All in My Head

by Jane Hu

This fall I made what is almost a comically bad economic decision: I started a PhD program in English Literature. Leaving my home of seven years in Montreal, I moved to California and, by the end of September, was watching Twin Peaks in a seminar with Linda Williams. It was a class on serial television, and though Linda posed the question as to whether TV studies had a chip on its shoulders, we largely proceeded from the assumption that TV ought to be taken seriously. This mental negotiation of approaching one’s scholarship with just the proper amount of self-ridicule isn’t singular to graduate seminars on TV, it turns out, as I found myself at various moments in those early weeks asking just what exactly it was I was doing with my life. You know, really doing.


In all these ways, my semester began predictably.

Like a gentle hazing ritual, older students warned the first years about the job market — but always in terms of making light of the whole sordid situation. On top of the potential parochialism of scholarship, after all, there was the added threat that a decade of pursuing it might still not earn a living wage. Pretty funny, but definitely funnier for the self-aware! Were we all doomed to be punch lines of a very tired joke? In which no one got a job? But the true comedy of grad school perhaps is that its beats are more uneven than that — you often can’t anticipate when one is coming. Because no matter what anyone says, academia does not occur in a bubble. Life happens.

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A little more than a month into this first semester, my head broke. I fell off a bike, helmetless, and split my right temple on the edge of a curb. The cut missed my eye by an inch, though at the time — sitting concussed and slightly bloody in the street — I was largely focused on locating my glasses, grateful to find them intact. It did not occur to me then that, had I fallen a little less to the side of my face, I might have cut the lenses; or they might have cut me. The details between the ambulance ride to ER and the IVs that leave my arm still bruised are ultimately boring. I’m pretty sure it hurt? When my roommate drove me home from the hospital, I managed to get all the vomit inside a Whole Foods bag, apologizing between burps. I’m pretty sure it was funny.

The following days were sheer slapstick. No longer able to write the essay due that week, I instead found myself returning to the hospital for a CAT scan. (“It hurts to move my eyes,” I told my doctor over the phone, upon which she immediately asked me back. My initial vital signs were so good that this new development seemed cause for alarm.) Her first sentence after the results came in were “You surprised me” — words you never really want to hear from your doctor. The x-ray revealed shattered bones, as tiny fractures surrounded my right eye and collapsed the bone from which one’s jaw muscles hang. “How much pain were you really in that day?” my doctor’s now a source of cheering validation. “You’re a tough cookie.” (A cruel metaphor, given the scan!)

Next came surgery; then more drugs, more stitches, some more pain, a lot more jokes. There were entire days where I lost hold of the fact that I was in California for grad school. At the same time, I was never more aware of how contingent school was upon my recovering. My ER doctor informed me in gentle tones that my face would bear a permanent scar, and my surgeon warned me about the risks of nerve loss, but the scariest thing anyone said to me was by my initial discharge nurse, who explained how internal bleeding in the head and around the brain can occur in weird pressurized ways, slowly and over time. “If anything seems off over the next few days,” he said, “come back to the ER immediately.” Funny instructions, but you get what he meant.


In Eve Sedgwick’s remarkable essay about paranoid reading, she explains that “the first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises.” She continues: “because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known.” As I kept finding myself in waiting rooms, anticipating yet another turn of the screw, I wondered whether paranoia demanded that “there must be no bad surprises,” or whether it was simply the case that most surprises are bad, paranoid or not.

Aware of the implications of Getting a PhD In This Economy (thank you cautionary think pieces!), how could I have truly prepared for the degree? And even if I could have, no one ever factors in the probability of something like a head injury. “Guess what,” writes Sedgwick at one point, “you can never be paranoid enough.” Here, Sedgwick is being half-facetious, channeling the words of another critic, D.A. Miller, but at the time of my unraveling accident, I read that line in new light: guess what, you can never be prepared enough. An apt sentiment for 2014 too, perhaps.

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A friend who had been counseling me through my academic hesitations made, upon hearing about the accident, a seamless observation: “The psychoanalytic obviousness of getting a violent head injury during your first term of a PhD program is no compensation. Being hit over the head with etc. I wish you’d been given a helmet, in multiple ways.” She was right, of course, though over the following months, I learned to turn the accident into another form of compensation. School had already been confounding enough; my head injury seemed only the natural externalization of that. Instead of “grad school is weird because I’m all wrong,” I could now say “grad school is weird because I fell on my head!” In ways, the injury became a source of relief. Don’t understand what you’re reading? Blame it on the concussion. Too nauseous to attend class? Concussion! I mean, maybe it was all in my head.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of these justifications was just how little a difference there might seem between a real concussion and a fake one — how, though it might be reassuring to have a concrete reason for intellectual deficiencies, one can never be entirely sure how to diagnose failures of understanding. Just because you’re concussed doesn’t mean that something might just be difficult in its own right. You can never be paranoid enough.

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But Sedgwick’s theory is more complex that, and takes into account paranoia’s flip side: reparative reading or, in other words, the possibility of good surprises.

Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates. Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.

(Can you imagine 2014 happening any other way than it did? Should you?)

The dogged, defensive narrative stiffness of a paranoid temporality, after all, in which yesterday can’t be allowed to have differed from today and tomorrow must be even more so, takes its shape from a generational narrative that’s characterized by a distinctly Oedipal regularity and repetitiveness: it happened to my father’s father, it happened to my father, it is happening to me, it will happen to my son, and it will happen to my son’s son. But isn’t it a feature of queer possibility — only a contingent feature, but a real one, and one that in turn strengthens the force of contingency itself — that our generational relations don’t always proceed in this lockstep?

Sedgwick wrote this essay in 1997, which isn’t that long ago when you consider all the consistently terrible years that have occurred between then and now, not to mention those that preceded it. But to take such a view is always to read as a paranoiac — to try to be paranoid or prepared enough, rather than attempting to realize a different outcome entirely. Hope is fracturing, sure, but as Sedgwick reminds us, it remains crucial.


Photo by Julian Bleecker

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.