Blogtober | Ableism in the paranormal community?: A meander

***General disclaimer: Not an expert on psychology***

I can’t believe we’re reaching the end of October already. Although I have plans for Halloween, I do feel that the month has somewhat passed me by. I plan on stretching the spooky mood into November before everything gets Christmassy although, admittedly, I’m spooky all the year round.

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I finished my dissertation for my Masters last month and have been adjusting to a full-time work / sleep cycle. It’s been so strange mentally, having no obligation to research since it ended. I think I am healthy, but I plan on blogging more to force myself to have that alone time. As soon as I handed in that wad of paper I grasped back all the free time I had lost over the last year and made plans for every spare moment. I said yes to everything because I enjoyed feeling like I had friends again after having to shut myself away with my own thoughts… I got burnout as a result. I’ve learned to enjoy my own company a great deal, but there’s only so much you can take before you get cabin fever, so I guess I jumped to the other extreme. Well, I’ve had my month of being too busy to breathe, so it’s  time to get back to some kind of normality.

I’ve been thinking about Elisa Lam lately. I’ve been thinking about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve been thinking about how easy it is to call a woman crazy. How easy it is to simplify an inconclusive case by considering a mental illness a major factor, and other evidence as circumstantial.

In February 2013, a young Canadian tourist was found dead in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel, following complaints that the water was running black and had an odd taste. She had been decomposing for up to 19 days. As anyone with basic knowledge of the case will know, the LAPD released this video, which is surveillance footage of an elevator in the hotel where Elisa was seen behaving seemingly bizarrely before her death. If you are easily shaken, I wouldn’t advise watching it late at night. The footage has been the subject of much controversy, namely because a whole minute has been removed, the timestamp is obscured and other parts are slowed down or otherwise corrupted. It is unclear why the video was tampered with and, furthermore, why other footage of Elisa seen with two strange men prior to the elevator video has not been released to the public.

The subject of most controversy, however, is how and why Elisa Lam died the way she did, considering the strange anomalies in the case, and her odd behaviour in the elevator. The police first marked the case as ‘suspicious’, then concluded accidental death, which was then changed because of error to inconclusive, and later changed back to accidental death. The coroner’s report considered Elisa’s bipolar disorder as an important factor in the case, which has been much disputed, and it has been identified that one of the coroners working on the case was sued for his mishandling of an autopsy in another case. In a hotel with a grizzly history on which a long-term resident remarked, “So many things have happened in this place that nothing surprises me”, Elisa Lam’s death could easily have been brushed under the carpet over time; however, in 2017, we don’t want to let it go. There is a divide in the paranormal community in this tenacious grip on the case; some are out there to prove that Elisa was suffering from a manic episode and hallucinating, and others refuse to believe that her mental illness could have contributed to her death. Some believe she was playing a terrifying, ritualistic ‘elevator game’ and was trying to get back from another dimension called the ‘Otherworld’.

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Image: CNN

There is unfortunately little middle-ground upon which a humanised view of Elisa the Person rather than Elisa the Bipolar Sufferer or Elisa the Murder Victim can lie. Because she acted bizarrely in the elevator footage and because her illness was pounced on as a contributing factor in the case, it is all too easy for us to play our own discursive elevator game and a door has opened to a theoretical Otherworld – the world of the ‘mad’. Because madness is typically classed as outside of logic, when madness is a factor, the subject becomes a tabula rasa on which to inscribe symptoms, attitudes, behaviours, and a societal picture of mental illness. The truth is that whilst categorization is helpful to an extent in a treatment context, no two mentally ill people are the same because no two people are the same. Whilst it is a positive thing that the case has garnered so much attention because we won’t let it go, it has also contributed to a problem I consider quite harmful in the paranormal community, which is the exoticism of the mentally ill. Possible hallucination is ‘creepy’, it’s ‘fascinating’. If Elisa Lam was not on four different medications for bipolar disorder, it may not be as easy to dismiss the possibility that she is interacting with somebody else in that video, perhaps someone down the hall.

I enjoy and love Buzzfeed Unsolved, but a thing that struck me about the Lam episode was the person accompanying Ryan on the Cecil trip (it wasn’t Shane, so I don’t mind who it is) instinctively interjected with, “Yeah, but if she’s bipolar, just right there, that could explain why she was doing that.” Sadly, we have a history of having a “just right there” attitude to Bipolar Disorder, as if the illness speaks for itself. One of the points supporting the suicide theory of Kurt Cobain’s death was, “he was bipolar, so…”

It is true that bipolar suicides are common, but there is nothing inevitable about a bipolar suicide. Perhaps the point of the case now isn’t what happened, but the way we think about mentally ill people who have died suspiciously. In paranormal/unsolved mystery discussion, as it stands we are treating mental illness as something inherently threatening or horrifying in relation to the person and, in this case, a convenient solution to a complicated question. Before you share a picture of an abandoned mental asylum, ask yourself why you are sharing it. Are you truly sharing it purely for the romantic image of the derelict place itself, regardless of the institution that used to inhabit its walls? Do you think it’s haunted? If you think it’s haunted, do you think it’s haunted by the people who were committed there, or by the ill-treatment of these people throughout history? The definition of ‘asylum’ is ‘shelter or protection from danger’. When discussing mental illness in a paranormal or unsolved mystery context, shouldn’t we protect individuals with mental illness from being lumped into a general category outside of logic along with ghosts?

Anyone familiar with the ableistic work of Tumblr user Sixpenceee will know that fascination with mental illness for fascination’s sake only leads to discursive exploitation and Othering. A Kickstarter-funded documentary is being released next year which, with 3 years worth of research behind it, promises to paint Elisa Lam in a more humanised light and educate more on her life as well as her death. I have high hopes that this will help to round discussion on the topic and we will no longer think of her merely as a psychomotor-agitated or decomposing body.

Until then, let’s not cease to answer questions. The epigraph on Elisa Lam’s blog is a quote by Chuck Palahniuk, “You’re always haunted by the idea that you’re wasting your life”. When one strips the intrigue of Elisa’s case away, the supernatural possibilities regarding her death are not necessarily central. Central to her death is that it’s a tragedy but, cliché as it sounds, her life doesn’t have to be a waste. We could learn so much more by talking about her life and the circumstances surrounding it than by stagnating ourselves, continuing to thirstily drink the remains her sensational and unsavory death left behind. (Too much?)

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August Beauty Boxes! | Birchbox VS Glossybox

I’ll level with you guys… it’s Friday night, I’ve got my feet up with a red wine grateful for the weekend, and rather than getting my proper camera out and photographing each individual item, I’d rather sprawl in an armchair rocking my Snapchat resting face, typing up my thoughts on beauty boxes in general and on the merits of each of these. I do want to write more skincare / beauty related posts in the future, though, so please excuse the lack of presentation for now!

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Sleep Paralysis

What if you couldn’t jolt awake to escape from the demons and goblins in your dreams? What if they were there in your room, skulking, waiting for you to wake up?

When I younger, around 16, there was a period of time in which I had nightmares almost every night. It was an occurrence that seemed to beget and beget; after a few times, I would go to sleep wondering what the next nightmare would be, so of course, I had one. A fair portion of these experiences included sleep paralysis.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced anxiety surrounding sleep. As a child, I got into the habit of sleeping as close to my wall as possible to avoid the view of my window, because I was paranoid that a strange man-ghost was staring at me through my window and if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me. I imagined that soldiers were going to climb through my window and brutally murder me, but as long as I didn’t look at that bedroom window, their reality didn’t exist; they couldn’t cross the threshold, they couldn’t “get” me. With time, these fancies moved to the interior of my house; over and over I had a vision of a shadow figure moving slowly up my stairs and soon, soon, it would appear at my door.

I grew up in a Christian school and tried and failed to be religious – agnosticism is in my bones – but still, the only thing that calmed me down during these nocturnal attacks was repeating the Lord’s Prayer over, over, over again. It was so much engrained in me that it was the first mantra my mind jumped to, just something I knew off by heart. I repeated it to try to keep the terror at bay until I finally fell asleep. It was like counting sheep.

 

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A dainty cross my mother gave me

 

There were, of course, phases where I slept like a baby, as I mostly do now. Sometimes, though, in unfamiliar places, it would get worse. During my first without-family holiday with my friends, I woke up in the middle of the night and every object around me took a human shape – I had to wake my unfortunate friend to ask her to turn the light on because I was so scared I didn’t want to leave my covers. Needless to say, it was embarrassing.

But I never imagined that one day I would wake up and physically not be able to move.

If you are unfamiliar with the condition, Wikipedia is your friend:

Sleep paralysis is when, during awakening or falling asleep, one is aware but unable to move. During an episode, one may hear, feel, or see things that are not there. It often results in fear. Episodes generally last less than a couple of minutes. It may occur as a single episode or be recurrent. […] The central symptoms of sleep paralysis is during awakening being aware but being unable to move.

Humming, hissing, static, zapping and buzzing noises are reported during sleep paralysis. Imagined sounds (voices, whispers and roars) are also experienced. These symptoms are usually accompanied by intense emotions: such as fear, and panic. People also have sensations of being dragged out of bed or of flying, and feelings of electric tingles or vibrations running through their body.

Sleep paralysis may include hallucinations, such as a supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing. Another example of a hallucination involves a menacing shadowy figure entering one’s room or lurking outside one’s window, while the subject is paralysed.’

 

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A cover of one of my books which uses Fuseli’s Nightmare for the cover

 

I don’t know why it suddenly picked on me when I was in my teenage years. I woke up to the sensation of tingling in the tips of my fingers, like pins and needles, which spread like a violent shudder through my whole body, and then I couldn’t move. The only movement I could make was with my eyes; in their childish instinct, they moved toward the door. I only saw darkness, but I felt strongly that there was a presence. I felt like it was suffocating me, and my heart was racing. It was like a dark, oppressive shadow in my periphery that I knew was there but I could never see directly. Because I didn’t know what it was, I struggled against it, which makes it worse, like thrashing around in quicksand. This must have only happened for a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an age, and eventually, it became so distressing that I blacked out.

This happened a few times in a short period and a couple of times throughout the years, but the other main event I remember is when I was asleep on the couch in my living room. I woke up with the similar pins-and-needles sensation – by now, it was a familiar indicator of what was about to happen. I looked at the living room around me, one of the most familiar sights in the world, but… I can’t even explain it… it was almost like I wasn’t looking at it from my body. It was too still, a perfect camera pan like I was dreaming it but I knew I was awake. The most familiar room to me became strangely alien and uncanny to me and I knew I couldn’t move, and in the safest space, I didn’t feel safe. When I look back on this since watching Twin Peaks a year or so after the event, it reminds me of the ominous shots of the ceiling fan in the Palmer residence.

 

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Said ceiling fan. It’s only terrifying if you’ve watched the show

 

I liked to think I’d changed, grown out of it. Last night, I thought my sleep paralysis was going to come back. Luckily, I bolted awake from my bad dream (which involved some kind of demonic figure) and didn’t get stuck in that liminal space. But I knew if tried to go straight back to sleep it would occur. I just knew it by instinct. In fact, my paranoia had shot up so high after that bad dream that I was convinced the demon in my dream had woken me up just to make me see or feel them in the waking world. I was terrified to go back to sleep. Childhood fears came flooding back, “I’m a bad person, they know I’m a bad person, demons exist and they want to take me, they want to scare me and punish me.” I still don’t follow a religion and yet I felt sin weighing on my chest. I tucked all of my limbs into my covers. I looked at the clock and of course it was 3 am which, if like me you’re interested in the paranormal or have watched one episode of Most Haunted, you’ll know is the “Witching Hour”. I resigned myself to stay awake for a bit, mentally poking a bit of fun at myself. Something was bugging me about my dream and I was trying to think of where I got the word ‘Hepzibah’ from in it, which I now remember is the name of a character in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. I heard dogs howling outside and chuckled at my immediate thought that this was classic confirmation that there was something afoot, as clearly I have watched too much Hammer Horror.

Finally, I closed my eyes, sighed and, from my heathen lips, uttered the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in Heaven…

Once.

Twice.

Out like a light.

— Laura

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​Thoughts on Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life

When I first listened to Lust For Life a day after its release I wanted to respond in full right away, but ultimately decided to listen to it several times first, allowing the overall flavour to separate into its notes like a good wine. During this process, I allowed the excitement to settle and formed my own thoughts on what the strongest parts of the album are to me.

To say it isn’t my favourite LDR album does not subtract from its merit; when choosing my favourite Lana album I tend to think about which album works the best as an overall piece and, in my opinion, this is Honeymoon, which is a gorgeous album. It showed growing thematic promise and proof that LDR, whilst she does recycle, also takes on new subjects and new sounds that serve an album’s story rather than the radio.

Lust For Life didn’t have this same flow, exactly – it’s very listenable, but definitely has songs on it that don’t belong. This said, different styles are experimented with which do really complement the signature Lana sound of the album, as evidenced by the collaborations (I particularly love the duet with Stevie Nicks, ‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’ and with Sean Ono Lennon, ‘Tomorrow Never Came’.)

What makes me love the album thematically is that although Lana clearly wants this to be an optimistic album set apart from the others (clearly expressed by being the only album cover on which she is smiling), she also embraces and even has an indulgent sense of humour about the Sad Girl aesthetics she has woven into her music and visuals over time.

 

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Lust For Life album cover, 2017

 

To contextualize this… Certain attitudes within the feminist community sometimes use the very patriarchal structure they want to resist to invalidate female sadness, female madness, female performance. They have a very definite idea of how strength and resistance manifest in the realm of protest. There is a pressure to always be strong or successful, and any shortcoming or sensitivity is almost an open wound subject to being labeled unfeminist. I would argue that this denies women an important part of human experience and perpetuates the idea that sensitivity is negative and should be silenced.

Audrey Wollen says of Sad Girl Theory that it is ‘the proposal that the sadness of girls should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance, of political protest.’ She claims that ‘girls being sad has been categorized as this act of passivity, and therefore, discounted from the history of activism’ and that she is ‘trying to open up the idea that protest doesn’t have to be external to the body […] There’s a long history of girls who have used their own anguish, their own suffering, as tools for resistance and political agency. Girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful, or dumb: It is active, autonomous, and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back.’ (source)

 

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Sylvia Plath, the general fan base of whom is often dismissed as merely a bunch of narcissistic teenage girls

 

All too often dismissed about historic Sad Girl icons – Plath, Monroe – is that they were also capable of exquisite happiness. This is certainly what sets Lust For Life apart from Del Rey’s other albums more than anything else, and the aspect of it I enjoy the most. In the trailer for the album, a holographic image of Lana muses, “each morning I have the luxury of asking myself, “What shall I cook up for the kids today? Something with a little spice? Something with a little bitterness but is ultimately sweet? Or shall I take the day off and turn down the fire, and just take a moment to send my love to them over the ether?” Because sometimes just being pure of heart, and having good intentions, and letting them be known is the most worthy contribution an artist can make.”

 

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Lana and the lunar cycle in the Lust For Life album trailer, drawing attention to her role as a woman figure

 

For Lana, it seems, being pure of heart is not necessarily channeling aggressive positivity (something we see a high saturation of recently) but being honest. It is acknowledging her responsibility to provide a message for her fans, but not denying any part of the spectrum of her experience. Emphasizing the importance of being hopeful, but accepting that happiness can’t be reduced to an end-goal and accepting that being human, being a woman in our society, is really hard sometimes.

Here are my personal favourite songs on the album and why I think they’re the strongest tracks in conveying this message.

CHERRY
This song shows the most aesthetic self-awareness, and acknowledgment of the fragility of nostalgic, romantic images. Referring to the obvious iconic songs (plus her obsession with peaches), she laments, ‘my cherries and wine, rosemary and thyme, and all of my peaches are ruined.’ She uses the theme of disintegration in the song, particularly poignant in the line, ‘my celluloid scenes are torn at the seams’ with reference to the found-footage montages Lana has used in her visuals from the beginning. By doing this, she powerfully conveys the falling apart of artificiality in the face of “real” love and the feeling of somewhat losing one’s sense of self almost violently, as shown by her metaphor of the firing squad. It’s really over-the-top and really heartbreaking all the same.

WHITE MUSTANG
Again, Lana shows aesthetic self-awareness and almost self-mockery in the line, ‘Slippin’ on my dress in soft filters’. This song is about women who love too much (‘I was such a fool for believing that you / Could change all the ways you’ve been living / But you just couldn’t stop.’) We are reminded of her single ‘Shades of Cool’ from the album Ultraviolence which features a similarly harmful relationship in which she regrets that she ‘can’t fix him, can’t make him better’. The song is heavily romanticized but also, I feel, shows the futility of such a love.

SUMMER BUMMER
This song really grew on me over the course of about three listens and now it’s one of my favourites! I think the line, ‘You can’t escape my affection / Wrap you up in my daisy chains’ is so powerful in a way you might miss on the first listen. Over the years, Lana Del Rey has pastiched the image of femme fatale and she is now recreating it. She doesn’t use any words in the semantic field of allure, she very purposefully uses the word ‘affection’. She brings a power to affection and sentiment. The phrasing ‘wrap you up’ and ‘can’t escape’ connote images of the serpentine, which are very typically femme fatale, but she subverts this by using daisy chains, surely a symbol of simple affection, innocence and childhood summer days. This also plays on her former Lolita image but also gives a power to sentimentality in a way that really appeals to me and which I think is really radical and important.

IN MY FEELINGS
This is the ultimate self-indulgent, tongue-in-cheek Sad Girl track. In the best way, it borders on the female grotesque and reminds me of Mulholland Drive when she sings almost monotonously, ‘I’m crying while I’m cumming.’ This song is exactly what I mean when I say that in this album (and, I would argue, in albums before) she is bringing a self-awareness and wry sense of humour about her own work and themes. It always makes me smile a bit on the line, ‘Sobbin’ in my cup of coffee ’cause I fell for another loser’. This is what many of us experience in private but don’t admit because we are told to grow a thick skin. It gives us permission to feel these things.

To conclude what I love overall about the album, it isn’t just these permissions in ‘In My Feelings’ that make me love the song – it is the empowering refrain:
‘Who’s tougher than this bitch, who’s freer than me? / You wanna make the switch, be my guest, baby / I’m feeling all my fucking feelings.’
This clearly says that there is power in processing things emotionally rather than just switching them off and repressing them. She is arguing that allowing herself to feel her feelings is what gives her power, what makes her strong.

Lust For Life on iTunes: link

— Laura

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Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre at Theatre Royal, Brighton

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

It’s raining outside and I am recovering from a late night with a cup of tea, thinking about the Brontës (not at all unusual for me.)

It feels like such a long time since I have been to the theatre. Caught in a lifestyle where attention spans are decidedly dwindling and television is becoming increasingly cinematic (the latter being, don’t get me wrong, great) I think I had forgotten the value of going to see live theatrical performances. I have been to the Royal before – once (I think) to see Matthew Bourne’s blitz-era Cinderella, and another time to see Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnery star in a stirring and resonant adaptation of Hedda Gabler. The Royal is not a large theatre, which means it’s intimate. Previously I have sat in the stalls and one of the circles, but my friend and I went for the gallery seating for this performance, which I highly recommend if you want to get to the theatre on a budget; the size of the Royal makes it possible to get a perfectly good view in the gallery, just make sure you’re fairly close to the middle of whichever row you have chosen without being right in the middle, where your view is likely to be restricted by bars.

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Above: The stage prior to the performance, as seen from Gallery row B. 

As seen, Ambassador’s production provides an innovative answer to the following question: how on earth does one adapt this doorstop of a Bildungsroman for the stage? At first glance, my feeling was that this was going to be a refreshingly minimalist adaptation in terms of staging, stripping the novel bare. Within the enclosing decor of the theatre, here was a set-up which was open and full of possibilities. I had watched the trailer for the production, but there were still parts of the staging I did not expect – for example, the band near the centre of the stage. It was interesting to see them incorporate music into the performance right in front of us, rather than behind the scenes.

To get to the play itself, then.

The band was indeed utilised in such an atmospheric way. As I watched the play, it made me question what kind of performance it was. It wasn’t a musical; the actors were not singing their lines. However, the band’s soundtrack ebbed and flowed with the story, singing relevant lyrics which aided in narrating. Most of the music and lyrics were folkloric in style, which I loved, because folklore is such an important part of the Brontës’  fiction. Combined with this was a spectacular opera singer who emerged at pivotal parts of Jane’s personal development, wearing a red dress. This was an effective continuation of the red room theme in the novel and a haunting reminder of Jane’s entrapment and suppressed rage, regardless of her changing locations and situations; the continual refrain of the ‘unjust’ which pervaded the play.

The red room itself is what I consider to be the heart of the novel, and something I was wondering how they would deal with; lighting and the use of invisible barriers were sufficient to portray this in the horrifying way it should be. Lighting was something I noticed made all the difference in this production, and I was impressed with the way they kept much of the staging the same and completely changed the mood with lighting, sound effects, and props and window frames suspended from the ceiling. The actors also interacted with the window frames, drawing attention to the theme of windows and thresholds Brontë fixates on, and the barriers Jane must break.

Delightfully wacky aspects of the play included the actors grouping together and jogging on the spot for carriage journeys (and even stopping for a pee break, something I have never seen paid attention to in the logistics of period drama), and one actor playing Rochester’s dog with what looked like a folded belt to use as his tail. Pleasant surprises were the use of two modern songs incorporated into the music: ‘Mad About the Boy’ and ‘Crazy’. I think any more than two modern songs would have been Luhrmann-esque and a little much for this type of production, but it was just enough to mix it up a bit and keep it refreshing and unpredictable.

I really cannot fault the acting. It was so interesting to see Jane’s rage brought to the surface in Worrall’s performance, rather than quietly boiling. Her exclamation, “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me” echoes in my mind. A brilliant Jane to say the least, and, certainly, one which rivals with other portrayals I have seen.

Some highlights for me:

  • The use of props, particularly the wedding veil Jane grudgingly accepts to make Rochester happy. In a nightmare sequence, the actors use wind machines to make the veil float and look like a spectre; entirely Gothic, and entirely beautiful. The veil is later shown torn in two by Grace Poole, later revealed to be the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Mason. I enjoyed the way they included the veil as a device to present the theme of veiling and unveiling in female Gothic tradition.
  • FIRE. THE USE OF FIRE. Perhaps I just love fire (why have I not yet been to see Rammstein, remind me?) It was used sparingly at shocking moments in the play; firstly, the first arson attempt, and secondly as Jane is called away from St John Rivers (“Sinjin”) and back to Thornfield, where a row of flames ignites behind Jane.
  • The way sound completely transformed the setting in each scene. The staging remains the same, but a simple use of reverb in the speech transported us from Thornfield to the church.
  • Obviously, the chemistry between Jane and Mr Rochester.

The only thing I didn’t like:

Throughout the play, I didn’t really feel the presence of Bertha Mason as much as I thought should be felt… I thought the singer was Bertha, but she was also one of the forms of narrator, and I don’t think Bertha’s violence would allow her to have a perfectly kept red dress. And it just wasn’t clear that she was Bertha. I feel that the haunting of Bertha is necessary for the darker part of Jane, and we keep expecting to eventually see Bertha in the play, but we don’t. They do draw parallels between Bertha and Jane (“Do you think I would hate you, if you were mad?”) but it seemed to me that they shied away from presenting the sad reality of Bertha herself.

This said, I thought it was a really innovative and inspiring take on the novel and one I certainly won’t forget.

★★★★☆

— Laura

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Today’s Study Spot: Presuming Ed Coffeehouse, Brighton

Before meeting a friend today, I was looking for a café outside of the chains but also slightly away from the hubbub of the wonderful North Laine to get some studying done. This place did not disappoint, and I will certainly be returning. If you like the unusual interior of Atomic Burger / Pizza in Oxford, you will love Presuming Ed, too. Toward the back, though, it has a distinctly bookish feel (without being oppressive), and a laptop counter with plug sockets, perfect for knuckling down. Equally, there is plenty of art, graffitied doodles or otherwise, to look at in idle moments… much like being at your school desk, but on your own terms!

The baristas are warm and chatty, and their filter coffee is reasonably priced and packs a serious punch.

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★★★★★

— Laura

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