The girl who internalized everything

There were some weeks last semester where school started to sound like life.

In two of my classes, the word Bildungsroman came up a lot. It does not mean a Roman named Bill defecated. It refers to a story in which a character's development and growth within their defined social order becomes a quest for "meaningful existence within society." This process is long and difficult and involves repeated clashes between the character's needs and desires and the will and judgment of an unbending social order. In the end, the character is supposed to have the values and ideals of that society manifested within themselves. It’s a "coming-of-age" story. A puberty tale. From what I understand.

We also read a lot of novels in class that did not follow the Bildungsroman perfectly, with the characters accepting a prescribed place in the dominant society, assimilating, sucking on materialism, etc. If all of the books had followed the classic Bildungroman structure, there would have been a lot of unnecessarily alienated or detached or dead main characters. Apparently, in many Bildungsroman(s) with female main characters, the girl either "knows her role and shuts her mouth" or goes crazy because she hates her role, or she kills herself because she hates her role. When my professor explained this in more eloquent terms, I thought of Sylvia Plath, someone I know little about but get the gist of (i.e. she killed herself).

I was beginning to relate to this Bildungsroman jive to the point that every now and again something said in class sounded like it was something I had gone through or would go through. Like the sense of going crazy because I did not “know my role and shut my mouth.”

There was a kind of crazy that came up in class called “referential mania,” a fictitious ailment from a book not on the syllabus. It’s like the academic’s version of schizophrenia - you start to think everything means something. For the character we were discussing, he turned into King Lear and thought the weather was plotting against him.

As for how it relates to actual people, it’s like everything can be analyzed and picked apart the way you would pick it apart in class. Books, movies, songs, right down to how they describe a setting, frame a shot, incorporate a beat from the 1980s that makes it sound old school legit when it's new school “ch3ck m4h gr1ll5” drivel, commercials, video games, what other people say, how other people perceive you, how other people perceive nothing. You pick apart everything. It feels like everyone wants you to shut up, because they don’t understand what you are saying, or they don't like it. Sometimes they don’t understand what they are saying and they say it anyway, then they turn around and tell you it meant nothing, perhaps because they left it unexamined in their minds, or because "personal" and "political" have a clear boundary for them, or they can somehow reject implicit meanings and just "say stuff." I don't understand this anymore than they understand my viewpoint, I guess.

Lots of people are wrong and lots of people are ignorant. But if referential mania did exist and if I did know what it felt like, I would say it goes so far into your brain that you cannot function. You pick apart everything. You pick apart yourself. You pick and pick all the time like heroin addicts when they think - what is it, spiders? - when they think they are covered in spiders. Except everything is covered in spiders. You, your room, your house, your school, your friends, your video games, the planet. Not everyone picks, not everyone understands picking, and they don’t understand you.

The professor who mentioned referential mania also mentioned the isolating experience that is getting an education. Fewer and fewer people understand you, not always because they are not educated; sometimes it’s because they escaped internalizing their education and applying it to themselves.

Often, as you learn to be critical, other people might not understand why you don't accept things as they are or what is considered conventional. The more critical or abstract in thought you become the less patience people have for you. If you take it too far, you may end up combining the personal with political and everyone has different boundaries between these two. What is personal to some may be political to you. This could make some people upset with your political interpretation of what they see as personal. It's a context thing.

My ideas about everything have changed severely and now it feels like I’ve forgotten English and can only speak CrazyLieslese. Thanks to school, among other things, my values surrounding gender and relationships and marriage (read: it’s stupid) are now so "out of wack" with the rest of society's that they may bar me from any parentally* approved union, and that even though I am armed with enough knowledge to attack racism, sexism and many other -isms I don't like, I have lost the ability to form sentences when speaking with people I don't know, and that...

I can't even finish that thought. Everything in my brain has been examined and picked apart, but this blog is not my autobiography, although it's starting to feel that way. I clearly have a problem separating my personal emotions from... everything.

So, to make a long story short; my courses are depressing me. My courses are freaking me out. I internalize all the information and subject matter and ideas until I can’t separate myself from them, and I don’t understand how everyone else can. In my women’s studies class, another student mentioned a friend of hers who cannot form normal relationships because she can’t stop resisting - resisting sexism, the status quo, the systematic screw-overs that fester in our language, our workplaces, in all things, in everyday life. That sucks. We should be able to resist and live happily, right?

Aside from that friend of a student I may have spoken to once, I don’t see this inner conflict happening to other students. If it is, I’m not aware of it, maybe because I don’t talk to anyone, or no one talks about this, or the people I do talk to all seem happy and well-adjusted and could give seven rat hineys about existing within a racialized/sexualized body - i.e., existing in a body that is contextualized in ready-made categories that may apply unwanted/unwarranted characteristics to it - or wishing they could occupy a gender identity that more perfectly reflected themselves but didn’t attract cat calls and leering eyes or the fear that they will suffer as deeply as all the characters they’ve read about because, if it can happen to someone else, it can happen to them.

It could be this, or it could be that people are like the professor of my women’s studies class. She remarked one day that she can watch television/process media all day and never be bored; all of it is rife with - stuff, ideas, messages, unconscious and conscious, negotiated and not, symbols - a lot. She said it’s all very interesting. I was surprised. I can watch the same television all day and never be not-agitated at some point for the exact same reasons (even if it were a Home Movies marathon, the onslaught of supermodel/racial caricature-laden commercials would do the trick). Not to imply she’s never been angry at something worthy of being angry at in the dominant culture, because I don’t know that, but she is able to look at things rationally. She can do that, and she hasn’t ascribed to being ‘normal,’ or rather, uncritical of things that suck.


My internalization of everything extends into mental sub-levels I don’t even get. Okay, I learned this: one in four women has experienced some kind of sexual assault by the time they are in their twenties or so. I have been lucky. Now that I’ve said that out loud, maybe I won’t be. The aggressor is usually someone the woman knows and trusts, not a dude with a sabotage-moustache hiding in the bushes**. One assigned book that I refused to read/finish for the longest time was about a puny, ass-kicking, fire-crackerish second-grader with enough proverbial balls to sing “F*** The Oppressors” in her racist teacher’s face but who is, later in life, drugged and raped by some guy she hangs out with. We inferred during discussion that he may have done this to maintain a "power dynamic," i.e., “know your role and shut your mouth.” She couldn’t fight back, even if she wanted to (and she did). You can be as powerful as you want, you can be as crazy, you can have all the incredible crazy ideas in the world, and someone can still come along and mess with you. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about it.

That is what I took from that moment in the book. Thanks to the power of internalization, I can see this happening to me. And it’s on a weird level. I can see it happening to me because I feel like I’m similar to this character, but the fact that I feel like it will happen to me because I am like her means I am applying her narrative to myself on a "literal" level that suggests... I have referential mania?

[Note to self: Life is not literally literature, Liesl.]

That thoroughly unfair and messed-up moment in the book is something I should be able to separate from myself but I can't. I somehow applied it to my personal ("OMG, it's gonna happen to me!") and political ("OMG, rape, systematic this, feminist that!") levels, which are not really separate anyway. Then I let it fester, while I could picture other, more sane students reading it and going "Yeah, stuff happens. What's due this week?"

I can’t stop internalizing everything I learn. It’s getting bad. There is no healthy separation between what I learn and "real life," whatever that means, and if "the personal is the political," then separation is not possible. Maybe I’m just obsessed with Liesl.

All of this madness makes me feel like I am in some terrible Bildungsroman where I can either become perfect and a zen balance of everything I want to be, or I can know my role and shut my mouth, or go crazy, or kill myself, or all of the last three. I thought high school was supposed to be the terrible, awkward, Bildungsromanish "find yourself" time. High school was nothing. Am I a late-bloomer, going through all that "find yourself" nonsense four years too late? Or a non-bloomer? Is anyone else out there in U of T-land a late bloomer?

You’re supposed to grow and change and yadda yadda during your college years, as well as be carefree and youthful and drunk and in your prime years of fertility or whatever. You learn to see the world in a new and different light thanks to your education, but what if that light makes the world look like roadkill? What if that light makes you look like roadkill? Will you have the emotional energy to do anything with your education that makes everything feel like it was roadkilled? Is this all just me taking everything the wrong way?

Furthermore, how is everyone able to step back from what they've learned and get on with their lives? What makes it so easy for everyone else to say, "No, none of this actually applies to real life," or "Yes, it applies to real life here, here and here but not here," or "Yes, this applies to real life but I don't care"?

In short, with no offence to people who have actually experienced mental illness directly or indirectly, I am going crazy. I don't know if it's from being educated and learning about how much Earthlings can suck (myself included, thank you), or being consistently anxious, or being narcissistic or... whatever. "Crazy" is the only word that matches how I feel. I could end this on a positive note and say that Quincy Jones suggests we stay crazy***, because we are "the soul of the world," but... not... feeling... it. No.

- Liesl

* 'parental' in second-generation Ghanaian-Canadian terms means every close family friend with children over the age of forty

** So one in how-many-men have sexually abused some girl they know? Why don't they tell us that in health class instead of the scare tactic of how many of us will be victimized? "Who cares, Liesl?" See? Education = isolating.

*** 6:24

5 comments on “The girl who internalized everything

  1. Thanks for the post, Liesl. I can definitely relate to you. I took an English course and the professor went on and on about how life is full of incompatibility, hate, envy, isolation, etc. It kind of turned me off from continuing in English because I didn’t want to keep thinking that way.

    I think it is important not to “pigeonhole” our own thoughts and feeling like we HAVE to think in some certain ways. It’s true that we can’t “unlearn” what we’ve learned; however, we can still be skeptical about what we read and hear. For instance, after my English prof declared that most marriages were doomed to be full of conflict and struggles for dominance because people were naturally incompatible, I started to think, “Is that really true? What evidence is there that points to this being true?” It sounds silly, but sometimes being deliberately skeptical about the things we hear and read helps us keep our minds open (which is what our education is supposed to do in the first place).

  2. You’re welcome, Timmy! Or rather… Thank you, Timmy! 😀 Thank you for the thank you?

    Aww man, what a terrible professor. English courses, more often than not, cover areas other than how much life sucks… so it in turn sucks that English was ruined for you. 🙁 What was the final exam like? “How does this passage relate to the hatred buried in ALL OF US?” Yeesh.

    I agree with the need for skepticism, or… “critical thinking”, as every end-of-the-course feedback paper thingy calls it (in addition to asking if you’ve improved on it). For me personally, I think… I was starting to become more aware of the negative backlash one can get for being overly skeptical/analytical or for being ‘misunderstood’ or… saying things the wrong way… (I talk in hyperbole and sound angry when I’m not). Among other things! Augh, this post is all personal, I’m sick of talking about myself.

    I dunno… Critical thinking can break your brain, if you start to think critically about… everything. Not that we shouldn’t, but where does one stop?

  3. Wow… In the words of my gr12 lit teacher: YES!
    I am in the same boat despite being in sociology and psych. It is increasingly difficult to separate the critically thinking self from the ideas it contemplates. In the end there is so much conflicting information and so many conflicting instincts that one can’t help but be overwhelmed. As well, the social friction it creates makes the tension unbearable. Ideas can be dealt with easily if they can be externalized and bounced off other people who can give you perspective, but everyone seems to be annoyed. It’s hard to search for an answer and reflexive knowledge all at the same time without other people’s input.
    In the end I think the irony of learning how to think critically is that it becomes a meta-process. You unavoidably have to think about your thinking to realize whether you are being critical or not. If you want to separate yourself from what you learn you have to get really good at that meta level. I still struggle with that a lot but I notice it gets better with time. There are margins of acceptable fault that have to be kept. You don’t use nanometers to measure whether your dresser will fit in a room. The key is finding the right measuring stick for the right situation.
    As well, statistics are also interpretive and not that highly generalizable. The 1 in 4 women getting sexually assaulted has enough demographic and SES hitches to it that you may believe something skewed. The meta-critical thinking plays in here to flip your knowledge around on itself. It’s likely that women of lower SES are more likely to be assaulted because of where they live and the friends they made, for example. There are many confounding variables so don’t worry, you won’t be assaulted.

    I am really interested in discussing this point of view further though, is there any way I can reach you?

  4. @Lia: “…but everyone seems to be annoyed.” I KNNOOOOWWWW. Ironically, it seems like those who are annoyed are the ones who have separated their critical thinking from themselves, and therefore feel as if they don’t have to think critically… ever. Or, about things they experience directly. It’s weird. One of them should comment!

    If English and Equity can result in my kind of… crazy, I can only imagine what Psychology would do. Like… learning exactly how the mind works, and yet still not being able to work out all of your emotions/thoughts perfectly, as most humans find that a difficult task to begin with… Well, that’s what I would imagine.

    Man, no one tells you university will turn you into a meta-brained… meta-intellectual. Actually, I read a book last year called “Nervous Conditions” where the main character and her cousin underwent this same process of… thinking critically, then thinking about their thinking, and dealing with the repercussions of that thinking in their personal lives. I guess, for anything to get better with time, it has to be practiced, right? Even if you annoy a couple of people in the process. In the meta-process.

    Does SES stand for socio-economic status? I can see how that would contribute to that particular statistic… That’s a little depressing. Still, it can happen to anyone…

    Argh, moving on… I would have liked to give you my email, but my internet creativity is failing me and I can’t think of a way to do so aside from posting it here. :S We can continue to debate with comments, though!

    @Liz: ^_^ I think everyone in this thread has a great name. Lia, Liz, Liesl… Timmy… Y’know.

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