(REVIEW) Fire Spider: Ill Feelings, by Alice Hattrick
Flo Goodliffe converses with Alice Hattrick’s Ill Feelings (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021), through journaling, phone notes, lived illness and the image of the ‘spider’ in this essay-review. Through this evolving form, we are invited into a reading of Hattrick’s archival non-linear work, which situates us in the messy, exhausting, and difficult space and time of a life lived in un-wellness.
This is the problem of what-to-do-with-the-information-that-is-feeling.
Notes from Alice Hattrick’s phone:
What does it feel like to be struck by lightning
It is frightening. And sometimes it is being frightening. I am rude and angry and spiteful, and I don’t hate myself for it.
I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes – everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!
Note from an old phone:
Dreams of tracing woodgrain (my life line?)
Fantasy: I am a slip of paper and you drop me into the light between the floorboards. Engulfed, I learn to like to burn.
Late this Summer, 2021, Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Its body had hung by silk in my periphery since the Spring. I toyed with the idea of requesting a reading copy at the bookshop I worked at part-time, writing and re-wording the email on the grease-stained screen in which I could never stop noticing my own reflection. Eventually I retreated: unready to scale the web, read that which I knew Hattrick would put so well or discuss the writing with my colleagues, I reasoned with myself that I simply did not feel like writing a review for an Instagram caption. Later, l still did not claim a copy once the book had been published. And why? There is illness and injury which has produced a great deal of not doing that which you want to do. There is cynicism, disappointment, political outrage, heartbreak, resentment, and realistic thinking — There is being anxious or depressed which takes up many hours — which is to say sick life got in my way. I let it hang between long hot nights and exhausting days shelving (surely) lesser titles, watching Hattrick read on livestreams and listening to them read on the radio, summoning the vitamin-D fuelled strength to commit myself to their full text. Pain is language destroying. I fare better in colder temperatures; can see and feel more clearly, head burning less, words finally absorb. It is November when I pick up the white book, finger the blue Ill.
Alice Hattrick has reckoned with ill feelings since childhood. Hattrick’s mother collapsed with pneumonia in 1995 and in her unrecovery was diagnosed with ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Soon after, Alice fell unwell with a symptom language that appeared to mimic their Mother’s and they were eventually diagnosed with the same condition. Here is a book which is a creature and the creature is full to burst on a diet of shared hysterical language. A bustling insect, its’ body glitters; watch it seething bright in the firelight and wonder how so much came to be together at once. I get hot reading it, chasing it, trying to grapple with feelings, memoir, medical history, biography and literary non-fiction. Crushed under my own chest in bed today, page-turning, underlining, scribbling, sniffing: I swear the book is: catching, burning, living, writhing.
TOO DIFFICULT TO QUANTIFY…
It is apt that Ill Feelings is a drain: it is heady, full of language both stolen from medicine and intimate, colloquial: it shifts gears and to read it is to listen intently to a smart, urgent plea with fluctuating volume. It renders the reader full of exhaustion and going at it against brain fog left me as a little rubbish heap. The reader must be prepared to work to comprehend these stories of ill feelings, as they should! Ill lives are (more) full of labour (than not); to not work is to resign yourself to so much more of it; you had better be ready to write your own medical history, over and over again, like a doctor, except you are also the patient – Fuck all this fucking paperwork: beg pardon, pardon yourself, to spill all and withhold the appropriate measure. To operate around this horrid little word chronic is to accept your incompatibility with normative time; that it does not work for you; that you will always need and never receive any more of it. To be excessively fatigued and to have to write and preserve your own medical archive is barely conceivable and yet a task we know very well must be executed somehow and some way. Thank you Hattrick for letting them know. My Mother texts, urges me to wake early and call the nurse who ought to have called me yesterday, tomorrow, on my way to work (when I am crawling along the intestines of the city to the place where I stand all day though I can’t, take smoke breaks though I shouldn’t. Hattrick’s voice rings in my ears: I can appear to keep up with everyone else but I will suffer the consequences later). It is impossible and I will do it. I think I deserve a diploma.
Hattrick’s archive, made up of digital scans, websites, books read in bed and photos on their phone heaves. It has been finely compiled into a most compulsive account of accounts. Here’s an exploded appendix of medical history amongst shared ideas, narratives and passions. Borders blur between the writers and artists they discuss because that is how you both save and record time: in collaboration. Here are women leaning against one another, in love and companionship and defiance, suspended in Alison Kafer’s crip time, isolated in their invalidity but together in their shared hysteric language. Hattrick writes that their illness was a form of love, that they are their Mother’s biographer and that when their Mother speaks… she speaks to herself, or to the both of us at once. Their Mother speaks to them to speak to me to speak to you, and this is how gendered illness goes – Hattrick writes that it is almost impossible to listen to your body if it’s screaming. I agree… We fare better whispering amongst ourselves, keeping mute or mimicking, gossiping, bitching, journalling.
I am unwell and have been for four (or so) years and my feelings are difficult. I want you to know how I feel and perhaps this is an anecdote best disclosed between breath and gulps of beer, but I’ve disliked the act of speech ever since my mouth first refused me this right - drying up and vanishing for a period. I would prefer to read and write. Still, I harbour suspicion of the dissociation in placing the body on paper – tucking it between covers, where hot and sickly mess grows cool(er) and (more) ordered. To lay it down and hand your language to another is terrifying - especially on so sensitive a topic as the body’s sensitivity; its’ aches, pains, strangeness and validity. Words are little, sentences difficult and they are so vulnerable. Thankfully Alice Hattrick is brave and smart enough for all of us, sometimes too articulate, which is another kind of unworthiness besides illness itself. Here is an unworthiness I’m happy to put my trust in.
There is nothing like this (I have not read anything like this): so warm, articulate, generous and comprehensive.. In another vein, I am reminded of Anne Boyer’s meditations on illness. Boyer writes in Garments Against Women the following, which feels relevant to Ill Feelings: It’s only necessary to make a transparent account if it’s necessary to have accounting, and it’s only necessary to have accounting in the service of a profitable outcome… The individual doing the accounting is, like who or what she serves, also assumed to be in the service of profit… She is accounting transparently because there is a larger body which claims to know her heart… If the books are muddled, confused, lost, damaged, inconsistent or otherwise opaque, the bookkeeper has provided a suspect record. She has probably stolen…. And maybe she has. To steal is to behave as a natural extension and reinforcement of a desire that everyone knows is what’s real.
I write in my notebook, for myself or for a few friends whom I shall never tire of representing (and this is the profit) the following questions on Ill Feelings, hoping eventually I will have answers: What is the profit? What is worthy of accounting? Who will account for me? Can I account for them? When Hattrick speaks with their Mother and through her, rather than for her, is that OK? When you mirror, twin and share hysteric language, is it even possible to steal? Is Ill Feelings transparent? Is the book muddled or is my mind? Why does the culture claim to know the sick heart when they get so little of it? Who is the larger body? Do they care? Will they read Ill Feelings? Why did a friend not fancy the look of this book? Why did my colleague recommend I look at Brian Dillon’s writing on hypochondria when I said I am writing on sickness? Do I look well? Guilt is the horror of seeing oneself as others see you.
AS SOON AS YOU THINK IT HOLDS TOGETHER PIECES FALL AWAY…
Notes are written for future selves and others. All that any of us knows how to do is perform and denying this is futile. When you are afraid, angry and sick, you are pushed to the limits of your body, and you seep beyond – you act. You write little letters, hoping somebody with a louder voice than your own will speak them. You hope this louder and brighter other could eventually be yourself, but no pressure, if not – fine. Living a sick life is accepting that your voice is pathetic and harnessing a way of amplifying it anyway. Ill Feelings is Hattrick’s gift to those with lesser mouths. They consider the gesture a gift when they tell their Mother that she is a queer feminist crip! They are right to – to be told of your own identity by one who shares your energy envelope, your hysteria and sanguineous temperament — to have your innermost thoughts written down and feel they have been adequately put — to allow another to speak for you and feel spoken for… is to be immeasurably loved.
Note from an old phone:
Cooler out, thank God. I’m thinking more coherently, more vertically. A little hungrier too.
Watching your arms impatiently
Please pull the blind I’d like to see the snow
He doesn’t mind to feel his own importance
She trusts the arms of machinery
Wisps and wires and eyelashes
And he trusts himself to perform the role
Written for him
He appreciates her so much for crafting the stage
The well appreciate the ill the most, isn’t it sick?
Help me with the buttons: I’m putting on six more legs tonight
Note from Alice Hattrick’s phone:
For a long time, I have not lived as an ill-person, but today I think maybe that’s not true. I am living a sick life. I don’t know any other.
We lay in bed getting to know one another, telling of the ways our machinery works and does not. Your wrist and forearm form a long aching S against the sheets. A lump in your stomach, cyst in the cheek. I listen with empathy. I’m there tonight, but sensation in my leg is not. I don’t let it show until enveloped in disassociation my teeth bash yours. Since reading Ill Feelings all I think of is how we occupy our bodies, causing mine greater discomfort than usual. What goes on in yours? Is this a measure of the book’s success? I’m thinking less of my own for once and more on others – whether those I presume belong to one kingdom do so or not. I’m dreaming of my friends’ diaries, their private texts, their journals. One of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is predestined to be read furtively by other people wrote Sontag. What a manipulative bunch we are, I giggle to myself. Us and our multiple selves. Our fingers in pies. Our legs straddling the kingdoms of the sick and the well. Hattrick writes that as hysterics our sense of selves are split or divided – one person on paper and another in person, clever, deceitful, multi-limbed. Writing in your diary is to fantasise about framing others’ perceptions, regardless of whether they even read it: your diary makes a space to voice your feelings, however incoherent or exaggerated. I left a notebook on your desk; hope you noticed (hope you want to get to know me better).
The word ill is so feeble. If it is violent the only action it could actually muster the will for would be to crawl and BITE. Yes, all it could do would be to seek flesh to fill the gap. It eats insatiably at your self-esteem, like my immune system on healthy myelin.
The spider – Why the spider? Because mother was…, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful as a spider.
The spider demands to be read as house, body and image.
Spiders stay very still when they get the chance – they can hold a stoic pose for weeks – but will perform a dance that is a miracle – flying and spinning silk – in order to entrap what they need to get by. They are everyday magic, nothing but tiny impenetrable dots of will. Ill Feelings works at (spins) many things at once – rarely does a page or chapter deal with one tense, one person or idea – it traps, holds and contains compelling multitudes of feelings, facts, and perspectives, from Alice James to Florence Nightingale. Yes, this is a book, it is not quite a body - but it rests upon many legs and and many voices, making architecture out of a body, hunting and hiding, protecting and withdrawing.
Alice Hattrick’s mother made drawings in therapy, in which she is depicted as an outline of a person with a pink heart on her chest. Around this outline she drew her family members, friends and her carer, linked to her and sometimes each other with straight lines, like the arms of a clock. It is a spider-diagram and a map of disbelief and denial. We write and draw, create maps, create webs of footnotes and weave hypertext because we descend from fairies, spinsters and spiders. We’ve woven fact and fiction since the age of fables and passed them to one another as bites of gossip and acts of love. As I read and met Hattrick’s cast of characters, I was reminded of how I felt when I first entered Glasgow Women’s Library; overwhelmed and grateful but angry to not have known earlier. As I melted into that building over the following months, I slipped inside these fibrous pages (I flung myself at the web). My appreciation for Hattrick’s writing furthered with each chapter because Ill Feelings is a furious dust-ridden TRAP. Ill Feelings tells of and criticises the history of diagnoses, trials and treatments into and for ME and CFS sufferers, public perceptions, medical language and medical professionals, with astonishing anger, candour and intelligence. It exposes enraging histories we deserve to know and didn’t or don’t. Hattrick lets us behind the scenes. To survive and live in this unlinear time, accept that there might be no end to illness but also that your life still has meaning, fury is the weapon of choice for Hattrick and for many. I hope that the book sparks fury and thereby eventual advancements in both attitudes and treatments for illnesses read as creatures and myths. I hope it is a stickiness that flies will fall upon.
I don’t know when I began to see myself as a spider, only that in reading Leonora Carrington’s paintings, I was drawn to these terrifying creatures with glittering eyes and I found myself. Small and solid. Small and frightening. Illness shamed me into difference, showed me to myself as defective, unlovable… impenetrable… all needles and eyes and hair. Yes, Hattrick confirms specifically female illness and pain lends itself to metaphor, makes it easy to see yourself as a creature. Hattrick notes that poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning too read pain as a web that accumulates, grows and draws other creatures (thoughts). The web can only unwind in death. We are d——d ODD animals with wiry little systems. My experience and existence is both real and mythological: my pain is real but I am so afraid to speak it, to name and confront my condition. To utter these little letters, which sound like girlish nicknames, Em and Es. I sit very still at the corner of the shower, hoping I don’t cause too much concern, knowing I could easily be flushed away, my voice vanish once again. Silenced.
The cynic and depressive in me entered Ill Feelings with readied and unwarranted fury – knowing friends had already read and loved this book, I was full of fear of the influence already garnered. Such an ill-attitude has become comfortable. I am sick of being underestimated, misrepresented, spoken and assumed for without being asked. In March 2020 Anne Boyer wrote to her Mirabilary subscribers that the time when the invisible becomes visible is at hand. I’ve since thought about the phrase almost constantly with unreasonably bated breath and the opening pages of Ill Feelings concerned me with its admission of the impossibility of speaking through pain, its’ rally against the possibilities of a literature of illness. Such sentences caused panic. It took me time (or… a surrender to trust) to recognise the othering Hattrick performs, and their genuine dualities – their trying on of other perspectives, composing a chorus. They trick, trip and slip into other voices, only to further compel the reader, to probe and to investigate real and imagined gaps in sick and well psyche. To effectively frame and communicate to the reader on our many grave miscommunications. When Hattrick speaks of impossibilities, admits to limits, angrily scratches at the business of pain, they are weaving a new path over the quicksands of gendered, specific and difficult writing on silenced bodies – they’re paving a potentially powerful means of resistance in addressing and framing the gaps and chasms. They take ownership, at any cost. That is what Ill Feelings does the most of all — grasps at and restructures the narrative that has been harnessed by the wrong hands and away from us for too long. They try on other voices so as not to forget how to speak altogether. I watch them pull on these other legs and thank them for their willingness to wear the limbs, make visible the invisible, to shout for us and entrap the flies. Ill Feelings does not end desirably – but it does offer the radical acceptance of un-recovery, and happily assures that that is not the same as accepting bad care or bad science or bad politics. They know this conclusion to be so much wiser and better than speaking through pain could ever be. Thank you, for this revitalising permission to loll on our web, Hattrick.
When I read Alice’s diary, I feel strengthened. She energises me.
In the above essay I have shared or stolen language, with all quotes in italics, with and from:
Alice Hattrick, Ill Feelings, 2021
Alice Hattrick and Naomi Pearce, Pharmakon, 2016
Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women, 2015
Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 2013
Ada Lovelace from Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones, 1997
Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light, 1988
Luce Irigray, This Sex Which is Not One, 1985
Susan Sontag, Reborn, 1966
Text: Flo Goodliffe
Image: Flo Goodliffe