Private hell made public

Therapy has established itself as the successor to rugged individualism and to religion as the organizing framework of American culture. The therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics as well, the last refuge of ideology.

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 1976

1. Natalie Wynn: A Study in Angst

Natalie Wynn, doing a video while getting plastered. This is the thumbnail for her YouTube video on Cringe Culture.

Natalie Wynn, creator of the Contrapoints YouTube channel, makes a regular practice of baring her soul to strangers on YouTube. She seems to have some talent at turning her angst, conflicts, and hurts into compelling viewing, at least for someone like me who follows argument, but has little understanding of transgender people specifically. Her video essays extend well beyond the 10-minute guideline suggested by YouTube, and followed by the most popular bloggers. Her last one, a video on “Cringe culture” was nearly 90 minutes. Her topics range from politics to online culture to gender identity issues, using her graduate background in philosophy to great effect to inform her analyse issues and argument. Wynn herself has been transitioning from being a male since at least 2017.

Natalie uses theatrics and fictionalizations, to explore and try out different popularly-held views and misconceptions of the day, using spectacle as part of a more serious point she is making. For me, the spectacle aspect is attention-grabbing, and for videos that run 30 minutes or more, one can make a pretty good case for it. It does little to advance the points she is making, but one must give her credit for her one-woman-show production values.

Surprisingly, while trolls are present, by far the most dominant comments on the Contrapoints channel comes from decent people who give empathy, support, encouragement, and share their stories. It would be disheartening to see that taken for granted, and I hope she sees them as the light when everything else feels like darkness.

2. Binge watching the multi-car pile-up that is Eugenia Cooney

There was also a vlogger Natalie mentions regarding one woman named Eugenia Cooney, a fashion and makeup vlogger who has a very large YouTube following. She was in what is called a “5150 hold” for an eating disorder about a year ago, which under California law means she was sent to a mental hospital and kept under observation for 72 hours. To see her videos, she herself seems like a harmless person, acting and speaking like she is a waifish 13 or 14 year-old girl. She is actually 25 years old, and close to 6 feet tall, but appears to be less than 90 pounds, going by her most recent videos. After her release, she appeared to “fall off the wagon” soon after, and she actually looks thinner than before her incarceration. What commenters on YouTube are witnessing is her slow death, with her occasional guest, her mother (who buys all her clothes and makeup) acting silly and behaving as if every day is Eugenia’s birthday. Viewers had never been sure what to make of her mother, according to comments left on Eugenia’s videos.

There is a lot of plausible speculation on YouTube regarding her mental state, her mother, her friends, and her prospects for living beyond six months. But speculation is speculation. We only see what the camera and editing allows us to see. Like every video on YouTube down to iPhone unboxings, we are only allowed to see theatre, and some approximation to The Shopping Channel. In Eugenia’s case, she shows off her new makeup designs, new clothes and jewellery, and discusses them in her videos.

Beyond speculation, there appears to be no dispute about the 5150 hold, or of Eugenia choosing to travel to Connecticut for 4 months to be treated for an eating disorder.

Eugenia just before her 5150 hold. This is not the worst picture of her by far, but it furnishes a reason why I find her videos hard to look at, by and large.

I think I am one of those who is watching videos about Eugenia. I emphasize: “about” Eugenia: as told by friends, interventionists, therapists and former anorexics and addicts as though they know her personally, and that she is some kind of science all her own.

I never subscribed to her channel, nor to any channels talking about her. But today I did succumb to the temptation of viewing “related” titles that wind up on the list of suggested/related videos on the right side of my browser, and I hear analysis about Cooney from every Monday morning quarterback under the sun. The videos I prefer to view are from qualified people, but even then, they are mostly people removed from the action, who never met her.

These “quarterbacks” claiming counselling experience and certainly sound professional and appear to have a fair bit of knowledge. Social worker Kati Morton had an idea for them to appear as guests on each other’s channel, and discuss eating disorders and her 5150 hold. People in their comment sections had some serious criticisms about this.

The criticisms regard 1) Is sitting with Eugenia and discussing her difficulties for the consumption of thousands of viewers (close to 350,000 at last count for Kati’s video), many of whom leave hostile comments for various reasons, helpful to Eugenia? Another criticism: 2) The discussion glossed over pertinent details that let us know Eugenia is facing her problem squarely and is truly on the road to recovery, which means she is surely hiding more than she is revealing.

These are good and proper concerns, but Eugenia’s and Katie’s defense, both of these Monday morning quarterback criticisms gloss over what may have been unavoidable things:

  • Eugenia is very tied to YouTube and has millions of subscribers, thousands of commenters, and whether Eugenia likes it or not, her personal life has already been public for some time. Her personal deterioration has been observed and well-noted by any casual observer without her saying a word about it, for some years.
  • While quarterbacks for point #1 accuse her of saying too much; those accusing her of point #2 accuse her of not saying enough. If Eugenia’s mental health is any kind of priority, these #2 quarterbacks will never have their way. A person who delves into their most private details in a public space like YouTube is not doing any good for their mental health in any capacity. Private should be kept private, except for people you feel safe talking to, such as close friends or relatives, and mental health practitioners. You can’t get a support network from random strangers.
  • The only outcome from airing out your dirty laundry in public is public humiliation and shame. Eugenia already had that in spades well before Kati’s interview. Abt and Seesholtz (Journal of Popular Culture, 1994) wrote an article about this very topic back in the days of Oprah, Donahue, and other popular “talk shows” from the 1990s, where this mistake is repeated over and over, turning the private hell of people and families into a freak show, to boost the TV ratings.

I cannot possibly fathom the illnesses that are the eating disorders. Listening to therapists explain “how to talk to anorexics” or to friends that understand the mindset of sufferers of eating disorders make me feel that I could read and listen to vlogs, books, essays, and online articles about this until the cows come home, and I don’t think I could ever feel that I fully understand it. I think I can understand parts of it; empathise with various fleeting things, and sometimes even be able to feel some tenuous connection with the sufferer, but I have trouble seeing the whole picture.

While some vloggers look at Eugenia and feel that they know how to act and intervene, I am more like a rubbernecker slowing down to see a highway accident. I had no knowledge of Eugenia before today, and now it is dawning on me that Eugeniacooneyology appears ready to be its own university major, judging by all of the material, authored by anyone who thinks they can provide a different angle on her, whether qualified or not. Some seem sincere, some are doing it for YouTube hits, and some are doing a combination of both. Always, there is a videographer gunning for a piece of the Eugenia Cooney action. And always, there is YouTube, happily documenting the entire spectacle.

But to me, she is just like a vehicle pile-up, and I am like a rubbernecker, possibly slowing down Internet traffic when I could be viewing something sensible like The Crown on NetFlix, or developing lesson materials, or correcting assignments. Eugenia is a case of suffering served up to viewers as spectacle.

Our therapeutic culture operates here with or without the presence of an actual therapist. We are so immersed in therapeutic culture that we all feel superior to the sufferer and feel we have all the answers, and will offer what we feel to be help. Rather than increasing our understanding of each other, therapeutic culture has more likely made it easier for us to pigeonhole others, and let the label definition fill in the blanks as a pseudo-understanding, similar to how some people use a person’s horoscope in the same way. Rather than contributing to social cohesion, it intensifies feelings of alienation, while giving the labeller a false feeling of empowerment.

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