Jordan Kisner on Obsession Versus Possession in Thin Places
This Week from the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
To celebrate the paperback release of Thin Places, this special episode features Jordan in the interview seat in a conversation with returning guest Lydia Millet.
From the interview:
Jordan Kisner: I started writing that essay because I wanted to kind of interrogate an experience that I had lived with from very young, maybe the age of 12 or 13, the experience of having obsessive compulsive disorder, but in a way that I did not see reflected in the conversations or media where OCD was mentioned. The first time that a psychiatrist—or maybe it was a therapist, I don’t know—suggested to me that maybe I was dealing with some OCD, I thought, “That cannot be right, I am nothing like David Sedaris.” Because David Sedaris was the only person I’d ever—he had these essays about his compulsions and his tics from his youth on This American Life, which I used to listen to with my mom in the car.
And I had been so confused, often, and felt kind of isolated in my experience of that particular mental illness because it didn’t seem adequately captured. And I had wanted to research some of the ideas about OCD that I’d been offered. You mentioned obsession versus possession—that was something I found when I was looking back through the history of how psychiatric illnesses have been understood and categorized. That was, I believe, sort of the medieval language, obsessio versus possessio, as a metaphor for a castle that’s either being attacked or has been breached. And at the time, they were saying that people who suffered from obsession, their minds remained intact, they were just sort of under fire or something like that. Which is a messy metaphor given what we know now about different kinds of psychiatric disorders, but that was where that language came from. And I was curious where that language came from.
And I wanted to understand why sometimes the experience of falling in love felt as radically disruptive, as scary, as interesting, as compelling as the experience of being caught in a cycle of obsessions. And I happened to find in my research that actually the brain patterns are pretty similar when you’re falling in love and when you’re having an obsessive spell.
Jordan Kisner writes essays, features, and reviews for n+1, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, The Believer, and others. She also writes a column for The Paris Review. Her first book, Thin Places, was one of NPR’s “best books of 2020.” She is also the host of Thresholds.
Lydia Millet has written more than a dozen novels and story collections, often about the ties between people and other animals and the crisis of extinction. Her latest novel A Children’s Bible was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2020. She also writes essays, opinion pieces and other ephemera and has worked as an editor and staff writer at the Center for Biological Diversity since 1999.