Trisha Cull, The Death of Small Creatures (Gibsons: Nightwood, 2015). Paperbound, 240 pp., $22.95.
Without the many risks that Trisha Cull takes in her memoir The Death of Small Creatures would be an easier read. She chronicles ten stomach-churning years in which she lives with bipolar disorder, bulimia, various kinds of addiction and self-abuse—subject matters that in themselves make great demands on the writer and the reader. The Death of Small Creatures compiles online blog entries, letters, and her psychiatrist’s notes, which present alternate versions to her first-person account. Loosely organized in a linear fashion, Cull’s narrative is told in a fitful and fragmented way, with mixed results. While it sometimes flounders under the weight of superfluous details and an overstated style, it tries to avoid the familiar trajectory of the redemption story. Cull ventures into a territory of her own, sometimes dragging us with her unwillingly, sometimes effortlessly lifting us there through her insight, honesty, and startling descriptive powers. Even if her creative choices fall short of their goals, the result is ultimately more interesting and memorable because of the chances she has taken.
An excerpt of Cull’s journal from 2008 serves as an introduction and the reader is plunged into the ongoing crisis of her life: doctors’ appointments to adjust her dosage of Effexor; a desire to leave her husband; a new part-time job in the midst of her depression; notes on the “highest high of [her] so-called hypomanias thus far” and, a few weeks later, a description of how “the depression squeezes [her] throat, digs in, presses [her] earthward.” The choppy and nonlinear paragraphs perhaps mimic Cull’s near-constant “state[s] of shock” while overwhelmed with logistical challenges, yet the reader must struggle to keep track of the timeline and to tease out the most important details. Each chapter zooms in on a month or two between 2003 and 2013, sometimes skipping years, and sometimes slowing down. Each chapter also circles a few key events and closes with an excerpt from her journals that serves to foreshadow the difficulties ahead.
The chapters follow one timeline, while the journals jump forward. This is the structure that Cull sets up for the rest of The Death of Small Creatures. Cull ambitiously gives each chapter an ostensible topic: becoming vegetarian, her pet rabbits, travels in Cuba and Rome, her first stay at the psychiatric ward and subsequently doing crack cocaine while on a camping trip. One chapter zeroes in on the sessions with her psychiatrist, about whom she obsesses for four years after leaving her husband. Crammed with images and revelatory moments, Cull creates a multilayered and contradictory narrative, with gaps that inevitably arise from the haze of alcoholism, depression, and over-the-counter drugs. Cull herself is trying to fill in the gaps of her own history while highlighting her own unreliability. However, her honesty is almost unbearable, and it becomes the badge of her courage. Cull goes beyond the limits of oversharing, so that I almost physically wanted to turn my face away from the pages of sharp, harrowing details and self-criticism. She admits to her inhumanity, a dependency on others, her cruel remarks, and her vanity. She admits to wanting all men to love her: “I am selfish, I need to be selfish: it is a matter of self-preservation. I must consume as much love and affection as possible.” She details her pain and her abjection, to hiding away in the “hovel” of makeshift cardboard walls and shelving units in the basement with her two rabbits, and sleeping all day after consuming “copious amounts of dextromethorphan” and double dosages of her medication, to cutting herself for the love of “that sudden and terrible splitting of skin, because I enjoy my own screwed-up heroics and ploys for martyrdom.” Cull’s descriptions of her worst times have a strange effect on the reader—you find yourself frustrated and angry with her. After all, she is privileged to have a comfortable home, and a supportive family. Confronted with her guilt and self-castigation, you then try to forgive her, and hope she can forgive herself. Ultimately, the book is edifying. It shows the lived reality of someone dealing with mental illness and how difficult treatment can be when it is complicated by a thrill-seeking personality, addiction, and toxic relationships.
Still, for long periods, Cull is functional even as she battles her illnesses. She does housework, cares for her pets, works at various part-time administrative jobs, keeps an online blog, and writes throughout the ordeal. This book gives us an idea of the types of support and treatments available in Canada’s mental health care system, and a picture of the role of the family.
Yet there is no key to the mystery of mental illness—it cannot be explained away by poor choices or personality. In Cull’s case, respite comes from electroshock therapy, medication, and a caring psychiatrist. One of the greatest dangers is how illness and addiction came to define Cull’s identity, so that she did not know how to be or who to be in its absence. Being a writer helped her to find herself again, reminding us that many are still struggling.