When Art Is an Act of Survival

Melissa Broder of So Sad Today finds solace in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and in her own creative process.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

During her worst panic attacks, two things seem to happen to Melissa Broder, the author of So Sad Today. First, she becomes profoundly freaked out by the inexplicable fact of her own existence. At the same time, she’s tormented by the realization that, one day, she’s definitely going to die. Watching other people go about their lives, seemingly oblivious to their own doomed condition, only ratchets up her feelings of terror and isolation.

In the past, a favorite book has been a lifeline: Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death. Becker points out that human beings will go to almost any length to avoid thinking about mortality, even, ironically, if it means becoming less fully alive in the process. In our conversation for this series, Broder described falling into and away from a state of painful death-awareness, and the one thing—writing—that’s helped her reach a kind of peace.

So Sad Today is a harrowing and darkly comic book about the author’s ongoing struggles with anxiety, depression, and neurotic obsession. It’s also one of the most unflinchingly confessional books I’ve ever read, but Broder’s frankness about her favorite coping mechanisms—romantic infatuation, sex, various addictions, eating disorders, vomit porn—isn’t rooted in exhibitionism. It’s all about confronting the inescapable sadness of being human, and trying—through cathartic self-expression—to feel better.

Melissa Broder is the author of four poetry collections, including Meat Heart, Scarecrone, and Last Sext. She’s best known for @sosadtoday, the Twitter account she started anonymously in 2012, during a particularly dark time. (The first tweet was just two words: “sad today.”) Like the essays in So Sad Today, the account specializes in transmissions from a tortured id; its no-holds-barred brand of self-assessment gained 350,000 followers and led to a column for Vice. Melissa Broder spoke to me by phone from her home in Venice, California.

Melissa Broder: Usually, when I’m in a cycle of deep, existential anxiety, my first inclination isn’t to pick up a book with “death” in the title. If I’m really trying to find some solace, I’ll read some Jane Austen or something—something nice and light.

But sometimes I feel so consumed by questions about death and mortality that I can’t escape into anything else. I often feel alone in my active questioning. I wonder, why is no one else around me talking about this? Isn’t it strange that we’re all sitting around this table talking about Groupon? What is this table? What are we doing here? So I sit there, terrorized and feeling like an alien.

During these phases, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is a book that I return to time and time again. In its pages, I find camaraderie, understanding, and even solace in periods when I feel haunted by the strangeness of existence and the inevitability of death.

While Becker offers no consolation in the form of a spiritual palliative, or a definitive answer as to what we are doing here (who can?), it is its own consolation for me to read his work and connect with so many others, who, throughout history, have been plagued by what I might call seeing, feeling or thinking “too much” about existence.

It’s an exploration of the problem of mortality, which Becker looks at from every angle. He looks at the things around which we create our identities—and then examines what happens when those things are shattered, from multiple perspectives: psychological, physical, artistic and creative, literary and philosophical.

If there’s a basic thesis of the book, it’s this:

The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.

Becker is saying that underneath everything we do is the anxiety that we will inevitably cease to exist—an anxiety we want to avoid more than anything. But this fear is implicit in life itself, and so we water down our lives and hide. The only way to escape our death-anxiety is to become, paradoxically, less fully alive.

What does it mean to be “fully alive”? I think when I am in the woods alone is probably the most alive I ever feel. When it’s just me in the woods by myself, with my little dog, I feel so quiet and good. I mean, I’m not John Muir. We’re talking about spending two hours with my little dog on a little cleared-out path. But inevitably, when I feel alive like this, I also experience what Becker is talking about. I grow scared of living that fully. So I’ll grab my phone to distract myself from the moment’s purity. I’ll retreat into something that makes me feel less alive.

I am scared to feel all of my feelings. Sometimes it seems as though a feeling will literally kill me. I think that’s because feelings are so close to essence: a reminder that I really exist and life is finite.

I choose to distract myself with small obsessions: particularly beauty rituals (my hair is a big one), fleeting hits of attention, wondering what others who don’t matter think of me. Ultimately these things are closer to death than they are to life. They aren’t what I will look back on as a life well lived on my deathbed. But they create an illusion of safety, in that they bridle the infinite anxiety. They are places to put everything. They are good ways to convince myself I have a lot more time on this earth than I do. If life were really finite, who would spend time obsessing about things that don’t matter?

This is also not to say that there isn’t something beautiful in the superficial. In times when I feel most awake, most terrified, I yearn to be distracted by something fleeting, casual, unimportant. During those times it’s like someone has opened a window shade on my consciousness and all I want is to shut it. To be honest, I don’t think I want to be that alive. To have the capacity to be superficial, in those moments, to me feels like it would be a gift.

Obviously, some forms of distraction aren’t so benign, like severe anxiety, which is definitely—for me—a denial of death. Anxiety acts like a bandage, defending against a whole range of emotions. Anxiety is the feelings I refuse to feel bumping up against the inside of me. Neurotically worrying about things that aren’t essential is a very convenient tool for escaping my deepest feelings, the ones that scare me because they’re so real.

I’ve tried other things to help ease the experience of being on this planet: alcohol, drugs, eating disorders. In a strange way, these may be seen as creative acts. They push against life. Drugs, especially, can provide exploration and discovery and a feeling of okayness. They can be a low-grade, or even high-grade, search for meaning and God. But for me they didn’t work forever. In the end, they kicked my ass.

Ultimately, Becker affirms that artistic creativity is a solution—not to the problem of death, or even life—but to the question of “how to live.” That’s true for me. Writing is the only palliative that I’ve found that hasn’t tried to kill me. Being a creative human being is necessary for my survival. I know that some people feel that art is a luxury, that the time to make art is a luxury, but I’ve always just made time for it—wherever or however I could. I wrote So Sad Today in my car, mostly on the L.A. highways. I dictated most of it. If you need it, you’ll make time for it.

Twitter started as a survival mechanism, too. Creating the @sosadtoday account really did save my life. It was 2012, and I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been in therapy forever. My psychiatrist had upped my meds, and it wasn’t working. I was really scared. Having an anonymous outlet was amazing. I followed three people on “weird Twitter,” and had zero followers. I was tweeting into the void, but I felt that I needed this place. In later cycles of anxiety and depression that were particularly difficult, @sosadtoday has also served as a palliative tool.

The complicated thing, as Becker points out, is that the elements that sometimes help you survive may do so by making you less alive. Drugs and alcohol saved my life until they didn’t. And Twitter can be kind of the same way. There is the same implicit double-edged freedom in it, in the way that drugs can be both the ultimate freedom and the ultimate master. What started as a pure outlet became an addiction to that dopamine as I started to get more followers. It’s a hit. It’s such a hit. The Internet itself is such a drug. You go online and that light floods you, and you feel the potentiality of the world at your fingertips. Often you go in and it’s just a cesspool. But you keep going.

The Denial of Death isn’t offering one answer to this dilemma. There’s no one solution for life or death, I don’t think. But when it seems like everyone around me has protective anti-death-thoughts wiring, Becker affirms that it’s okay that they do. But I’m also okay, because there’s solace in knowing that others before me have also felt they were the only ones.

Becker’s book isn’t offering an answer. Instead, he’s reminding us that there have been others excessively preoccupied by existential heaviness. Others have been paralyzed by the gravity of that knowledge, while trying to live in the world. But that it’s also okay if the people around us don’t seem scared—don’t blame them.  We are wired to want to escape that. To be reminded that we all run from death, and are terrified when we face it, is a true consolation.