The Southern Reach Books by Jeff Vandermeer gave me the word terroir. I’m sure I would have eventually stumbled upon it on my own, but they can claim the small honor of having given it to me.
I have been thinking about my personal terroir, the things inherent to me and to my environment that have turned me into this and why they have done so, for a long time with out having a word for it. Except, perhaps, “nature vs. nurture” which isn’t really accurate and far too stark a dichotomy for my tastes. The thing I have become, the person I am, is not separable from either my genetics or my environment; through me they are bound to each other. Terroir to me means talking about the massive web of things that effect me as interdependent and strange rather than clearly distinct. Not that I didn’t do that already, but naming things always makes it easier.
The word also has the implication that my particular god-given grab-bag of disorders and learning disabilities are a desirable and robust vintage rather than a random collection of circumstances and base pairs. An Implication that I am embracing, have been attempting to embrace for a long time, but now have the language for.
I recognized in the novels something familiar. I have severe Attention Deficit Disorder and severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I get obsessed for days or weeks with one thing or another, but I cannot hold onto it. Focus slips away like something with slimy scales. I fill up with words on one thing or another but I don’t have the executive function to do anything about them. In the Southern Reach Trilogy, I found a semblance of my experiences. The obsessive questions with out answers and well springs of ideas without action, without the the ability to act, with out even the ability to to understand what action would entail. The way words and images in the books disappear only to come back again, more precise, more unrecognizable, like Area X is a grindstone.
I have been thinking of my mind like a grindstone for a long time. I pick at things, turn phrases over and over until they erode within me leaving only their dust. I’m filled with it. I’m full of bits of words and granular phrases who have lost all meaning but that which I give them. Just like Area x takes all meaning but its own. It makes communication frustrating, to say the least.
When I first started to recognize those familiar forms of frustration in the Trilogy I thought, extremely briefly, that I would have to put it down because it was too close to home. However, reading about it was practically therapeutic. It was terrifyingly refreshing to read a book in which brains like my brain could exist (and later when queer characters arrived on the stage, where sexualities like my sexuality are evident).
It was terrifying because had foci of our obsessions not been different I would have said that the author had been in my head. It was terrifying because it was a horror that played to my experiences, that took them to extremes. It was terrifying because in Control and in The Director and in Ghostbird and in Saul and even in poor Whitby I could see what I might become if my brain ever decides that the little respectability I have managed to maintain is not worth the effort.
(This is not my decision to make, one day I will simply wake up and find that it has been made for me.)
Ghostbird in particular rang true to me, because for her there is no separation between her self and the transforming agent. There is no separation between her self and the horror she experiences. She cannot draw a line and say this is where I end and my opponent begins. She exists as a person within the continuum of her environment and her fundamental makeup, she exists as a person only within the disaster that is Area X.
Of course, the impulse for self dissection is compelling; I sometimes catch myself thinking that if only I can peel always all those parts of me that have been tainted by brain chemistry and a discrete series of crises, only then I can be real. I think sometimes that I am not a real person at all. I think sometimes that I will only be okay if can shove my hand through my chest, through the clutter of constructs and compulsions that nestle there, and pull out from somewhere deep within me a bloody core of something that is nothing but me.
Of course this is stupid because I cannot shave away the parts of me that have been transformed. I, like Ghostbird, exist as I am now only in the context of my own ongoing disaster.
She is the futile desire for self-definition given a voice. She is the fear of personal unreality given hands and the ability to act. I think we are not so different, she and I. (Though if she is a ghost bird then I am the ghost something else; something full of teeth.)
This is about my mental illness and my trauma because that is the lens though which I understand horror – the feeling or the genre. To me The Southern Reach Trilogy was an incredible work of horror not because I can so easily imagine something growing inside me but because something already is. The thing inside my chest is hard and crystalline not soft and fungal, but a parasitical family resemblance exists between it and The Brightness. Some days it is nothing but a slight obsession with religious paraphernalia and spinal trauma. Some days it is something that I am absolutely sure is just about to burst through my skin, that granite scales and marble fangs are about to grow from me.
I wanted answers at the end of The Trilogy not just because I was curious but also because I thought that maybe it would be like someone was reaching though words to tell me what was wrong with me, why it was wrong with me. I thought that maybe once I could understand what grew inside the characters, I could name what grew inside of me.
But that would have been untrue. Not least because the thing that is wrong with me is most decidedly not an alien ecological disaster. Not least because the author is not me. It would have been untrue because the thing that has transformed me is not something that has a why and it is not something that has internal logic. It is senseless. It does not work within whys or in any way that is going to be comprehensible toanybody. I cannot tell you why spinal trauma haunts me or why reliquaries call to me. They did not choose to do so. My OCD did not choose them. I certainly had no say in the matter. These things are just things that happen. Mental illness is just a thing that is.
I was desperately grateful for the lack of answers in the book and for the way it portrayed a search for those answers as both sympathetic and fruitless. That’s how my search for answers is, and that’s how I want to be seen. I have spent a large portion of my life scraping and scrambling for answers on the edges of the unfathomable, as desperate as a wild animal. I most likely will continue to do so. This is okay. Its is only natural to need resolution. But I will never have answers that are satisfactory. This is okay too. These two realities do not deny each other’s validity. The balance between being sympathetic and pointing out the pointless is a hard one to strike, and one I am more than glad to see here.
The books reminded me that I am still okay if I cannot trace the lines of obsession and compulsion that spiral through me to their origin. It reminded me that it’s okay if I don’t have a clear cut why within me, like so many characters in so many books that feature mental illness do.
Instead of a why, I can have a terroir.
It also reminded me why I wanted to become a horror writer in the first place. The way that horror lets you come at things sideways but also face on. When done well the normal can become horrible and the horrible normal, and almost comforting. Just as it is for me. The way horror lets the general you and the specific me escape from the confines of the dichotomous and shows all the ways people like me, and people, or not-people, like Ghostbird can exist in, around, and through the margins. We can exist there because horror breaks the prohibition on the ugly and the incomprehensible. And neither Ghostbird nor I ever claimed to be easy people.
I started writing seriously because I wanted to write the words that I needed when I was younger, so that maybe some other scared kid can find them. I started writing horror because that was where I could find my self, because that is where I could grow and expand, because that is where I found things about myself being discussed honestly with all their fuzzy edges and horribleness intact.
My life and brain are not perfect, pretty things. I would not wish them on anyone, but that does not mean I want my reality treated with anything other than honesty and sympathy.