A Conversation with Natalia Leite

By Anna Brüner

Natalia Leite is cool—really too cool for words. At 31-years-old, she has already been a part of her own production company, created her own web series, Be Here Nowish on Youtube, and recently has been taking her first feature film Bare (starring Dianna Agron and Paz de la Huerta) to film festivals all over the world. We got in touch with Natalia at the beginning of August and were totally starstruck. Our biggest lesson learned from her: be weird, be confident, and, “don’t ever stop.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a writer, director, [and] actress, originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil. But have been living in New York City, and sometimes LA, for the past 10 years. I come from a visual arts background, which has really influenced my style of filmmaking. I love filmmakers and artists that deal with surrealism [and] different realities.

[I] like David Lynch. He has such a great sense of humor and [a] dark surrealist approach. Tonally, I think my films take on a darker, sort of bizarre essence. [I’m] also a fan of the work of Andrea Arnold, who did Fish Tank and other amazing movies, because she really strives for authenticity and real human interactions—something I always strive to do. I love to direct real people and blend them in with professional actors. I also pull a lot from my observations from reality, and my own experiences and observations of humans—the absurdity of being alive at all.

What made you want to be a filmmaker?

I was such a movie lover as a kid. I would watch films and be so touched by [them]. Films influenced me to take risks, to find myself, and to understand my life and my relationships better. I just saw what a powerful art form it was and wanted to be a part of that. When I was young I would stage events in my bedroom, like with my toys, and photograph them. I was always trying to create my own reality and that has kind of been a theme in my movies too.

What has your experience been as a queer woman working in the film industry, particularly in L.A.?

Being pegged as queer is both a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. It’s a blessing because you get to be automatically embedded [and] associated with a network of the most creative thinkers, artists, and souls who all want to work together and help each other. On the other hand, even though I am proud to be gay and proud to be a woman, it’s sometimes annoying to be segregated and categorized as such, rather than just labeled a filmmaker.

What advice would you offer younger queer, non-male artists—particularly filmmakers?

Dont wait for approval. Don't apologize. Don't compromise your vision. And if you love it, don't ever stop. Also, if someone ever questions your authority, even subtly, just because of your gender, sexuality, or age, stick it to them and prove them wrong.

Your first feature film Bare explores much darker elements than Nowish. What inspired you to write Bare?

Bare, and all my work in some form, is inspired by human relationships: the psychology of how people interact and why they do the things they do. I have a million psychology books in my home and love reading about and understanding humans. I’m also really drawn to themes around sexuality and alternate realities.

The hardest part about making a film is just making it. I mean, it's so hard to pull a production together. There are so many people, money, and a million elements involved to make it happen. So much can go wrong every moment, especially on low budget films. In the middle of it all it’s really important to stick to your original vision. Film has the potential to morph into a million different versions of itself—many of which may not be what you had in mind. So you have to trust your gut and not give up elemental parts of your vision.

What do you feel is the biggest responsibility of a filmmaker as a storyteller?

Film has the power to let people metamorphosize. It is a universal language. By showing other perspectives or telling other people's stories, it allows people to see the through line of humanity that exists through all cultures, time periods, etc. It is an empathy machine. Its use is as universal as having the power to change your perspective. I think a lot about how to tell stories that show our shared humanity.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on my second feature film, written by Leah McKendrick and starring Francesca Eastwood, called MFA, which is centered around rape crimes on college campuses. It's a thriller about an art student who taps into a source of creative inspiration after the accidental slaughter of her rapist. She becomes an anti-hero set out to avenge college girls whose attackers walked free. It's a super important and timely topic with the recent rape crimes in the media and documentaries like the Hunting Ground shedding light on the issue. [I’m] super excited about this new project!

When was the last time you felt scared?

It takes a lot to scare me. I get scared of Trump and Trump supporters. I get a little scared for the state of humanity every single day. But I try to use this all as fuel, and do something about it through my work.

When was the last time you felt in love?

Every second with my girlfriend, who is this amazing, inspiring and positive person. I feel in love everyday right now because I'm directing my next feature film. I’m so grateful to be able to do what I love. Even on the really hard days, when you’re dealing with diva actors and things not turning out as planned, I still go to set every morning feeling in love because I'm doing what makes me happy and telling the stories I think are meaningful.

The Importance of Saying Something

By Anna Brüner

"I do not know your name — but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed."

- Vice President Joe Biden

You’ve heard it before in middle school anti­-bullying assemblies. You’ve read it in public ads on the subway. Maybe your Sunday school teacher even uttered the words in a watered down lecture on stranger danger. “If you see something, say something.” It is part passive plea, part ingrained civic duty. It is thrown around with other do­-gooder mantras like “just say no” and “don’t be a litter bug.” It dapples the landscape of pre-recorded messages that drone over airport speakers, “Don’t be a bystander. Report suspicious activity. If you see something, say something.”

There’s a post that was floating around my Facebook newsfeed for a few weeks. Three women were out to dinner when one of them witnessed a young man a few tables over slip something into a girl’s drink while the girl stepped away. When the young man got up to go to the bathroom, the three women approached the girl and told her what they saw. “But he’s one of my closest friends,” the girl told them, later adding that her car was parked at the man’s house and that she had come here with him. The women proceeded to inform members of the waitstaff who informed the restaurant’s manager, who was able to catch the man slipping something into the girl’s wine on the security cameras and immediately called the police. An attempted rape successfully prevented. The internet rejoiced.

“I haven’t seen you since the office party! Can I introduce you to my boyfriend?” a friend of mine said at a house party to a woman they have never met before who was being harassed by an aggressive, sober man. She went along with the act, grateful and relieved, and my friend called her a cab while they went outside to meet the imaginary boyfriend. On Master Of None, Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Denise (Lena Waithe) film a man masturbating on a crowded subway car before calling him out on the act, inciting other passengers to speak up and tell the conductor before calling the police, moments after having a conversation about how people see these kinds of acts all the time and usually do nothing. In real life, two students on bicycles stopped Brock Turner when they saw him attempting to rape a fellow Stanford student.

In his open letter to the Stanford survivor, Vice President Joe Biden wrote of “a culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.”

But it isn’t just college campuses. It’s high school dances and tree lined side streets in good neighborhoods. It’s public parking lots not long after dark. It’s your favorite bar or your best friend’s Christmas party or the church you’ve attended since you were three. It’s beaches and parks and bike trails. It’s alleyways that serve as the quickest way home.

A couple of weeks ago, a woman was stabbed and had her throat slit on the Chicago red line after saying “no” to a man who asked her to have his babies. Nobody did anything. Some people even took photos of her as she bled out on the floor. It happened on a train I take every day, at a stop not far from where I once walked alone to my partner’s apartment when we first started dating. But it could have happened anywhere. On another train, in another neighborhood, in another city.

“To see an assault about to take place and do nothing to intervene,” wrote Vice President Biden in his letter, “makes you part of the problem.”

I was in an abusive relationship for nearly two years. Several months in, we went on a double date with a good friend of mine and his girlfriend. We never went out with anybody. It lasted only an hour, just a quick dinner. The next day I woke up to a series of texts from my friend.

“You need to leave him.”

“You need to get out of there.”

“This is not okay.”

I didn’t leave then. I should’ve, but I also “should’ve” left long before that moment. But even though I didn’t listen to my friend in that moment, I did start to notice just how dangerous my relationship was. I stopped making excuses for my partner and started to see the framework of my abuse. I wasn’t able to do that the first time he made me feel bad about myself as a person. I wasn’t able to do that the first time he hit me, or the first time he raped me. But I was able to begin to do it the moment a friend brought attention to it. It wasn’t all just “in my head” anymore, I wasn’t being “crazy” or “manipulative” or “overreacting,” as my partner had brainwashed me to believe. This was real, and it was real because someone else, someone I trusted dearly ­­saw something and said something. It would take a few more of my friends seeing and saying something to finally push me to leave for good, but God knows how long I would’ve stayed had no one spoke up about what they saw being done to me.

There are dozens of reasons why people choose to do nothing. They don’t know the whole situation. They want to avoid conflict. They don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable. It isn’t their problem. It’s safer to do nothing. Whatever the reason, it’s always easier to do nothing. To say nothing. To pretend you don’t see it.

It would have been easy for two boys on bicycles to just keep going, to not stop, to pretend they didn’t see Brock Turner in the bushes holding a struggling girl to the ground. Maybe she would’ve still pressed charges. Maybe evidence would’ve still been brought against him in court. But maybe not. Maybe none of us would have ever known Brock Turner’s name. Joe Biden would have never written his letter.

I am begging you to not be a part of the problem. I am begging you to not be the one at the party who suspected something was wrong, the person they interview the morning or the week after. I am begging you to not play into a culture of passive, silent witnesses. There is too much violence, too much harassment and assault. There are too many lives who have been affected, permanently changed, and lost because of people who did nothing. Most have us have never hurt someone. Most of us have never raped someone. But most of us have turned a blind eye away from the uncomfortable moments where we could have acted.

I know it’s not easy. I know it will be scary. I assure you, however, the worst possible thing that could happen is not that you embarrass yourself, or embarrass another person, or make a scene. The worst possible thing that could happen is that you do nothing, you allow it to play out, and it happens again and again, behind closed doors in private places where people can't see anything. 

I Don’t Want To Be A Mom (Sorry, Mom)

By Anna Brüner

When I tell people I don’t want to be a mom, they assume I don’t like children. True, I am the first person to mutter obscenities under my breath when your spawn starts crying on the airplane. I roll my eyes at Facebook friends’ pictures of the horrid “little diva” and “Iittle player” ensembles they force upon their unwilling 8 months olds. I think people who bring their kids to a bar (I don’t care how good the fried ravioli is, Donna) are shitty. I was the only person in my 10th grade health class to leave during the birthing videos, where I didn’t even make it to the bathroom down the hall before puking in a janitor’s garbage can. Being in the same room as a pregnant woman makes me obscenely uncomfortable. I hate feeling sticky.

But I’m also the person who plays peek-a-boo with toddlers on public transportation. I’m the one who humors your child while you argue with customer service. At family functions I disregard all of my closest relations and opt for playing restaurant with my cousin’s four year old daughter. I make goofy ass faces in public just trying to get your squishy newborn to smile. I also worked as a full time nanny, and it was the most rewarding job of my life. I like kids. I love kids. I think kids are infinitely better than their adult counterparts, full of love and wonder and uncorrupted by the world.

But I don’t want to be a mom. 

When I tell people I don’t want to be a mom, they tell me things like “oh, you will someday” and always raise their eyebrows in the same way that eludes to them envisioning the filthy act of my procreating. It’s fucking creepy. I get told things like how I would be a great mom, how I’m so good with kids, how any kid would be lucky to have me as a mom, etc, etc, etc. Great compliments, believe me, but I don’t need them. I don’t need to be told what kind of mother I would be. I don’t need to be reminded in monologues about the glory of pregnancy and the beauty of childbirth. I don’t need to be lectured as if I am failing somehow, as if not having a child is the same thing as dropping out of college and developing a heroin addiction. I don’t have to bombarded with unwanted encouragement, when I’m sure my partner has never been asked from the age of thirteen why he might not want kids, or have his uncertainty about wanting kids deliberated upon by anyone who strikes up a conversation with him.

I’m sure I would make a great parent, in other ways. I don’t think I’m selfish for never wanting to become pregnant. I don’t think refusing to go off of my bipolar medication for nine months, refusing to give up my lifestyle and possibly my career, for a human being who got no say in being created. If I became pregnant, I would cease to be my best self. I would become unmedicated, mentally unstable, possibly dangerous to myself, and would put both myself and an unborn child at risk every single day. That, to me, would be selfish.

My own mental health aside, even if I were perfectly “well-functioning” and stable and healthy and the kind of person who could actually eat kale and not live off of sushi and martinis, even if I offered no danger to the parasitic little person hanging out amongst my organs, I still would not feel right about bringing a child into this world. I am terrified of the future. I am terrified of war, illness, hate, violence, and all the other atrocities people commit against each other every single day. I don’t foresee it getting any better, or at least better enough to the point that I would want to bring one more person into the garbled, chaotic mess. I could never justify bringing a new, pure human life onto a dying planet. I won’t. I refuse. I don’t want to be a mom.

But, as I said earlier, I could be a parent. I could offer my home and my love to a child who is already here. I could try to give them the best life that I can. I would try my best to make sure i help them become the best person they could be. I would teach them not to hate, not the judge, not to be afraid, not to engage in violence, not to turn a blind eye away from those in need. I would teach them to respect and protect life, to reach out to others who need help, to be an example. Maybe, if I am very very lucky, I could raise a person who would find a way to make the world better. Who would solve problems. Who would mend hearts. Who, if they wanted to have children of their own, would feel confident enough in mankind to do so. That, I would try my very hardest to do, and maybe, in that sense, I would be a good mom. 

Am I Queer Enough?

By Anna Brüner

Courtesy of Anna Brüner

Courtesy of Anna Brüner

Growing up, I was more attracted to the Disney princesses than I was their male counterparts. Around ten years old, I started having body dysmorphia and started dressing like a boy whenever I wasn’t confined to the plaid jumper of my Catholic school uniform. People described me as a “tomboy,” so it wasn’t really a weird thing. My first real kiss was with a girl. At fifteen, I came out to my mom as bisexual. Her response? “No, you’re not.” It hurt a lot, but at the time I had the convenience of having a boyfriend, so any “queer talk” was something future Anna would have to worry about. I had a boyfriend all through high school and only a handful of close friends (including my boyfriend) knew about my lady­loving tendencies, but no one else ever suspected. Unlike the few friends I had who were openly gay, I was never bullied, threatened, or ostracized, and a huge part of me felt absolutely horrible about it. I was straight­-passing, and that was all I had to be to survive adolescence.

When I came to college I started dating women. None of them developed into a relationship, but I was in love with all of them and stayed friends with a few. In college, particularly art school, no one batted an eye at the mention of being bisexual. It was a totally different energy than what I had experienced my whole life. Everyone around me was so accepting of everyone else’s sexual orientations, it was like being enveloped in a rainbow of puppies and mimosas.

And then I got a boyfriend.

Then another.

And another.

“You’re just one of those bisexual college girls who sleeps with women but only has relationships with men,” a friend said to me one night, mostly in jest, but it still hurt. What if it was true?

In all of my relationships, I have always been honest with my sexuality. Sometimes it has been fetishized, sometimes used against me, sometimes beaten down with double standards, but more often than not it has been regularly accepted by my partners. When I first tell a new friend that I like all genders (I still use “bisexual” out of habit, though I consider myself pansexual), none of them are shocked. Following my freshman year in college, my mother even apologized for how she reacted when I first came out and has been incredibly accepting of me. I don’t tell everyone about my sexuality, mostly because I feel it’s not important for everyone to know, and also because I know how bisexual women are viewed in society ­­ and I don’t want to be that. But by not embracing it, by not shouting from the rooftops, by not lending my voice to the LGBTQ narrative, am I taking part in the alienation of queer people? Have I been shielded by my hetero­normative relationships for too long? Am I not queer enough?

My current partner (and fiancé) is a straight man, and he knows just about everything about me. In the beginning of our relationship, I was dealing with a lot of gender dysphoria and discomfort with my body and my identity, and he was very supportive. I talked with him a lot about how I’ve never felt like anything ­­ male or female ­­ and that sometimes it made me more comfortable to be more masculine on some days and more feminine on others, but mostly I just felt comfortable in the middle of both, or even removed from the spectrum entirely. We talked about a lot of things. I decided I wanted to go by they/them pronouns. I officially came out to my friends as agender, and (accidentally) came out to my mom as well (she was cool with it). The acceptance was overwhelming.

But in a relationship that’s perceived as heterosexual, where I rarely feel or identify as a “woman,” then is the relationship still considered heterosexual? Or is it just something else that doesn’t need a label? I don’t know.

What I do know is that my partner and I will never encounter the violence, hate, mockery, or crudeness that gay couples so often suffer. We will never be denounced by our community or abandoned by our family members. We won’t live in fear when we go out in public together. Just like in high school, I feel incredibly guilty that I am not a part of the struggle...or at least as big a part of the struggle as I could have been. I could have done a lot of things differently. I could have made my voice louder, my art louder, my isolation louder, my anxiety louder, my self­-hate louder, but I didn’t. I still can, though, and I will not be apologetic about it. I will be queer as the day is long. I will be the queer cousin at every Thanksgiving. I will be queer until the day I die. I will be queer enough, whatever that means, and stop questioning it or validating it.

Somewhere there’s a little girl wearing her father’s t­-shirt and baseball cap, and she’s drawing mermaids and thinking about the girl who sits three desks in front of her in class, and she’s wondering if all these feelings are normal or ever going to stop or if something’s wrong with her. I don’t want her to ever feel like something’s wrong with her. I want her to know she’s queer enough. She’s enough. 

The Hateful Eight: Tarantino and Feminism

By Anna Brüner

 

Courtesy of  The Weinstein Company
That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die.”
— Kill Bill Vol. 1

When I first came to film school, I would roll my eyes and suppress my snarky chuckles any time the legion of fanboys in my classes and on my crews brought up Quentin Tarantino. Oh, Pulp Fiction is your favorite movie? You hardcore individualist. Oh, you think Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 are best when viewed together back to back? Such a visionary. Oh, you saw Reservoir Dogs before any of your friends did? You must be a goddamn prodigy, boy. But I would be totally full of shit if I didn’t acknowledge the truth that, yes, Tarantino is one of the main reasons a lot of people want to make movies. He was even one of the main reasons I came to film school, something I’m sure he’s disappointed in me for, since he rails against film school and lauds the “just go out there and do it yourself at all costs” method of filmmaking. But I like to think Quinny and I are on good terms.

There’s a reason why Tarantino’s style is called “fanboy cinema,” and no, it has nothing to do with his more­often­than­not obnoxious fanbase. It’s because his movies are made to be finely woven tapestries that pay homage to his favorite films, made for people who love film as much as he does. Westerns. Gangster flicks. Grindhouse. Gritty, 70’s drive­ins and underrated international classics. These are the “sugar and spice and everything nice” that go into making a Tarantino film. Excessive violence, killer soundtracks, bold colors, and characters with questionable morality. Another one of these key ingredients? Misogyny.

Now go ahead and call Tarantino whatever you want, the man has been called almost every name in the book. But absolutely do not call him a misogynist. Sure, many of his characters are misogynists. But Tarantino, like every artist, is not his art. Despite what I’ve called many of the men I’ve worked with who cite him as their favorite director, I would never dare call good ‘ole Quinny a misogynist. In fact, it was never until I started seeing reviews of The Hateful Eight roll in...most of them misinformed complaints as opposed to actual reviews...that I had ever heard “Tarantino” and “misogynist” uttered in the same sentence in mainstream media.

The Hateful Eight is a harsh movie, set in the harsh snowy landscape of the American Rockies, during a harsh time in America’s history. The film picks up just after the American Civil War, but don't think that The Hateful Eight is anyway a follow up or partner to Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, also a western. In Eight, we find ourselves and our characters surrounded by an unforgiving wilderness with a blizzard closing in fast. All of them take shelter in the same cabin to wait out the storm. Two of them are bounty hunters, one is the new sheriff in town, one a Confederate general, one a hangman, one a Mexican frontiersman who tends to the cabin, one a mysterious loner, and one a murderer being taken into town to hang. There’s only one woman in the cabin, and she’s the murderer.

Daisy Domergue is unlike any other Tarantino heroine....the main difference being that she's not a heroine. She's a killer, a criminal, a gang leader, and she out to kill anyone who tries to take her in. All the men in the cabin are likely targets....until you realize that at least of them is working with Daisy. Unlike Tarantino’s other female characters, we never get a backstory on Daisy (aside from the fact that she’s a murderer), and very little is done to create empathy for her. She shouts racial slurs, spits in people’s faces, lashes out violently, and parades around chained to bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth’s wrist like she’s just showed up to the party of the century. The only time Daisy every appears docile is while strumming a guitar and singing “Bye and bye, I'll break m' chains and to the bush I'll go / And you'll be dead behind me, John, when I get to Mexico.” 

Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

There is absolutely nothing sympathetic about Daisy. She’s not a vengeful Jewish orphan out to bring down the Third Reich like Inglourious Basterds’ Shoshanna. She’s not a wronged assassin hunting down the people who tried to kill her and took her child like Kill Bill’s The Bride. She certainly isn’t the ride or die, free spirited, impassioned love interest Fabienne from Pulp Fiction.The only thing we, as an audience, are given to feel anything for Daisy is the violence committed against her. From the very beginning of the film, she is bruised, bloody, beaten multiple times by John Ruth and the butt of his gun, threatened, thrown around, and brutalized. None of it, by the way, sexual. Only pure violence. And threw it all she laughs, curses, swaggers, and smirks.

This is what I’ve noticed most critics calling The Hateful Eight “misogynistic” refer to in their arguments that the film encourages violence against women. But upon seeing the movie, I simply couldn’t see where they are coming from. Daisy is a violent criminal, who meets with violence when she lashes out. If she were a man, absolutely nothing about the plot or character dynamics would change. So why then, did Tarantino make Daisy’s character a woman, when he didn’t have to?

Because he’s a feminist.

Remember when Gone Girl came out and audiences lauded the representation of a cold, calculating female villain? Well, guess what Daisy is? The violence committed against her in The Hateful Eight doesn’t make her a victim, just like the adultery committed against Amy in Gone Girl doesn’t make her  a victim. Daisy is no victim, and Tarantino is no misogynist. He's about the most un­misogynistic person I've ever met,” said Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Daisy. “He loves women. He writes the best parts for women around, really.”

And who can disagree with that? Smugglers. Gun runners. Assassins. Mob bosses. Drug dealers. Spies. Murderers. These are the kinds of parts Tarantino creates for women, that women so rarely get. Not only has he put women in these types of roles, but he has exposed generations of aspiring male filmmakers to these types of female characters. He has taken the almost unheard of female anti­hero, and he has launched her into the mainstream. With Hateful Eight, he has put the female villain into the mainstream in a way that disregards sex or gender and focuses on one thing: brutality.

The Hateful Eight deals with a lot of topics: the justice system, racial relations following the Civil War, the divide between the north and the south, the east and the west, and the underlying violence that all humans, no matter who they are, are capable of. One thing it doesn’t deal with, however, is misogyny. I hate Daisy Domergue, but I love her. I love that she exists. I love her ugliness, her evil, and her rage, and I love that I am never once asked to pity her.

“When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you.” 

The Future Of My Mental Illness

By Anna Brüner

I’ve had panic attacks all my life, before I could even recognize them for what they were. As a child I developed obsessive fears. Some were somewhat rational, like my parents dying suddenly. Some were bred into me, like going to hell if I wasn’t a good enough Catholic. Some were absolutely preposterous, like my eyeballs falling out of my skull at any moment. All of them affected me the same way as if all were equally possible. Imagine a five year old hyperventilating on the sidewalk and pushing on their closed eyelids to “keep them in there” because they could “feel them getting loose.” Yeah. That was me. And my anxiety still works like that.

I didn’t get treatment for my ever-present panic until I was already an adult, and was diagnosed with Bipolar I. It’s dumbfounding to me that I was twenty years old when I was diagnosed, since looking back on my adolescence it now seems so obvious that this had been going on since I was thirteen. Perhaps everyone was just distracted by my eating disorder at the time that all the other stuff just kind of took a back seat. Or maybe I was just really good at hiding all of it. 1 in 5 manic individuals will develop Bipolar I before they’re twenty. Suddenly my mood swings and episodes that came with puberty had the name “bipolar,” and my anxiety had a new name that it got in therapy. “Panic disorder.”

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was in an abusive relationship where my illness and treatment were used against me time and time again. The relationship was one of the reasons I quit going to therapy and taking my meds and went back to engaging in risky, impulsive behavior. The delayed trauma that came months after leaving that relationship was the main reason I went back to therapy. I found my current psychiatrist, who is the first medical professional I’ve seen who didn’t want to just suppress my demons under a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to get me through the day. Don’t get me wrong though: I take a lot of medication. He assures me in our sessions that one day I might be able to live without it...but he assures me of this while increasing the dosage of my mood stabilizer and prescribing more anti-anxiety meds. It’s more than a little difficult to believe him when he says things will get better.

There is a very real chance that all of my diagnoses could change going forward. “What if I get to be thirty years old and they say I have schizophrenia?” I’ve mulled over while lying awake at night, paralyzed in bed with a racing head and heart while my partner sleeps. What if I become so depressed that I become suicidal? What if my marriage falls apart and it’s my fault? What if I have a child and am not emotionally stable enough to care for it? What if my child is mentally ill because of me? What if I become violent or abusive to the people I love? What if I wake up one day and I am terrified to ever leave my house again? It spirals out of control pretty quickly. But then I think about what my psychiatrist says. What if things don’t get worse? What if they only get better?

Courtesy of Anna 

Courtesy of Anna 

Despite my mood swings becoming more extreme even within the past year, and despite my panic attacks becoming more and more frequent, I am getting better. Maybe not in any medical sense, but I am getting better at taking care of myself. The fact that I even called psychiatrists around Chicago and found one all by myself was a huge step; I am terrified of using the phone. I go to therapy twice a week, consistently, having learned that days where I skip for whatever reason usually take turns for the worse. I set timers for when to take my medication. I’ve begun carrying a brown paper bag with me to class and work in case I begin to hyperventilate. I’ve learned to identify when a manic or depressive episode, or a panic attack, is beginning to set in. I am getting better at acknowledging what my emotions are. I am becoming more outspoken about my illness and getting better at communicating it to others.

But I’m also getting better at planning how I’m going to do all of this in the future. I’m scared about what will happen if I can no longer afford therapy or medication after I am off my parents’ medical insurance. While this feeds into my anxiety, it is realistic, and I am hardly ever one to be realistic about anything (remember my fear of my eyeballs falling out?) In an ideal future, I am off of medication and practicing transcendental meditation and making organic meals for my tidy, emotionally stable nuclear family, somewhere in New Mexico or northern California or wherever the hell zen mental health gurus go to be, well, mentally healthy. Maybe some of that will happen. Maybe I have a nervous breakdown in my forties and it all goes away. The important thing is to never stop taking care of myself.

I am in a better place now than I was two years ago. I am a better person now than I was two years ago. I don’t know what I’ll do in the next decade or even in the next year, or hell even two weeks from now, but I’ve already gotten myself help before when nobody else knew how to help me. My psychiatrist assures me that that’s what it’s all about: being able to take care of yourself in the way you deserve.

I am sitting in my parents’ house, and my collection of small orange prescription bottles are lined up along my childhood dresser. Beneath the soft blue and white guestroom colors my mother painted the room a few years ago are the bold orange, red, and purple walls where I once spent nights scrawling passages of Shakespeare in hot pink marker along my ceiling in a manic, sleep deprived high school haze. Though no longer visible, I know a temple to my panic lies behind the pale blue paint and paintings of sailboats on tranquil waters. I know my mental illness will continue to evolve and will never go away, but I am determined to keep chasing clarity and peace of mind, even if I never truly find it.  I’ll figure out how to take care of myself. I’ll stop hiding my problems. I’ll try to live without fear.

And I’ll bring my xanax with me. Just in case.  

A Year On Carpenter Street

By Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

To the first place in Chicago to make me feel at home

Our windows were always open because there was no air conditioning. A single ceiling fan in the living room crept at a snail’s pace, stirring the air as slowly as if it were pancake batter, while the sun setting over the house across the street painted our walls orange. The ice cream truck would come at four, but we would hear it until six. And then it would come again at eight, it’s mechanical melody warping the cantina and rap music blasted by our neighbors every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. Everyone sat out on their small cement porches close to the sidewalk, or their obscured wooden decks overlooking Jardín de las Mariposas -- the Butterfly Garden -- or languished in the heat of their living room on white pleather couches, too stoned to change the channel. Children rode their bikes until 10 o’clock at night, a few blocks from the Pilsen bar where a man’s throat was slit only a couple weeks before. Overall, it was a safe neighborhood, even in the record-breaking heat of August.

Everything smells like fresh asphalt still staining your tennis shoes black, pesticide, fresh tamales, sunscreen, and cherry slushies. Everything is sticky and covered in swarms of ladybugs: the curb, the ivy, the murals. The bus depot painted over the Virgin of Guadalupe mural a month ago, and now it’s just white. Kind of a trend in this neighborhood. 

Grandmas line the streets with their colorful yard sales of plastic jewelry, VHS, and porcelain knick knacks (kittens, geishas, colorful fruits), as our grey cat lies in the sun on the sidewalk for hours, accepting tummy rubs from strangers. Somebody got their car radio stolen last week, so the blue security lights turn on every night and everything glows until four in the morning. We sleep with the windows open and our mattress in the living room. Our potted plants cast long spidery shadows over the floor. We’re too tired to feel the mosquitos anymore.

Indian summer settles over the streetlights and the tops of trees, turning everything gold. The milkweed along the old railroad track sheds and puffs of it travel on the wind like snow. Lines of elementary school children in bright colored coats and hats march to school behind their mothers, their older brothers all smoking cigarettes behind the closed barber shop. Steam from the bakery rolls over the street like smoke, filling the air with the smell of warm bread and wet leaves. Hundreds of monarchs fill the butterfly garden, migrating a week later. A boys and girls’ club comes after school to paint the pavilion in the garden bright blue. Someone that night writes “A+A Forever” in black sharpie on the third step. 

Another smoke shop opens. Another fight breaks out with the neighbors, leading us to stay up all night watching documentaries about Catholic saints. Halloween brings hundreds of college students to house parties, caking the sidewalk in leaves, candy wrappers and broken bottles. Another street is torn up, blocked off with a “Building a New Chicago” sign, then sits idly unpaved for a month. Someone spray paints next to it, “Where is it, Rahm?” Our heating kicks in. We bring the cat inside.

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

The front steps, iron and painted the same blue as the butterfly garden gazebo, are the first to freeze over. Then the sidewalk, then the street. When snow falls, it will clear faster on the sidewalk from the shuffling of boots to and from the bus stop each morning, but it will build up in the street overnight. Snow plows don’t come here. While you wait for the 18th bus, you will have to time it perfectly so you don’t end up waiting for 25 minutes, frostbitten to your core, trembling as you try desperately to smoke a cigarette. You hide behind the boarded up butcher shop to shield yourself from the wind. 

Christmas lights go up. Christmas tree lots pop up around taco stands. We are the only menorah on the block, but we blend in with the advent wreaths flickering in every living room. Everything is covered in ice and candlelight, the night sky is bright yellow, clouds reflecting the city we never see while we’re on break. Secluded, we build snowmen in the butterfly garden, walk to Rosie’s in La Villita to get donuts and empanadas, hot chocolates, and horchata on Sunday mornings. Isolated from the train, with no one trekking out for house parties in February, we stay in watching German films with the electric blanket, getting stoned until we begin to thaw, saints candles flickering on the bookshelf.

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

As the ice around the thin tree branches gets clearer and clearer, the sound of melting drops against the sidewalk sometimes sounding like rain, children start playing outside again. We filter through pages of Diane Di Prima and Patti Smith in the rare bookstore. Cigarettes are no longer smoked in a hurry, walks to the bar or to the train or to the stockyards or the deli are always enjoyed. The sun shines in an impossibly crisp blue sky, light bouncing from the graffitied white walls emblazoned with the word “Hustle” along the corner of the convenience store down the street. Colorful bulbs left over from Christmas still swing in the tree branches, their thin branches starting to burst with red and green fuzzy buds. 

House parties resume, revived with the angst of midterms and the ecstasy of spring break. Our friends smoke in the butterfly garden and climb the trees, and we all sit on the rooftop playing music and talking about “next year” all night long. Another smoke shop opens. Another street closes. The family next door has another baby, and there are showers and parties every day with pink balloons and mariachi music and the smell of burgers and kabobs on the grill. Flowers sit out on the porches in barrels, pots, and hanging baskets by the dozen. We buy more plants from the community garden and scatter them about the apartment. We get another fake leather couch, and a record player, this time from a store and not an alleyway. The margarita bar opens its patio once again, and every weekday evening clusters of thin angry-looking art students gather over large neon drinks. 

The cat goes outside again. The ice cream truck comes back.

Monsters Of War

by Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I grew up with monsters. Before the Disney Princesses, before being shown Back to the Future and Sixteen Candles by friends and babysitters, before sitting in on my mother's marathons of musicals and historical epics, my earliest films were Universal's monster movies. Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and The Mummy were all weekend staples for my father and I, and we often binge-watched them again and again every Saturday from the solidarity of a pillow fort or makeshift blanket tent. As I grew older, some of my fondest memories with my dad involved late night screenings of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and (once I got a little older) movies like Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead. 

 As a child, I would flip through the glossy pages of my dad's books of production stills, old horror movie posters, and glamour shots of actors and actresses in gothic and otherworldly makeup. My school notebooks and binders were plastered with images of The 50 Foot Woman and Cat People. If there was a movie I hadn't seen, my dad probably had seen it, and his memories and summaries of those movies often stood in for more traditional bedtime stories. Each of us would put on a thick European accent and recite "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," the way most parents and children recite goodnight prayers. He told me all about the sci-fi films of his childhood: The Blob, The Thing, The Day of the Trepids, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He vividly recalled sneaking out to see Carrie when it first premiered, and how he had to walk home alone afterwards through the fog of a sleeping neighborhood. As a teenager, he introduced me to the B-movies of Ed Wood. He instilled in me a great love of the scary, the odd, the macabre, and that love is one of the strongest bonds I have with my father. 

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

But I also grew up with war movies. Both my parents are history buffs, and watching documentaries and films about WWII were often Sunday night traditions for both of them. Indeed, the first film that made me want to become a filmmaker, the film that is the reason I ever went to art school, was Life Is Beautiful -- a movie about the Holocaust. Such films were about entirely different, real life horrors, which were all too fresh in the memory of our world’s history. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I began to realize, however, that a war movie can be a horror movie…and in turn, a horror movie can be a war movie. 

Courtesy of Cecchi Gori Group

Courtesy of Cecchi Gori Group

In high school I reread Bram Stoker's Dracula for my AP English class. We talked about the themes to be found within it -- mostly sexual, since it dealt with a time of greatly repressed sexuality in Victorian Britain -- but also how it was a story that greatly dealt with xenophobia. Count Dracula, a foreigner from Transylvania, comes to England with the intent to buy land and reunite with a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his great love. The fear that surrounds him, the fear he instills in others, is a fear of "the other."

Here is a figure from "the old country," largely steeped in traditional folklore unfamiliar to Western Europe, perceived as strange, different. and even terrifying. This fear of "the other" can be found in the other monster films as well.

In The Wolfman, an American tourist undergoes the transformation into a local legend foretold by a Romani woman, after he murders a Romani man he believed to be nothing more than a wolf. In The Mummy, British and American archeologists are terrorized by the undead pharaoh of the civilization they are trying to colonize. In Frankenstein, the monster is not feared because he is violent, but because he is different.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

When we look at the Universal monster films in this light, it's no wonder why they fell out of style in the outbreak of WWII. Fear of immigrants and foreigners was prevalent in day-to-day American life…but compared to the real life atrocities of Stalin and Hitler, no fictional monster could really compare. Monster films all but died out during the war, and the age of romantic comedies and musicals took over to provide something much more lighthearted to fear-weary movie audiences.

After the dropping of the atomic bomb, the reality of nuclear war pervaded everyday life, even in peacetime. As America entered The Cold War, the possibility of atomic bomb strikes seemed more and more likely. Even when my father was attending elementary school in the 60's, he still recalls the sirens warning people to get to their nearest fallout shelter, with regular "duck and cover" drills conducted in class. Monster films returned, but this time they were no longer the monsters of pre-WWII xenophobia. These monsters came from nuclear radiation and scientific experiments gone wrong. Giant insects and reptiles plagued New York City and Japan. Aliens from other planets no longer appeared as "the other," but rather just like us.

The alien in The Day The Earth Stood Still appeared to be an average man, while the aliens in The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers could take on the form of anybody. During the Red Scare, suspicions of Soviet spies and agents implanted in our society ran rampant among the American people. The films of this time reflected those fears, and the fears of science going too far, creating entirely modern monsters.

Courtesy of Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.

Courtesy of Walter Wanger Pictures, Inc.

In the 60's, films changed to reflect the civil rights movement and the struggle in Vietnam. Romero's Night of the Living Dead became the poster child for "civil rights horror films" because of his African-American male lead, Duane Jones. While Romero has stated that Jones got the lead role just because "he was the best actor in the auditions," he has also gone on to say that the final image of the film (when Jones was shot through the head by white farmers even though he was not a member of the undead) immediately evoked images of everyday racial violence in America, and that the film has become an "undeniable" reflection of the civil rights movement.

When my father first showed me Carrie, the movie he said scared him the most when he was my age (12), I wasn't afraid of it. Interesting, seeing as even at 12 I recognized it to be a movie about repressed female sexuality -- a theme heavily explored in the feminist horror films of the 70's, from violent and even paranormal female characters, to the evolving rape-and-revenge genre that peaked with I Spit On Your Grave. The difference in these films however was that now the monsters were men, even when their female victims seemed to be more than human.

Courtesy of United Artists

Courtesy of United Artists

Horror films, regardless of their quality or public reception, have always been political films. They play on our fears, they reflect our realities, and they take real life terror and make it digestible by giving us a good guy to root for. Often, in real life, there are not good guys to root for. These films take the fear and paranoia of our history and make them understandable to a modern audience.

As the master of horror, Stephen King, said: "We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones." 


Cities of the Rustbelt

by Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post Gazette

I would say “Pittsburgh” softly each time before throwing him up.

Whisper “Pittsburgh” with my mouth against the tiny ear and throw him higher.

“Pittsburgh,” and happiness high up.

The only way to leave even the smallest trace.

So that all his life, her son would feel gladness unaccountably

when anyone spoke of the ruined city of steel in America.

Each time almost remembering something maybe important that got lost.

 

-       Jack Gilbert, collected poems

 

A few years ago, an art gallery opened in an old steel mill on the Northside in Pittsburgh. Photos of Byzantine Orthodox nuns walking against the smoke-filled landscape of bustling steelworks, paintings of soot-covered faces in impossible masses, and sculptures of reclaimed shards of iron turned the memories of The Steel City into high art to be discussed over drinks and stuffed mushrooms. The old mill was one of the lucky few to be given a redeemed purpose; since US Steel died out and left Pittsburgh in the 70’s and 80’s, most of the mills today stand vacant and deteriorating along the riverside, untouched since the last of their workers were laid off and sent home.

Like so many other industrial cities of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, Pittsburgh became part of the “Rust Belt,” a trail of cities that popped up as booming hubs of industry at the turn of the century, but have since fallen victim to failed economies and changing times. Also referred to as “The Manufacturing Belt,” “The Steel Belt,” and “The Factory Belt,” the region consists of such cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Before WWII, Rust Belt cities were some of the nation’s largest, and supplied work for millions of immigrants. And then gradually they started to decline, and ghosts started to pop up in the form of rail yards and lumber mills and lace factories never to be put to use again. 

Courtesy of Frick Art Historical Center

Courtesy of Frick Art Historical Center

“We could have been Detroit,” a friend grimly reminded me during a visit home to Pittsburgh, while we cruised the Boulevard of the Allies on our way to Hot Metal Bridge to go to the Southside Ironworks. Everything from streets to bridges to bars to movie theaters in Pittsburgh are so often named after the industry that they have replaced.

“We could have been Detroit if we didn’t have something else going for us. What did they have? Cars. Cars and nothing else.”

And it’s true. Pittsburgh didn’t die with U.S. Steel, hospitals popped up and expanded as rapidly as cells divide, schools recruited more and more engineers and musicians and teachers and doctors, museums named after Carnegie (just like the projects were) filled with more and more private donations. But we could have died. We could have failed. We could have experienced an Exodus. But we didn’t. We built. We grew. We adapted.

In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was named the most livable city in the world. That doesn’t mean the skeletons of the empire that built us don’t loom over our hillsides and riverbanks along all three of our rivers.

Damen Silos in Chicago sits empty and covered in graffiti, a stark reminder of a time when the city contributed to the grain empire of “the breadbasket of America.” Meanwhile, the back of the yards have hardly changed, while the Meat Packing District has since fizzled into the history books as a grim allegory. The abandoned Cook County hospital still stands as ornate and detailed as a looted Russian palace after the revolution, literally right behind the new hospitals that constitute Chicago’s Medical District. Abandoned synagogues, post offices and condemned brownstones litter the city, the boards once covering their kicked-in windows long ago. 

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

A massive asylum stands guard over the outskirts of Philadelphia. A hauntingly beautiful carousel sits as the crown jewel of a boardwalk in New Jersey's Asbury Park, desolate. Half of Detroit remains a ghost town consumed by weeds, houses selling for $1 once or twice a year in the hopes of a Renaissance that has been a long time coming.

Courtesy of Marlo Montanaro

Courtesy of Marlo Montanaro

The cities of the Rust Belt are neither dead nor dying, they are frozen. Stagnant. Haunted, preserved, heartbroken. They are America’s ruins, reminding us of a time, an industry, and a way of life so little of our generation understands, even though many of us are the products of their love and labor.

A boiler from the same steel mill my grandfather worked in still sits on the riverside in Pittsburgh, surrounded by a fountain, part decoration and part memorial. Something that once had the ability to maim and kill hundreds of men in an instant, is now something that people pose in front of for photo opps and children play by while their parents wait for their Hard Rock Cafe reservation. It is our roots communicating with us, saying “notice us,

love us,

please,

don’t forget about us,

don’t forget

we were here,

we made you.”

The Grief That Goes On

By Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

"It will take longer than you need it to, and even then you will feel like it hasn't been enough time." She's talking about her sister who died fifteen years ago. I don't know this woman, but I feel like I do or like I could. I have an affinity for crying in front of and telling my problems to complete strangers. Almost all of them women who remind me of my friends' mothers. I did the same thing on an airplane home to my best friend's funeral in 2013, so I at the very least do know what she's talking about. She's talking about grief. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of her," she says, matter-of-factly, because by now it is routine and she probably tells it to strangers, too. "You've got to accept that it's normal."

But it doesn't feel normal to me. It doesn't feel normal that, almost three years later, I still wake up paralyzed with grief over losing my best friend. I still break down when certain songs come on the radio, or when I think of a movie we watched together, or even when I see certain things on the menus in restaurants. The entire month of October (which was when his birthday and his favorite holiday, Halloween, was) passed me by in a series of panic attacks, dissociative episodes, and nervous breakdowns. The past three Octobers have passed in a similar manner. At least last year I was somehow able to go to class and work on his birthday. Not so, this year. It's not something I can help or even predict, it's just something that happens. I still freeze while rummaging through my jewelry box as I come upon a faded yarn bracelet or guitar pick. I still remember every moment between the last time I talked to him and the first phone call I got telling me he had died. I still talk about him like he's here.

As a kid, my mother would tell me she didn't know anyone who had been to more funerals than I have. Such is the price you pay when you come from a large family, when you're in the Catholic Church, when you belong to a tight knit community. You see a lot of dead bodies. The old unfamiliar bodies of strangers and rarely visited great aunts and uncles and cousins. But a funeral is a funeral. Until it's a kid's…until it's someone you know.

My friend Tyler wasn't even the first friend of mine to pass away. A friend's boyfriend died in an accident the summer before my junior year of high school. We all went to the funeral. I held her hand. I remember being in the backseat of another friend's van on the way home from the viewing, all of us sitting in silence and looking out the window, unsure of what to do or how to be. Though as hard and awful as it was, we all thought, "well, this is it." We'd lost one friend incredibly young. Surely this wouldn't happen again.

But it did happen again, only two years later, to the one person nothing was ever supposed to happen to. No accident, no disease, no freak injury, no drug problem. No cause of death, still to this day. No one knows why, at nineteen years old, my best friend got off the phone with me after I called to tell him a movie was on, and then a few hours later he was dead. That has been the hardest part: the complete lack of reason. Once again, our lives were shattered. Once again, dozens of childhood friends gathered in the funeral home and graveyard, before any of us had even completed a year of school away from home. The only difference this time around was that we had all done it before, and that now we were scattered across the country and not two doors down. 

Last month I anticipated my best friend's birthday (it would have been his 22nd) with every passing day in October. I knew (and dreaded) that it was coming, unsure of how I would react to it this year. I thought maybe I should be "over it" by now, that it was the rule of grief that with each passing year and anniversary and holiday, exponential progress of some kind was to happen. I felt like it should be easier, that if it wasn't easier I was somehow mourning wrong or failing at being a functional, productive adult. I woke up on the morning of his birthday, got onto Facebook, and there in my notifications it was waiting for me.

"It's Tyler Beachy's birthday! Help him celebrate!"

It was fucking cruel. Of course I knew what day it was, but why did his name have to be lumped in with minor acquaintances I've maybe spoken to once in my life? Why did he have to be included in a passing reminder that, on any other day, would have gone completely unnoticed? Why did I have to wake up at five in the morning to have Facebook saying "Hey Anna, tell your dead friend happy birthday, would ya?" I felt angry and cheap and sick and bitter and repulsed, and then I just felt alone and sad. I didn't go to class. I didn't go to work. I didn't "make progress" from the past year. I felt, ultimately, like I had failed as both a mourner and friend. 

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Courtesy of Anna Bruner

And then I met this woman who lost her sister fifteen years ago, and I told her all about this, and she made me feel like I hadn't failed. She reminded me, as several others have in the past, that there is no failure in grief. That yes, moving forward I may forget some things, I may forget stories, I may struggle on some days to remember his voice. Years from now I might go to work as though it is any other day, and other times I may stay in bed for a week. I might obsess over the small incidents -- the last meal we shared, the last gifts we gave each other, the last trip we took, the last joke we told -- I might replay it all again and again in my mind. Or I may sit quietly and think of nothing in particular other than what has been left behind. 

"The important thing is that you don't deny your feelings," she said, reminding me of a doctor I went to see following Beachy's death, who was wary to prescribe me antidepressants because we "don't medicate the human condition." Something I now understand. 

"The important thing is that you feel it. Don't pretend like it didn't happen. Don't pretend like they didn't happen."

I sometimes cry on the train. I sometimes cry in the middle of a conversation I've had time and time again. I sometimes cry in front of strangers and tell them about my loss. Sometimes they tell me about theirs. It's going to take me a long time to learn it and accept it completely, but there is no getting rid of grief or grieving the "right way." There's just the human condition, and how we treat each other as we experience it together. 

The Last Time I Went Home

by Anna Bruner

Photo Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Photo Courtesy of Anna Bruner

This weekend, I will be going home. The last time I went home, I went home to bury my grandmother Willetta Kathleen Piatt. “Billie,” as she was called, named after her father William. She passed away on her and my grandfather’s wedding anniversary. My grandfather had passed away in 2004, five days before my tenth birthday. I feel it’s important to mention that, because when he died I was a child and most of our family was still together and plenty of people were still alive or well enough to remember him. But my grandmother…my grandmother who had been in hospitals and nursing homes for years…who would come to memorialize her, besides cousins and nurses and a few loyal church members? I didn’t know, I thought as I boarded my flight from O’Hare. I didn’t know who would be around at all.

I flew into a regional airport, as opposed to flying into Pittsburgh’s International Airport as I have done every time I have come home. I was picked up by my godmother, made small talk about my job and my plans to graduate this year, and counted the curves in the roadside as her car cut through the Appalachian mountains, hurdling on our way home by ski resorts and state parks and prisons’ distances away from Pittsburgh. I got out at the curbside in front of my house and slid through the foyer full of baby pictures and the dining room full of fresh cut flowers to a newly renovated back porch and yard I scarcely recognized. Since I had last been home, the back of our house had been drastically remodeled, and my father had open heart surgery. He sat laid up on the porch’s couch, talking with his stepmother and a visiting friend, nervously asking if I would like to see his scars from where they pulled open his ribcage. My mother came out and saw me for only an instant, then hugged me, and broke down crying. I cried because I didn’t know what to do, and because she had learned her mother had died only moments before going to visit my father in the hospital.

In the evening I sat up at the dining room table (gifted to my parents by my mother’s parents on their wedding day) sorting through family photos of my grandmother with my mother and her eldest sister. Many of the photos I have never seen: images of my grandmother posing along wooded roadsides, smiling against store lined streets in Pittsburgh, enjoying picnics with her young groom, playing with other people’s children and pets before she ever had her own. “She looks like a movie star,” I remember saying to my mother and aunt, to which they both smiled softly and nodded, as if in prayer, “Yes, yes she does.” We drank pink moscato and I listened to my aunt rehearse her eulogy, and I read my mother poems I have never shared with her because I didn’t know when else the time would ever feel right quite like this one August night.

Photo Courtesy of Anna Bruner

Photo Courtesy of Anna Bruner

The next day my mother sent me out to buy two “respectable” dresses for a Catholic funeral, which is no easy feat, let me assure you. I drove to the nearest strip mall in town where PTA moms buy dresses for friends’ kids’ weddings, and found only one black dress in the bunch, 2 sizes too big. I bought it anyway with my mother’s card.

“Anna?” the woman behind the counter asked, and I pretended to recognize her. “Anna Bruner?” “Yes,” I said. “I know why you’re buying a back dress,” her voice softened. I nodded and said yes again. She asked where I was nowadays, I told her Chicago. She asked if I was in school, I told her I was finishing up. She gave me her condolences, which was thoughtful, except she never showed up to the funeral, not even after watching me buy a black dress made for a woman twice my age with half my grief. The second dress I bought from Walmart, and hated myself for, so I went out and bought cigarettes for $5.40 at my nearest Sheetz plaza.

When I returned from my shopping spree, I came home to find my cousins flooding the house. The two youngest I haven’t seen in years, and immediately went about plotting what horror films we would be watching and what mischief we would get into. My cousin Jessica and I stole bottles of Spanish wine from my mother’s cupboard and watched Clueless in my bedroom, making fun of her brother being afraid of It Follows. We talked boys and drugs and college…a very different conversation from the one we had a decade before, when we shared this same bed in January for my grandfather’s funeral. We were small and mute back then, listening to cats scratch at the door. This time, we let the cats in with us.

At the viewing, I wore my Walmart dress and stood before the casket, flanked by my therapist mother and her United States General brother and her Presbyterian minister sister, not quite recognized by the mourners but pitied just the same. Most of them thought I was married to someone, that the children in the lobby were mine, that I could have in no way been born in the same county as my mother, or that I ever attended Saint Peter’s Catholic School. All of them chimed the same response when my mother introduced me: “Oh my, Anna, how are you? How is Chicago? Are you working on movies? Oh my, that’s so interesting.” In the breaks between floods of visitors, I played with my older cousin’s children and secretly smoked cigarettes in the parking lot. I texted old boyfriends. I scanned my grandmother’s photos looking for my face. I talked philosophy and economics with friends I haven’t seen since childhood when we would dress up and have Halloween parties in their garages.

At the end of the viewing, an old friend appeared, and we sat in the back talking in whispers about how the last time we were in this funeral home was when we buried our best friend. I told him I had been here all day and couldn’t stand anymore, and he offered to drive me home. Once in the front seat of his rattling car, I lit a cigarette and he asked me if I would like to go visit our friend’s grave. It had been over a year since I’d done so. “No,” I said, though I should have agreed, “just take me home.” He dropped me off in front of my house with its front porch full of gossiping family members and friends drinking beer and listening to Eric Clapton. “Did you take a ride home from a stranger?” one of my father’s buddies from high school joked. “No,” I hissed, “I was brought home by a friend.” Apparently I was the last person other than my mother to leave early.

While the adults drank and recounted tales of being slapped silly by Willetta “Billie” Piatt, I sat on the back porch with my cousin’s three-year-old and played restaurant. Our restaurant only served cookies and peanut butter, and it was the finest in all the land. When I crept into my bed I was drunk and numb to almost everything, and I fell asleep beside my cousin Jessica without saying a word, which was so unlike any of us. We both lay in silence, her listening to her music, me texting my boyfriend four states away, and I thought about all the times our hair was pulled and straightened and braided by Billie Piatt. I thought about the lollipops and Pringles hidden in the cupboard above the refrigerator. I thought about the times when I used to sleep in the closet of her house because I loved the smell of mothballs. I thought of all the times she called me, Jessica, and Joshua by the names of her children (Sheila, Mary Catherine, Walter) instead of our own. I thought about the times she sang Little Boy Blue to me before I fell asleep, how I stared at her faux crystal jewelry hanging from her statue of the Virgin Mary.

At the funeral, my cousin Jessica and I, being the only granddaughters, were asked to do the readings from the old and New Testament. I read from the book of Revelations, for the first time since I was twelve and still feared and loved God.

“I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had

passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming

down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a

loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He

will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with

them.’”

We buried Billie next to her husband, my grandfather, in the same cemetery where I buried my best friend two years before. We drank from a chalice blessed in Ireland. We went home and ate chicken and scalloped potatoes. I bought another pack of cigarettes. I took two of her pictures back to Chicago with me. I still hear the song Little Boy Blue. I think of her, and I think of home. 

(A Different Kind of) Fighting Hunger

By Anna Brüner

Photo by Linsey Borgna

Photo by Linsey Borgna

I had a cheeseburger for dinner tonight. Not a rare occurrence by far. Americans consume 50 billion cheeseburgers a year, and just like any proud American, the greasy little buggers hold a powerful place in my heart (both metaphorically, as well as literally in my arteries). As I savored my meal over the clinking of beer bottles and the buzzing chatter of old friends, however, I still could not totally drown out a decade’s internal narrative that remains ever-present in the back of my mind like some fucked up, killjoy vigilante of the psyche. 

It was the last day of summer, I was at a great restaurant surrounded by friends I love after a day at the beach, and all I could focus on was the mental deconstruction of my quarter-pounder. A quarter pound of meat alone. A 120 calorie slice of cheese. One fried egg = 70 calories. The bun is surely no less than 300 calories. Allow 30-100extra calories of leeway, considering how much butter was used to cook this. Then there’s the three slices of bacon, plus three beers…it only spiraled faster from there. A mental checklist a mile long, and I was ticking off all the boxes simultaneously, as routinely as most people take notice of the temperature in the room. My burger was no longer a meal, but a series of numbers. It’s not something I ever have to think about doing, even though I think about it all the time

All in all, in one meal, I consumed at least 1500 calories. This would have never happened three years ago, when I was eating around 250 calories a day…if I ate at all. 

Though since starting college I have become notorious for my cooking exploits, my love of red meat and fried appetizers, and my intimate relationship with a well crafted margarita, I am still plagued every day by an eating disorder that consumed every moment of my life for six years. While it has been three years since I have weighed myself, a year since I stopped looking at clothing sizes while shopping, and 9 months since forcing myself to throw up, very little has actually changed about my relationship with food and with my body. I still body check dozens of times before leaving my home, and dozens more throughout my day. I still wrap my hands around my thigh, using where my thumbs fall against my tattoo of Ganesh as a mental note of how much size I take up, and never once think about the irony that I got this tattoo as a testament to my “recovery.” I still exhale all of my air just so I can suck my stomach in and feel how tight the skin wraps around my ribs…my most noticeable habit, and the first one friends in Chicago have ever picked up on. Sometimes still, while I am ashamed to admit it, I will cry after meals because I hate the feeling of being “full.” 

I tell people my eating disorder started when I was twelve, but it was probably earlier than that. I went through puberty incredibly young, left Catholic school and started public school just as my father was diagnosed with cancer, had almost no friends, and was staying at a different relative’s house week to week for a summer. When I did start school and make friends, they were thin and pretty and popular. I was fat and funny. Add in the usual insecurities of adolescence, burgeoning depression and anxiety, and the fact that middle schoolers are literally the worst people on the planet, and I had a perfect storm of chaos that was craving for structure.

I won’t go into my entire disorder, as that would take far too long and that’s not what this is about anyway, but to sum it up bluntly: I stopped eating. I dropped from 150 lbs. to 115. People noticed. I liked that people noticed me, and that my intake of food (or lack there of) offered me the one sense of control I had. The feeling of emptiness was addictive. I would weight myself hundreds of times a day just to watch the ounces fluctuate. At my lowest, I weighed 92 pounds. When my hair started falling out, I was almost happy about it.

I tried several times to get help. I went to therapy, rehab, saw dietitians, made meal plans, and even became vegan at one point because I thought it would help me develop a healthier relationship with food. I would exercise and I try to build muscle, would run three miles a day, and found every excuse to bake or cook for friends. It wouldn’t take long, however, for me to stop listening to my therapist, for me to drop the meal plans, for the exercise to become as excessive and obsessive as the feeling of emptiness, and for me to give away entire cakes without ever tasting a single bite. Every solution I found would ultimately fail in a matter of months, and I would land straight back in the regimen of my rituals, perpetually cold, weak, tired, and unsatisfied. 

Then one day in April of 2012, during the final weeks of my senior year of high school, I caught a documentary on TV about eating disorders. It was one of those A&E specials, nothing particularly high brow, but it followed different people around in getting treatment for their disorders. One woman was fifty years old and talking about her bulimia, which developed when she was a teenager, and something inside me clicked,“I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”  As engrossing as my disorder was, part of the sense of control I found was in thinking it would eventually just go away if I ever wanted it to. The concept of living my life in constant fear of my own body, the paranoia never stopping, always sick and aching and hungry terrified me. 

On April 7, 2012, I threw away my scale. I no longer check calories on menus. I ask doctors not to tell me my weight when I go in for checkups. If my clothing feels tighter than usual, I change outfits. I try not to dwell on any of it for too long. It isn’t easy by far, but I know it is rarely even this easy for most people. I know everyone is different, and their disorders are different. When therapy and rehab didn’t work for me, I took it upon myself to make a change because I didn’t want to go to college and still be running to the bathroom after every meal or breaking down because I gained half a pound. For so many years, I identified as “Anna, the anorexic” or “Anna, the bulimic,” and while I think it’s important to openly discuss my eating disorder with whoever will listen, I do not want it to ever become my identity. I have spent far too much of my life thinking of myself as a sickness. 

Last year I was interviewed for a book about ED recovery and the final question I was asked was “Do you consider yourself recovered?” I was shocked when I said “No.” But, I am better. I don’t think I ever will be recovered, per say, but I can always be better. I openly talk with friends and their mothers about their own eating disorders and insecurities. I make efforts to eat and exercise healthily. I no longer vocalize my criticism of my body. I try every day to lessen the internal narration, the numbers, the ritualization, the self hate, bit by bit. I meditate. I write. I eat cheeseburgers. I fight. Maybe the will to fight is all recovery really is. 

 

 

 

 

 

An Act of Rebellion: Traveling Alone

 

“The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.”

-Goethe 

By Anna Brüner

All kids, I imagine, have been warned by their parents at some point about the dangers of walking alone. If you’re a girl, you’ve especially been warned. “Don’t go by yourself,” “Make sure so-and-so goes with you!” “Call me when you get there,” “Make sure you’re back by this time,” “Who’s all going to be there?” This has been the chorus of my childhood. 

What I am about to tell you will no doubt give my mother a panic attack, and believe me, I’m expecting the angry phone call promptly. But, all fear of maternal instinct aside, you should know that for the past five years I have been wandering cities alone. And not just American cities. New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, Asbury Park, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Nice, Amsterdam, Dresden, New Orleans, Savannah…maybe I should stop there. I’ve been going through them alone, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days, and while I have plenty of stories and photographs as evidence, I have kept most of it private. 

As an only child I am used to being alone, and, having nothing else to draw comparisons from, learned very early on to enjoy my time alone. To say that I was “independent” from a young age is an understatement; I much more prefer the term “self-sufficient.” I have always been able to entertain myself. By age nine or so I could cook and clean for myself, and by twelve I was allowed to stay alone while my parents were at work or out with friends. It was during this time that I first started leaving the house to walk around town by myself, having always been allowed to explore and play in my neighborhood unattended since starting grade school. My parents were far from the overly protective yuppies whose sheltered children I babysit today. Soon I was walking all the way across town after school, sometimes sneaking out at night to do so, always in search of some yet-to-be-investigated patch of my small corner of the world.

My parents also travelled a lot, and were cool enough to forego all intimacy in order to bring their one and only progeny along. My mother made it her personal crusade that I would see all 50 states, no matter how long she had to sit in a car with me, and by the time I was a junior in high school I had been to six different countries (nine by the time I graduated). My attraction to cities especially, coupled with my comfort of roaming around unaccompanied, spurred a need to break away and explore by myself. I haven’t stopped since. 

 

It started innocently enough. I would be permitted by my parents to wander off for a short window of time, always meeting back with them at some pre-determined location. It soon turned into me sneaking out of hotel rooms, running off from class trips, sneaking away during the tour group’s lunch, or flat out lying about my weekend plans to drive four states away. In Europe, I developed a particularly dark gift for convincing teachers and tour guides that I knew where I was going and that someone would be with me at all times, before jumping on public transportation and delving deep into the heart of a foreign metropolis….my comrades always too frightened to even step foot on the train platform. I wanted to stroll museums, party in gay clubs, hang out in red-light districts, peruse casinos. I was in search of something real. Something authentic. Something that would make me feel like I could maybe fit in there. 

I would have taxi drivers take me to their favorite restaurants and shops, would have strangers order off menus for me, and would almost always come away with a story, a phone number, or a token of some sort that some kind local was willing to pass on. I’ve had a drag queen teach me how to roll a perfect cigarette, have had a Czech emigre tell me about how he didn’t hear about the Beatles until 1983 because he lived behind the Iron Curtain, have had a Russian cabbie offer me relationship advice, and went to the Love Parade in Berlin. I’ve exchanged screenplay ideas with old Italian men playing bocci ball in the park, drank absinthe on a rooftop overlooking a port in the south of France, and had my fortunes told by countless boardwalk psychics. I was invited to a Belgian artist’s BBQ where we argued over James Cameron’s Avatar in three different languages, had street vendors give me chili pepper covered mangoes the size of my skull after trading them German playing cards, discussed philosophy and the afterlife with heroin addicts in west Philly, and have tasted the best Trinidadian food in all of the Midwest. Had I done what I had been told all my life — to stay close, stay with somebody, don’t go out alone — I would have experienced none of it. I would have seen nothing beyond a hotel room balcony and a bus window. 

Keep in mind, there was always somebody waiting for me after all of this, somebody who would care enough to report me missing. I wasn’t totally ignorant to the dangers of going off for a few days to rummage through abandoned warehouses, or kick it in Oakland soup kitchens, or creep through the alleyways during the London riots. I always had someone who would notice if I was gone for too long. I was always in the daylight or in the bustling public, always knew twelve ways back to a safe place, always took note of every possible exit…and even while being cautious, while being careful, I never felt scared. I was never harassed or assaulted. Was never made uncomfortable. Was never isolated. While going through cities alone, I always felt fully immersed and accepted within my environment. I felt like I belonged there. 

Why do I do it? Besides being, in my opinion, the one true way to get an authentic experience from a place, exploring a city alone is also an act of rebellion. All my life, I have been told to never go anywhere alone — mostly because I am a woman. But countless men I know travel the world alone, or travel their own cities alone. They photograph graffitied warehouses and empty high rises, strike up conversations with strangers on trains, cruise an isolated Chinatown or Little Italy block alone at night. No one ever discourages them. No one ever tells them they’re being reckless. No one ever warns them about what might happen if they don’t “take so-and-so along.” All very real dangers of the world aside, I have never let my sex be enough of a reason to be treated any differently. 

Yes, something bad might happen to me. But something bad could happen to anyone in these circumstances. Something bad could happen in a group, in a hotel, in your own neighborhood. The world we live in, let’s face it, is chaotic, cruel, and above all: random. But it is also beautiful and diverse if you embrace it. I’ve seen things and met people and had experiences and conversations I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it has always been worth every risk. I might give my mother a panic attack for doing this, but my mother didn’t just raise me to be defiant and independent. She raised me to take care of myself, and to go after what I want, and to enjoy life. And what I want is to walk through cities alone, and see them for what they are: beautiful, dangerous, strange, and welcoming.