This installment delves into the intersections of gender and sexuality in The Drowning Girl. Further this installment analyses where gender and sexuality intersect with mental illness and haunting in The Drowning Girl.

Women’s sexuality in The Drowning Girl is explicitly and exclusively that, women’s. There are men mentioned throughout the text, however they are almost entirely historical figures, writers, and artists whom the narrator, India Morgan Phelps (Imp), references in relation to their work, rather than people she interacts with or knows personally. The characters are all women and moreover, are all queer women. The narrative is told as a close first-person and oscillates between narration and the epistolary mode with some passages clearly written as Imp’s self-reflexive record of her own story, some passages consisting of collected quotations, references, and short stories, and some in which the formal mode is unclear. Aside from Imp, there are two major characters whom she interacts with directly in the narrative, her girlfriend Abalyn Armitage, a transgender woman and videogame reviewer, and Eva Canning, who Imp encounters, naked, on the side of the road and who is alternately the daughter of a cult leader, a mermaid, or a wolf-woman, at various points in the story. Imp is sexually intimate with both women, and while her encounter with Eva Canning has psychological consequences for Imp, she is never tarred nor feathered, the consequences she experiences are internal and enmeshed in a larger discussion of literal and theoretic haunting, and do not involve the humiliation or spectacle that Cullingford describes as intrinsic to the punishment of unfaithful Irish women. Furthermore, Imp’s sexual relationship with Abalyn is distinctive for its open acknowledgement of female sexual pleasure as being part of personal revolutionary action.

The beginning of the novel establishes this notion of positive and open female sexuality, and its interconnectedness with mental health and neurodivergent identity,

I’ve only tried to kill myself. And only once. Or twice. Maybe I have the drugs to thank for this, or maybe I have my painting to thank, or maybe it’s my paintings and the fact that my girlfriend puts up with my weird shit and makes sure I take the pills and is great in the sack. […] As far as I know, no one has ever proposed sex therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia. But at least fucking doesn’t make me constipated or make my hands shake—thank you Mr. Risperdal—or cause weight gain, fatigue, and acne—thank you so much, Mr. Depakene. I think of all my pills as male, a fact I have not yet disclosed to my psychiatrist.[1]

In this passage, Imp acknowledges the usefulness of antipsychotic medication, while also making very clear that medication alone does not entail wellness. Instead, she includes artistic expression and sexual pleasure as parts of a more complete approach to managing her mental health. Additionally, the inclusion of masculine titles for her medication, her reflection on this gendering, and her admission of hesitation regarding informing her psychiatrist of this gendering critiques the medical industrial complex and psychoanalytic theory even while she recognizes their usefulness in treatment.

By engaging with sexuality, bodily functions, and gender, Keirnan’s novel invokes Barbara Creed’s writing on female abjection in horror. According to Creed, “analysis of the abject centres on ways in which the ‘clean and proper self’ is constructed. The abject is that which must be expelled or excluded in the construction of that self.”[2] Imp’s directness in discussing her bowel movements and acne, then, declares her body as abject in part as a result of medical intervention but also as a necessary part of maintaining her sanity. In this sense, in order for her consciousness to be whole and within her control, in order for her to maintain agency, she rejects the “clean and proper self.” This rejection brings Keirnan’s novel into conversation with Avery Gordon’s work on complex personhood. As Godon explains, “those who live in the most dire circumstances possess a complex and oftentimes contradictory humanity and subjectivity that is never adequately glimpsed by viewing them as victims or, on the other hand, superhuman agents,” she continues, “complex personhood is the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. [… It means] that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves.”[3] Viewed from this perspective, Kiernan’s insistence on including those aspects of humanity, the visceral, corporeal, messy parts of life that refuse to fit neatly into a person’s categorization as victim or hero constitutes a complex representation of humanity that defies reduction or simplification. This becomes abundantly clear later in the text when Imp discusses her experience with mental illness, stating,

I begin to imagine orchestration where before I heard only the cacophony of randomness. Crazy people do that all the time, unless you buy into the notion that we have the ability to perceive order and connotation in ways closed off to the minds of ‘sane’ people. I don’t. Subscribe to that notion, I mean. We are not gifted. We are not magical. We are slightly or profoundly broken.

In this statement, Imp actively refutes the notion that she, as a mentally ill woman, is a superhuman agent, but she also does not position herself as a victim. She explains that she experiences her mental illness as brokenness, but leaves the degree of brokenness open to variation, which is consistent with her oscillation between sanity and insanity, functioning and not functioning throughout the novel. Additionally, the use of “brokenness” in relation to complex personhood which Gordon also describes as the process by which people “remember and forget, are best by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others”[4] is evocative of Maile Arvin’s work on haunting, possession, and colonial knowledge. This e/invocation occurs throughout the text, especially in its premise, that of Imp’s personal account of her ghost story, her haunting.

[1] Kiernan, Caitlín R. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. New York: Roc, 2012. Print. 4-5.

[2] Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993. Print. 37.

[3] Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1997. 4.

[4] ibid 4

Image Credit: Caitlin R. Kiernan © 2012



Author: Geneveive Newman