November 12, 2013
Guest: Allie Brosh
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Allie Brosh, is the creator of the humorous, autobiographical blog "Hyperbole and a Half," which has a huge following, several million unique visitors per month. In 2011, an editor of PC World included it in his list of the funniest sites on the Web. This year, Advertising Age included Brosh in its annual list of the year's most influential and creative thinkers and doers, which is pretty amazing considering, as she puts it, she lives like a recluse in her bedroom in Bend, Oregon, where she writes stories about her life and illustrates them with brightly colored, intentionally crude drawings.
Most of the stories are funny, whether they're about her dog's behavior problems or her own, but her most popular posts have also been the most upsetting, about her crippling depression. In fact, when she stopped blogging for about a year and a half, her readers were worried about her.
Now not only is she blogging again, she has a new book, also called "Hyperbole and a Half," collecting her blog posts as well as new illustrated stories. Allie Brosh, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would you describe what you do?
ALLIE BROSH: I would describe it as stand-up comedy in book form. I feel like my writing style is sort of the result of me subconsciously trying to replicate the feel of stand-up comedy. I was very frustrated when I first started writing that there wasn't that physicality to it. There was - it was more one-dimensional than stand-up comedy, which you can rely on tone and facial expressions, body posture, and I wanted to find some way to commit that to the page. And drawing fixed all those problems.
GROSS: Another solution would have been to do stand-up comedy.
BROSH: Yes. Unfortunately, stand-up comedy is live, and my thoughts tend to come out rapidly and partially deformed. So I don't know if I lend myself very well to stand-up comedy. I've always wanted to try it, though.
GROSS: Well, it sounds like you're kind of reclusive and prefer - would prefer to work at home.
BROSH: Yes. I'm sort of a hermit. I work from my bedroom, and I enjoy that.
GROSS: So your book "Hyperbole and a Half" starts with a letter, your description of a letter that you wrote to yourself when you were 10 with the intention that you should read it again when you were 25. So you were writing to your 25-year-old self from the vantage point of your 10-year-old self. What was the point of that?
BROSH: It was one of those time capsule things that some schools do, where you just get a glimpse into, you know, what you were like when you were 10, like, once you're an adult. So it's a very honest snapshot of yourself as a 10-year-old. And I buried it in a wine bottle in my backyard, and dug it up. I actually dug it up when I was 27. So I was two years late.
GROSS: Why were you two years late?
BROSH: Oh, I didn't remember that I did it until I was 27.
GROSS: It's amazing that you found it.
BROSH: Yeah, that - the letter.
GROSS: You found it, and you were still living there, OK. OK, so I want you to read an excerpt of your book, "Hyperbole and a Half," in which you describe the letter.
BROSH: So, this is sort of in the middle of the post. There's a little introduction about finding the letter and what the process of writing it must have been like. And then we get into the actual letter. And so there's going to be a mix of 10-year-old me writing the letter, and then adult me interpreting it and reacting to it. So I'll tell you when we're switching perspectives.
The letter begins thusly: Dear 25-year-old - and this is adult me, now - note: not dear 25-year-old me or dear 25-year-old self, just dear 25-year-old. And this is the letter again. Do you still like dogs? What is your favorite dog? Do you have a job training dogs? Is Murphy still alive? What is your favorite food? Are mom and dad still alive?
I feel it's important to note the order of those questions. Obviously dog-related subjects were my chief concern. Murphy was my family's dog, followed closely by the need to know my future favorite food. I feel that the double question marks speak to how important I thought that question was. And you can't see the page right now, but there are double question marks on it.
Only then did I pause to wonder whether my parents had survived. And then after that, there's a picture with 10-year-old me holding a dog toy, staring at the viewer, sort of walleyed, and the text on it is: priorities. And then there's a bulleted list. And the bullet points are: dogs, dogs, dogs, specific dog, food, lifespan of parents.
BROSH: Then the letter continues with a section titled "About Me." My name is Allie, and I am 10 years old. I have blond hair and blue eyes. My favorite dog is a German shepherd. My second-favorite dog is a husky. My third-favorite dog is a Doberman pincher. And then this is adult me again: This is troubling for a number of reasons, the first of which is that I apparently thought my future self wouldn't be aware of my name or eye color.
GROSS: So what did you really think, you know, when you found that letter you had written to yourself when you were 10?
BROSH: It made me wonder just about - what I was thinking, I guess, when I wrote that, what - you know, obviously, I was trying to communicate something to my future self, and I feel like there were so many more important things or interesting things I could've said than just, you know, my name and eye color.
So, yeah, I thought it was funny that I needed to describe myself to my future self, as if there was going to be a huge change or something. You know, maybe I would be someone totally different. I wouldn't know who I was.
GROSS: Would you describe for our listeners who haven't yet seen your blog or your book how you draw yourself and why you draw yourself that way?
BROSH: All right. So I draw myself with very crude illustrations in a program called Paintbrush. It's sort of the Macintosh analogue of MSPaint. And I look very funny. I've got these buggy eyes, and I have sort of like a tube body and a little, like, triangle ponytail thing on the top of my head, and it's a strange sort of animal-like creature.
And the reason I draw myself this way is I feel like this absurd, squiggly thing is actually a much more accurate representation of myself than I am. It's a better tool for communicating my sense of humor and actually getting across what I'm trying to say than, say, you know, being there in the flesh. I feel like it's - that's actually one of the reasons why I don't do stand-up and why I do this instead, because I can use this character to communicate and make it much more accurate and true to what I'm trying to say and true to my tone.
GROSS: So, what makes you feel like this image is an accurate representation of yourself? Because the image that you draw, it's kind of like, like you said, like a tube with, like, insect-like legs and two bug eyes and a couple of lines for a mouth and this triangle thing on your head that now I know is supposed to be a ponytail.
BROSH: Well, yeah, it's open for interpretation. It can be a shark fin or a party hat. Some people prefer to think of it like that. And it's evolved to the point where, you know, I'm all right with it not being interpreted as a ponytail anymore.
I feel it's a more accurate representation of me, because it's me on the inside. That's what I'm like when I view myself. I'm this - I am this crude, absurd little thing, this squiggly little thing on the inside. And so it's more of a raw representation of what it feels like to be me.
GROSS: And how did you start to blog, Allie? Actually, in asking you that question, I'm going to read the bio that's at the back of your book, because it's very funny.
BROSH: OK. Thank you.
GROSS: And I assume you wrote it.
GROSS: OK. It says Allie Brosh lives as a recluse in her bedroom in Bend, Oregon. In 2009, she thought: I know what would be a good idea. Instead of becoming a scientist, I should write and draw things on the Internet. This was a horrible idea for too many reasons to count, but the decision wasn't really based on logic. Things sort of spiraled from there.
So you were going to be a scientist before...
BROSH: Yeah, I studied human biology in college, and I wanted to go into, like, biomedical research. And I sort of had a, I don't know, a little bit of an identity crisis at the very end of college. I graduated, and I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do. I felt like maybe I was committing to the wrong path, and I was part of the cross-country and track team. And I still sort of wanted to take a stab at running professionally, and so that's originally what I tried to do.
Unfortunately, I got hurt about, like, six months into the process. I was able to support myself for a very short time, running road races. The prizes varied dramatically. Sometimes you'd get, like, $500. Sometimes you'd win a pumpkin.
BROSH: But so that was how I was supporting myself for a good six months, and then I hurt my Achilles tendon, and there I was, unemployed - recent college grad, unemployed, and I needed something to do. And I'd been casually writing this blog for a little while. I started writing it in the summer, before I graduated. So right before finals week, actually, I was procrastinating. I'm laterally productive. I will do productive things, but never the thing that I'm supposed to be doing.
BROSH: So I was supposed to be studying for a physics test, which I did eventually study for, but in this moment, I felt more like trying to write funny things. And I've always enjoyed the challenge of making people laugh. It's sort of a game for me. It's fun to see if I can do it. And so it was a very hastily done process. I had just typed into Google, like, free blog platform, and I found Blogger and created the blog.
And then I just, I wrote something - I'd actually written - the first thing I posted I'd actually written before, but I posted it and got a couple comments. And slowly, you know, I'd get, like, three, maybe eight comments at a time, and that was huge for me, thinking that there are actual people out on the Internet reading the things that I'm saying.
And so that sort of kept me going. It was a hobby. And then once I injured my Achilles tendon and I was unemployed and didn't really have anything to do, I got much more into writing as a way to keep myself entertained, or to have something to focus on.
GROSS: When you were a child, you loved dogs, and you still do. And one of your really funny stories in here is about two of your dogs, and they're both rescue dogs from shelters. And you had a dog who wasn't very bright. So you thought that dog needed a helper dog. And...
GROSS: You want to describe the situation?
BROSH: Well, so we adopted our first dog, who I now call the Simple Dog. She is not very bright. She had trouble - she didn't know how to walk up stairs when we first adopted her. We had to teach her, and she - there was this funny moment where she got to the middle of the stairs. We had been placing treats on each stair to motivate her to go up further on the staircase.
And she panicked in the middle of it and didn't know how to go up or down, and so that was sort of a funny moment. Anyway, so we adopted our Simple Dog, and probably about three or four months later, she lost her tags, and so we had to go to the shelter to replace her tags. And clearly that was - you know, we ended up with another dog after walking out of the shelter.
And so this other dog, who we gleefully thought might be a helper dog to our Simple Dog - and she earned the title Helper Dog on the car ride home from the shelter, while we were still thinking, like, oh, this'll be great, she'll be like a service animal to our other dog.
As it turns out, the Helper Dog actually hates other dogs. She agreed to tolerate the Simple Dog, though, because the Simple Dog is very un-doglike. She's more like some sort of sea creature-cow hybrid. I'm not entirely sure. But they're friends, but the Helper Dog isn't actually very helpful.
GROSS: You describe going to the shelter, and the person working at the shelter says: We've got all sorts of wonderful animals here. And you say, no thanks, just go back there and bring us the most hopeless, psychologically destroyed dog-monster you can find. Why did you ask for a difficult dog?
BROSH: We - I think it was - I wanted to feel good about adopting a dog that was maybe a little bit more trouble. You know, the Helper Dog had been in the shelter for, I think, two months, and no one else wanted her. And so it was my husband and I, we're like, you know what? We can help this dog. We can be the people to do this. And it made us feel good inside. It was sort of a selfish motivation.
And we were being very idealistic about how the process of rehabilitating this dog would go. We've since learned that we are not dog whisperers. We don't possess any special abilities to help dogs adapt to life in the world outside of the shelter. But we do love our dogs very much, so we hope that that's enough.
GROSS: My guest is Allie Brosh, the creator of the comic, autobiographical blog "Hyperbole and a Half," which is also the name of her new book. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Probably the biggest response you've gotten to any of your blog posts, and these stories are in your new book, is - they're the ones about depression. And there's two of them: "Depression Part 1" and "Depression Part 2." Were these two separate bouts of depression?
BROSH: Yeah. Part one was sort of - I thought that that was really, like, the final face of depression for me, but I was very wrong about that. Part two was a much more deep and subtle form of depression, where I just didn't feel anything. The first part was all sorts of feelings, and a lot of self-loathing involved in that. And then slowly, it transitioned to feeling nothing, and just feeling very detached and bored with everything, because I couldn't connect in a meaningful way to the things I enjoyed or the things around me. I just felt totally detached and numb.
GROSS: You write that the beginning of your depression had been nothing but feelings, like you just said, so the emotional deadening that followed, you say, was kind of a relief.
BROSH: It was at first. You know, I've always sort of secretly thought of feelings as a weakness. I think, growing up, I always wanted to be someone who was tougher than I am. And so when I first started not having feelings anymore, I felt, oh, I'm finally this person who doesn't react. I'm not sensitive anymore.
And I enjoyed that for a short time, especially when I hadn't lost my feelings completely, where I just felt like I was emotionally very strong. And then once all my emotions disappeared, I very quickly realized that emotions are the only thing that provide variation in your life, and so not feeling them doesn't really allow you to enjoy what's going on very much.
GROSS: You write, some people have a legitimate reason to feel depressed, but not me. Were you trying to figure out why you were depressed and not coming up with a reason?
BROSH: Mm-hmm. I was. You know, I think that there's a common misconception that depression is about something, or depression is sadness or some form of negativity. And it can represent a sadness or a self-loathing, as the first half of my depression did. And it actually contributed more - it sort of circled back on itself and made me dislike myself more because I was so sad, and I didn't know why, and I felt like I needed a reason.
You know, I would think, you know, there are people who have it much worse than me. I actually have a great life. Why am I feeling like this? Why can't I enjoy this? Why can't I feel happy, like I feel I should be? And it took me a long time to figure out that it was just - something was broken on a fundamental level. It wasn't - there was no reason behind it. It was just the way things were, the way my brain was at that point.
GROSS: So, during this period of not caring, because you weren't feeling anything, did you hurt yourself or other people?
BROSH: I don't feel that I - I don't think I did. I mean, I tried not to. I was still aware. You know, I've always been pretty self-aware, and even though I didn't have very many emotions, and I didn't have the ability to feel very deeply, I could still sort of be aware of myself and try not to hurt anyone, you know, even - I remember being very aware of that, actually, in the second part of my depression, where I would sort of have to consciously control my facial expressions, because I wasn't feeling enough organic emotion to generate them naturally.
And so when I was listening to a story, say, someone telling me a sad story about - I think one of my friends, their cat died. And she was telling me the story of how her cat died, and I was very consciously thinking oh, God, like, please make a sad enough face. Like, please, face, do me a solid and be sad enough. And so I was trying to sort of very consciously control myself, so that I remained socially acceptable and didn't alienate anyone.
GROSS: You write, it's weird for people who still have feelings to be around depressed people. Do you think people found it weird to be around you?
BROSH: I think a little bit, especially after they found out I was depressed. No one really knows what to say or whether they need to say anything. It's this, like, unspoken thing, where, I don't know, they think that maybe I want to talk about it, maybe I don't. They don't really know what to say to me. They don't know how to be comforting or how to help.
And what I really want is to just be treated normally. And so it creates this strange tension where they want to be supportive. They want to help me, but they don't quite know what their role in that process is. I feel like people are reluctant to experience joy around a depressed person, because it's almost like they're flaunting it.
GROSS: And you say that people think that there's a source of untapped happiness that you're just not taking advantage of, and with that comes a lot of advice. What kind of advice did you get from people that you thought was, like, not really helpful?
BROSH: Well yeah, people always want to help, and, you know, because it's very difficult for them to accept that this is something that maybe can't be helped. Maybe this is something that, you know, nothing outside of medication or time can fix. But people tend to want to actively help and be a part of fixing you.
And so I got advice like, well, try yoga. Like, get up early in the morning and do yoga every morning and appreciate the wonder of the universe, and you can't be depressed. And the subtext of that is that I'm being negative, and that's why I'm sad or why I don't have feelings anymore.
And, you know, people would say, well, just be happy again. Or have you thought about, like, your life is great? Like, think about how wonderful your life is and just really meditate on that and think about, you know, you have this great job, the job that you've always wanted. You have a great husband. You live in a wonderful area. Think about all that stuff, and you won't feel bad anymore. But that's - it almost makes it worse, because then I feel like, well, I shouldn't be feeling like this. I really shouldn't.
There are all sorts of things that people are telling me to do that can help myself, and it also creates this weird tension, where I feel almost pressured to accept the help and act like I'm better so I don't disappoint anyone or make them feel like they've failed or be frustrated with my progress.
GROSS: Allie Brosh will be back in the second half of the show. She's the creator of the comic, autobiographical blog "Hyperbole and a Half," which is also the name of her new book. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: I'd like you to read an excerpt from "Hyperbole and a Half." And this is from the section on depression, and it kind of picks up in the section that we're talking about.
BROSH: Yeah. So this is sort of like the dark night of the soul moment in this whole series of posts.
It's a strange moment when you realize that you don't want to be alive anymore. If I had feelings, I'm sure I would have felt surprised. I've spent the vast majority of my life actively attempting to survive. Ever since my most distant single-celled ancestor squiggled into existence, there's been an unbroken chain of things that wanted to stick around. Yet there I was, casually wishing that I could stop existing in the same way you'd want to leave an empty room or mute an unbearably repetitive noise.
That wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part was deciding to keep going. When I say that deciding not to kill myself was the worst part, I should clarify that I don't mean it in a retrospective sense. From where I am now, it seems like a solid enough decision. But at the time, it felt like I had been dragging myself through the most miserable, endless wasteland, and far in the distance I'd seen the promising glimmer of a slightly less miserable wasteland. And for just a moment, I thought maybe I'd be able to stop and rest. But as soon as I arrived at the border of the less miserable wasteland, I found out that I'd have to turn around and walk back the other way.
GROSS: Were you surprised that at some point you actually considered taking your life? Did you ever think you were going to get to that point?
BROSH: I didn't. I mean I remember having conversations with my friends in high school and probably even college about just like, you know, you start debating stuff like oh, well, why do people kill themselves? And I remember saying I would never do that. I don't understand that. I don't get why anyone would want to do that. And so I was surprised. I actually didn't really think it was that bad until I got to that point. It snuck up on me and probably because I didn't have very many feelings I wasn't able to panic or realize this is actually sort of scary.
GROSS: Yeah. There's a section a little after where you stopped reading where you say that there's no way to casually ask for help.
GROSS: What were the problems that you thought about revolving around the idea of asking for help?
BROSH: I mostly didn't want anyone to make a big deal out of it. It felt sort of jarring to me to tell my mom, Mom, I'm suicidal. I feel like I don't want to be alive anymore. And then to hear her reaction to it, you know, I sort of didn't want to be exposed to the emotions that other people were feeling about this. And I was very ill-prepared to be comforting other people. It's a weird time, you know, you're in the middle of the worst thing that's ever happened to you and through no fault of anyone, you suddenly are in the position of like, no, no, it's OK. I don't actually want to kill myself, you know, I just want to become dead somehow. It's all right. You know, life is meaningless anyway.
BROSH: And, so, you know, and the things that I was saying weren't comforting to them and it was just sort of strange for everyone involved.
GROSS: Did you tell anybody that you were actually considering suicide, that it was a serious thought in your mind?
BROSH: Yes. I told my mom and my husband and we talked it through. My mom was great about it. She said she broke down after she got off the phone with me. She broke down a little bit on the phone, but she actually worked at a suicide hotline for a long time so she knew what to say and how to handle it.
GROSS: What was it that she said?
BROSH: You know, she treated it with validity. She didn't say, you know, no, no, no. Don't do that. Like that's ridiculous. She asked me questions like well, why? What are you thinking of doing? Do you have a plan? And like I guess, what's this like for you? And so she was just trying to figure out more what my psychological environment was. And that was comforting to me because, you know, nobody - she wasn't pushing me to do anything. She wasn't trying to jar me out of the spot that I was at with like positivity or anything like that. She sort of met me where I was and listened to what I had to say.
GROSS: Did you have a plan?
BROSH: I did. I was trying to figure out how to do it without, you know, upsetting the people I love. I was trying to maybe like how can I make it look like an accident or something that wasn't quite so purposeful so it would be less disturbing for my husband, who would've probably been the one to find me. And that's eventually what prevented me from doing it is imagining how much I would hurt them.
GROSS: What kind of accident were you planning?
BROSH: Drowning. I was thinking maybe I would go out for, you know, one of my, one of the running trails that I normally run on. Sorry, I'm getting a little choked up.
GROSS: Do you want to stop for a couple of minutes?
BROSH: No, that's all right. And this, so this was in the winter and I was planning on maybe just sitting down in the river and getting hypothermic and allowing it to happen that way. And so anyone who found me would be like oh, well, she fell in and, you know, it looks very accidental.
GROSS: That would've been a really horrible way of doing it. I mean it would've - that's like one of those really painful things to do where all the instincts in your body would be fighting against drowning yourself.
GROSS: I don't mean to...
BROSH: Oh yes. Yeah, the hypothermia is what I was maybe hoping for - is that if, you know, it was, I'm feeling maybe it was January or February, and it was very cold so I could've just submerged myself, you know, up to my chest in water and just sat there until things took their course.
GROSS: Well, so when you told - did you tell your husband you were actually seriously thinking about suicide?
BROSH: I did. I don't know. This might actually be the first time he's hearing the details.
GROSS: Oh. So I think one of the awful things about feeling suicidal and then letting somebody who is close to you know that is that it would be easy for them to interpret it as either A: You don't care enough about me to care what happens to me...
GROSS: ...if you leave. Or also, I'm not loving you in an adequate way and that's why you're suicidal. Because if I was doing a better job...
GROSS: ...being your mother or being your husband, you'd be happier and not be in this position. Is that like another thing that was going through your mind?
BROSH: Well, there's - I mean it's - there are a lot of complex emotions that arise, like these auxiliary emotions that happen with depression where, you know, the depression itself might not have any cause, but we're used to thinking in terms of causes and effects. And so it's natural to interpret it in that way. And so yeah, he, I'm sure that he felt oh, well, there's maybe something that I should be doing better to, like, help you. And I had to explain like, no, it's not you. It's like this is - I just can't take how numb everything is and how I can't connect to anything. It was driving me crazy to, you know, be with this person I love, like the person I love the most in the entire world and - sorry.
GROSS: It's OK.
BROSH: And not be able to feel anything. And so I was able to explain, I feel, that it wasn't anything that any of them were doing. It wasn't - like I know how much they love me and that in the end was what kept me from doing it.
GROSS: OK. Obviously, it is really painful for you to talk about this and I feel bad just even putting you through it. But I think one of the remarkable things...
BROSH: Oh, it's all right.
GROSS: I think one of the remarkable things about your work is that you've taken something that, you know, like what's more painful than the thought like life has become so meaningless to me and so painful that I might take my own life. Like, what's more painful than that? And you've managed to turn it into, you know, in your blog and in your book, you've managed to turn it into like such a really good description of how you felt, but also like parts of it are funny, even though they really hurt a lot.
GROSS: And I think that's the sign of what like a good artist can do...
BROSH: Oh, thank you very much.
GROSS: ...to do something transformative like that. How long did it take till you felt like you could have enough distance to do that? Because you were gone from your blog for about like a year and a half, right?
BROSH: Yeah. It was a good long time. It was about 18 months. And gosh, let's see. So I felt maybe once I started feeling emotions again and feeling like OK, this is, I'm making progress. And, you know, see, I'm tearing up now, this is emotions, this is great, I'm happy to see this. But, yes, so once I felt like I was out of the immediate danger of anything, I started thinking like it might be therapeutic to start writing things down and trying to work my way through this mentally, and that led to me eventually writing the post. And it took months to figure out how to strike the right balance between levity and humor and treating it with enough respect. So that probably took the longest and it was something I put a lot of thought and time into. But I eventually feel like I did get pretty close to describing what the experience was like and I was very happy with it by the time I published it.
GROSS: One of the things you had to decide as an artist is how were you going to draw yourself? How were you going to draw like the feelings that you were trying to express?
GROSS: And, you know, one of the differences between the depression sections and the rest of the book is everything that you draw, it's all so colorful, like all the drawings are like supersaturated colors and the pages themselves are like supersaturated, like burnt orange and blue and like a yellow-green, and then a leaf green, and more of a turquoise, and I mean the colors are great. The pages for the depression, they're like white pages.
GROSS: And as colorful as like your picture of yourself as it's covered with like a soiled gray hoodie.
BROSH: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I did that purposefully because I felt like it would have been strange to have a colorful backdrop on something that was so bleak for me. And a real funny story about the hoodie, actually. The hoodie is from my college days. I was on the cross country and track team in college and I went to a big meet, the NCAA National Meet, and I was really excited to have qualified and so I bought a sweatshirt there. And it's this funny contrast between one of the pinnacles of happiness and success in my life, and then here I am wearing it six years later, suicidally depressed. (Laughing)
GROSS: Hmm. How did the depression end?
BROSH: I mean I don't know if it has fully ended. I feel like I'm operating at about 60 percent capacity now. But it's a comfortable spot for me. I actually enjoy where I am. I feel like I used to be a lot more anxious than this, but the slight numbness and emotional deadening allows me to be much less anxious. It's sort of like my depression cured my anxiety in a way.
GROSS: Now do you have to worry about the depression coming back? Is that like added to the list of worries?
BROSH: I mean I try not to worry about it too much because I can get into the mindset of like, you know, destroying the happy parts of my life by worrying about the...
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BROSH: ...the unhappy parts and the fact that it might be coming at me. So I try to treat it like it's not going to happen again, but if it does, I'm willing to accept that. I'm more relaxed about it now. I feel like one of the things that led to me considering suicide was how panicked I was about the feelings lasting forever. And now that I've been through this a couple times and I've seen that I can come out the other side, the feeling is less panic and more I need to just sit back, relax and let this pass.
GROSS: So just like another question about the depression, was anything helpful? Was there like any kind of therapy or medication that alleviated some of it?
BROSH: Medication was very helpful.
BROSH: I take Wellbutrin and that's been very helpful. My big concern with medication was that it would alter my brain in a way that wouldn't let me keep doing what I do, wouldn't let me keep writing, wouldn't let me be creative. I was really scared that it would change me and Wellbutrin hasn't done that so far. I feel pretty much myself on it. And you know, obviously, there are times where the depression pokes through a little bit...
BROSH: ...sometimes. But it's never as bad as that, you know, the worst part. I feel like I approach a pretty numb state but I don't ever devolve fully into that same place where I was.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Allie Brosh. And although you might not guess from the conversation we've been having...
GROSS: ...she does a very funny blog called "Hyperbole and a Half" - that it's a personal blog with drawings, you know, very cartoonish kind of drawings, very colorful. And now she has a new book, like the blog, it's called "Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened."
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: So before you started doing your blog that combines, like, memoir and comics, did you draw before?
BROSH: Yeah. I've drawn pretty much my whole life. It's funny, people often give me a really hard time about how crude and simplistic my art style is. But I know how to draw realistic things. I just - and really, a lot of time goes into this crudeness. You know, there's a huge difference between, you know, drawing the pupil a slightly different size or slight, like, a millimeter to, like, either side can make such a gigantic difference in a facial expression.
Or, like, shaving a tiny bit off the corner of the line of the mouth. So there's really a lot of work that goes into, quote/unquote, "perfecting" this crudeness.
GROSS: You use a computer program to do your drawings.
GROSS: How would your drawings look different if you were doing them with a brush? By hand.
BROSH: They'd probably be a little bit less shaky. So I've been doing some drawings at my readings. So I'm on a book tour right now and when I do readings and book signings I'll draw a little picture in everyone's books. And so I find it's actually much easier to draw with just holding a pen rather than drawing on my tablet because I can see, like, where the tip of the pen is. And that's how I grew up drawing. That's how I was used to drawing.
Drawing on my tablet is sort, you know, my hand is down on the table and my gaze is looking at my computer screen. So there's sort of a disconnect. It's almost like speaking a foreign language or something, taking something that you're used to and flipping it around and having to filter it through a different pathway.
GROSS: What about the colors?
BROSH: The colors - it's actually much easier because I just have the fill tool. So I can just hit pink and it'll be pink. Or, like, green and everything's green. Instead of having to spend time shading it and coloring it all in.
GROSS: Some of the stories that you write in your book and on your blog are about your childhood when you threw a lot of tantrums and did crazy things like eat an entire cake and then, like, throw up for the rest of the day. And your mother's always in these stories usually just being pretty upset about what you're doing.
When you draw these - I assume your mother reads them - does that lead to...
GROSS: ...like really interesting conversations about your childhood with her? Does that take you to places you otherwise would never have gone in conversation?
BROSH: A little bit. I mean, I think she really enjoys the stories. I know that she will read the stories, especially the childhood stories, after she's had a bad day at work. Probably to put things in perspective for herself because nothing could quite stand up to how bad I was as a child. And it sort of feels like an inside joke to her, I think.
You know, she really gets what I'm saying because she was there. She experienced the heart of this. And so she appreciates it probably more than most people would. And maybe it's a little bit vindicating, like, finally I realize what a trouble I was to her. So we've had some fun...
GROSS: Do you think you really were trouble as a kid?
BROSH: Oh, I absolutely was. I was. I was a very, very problematic child. I don't know why. Maybe I was trying to get a rise out of my mom. It might've been entertaining for me to be troublesome. I know that I had to go see a psychiatrist when I was 3 because I'd bit my sister and then tried to set her on fire.
GROSS: Oh. OK.
BROSH: And it was...
BROSH: It was just this chaos. And for me, it wasn't - I wasn't trying to be bad necessarily; I just wanted to see what would happen. But...
GROSS: And what did happen when you tried to set her on fire?
BROSH: More chaos.
GROSS: What did you do exactly?
BROSH: So my grandmother smoked and she had lighters lying around the house. And so I would see her use the lighter and I was trying to figure out how to make the lighter make fire. And I figured it out. And then I was like, well, what do I do with this? I figured out how to make fire. I need something to do with the fire. And my sister happened to be sitting there. And that was what I chose to do with the fire.
GROSS: How did you put her out after setting her on fire?
BROSH: I didn't actually set her on fire. I approached her with the lighter with the intent of setting her on fire and my mom caught what was happening before it actually happened.
GROSS: Good. Is this why...
BROSH: But the intent was to set her on fire.
GROSS: Do you think is why you like to adopt dogs who are considered too troublesome for other people to adopt from shelters?
BROSH: Oh. Maybe. Maybe there's a sense of empathy there, that, like...
BROSH: ...my mom put up with me for all this time.
BROSH: The least I can do is adopt a problematic dog.
GROSS: Allie Brosh, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
BROSH: Oh, you are so welcome.
GROSS: Allie Brosh does the blog "Hyperbole and a Half," which is also the name of her new book. You can read an illustrated chapter of the book, about her self-image and the things she'd like to believe about herself, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The flap over Rand Paul's articles and speeches is just the latest of a series of cases of plagiarism by high-profile journalists and politicians. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg looks at the way that word has been used since it was invented by the Romans and wonders if plagiarism is always immoral or is it sometimes just bad form.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Even taken together, the charges didn't seem to amount to that big a deal - just a matter of quoting a few factual statements and a Wikipedia passage without attributing them. But as Rand Paul discovered, the word plagiarism can still rouse people to steaming indignation. Samuel Johnson called plagiarism the most atrocious of literary crimes and, actually, the word itself began as the name of a real crime.
In Roman law, a plagiarius was someone who abducted a child or a slave - it's from "plaga," the Latin word for a net or a snare. That connection was first drawn by the first century poet Martial, who accused a rival he called Fidentius of stealing his works in order to garner undeserved praise. Martial compared Fidentius to a man who wears a toupee and others have depicted the plagiarist as somebody who shines in stolen plumes.
The offense can be quite straightforward. Joe Biden was forced to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary when he was caught lifting autobiographical passages from the speeches of the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. That was classic plagiarism; Biden wasn't just helping himself to Kinnock's literary children, but to Kinnock's childhood as well.
But in the higher precincts of cultural criticism, plagiarism has come to seem more cloudy and complicated than it once did, as it jostles with imitation, homage, allusion and postmodern appropriation. And technology has compounded the possibilities - so much stuff out there to repurpose, so many new ways to adapt and transform it.
What do we say when A Tribe Called Quest samples the guitar licks from "A Walk on the Wild Side"? Is it the same as Rossini working Mozart motifs into "The Barber of Seville," or is it something wholly new? But nuances and complexities are set aside when it comes to pedestrian forms of expression like term papers, news reports and political speeches, where plagiarism is greatly simplified.
Technology has played a role here, too. It may have made plagiarism easier to execute but it has also made it easier to detect. Time was when spotting literary pilferage could take some serious detective work in the library stacks. Now you just dump a passage into a search engine and run it against everything that's out there. Or you can just let some software do it for you, the way some universities do.
Along the way, the practical definition of plagiarism has become more cut-and-dried than ever before. It doesn't matter what you copy or where you take it from, or whether it was deliberate or accidental. Not long ago, Time magazine's Fareed Zakaria and Fox News' Juan Williams were both obliged to apologize profusely when they published columns with unattributed passages copied word-for-word from other sources.
It made no difference that the passages in question were just bald factual recitals or that the copying was almost certainly inadvertent, most likely the work of a research assistant. Cut and paste, you'll be disgraced. And now Rand Paul is being pilloried for a couple of similar offenses, particularly for a speech in which he quoted verbatim the Wikipedia plot synopsis of the 1997 movie "Gattaca" without attributing it.
That doesn't seem quite as grave an offense as the literary larcenies of Joe Biden. Wikipedia isn't an individual author, just an anonymous collective project. And its prose has all the beauty of a pile of scrap lumber. Paul could hardly be accused of trying to shine in stolen plumage. Still, by modern definitions of plagiarism, Paul clearly crossed the line.
If you're going to use a Wikipedia synopsis, you should run it through a Mixmaster to the point where nobody could Google it up and see where you got it from. But considering the nature of offense, the condemnations were pretty severe. Theft is theft, people said, echoing Martial's vilifications of Fidentius. A journalism professor from Paul's alma mater Baylor announced that if it had happened in one of his classes, he would have failed the student and asked the university to investigate a possible honor code violation.
I'd just soon leave honor out of it. These aren't like those classic cases of literary theft; they're just infractions of the conventions we're bound to adhere to. But that doesn't make them trivial, as Paul implied when he said he was being hounded by the footnote police. Whether the copying itself was the work of Paul or of a staffer, he has to take personal responsibility for the cluelessness of that response.
The rules for quoting and attributing can seem arbitrary at times, with little connection to the respect for intellectual property that originally motivated them. You could think of them just as a kind of literary etiquette. But etiquette is just what comes of reducing moral principles to the explicit codes of conduct that govern our civil life.
Paul may not have been guilty of dishonesty, just cavalier disrespect for the rules. You don't put on the feathers of another, not even the drab ones that you find lying around on the ground.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. You can follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. You'll find staff-curated photos, videos, gifs, interview highlights, and a look into what's happening behind the scenes. There's also a place for you to ask us questions about the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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