Interview: Nate Powell Pt 3 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

A exploration on the admittedly sometimes fuzzy line that separates childhood schizophrenia from standard youthful fantasy, Swallow Me Whole presents a definite point-of-no-return between the two, for its protagonist, Ruth, during the course of the story. Where precisely in the book said moment occurs, however, is perhaps not quite so clear.

Where author Nate Powell puts the line in his own reading of the book, presents some fascinating insight into the author’s own views on mental illness, as well as its manifestations and treatment. The precise placement of the line that separates an individual who can be successfully treated from one who is “too far gone,” is particularly interesting in light of Powell’s years spent working with the both developmentally disabled and mentally ill adults.

In this third part of our interview, we discuss breaking points and the scapegoating of mental illness.

[Part One][Part Two]

There’s certainly a point in the book in which Ruth—more so than her brother—becomes a danger to herself. As far as her breaking point, I have a feeling I would point to something different than you. Based on what you were saying about confrontation with authority, it seems like for you, that moment might be when she’s approached by the principal and a police officer.

Right. That’s the point of return, definitely. The important thing specifically about that act of violence is that, first off, that tale about the Nolan Richardson Baby Ruth bar actually happened to me. at the time, no one responded at all, because it was such a wild, wild thing for a teacher to say. So there was was a personal vindication there. I was so excited to draw it.

There was catharsis.

Oh, absolutely. I was finally able to hit this teacher in the face with a book. It really needed to happen, to be honest. But, at the same time, this is where the stigma comes into play. This is where I hit that gray area that is powerful and relevant in this particular story–the fact that her act of violence is considered a product of her mental disorder.

She is in the office, vying for the rational nature—or not even the rational nature, but the fact that she had reason to commit the act of violence, and they’re actually vying that it’s an inherently irrational act, and they’re using her disorder as a way of getting rid of her. It’s a way of using that few bad apples theory to discount whether acts of violence, collective acts of disobediance—once something gets stigmatized as a product of either an irrational mind or an inherently violent movement, it’s easy to discount any action and remove reason from anything that might subsequently occur.

By the same token, there’s that old argument about pleading an insanity defense in a murder case—if anyone is going to commit a murder, clearly there’s something not right there, mentally.

Yeah. And actually, this is an extreme example, but one of my personal references when doing that scene was, I was considering the case of the Unibomber. Not that any innocent person ever needed to die at the hands of the Unibomber, but I find it incredibly interesting and very much worth discussing, at least, that, during his trial, his entire platform was that he wanted his fate to be determined on the soundness of his ideas. He did not want to be an insane Unibomber, he wanted to make the point that he committed these acts as an activism based on ideas. Obviously, based on his actions, he is not sound, but he’s arguing that he’s not insane.

In terms of Ruth’s action’s subquent to that act of violence, do you think she would have argued similarly in her own defense, or do you think that, at some point, she would have chalked that up to her own insanity?

Basically Ruth the entire time, she reaches a point, around halfway through the book—I think it’s right around the time where she actually starts communicating with, what I refer to as the “queen bullfrog,” which is actually an impossibility, because bullfrogs have to be male. But when she encounters the bullfrog in the museum, she kind of gets to a point where she’s starting to question the idea of fighting whatever these powers are that are trying to claim her brain.

In terms of being an adolescent who’s very invested in what she believes in, I think that the book incident that sends her into the office is kind of the final straw for her, and she’s kind of tired of trying to prove herself sane to anyone, and I think, as far as conflicts with her parents, later in the book, she’s already long since made a decision, by that point.

–Brian Heater

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