Gravel Angels and the Social Freak Brigade: The Icarus Project Comes to Virginia Tech

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Listen to the radio show we recorded last week on the vtech campus:

Listen to the interview Madigan and Will did with Molly from Asheville for Madness Radio:

Also check out the NPR story on Weekend America:

It’s the year 2007 and I’m traveling with a couple carloads of fellow radical mental health activists that have come to Blacksburg to facilitate a

discussion about mental health on the Virginia Tech campus. We’re all very excited and nervous, we’ve been talking about it for days, unsure of the situation we’re walking into. Ever since the infamous massacre on April 16th, when 23 year old English student Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people before killing himself in a spectacular display of mass media inspired brutality, this campus has become, among other things. a dramatic symbol to many of everything that’s wrong with college mental health services in the United States. Of course the really scary part is that what happened at Virginia Tech could have happened at any number of big universities and the odds are likely that it will happen again. There are a lot of alienated and disturbed kids out there that have fallen through the cracks in a fragmented, traumatized society, and a there are also a lot of guns.

The orange and maroon signs are everywhere as soon as we enter Main Street in Blacksburg:


It feels like we’re suddenly in the middle of a war. Or a football game. Or both. It feels like the America that’s always viscerally terrified me since I was a young child watching patriotic images on television: the America of jocks and coaches and soldiers, the bullies that make the freaks of the world like me cower in the hallways in fear and shame. Can you tell I got picked on in the playground by how I’m talking? Yeah, that’s right: I’m one of those kids that just never fit in, even when I wanted to. And it left marks. In a bully culture there are always going to be the alienated ones like me that don’t fit in and get pushed around and end up holding grudges. And we live in a bully culture.

These days America is the bully to the rest of the world, and America drop its bombs and pushes its culture and language and – drawing starker and starker lines between anyone who is on Team America and everyone else who’s a “Terrorist”. “Are you with us or are you against us?” And while America’s foreign policy just breeds more patriots and more terrorists, the culture of our schools just breeds more bullies...and more alienated kids.

Some big looming questions that many of my friends and I find ourselves asking these days is: in a cultural climate this toxic and demented, what does it mean for someone to be considered “mentally ill”? Can we trust the measurements that are being used to determine our ‘health’ and ‘normality’? In the end does it actually help anyone (except the drug companies) to separate the political and social aspects from supposed “rational science”?. And where are the other voices that get drowned out by the roar of the conformity crowd?

While the issue of gun possession rights for the “mentally ill” captured the media's gaze, there are many other important narratives woven into this complex drama. It is apparent to anyone paying attention that there is a looming crisis waiting to happen on college campuses across the country. A generation of children have been raised on extremely potent psych drugs whose mechanisms and side effects and are still not understood despite billions invested in research. These substances are purported to treat “mental disorders” such as depression and anxiety and ADD, but are increasing being administered in an attempt to control behavior and compensate for a profound failure in our educational system. Meanwhile, there seems to be an incredible lack of imagination in counseling services on campuses that are increasingly influenced by corporate sponsorship as the public money dries up. And these days the only things that seem to be public on the agenda as solutions to this crisis are mandatory mental health screenings, more psych labels and more medication.

Meanwhile, my friends and I are doing something totally different than the mainstream. We’re part of this international network of folks that are attempting to redefine what “mental health” actually means in our society and we’re out in the world building creative mutual support networks to pose alternatives to the current system. We use language that makes sense to us: dangerous gifts as opposed to disorders, diverse-ability as opposed to disability, cultural evolution as opposed to combating stigma.....and we have a website community made up of thousands of people from all over the world that are experimenting with this exciting new language. Most of us have been bullied by the psychiatric system first hand and that experience informs our awareness and strategy. Unlike earlier generations of mental health activists in North America, we acknowledge that a lot of us are struggling with serious issues that need serious help. But we shift the focus away from the medical model to a community capacity model: we cultivate strong friendships and prioritize our interdependence and cooperation. We actually have a lot in common with the “consciousness raising groups” of the 70’s feminist movement in that we get rooms of people together and tell personal stories in an attempt to raise each other’s awareness and inspire us to group action. We are a growing movement and more folks are finding out about us everyday and joining our ranks.

At the moment we’re traveling around on Mad Gifts Tour: visiting schools and community centers and bookstores and living rooms, creating space for dialog and new visions. We’ve been invited to Virginia Tech by Dr. Bernice Hausman from the English Department who’s interested in our untraditional message, hoping it might help spark some much needed discussion in her community. The events of April 16th are heavy in the air, but we don’t even have to mention them. This is what the flyer says that was posted around campus and sent around on Facebook:

“Come join us as we discuss 'mental illness' in contemporary culture, emphasizing ways that people who have been affected by the mental health system are organizing alternative support networks & creating safe spaces for marginalized & misunderstood voices to reclaim their stories & learn to use their mad gifts.”

On the flyer is an image of a girl with a pen in her hand, leaning over to the side and drawing on her own wings and the words:

Community Dialog/Safe Space/Celebration of Mad Gifts.

So we get into town and meet up with Margaret our host, who runs Homebody, a fair trade shop on Main Street. She and her husband Daniel are our contacts in the Blacksburg activist community and they are gracious hosts. We meet Bernice at her office and she gives us a tour of the VT campus. It’s late afternoon and overcast. Imposing stone buildings. The Autumn leaves falling everywhere. There’s a military band playing in the distance. Cadets marching around in formation. Small packs of students with books under their arms and backpacks, heading off to class or to the library.

Our crew is beautiful. Me, Madigan, Will, Molly, Neil, Gregory, and Pearl. Molly has come all the way from Asheville, North Carolina and although we’ve been communicating on our website for months we’re all just meeting her for the first time. I’m walking side by side with Neil Gong from NYU Icarus: large Asian-American male with a mohawk strutting around campus wearing a This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt. Gregory, NPR reporter with large microphone in hand, asking us questions and keeping us focused. Pearl snapping photos. The stares of passing students. It feels somehow like we’re foreign agents of change. The social freak brigade in straightlandia.

We walk by Norris Hall, where all the shootings took place and it feels chilling and surreal in its normalcy. It just looks like a typical college building but its been given this power by the weight of history. When we reach the memorial to the April 16th victims it looks strangely bare. White gravel and black stones. Bernice tells us that there are usually flowers all over the memorial but now there’s a new sign with a phone number saying that if anyone wants to place anything by the stones they have to be cleared by some corporate office. Madigan is crying. She wants to make a gravel angel on the ground like she made snow angels when she was a kid. It’s a beautiful idea but she’s scared of getting in trouble with campus security.
One night about a week before our trip to Blacksburg a group of us were sitting in Professor Brad Lewis’ apartment in the NYU dorm on Broome Street and Madigan told a story about how when she was in 3rd grade she would take the school bus every morning with this kid who had big ears that the bullies made fun of and beat up on. how she organized all the kids who were kind of freaks to sit together and they kept the boy with the big ears safe.
We pay our respects to the dead and keep walking.

Although we know there are going to be people from the counseling center at our event we don’t realize that a third of the people in the room are going to be counselors. When we finally get to the event there are about 25 people: about 1/3 students, 1/3 people from the counseling center, and 1/3 folks from the religious community.
Definitely not the usual Icarus crowd.

We have all of our materials: Navigating the Space Between Brilliance and Madness—A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds, Friends Make the Best Medicine—A Guide to Creating Community Mental Health Support, The Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Drugs, as well as a bunch of posters and postcards and pamphlets and stickers.

Neil opens the night and welcomes everyone. We watch Ken Paul Rosenthal’s new Crooked Beauty video, 10 minutes of Carey and Ashley’s voices talking back and forth about their experiences with madness as a montage of their art and images from the city and the woods tease out the revolutionary messages. Madigan plays haunting cello along with it. The lights come on and we ask everyone to form their chairs into a circle.

Madigan is the facilitator (to facilitate: to aid in progress) and she reads our meeting agreements:

The Icarus Project envisions a new culture and language that resonates with our actual experiences of ‘mental illness’ rather than trying to fit our lives into a conventional framework. We see our madness as a dangerous gift to be cultivated and taken care of, rather than as a disease or disorder needing to be “cured” or “overcome.”
This is a space for people to come together and learn from each others’ different views and experiences of madness. People who take psychiatric drugs are welcome here, as are people who don’t take psychiatric drugs. People who use diagnosis categories to describe themselves are welcome, as are people who define themselves differently. The Icarus Project values self-determination and mutual support.
We take turns telling our stories, each for a couple minutes: our relationships to the psych system and our diagnosis and psych drugs and therapy and our coping strategies, the society around us and the Icarus community, the complexities and seeming paradoxes...

And thus we create the space. We’ve all been doing it for a long time, we’re getting good at it. Neil is the last of us to talk. He tells the story about working as an intern for the Icarus Project at NYU. How there have been half a dozen interns that have worked for TIP in the last two years, organizing events on campus and having meetings with the administration and the counseling center. He talks about how the administration was terrified of the students getting together on campus and talking about their mental health because of the legal liability, about the string of suicides and how the NYU administration went to great lengths to keep public discussion from happening for fear that the idea of suicide would spread like some kind of social contagen. He says he thinks it’s really important that people talk about the scary things, that it’s the only way we’re going to grow and heal together as a community. And with that thought, he opens up the discussion.

The first person to respond is Maggie, a senior who is part of a group of students that are starting an infoshop in town, and this is what she says: “Everywhere you go in this town it says ‘We Will Prevail’ ‘We Will Prevail’. I keep wondering: ‘We Will Prevail’ OVER WHAT? Ever since April 16th ‘We Will Prevail’ has been the loudest voice in our community and I keep wondering: what’s underneath that tired slogan? I personally think that people are scared and confused and we need more safe spaces like this to talk to each other.”

After that the room just opened up.

Students started talking about how painful and confusing it was to have the media flocking to Blacksburg after the massacre. How much our mass media culture makes our lives simultaneously more complicated and more hollow. How there was no time to heal and process. The resentments towards the tourists. Margaret had menacing messages left outside her store because she refused to hang the maroon and orange colors in her window. A culture of fear and disconnection.Relief to have space to talk. Feeling like there needs to be more space where people can tell their stories.

A woman from the counseling center said that it saddened her to hear how many students felt like they couldn’t talk and hadn’t had space to heal from the events of April 16th. Her experience was really different because she had been in the thick of it, was someone who a lot of the police officers felt like they could talk to, participated in large healing events.

At some point, an older woman who was visably upset spoke up and said that her sister had recently committed suicide and she was really upset that we used the term “Dangerous Gifts” when talking about our struggles. She thought it was irresponsible: that we were romanticizing something that shouldn’t be romanticized.

She was voicing something that we’ve heard a lot over the years. It's a really important question.

Will responded that often it seems like folks are polarized between thinking that when we say we have ‘dangerous gifts’ that we’re saying that people don’t need help. But that’s not the message at all. We’re saying that people aren’t getting the help they need. That there are lots of different ways of thinking about ourselves and lots of different kinds of help. That we're trying to be the reality makers, not the reality prisoners. I talked about the Icarus myth, the boy with wings who doesn’t know how to use them and flies too close too the sun; about my friend Sera who committed suicide and how if the Icarus Project existed when she was around that I’m sure she wouldn’t have killed herself.

The woman from the counseling center responded with something like: It seems like these folks are talking about celebrating human diversity. I bet they’re helping a whole lot of people.

And it was one of those moments when it felt like reality was shifting in the room, where suddenly there was so much more potential. It felt like people were actually speaking their truth and listening to one another. By the end I think everyone left that room grateful that they had come. And thus we facilitated a really positive radical mental health workshop on the Virginia Tech campus.


Of course now it’s a couple days later and I can’t help the feeling that it wasn’t enough. There should have been twice as many people there. Three times as many. Four times as many. And we never touched the frats and the football culture at all. And maybe it wasn’t our place. After April 16th everyone from the advocates for Forced Treatment to the Scientologists descended on this place, psychically feeding off the spectacle culture of a mass murder and trying to find strategic converts for their manipulative ideologies.

Meanwhile, we mostly stayed on the couple blocks of alternative culture at the edge of the University: Homebody, the fair trade shop. The vegetarian restaurant and the cafe where all the alt-culture students hang out. The back alleys with the spraypaint stencils: “Your Medication Scares Me” and “Up the Struggle.” The students organizing the new infoshop. The Lost Film Festival. And Margaret and Daniel, our hosts, were so kind, working on political campaigns fighting Wal-Mart, supporting the Zapatistas. They felt like home.

But what is it going to take to raise the level of dialog? What is it going to take to change the culture? What is our role in it as the Icarus Project? As unlikely as it many seem to the outside world, it seems pretty clear to me that our future depends on listening to the freaks and the weirdos, the ones who don’t fit in because they can’t fit in to this crazy world. And we can't be stopped, the culture is going to have to evolve or just implode in on itself. So here we find ourselves at the turn of the century, organizing all the kids who get bullied everywhere and together we’re going to rewrite the rules of the playground and the schoolbus.

Right after our workshop Madigan and Will drove back to the April 16th Memorial site and, hidden by the darkness of the night, Madigan laid down amidst the stones, waving her arms and legs 33 times, one for every death including Cho's, leaving the shadow image of a gravel angel on the ground.

  -- Sascha Scatter

(Thanks to Kate Bornstein for inspiration, as always.)


It wasn't something I was very interested in: millions of people glued to their television sets in the name of "concern," thrilled and excited by a violent story and its grisly details. A terrible tragedy, under the lurid carnival lights of a media circus, becomes this week's fascinating tabloid entertainment. Like so much about American popular culture, the hypocrisy is too much to bear. Guided by news producers and talking heads who front serious and profess to be motivated by compassion and caring, the whole society is given a green light to enjoy the thrills and excitement of real live violence on TV. The Virginia Tech shooter today, OJ Simpson tomorrow.

As for safety, your odds of being hit by a school shooter are right up there with being bitten by a Great White Shark. "Mental patients" are everywhere, and we're not more violent than people without psych histories. But it's not real discussion of the issues that drives politics in the US -- it's the media. And this mass murder-suicide has captivated television audiences and threatens to set the tone for laws and policys on mental health, taking things in the exact opposite direction of where they should go. What would happen to our politcs, for example, if on our local news instead of obsessive tabloid coverage of random shootings and other gun crimes, we had graphic coverage of all the automobile accidents that happen that day? Torsos ripped open, grieving families, amputations and head injuries, memorials with candles and yellow ribbons. Maybe we'd direct some of our fear and concern for safety in a realistic direction: the Automobile Tragedy. Maybe the mass media could help us have a society wide discussion on how public transportation and redesigning our cities could actually make our lives safer, not from some fantasy threat of school shootings, but a real killer that takes 40,000 lives every year. Instead, following he media's lead, we normalize automobile deaths, and work ourselves into a frenzy every time there is a school shooting. (More people die in automobile accidents than from gunshots, and the majority of gun deaths are suicides.)

Of course I do need to take notice when school shootings happen, because it affects my life and work. I live in America, and despite many things I love about this country, it's pretty much an insane society. School shootings reveal, I believe, deep problems with the US brand of cruel gangster capitalism: competitive individualism, gross inequality, alienation and community disintegration, as well as the endless distractions of media saturation with fame and violence.

Massacres lead to feelings of panic and being out of control. And then come the easy and authoritarian answers to try to regain control. While it would be opportunistic to seize on a violent act like Cho's in Virginia and turn it into a crusade against psych drugs, it would also be foolish to not ask questions about the possible role of psych drugs. Aparently Cho wasn't on meds around the time of the shooting, but all the different aspects of this horrible crime, including the possible role of any drugs Cho was on, need to come to light. When something as terrible as Virginia Tech happens, society deserves an honest investigation.

Honesty is missing from the stereotyped and misinformed demands about how to treat the "mentally ill" that emerged since Virginia Tech. Naomi Klein, in her new book Shock Doctrine, touches something very important: dramatic, shocking events open a door for a state corporate agenda to be pushed on vulnerable and confused populations. Activists in Virginia as well as across the country report that pressure is on for increased repressive measures against people labeled with psychiatric disorders, in the name of public safety and "helping people who don't know they are ill." The notorious Treatment Advocacy Center, a bigoted mess of police-state measures to criminalize people with psychiatric problems, seized on Virginia Tech and called for more labeling, drugging, force, and lockup. I'm of course against this trend, and have worked hard with Freedom Center and Icarus Project to get some honesty into the discussion. Fear, stereotypes, and pharmaceutical company propaganda are no substitute for serious research and informed dialog about how to reform our mental health system. Repression against people that a psychiatrist decides aren't normal won't make society safer or really help anyone. Instead, it will further traumatize many people in need.

Instead, one thing been missing in this debate is something high on the agenda of the domestic violence movement: why does society tolerate stalking? Apparently Cho had a history of stalking, and stalking is very clearly correlated with violent acts. The women's movement has been pointing this out for decades, but the response of Virginia Tech was like many other school administrations that don't take stalking seriously enough.

The availability of guns in Canada is comparable to the US, and violent gun crime is much more common here. So I don't think gun control, which many of the Virginia Tech families and survivors are calling for, is a simple solution. But if we're concerned about reducing violence, either gun violence or wars, should we tolerate a huge arms industry busy profiting off weapons? The statistics on gun use show that "self-defense" is more Hollywood than reality, as guns are more responsible for suicides and accidental deaths. Sane and healthy societies don't mass-produce weapons. It's important to remember that the idea of a citizen's militia arose in the early days of our Republic when putting down slave rebellions was a big priority. Xenophobic fears of invasion by Others, fueled by the media, drive people to believe in guns.

Walking around the Virginia Tech campus, with its imposing stone buildings, drill fields, marching bands and uniformed students, stirred my own feelings of not belonging. We might not know much about Cho, but we should remember that what happened at Virginia Tech wasn't just murder, it was a suicide. Cho's message was loud and clear: he didn't want to live in this world.


The best way to respond to this tragedy is to create a world worth living in.

-- Will Hall