August 20, 2015
by Kate Schmitt
ZONE 3 PRESS, October 31, 2014
by Veronica Suarez
About Veronica Suarez
Veronica Suarez worked as editor-in-chief for online issues 10 and 11 of Gulf Stream, the literary magazine of Florida International University. She is currently writing a book for her M.F.A. creative thesis. She was a contributing writer for the Miami New Times, the editor-in-chief of U&me Magazine, a music editor for OutLoud Multimedia, a contributing writer for Miami-Dade Parks, a contributing writer for The Beacon newspaper, and a communications intern for Mun2 television. You can read and hear her recent poem, "A Romance in Letters" at ReadingQueer.org.
On the Art of Plummeting
Kate Schmitt’s, Singing Bones
Writers are sometimes given the daunting task of developing a character that has depression: it’s daunting because depression is a passive struggle, and it’s a task because the writer has to create plot structures to activate that struggle. How do you show depression when the issue itself is a lack of action? Kate Schmitt has taken on this task in her fragmented memoir, Singing Bones, and I must say, she successfully handles the subject matter without losing plot interest or the reader’s attention: a Herculean effort, as she cannot construct false plot points in order to increase the tension or further the plot. This is not fiction; this is her life, and she finds creative, surreal, and enigmatic ways to increase the tension and enhance the story, so that the fragmented vignettes of her life become interwoven memories that develop the narrative with a beautiful, lyrical voice.
Schmitt employs fairytales, mythology and literary references to extract herself from the lonely seclusion of depression and interject herself into a collective and continuous literary conversation. Her chapter “Once Upon A Time” is absolutely perfect, every word crafted to show that fairytales are only appealing because they show the romantic side of life, not the darkness. Schmitt’s grandmother has killed herself, and this fact has shaped Schmitt’s life from her childhood: “You were my Sleeping Beauty, both bedtime story and spinning wheel: a princess and a shiny needle waiting.” She also utilizes Virgil’s The Aeneid and his character’s descent into the underworld as a metaphor for the experience of living in a psychiatric hospital: just like Aeneas journeys into the underworld to speak to his father, Schmitt descends into a symbolic underworld in order to understand herself and her grandmother.
Schmitt also imagines Odysseus’ descent into the underworld in the chapter, “A Gathering of Shades”: this is used to illustrate a surreal depiction of her grandmother’s consciousness in the land of the dead. Her grandmother’s suicide has haunted the family for generations, and Schmitt fears she will suffer the same fate: it is the grim looming of death and pervasive thoughts of death which propels the plot further and keeps this fragmented collection of time and memory connected. But the overarching plot would mean nothing if Schmitt’s lyrical voice was not the thread that weaved the memories together. Each vignette-chapter is short and compact, but it’s also dense, deep, and magical, so that while we get fragmented glimpses into her life, it is enough to show the mental horror she endures with her suicidal thoughts.
At the recommendation of a psychiatrist, Schmitt ends up in a psychiatric hospital, following the footsteps of her grandmother: it is the same hospital where her grandmother received electroshock therapy that erased some of her memories, memories of a child she lost during pregnancy. Schmitt believes this could be a factor in why her grandmother killed herself. But it is not the “orange bottle” Zoloft pills that helps Schmitt, but her ability to weave a narrative for her life, and dispel the spell that she will endure the same fate of her grandmother: “…will you still turn out to be the spinning wheel waiting in the attic?” Although Schmitt uses Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fairytales to show the spell of suicide, she also thinks the very-real DNA in her body influences her mind into convincing itself of committing the same act: “a chain of genes like switches, symptoms blinking the lights on a string.”
She also increases the tension in the overarching plot (will she survive?) by illustrating her suicidal thoughts in italics as if they were jagged bullets entering her brain. She is tormented by her own thinking, and the pills and psychiatrics can’t do anything about it, and actually end up making her situation worse. It is a brutally honest memoir. But even with her world collapsing, the reminiscent narrator keeps the reader suspended in the idea that somehow Schmitt survived this ordeal. And her strong command of language, precise and concrete details, and imaginative structure, reminds the reader that this is someone who is very self-aware and maybe that is the biggest weapon against her depression, against herself: her brutal honest powers of self-observation. Her ability to create art in the chaos of self-destruction is powerful and paradoxical: she cuts herself with knives to relieve pain, but she also creates lyrical observations of that pain: “The cut, if it is deep, gapes a little before it is filled in and spills over. That seduction, a trailing ribbon of blood, is the escape: the abduction of self. You have left your own body and you watch from the doorway.”
It is her art that saves her, and unlike the fairytales, Schmitt realizes she has to save herself from the “plummet” of depression. There will be no passivity of waiting for someone to save her. She stops taking her pills and begins to analyze her grandmother’s letters, chart a map of her grandmother’s life versus her own. She begins to understand depression and suicide: “in this place we live in parenthesis.” It is in that understanding and catharsis through writing and storytelling that she learns to save herself. It is an inspiring book: that someone can survive against such self-destructive behavior, and not just survive but make art out of that struggle. As she says in her memoir, “Society prefers to hide suffering….But Sophocles seems to say that pain must be tolerated and even valued—that it’s the only way to triumph.”