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Marianne Eloise

Marianne Eloise in conversation with Naoise Dolan

Eloise charts life from the perspective of a neurodivergent mind in her recent book, Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking

“In the cavern of my skull sits a Scalextric track,” writes Marianne Eloise on the first page of her essay collection, Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking. “The electric car is loaded by an invisible force beyond my control with ideas, phrases and images, and without an exit ramp they swoop endlessly through the abyss in my head, an infinite figure-eight of looping thought patterns.”

This is because, in her words, Eloise doesn’t have a “regular brain at all”. She’s neurodivergent – specifically, she is autistic with ADHD. In Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking, Eloise invites us with her on a deep-dive into her life, interests and fears, all through the lens of her neurodivergent mind. In some ways, it’s a straightforward memoir. But its subject matter is far from straightforward, as Eloise offers up a candid snapshot of what it’s like to live with a disordered mind. In one chapter, she waxes lyrical about her obsession with the “pastel-pink” haven of Disneyland, while in another she recalls her childhood fear that Medusa is hiding behind her fish tank.

In recent years, there’s been considerable pushback against the ‘glamourisation’ of mental illness and a sort of moral panic brewing about the potential ‘over-diagnosing’ mental disorders. And while we should undoubtedly be cautious of lapsing into romanticising suffering and pain, it’s evident that this is not what Eloise is setting out to do. Instead, she is frank about accepting her disorders, even though they sometimes make her life more difficult. “There is so much in being neurodivergent that is who I am, and to cure the bad, the things that make life harder, would be to pull out the person I am at the root,” she writes.

Here, Eloise chats to fellow author Naoise Dolan about her book, the writing process, and, of course, her love of Disneyland.

Naoise Dolan: In the interim between first developing the desire to write this book and embarking on the commissioned project, were you working on scraps of material or was it all happening in your head?

Marianne Eloise: It was just happening in my head. I had the idea to write a collection of essays about obsession while I was working a shit job in 2016, but back then I thought, as I kind of do now, “who gives a shit?” It’s what I want to do because they’re my interests and my obsessions and my fears, but why would anyone else want to read it? When I got an agent in late 2019, she asked if I had anything I wanted to do, and I started working on this. I just wanted full autonomy to read and write about the things I cared about.

Naoise Dolan: One thing I really liked was how compressed the book is while there is the sense that you’ve chosen from a vast swathe of material. Did you find it hard to get it to that level of digestibility?

Marianne Eloise: Yeah. With the LA essay, I spent three months out there and those three months are essentially a footnote. There are a few paragraphs at the end about that entire trip, like “that was fun too!” I wanted to set up how I fell in love with it and got to meet all these people, and I felt as if there was no more point to be made by going into that trip.

Naoise Dolan: You’re very confident in how you give all the material whatever weight it has in your mind. You’ll draw equally on any cultural source that makes sense to you, there’s not a hierarchy where you dwell more on the ones that seem like the sort of person you want to come across as.

Marianne Eloise: When the Independent reviewed it they pointed out that I’d referenced this great book and also It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I liked that. That is what it’s like in my brain. I have no desire to seem a certain way. Sunny is my all-time favourite sitcom, I watch it all the time.

Naoise Dolan: I think that’s how it manages to be such a personal and rigorous collection without having that layer of defensiveness that some of that writing does, where they’re anticipating “what’s the least generous question someone could ask?” and it forces them to frame everything around that question.

Marianne Eloise: I didn’t want to pre-empt anyone’s worst thoughts about me. To do that I would have to reveal things I don’t want to. You get what you’re given, and if you choose to interpret that negatively, that’s a choice. The thing I’ve had the most trouble with is being vulnerable with the things I love. We can often enjoy things so much more than other people, and there’s no negativity or irony or cynicism. When I was 15 or so, I did want to seem cool, and it was a massive process in adulthood trying to return to who I was as a kid when I didn’t give a shit. I’m in a much better place when I focus on what I love and don’t worry about what people think of me. English people especially have such a drive to kill people’s enthusiasm.

Naoise Dolan: We make ourselves mask even when other people don’t.

Marianne Eloise: That was the hardest thing with this book, just being vulnerable both in what I love and also in what I’m scared of. In real life, if I say “I love Disneyland”, I might couch it in how silly I know it is. It was scary having the space to be like, “fuck it, I do, here’s why, and you have to listen to me for 5000 words.”

“The thing I’ve had the most trouble with is being vulnerable with the things I love. We can often enjoy things so much more than other people, and there’s no negativity or irony or cynicism” – Marianne Eloise

Naoise Dolan: Knowing your brain as I do, I’m sure there are millions more obsessions you could have chosen but didn’t. What was the process like of choosing to hone in on the ones that you did?

Marianne Eloise: I didn’t want to do anything about music or movies, because those are whole separate books. They come up, because of course they do, but only in passing. It was a case of thinking about what I could spend that much time thinking about and what had other cultural touchpoints beyond me. Medusa was a big one I had to include because it’s really weird and stupid. It was a silly time in my life, but it says something bigger about what I was actually most afraid of. I think what we forget when a person has a serious disorder like OCD is that it can be funny and it often doesn’t make sense.

Naoise Dolan: There’s something quite funny about how on one level it’s quite primal and essential to be afraid of snakes, see: all of Irish culture, but then it happened in such a specific way. You also write so beautifully on the sea but at the same time with occasional amusement at yourself and how you are about it.

Marianne Eloise: Yeah, this morning I was like, “I’m going to be late. I have to swim.” There was no deviation from that schedule. If I was not in water for 20 minutes, my day wasn’t going to be right.

Naoise Dolan: The way you just said that about yourself with this amused compassion, I think that’s very much the tone of the book. You’re detailing a lot of these miserable points in your life where you were not taking care of yourself, and there’s that distance and this wanting to give the past self a hug. That’s what makes it a really warm experience even when it’s miserable.

Marianne Eloise: That’s true. I see in hindsight that I didn’t have the support system other kids do, either, and I didn’t make it easy for my friends to look out for me. If someone had said, “you’re not eating”, I would have said, “yes I am. I love to eat. You just don’t see it because I love it so much I do it so fast.” I feel like the exact same person I was as a child, I remember who I was, but I also look at pictures of myself at three or so and see a separate person I want to take care of. I love her. When I was a teenager and my OCD was really bad, I didn’t do anything, and a lot of the decisions I make now are an effort to make something up to that person who was so miserable.

Naoise Dolan: I think if you’ve grown up masking autism, you learn to be so much crueller than you would be to anyone else. You’d never go up to anyone else and say, “the way you laugh is weird, change it.”

Marianne Eloise: I mean, people do, and that’s how we end up masking.

Naoise Dolan: You’re completely right. You save the things kids say to you when they’re young enough to say it directly, and you keep saying it to yourself after the adults simply think it and treat you worse as a result but don’t let you know they’re doing so.

Marianne Eloise: In childhood, being autistic feels worse. You’re a lot more raw, you have no autonomy to do anything the way you need to, it’s a really painful time. You’re bullied. I think if I had had any idea why I was different or why people perceived me as such or why I struggled with certain things, I would have been so much kinder to myself. That’s the only reason being diagnosed was so helpful and I do wish I’d had it sooner. Nobody was very patient with me and I thought I needed to force myself to do certain things that would cause meltdowns to get used to them. Having the information that I just cannot do that, and there are ways I can make my own life easier, has made such a difference to my life.

Naoise Dolan: Did you notice any change in your day-to-day routine as the book came out? Do you have to more consciously carve space away from it?

Marianne Eloise: I carve quite a lot of space away from work generally. I’m already quite strict with having working hours set. People say it’s hard, but if you don’t check your email or go on Twitter it’s not there. Work isn’t there. It’s not real. Anything that’s urgent, that person will have your phone number if they matter to you.

Naoise Dolan: The best and worst thing about our brains is the object impermanence. It’s just knowing which objects you want to be permanent and which ones you don’t and arranging accordingly. The one thing I wish someone had told me before publication is to make private writing time.

Marianne Eloise: I have a diary I’ve kept forever. It’s always just been lists, poems, “I did this”. It forces you to sit down and write something that’s not for anyone else. That’s kind of a joke because the zine I do is extracts from my old teenage diaries.

Naoise Dolan:I think that’s the charm of this book, that it’s got that preserved feeling and we get to see inside your head, but at the same time it’s not the vomit of content that an actual diary is. There’s a discipline there in keeping that conversational, intimate feel without bombarding a person with stuff that they can’t distinguish or shape into anything.

Marianne Eloise: I was worried that in having control and not saying “me sad” people might find it cold. I hoped that being like, “here’s what I did in response to what I experienced” would be enough.

Naoise Dolan: It’s clear you’ve overcome a lot of it from the level of formal control with which you convey those struggles. How could someone possibly have something that is this tight and audience-focused if they had not overcome this stuff?

Marianne Eloise: There are bits of my diary in there from when my OCD was really bad, and it’s embarrassing. It’s not bad writing for an insane child, but it’s just brain puke. It was an attempt at an exorcism. Like, there is so much going on up here that if I can just get it out no matter how insane it sounds, and the more insane it sounds maybe I will read it back and realise I need help. That worked in the end. With a decade of reflection and with that material, it was easier to be more precise with how I talked about it. It’s actually harder to keep control when I’m talking about special interests. It was difficult finding a way to talk about the things I love without just yelling at the reader about something they might not care about, but I know that I love it when people talk at me about something they love. I don’t feel any shame in not knowing as much as I thought, I just want to hear more.

Naoise Dolan: Which is exactly your talent as a writer, you trust that someone will come to it with the same curiosity. How have you felt since having it out in the world?

Marianne Eloise: It is stressful and hard. And nice. In some ways. Other ways, not. It’s lovely when people message me and it’s really surreal seeing it in bookstores. My sister asked if it was weird that people I know are reading it, but it’s weirder to me that people in the market for a book are just like, “oh, I’ll read a whole book about this stranger.” That is baffling for me.

Naoise Dolan: You can zoom out and think “as a phenomenon in the world, is this book good or bad?” It’s a good phenomenon. Now you can go back to being you.

Obsessive, Intrusive, Magical Thinking by Marianne Eloise is out now.