In 2019, Thembi was awarded a practice-based PhD from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Their dissertation is titled “A Dense Mass of Indecipherable Fear: The Experiential (Non)Narration of Trauma and Madness through Acousmatic Sound” and can be downloaded from the RMIT research repository.
This research investigated ways to embody the idea of a ‘first-person madness narrative’ within electroacoustic composition and sound art installation. The term ‘first-person madness narrative’ refers to any text that in some way describes a person’s lived experience with so-called* mental illness or significant emotional/psychological distress (or however they wish to identify it), and often reflects upon their interaction with the mental health system. Thembi’s research draws on these published texts as well as their own lived experiences with depression, anxiety, psychiatric care and trauma.
When developing this project, Thembi drew strong influence from the book Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meaning of Madness written by professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Gail A. Hornstein. This book examines psychiatric survivor, Mad pride, and mental health ‘consumer’ advocacy movements, illustrating the vast difference in the way the medical profession understands and (poorly) treats mental illness, and the needs, opinions and experiences of the people using these services. Through their research, Thembi aimed to find creative ways to conceptualise and communicate about their own first-hand experiences, highlighting the value of experiential approaches to understanding, researching and communicating about mental health.
The flexile nature of perception, and its role in mental illness and distress, was a key focus of the research inquiry—how perception is malleable and easily influenced yet so powerful as to determine all actions, emotions and desires. This was investigated through the concept of ‘perceptual collapse’, which was drawn from a talk entitled Why We Choose Suicide by Canadian mental health advocate Mark Henick. In this talk Henick describes his depression and multiple suicide attempts, placing them within the framework of perceptual collapse. He explains how our perception expands and contracts in response to our physical makeup (biology), the state of our mind (psychology), and the environment around us (society), illustrating how everyone’s perception narrows from time to time. He asks us to imagine remaining “stuck there in that dark, narrow place”, stating, “that’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness.”
Practical research involves experimentation with sampling, musique concrète, acousmatic sound, text, and multi-speaker listening environments, reflecting on their interactions with emotions, perception, and construction of narrative meaning.
Recommended First-Person ‘Madness’ Narratives:
Danquah, Meri Nana-Ama. Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression: A Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1998.
Greenberg, Joanne. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. New York: St Martin’s Paperback, 2009.
Kusama, Yayoi. Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama. Translated by Ralph McCarthy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Linton, Samara and Rianna Walcott, eds. The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME Mental Health in the UK. Edinburgh: Skiddaw Books, 2018.
MacKay, Sandra Yuen. My Schizophrenic Life: The Road to Recovery from Mental Illness. Canada: Bridgeross Communications, 2010.
Ramprasad, Gayathri. Shadows in the Sun: Healing from Depression and Finding the Light Within. Minnesota: Hazelden, 2014.
Webb, David. Thinking About Suicide: Contemplating and Comprehending the Urge to Die. Herefordshire: PCCS Books, 2010.
Williams, Terrie M. Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting. New York: Scribner, 2008. Kindle.
Zürn, Unica. The Man of Jasmine & Other Texts. Translated & Introduced by Malcolm Green. London: Atlas Press, (1971) 1994.
More on Thembi’s:
*The term ‘so called’ appears before mental illness to acknowledge that the Western medical framework for understanding these experiences is only one way of understanding these experiences, and it does not always resonate or is appropriate in context of various individuals experiences or cultures. It is not used to discredit those for whom the term mental illness does resonate, nor the medical model completely. Thembi’s work aims to provoke thought around various ways individuals might find an understanding of their experiences that is most meaningful for them.