Illness as Horror Movie, and Other Thoughts on Time, Disease, and Capitalism
Matthew Sharpe in Conversation with Anne Elizabeth Moore
Anne Elizabeth Moore is the author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh, The Manifesti of Radical Literature, and other books. She was the founding editor of the Best American Comics series, and editor of the seminal zine Punk Planet. Her artwork has been exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 2016 she became the third recipient of Detroit’s Write a House fellowship.
Several years ago she began having debilitating symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as an autoimmune disease, and which became at times life-threatening. She turned her indefatigable curiosity on her own illness and started writing essays about it and related topics. Related topics, in Moore World, means global food production, trends in antibiotic prescribing, horror films, a Cambodian garment workers’ strike, the standardization of time, and beyond. Those essays comprise Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, available now from Curbside Splendor. I spoke by phone with Moore the night after her book launch party, at which a giant piñata in the form of a sanitary napkin disposal bag was smashed to pieces.
Matthew Sharpe: Can you explain what body horror is, as a genre, and why you chose to name your book after it?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: Body horror describes storytelling media, including literature, film, TV, video games, and comics. Originally it applied to any horror story that dealt with the body, but now it’s come to refer to something more specific, a focus on bodily changes—particularly stories that offer a visceral sense of the body changing. So having a monster in a horror film doesn’t make it body horror, but when the story is told from the point of view of the monster it often is body horror, because the monster is going, like, “Aaah, my arm (or whatever)! There are horrible things going on with me and here is how they feel inside me and it also looks disgusting!”
I’ve always watched a lot of horror films, but as I started to get sick I connected more deeply to the monster narrative. So I’ll watch a body horror film now and evaluate it more on my experience of what is being portrayed than on how disgusting it is or how awesome it is or how well done the makeup is.
MS: What did that new way of watching reveal to you?
AEM: This may sound weird and awful but I am often treated as if I were becoming a monster. Even though as the person having these monstrous experiences, it all stays kind of normal. So we all sympathize with the monster—that’s what body horror is about. But I was also identifying with the monster, like “Oh my god, this really fucked up thing is happening to my arm”—and doctors don’t know what to do about my class of diseases, so they make jokes. “Ha ha, it’s like a horror movie.” And I have to say, “That’s not funny, could you fix my arm?”
My decision to take the term body horror was about allowing for and maybe even celebrating that subjectivity. It’s a deliberately gendered recasting of what body horror means, to suggest that the most terrifying aspects of your average body horror narrative might actually be so common among folks who experience the world as women that the stories are no longer scary.
MS: That leads to your subtitle—Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes—and what it has to do with body horror. I feel like these sentences from your introduction are a clue: “I wrote this book in case you hadn’t figured out yet that what we are facing at this moment is institutionalized misogyny in the service of capitalism. I wrote this book to describe to you how terrifying this truly is. I wrote this book in case it is the last thing I do.”
AEM: Well, I was having these monstery feelings, but it was clear that I wasn’t the only one. I’m not the only person who’s gotten sick. I’m not the only person whose body has been manipulated under outside forces exclusively concerned with their own profit. Once I started seeing autoimmune disease as a function of capitalism on the bodies of women around the world—which was only possible after spending nearly a decade covering the global garment trade—then it appears systemic. The horror of a thing changes when it becomes standard operating procedure. Which is where jokes come in. Daily horror, survived and processed, is comedy.
MS: Can you talk about the ways autoimmune illnesses are products of capitalism?
AEM: An autoimmune response is when the body’s own immune system starts attacking its host instead of foreign invaders like viruses. This results in illness or disability or pain or weird body functions that are the result of a hyperactive immune system seeking to wipe itself out. Autoimmune responses seem to be triggered by a couple different things, only one of which is genetics. Another is when additives are placed in food.
MS: You mention in your essay “Consumpcyon” that one of the additives is butane.
AEM: Yeah, butane is just a straight-up poison that fast-food restaurants put in chicken nuggets as a preservative. But autoimmune triggers for me are much more common additives like soy, which is added to food because of the Food Bill. The US government subsidizes farmers who grow soy and manufacturers who find new uses for it. Which is why you can’t find chocolate made in America that doesn’t have soy, even though there is no earthly reason why you need soy in chocolate. I’m very very very allergic to soy, as are a lot of people, yet it is considered a normal food ingredient because of food policy, because the government wants it that way, because it’s a way of promoting commerce.
Another contributing factor to the increase in autoimmune disease is the rampant and bizarrely increasing use of antibiotics, in everything from hand sanitizers to prescription medications to the raising of beef and chickens. Antibiotics wipe out gut bacteria too, also causing the weirdly named leaky gut syndrome. So what I describe in the book is that we’ve created a system largely intended to curb global hunger—which additives have helped to do, for sure—that also injects what turn out to be poisons into the bodies of certain people around the world, mostly women and poor folks.
[Pullquote]“I wrote this book in case you hadn’t figured out yet that what we are facing at this moment is institutionalized misogyny in the service of capitalism.”[/Pullquote]
MS: Something I see you doing repeatedly in the book is looking at any given product along all the different points in the cycle of production and consumption, like in your essay “Model Employee,” where you show that even though we may tend to think of female fashion models as elite, they are actually an exploited work force whose median income is lower than the standard living wage, and that their exploitation is part of the same system that exploits and underpays female garment workers in Cambodia. Can you talk about this multi-perspectival way of seeing things?
AEM: Sort of. It’s also about temporality. I don’t know that this project would have been possible if I hadn’t started researching the implementation of Standard Time in the late 19th century. Astronomers convinced the railroads to do it because standardizing time would be helpful for tracking planetary movements, and everyone already hated the railroads anyway. Understanding that the standardization of time was a system put to people and did not emerge from people’s natural interests in being on time for things made me question everything. Standard Time eliminated people’s need to talk to each other to figure out what was happening in the area that they happened to be in that moment. This one weird invention changed human behavior, tricked us into acting against our own interests.
There are so many layers of subterfuge that go into tricking people into thinking that what they want is to all be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, when in fact what people really seem to have wanted was just to be able to go do what they needed to do and talk to each other about it when they wanted to. Humans like finding out things from other humans.
MS: I think I have been successfully tricked because we made this appointment to talk at three o’clock, and wouldn’t it be inconvenient if your three o’clock was different than my three o’clock?
AEM: Well except at three o’clock on the dot, my phone didn’t ring, but I was like “Whatever, it’ll happen soon, I don’t really care. We’re probably going to talk eventually.”
MS: As you point out in the book, you’re on “crip time,” which is looser and more flexible than standard time, so your illness has enabled you to readjust your experience of time.
AEM: Right. And I guess that that process, which some disability rights activists have called “falling out of time”—but which I trace to non-Western modes of tracking time still in place all over the world—also informs this multi-perspectival approach you point out. Like if I am not focused on the end point, the final product, quitting time, it makes it easier to see any given process as a whole, and to track that the processes of food production and garment production and the creation of horror media and contemporary medicine are all similar systems that tend to disadvantage the same players—women and people of color—and that that is purposeful.
Interestingly, I am now also on Detroit time—not so different from crip time—where your plumber might say to you, “I’ll try to get there in May.”
MS: Why do you think Detroit time and crip time are more similar to each other than either is to standard time?
AEM: In places like Detroit, it’s due to the total dysfunction of the economic system and people’s lack of faith in any sort of system whatsoever. Here we can see clearly that the standardization of time is a capitalist notion. People are just like, “I’m not buying into this time bullshit because the mayor isn’t fixing the potholes and there aren’t any jobs.”
MS: Which leads me to the value of decay. In the book you say that you were awakened to that by composting. And in an email you wrote, “I’ve learned more about writing by composting in the last year than by writing.”
AEM: In relation to writing, I feel like composting has been really helpful to me because I’ve always been such an anxious writer—I need to get all of the ideas out in the greatest volume and force at the moment that they occur to me. But in composting, you allow rot to happen under guidance. Small bugs play a major role in it, and bacteria, and worms, so it’s not even anything that you can control, but you can observe. Letting ideas sit and do their own thing for a while, and then maybe coming back and finding and using them later, is new to me.
MS: The book as a whole, and the individual pieces, are hybrid forms. You have hard reporting, personal storytelling, literary and film criticism, historical writing, blended together. What’s that about?
AEM: I think it’s the same thing. Composting. I decided at some point to trust the organic sense I have that letting these ideas all sit together in a deliberately messy, unprofessional, seemingly unstudied or unthoughtful way would allow something interesting to happen. So it’s not logical to talk about the standardization of time alongside a movie about a talking vagina alongside the history of intellectual property rights by way of the sanitary napkin disposal bag. But if we take seriously the idea that capitalism regiments us to not make the connections we naturally would, we can see that those seemingly disparate topics could speak to each other. I mean, I’m sort of making up composting, and my plants are doing really awesome, so probably this book will be fine.
MS: In “A Few Things I Have Learned About Illness in America,” you describe people who are very close to you being aversive to you when you became ill, or oblivious to your needs, or otherwise demonstrating crappy behavior toward a sick person. But also repeatedly in that essay you talk about forgiving them and not being bitter. The penultimate sentence is “If you do not make it through this—whether it is this disease, or this economy or this political regime or these very very difficult days—let us remember you as someone who loved very deeply.” Can you talk about how an essay about all this crappy behavior—not to mention the horrors of the US healthcare system—ends with love?
AEM: Ugh. That’s a hard piece. There are a few moments that make that essay maybe worth reading but definitely made it worth writing. In the middle of all the horribleness of dealing with a pretty serious health crisis, to which people generally respond poorly, two different people said shockingly overwhelmingly amazing things to me that fundamentally renewed my faith in the goodness of humanity—and more literally offered me a way to continue to live in the world. A friend at some point turned to me in casual conversation and said, “What can I do to get the community to rally around your needs?” She definitely thought that she was the fiftieth person to say this to me, and she definitely was not, but that someone could just say, “Well obviously this is a systemic issue and we need to change it for you so how do we do that?”—this is love, I think. It’s the moment when a very genuine response to someone’s individual needs amid a failing system become evident.
The second big moment was very recent. When Congress was trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I went to see a specialist, who is herself under threat of deportation, and I was in tears. She knows that without the ACA I’m not going to be able to live very long, and most of her patients were in the same boat. I asked her, “What am I going to do?” And she said, “I have a plan. I’m aware that this might not work politically. I’m aware that we might lose these rights. I’m aware that it might be difficult, and I’m aware that I might be deported by the same freaking government that’s trying to kill my patients. But I have a plan in place that will allow you to survive.” The plan, as she described it to me, would entail all sorts of legal violations and take advantage of all sorts of black market networks. It would involve about 50 million different crimes piled on top of each other, especially for her, but she was like, “You need care in this circumstance, and I have figured out a way to get it to you. Here’s what it is.” I thought then that maybe love doesn’t work the way I have always thought it does. It’s not just someone saying, “I love you, let’s get through this together.” It’s when people make teeny decisions that shift your ability to navigate the world, to survive.