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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 1

"Through The Dark"

written by

Stella Peg Carruthers

A couple of months ago I went to work on a Saturday (you know, when working on site was still a Thing.) It was a fill in shift. The pace of questions about books and patrons needing directions to the loos was unbearably slow. Rain hit the window as a dim background beat. The day was a blue kind of cold. The sort that reaches inside you, so it feels like your very bones are shivering.

To entertain myself I went on Facebook. I’m a millennial after all so boredom equals social media lurking. What was not boring was an article link posted by a colleague

Photographed in the tab image, all blonde cherubic curls, blue-sky-eyes and high cat-like cheek bones, was American actress Kirsten Dunst. You know her as the child actor who kissed Brad Pitt when he played a vampire back in the mid 1990’s. She was seven and the envy of the female populace at the time.

She was in that cheerleader film that was watched at every tweenager sleepover party in the early noughties. She also saved Orlando Bloom from a death date with a knife attached to an exercise machine in rom-com Elizabethtown. I remember being horrified by this at age fourteen. The level of desperate care taken to seek death. It was alien to me then. It is less so now…

I thought Elizabethtown a bad, weird film but that Dunst was great in it. Effervescent, I would call her with her character quirks just on the right side of weird. Her camera mime hands, superb scrap-book making skills and the ability to always be exactly where she needed to be. This ability acting both as emotional support for other characters and as a motif of a certain kind of chosen freedom. She was the heart of that film just as she is symbolically at the heart of my own personal late 20’s crawl towards quarter-life crisis.

To me, Dunst acts as a symbol of a woman forging her own path. Both in the characters she chooses to portray and how she approaches being an actress in the 21st century. And to do so in this world takes, I think, a chunk of courage and more than a pinch of lunacy. Dunst seems to have both in abundance. I’m not so sure about myself.

Am I just another millennial floundering in a dying world? I also ask here if it is possible to not feel like you are floundering and breathing borrowed air in a world on its death bed?

The article I read, wrote about Dunst as a woman who had not taken a traditional path. I knew this already from reading teen magazine interviews. It was something I already liked a lot about her.

As an eighteen year old she did not go to college. Instead she dated Jake Gyllenhaal, was Mary Jane in the then latest Spider Man reboot and wore some fantastic dresses to awards ceremonies. While her contemporaries were studying at Harvard (Natalie Portman) or Columbia (Julia Stiles) Dunst was ‘Being An Actress’ (capital letters.)

However, significantly, as an actress of a certain age, Dunst is yet to win an Oscar (supporting or otherwise.) Perhaps this is partly due to her choice of role and director type (some of them are even women, Sofia Coppola and her film Marie Antoinette, where Dunst was in the starring role comes to mind.)

You see, I feel Dunst is unafraid to go deeper into the darker parts of what it is to be human. There is a rage to her. And that terrifies the hell out of Hollywood.

For I think that even post #MeToo, (and maybe because of it) powerful women are set aside in favour of girls who have yet to grow up enough to question. Let alone ask the hard questions. This is not their fault. Learning how to question ways of being in the world takes time. It comes with practice.

I was one of those girls not yet practiced in the art of query. As was Dunst. It’s a stage all women go through, I think. But I’m asking questions now though. As is Dunst.

Dunst is questioning gender roles, feminist values and depictions of women on screen. I question capitalist economic paradigms, advocate for food justice issues and espouse about the power of poetry.

Another thing about mature Dunst, apparently now on the wrong side of thirty, is that despite the angelic looks, she has steel in her gaze. A hard line to her mouth. You could cut paper on her cheek bones.

Her characters are complex women. Beautiful (because she is, and she tends not to alter her appearance much on screen,) but there seems to be a constant thread of desperation running through her roles.

This is never less embodied than her role in the film Melancholia. As a furiously depressed bride, Dunst, IS the film. Difficult. Dark. Dangerously beautiful. Her depression is symbolized by a meteor (and the film’s namesake) called ‘Melancholia’, looming over a feared-to-be-at-the-end-of-the-world-planet. She is both person and personified planet. Both small and huge. All at once.

Melancholia scopes out the dark depths of the soul in a way I can identify with. I’m a woman of three distinct episodes of clinical depression. These as part of my wider mood disorder.

I see Melancholia as an elegant portrayal of a difficult state of mind and I found it to be truthful in a way many films aren’t. That is, there was an honesty of emotion, and, also, I felt, a guiding higher truth about what it feels like to be depressed, the nature of despair and the sheer scale of that kind of sadness. This taste of truth played actively in my reading of the film despite its fantastical situation and nightmarish quality.

Because depression is like living in a nightmare. The term melancholic, (to me a slightly softer and more dramatized state of being) does not fully capture the shade of apocalyptic sadness of an episode of clinical depression.

There’s also The Fear that comes with that degree of sadness. Not just anxiety. Which I do not belittle, it is bad enough as it is to feel constantly fearful. But The Fear, at least in my experience that accompanies clinical depression feels like it encompasses the whole world. You’re afraid of yourself in the world. But its bigger than that.

You’re also terrified of what the world has come to mean to you. And what it no longer means. The loss of feeling you have about things you cared about before. Like history test scores. And flawless skin. And Aid work in Africa. And art museums. And sunsets burnishing the world pink. All you remember is how after the pink the world fades into black.

However, what The Fear doesn’t capture, and the term ‘Madness’ better encapsulates is the scale of The Feelings. How it is like The Whole Wide World is falling down all around you and it is up to you to try and save not only yourself but also everyone else. You assume huge levels of psychological responsibility. Misguided ones. But you’re sick, so you don’t realize that. And with that level of responsibility set on your shoulders, you fail every single day. And that’s fucking hard to bear, even on a better day. And these are not better days.


One thing I loved about Melancholia is that Dunst becomes alive, perhaps for the first time, when she faces impending doom. Her beautiful face and those luminescent eyes suddenly have life in them. Even at The End of The World.

The sort of life you see in her is the kind that seeks to make her young nephew feel better by building him a protective tee pee. They sit in this pyramid of sticks waiting for the end to begin. Light flashes the screen to white. Then it goes black. The film ends. Credits roll.

This is clearly not a happy film. But I query that it is perhaps less sad than it initially appears. Yes, there’s mental illness. There’s apocalypse. There is existential despair. But there’s also people helping each other. There are people facing their fears. There are people living as generous humans. Right to the end.

Our world has yet to end though its impending doom is reported on daily. This, as a mostly-healed-woman, makes me feel a bit scared but it would have terrified me in the past. I’m better at managing terror now, I guess. I’ve had a lot of practice.

Important to managing my fear is getting it out. For me, my personal protective tee pee is one made from language. Writing is an essential element to me controlling my terror to ‘bit-scared’ levels. If I’m writing, I am okay.

I can identify with Dunst on a personal level too because like her I didn’t exactly go down the conventional path. While I did go to university and get a BA and then a job, my BA was in a non-useful and financially un-supporting subject (Art History.) I heralded the call of the Interest focused Arts degree. And my job as a Library Assistant is not exactly status enhancing, but I love it, so I don’t care.

For so called ‘smart girls’ like me, these choices are an oddity. Smart girls at my school were angled towards law or medicine. I choose neither. And was lucky enough to have great parents who supported this decision. This could also be termed unusual.

Another difference is that I only work part time (partly by choice, partly because of health) and thus I live on a reduced income. I live well, according to my own personal values system coloured by green ideas and social justice ideals, but let’s just say there aren’t many fancy pasta packets and (pre Covid-19) overseas trips. And I really am okay with that. Most of the time. It also gives me green points and a lack of emissions anxiety.

Dunst also chose to walk an alternative path to her peers. And like me, the two of us millennial women with differing life paths to the current norm, she also seems largely happy doing so. She’s been involved in indie films and production work. Has worked with female directors. Dunst is the kind of woman I hope to grow to be post thirty. She is a creative woman working on her own terms.

And I think that is a pretty damn cool thing to be.

Stella Peg Carruthers is an emerging writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Born and bred in the capital city of Wellington or Poneke, she still lives there and is employed as an office administrator and library assistant at a local university. She also runs her own freelance writing business. She is currently working on her debut novel, a cross-genre family saga about the power of literature to change lives.

She has found publishing success both internationally and within New Zealand. Her poems have been published in online and print publications and she has been long listed for a number of short story competitions. She has two mental health themed personal essays due for publication in anthologies. You can find her Professional Facebook Page as a Creative Practitioner page here.

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