Memoir and personal reflections are the texts that interest me most, so I chose to map a memoir I was reading called Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life by Melody Moezzi. Melody Moezzi has many identities. She is a manic-depressive, Iranian-American Muslim activist, attorney, writer, and award-winning author. In her memoir she chronicles her experience of clinical and cultural bipolarity, and I wondered how this duality would project on geographical terrain. I wondered about her relationship with each of these identities, and if there was a way that mapping might display patterns in her life that were otherwise not evident in linear text.
I started the project using ArcGIS StoryMaps, because I liked the idea of making this a scrapbook or personal journal of sorts. I used a map done in watercolor to give it a hand-drawn aesthetic, and to extend the personal. I also liked the idea of presenting different map snippets with sections of her writing, rather than my own interpretation of her writing:
However, this format quickly became problematic, because so much of her experience was of relationships between and juxtapositions: locations in the United States and Iran; locations where she was mentally well, and where she was manic; who she was when she was living American and Iranian culture. Small snippets like that displayed above were too small to show these relationships, and standing alone the bipolar quality of her identity was lost.
I then switched to use the ArcGIS app alone. This gave me some more flexibility with space and relationships, but the first thing that was obvious about mapping a personal narrative that was not my own was that a geographical map created boundaries where they may not naturally exist for the writer. For Moezzi, someone who experiences clinical and cultural bipolarity, boundaries are blurred, and shift regularly. Boundaries and names of boundary lines shift at given points in history, i.e., during the Iranian Revolution, during which time she became a refugee. Mentally, boundaries can disappear altogether in a given day, i.e., when she’s at once sleeping in a room in Ohio in college while also being terrorized by a glowing, green spider far away from the bed she’s physically in.
Figuring out locations to add to the map was also more complex with a personal narrative, and in fact, she opens the book talking about whether or not the specifics of her story should be trusted at all, because of the nature of her mind and her mind on medication. I also knew that names and places were changed for privacy. Some locations were known. For example, she visits family in Tehran. She was born in Chicago, grew up in Ohio, and went to law school at Emory. However, specific streets or locations weren’t named in most cases so where I put markers on the map aren’t precise. Most significantly, a major site of her life and story takes place at Stillbrook, a mental institution, but the name has been changed. Without a name and location, it would have been left off altogether, and her narrative in visual form would render silent a major part of her identity and activism. Who is she without her clinical bipolarity? It is not for me to rewrite her story, which I would in effect be doing. Therefore, I traced other places in the narrative to create a location in close proximity. For example, she mentioned she was at the Emory infirmary before being institutionalized, so placed a marker on a mental hospital near Emory. It is not correct, and is in fact a lie. But which inaccuracy was less harmful? I decided that it was more important to present her whole identity rather than go with precision.
Deciding on symbols for the map was an area where I pushed the boundaries of a traditional basemap available on ArcGIS, and also found it lacking. For example, I reflected her memories and experiences as an Iranian and Muslim woman with the “General Infrastructure” mosque symbol. Without context, the mosque symbol is definitely misleading! I struggled most with symbols for her mental health. I liked the fuzziness of the “Firefly” symbol, but it gave the impression that anytime she grappled with her mental health she was erratic and fuzzy. That was not the case. In fact, the various ways that her symptoms manifested almost required different symbols from episode to episode or type of symptom, i.e., insomnia, hypermania, etc. As such, I chose regular stickpins, which I wasn’t pleased with. I tried using a color coding of yellow, orange, and red to reflect severity of symptoms, but that was another point where I was making decisions about her life in visual form. Would institutionalization be red, or should moments when she was raging and suicidal prior to institutionalization be depicted as worse? Again, this was another boundaryless area, and adding color coding was something I couldn’t get comfortable with. I ran into the same problem with symbol size, which I attempted to use to signify which moments in her life had the greatest impact. Symbols introduced bias at every turn. I found it harder and harder to add any moments to the map with significance that didn’t distort her story.
As my map took shape — or rather didn’t take shape — it became clear that it was impossible to use this geographical basemap, with its preset location markers (most of which were not important to her story), to reflect the complexity of her humanity. My map would not represent the terrain of her emotional life — anguish, confusion, longing, heartbreak, and unpredictability. It was also impossible to map the silences in her story, i.e., when she was well and thriving, because a) that wasn’t the scope of her book, and b) how would I reflect that? Would all empty space be considered areas where she was well?
Without the ability to project moments of wellness, joy, and her incredible humor onto the map, I fell into the trap of perpetuating the common story about people with disability or chronic conditions: they are their illness. I was not okay with this, and it felt irresponsible. I felt protective of her. She isn’t a fragile person, and despite several stays in psychiatric hospitals, bombarded with tranquilizers and anti-psychotics, she refused to be shamed into secrecy. Refusing to be ashamed or silenced, Moezzi became an outspoken advocate, determined to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and reclaim her life along the way. Perhaps if mental illness was not so stigmatized, continuing with the map wouldn’t feel so off limits. After multiple attempts to add her writing to points on the map, I came to the conclusion that not every tool works for every project, and to force a project into a tool does it much harm. We must remember to bring care to our work.
Here is my map, as it turned out: