I arrived with a friend at Death by Audio on South 2nd Street to find two women at the entrance asking for a sliding-scale donation. I asked them what lay at the end of the corridor they flanked, “It’s a fundraiser for The Worst Zine.” Still none the wiser, I handed them five dollars and walked in.
Teenagers with lip piercings and dyed black hair sat cross-legged around their backpacks on a sticky floor. “Give it a chance,” my friend said.
The back room, away from the teenagers, was lined with tables covered in zines – which, as the vendors explained to me, are self-published collections of work. I picked up a copy of The Worst; the benefit was raising money for its printing costs. It had a blue cover and the line “a compilation of loss and grief” in typewriter font across the front. I flicked it open. It looked more like a scrapbook than a magazine.
Then Kathleen McIntyre, editor of The Worst, took the stage and I realized how misguided my skepticism had been.
Kathleen’s father died ten years ago of a heart attack. She sought out resources and grief groups but didn’t find any that spoke to her. Kathleen found that many of the groups were centered on religious philosophies, which didn’t tally with her atheist beliefs. She found it difficult to relate. “Hearing that your father has gone to a better place,” she said, “didn’t mean anything to me.”
She didn’t find anything that “rang true” to her experience of grief and to her politics. It was her political belief in radicalism that spurred her to start the zine. She adheres to the philosophy of “get pissed and change the system.”
Kathleen produced The Worst entirely herself, from putting out the call for submissions and editing the entries, to printing, photocopying and stapling the zines together. The covers were hand printed. The labor that went into them was a “necessary” part of Kathleen’s own grieving process. The monotony of tasks soothed her; it was she said, “meditative work.”
Following her call for submissions, she said her inbox was inundated. She was overwhelmed, but also moved.
The editing process was in itself a steep learning curve, one that Kathleen said correlated with her own grieving. “It was raw at the beginning,” she said, as she would spend long stretches of time reading the submissions. Kathleen told me that most of the submissions were from people who hadn’t written about their grief before who tasked themselves with submitting work specifically for the zine. Kathleen spoke of the “power of submitting” because working towards a publication deadline was the “gentle pressure” some people seemed to need to address their emotions.
The printed form of the zine makes it even more contained – the work isn’t on a website, linkable through a tweet. They
sit within a semi-private slice of broadcast media. The contributors put their work out in a space that is in theory accessible by anyone, but in reality
the zine has a very small circulation. She sold 1,000 copies of the first edition and 500 of the second one.
The physicality of the zine was important to Kathleen. Its unconventional sizing – somewhere between A5 and a square –was intentional. She wanted something that would “stand out.” She also wanted something sturdy that would survive being passed around from friend to friend and was bottom-of-the-handbag-proof.
Kathleen’s relationship to most of her contributors didn’t go much beyond a thank you email following her publication of their work. She speculates that for them, writing down their experiences and firing it off in an email to her was their threshold. But some did follow up about what their submission meant to them. Kathleen told me about a contributor who had used his submission to “come out” to his co-workers about his loss.
He hadn’t told his colleagues about his father’s death and invited them to a reading where he read out his piece. He told Kathleen the zine “changed his life.”
She told me about another woman who wrote about the death of her abusive father. She hadn’t told her family about her piece, so when they stumbled upon it, it “forced a conversation.” The same was true for Kathleen. Her own submission to her zine opened a connection between her and her mother. Kathleen said that her relationship with her mother was difficult following her father’s death. Her father was an alcoholic and during his lifetime the family’s attention was focused on him. His passing necessitated their negotiating a new means of relating to one another. Kathleen says they’ve since found a way to talk about grief together, largely because of the zine project. “She understands it’s okay to relate to death differently.”
Cindy Crabb, 41, has been writing for zines and producing her own since the 1990s. When she was 30, her mother died. A year after her death, Cindy started writing about her grief in zines. She says there is a difference between that and the private thoughts she logs in her diary. Writing publically forced her to “look beyond the panicky surface of emotion and ask what’s the truth of the story.” She says it helped her remember and focus what happened. “It made me feel really good. More real and less alone.”
Kathleen approached Cindy for a submission for The Worst because of her respected status in the zine world — Cindy’s zine, Doris, is highly followed. Cindy said she was “really excited” about Kathleen’s project because she’s not seen a zine dedicated to the topic of grief before. But Cindy gets a lot of requests for submissions, and most of them don’t result in a publication, so when Kathleen asked her for one, she decided to send something she’d already written.
The piece was called “If your friend’s parent died” in which she writes about the things she would have liked people to have done for her when her mother died. At the end of the piece is a checklist that a person can give to their grieving friend to circle the things they might need.
A reader scanned the list and posted it onto their blog. It was re-tumbled over 200 times.
When I called Cindy – who lives on a farm outside of Athens, Ohio – to ask her what it felt like to know that her piece had such a following, she told me she didn’t know that had happened because she tends to stay away from the Internet. Nonetheless, she was happy that she’d been able to help people dealing with their grief. Cindy says writing about her grief gives her the opportunity to talk about her experiences in a way that’s helpful to other people.
She’s noticed a trend in the emergence of single-issue zines, she said, especially those that deal with self-care, as is the case with The Worst. Another self-care zine that came out around the time of The Worst, is Sick: A Compilation Zine on Physical Illness, which deals with serious illness. Ben Holtzman was diagnosed with cancer when he was 26 years old. He suffered a relapse two years later. Like Kathleen, he said he didn’t find material that spoke to him. Among the literature available to those coping with serious illness, a recurrent piece of advice is to do things that make you feel better. An example often cited is going out shopping, but this advice jarred with Ben’s anti-consumerist beliefs. He said that the example might seem trivial, but highlights the larger point that he, like Kathleen, didn’t find the comfort in the available resources.
Ben put out one issue of Sick. He said that he would like to see the zine continued, but his current circumstances – he’s studying for his history PhD at Brown – mean that he’s unable to do so. Ben is nonetheless eager to see the zine continued and he encourages the idea of passing it on to someone else to take forward.
Unlike Kathleen, Ben didn’t write a piece about his own experiences for his zine. He said that might seem hypocritical, but “wasn’t ready” to do so. Ben felt that where he was able to make a contribution was through the facilitation of the zine. He wrote the introduction to the zine and provided logistical information, providing tips for supporting others with illness.
Both Ben and Kathleen describe the zines as part of the “Do It Yourself culture” associated with the punk movement, which Ben characterized as a move away from bands signing to record labels and instead emphasizing on independently distributing music. “There is a critique of consumerism,” he said, “if not a complete rejection of it.”
Microcosm Publishing, an independent publisher and distributor based in Portland, distributes Sick. The publishers are the largest distributors of zines. Rio Safari, shopkeeper of Microcosom’s Portland store, says he’s never seen a grief zine before. He has seen a lot of zines that deal more generally with trauma, but not solely with grief. Rio said that he, like Cindy, noticed a trend in emerging self-care zines. There’s been a recent increase in those types of titles on Microcosom’s catalog. He said zines are a good barometer for gauging issues not being discussed in mainstream media and not addressed via medical resources.
Kathleen’s project speaks to this point. Her initial aim for the zine was to provide people with the means to create “grief groups” because of the experience she’d had with not finding any with which she felt comfortable. For that reason, the first issue of The Worst has pages at the back with resources about how to start to a DIY grief group. Kathleen said that this idea didn’t get much traction. But she still continues to receive submissions for the zine, because for a reason she can’t explain, people are more comfortable emailing a stranger their most intimate feelings of loss. Grief, it seems, has found a place to rest.