This is the Story of an Essay: How Hannibal Helped Save My Life
This is the story of a lot of things. It is the story of a girl and her dog. It is a story of survival. It is the story of a canceled television show. More than anything, however, this is the story of an essay.
The essay in question is of considerable size, and is more of an assemblage of things than a proper essay. It exists as a stack of research, notebook drafts, and notation scribbled in the margins of used college textbooks. This essay will never be completed, no matter how many times I swear it will.
And I have sworn, in fact. I have sworn up and down and across the street, with all the gravity I could muster in earnest promise. I set deadlines, made proclamations, and set hours of the day aside to work. This time, I’d say. This week, this month, this year, for sure. For sure. But there’s no getting it done. Some things need doing, and some never get done, despite our weightiest intentions and grandest plans.
This is the story of my Hannibal essay, as it was initially conceived: an in-depth treatise on the 2013-2015 NBC show. This is the essay I began in the fall of 2015, restarted in the winter of 2016, and stared at with tired eyes on the edge of 2016’s crisp, fretful autumn. It was a passion project of mine, despite these hiccups and roadblocks. The essay was to be my definitive study of Bryan Fuller’s sensuous, indulgent, horror-as-crime-procedural-as-gothic-romance-as-soap-opera, through a queer studies lens.
I had a bone to pick (in a respectful, wholly academic way, of course) with the show’s uneven, at contradictory approach to queer representation and sexuality. Specifically, I had a bone to pick with Will Graham’s relationship with Hannibal Lecter as the show evolved, playing with genre convention and expectation all the way to its inevitable cancellation. Because I am a fan and simply want to investigate the text as presented to the best of my ability - in a respectful, wholly academic way.
This is the story of that unwritten essay, and all the reasons why it will certainly go unfinished. But to do that, first I have to tell the story of how I lost my mind.
So, let’s start there.
Fear comes with imagination.
Losing your mind sounds like nasty, final business, doesn’t it? I think it does. It conjures up splashy, filmic scenes of hospital patients, roaming grimy halls in tattered paper gowns. You think of pretty sad girls in stock photography, swallowed up in the mouths of shadow. They’re always crouched down in corners, their makeup tracking artfully down their tear-wet cheeks. Horror shows and rundown asylums, creaky attics and abandoned stairwells.
Mental illness in the popular imagination is in equal turns exploitative garbage cranked out for cheap thrills, and a deeply shameful, ugly secret you can’t talk about in polite company. It’s a throwaway joke and a knife at your throat, threatening to bleed you dry while you put on a good face for everyone in the room. You’re supposed to smile. Laugh. Never take it too seriously. Mental illness isn’t that big a deal, you know. Just do some yoga and take vitamin D.
When I lost my mind, it lacked the pomp and circumstance of a white-knuckle crime thriller. I was sitting in a cramped office, squirreled away in the dark bowels of my college library. It was November 2015, just before Thanksgiving break. At the time, I worked for the communications and marketing department of my alma mater's library. For a measly $8 an hour, my job was to write, copyedit, and source news for the library’s various newsletters. I say source news, because the head of the department was convinced she could produce hard-hitting investigative journalism in the fishbowl world of library administration.
I know this, because she reminded me of it every time she pulled me into her office to tell me I was a subpar investigative journalist.
At the height of a depressive bout so deep I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning, I was nominated the library’s very own plucky girl detective. Of course, this was on top of writing and editing books for publication, going to school full-time, and maintaining a 4.0 for my scholarships. Graduation was looming, and the at turns terrifying and alluring promise of grad school was dangled in front of me like a carrot. After years of repeatedly postponing my secondary education, dropping in and out of programs to help my financially-struggling family, I was ready to get my life together.
I was ready to just live, if that was an option. To be fair, it was hard to see living as an option, at the time. Back in those days, I was used to picturing my life as a series of coffins. I still slip back into that frame of mind, if I’m not careful. Home was a coffin. School was a coffin. Work was a coffin. My family and friends, all coffins, the lid secured in place by loving hands driving in the nails. When you spend most of your life, as far back as you can remember, thinking about life in terms of death, living is a relatively alien concept.
So, imagine me, struggling to get out of bed every single day. Imagine me, wandering the guts of the library, knocking on office doors and haunting conference rooms to chase leads for my possibly delusional boss. Imagine me, keeping straight A’s. Imagine me, realizing that all my friends were addicts of some kind, and that I was exhausted of being a punching bag for other people’s problems.
Imagine me, slowly drawing away from the family that didn’t care as long as I was upright and useful, watching me recede further into the wallpaper of my life. Imagine me, begging my parents to do something, anything, about my little brother’s alcoholism. Imagine them shrugging it off, like they always do. Because he’s an adult and he can do what he wants, as long as it doesn’t get in their way. It’s fine that the only people any of us know are addicts. It’s fine. It’s all just fine.
Finally, imagine me, at work on a quiet, lonely Wednesday afternoon. I’m alone in the office, because the department is staffed by college students with wildly varying schedules. It’s overcast, and I’m looking at one of the two long windows in the far wall to the college mall outside. The email in my inbox is yet another admonishment for my latest article being garbage. My boss wants to set up a conference to deal with my poor work performance. She isn’t scolding a child, but that’s certainly how it feels.
Then, there’s a bang.
Well, I think there was a bang. I know it wasn’t real. It was like a gun going off, or a car backfiring, or someone hitting a wall with a sledgehammer. Maybe. There was a bang and a pop, and the room began to spin. At first, I thought it was just a panic attack. I have a lot of those, usually while on staircases and driving on the highway. There’s always that sickening pop, like your eardrums bursting on an airplane, then the vertigo setting in. But this was a bang and a snap, like my bones were breaking. The soft parts inside me were rearranging themselves, snagged on sharp points and bone-splinters.
I was dizzy, but not sick. I was shaking. The floor dropped out from underneath me. I was no longer felt tethered to the desk, the room, or the library. Reality felt at once sharp and jagged, but soft and blurry. Like razorblades, but duller and with fewer teeth. Does that make sense? It didn’t to me, either. I thought I was going to die, and was only vaguely relieved that I didn’t. Shaking, I finished my day and wandered across rain-slick pavement to my car. I was talking to myself. People stayed away from me as I made my way to the now-empty parking lot. Somehow I got home, although I don’t clearly remember how.
Still shaking, I came home and sent an email to my boss to tell her I quit. Then I blocked her address from my contacts and her number on my phone. I felt kind of bad, but not really bad.
(One time, months later, I saw my old boss at the grocery store. She walked right past and didn’t even notice I was there. Seeing how forgettable I was, I stopped feeling bad about how I quit the newsletter.)
This sensation, though dulled, lasted for three days. I don’t remember much from those three days, just that I could feel every nerve in my body. Those nerves were on fire. I texted my girlfriend and held my dog. I shook, but didn’t sleep.
I thought I was going to die. I was only vaguely distressed that I didn’t.
That, more or less, is how I lost my mind.
This is a damn slippery planet.
I don’t remember seeing The Silence of the Lambs for the first time. I don’t remember seeing it for the second time, either. I remember the first time I saw Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Manhunter, but I don’t remember seeing Silence. I even remember the first time I saw Hannibal Rising, but we don’t talk about that.
Things like this stick out to me, the movies that I’ve seen. I’m a very visual person, gravitating naturally toward visual storytelling mediums. You see, reading text on the page can be difficult for me sometimes. It isn’t something that I talk about. I don’t need disparaging comments from people on Twitter about how you can’t write if you don’t read. You just can’t seem to convince Twitter that you can’t read when anxiety makes it difficult to read more than a few paragraphs at a time. Reading feels just pointless and stressful when your brain keeps losing track of everything, and you feel stupid for even trying to read the latest Raven Cycle book.
But, hey, what do I know? I don’t have a PhD in telling people on the internet how to live their lives.
So, to compensate, I became a visual person. I read comic books and watched movies to understand stories whenever words became too embarrassing to grapple with. Images burn holes into me, because words just don’t stick around long enough to leave their mark. I remember my first comic book (X-Men: Unlimited #3, December 1993). I remember the first time I saw Star Trek (in a dollar theater behind our apartment complex when my dad took me to see Star Trek: Generations). I remember the first time I saw Aliens, Predator, Hellraiser, Rambo: First Blood, and a laundry list of other movies I’ve come back to time and again.
But I don’t remember seeing The Silence of the Lambs.
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel has left holes in me as far back as I can recall. I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen it. It was always there, in the wallpaper of my life. I’ve often felt a soft sort of kinship with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, staring users and predators in the teeth with a gaze just slightly left-of-center. A gaze the same shade of blue as mine, which is one of those weird things you hear sometimes. Always mindful of her vulnerable position in the scene, whether being lied to in Jack Crawford’s drab office or at the glass of Hannibal Lecter’s cage. Looking people in the eye was always hard on me, so I understood that feeling well.
It would be several years before I would read Harris’s words and see the barely-restrained rage Clarice held beneath Jodie Foster’s demure blue eyes. I didn’t yet understand the shiver of excitement that raced up Clarice’s spine when she found the head at the storage lock-up. It made far more sense when I was older. It made Will Graham make more sense to me. It made Buffalo Bill make more sense to me, too.
What I do remember, of all the things, is the first time I saw the film’s poster. I was six years old, and I was standing behind my mother at Blockbuster Video. Above the counter was a marquee sign with its warm yellow bulbs framing what was, to me, a completely hypnotic image. The now-iconic poster featured a woman with red eyes (not my Jodie), her mouth covered and speech silenced by a death’s-head hawk moth sporting Salvador Dali and Philippe Halsman’s In Voluptas Mors on its thorax.
To me, the image was terrifying. Far more terrifying than anything my too-young mind remembered from the movie, having wandered out of my bedroom well past my bedtime while my father was watching it. I could only vaguely comprehend the grisly violence of women skinned and turned into a suit, but the image made it so clear to me.
Beyond the horror of the act, Buffalo Bill’s victims were robbed of everything. They were rendered into faceless, nameless, voiceless material and dumped facedown in the mud like trash. When I read the book later, I would come to understand the horrific transmisogyny and medical violence that psychologically mutilated Jame Gumb. I didn’t feel nearly as close to Jodie’s Clarice anymore. I was a bit tired of feminist criticism pitting Good Feminist Icon Clarice Starling against Gumb’s monstrous identity as a transwoman and abuse survivor, warped into a murderer by the patriarchal power structures critics were using Clarice to rebel against.
But that was then, when I was six. Now I’m thirty. I own a death’s-head hawk moth in my collection of preserved insects. I don’t own the movie poster.
We live in a primitive time, neither savage nor wise.
Pause the film. Fast-forward. No, not quite that far.
Stop. Okay. That works.
This is September, 2015. It was early into the semester, and I had free-time before things got hectic at mid-term. I was supposed to be graduating soon, but my life was, as ever, a comedy of errors. Instead of graduation to look forward to, I was hard at work trying to get my superhero novel published. The publisher would go belly-up come April, leaving my book in legal limbo until June 2016, but I don’t know that yet. For now, I had a quiet weekend to spend at home, and I wanted to enjoy it.
Obviously, I decided to spend it watching Hannibal, instead.
Hannibal aired its last episode on August 29th, 2015. I didn’t watch it. Twitter and Tumblr told me everything that happened in the visceral play-by-play of .gif sets and livetweets. It was a strange, sad feeling. I hadn’t seen the show since early on in its final season because I had, admittedly, broken-up with Hannibal. Our relationship was always tumultuous. You couldn't tell from my collectible vinyl figures, framed prints, tarot card deck, tastefully provocative pin-up calendar, and phone background that I had ever said a bad word to say about Hannibal. That’s fine.
Enrapt by Harris’s cold, clinical, savage world from a young age, I immediately fell in love with Bryan Fuller’s adaptation. Its visual language leaned on the greatest hits of Kubrick and Bergman without being too noisy about it. The cast was superb and the performances were engrossing week after week, folding in a wide swath of character actors, comedians, and dramatic powerhouses.
Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the tetchy, ragged Will Graham as a vulnerable and earnest man wrestling with madness brought a certain softness to the character. This played in beautiful contrast to Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, who was essentially Milton’s Satan poured into a three-piece suit. At turns predatory and charming, inviting and toxic, sensual and violent, their romantic (no, that isn't a typo) chemistry was some of the best I can recall on screen.
Did I mention my collection of artwork and toys? To say I’m a fan would be a hilarious understatement.
Then, the second season aired. I may have called the show lethargic and hard to follow, swallowed up by its own internal dream-logic. (These were complaints that more or less resolved themselves upon binge-viewing, when the molasses-slow weekly format went out the window and the nebulous storylines felt more cohesive.) I may have also said something to the effect of “Hannibal is just Gay Dracula now and if Fuller doesn’t stop insisting this is a straight platonic friendship, I’m going to shit bricks.” There were inflammatory Facebook posts, a few pithy remarks on Tumblr, and, disappointed, I stopped watching.
Finally, after a summer spent fuming between seasons, I came back for what turned out to be the final season. With renewed commitment to see the show through, I resolved to hang tight this time. But, once again, wandering off in the middle of Jack Crawford delivering a righteous and satisfying beat-down upon a fully Byronic Hannibal Lecter, I just couldn’t stick with it.
And on August 29th, the show ended. Even though I didn’t see it, and I hadn’t watched the show in months as I muttered criticism under my breath whenever it came up on Twitter, I just felt sad. Pointlessly, stupidly sad, the way you do when something you care about stops existing.
So, taking a deep breath and fueled by a twinging, heart-heavy sort of love usually only reserved for 90s comic book characters and Clive Barker movies, I pulled Hannibal up on Amazon Prime. I spent the entire weekend on my couch with my dog, binge-watching the series from start to finish. It still had all the same warts, of course, as I muttered my catalog of criticisms under my breath while shuffling to the fridge between episodes.
But then, something stupid happened, barrelling into the oblivion of season three: the love story became clear. Finally, and for all the awkwardness of weekly network TV serialization forced onto a dreamy, grotesque gothic romance, finally finally finally. After the legacy of LGBT stereotypes in Harris’s novels as violent deviations from the norm loomed large over the franchise, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter were wrestled from the text as fully-developed queer men. Even after two seasons of muddied language painted Will and Hannibal’s romantic and sexual tensions, in Fuller’s own words, as playful homoerotic subtext and subversion.
This concept of subversion is what always held me at arm’s length from the show during its broadcast. Despite my love for the whole of it and my admiration for those who brought it to bear, having the showrunner insist the homoeroticism was genre subversion rubbed me the wrong way. The show’s conceit of Will wrestling with his own monstrosity, his becoming, had long-since melted away, taking a backseat to Hannibal's ongoing seduction. As was stated within the show, theirs was a courtship of predators, but also debauched lovers. Hannibal preyed on Will, groomed him, and adored him in scenes that parodied the life of Christ, complete with bondage fantasies and visual allusions to male/male intercourse.
In essence, their relationship became a game of gay chicken, a dangerous will-they-won't-they. And I hate gay chicken.
Let me tell you why I hate gay chicken.
By the second season, with Will becoming increasingly violent, the Rubicon of murder and cannibalism is behind the audience entirely. He killed, rendered, and ate Randall Tier to endear himself to Hannibal. With soft, romantic music swelling in the background of their dinner scene, no less. He also viciously attacked Freddie Lounds on-screen under the guise of this same ploy. An attack which, while justified by the plot, left the audience with the same, beastly image of Will Graham as a man who dragged women by their hair through the snow and jokingly called them pigs before eating them (as was implied).
Even as he murdered, cannibalized, and attacked people on-screen, Will was redeemed in the eyes of the audience, and Jack Crawford. By hook or by crook, his sins were washed away, and with them any sense of guilt. While Hannibal was a monster that must be punished, Will could do no real wrong at this point, it seemed, because his actions were always righteous. We could now see that, within the logic of the narrative, the true cosmic threat to Will Graham’s perceived purity wasn’t the horrors of violent cannibalism, but falling in love with Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal’s affections were the existential umbrage that could drive Will beyond the pale.
By the show’s own logic, Hannibal Lecter is Gay Dracula: a malignant invading force that perverts and consumes Will, tearing him from Jack’s forgiving acceptance. Will Graham is not the intrepid Mina Harker that Jack groomed him to be, whose dogged adherence to purity and social convention ensured Dracula’s defeat. Instead, Will is Lucy Westenra: something made monstrous, seduced by darkness, that couldn’t be allowed to survive upon transformation.
All of which is fine, by the way. I take no issue with a good, old-fashioned, hero-goes-dark-side narrative. In fact, that’s the kind of melodramatic nonsense I love. However, I do have some bones to pick with the legacy of queer and queer-coded monsters, especially in this franchise, but that’s another essay entirely. In this case, my problem is the uneven approach, and the context of Fuller calling it homoerotic subversion. My problem is Hannibal having sexual a relationship with Alana Bloom and the narrative never treating it with same admonishment. My problem is shrugging off cannibalism in favor of casting queer love as the ultimate source of terror that Will must be saved from.
Queer love as threat, but defanged of its power. Queer love as an empty gun, because Will won’t ever really succumb. Will Graham will dance with that most fraught of devils, but he won’t give into temptation.
Because you can most certainly frame Hannibal-as-show as a deep-dive into Will’s struggle to accept his changing sexual identity. In retrospect, I can see why that’s such a compelling read by fans of the show. Beat-by-beat, the story plays out as a moody, doomed romance - right up until it doesn’t. Therein lies the problem, dream logic, aesthetics, and melodramatic nonsense aside. This is either a relationship, or we’re here having a good time subverting audience expectations. Either Hannibal Lecter is indeed Gay Dracula and Will Graham is Lucy Westenra, or, as Mads Mikkelsen (god bless him) kept insisting while everybody casually joked about homoerotic subtext in interviews, this is a goddamn love story.
(Note: Yes, I am well-aware that since the show’s cancellation, Fuller has been very open on Twitter and at conventions about Will and Hannibal being in a canon relationship, should the show have continued. That’s fine. I’m not calling his statements into question, and I honestly have nothing but respect for Fuller and his body of work. However, as a fan of horror, a writer of horror, and a queer woman, I’m allowed to be critical of the media I engage with.)
Finally, however, upon this viewing, something changed in the context. Finally. this was the passionate, terrible, bloody love story between two men doomed to each other that I knew was present somewhere in the text. Queer men in love, who called it love, even as they carved a hole in the world amid the grand tragedy of it. They were in love, and their love was portrayed as an affirmation rather than a threat, violent though it was. After all, they were still beasts. Wrought from the same awful black stuff that made predators, hiding fangs too sharp to be trusted among things as killable as people.
And even Alana Bloom and Margot Verger were a couple! Not all the queer people were monsters! They could even get married and have babies like everybody else! Would you look at that!
By the time Will and Hannibal were in the Uffizi, seated before Botticelli’s Primavera and contemplating the certainty of their assured destruction, I was breathless. That Sunday night, as I finished the entire series in a single ill-advised marathon, they went over the cliff together, and it was done. Then I ran the last twenty minutes of the episode back and watched it again, to be sure that I had seen it.
It still is.
But, mind you, this is September. In two months, I was going to lose my mind.
When you feel strain, keep your mouth shut if you can.
Art lies to you about depression.
It isn’t a deep, soulful experience, with pretty young women staring out rain-streaked cafe windows and thinking in lyrical poetry. It isn’t romantic or rebellious. They never tell you about the strength of depression’s hands on your skin when it grips you, holding your head under water. Depression chokes, strangles, and silences. Maybe that’s why that The Silence of the Lambs movie poster makes me as uneasy as it does.
From November 2015 through about February 2016, I hid in my bedroom. The shaking had stopped at some point and the eerie sensation of misfiring nerves had muted to a low, dull roar. I retreated to my bedroom, where it was dark and warm, parked on the floor in front of the space heater with my dog, Cecil. Leaving my room to maintain some semblance of dignity, I still took regular showers, ate meals, and went to school. I functioned well enough that nobody really noticed or cared. I still had straight A’s, after all. The dean of the liberal arts department didn’t even care because he put me on the honor roll for the third time. Things were doing fine.
The only people who both knew and cared were my girlfriend Melissa, who lives in Florida, and my very dear online friends Kell and Insha, who live even further away than Florida. I spoke to them every day from my phone. This is probably why you’ll never be able to pry my phone from my hands, cold, dead, or otherwise. When you live in coffins, your phone screen can sometimes be your only light.
Life was very much a series of coffins in those intervening months. My parents shrugged off my self-imposed seclusion as just a thing that happened and I would get over. My brother was still drinking all day, every day. He would get drunk and end up on my floor in the midst of his latest suicidal ideation. As ever, I had to stop what I was doing to deal with that while our family wrung their collective hands. I was an adult, so I could do what I wanted, even to my own detriment. My brother was an adult, too, so the same rules applied. Personal responsibility and bootstraps and all that. The Ayn Rand philosophy of parenting, alive and well today.
I would later find out that my brother had been drinking and driving with me in the car on multiple occasions, and had put my life in jeopardy without batting a lash. My mother knew, but didn’t say anything to me until months later. To this day, my brother’s never apologized for that. All of our friends were still addicts of some kind. I was alone and surrounded by people that said they loved me. Things were doing fine.
While I stayed in my room, in the warm dark, I watched Hannibal. By then, I had physical and digital copies of the entire series. (Just in case, you know.) I maintained just enough normalcy to stay upright, more or less care for myself, and watch Hannibal. I watched Hannibal because I loved it, and because it made me angry. A good kind of angry. My brain was always firing, but not in a painful way. Laptop on the floor beside me, phone in hand, the artifacts of my consumption linger in group Twitter chats, LINE messages, and 3am Tumblr essays.
And, oh boy, were there plenty of 3am Tumblr essays. Melissa can tell you how I sent her the rough drafts via LINE in the middle of the night, feverishly typing about power dynamics by way of Michel Foucault. Animal-human symbolism by way of Giorgio Agamben. Marxist feminist gender criticism by way of Donna Haraway. Throw in some Laura Mulvey, too, let’s get our gaze on and make it a party.
I didn’t leave my room, but at least I had this.
I loved everything about the show in a way that made me ache. I also wanted to tear it apart, thread by thread. Cut it open, dissect it, figure out how it worked. In a wholly loving and academic way, of course. This is how I love things, in case you haven’t realized. I build shrines to them, even as I destroy them with sledgehammers. I just think you can’t properly love something until you’ve opened it up and crawled around inside of it. (Academically. This isn’t a social-worker-in-a-horse thing.) My professors have always admired this about me, they’ve said. That’s probably why I made straight A’s, even when my life was falling apart.
That was sort of the trick that I played on myself in those intervening months, as well. It was a crutch, a distraction. A way to amuse myself. I was writing essays, you know. I was compiling research while I was on winter break between semesters. Writing practice, you know. Keeping my mind sharp. Putting my thoughts down. This essay I wanted to write about Gay Dracula Hannibal and Will as a slinky Lucy Westenra was my love letter to and dissection of the text as presented. It was going to be my magnum opus of fandom meta on a cancelled TV shows about queer cannibals in love.
Save those messy Tumblr posts for future reference, kids. You have grad school applications to consider. Media criticism is in style.
If I was being completely honest with myself, and my therapist said I’m making progress with that, I watched Hannibal because it was my coping mechanism. Stripped of aesthetics, allusions, and film homage, Hannibal is a show about people talking. The characters exist in a muted world of dark palettes and deep shadows, seated in cavernous interior spaces that swallow up their fragile bodies. When they aren’t contrasted by the rich texture of Hannibal’s oppressive material spaces, they’re lost in the vast emptiness of Virginian backroads, dwarfed by the natural world. They communicate to each other in intimate close-ups, shot reverse shot with emphasis on eyes and mouths. Their voices are hushed and their faces are bathed in darkness, illuminated by the warming glow of a crackling hearth, or gauzy gray sunlight filtered through drapery.
Everything is soft. Everything is dim and quiet. Will and Hannibal go over the cliff together over and over, because they are in love and this is everything they ever wanted.
Hannibal, for all its bumps and bruises, is a show about profound human intimacy. Speech, touch, gaze, and the collision of these emotionally-weighted interactions when drawn out to let the scene breathe. It’s comforting, like a warm blanket, or an ASMR video for people who happen to be into eroguro.
So, I watched Hannibal, but I didn’t really watch it. I put it on while I was writing or doing homework. I let it run while I was asleep, soothed by calm voices on low volume. It faded into the wallpaper of my life, where I had receded to watch others watching me. Hannibal was in the room, in the dark, while I sat with my dog in front of the space heater.
And it felt okay.
This is too good to live for long.
Fast-forward to December 2015, just before Christmas. This is where the plot finally emerges.
I was out on a Saturday afternoon for the first time since I retreated to my room. I was downtown, outside the movie theater, where I was going with my brothers and some friends to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was my friend’s birthday, and we had plans to spend the whole day out. The entire birthday party was going to meet for dinner after the movie, then go out and get drunk.
This was what everybody did to pass the time, even on holidays and birthdays.
I was standing on the sidewalk outside the theater. The sunlight felt warm on my face. I was trying to explain to my brothers that I wanted to get out of the house more. I didn’t want to be trapped indoors so much. They said they got it. They also kind of shrugged when I said I was in a really dark place. The sunlight felt good, so I tried to focus on that.
The day was good, too, for as long as it could be. I liked the movie, and I got to see my friend. We hadn’t talked much before that in a while. There had been a reason for that, but I had always tried not to think about it. I was overreacting, I thought, because that was what people said. My friend, who was my brothers’ friend, too, was drinking more and more. I was uncomfortable with that, but I was uncomfortable with a lot of things I didn’t talk about.
I had just spent a particularly rough summer pitted between him and another friend of mine who had feelings for him, that he didn’t reciprocate. They were both drinking too much. It would’ve been bad if they had gotten together, and the fall-out of their dissolving friendship was just as bad. My first friend, whose birthday we were celebrating, used to get drunk and send me belligerent 3am texts. He used to accuse me of everything from betraying his trust to disparaging his favorite comic book and movie fandoms. When we would hang out, he would talk about feminist SJWs and complain about women. He would laugh in my face about my anger and ask if I was triggered. Somehow the text messages were always swept under the rug.
But, you know, he was a good guy. He was just having a bad time. He was a friend, and my brothers’ friend, and if I wanted to be a good friend, I needed to just respect that. Never mind that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning after these 3am texts. Never mind that I had retreated to my bedroom and locked the door. Never mind I was a raw nerve every minute of every day, but I’d better stop what I’m doing to make sure everybody else felt comfortable.
I went out on my friend’s birthday. I saw Star Wars. We had a few beers and talked about the movie. My friend tried to talk to me about my brother’s drinking. I didn’t have words anymore to describe the blackness I felt at knowing everybody I cared about is probably going to drink themselves to death. We all went to dinner, with some people I knew, and some others I didn’t. Some were in recovery. Some weren’t. They all decided to go to a bar. I said I wanted to go home, because I was very tired.
I drove my middle brother home. He was the one who shrugged at me when we were outside the theater. For forty-five minute drive home, he complained about his sore shoulder, how he was tired, and how everything was terrible. There are some things you have to understand my middle brother. He’s a massive depressive and pathological self-saboteur, who accused me of throwing our family under the bus when I said I started seeing a therapist. Everything is about him, even when he says he’s doing you a favor.
In the car, in a rare moment of clarity, I tried to tell him that I was working very hard to get through this, and maybe I had pushed myself too quickly. He complained about his shoulder for forty-five minutes. I decided that my friends and family were all assholes, and I didn’t want anything to do with them anymore.
At home, I texted this to my girlfriend, put on Hannibal, and went to sleep.
Save Yourself. Kill Them All.
I wish some stories had better arcs. I think that’s the root complaint about most fiction. The story just isn’t compelling. I think I feel that way about my own life, most of all.
If I’m being completely honest, I first started thinking about life as a coffin when I was seven years old. It was Christmas Eve, of all the times. My brothers were very young, then, five and three respectively. My mother was seated on the floor with them, reading or playing. I sat on the couch and stared at the Christmas tree, shiny and bright. It occurred to me, then, with a clarity so sharp I can still feel it in my belly, that everyone I knew would be dead someday. We would all be dead, and none of this meant anything.
Around this time, my parents came to the conclusion I was too weak and fragile to attend public school, and decided to homeschool me instead. They decided to do the same for my brothers. Not one of us were ever taken by our parents to a doctor or a specialist, to diagnose our respective cocktails of mental health issues. Our parents didn’t bother to get us help. They just decided we were better off without it. After all, they apparently knew what was best.
I sometimes can’t help but wonder what the arc of my story would have been like if people ever took a basic interest in my well-being. Christmas might not make me so sad, then. I might have had better luck looking people in the eye before my mid-20s.
In the months since I locked myself in my room, I worked very hard to get my superhero book published. It went about as well as a book from a small indie publisher is expected to go. I also told my friend I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, because I was tired of being disrespected. That went about as well as a decision within my tangled, toxic network of relationships is expected to go. I told everyone with an opinion to find something sharp and sit on it.
I went to school and worked on my writing. When I came home at night, I talked to my girlfriend, got in bed with Cecil, and watched Hannibal. I lived my life, insofar as I could live it, exactly like this.
Then, one day, I just...left my room.
I don’t even remember the first attempt I made the effort to leave my room for an extended period of time. One day I was in the dark, the next, I was sitting on a bench beside an indoor ice skating rink. There was no tinsel and ticker tape, no parade in my honor. I left my room, and I decided I didn’t want to go back. So, I didn’t. I went out more and more, in meager incriminates. To the mall, to the movies, for walks, all the while slowly easing myself back into inhabiting public spaces without feeling overwhelmed. After months spent in the dark, warmed by a small dog and the glow of screens, it was difficult. Like figuring out how to breathe when it still hurt just a little bit, a twinge between your ribs, reminding you that you’re still a bit broken-down. Difficult, but not impossible.
Nobody even really noticed when I started leaving my room. Then again, they would have had to notice I was locked in my room in the first place to manage that. I wasn’t even angry about it, not really. Me and my therapist both agreed I couldn’t fix the people in my life, no matter how hard I tried. I just needed to live my life. They would live theirs.
Whatever happened, I was still alive, and that was what mattered most.
The longing need to be noticed that is often miscalled ego.
Imagine me, at my laptop. I’m seated with my pile of research materials, notes, and dog-eared textbooks. It’s now sometime in spring 2016. I have delusions of grandeur about writing this Hannibal essay. I’ve already written another one prior, a look at the aesthetic fingerprints of Edward Hopper on Will Graham’s character arc. I’m pretty proud of it
Imagine me, making straight A’s. Imagine me, getting ready to graduate. Imagine me, putting my superhero book out and the publisher going down in flames. Imagine me, trying to keep from going back into my room by focusing on this Hannibal essay. Imagine me, losing a lot of numbers in an effort to cut people out of my life. Imagine me, telling our parents to actually do something for their sons, or lose them forever. Imagine me, writing my Hannibal essay. My magnum opus.
Imagine me, sitting there, in front of a blank screen, in the study lounge between classes. Imagine me, before the great, horrible white void of an empty Microsoft Word document.
“Oh, fuck my life.”
You don’t have to imagine this, but then I closed Word and pulled up Tumblr to check the Hannigram tag. I’m still a fangirl, after all.
We make mercy.
There are copies of that Hannibal essay somewhere in the numerous and sundry notebooks piled in my bedroom. I don’t spend much time in there anymore, just to sleep and write, and watch Hannibal. Watch without watching, I mean. It’s usually on, but just for background noise. I’ve written two books since November 2015, and self-published three. At the time of this writing, I’m about to publish another.
At the time of this writing, I’ve also graduated and found a full-time job. I’ve made amends with some of the people in my life, and the rest I’ve let go. The last time I saw my therapist, at my school’s counseling office in December 2016, she said she’s proud of me.
I spent the one-year anniversary of my breakdown in her office, as a matter of fact. I told her about my Hannibal essay, how it kept me propped up. How it kept me distracted. How it kept my head on as straight as it could be when you live in a coffin. She said using creativity to channel my feelings was an important tool for my recovery. I told her about this essay, too. The one you’re reading, the essay about the essay. She said she’s jealous at how my mind worked. I laughed at that and dried my eyes. Accepting compliments is hard for me, but I’m working on it.
The reality is, as much as I’d like to write that Hannibal essay one day, I don’t really worry about it anymore. I still have my qualms with the show, which I still spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter yelling about. My friends know me as that girl online who’s obsessed with Hannibal, and that’s fine. Maybe now, if they read this, they’ll get an inkling of why. Because this isn’t a story about an essay, despite my misleading introduction. I have a habit of that, don’t I? Lying, I mean. I’m working on my honesty, I swear.
This is a story about how Hannibal, and two idiots on a canceled TV show about queer cannibals in love, helped save my life.
- All section titles are from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.
- All images are from farfarawaysite.com and fullerverse.com respectively.
- Please, do not cite this essay on Tumblr. If you have an issue with my reading of the text, that's fine, but please do not come after me on this. This is an extremely personal essay, and, as presented, isn't meant to be a definitive analysis. That wasn't the purpose of this essay and I'd appreciate if other fans could respect that.