“In A Little Bit of Time It Won’t Hurt So Bad”: Dodie Clark, Secrets for the Mad, and Hope for Young Women

I’d grown accustomed to seeing Dodie in 720p with a crack through her left arm, courtesy of my death-defying laptop. In the year since YouTube’s auto play feature decided that I’d listened to Norah Jones’s “Come Away With Me” one too many times, and that I would — no, must — like Dodie’s “Intertwined,” I’ve returned to Dodie’s three channels, doddleoddle, doddlevloggle, and dodieVEVO, every couple of weeks, just to check in on her, see how she’s doing. Did she release a new EP? Was her latest therapy appointment helpful? Does she still like mac ‘n’ cheese? Her silvery cadences, open expressions, penchant for wooly sweaters, daisies, and Ikea furniture — they’ve all become so familiar, so easy to point to and say, “Oh, Dodie would like that.”

And here I was, at a Coffee Bean near the Tar Pits, half-expecting the table between us to bust out a screen, waiting for the crack to bisect Dodie’s arm. Dodie, a Londoner, just happened to be in Los Angeles, I just happened to have read her book this month, and Logan Paul just happened to post an atrocious video in Japan’s Aokigahara forest that brought YouTube and its creators to media’s center stage. We’re settling in to talk about Dodie’s new autobiographical book, released in November 2017, Secrets for the Mad, which tackles big topics like mental health, alcohol, bisexuality, and relationships. But, for me, we’re continuing a year-long conversation — the one we’ve been having in my head.

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KELLY PEYTON: I realize now that I’m speaking with you in the flesh that there’s a strange imbalance here. I feel like I know you already, having watched your videos and read your book, but you know nothing about me. There’s a one-sided intimacy to all of this. You thumb through the diary entries and these dressed-down photos of you and family recipes and illustrations, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re sharing something with a friend. A friend: is that who you strive to be to your readers? Is there a danger in that?

DODIE CLARK: Oh yes, absolutely. This is a topic I’ve thought a lot about recently, and a reason I’ve taken a step back. It’s so tricky to talk about this because I want to just be honest and open, and say that there’s a kind of resentment that comes with that because there’s a sense of entitlement from the audience. Ownership. So, do I want to be a friend? All I want is to be understood, to be understood, so I pour it out to the world, and I don’t get that back. That’s why there’s so much stigma around mental health. Because people share but they don’t understand.

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As a musician, vlogger, and now writer, Dodie exists in a fairly ugly knot of cash flow networks. For one, she’s lumped into massive pools of YouTube creators managed by multichannel networks (MCNs) and sold off to the highest bidding advertiser. Her content is always subject to demonetization, and her EPs Intertwined (2016) and You (2017), released independently, face limited distribution. Back in 2012, when YouTube’s AdSense carried more weight for smaller creators, my views would have helped Dodie pay her rent. Last month, I paid Amazon, Simon and Schuster, UPS, and all the unsaid intermediaries 11 dollars for her book. And now, I wanted even more; I wanted her time. She was right: I didn’t know her; I co-owned her.

But the vloggers are purportedly the greedy ones, cashing in on books they never wrote — that they never even thought about writing in their 20-odd years of life. Never mind Lilly Singh’s hugely successful, substantive girl power manifesto How to Be a Bawse, or Colleen Ballinger’s brilliantly spoofy Self-Help. Their digital roots are shallow. While the public outcry for accountability and transparency on YouTube is important, I think it would be doing an artist like Dodie a tremendous disservice to discount her work because she’s associated with this platform. Just as it would be a disservice to discount her work because she doesn’t hold a bachelor’s degree, she’s a young woman, her readers are mostly young women, and she deliberately shares her struggles with mental health. Let’s stop talking about Logan Paul and genuinely try to get to know Dodie.

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So, you compose, you draw, you film — what compelled you to write a book? The book jacket gives us one answer: “When I feel like I’m going mad, I write.” And there’s certainly a historical correlation between authorship and mental illness. Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf come to mind, not to mention countless writers of color who couldn’t disclose their mental illnesses without discrediting themselves. So, why did you choose this medium to communicate your struggles with Derealization Disorder and eating disorders, among others? Why not just stick to YouTube?

I think writing is where I go to wrap up my troubles in a sort of gift. It’s a way of processing where you can make art, you can make something out of it. And with YouTube, I’m allowed to talk frankly, but it’s a lot more open. Like, I feel like YouTube is more like a forum, where people can leave things as well. And there’s always a lot that I’ve left unsaid or that I can’t explore deeply. And I write a lot anyway. Like, I journal when I’m going mad. Some of my book is the end result of those paragraphs of writing.

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For Dodie, years of therapeutic work culminated in writing Secrets for the Mad. The book preserves many of her journal entries, with script at times spindly and desperate, at other times lovely and loopy, and, my favorite, large and scrawled with utter disregard for lines. The book’s six sections — “Curtain Call,” “My Bad Brain,” “Obsessions,” “Confessions,” “Life Lessons,” and “Encore” — all host these private, half-remembered moments and sit with them. I’m struck by the arresting immediacy of some chapters and the necessary distance of others. Traumatic moments — calling a helpline, losing her grandmother — bleed into simultaneously haunting and hopeful illustrations of smiling, ascending balloons. Dodie describes a particularly fateful depersonalization episode, likely compounded by her “hormone altering contraception”: “[A] jetlagged girl, sitting on a plane loo, staring up close at herself in the mirror and murmuring, ‘What the fuck?’” By no means is Dodie’s writing cold or detached or pretentious, and the accessibility of her style, with tiered meanings and chapter divisions that encourage the reader to choose her own adventure, welcomes a wide range of readers, literary and not so much. She’ll pour them all a cup of tea.

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You’re familiar with the script surrounding mental illness. You say so — the empty sympathies, the “cure,” the “are you feeling better yet?” — all of these expectations. In what ways do you think you avoided that script? How did you avoid triggering your younger readers while relaying your experiences openly?

Well, to be honest, I did just write from my heart. I ignored the stigma and expectations and just wrote about what I knew because I couldn’t pretend not to. And in terms of writing without triggering — you have to write these things and you have to take a step back and walk around for a while and come back to it and see if it’s dramatic. Which it will be, because your bad brain is dramatic. And I think it’s important to return to those pieces when you’re in a healthier state of mind. And it’s fun to recognize how your mind ebbs and flows, how it sinks and rises. I came back to the darker sides when I was feeling better to see if it was appropriate to leave in. And then also wrap it up in my healthier mind, so I didn’t leave the reader with a sour taste in their mouth, feeling as hopeless as I did.

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One could argue that Dodie’s tendency to wrap up each chapter with a blanketing life lesson detracts from the book’s intricacy and literary merit. More serious still, these attempts to universalize, which stand alongside poignant descriptions of world travel while disassociating, exclude race and class from the conversation about self-care. But, at the same time, ellipses don’t necessarily sit well with a depressed teenager — certainly they did not with the 15-year-old me. Above all, Dodie says she did not want to leave her reader without hope or clarity. For perhaps the same reason, she cushions the blow of her discussion of suicide with lucid metaphors: “All I taste is watery milk.” Her song lyrics, apportioned throughout, offer the reader respite, time to relish a familiar melody and revisit a prior mental state. Likewise, Dodie stuck to the “you’ll be okay” narrative because it’s what her readers, in a possibly volatile condition, might need to hear most. From her chapter “Half Good, Half Bad”: “If I am to believe one of the voices, I’d much rather it be the one that tells me I’m going to be okay, right?”

It was fitting that a timid tween interrupted Dodie’s and my conversation to ask for a hug and a photo. If there’s still any doubt about whether Dodie is making a seismic impact on the personal lives of hundreds of thousands of young girls struggling with mental health issues, all one need do is scroll through Dodie’s tags on Instagram. “You don’t know how much you mean to me.” “You’re the reason I’m still here.” Dodie talked with me frankly about the crushing weight of these comments, which have swollen with the release of her book: “I can’t take it.” Dodie dedicates much of Secrets for the Mad to exploring the boundaries of her public and private personas. Certainly it’s not Dodie’s responsibility to support a million people. But, in her words, “What other choice do I have?” Dodie is attempting to fill the hole left by our education and healthcare institutions, and widened by Logan Paul.

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I imagine there’s also this paralyzing expectation that once you project a certain identity — the singer-songwriter, the depressed person — you have to stay consistent. Your audience expects to see a whole and uniform “you” in everything you make, and there’s no room for contradiction and complexity. How did you cope with the pressure to project a singular persona while writing this book? I’m thinking of a particularly heartbreaking line in “My Bad Brain”: You barely “managed to convince the world that [you] still had a soul.”

That is a great question. I don’t know. I think more recently, I’ve just taken a step back. I feel like I was incredibly honest and open in that book, like terrifyingly so, and I’ve never been afraid to be vulnerable. It comes so naturally to me. But for some reason, this book was everything I had. It was very scary to put that out there. I don’t think I did balance putting out a singular me very well. I have never been very good at that. I’m constantly fluctuating and I think everyone’s been there. And I love a lot of my audience for seeing that I’m a human being and forgiving me for that.

That reminds me — you say, “People are kind, and sometimes they draw me. I am used to seeing my face sketched in different ways: some naturalistic, some cartoon-like. Mostly I am drawn a little skinnier than I am, with a teeny nose and big eyes. They might add freckles, but I am drawn with clear, soft skin and a healthy complexion.” You’re well aware of the way people are painting you. And do you think this book is you, sort of, taking back the brush?

I mean, I struggle with my identity. And it sucks when a million people are telling who you are. But I wouldn’t be me without them. I do worry that giving out a lot of myself will make it murkier. Because people will take you and make you into whatever they need you to be.

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In many ways, then, Secrets for the Mad is Dodie’s herculean effort to assemble a self-portrait from all of her, spread all over the place. In her case, the author isn’t dead; she’s got a million followers on Twitter and, look, she’s always liked cats. A book gives Dodie the chance to embrace some ambiguity. In fact, what I find most captivating about her writing is her ability to shift so fluidly between an array of selves. There’s the medical: her account of being diagnosed with Depersonalization Disorder, which draws heavily from the language of psychiatric textbooks — “Depersonalization disorder, (DPD), or disassociation, or derealization (DR), is described as the feeling of detachment from reality.” There’s the digital: “I paused the video and looked in the mirror […] She almost looked like the girl in the video.” And there’s “dodie with the lowercase d,” the musician. And all of these selves correspond to a different writing style: restrained first-person assessments of depressive episodes, third-person fabrications of childhood, of “seven-year-old Dodie” and memories at the fair, and even informal responses to teenaged Facebook messages sprinkled with you’s and she’s and me’s. Dodie isn’t afraid to leave gaps either, written and visual, when she can’t remember or can’t make sense. “I am an unreliable narrator, like Nick in The Great Gatsby,” she says at the end of “My Bad Brain.” “My view of truth changes with my mental state.”

And with her increasing celebrity, for that matter. Dodie’s chapters “Scroll. Drink. Shrink.” and “Fame” address her perspective shift, from the lowly “fangirl” to the fawned over. She questions the definition of fame, and describes her experience as both the bullied and the bully. That introspection is exemplary; Dodie meditates on her power to both heal and inflict pain. I hope other social media influencers and writers follow suit and deliberate whether that next video or new novel will do more harm than good.

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We hear about so many women and LGBTQ+ YouTubers and musicians and artists being harassed or stalked or assaulted or otherwise taken down by their male counterparts or just the misogynistic algorithm. And you show us in your book that that violation happens on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and digital. I mean, even processing the trauma is violating, in that you have to confront this unwelcome visitor in your mind and body. This made me wonder: Is YouTube, as an offshoot of the music industry, just another iteration of the power structures of Weinstein? Or do your digital platforms give women more agency to create what they want, choose their own teams, organize, and, yeah, potentially skirt those kinds of situations? What do you think?

It’s difficult because in earlier stages of YouTube — a couple of years ago, I don’t know if you remember — in the UK, there was this massive sexual abuse scandal where it turns out a lot of men who were YouTubers who had collected an audience of hundreds of thousands of young teen girls and were exploiting them and abusing their power. So, in that sense, terrible, because it was easier to find young girls and abuse them and that was typical because there were no rules. But, on the flip side, YouTube might give women creators more power. Like Hazel [Hazel Hayes, a filmmaker and Dodie’s flatmate], who is a powerhouse. She’s a female director. She’s built up this audience, she’s created her own business, and now she’s writing shorts. And she’s already directed her own series, and that would have been a lot harder if she was making her way through “the real world.” Especially in Hollywood. So, there’s good and bad.

Have you ever thought about what it would have been like if you produced your music through the regular channels? Trying to get represented and getting record deals? You have your friends helping you make your music videos. Is that something you always wanted?

Yeah, I did. I gave up on it because everyone told me it wouldn’t happen. Everyone told me I was a silly little girl who wanted to sing and play the ukulele, and the dream became achievable with YouTube. I can’t imagine being where I am without it. I don’t think I would be. I would have been kicked out. So yeah, I’m very grateful.

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In her book and in our chat, Dodie balances her harrowing experiences of abuse by men, online and off, with these moments of fierce love for her community — artists and passionate social justice advocates who have built their careers online. When I asked her who is “doing good” on YouTube and “in books,” Dodie overwhelmed herself trying to call as many names to my attention as possible: Sammy Paul, Hannah Witton, Nathan Zed, Dom Fera, and Carrie Fletcher, to name but a few, and I’ll add Anna Akana and Dan Howell to that list.

And her book is chock-full of kind faces as well. In the second section, turned out of a psychiatrist’s office for using an old bill to provide proof of address, Dodie’s panic subsides as Hazel strokes her hair. Dodie even passes the mic to her manager in the particularly inventive chapter “Managing and Managing.” In it, “Manager Josh” expresses his frustrations with Dodie’s illness and his ignorance. Ultimately, he says, “I’m not dealing with a ‘product’ or a ‘cash cow,’ I’m dealing with a person. An incredible one.” Dodie explanied: “I wanted to show what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have mental issues to be a friend to someone who is.”

So, Dodie isn’t just a commodity at the mercy of the algorithm. Backed by a wide net of movers and shakers, she’s an agent in her creativity. Since YouTube has in many ways failed to support its creators, it has become, in Dodie’s apt words, “just a platform,” a means to an album, a means to a book. And that structure, though by no means democratic or even meritocratic, might bode well for women, who have more say in who they work with going forward. Suitably, then, Secrets for the Mad ends with a call for creativity. Dodie lines up her younger selves and addresses them: “Pain can be used to learn, and to create wonderful things.” Isn’t it amazing that a 22-year-old woman can uplift hundreds of thousands of bullied and unsupported teens with one simple line? Dodie’s book is as much a public service to young people, and a harbinger of awareness, as it is a private diary.

And what does mental health “awareness” mean anyway? Does it mean sitting down to read all the long form articles you bookmarked months ago, touting a social justice podcast, volunteering at a clinic or a march? Meeting as many different people as you can, through as many different channels as you can, in your four hours of free time on the weekend? Yes, maybe, but sometimes, I think it can only mean committing to a book you’ve overlooked, throwing it down after one chapter, rubbing your temples, resenting yourself, making yourself a sad sandwich, and trying again tomorrow. Becoming aware should be overwhelming, even painful, and always incomplete; only then can you begin to sincerely understand the totalizing impact of mental illness on a person’s life. After all, mental health awareness, feminism, is built on empathy — the practice of recognizing the unbridgeable chasm between your experiences and another author’s story, and reading the book anyway.

Suffice it to say, I think Dodie should be commended for her courage — for writing in spite of prescription, mediated and medicated; for agonizing over the extended life of her words beyond the page or screen; and for caring so much, about everything.

 

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