Elevate Difference

Live Through This

Interview with Sabrina Chapadjiev

In the late nineties, playwright, singer-songwriter, and spoken word artist Sabrina Chapadjiev was an impassioned student playwright in college when she experienced an intensely creative period that put her on the brink of self-destruction. She had recently learned that a young, fierce playwright she had long admired, Sarah Kane, had committed suicide, and she was worried. Chapadjiev wondered: “Would the same pull that led me towards Sarah Kane lead me down a similar path?”

It ultimately did not – but it did lead her to investigate women artists’ relationship to self-destruction. The result is Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, a standout collection edited by Chapadjiev that features the work of such writers and artists as Nan Goldin, Patricia Smith, bell hooks, Eileen Myles, Diane Dimassa, and Cristy C. Road.

Elevate Difference recently interviewed Chapadjiev about what surprised her most about compiling this anthology, what happens at her current “Rage to Page” workshops, and how editing work on the most dire periods in these artists’ lives led her to see what is most redemptive about self-destruction.

**In the introduction to Live Through This, you write about your earliest understanding of brilliant and self-destructive women artists. At what point did you decide to explore women artists’ relationship to self-destruction in a full-fledged collection? **

I started exploring my own relationship to self-destruction during my sophomore year in college while writing a play entitled Whatever Happened to Savannah? It was a pretty out-there play, with dueling pianos and dance pieces standing in for actual characters. I had each of these crazy little scenes linked by a psychiatrist, who explained how these scenes formed the mental landscape of a patient named Savannah. I was asked to put it on again when I returned my senior year (I didn’t stay in college for my junior year), but wanted to flesh out the piece into a more accessible play, with a severe plotline and characters. I realized I could write Savannah’s part easily, but I couldn’t get a handle on writing from the psychiatrist’s perspective. So, I started researching by going to the bookstore and reading all these psychiatry books.

Since I came from a world that intuitively understood self-destruction so well, reading about the analytical experience of it floored me. There was a total disconnect; their description of self-destruction didn’t match mine at all, but I could see how, in their diagnosis, it was right. So, you have these doctors diagnosing self-destructive experiences as bad, but then I had my own personal experience, in which [these experiences] honestly felt like the first time I had been in control of my life ever. Since then, I’ve been interested in bridging that gap.

Who is your intended audience for the book?

There are two answers to that: one public and one personal. The public answer is that I wanted this book to reach out to anyone currently struggling with these issues who feels that they don’t have any control or perspective on why this is happening. There are so many books out there that talk about cutting, depression, suicide, and such, but most of them are either damning the tendencies without seeing the power inherent in them, or they make it seem like being a cutter will become your entire identity. None of them talk about the fact that these self-destructive acts are being performed by powerful hands that, if [they] held a different tool, could perhaps shape a different identity.

The personal answer is that I put this book out for myself when I was in college ten years ago.

Many of the contributors have a radical feminist sensibility. How did you seek out and select the writers and artists for Live Through This?

I went to my personal superheroes – the artists and thinkers that I think are the most cutting-edge, brilliant women working today – and asked them if they had a story. It’s definitely a hard question to ask: “Hey, I really admire you. You wouldn’t happen to be self-destructive and want to write about it, would you?” I approached possibly sixty women that I admire and then sent calls out through avenues that I wasn’t getting responses from. Three of the essays came from those calls for submissions, which I sent out to playwright forums, dance forums, and just generally spread around any way I could. However, a majority of the women are ones that I simply asked to be in the book. Of course, some of them said “no” many times. In fact, half of the artists in the book originally said “no” to me, but I was beyond persistent, and they finally came around.

When you compiled the collection, did you receive any contributions from women whose work you’ve long known that completely surprised you?

Yes. The one that I was most surprised about was the submission by Patricia Smith (“A Little Hell Breaks Loose”). I am a huge Patricia Smith fan and only knew her from the spoken word scene. She is undoubtedly the best spoken word poet I’ve ever seen. She’s like a bomb that knows how to explode, word by word.

I had no idea if she had a story that she would want to share for the book. I wrote and asked her, and her response was, “I don’t know if I want to go down that road again,” making it seem like she’d already written about it. I didn’t know what she was talking about, though. I had to ask her about three or four times to write, and each time she was a bit hesitant about writing her piece, but I still had no idea what she was going to write on.

When I received her submission, I was floored. I had no idea that she had been a journalist at one time, and had no idea she had survived a very public controversy. I also could never imagine that someone as strong and brilliant as Patricia Smith would ever think of killing herself. Same for bell hooks. I am honored that these women are giving enough of their personal trials that we can learn from them, especially since they themselves seem so absolutely solid and effortlessly revolutionary now.

How has publishing this collection changed your own understanding of self-destruction?

It’s funny, when I was trying to get submissions, I wasn’t sure if I would get any. I knew what I wanted. I wanted women I thought were so strong to tell me of a time when they weren’t, so that there’d be hope for people currently dealing with these issues. I wanted to hear stories of triumph, survival, and personal enlightenment. But as I worked with the authors, I was very careful to not have the exact same story every time. I made sure that they spoke of their journeys, but also tried to focus it, so that they would speak on different themes: isolation, medication, desire, and creation. In fact, every piece has a different undertone, which started to get me thinking of the different elements that encourage both self-destructive and creative habits.

For me, though, the most incredible revelation was understanding that the difficult periods these women went through often formed the base root of their strengths today. Seeing how these periods, or these continuing trials, have shaped them in a positive way made me understand how important it is for a woman to survive her own struggle – not only for herself, personally, but because, ultimately, her struggle is tied in with an element of society that has put her there.

Certain critiques of the collection center on its exclusion of male voices, with one reviewer saying that the book perpetuates the idea that “all women’s art is therapy.” How do you respond to this type of critique, and did you ever consider including male voices?

I did consider including male voices for, like, a second. Then I was like, “That would be a completely different book!” Although men certainly have their own ways of self-destructing, women most often internalize their feelings and take it out on their bodies – instead of taking it out on the world. I felt like I wasn’t equipped to handle editing a book about men’s relationships to self-destruction, though I think that’d make a terrific book and that someone should take that concept and run to a publisher with it.

As for the reviewer saying that the book perpetuates the idea that “all women’s art is therapy,” well that reviewer did something that is common with people who review this book: instead of actually writing a book review, she used it as a stepping stone to further her own ideas about women, art, and genius. This has happened a few times with reviewers, mostly because the people interested in reviewing Live Through This often have some personal vested interest in it. Sometimes they forget to review the book at all, and simply use it as a platform to express their own frustrations and theories on this subject. Keeping that in mind, I can’t respond to her comment, as I don’t feel she was actually responding to the book at all, or what I was trying to do with it.

All I can say is that I’m glad that Live Through This may be used in the discussion on women and self-destruction, but I don’t see the book as the tome on “Women’s Mental Health” or even, as this reviewer wanted it to be, a “Theoretical Manifesto on Women’s Artistic Genius.” It is simply a collection of personal stories of triumph and pain, collected in hopes that anyone dealing with self-destruction feels less alone and is able to see the value in their own story. If mental health and art theorists want to use it as a stepping stone for furthering their own personal opinions – fine – as long as it encourages a dialogue and not a diatribe.

You’ve been running “Rage to Page” workshops, where participants explore “themes that surround female self-destruction: shame, power, and control, as well as ways to channel self-destructive behaviors into creative ones.” What’s been most striking to you about connecting with people through these workshops?

I have run these workshops as well as lectured to people of all ages, and I think the most amazing thing I have realized is how the concepts touch people of all ages differently. When doing workshops at a college, where the participants are sometimes seventeen years old, the sense of shame is ridiculous. It’s also strange, because the vehement pride about their self-destructive acts is obvious.

Conversely, one time, a group of four sixty-plus women attended a lecture of mine, and the quiet sweetness they displayed to one another astounded me. There were tears in some of their eyes, with their partners reassuring them, and I realized how they had struggled in absolute silence with this for years when they had only been shamed. They were also able to relate the differences in the mental health community, and how it has changed radically over the years. So, yes, the most striking fact about doing these workshops and lectures is noticing how people of different ages relate to it.

Have you heard from many readers, and are there any reader responses to the collection that have struck you quite deeply?

I have had people write me to say that just the concept of this book has saved their lives. That’s amazing. There have actually been several lovely messages like that, where women write to thank me or to simply say that the book made them feel less alone. One reader took a picture of herself hugging the book and posted it on Flickr. But I will also say that the negative response has been equally amazing, because it has absolutely begun a dialogue about how self-destruction, women, and creation are seen. One reviewer said that “shit happens,” and she didn’t want to hear about these women surviving – that they should get over it. A radio host became very offensive with me when I wouldn’t detail precisely my own experience. She wanted me to show her my deepest scars to compare them with her own. It was strange.

People who want to read this book don’t look at it casually; they look at it guardedly, with their own personal experiences triggered under their sleeves. It often elicits an either love/hate response. And I am totally psyched about that, because, either way, it has begun a dialogue.

What do you want a reader to ultimately take away from Live Through This?

That our “weaknesses” are only signals of the potential of our strength.

Photo Credit: Dave Sanders

Written by: Ellen Papazian, August 21st 2008

I am reading this right now and just finished the piece by patricia smith. i had never heard of her before but now i am pretty much in love. it's about 6:30 am and I can't fucking sleep and what she wrote about cracked my soul twice and made me bleed at least 9 times. i still can't sleep.