At first it pissed me off and felt sensationalistic. I regretted agreeing to be interviewed by the young journalist who was a friend of a friend for this story. I was actually terrified that the people that I work with at the Psychiatric Institute were going to be upset with me. I even pleaded with the author and then the editor to kill the piece entirely. But after clearing the story with my boss and it making the online rounds and shared a bunch by friends and strangers, everything turned out fine. In fact, I got a whole bunch of messages from interesting people I never would have known otherwise and made some really good connections. I guess it wasn’t such a bad story after all.

One of the connections that came out of it was this woman from Canada who ended up writing this article for a blog in England. Who know who the hell is going to end up reading these stories? While she doesn’t get it totally right there are some good lines and experience has taught me that random awesome things seem to happen when people write stuff about the work I’m doing. So we’ll see. Part of me loves the attention. Part of me is self-conscious because I know that the only reason I get away with being so publicly crazy is that I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, educated white guy. I have all the other social privileges locked down except for the fact that I’ve been locked up in psych wards a bunch of times and I’m labeled with a serious mental illness. But whiteness and maleness count for a whole lot in this world. I can talk publicly about being crazy and turn it into a career which many of my friends cannot.

Which, in the end, is why the punk story isn’t as interesting to me as a frame for talking about social change. Because punk’s roots are so white. It was a cultural movement that created an identity out of being oppressed and different. But with some exceptions it suffered from the same “universalism” and “colorblindness” as liberal white culture. Do not get me wrong: I love my punk rock roots, I’m fucking proud of my punk rock roots, I will sing you entire CRASS, Subhumans, Reagan Youth and Bad Brains albums song by song, I will tell you stories about the riots I ended up in as a 14 year old and the squatter community that took me in and made me feel at home like no one ever had, but none of that is a model for building a strong resistance movement. Especially these days. The Icarus Project pretty much proved that dramatically to me and thankfully ended up moving in a more interesting direction focusing on the voices of more socially and economically marginalized people.

It’s going to take a lot of different kinds of people from a lot of different backgrounds and cultures to build the kind of movements we need to challenge the our current mental health framework and the social and political structures that uphold it. To weave the networks that are going to support all of us is going to take a lot more than bringing some Peer Specialists into the mental health system and training clinicians to work well with them. It’s going to take questioning the larger structures that uphold our social systems, and talking openly about race and class and gender and oppression and freedom — making new maps out of language and art and people’s real life experiences being diagnosed with mental illness and what that even means. Not only navigating the system but coming up with new systems outside of the system.

So while in the end I’m flattered for the attention, the two articles actually these folks wrote about me barely scratch the surface of how interesting the work I’m doing really is. I recently learned some new language to describe distinctions between “thin” and “thick” narratives, those that provide cultural and historical context and those that state facts. Clifford Geertz was the cultural anthropologist who coined the terms and he was concerned that anthropological ethnographies were more interpretive than fact. I’m less interested in “fact” but I want richer stories with more voices. I know that journalists love writing about individuals, and our culture loves reading about individuals, but it’s not individuals that make movements, it’s groups of people working together that make movements.

Anyway, if you read either of those stories and find yourself wanting a thicker version of the story, here’s something I wrote for school last year that’s kind of like my blueprint for what I’m hoping to accomplish working in the mental health system in the Peer Specialist realm.

Underground Transmissions and Centering the Marginalized:

Collaborative Strategies For Re-Visioning the Public Mental Health System

Punk rock heroic narratives are just one way to tell a story, and don’t get me wrong, I love the attention, but more than anything I want to create space so that all of our stories can explode the whole system and create a thousand new ways to be free.




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