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WrightNews: on screams (3–9 October)
Heavy metal, screaming, trauma, schizophrenia, postmodernism, autism, ADHD and me.
If you’re in my car on an average morning, chances are you’ll hear people screaming.
This isn’t cause for alarm. I just like really heavy music. And one of the features of really heavy music — call it metal (or any of its myriad gate-kept sub-genres) or hardcore, if you like — is screaming. For the uninitiated, I’ll try to break it down, and I’ll provide some tracks as examples at the end. The screaming in question is not the squawk or screech of fright. It is deeper, hoarser — usually — and it can comprise grunts, squeals, yelps, growls. In short, I’m not sure screaming really covers it; perhaps a better if baggily redundant term could be ‘extreme vocals’. A lot people don’t like metal or hardcore, and my working hypothesis is that the screaming has a lot to do with it. And this is because screaming in heavy music tends to sound either aggressive or painful. Both of these aren’t pleasant to hear. Few like to be confronted aggressively; few like to listen to the sound of other human beings in pain. According to many studies1, human beings mirror each other’s behaviour, thanks to mirror neurons. These neurons fire within the frontal lobe, which is itself the seat of empathy. A mirror neuron fires when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action being performed by another. The neuron therefore mirrors the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were themselves acting. It could therefore follow that hearing a scream makes oneself also feel that one needs to scream, and this tends to happen in potentially trauma-inducing situations.
But back to heavy music. On 16 October 2019 my daughter was born, very late, and she was not breathing. Drunk from sleeplessness, I lurched around that hospital room as blood spurted almost comically from my partner and they wheeled my purple-skinned baby away. No cry, I remember thinking. That’s bad. I lurched and one of the nurses caught me. I another room I hated the magazines that smiled up at me. I sipped water. A nurse squatted in front of me, her words a mulch of reassurance. I don’t remember what she said.
My daughter was taken to a specialist NICU in Luton. She remained there for a week. Each night, we had to leave her. And I needed something to block it all out. So I listened to the heaviest, most brutal music I could, as loudly as I could. I wanted to hear the screams.
And it helped, somehow. She’s three next weekend. Perhaps why that’s why I’m writing about screaming.
Screaming is also associated with the mad. Having spent a good chunk of time in asylums, Antonin Artaud recorded To Have Done with the Judgement of God for French radio. In it, he rants and raves schizophrenically about his rejection of God and the Mass (among other things), gibbering and howling and grunting and screaming throughout the recording. It is a hellscape, but a line from it, “the body without organs” (in French, corps sans organes) was borrowed by Gilles Deleuze as a conceptual metaphor. Deleuze (in collaboration with Félix Guattari) uses the term to distinguish between actual bodies, which have limited sets of traits, habits, movements, etc., and that body’s virtual dimension — that is, the potential traits, habits, movements, etc. one could have. Taken very simply, to make oneself a “body without organs” one actively experiments with oneself to draw out and actualise these potentials. And this is done — again, put very simply — by going schizo. For D&G, this is the only way to break out of the funk and failings of Capitalism and Cartesian thinking.
This got me thinking about that virtual world. I was diagnosed ADHD a few weeks ago, and I’m still working out my relationship with it. I always had ADHD (do you have ADHD? This is one of the things I’m still trying to square), but it is as if a door that’s always been within me has just been unlocked. How strange, to have limited access to oneself! The alternative has been, I have slowly come to realise, masking. This masking is usually found in the literature related to autism2, but there is increasing interest in ADHD masking (which is not surprising, given frequent co-morbidity between the two), and is the process by which the neurodivergent person masks their symptoms, or the severity of their symptoms. Pearson and Rose write of masking that
“To survive as a marginalized person, the suppression of stigmatized aspects of identity may allow someone to walk in two (or more) worlds.” (Emphasis mine)3
When I read this paper, the phrase “walk in two (or more worlds) resonated, and has stayed with me since. In an inversion of the ”body without organs“, I, and many others who mask, must access a virtual, normative self (what Rosemary Garland Thompson calls ”the normate"4) that’s acceptable to the world at large. But this virtual self becomes the real self, because that’s who you present to everybody, but sooner or later the cognitive dissonance gets too much.
By “too much”, I mean that things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. It’s different every time, for me. It was worst in 2017, I think. Back then, I wasn’t really sure who I was, and I mean that literally. Call it meltdown, breakdown — call it what you like. There wasn’t enough psychic energy to live in two or more worlds. What comes out is a scream. For me, physical screams only happened at night, when I would wake up from night terrors. Most of the screams were internal. Psychic screams, like yelling alarms. Every voice and face incarnadine, skull-bound, screaming.
In 1976, Marina Abramović lay on her back and screamed. She screamed for three hours until she completely lost her voice. The performance was called Freeing the Voice. I mention it here because I think it’s a good corollary for the kind of scream I am talking about: a scream of total depletion. A scream of the whole self. With this kind of scream, there is no mind-body dualism. There is just you, a scream made manifest. A scream without organs.
I’m doing better now. Since the diagnosis, though I’m still processing it all, I feel less pressure, less tension. Less like there is a psychic screaming. I met with a neurodiversity coach who was a great help. Among other things, she said that it was vital for me to take time to decompress, to process, to let the mask slip and to just …be. The mask isn’t a long-term solution. The long term solution is compassion. Rational, open and honest compassion. It starts, hopefully, with the voices of those who think differently, feel differently, process differently. I’m trying to be one of those. My voice will not be a scream in the dark.
It will never be dark again.
Such as G. Rizzolatti and L. Craighero “The Mirror-Neuron System,” Annual Review of Neuroscience 27 (2004): 169–92. ↩︎
See also M. Iacoboni, et al., “Cortical Mechanisms of Human Imitation,” Science 286, no. 5449 (1999): 2526–28;
C. Keysers and V. Gazzola, “Social Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons Recorded in Humans,” Current Biology 20, no. 8 (2010): R353–54;J.
Decety and P. L. Jackson, “The Functional Architecture of Human Empathy,”Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews 3 (2004): 71–100;
M. B. Schippers, et al., “Mapping the Information Flow from One Brain to Another During Gestural Communication,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, no. 20 (2010): 9388–93; and A. N.
Meltzoff and J. Decety, “What Imitation Tells Us About Social Cognition: A Rapprochement Between Developmental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience,”Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London 358 (2003): 491–500.
I am currently waiting to be assessed for autism. I do think I am autistic, but I will not identify myself as such until diagnosis. ↩︎
Pearson, Amy, and Kieran Rose. 2021. ‘A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice’ 3(1): 52–60. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0043. ↩︎
See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Representing Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature ↩︎