Dean Kostos on Stopping Mental Health Stigma
Author: Larissa Shmailo
March 24, 2020
Dean Kostos, poet and educator, anthologist and curator of Greek and Greek-American poetry, editor of the the self-knowing Mama’s Boy. Dean’s poetry is lyric and vivid, the hallmark of a new surrealism in which The Twilight Zone meets Neruda and Dickinson and the latest victim of a hate crime. Dean has now turned his hand to memoir, focusing on his experience as a bullied gay teen who “listened to paintings” and escaped brutality though art. I encountered Dean through his award-winning collection selected by Mark Doty, This Is Not a Skyscraper, and knew I had to make friends. Now it’s your turn to meet Dean, as you read our interview and learn more about his memoir The Boy Who Listened to Paintings.
You have a new and pertinent memoir, The Boy Who Listened to Paintings, from Spuyten Duyvil. Tell me something of your personal history that’s depicted in this work.
The memoir initially exposes my family’s dynamics. I was my mother’s son; my brother was my father’s. Theirs was the power affiliation. I wouldn’t have seen this as a manifestation of sexism and homophobia, but that’s clearly what was going on. When my brother got his hands on an illegal gun, with bullets, my father didn’t make him turn it in. From that point on, night-long arguments erupted between my parents, regarding the firearm. I lived in fear of it, in my own home. Sometimes my parents’ arguments lasted so long that I slept in the car.
At school, I was bullied relentlessly. It became my normal, what I expected and deserved. This was the origin of shame issues. It was an extension of what I learned at home: A “real” boy got to do whatever he wanted, even if the gun resulted in a death. I assumed the kids (like my brother) who engaged in this behavior knew something was innately wrong with me, something I needed to change. But I had no idea how I could recast myself as someone worthy of being treated as an equal, someone “normal.” I grew up in a small town in South Jersey, where, at that time, no one talked about bullying. The attitude was, “toughen up; act like a man.” I would have been the very last person to acknowledge that I was gay. The notion horrified me. I horrified myself.
I didn’t have a very sturdy foundation on which to establish a self. You use the phrase “come out” to refer to sexual orientation and mental illness. When I was seven-years-old, my mother had a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized for three months. Upon her return, our next-door neighbor claimed my mother had “crazy germs” and that I had caught them. As a result, I was banned from walking on most of our neighbors’ lawns for four years, for I had caught my mother’s crazy germs. I was a threat to all that was good.
It was yet another form of bullying—one initiated by adults. But I had respect for the tall words of adults.
We have discussed coming out about mental illness as well as coming out as gay, all the repercussions and prejudices. Would you tell your readers about your experiences “coming out” and in fighting these stigmatized identities?
Back at home, the storm of words between my parents raged. My mother’s psychiatrist thought it would be good to send me off to boarding school, to protect me from my brother’s gun, which he had threatened me with. Again, he wasn’t made to turn the gun in or to be shipped off to boarding school. That was done to the inferior son. As a result of being shunned, bullied, pushed down stairs, etc., I chose to take my own life. I decided to hang myself with a noose made of neckties. My radio, which had been a constant friend, was playing. Right before my second foot lifted from the chair, “Eleanor Rigby” came on the radio. It struck me that while there seemed to be little to live for, there would always be beauty. That would be enough to live for. Whether it was the paintings I studied at my Saturday-afternoon art classes, a song, or a cloud emblazoned with sun, beauty would always be there. That became a vow, helping me to choose life.
I kept the attempt to myself, until I was sent off to boarding school. From the very first day, I realized I couldn’t fit in and was seen as worthy of their taunts and fists. At one point, they put me in a burlap bag and took turns kicking it. The only person I trusted was my brilliant biology teacher. He told me about a minister who was also a psychologist. I did tell him about the one suicide attempt and that I fantasized about doing it again. I had been pushed down stairs. My essay on To the Lighthouse was thrown in the toilet and defecated upon. I didn’t dare come out as LGBT until years later. That stigma was still too frightening.
While getting committed to a mental hospital may not occur to most teens as a viable way for getting out of boarding school, it was the only power I had. After two sessions with the psychologist (describing my suicidal ideation), he was convinced the school was doing me harm. He composed a letter, getting me out of the boarding school and into the mental hospital.
I remembered The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital (referred to as the Toot) as a serene place, surrounded by trees and azaleas. My parents had been so adamant about boarding school that I realized this would be the only way out. And it worked. I figured the psychiatrist would test me for a week or two and realize I was fine. Then, I’d be released and would continue to live with my family, gun and all.
Unfortunately, two weeks became two years. Being a teen, I attended a marvelous school at the Toot—something like graduate school for high school students.
One of the revelations was the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose so-called “terrible sonnets” gave voice to depression. In doing so, he transformed truculent pain into a shimmering language. His sense of redemption taught me how art would be an agent for change in my life.
Indeed, writing about that period of time has been like performing surgery on myself without anesthesia. Now that the memoir is going out into the world, to be read by other people, I feel exposed. I’ve “come out” about my psychological struggles, which continue to this day. It’s daunting, but I would like to think that this will save lives, both adolescent and adult. I write this after recently reading that teen suicide has risen considerably. If my memoir can be an agent of change, eradicating the shame and stigma of mental illness, then my own discomfort has been of value. It’s interesting that coming out as gay now makes me feel less exposed than coming out as a person who has struggled with psychological conditions.
You are known primarily as an award-winning poet. How did your poetry writing influence your writing of your memoir?
The Greek root of the word “poem” means a “made thing.” Poetry, especially after Imagism, relies on sensory details. Having a visual arts background, I want the scenes to come alive visually. I suppose I could also include that my poetry and prose are influenced by movies—the close-ups, the jump-cuts. Regardless of the art form, the artist wants the reader to enter into the experience, as opposed to being told what to feel or think. Forgive the cliché, but “show, don’t tell” remains a powerful strategy, whether creating a painting, movie, poem, or memoir. The most affecting memoirs (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for example) create a world that the reader cannot resist falling into.
Tell me something about your influences, which range from The Twilight Zone to Sylvia Plath to the surrealists to Kant.
For me, poetry is using words to say what words can’t say. At its core, poetry embodies that paradox. I’ve never considered my work Kantian, but I do agree with Kant’s concept that “things-in-themselves exist, but their nature is unknowable.” Logic only takes us so far; beyond that, much of life is unknowable, Maybe that’s why my work had a surrealistic quality before I had ever read the surrealists. At one of the first poetry workshops I attended, I presented an unfinished poem about shaving and sculpting the stubble into a vase. Nothing came of that poem, but it was liberating to abandon “logic,” strictly following imagery. Surrealism is intensely image-driven, which appeals to me as a former visual artist. Then, when I started to study with the marvelous poet, memoirist, and mentor—Molly Peacock—she suggested I read Michael Benedikt’s anthology, The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology. It remains one of my favorite books.
Although Plath is considered a confessional poet, I find that label condescending. Her work is surrealistic. For example, the poem “Mystic” begins with the line, “The air is a mill of hooks.” Of course, it’s metaphorical, which is at the core of all surreal poems. It’s one step away from simile. Robert Burns wrote, “O my Luve is like a red, red rose.” Remove the “like,” and it’s a metaphor. Take the metaphor even further, and you’ve got a surreal poem: “O my Luve has red, red petals growing from her scalp and thorns growing from her elbows.” What many people may not know about Plath is that she was also a gifted visual artist. She was also enamored of the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
You ask about The Twilight Zone. It’s literary. The prologues and epilogues are some of the most eloquent uses of language in the history of television. Rod Serling, ironically, graduated from Antioch University in Ohio, where I attended grad school. The Twilight Zone’s plots, concepts, lush film-noir quality, and the Bernard Herrmann scores create episodes that I have seen dozens of times. Each time I catch something new. Of course, I watched these episodes as a child. I could lose myself in their strange and often disturbing beauty. I wonder how many poets have been influenced by The Twilight Zone. I aspire to write poems as good as Serling’s episodes. We share an interest in mannequins, dolls, and ventriloquist’s dummies.
Which influences came to play in the memoir and why?
When I was a child, shortly after my mother’s hospitalization, I created dolls from toilet paper. As time passed, the dolls were more and more lifelike. I made entire families—several generations! I managed to pour all my fears and distress on the dolls. I wrote their names on their backs and kept them in a box below my bed. Dolls got angry, sad, and eventually died. Some committed suicide; some committed murder. Then I needed to understand death. I buried the dolls in the sand around the swings in our backyard. Chanting in made-up Greek words (like dollios), I acted like a priest and planted a twig marker where I had buried the doll. I returned in a week or two to dig up the doll. It was my way of “seeing” what death looked like. After seeing the doll’s remains, I interred the doll in its permanent burial ground in the clay banks of the creek alongside our house. At night, large muskrats patrolled those banks. I imagine that doing these enactments gave me some sense of power, when, in fact, I had none.
You write poignantly about your experiences as a teen attempting suicide. Whom do you want to reach?
While I do think adults will relate to my memoir, I also hope that young adults and teens will respond to the book. According to the CDC, the epidemic of teen suicide has risen. I hope I can reach those kids and that this book can save lives.
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I have another collection of poems in the works (my ninth), an idea for a children’s book, and I unearthed a libretto that I had started years ago, at Yaddo. A composer friend is interested in collaborating with me. I welcome new directions.