Yesterday, I talked to writer Polly Trope in Berlin via Skype about her book Cured Meat – Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway. It is dedicated:
“To those I left behind“
She crowdfunded the book. The pitch is still on YouTube.
“Is it a novel or an autobiography?” I asked.
“I always find it amazing that some people actually manage to make up stuff,” she told me. “The things that are interesting in the book are the things that happened rather than the person. But some of them didn’t happen. What I really wanted to do with my book was to characterise lots of people I’ve met. I wanted to write about many many people, not just myself. And, even when I was writing about myself, I was trying to write about how things happened rather than myself. I was interested in capturing what happened like it was some sort of movie: an outside description of things. Some people say an autobiography has to be about the person writing it, but it’s also about lots of other people. Obviously some things are not completely accurate. I’ve tried to pick out things I heard about or happened which I thought were worth writing about.”
“Why didn’t you want to publish a straight autobiography?” I asked.
“The book is based on The Odyssey.”
“People only want to read the autobiographies of celebrities,” said Polly. “I am not famous.”
“How did you decide on the nom de plume Polly Trope?” I asked.
“Brainstorming names. Greek mythological characters whose names could be turned into English. Polytropos was an adjective Homer applied to Odysseus. So Polly Trope.”
Polytropos actually means “having many forms” i.e. having different personalities – or “twisting and turning” i.e. versatile and capable of manoeuvring through a stormy sea.
“The whole book is based on The Odyssey a little bit,” explained Polly, “because that’s what I did for my degree – Ancient Greek & Latin Literature at King’s College, London. I went to London when I was 18.”
“And then you went on to get a PhD in Classics?” I asked.
“I started one,” said Polly. “I didn’t finish it. I went to America to do it.”
“And I know you checked into a mental hospital just two months after arriving,” I said. “Did something happen?”
“No,” said Polly. “I was already a bit depressed when I went there and I expected it would be really exciting to go to America and I would be magically happier when I got there.”
The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)
“Was this New York?”
“So was it just depression?” I asked.
“Pretty much. I just felt really out of place; I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anyone there. I tried the therapist and that was a really bad idea because then I went to the mental hospital and then it just really got very difficult.”
“Did they drug you up?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said Polly. “It just blew everything out of proportion. It became almost unthinkable to stop.”
“I was in a mental hospital when I was 18,” I said. “The first thing they do, of course, is just give you drugs.”
“All the time,” said Polly. “All the time. All the time.”
On YouTube, there is a song Numb Enough written by Polly (with a video shot by her). Her lyrics include the lines:
And are you numb enough, and is your life on hold,
And did you feel the shock when it all fell apart?
“You were in and out of mental hospital for three years,” I said.
“Yes,” said Polly. “I constantly told my psychiatrist I wanted to stop taking the drugs and he would always say: Well, if you can’t understand how much you need them, then I must put you into the hospital so you know how to take your drugs. That’s a simplified version of what happened, but it was me trying to stop taking tablets and the guy telling me: You must.”
“You were still doing your academic stuff through all this?” I asked.
“I was trying to,” said Polly. “I had to go on leave of absence after a couple of years. Eventually I left for six months, then another six months and, at that point, I didn’t want to see psychiatrists any more and, after that, I just went back to Europe.”
Polly Trope: “It started with psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”
“When you became addicted to drugs,” I asked, “was that medicinal drugs or heroin or…?”
“Both,” said Polly. “One after the other. It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.
“I was prescribed sleeping tablets and benzedrines and those are also sometimes used as recreational drugs and I had those on prescription and then it just kind of moved from there into prescription painkillers and then to completely illegal opium stuff and heroin and… Yeah… And then, at the same time, I moved from America back to London and… Yeah… That was the transition. We’re talking about 2009 here.”
“And then,” I said, “as far as I understand it, you met a guy in a London casino one night. He was involved with brothels; he took you to one, asked you if you wanted to work there and you said Yes.”
“I had really big money problems,” said Polly.
“Did you do it out of desperation or interest or…”
“Both,” said Polly. “Interest not so much. I was never particularly against prostitution. I don’t think I was especially interested in trying it. But it wasn’t something I was particularly scared of or that I thought could be the worst thing that could happen to someone.”
“Were you still supporting a drug habit at that point?”
“Not quite. But it was very fragile. I had only been clean for about a couple of weeks or so. Everything was quite new. I was feeling quite good, but I was also broke. In a house. I had many many problems. It was difficult.”
“So you were sort-of on an up,” I said. “But this would have taken you down?”
“Yeah. Yes. Yes. That’s right.”
“How long did you do the prostitution for?”
Polly in London: “Then I thought it would be good if…” (Photograph by Joe Palermo)
“April to December of one year. At first, he took all my money. After about three weeks. I kicked him out of the way. He was terrible. I’d been ripped off. I needed the money even more. Many of the women I met didn’t want to do it in the first place then, later, they got organised and stayed in the job because they were already there and it is quite a lot of money. It was a bit like that with me as well, although I didn’t feel I wanted to stay there longer than necessary. I was not trying to make lots of money. I just wanted to fix a few financial problems.”
“I was once told by an ex-criminal,” I said, “that most robbers have no financial target they want to reach, therefore they don’t know at what point they have reached a place they can stop doing it. So it ends badly. Maybe prostitution is like that?”
“And also,” said Polly, “people get used to more money and they increase their standards. I just had a bit of debt which I wanted to pay off.”
“So is that why you came out of it?” I asked. “You paid the debt and that was it?”
“It was only about £3,000,” said Polly. “But that was the beginning. Then I thought it would be good if I could save up for a deposit and some rent and, once you start paying rent, you have to do it every month, so… Then I thought I’m gonna start looking for a job immediately and, as soon as I find a new job I will take it... And that dragged on forever.”
“What sort of job were you looking for?” I asked.
“Stuff to do with writing and books. Things like editorial work or proofreading or translation. I didn’t realise it was not the right thing to look for. I had a degree but not much work experience. Nobody wanted to employ me. I eventually got a job through the Job Centre. I worked in a call centre for about a year and then I came back to Berlin.”
“In your dreams, when you were 14,” I asked, “did you want to be a writer?”
“Yeah,” said Polly. “I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was a real job; I thought it was something you did on the side and still had to earn money some other way.”
“Sadly, you might be right,” I said. “And now you are…?”
Polly: short stories which turned into a novel
“I’m writing little projects,” said Polly. “But I’m not sure yet. Probably something similar. Short stories which turn into a novel if you read them one after the other.”
“Basically,” I said, “your book is a series of chapters which are self-contained short stories but, when you read them one after another, they become a novel.”
“Pretty much that,” said Polly. “I’ve always been really keen on this idea that you could even read it backwards or you could read it in any order. I was really keen on the book being like that. The plot is just the way things happened. Some readers find it reassuring to know one thing comes before another and another thing comes later and they can remember it all. But some readers just want to know what’s going on now.”
“Where are you going now?” I asked.
“I have to get X-rays,” said Polly. “I have a very bad knee which may be broken.”
On YouTube, there is a song Fucking Princess written by Polly (with a video shot and edited by her).