Tumbles from Sky to Earth: Sascha Altman DuBrul’s Maps to the Other Side
Reviewed by T.K. Dalton
As the title suggests, Sascha Altman DuBrul’s Maps to the Other Side: Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer is an idiosyncratic atlas where the arrow pointing north constantly shifts its orientation. DuBrul has created a memoir and a handbook, a personal clips file and a global manifesto. Though the work of a single person, this intensely honest and beautifully produced collage is not told by a single voice, but by a scattered chorus. That’s not surprising, given the name DuBrul literally made for himself. In the underground zines where some of his stories about train-hopping, permaculture, the punk scene, and “madness” first appeared, the author often published under the nom de Xerox Sascha Scatter. But while the topics and texture of the book have the breadth of windblown seeds, the overall effect is unified and lush as farmland in late summer.
The word ‘maps’ in the title is appropriately plural. DuBrul calls these pieces both “collective love letters” and “a trail for myself.” That paradox between the audience of many and an audience of one suits a book whose structure sometimes imitates the cycles of bipolar disorder. DuBrul has this psychiatric condition, once known as manic depression. Throughout his life he has revelled in his “up” cycles, chanelling that energy to establish seed libraries and online support groups for people with mental illness. (Full disclosure: I learned while reading this book that the latter organization, The Icarus Project, received support from Fountain House, where this writer worked for a year and a half as a staff American Sign Language-English interpreter. There was, however, no overlap between DuBrul and myself.)
DuBrul details these accomplishments in smart, energetic prose that wouldn’t sound out of place at skillshare. He doesn’t shy away from the downsides of his manic energy. DuBrul describes in detail his own hospitalizations, the struggle to accept medication and to engage with the “bio-psychiatric model” of mental illness, and his thoughts on how to utilize what he reframes as the “dangerous gifts” of his brain and his being. DuBrul’s focus on both aspects—the danger and the gift—gives his book its most powerful moments. These dangers are literally matters of life and death.
In typically lush writing, DuBrul recounts the pain following the suicide of a dear friend. “I wanted to get old with Sera Bilizikian in my life. I figured that’s the way it would be. Sera had a beautiful pair of wings that carried her to faraway places on amazing journeys. She burned bright in her short twenty-three years, did a lot of good for the world while she was here, and will be missed by many people.” The language here swings wildly between romantic hyperbole and furious elegy. But it also shows DuBrul’s typical honesty about his own tumbles from sky to earth. “There is a point where you have to come to some kind of conclusion about the nature of your problems,” he writes at another point. “This time last year, I was sitting in a tiny cell in the psych unit of Los Angeles County Jail talking to the flickering light bulbs, thinking that they were listening…I was convinced that I was the center of the universe and it was all so crystal clear, it all made so much sense, that it was a wonder everyone else couldn’t see it. By all measurements, I was stark raving looney toons.”
Both the passage recalling his hospitalization and the passage memorializing Sera are immediate and raw. What I wonder is this: While some lines—“By all measurements, I was stark raving looney toons”—see the past with clarity, others—“I hope that as a community we can learn the lessons from this fucked up tragedy [Sera’s suicide], and that it inspires us to learn to understand and take better care of each other”—focus on a hazily hopeful future. Each sentence is its own kind of message in a bottle. As a reader, I found myself more moved by his reports on what had happened than by thoughts about what might happen—especially since in the present day, the future was already the past.
On the one hand, such future-looking passion is essential to preserving the tone of zines, and the persona of their writer at that point in time; any revision of the document could be an affront to its authenticity, which is at the core of its value. On the other hand, this author is insightful, and has had intense and unique experiences. I wondered how the book would be different had its author used the his current insight and experience to reflect from a greater distance. Maybe this could have done even more to, as he writes, “rethread the tired, old, lonely narratives and build a better future for us and the ones after us.” Or maybe instead of rethreading, the thread would be broken, and the material ruined.
The maps in this psycho-spiritual atlas offer what the best maps do—a way for someone else to follow a path much like this one, a path DuBrul describes as the way to live with “broken-hearted courage.” In this cartography, breakdowns have led to breakthroughs. This map is one that most of us should keep handy.
T. K. Dalton is a writer, teacher, and ASL-English interpreter. His short fiction and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Red Rock Review, Southeast Review, Radical Teacher, Rain Taxi, High Country News, and elsewhere. The manuscript of his novel, MORE SIGNAL, MORE NOISE, has earned him residencies at the Montana Artists Refuge, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; an excerpt will appear in the anthology Deaf Lit Extravaganza (Handtype Press, 2013). He lives in New York City.