The Mathemagician’s Tears – Why I Withdrew Submissions from the Irish Times

Written in late 2011, reinstated.

To the question, “what kind of full-of-themselves idiot emails a national newspaper withdrawing a fiction submission before it has even been accepted?”, today’s answer is “Me”. Having been advised that advance notice is not given by the Irish Times prior to publication of flash fiction, I have requested a withdrawal of my two submissions in advance. The reason is not the usual happy one that they have been accepted elsewhere. But weep not for me, I will live. Unlike Kate Fitzgerald, who ended her own life last August after publishing an article about mental illness. (I have had to redact a link previously provided, because the original source I referred to deleted their entry, probably subject to outside pressure. The entry on the 3 Men Make a Tiger blog has all the relevant information 3menmakeatiger.blogspot.com) which started around 30 November. Had anything happened with my stories before a week or so ago, there would be no issue to blog about here.

They say that a writer looking for publication doesn’t care about principles and that’s usually true of me. But I’ve unexpectedly run right into a very solid line that my foot Just. Won’t. Cross. And that line was drawn when, after an initial mistake where an anonymous author of an article discussing people’s lack of compassion in the workplace around mental health was identified as Kate Fitzgerald, a national newspaper apologised to the PR company for whom she worked. In doing so, they called a dead girl a liar. All because she had the cheek to suffer mental health issues which eventually drove her to end her own life – and the cheek to admit to them – rather than be the nice sane infallible drone that the corporate world apparently wants so badly. That national newspaper is The Irish Times.

There is a children’s book called “The Phantom Tollbooth” where a boy Milo travels into a fantasy world. On his travels he meets the Mathemagician, who can create such miracles as Subtraction Stew, a substance that makes you feel hungrier the more you eat of it. Milo is deeply impressed, but the more he sees, the more puzzled he becomes. He turns around and innocently asks the Mathemagician, “Why is it that the things that are correct just don’t seem right?”

And the Mathemagician bursts into tears.

He explains to Milo that the Princesses Rhyme and Reason have been exiled from the land and until they return his kingdom and that of the others will always be at odds and things won’t make sense any more.

Milo’s question has never haunted me more than now.

In editing this woman’s words to absolve these people (and I believe, and have done from the outset, that she is telling the truth); in apologising publicly to that PR firm, the Communications Clinic, on the day of her memorial service; in then issuing an embarrassingly self-praising editorial explaining that they were casting aspersions on her truthfulness “out of fairness” – the Irish Times were legally doing the perfectly correct thing.

And never, ever have they hurt and offended so many people in doing so. Never has Milo’s question been more relevant. Rhyme and reason, so rarely bedfellows in this country of ours, have done a complete disappearing act here. Things that are correct are no longer right. “Fairness” is an Irish weasel-word. It has nothing to do with justice.

National broadcasting media have been suppressed and cannot discuss the matter “for legal reasons”. This particular PR company has a lot of political and media clout which, it appears, it has been wielding with gusto behind the scenes, leaving threatening voicemails with a website which has continued with the story. (I have actually attended that place, in 2009, and had dealings with a very pleasant person, not named in any case, nor a part of any dynasty, or involved in any proceedings, whom I have been given no reason to wish anything but the best. I’m aware that not every apple on a rotten tree is rotten.)

Noxious as this company’s behaviour has been throughout, perhaps they have done us all a perverse favour. Because they pushed their luck just that bit too far. They thought they could rely on our fear and taboo about any sort of mental malaise, where hardened addicts cough with embarrassment when someone admits to taking antidepressants. They thought they were home free when they muttered how the person was “mentally ill” and how consequently her word couldn’t be trusted.

But they were wrong. And they badly underestimated us.

They forgot that mentally ill and depressed people work, pay taxes, occasionally rule a country through war (oh hai there Winston Churchill!) contribute to society through art, music, swimming the entire Thames river for charity (hello David Walliams – another depressed weakling how are ye!) and generally tend to put rather a lot into the economy and change the course of history. But what is that all against two lousy weeks’ absence from a PR firm for mental health reasons? Pshaw.

These people have done us a favour because even if Rhyme and Reason are still absent, finally, the Mathemagician’s anguish has become so great that for the first time he has openly started to cry.

Because people all over Ireland are outraged at the suppression and silence, a conversation is starting. (Originally linked to a discussion on boards.ie but that place subjected me to extreme emotional abuse regarding Kate Fitzgerald when I tried to get them to stop disrespecting her and using cruel terms. They are not a safe place for people dealing with the reality of mental health issues. The way they treated me was truly vicious and cruel. The man who started the conversation is a hypocrite since he allows his moderators to denigrate KF elsewhere on the forum and abuses me for pointing it out.)

A real one, about people’s hidden struggle with mental health problems and the sheer effort required to put on a brave face. This is a good thing. It’s good we’re angry. It’s good that we are ready to fight and are no longer prepared to ingest the Subtraction Stew of meaningless, cruel platitudes that only make us hungrier, sadder and more self-hating. People who operate on the emotional edge – and when you’re a writer that’s part of the job description – should be nervous. Because if They wrote off a woman like Kate Fitzgerald – and the quickest of searches established she was an exceptionally accomplished young woman – who is to say that They, whoever they are, won’t turn on you next? Because you’re sane? Are you sure you’re sane? Are you sure you’re good enough for Them, when even Kate Fitzgerald wasn’t?

Look. I’m under no illusions that anyone cares a flying toss about my 500-word stories. They’re not very important in the grand scheme of things. And I don’t think that withdrawing them is an incredible self-sacrifice, nor do I think writers who go ahead after this are doing anything wrong. (If the IT go ahead and publish my submissions anyway, against my will, please let me know immediately so that I can Shout Loudly.) I do feel that it would not be right to have my name there, right now, when I feel so strongly about this matter. And for those that say I am missing facts regarding the company, perhaps they are right – but when accusations of bullying result in self-defence in a spectacularly bullying and suppressive manner, well that’s a fact in itself, surely? I shall not shed a tear for those people.

Kate Fitzgerald died by her own hand in August. She cannot be hurt any more; she is beyond all harm. But for those who are only marginally still here – who are debating the possibility – I would say: you have something to say. Beyond job, beyond family, beyond all the externals. Whatever They tell you, don’t fall for it. You have something to say. Please stay a while longer.

 

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