by Shane Lange:
Talking with musician, performer, actor, and author Emilie Autumn one quickly begins to feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland.
Instead of caterpillars and mushrooms, however, one finds oneself passing through the gates of Autumn’s fantasy world and into the titular setting of her autobiography, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. A metaphysical catalyst for her own struggle with bipolar disorder (and some truly horrific experiences within the mental health care system) the Asylum is Autumn’s personal Looking-Glass Land, from which real life events are transposed into a cathartic allegory.
“The people that know me – to this moment, my closest friends – most of them will not read this book. Some of them have gotten through three pages and cannot go on, they cannot read it…They’re proud and appreciative and they look through the pictures and think it looks really cool, but they can’t read it…they are afraid of how they will handle it if they read it.”
Over the last several years much of Autumn’s work has revolved around the Asylum concept, which is ultimately an empowering one. Her fans, affectionately referred to as “Plague Rats” after characters in the book, are, she says, often marginalized by society. Perceived as misfits, freaks, and crazies they relate to her personal story and her message – “Primarily, the very simple word of ‘hope’.” On Fight Like A Girl, her most recent album, a note of encouragement carries the last song, urging the listener to keep putting “one foot in front of the other”.
“If there was something that I could say that sounded more poetic or flowery I absolutely would, but really it’s just a matter of you just do it…the Plague Rats, when I speak to them and they tell me their secrets – because god knows I’ve told them mine – they give back and tell me what’s going on with them and oftentimes its very similar things or other very dramatic, scary things, and there is that moment where you know they are looking to you to say something magical that will get them through this next day, and I can say, ‘Just keep going.’ But a lot of times you’re going to hear that and be like, ‘Fuck you – are you kidding? Just keep going? That’s it? Are you serious?’” She likens this to the difference between Ophelia and Hamlet, in which the former makes a fatal choice in a heartbeat while the latter agonizes indecisively over his existential dilemma throughout the story.
“You choose to live or you choose to die, at some point. It cannot be left to what’s being done to you, your medication, your therapy or lack thereof – it is a choice, at some point in some subconscious part of your mind, ‘to be or not to be’ – and I have zero judgement on which of those is the right decision.”
Fight Like a Girl, she says, is about choices for all people, not just women. “Just because you’re a straight white male doesn’t mean you’re the enemy;” however Autumn is noticeably agitated by questions about the gender divide. “I see people, women and men, taking it to such an extreme that you can no longer see the partnership that we both need to have with each other, and you no longer see that we’re actually on the same fucking side.” While she acknowledges that her work makes her a role model and spokesperson on issues of women’s rights and equality, to be targeted and provoked for it misses the point. “It’s a fine line. Sometimes I do feel like, ‘You have a problem with it? Go fuck yourself,’ but most of the time – I can say that if I’m pushed, but it’s not how I really feel, I don’t want you to go fuck yourself – I want to have a conversation. I want to march side by side.”
Currently on tour, Autumn says there is an even split of male and female audience demographics. “That’s the way that it’s been since almost the beginning. It’s funny, because it’s still surprising to me – but it’s not surprising to them. They don’t ask questions about why they should be there, the boys are up there in the very front and screaming, “I fight like a girl” on that song. Every single time. Every single show. Everywhere in the world. It’s so crazy, because in this case I’m being taught a magnificent lesson…no one has ever asked, ‘So…what does this mean for me?”, or, ‘so, are you mad at us?’ Because it’s obvious, it’s obvious that it applies to everybody.”
The book addresses several issues that Autumn has experienced firsthand related to her temporary institutionalization. Several years ago she aborted a pregnancy for fear of passing on her bipolar condition. A subsequent suicide attempt resulted in a traumatic stay in hospital, which set in motion the series of events and observations that culminated in the Asylum book.
There is ample proof, she says, that doctors accept bribes from pharmaceutical companies to overprescribe their products, that marginalized populations are perceived as potential test subjects by health care professionals and academics, and that vulnerable patients stripped of their rights are easy prey for sexual predators within the system. While mental health care practitioners claim to serve the best interests of individuals, “When I’m talking to Plague Rats and they’re trying to deal with things on their own and I know they should be diagnosed with something, I can’t tell them to go check themselves in. When you do that, you’re stripping away someone’s rights until someone decides to give that back. Who would you entrust with that kind of power over your own life?”
“I am not crazy,” she says, “I am stark raving sane. Having had, at some point, a desire to end your own life does not make you crazy. I firmly believe if that’s never even crossed your mind any day in your entire life, I really don’t think that you’ve ever been alive. I think part of life is having those experiences that even just once in a while cause you to question your own existence. To me that’s part of what being alive is. Hopefully you realize that isn’t what’s necessary at that moment, but even if it is, that has no relation to being out of your mind: it means you made a decision that you felt was valid at that moment. And being bipolar does not mean you’re crazy, it means you’ve got some serious challenges, it means you need serious help, and it means you need some serious sympathy and understanding so that you can actually be open to what the gifts of this situation might be.”
Over the course of conversation one learns that Autumn has a fondness for supposition; she often asks, “What would have happened if?” She says there are several elliptical instances throughout The Asylum which subtly hint that things may not be what they seem: “Was I dead the entire time? Did any of this actually happen?”
The question has been with her since early childhood. “When I was two, I had leukemia – I had cancer. They told my mother that she had to prepare for my death, that I had about a week maybe. A week later, my blood cell count started to rise. Nothing had happened – there was no treatment; they weren’t treating me, I was considered gone – and a week after that I am fine. I am perfectly fine, I do not have cancer. No explanation for any of it, ever.” Referring to The Asylum, her statement can also be interpreted on a much broader scope: “You are supposed to question, says the author, the reality of any of it.”
As the discussion wanders through philosophy, psychology, and astrophysics, one begins to feel as though one really has stumbled into wonderland. Veering towards the metaphysical, The Devil’s Carnival comes into view: a short film musical similar in style to Repo! The Genetic Opera, in which Autumn plays the Painted Doll – an enigmatic, world-weary character in Hell who eschews love as a fool’s game. While hell is the principal setting of the first episode she says the second “heavily features the Doll and we see the world in heaven, and we’ll finally learn more about the doll character.”
The Fight Like A Girl tour may be the last time to catch Autumn in a club setting for a while, as there are plans to take the show to the much larger scale of musical theatre next year. “Things I’ve done in the past I’ve been proud of, I know that they’ve meant something, but I knew at the time this is all rehearsal – we are refining all of these very rough objects and we will get them to a place where everything is just sparkly and silky and moves smoothly, and it’s like this is it, this is the diamond platinum version of the Asylum show…”
Constant refinement is a characteristic of all her work, and her words – at the start of the interview she warns, “I talk a lot” – and Autumn applies the same philosophy to the larger issues, reshaping concepts through metaphor to create new configurations: “Here are these topics, none of us really know how to “Fix” the situation, but if we talk about it we’ll somehow get to the actual thought that maybe we can use. Yay metaphors! A life without them means a life without things making sense.”
This interview is part of DarkMedia’s official Women in Horror Recognition Month coverage! Stay tuned for more interviews, articles, and special features, right here on DarkMedia.com.
[Photo Credit: Emilie Autumn Ent. LLC]