Un/Reliable: Reflections in The Drowning Girl

by Jordan Kurella

“It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy,” India Morgan Phelps (or Imp) writes in The Drowning Girl. Or Caitlin R. Kiernan writes. Or Caitlin R. Kiernan writes Imp writing that. 

You get it.

Anyway, what Imp says there is true. It’s a myth. I knew I was “crazy” before I knew I was queer. Growing up in the 80s and 90s in the United States (and elsewhere, so many elsewheres), it was easier to know that hearing voices was wrong, while kissing girls was not wrong. 

Seriously, reading The Drowning Girl was like looking in a mirror.

Exactly like it. Cause a reflection isn’t a replica, right? A mirror mangles you and turns you around on you, so it’ll never be exact. Representation Matters, but it can be hard to get a single individual exactly right, so Kiernan’s book might be the best reflection I’m ever gonna get. Imp hits real close to home. She’s queer and schizophrenic; a writer who lives alone and processes a lot of her feelings and trauma through her work. 

Here’s the turnaround: unlike Imp, I take my medication on a rigid schedule and always see my doctors and have never once been fired from a job. Unlike Imp, I’ve never manifested a hallucination so real I can touch it, but I have been so afraid of voices that I’ve stared at a blank spot on the wall while chewing a long-dead piece of gum.

Unlike Imp, I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker by the side of the road, but I’ve tried to be one when my mind was reeling and I jumped out of a car because I didn’t know what was safe or sane. What is real anyway? And that’s the question everyone asks of schizophrenic people: how much do you really know about yourselves?

We know a lot, actually.

Like: I have schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. My hallucinations and delusions and paranoia all spike in periods of mania, depression, or PTSD. Because yeah, I got that too. I even have a service dog so I can leave the house, for when the PTSD triggers that have me counting every single exit from every single building, every potential danger on the street, every suspicious thing on the sidewalk.

The world is a dangerous place; don’t believe the safe hype.

“All beginnings are arbitrary,” Imp writes in her room with too many bookshelves. And it’s true. In the beginning, I was a girl, apparently. In the beginning, I was dressed in pink and whisked off across the world to so many nice people who pinched my cheeks promised me I’d live happily ever after. 


That’s not how my life went, nor Imp’s either. The beginning of The Drowning Girl sets us up to believe that nothing Imp writes down will be real, or has been real, or ever has been real. But the fact is, Imp’s life remains real even though parts of it are not. With schizophrenia (and schizophrenia disorders) the veil between fantasy and reality becomes blurred (I say, as a fantasy writer). When not doing well, we don’t know where the lie stops and the truth begins.

And this is the arbitrariness of Imp’s story.

The fiction, in effect, becomes reality, becomes fiction.

But who she is really remains fact. Who we really are, as people, remains fact. Which is where people touch on the unreliable narrator aspect of Imp––and many people with schizophrenia disorders: we aren’t who we say we are; we have no grasp on The Real. 

That right there, is a lie.

We do know The Real, most of it. We might know we’re crazy; we probably know other certain things about ourselves. I know that I am nonbinary and I am a lesbian and that I have to get up in the morning and take my medication. I know exactly how many coffees I need to make it through the day and how good of a girl my service dog is (she is the best).

These things are real.

What is not-unreliable about me (and also Imp) are the inherent truths about me. But these inherent truths sometimes come in conflict with the lies that other people believe. However, these lies rarely fit. Too often, others will coat me in their lies, refusing to believe my own truths, until I, unfortunately, come to believe others too. At one time, I stopped believing my own truths about sexual orientation, gender identity, desire, and more.

When I finally found these lies too uncomfortable to wear anymore, I shed them, much to the chagrin of everyone who put them on me. I had to shed many of these people, too. Like a skin. So often, people with mental illness/neurodiverse people (especially non cis men) are told to wear lies about themselves like costumes. That inherent truths about themselves cannot be real. That unreliability extends to their core being. 

This also is a lie.

Too often has the myth of the unreliable narrator extended from beyond a mentally ill character in fiction, to the mentally ill person actually existing in the physical world. We’re treated as the naive ingenue who knows nothing and can know nothing, and needs the hand of a strong (usually) cis man to guide them into who and what they are. This is a dangerous and damning myth. 

It, itself, is unreliable.

“There’s always a siren singing you to shipwreck,” Imp writes. This isn’t a mistake: schizophrenia disorders, with their voices and their visions, have been compared to siren song. But the way fiction and media treat people with these disorders are as if we are the sirens; as if we are the mermaids. We have often been depicted as either the mass murderous sirens of Odyssean fate, or warped and trapped figures, doomed to be moored on a rock while our beloveds sail away without us forevermore.

Kiernan has a different take on this idea in The Drowning Girl. While suicidality is not completely absent in the book, the fact is, Imp chooses life. As I did. I came back from my psychotic break and the hospital, returning to the college I left dramatically. I returned to sidelong glances and had to pick up pieces and repair a reputation I didn’t mean to shatter. But I did it. 

It was fine.

What was not fine? Slipping into the skin of who I was, after being told I was too unwell to know who I was for decades. This aspect of being unreliable haunted me forever: that I couldn’t know about myself because schizophrenic. It was a death sentence to identity. An identity that is real.

Identity is reliable. Ish.

It may have eluded me, especially with how many times people tried to steal it, mask it. How many times people tried to conceal it, dress it up pretty. But I would always be me: in that way, I knew myself, as Imp knew herself. In my experience in social work, we schizophrenic-types are pretty good at knowing exactly who we are. 

So as Imp returns to her life after her adventures; as she returns to her work, her room with too many bookshelves, her need to explain and explain and explain. I know that I have done that too. Once from the psych hospital; more than once as I came into my true self. More than once as I got to know who I really, actually was. Which has less to do with being “crazy,” and more with others’ deciding on how to treat a “crazy” person.

There are a ton of truths that are really not self-evident. Like, I know that the line between fantasy and reality isn’t a wall, it’s a membrane. I know that being unreliable isn’t about me specifically; it isn’t about being schizophrenic or being queer.

It’s about being human. 

Or as passable as anyone gets.

© Copyright Jordan Kurella

Jordan Kurella is a queer and disabled author who has lived all over the world (including Cairo and Chicago). In their past lives, they were a barista, radio DJ, and social worker. Their work has been featured in Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Strange Horizons.

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