Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Matthew Norman

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-third installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Matthew Norman. From Huntsville, Alabama, Matt recently finished their sophomore year as a philosophy major at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Next semester, Matt will be in New York city at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Matthew! Most philosophers come to the study of philosophy by way of similar paths. Many philosophers would regard the path that you have taken to arrive in philosophy as unconventional. Please describe your journey to this place.

Thank you so much for this opportunity! It’s safe to say that the only conventional paths that I take are the lines at the coffee shop. Not because I’m cool or unique or something else, but mostly because of terrible decision making and all-around rebellion. I have been kind of a jerk. Maybe not a jerk, I’ve just had a lot of issues.

Depression and mental illness run in my family, and I got a lot of it. When I was fifteen, my mom died. I didn’t process that well at all. My depression and insecurities skyrocketed. I turned away from the world, looking to drugs and books as an escape. Before she died, my mom had remarried a man with two daughters of his own. He was nice enough to keep my sister and me afterward. He soon remarried and my home started to feel like a hostel of sorts; so, deeper into the drugs I went.

All in all, I had four sisters and a brother and all of them went to college right out of high school. Two even received graduate degrees. The conventional path was open to me. I just did not want anything to do with it. With a head full of Kerouac and pills, all I wanted to do was hit the road. Philosophy had always been something that interested me. I was first introduced to philosophy at the age of 10 or 11 through a biography of Jim Morrison named “No One Here Gets Out Alive.” From that biography, I first learned about Nietzsche and Huxley. So, in a way, it was the thought of becoming a ginger Jim Morrison that turned me on to philosophy.

After high school, I got involved in the restaurant business, probably because I had read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Within fifteen years, I worked my way up from a dishwasher to a general manager. I even married and bought a house. I was able to hide my drug use and succeed because, in that world, the only thing that seemed to matter was how well you performed. All the while, I was using. The last couple of years, I was injecting heroin daily. Eventually, I was fired and got divorced. That was my “rock bottom.” I had been to rehab before, tried to quit here and there, but this was the one time I knew that I would either quit using or die.

I grew up going to church. So, that’s where I went when I didn’t know where else to go. Actually, I went to an AA meeting first, but the door was locked. That locked door led me to the door of my childhood church. I walked in horribly dope sick and they introduced me to a Christian men’s drug recovery center in North Alabama named His Way. Their main recovery focus is Christianity, introducing people to “a new life in Christ.” We took bible tests and attended four hours of class a day. We studied the Gospels, some Old Testament, and traditional AA-style recovery. After a month of that, we were to go out and work all day to earn money and then come home to dinner and a night class. I remembered, sitting there in those classes, how much I loved school and learning. As a young kid, before drugs, I would read through encyclopedia volumes as a way to be alone and to learn. I had been a horrible student in high school. But I think that I was such a bad student because I was so anxious and insecure. Well, I was also always stoned.

Either way, those first few months at His Way sparked in me the idea to go to college. At first, I thought that I wanted to study Theology. Being immersed in a Church of Christ environment will do that to a person. I had many questions, but the Bible and the instructors could not answer them. At times, I almost felt guilty for asking how and why they believed what they did. I needed reasons beyond the Bible to accept everything that they were saying. I’m still not sure where I stand on Christianity. The most that I can say is that I have seen lives dramatically changed for the better when people have devoted themselves to it.

Until then, I had never spent so much time with people who did not grow up like me. Doing so, also led me to an education in philosophy. I grew up very privileged. Typical middle-class white suburbia stuff. I had my issues sure, but financially, and opportunistically, I was set.

At the recovery center, I lived side by side with people who grew up in poverty. People from small southern towns where everyone knows everyone else, where a person’s name means something, and where the sins of one’s grandparents are attached to the rest of the family. At the recovery center, I lived with people who had spent 5, 10, and 20 years in prison. I listened to them. I listened to the way that black people were given more stiff punishments than white people who had committed the same offense. I saw how the poor people didn’t even know how to obtain representation or to self-advocate or could not afford to do so. They entered the prison system at a very young age. Most of these guys grew up around drugs, crime, and poverty.

In small-town Alabama, racism is overt, though some people do try the whole “bless their hearts” thing. Class, race, religion, these things are still divisive down here. I had heard of these things. I had even seen them, but it took being with people, living with them, and listening to them to make me see it from their eyes. All these things had me thinking things that I never had thought about before and further developed my interest in school.

When I got sober, I knew that I couldn’t go back to restaurants because the whole cook lifestyle was a trigger for me. I tried many things; but, because I didn’t have much education or a skill, there was nothing out there. I worked for a time in a box factory in Alabama that had no air conditioning. My time in that job was beyond miserable. I remembered the love that I had for school. The combination of my need for a new career, my newfound sobriety, and all of these questions that I had led me to enroll in a community college and then to head to our local university to begin my education in philosophy.

You have mentioned that you are older than many of your student peers. In what ways has this age discrepancy conditioned your learning experiences, including the ways in which you interact with your fellow students and professors?

I was 35 years old when I began college in earnest. I had gone to university before, but only made it through a few weeks before dropping out. At this point, I have about 18 years of hard-earned life experience on my fellow students, given their average age. When I was a general manager, most of my staff were students. I thought I knew how to relate to students. I have realized, though, how much different it is to be someone’s boss than to be their peer. Part of me wanted the typical “college experience” that I had never tasted. In high school, I never had a girlfriend or went to prom or anything like that. It has been a hard pill to swallow that that is not going to be my experience. For one, I don’t drink or do drugs. So, college party life is done. I smoke cigarettes, but that seems to be out of fashion. The other pillar of the American college experience—dating—is also off-limits for me. I am very open-minded, but my brain is not yet spilling out and I think my fellow students are a bit too young. So, I have become the nerdy guy, the one who is super pumped about the syllabus and does all the readings before the semester just to read them again during the semester.

The biggest challenge for me, at first, was toning down my talk. I had spent almost 15 years in the kitchen before coming to college. That time shaped me greatly. I’m accustomed to spending time around cooks whose language is really only appropriate for locker rooms or gallows. Even in the recovery environment, people speak differently. There, almost reckless self-honesty is honored. Not so much at school. At school, I have to leave most of the stories about crack, pawnshops, or prison out of conversation. Although I see the relevance of these things to many of the conversations that take place in classes, others don’t. Sometimes, it makes people uncomfortable; and then they will ask how you know about crack and in ten minutes the cops are there. I need to find a balance: How do I talk about my life experience, without scaring people, and keeping it relevant? How do I become relevant? I guess I mean that I am a little rough around the edges. Often in the kitchen, in a factory, you make friends with people by joking around with them. It’s not necessarily the same in school.

After realizing that I wouldn’t have a traditional college experience, I tried to relate to my professors more than to fellow students, since I am closer in age to my professors than I am to other students. Yet, in a way, the professors are kind of like older students. They are just further along and have made all the right moves. Good grades in high school, admission to a good university, then grad school. They had a plan. I know that sequence is nowhere near universal and that my opinion says more about me than it does about them. Still, I am a little bit on my own at school. On the bright side, I have learned that a lot of that stuff doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the quality of work that I do and what ideas I have.

[Description of photo below: Matt, who has a beard and wears glasses, smiles widely for the photo as he sits at a table in the conference room of His Way Recovery Center, pen in hand. An open laptop, cellphone, pieces of paper, coffee cup, a knapsack, and additional pen are on the table in front of Matt. Photo credit: James]

Good has come from my perception that I am “on my own.” Something about not fitting in with either the students or the professors has made me value the men and women in rehab and on the streets more. I am one of them. Yet, at the same time, I am a student with the dream of becoming a professor. In a way, I want to give a voice to people in recovery. I want to get a 4.0 and I want to have things to say in class so that people will know that addicts too can succeed in this world. Last summer, I was at Yale for a writer’s workshop. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Yet, even on that beautiful campus, I repeatedly found myself walking around New Haven talking to the homeless people. I wanted to hear their stories and see their faces.

Have you given much thought to the ways in which ageism shapes the university and philosophy? If so, what do you think philosophers should do to eliminate ageism in their teaching, the profession, and beyond?

More often than not, I can come off as a just another manspreading white guy—not in the sense that “I am a persecuted white man,” but rather in the sense that my presence and personality put this out sometimes. Which sucks because that is not me; I am just a bit nervous and rough around the edges. I am careful not to talk too much in class, not to dominate the conversation or talk over people. I make a point to give others room to talk, to start discussions. I try not to lead too much in groups, unless I can tell that it’s needed. Some of my younger classmates tend to defer to me because I’m older. I hate that because, often, they have better ideas than I do. So, I try to be encouraging, and less like a pirate cook trying to dominate the sauté station. I just don’t want to be the one imposing any kind of ageism.

Many non-traditional students have issues with finances. Finances are a huge hurdle. Finances and GEDs. Many people coming out of homelessness and addiction have dropped out of school. Education is intrinsically valuable and rehabilitative. Unlike the prison system, our educational institutions have a chance to help people and, in turn, to help society as a whole. Unfortunately, financial hurdles make a university or college education inaccessible to many people.

That said, it can be done. I am more than proud of the women who work two jobs, raise kids, and attend college. I know a guy who couldn’t read a year ago but is now working hard on his GED. I am proud of all the institutions that have dropped standardized testing requirements and offer full tuition for students who come from families that do not make that much money. I just want to see more help, more financial help for people to be able to follow their dream. I would love to see more opportunities for the kids in the D Home [Detention Home] and children of addicts. Maybe even GED programs in homeless shelters. Well, the long-term shelters.

Matthew, how has your identity as a reviving drug addict shaped your learning experience and university experience more generally? Has this identity conditioned your philosophical views in ways that you can describe?

Addiction has shaped my learning experience. I am sure that it has conditioned my philosophical views and, to an even greater extent, the way that I view people and the world in general. Because of my history of addiction, I am more patient than I was in the past and more open to the views of others. I have a more subjectivist world-view than I had; and I approach education and philosophy with that same freedom and subjectivity. I often meet young engineering students who tell me that they chose their major because their parents made them choose engineering. That kind of thing astounds me! I mean, in one respect, it makes sense in a way since their parents are paying for their college education, but what if the students want to do something else instead? What if they want to do, say, theatre? So, do it I say, do theatre. I think we somehow need to build a university and world that encourages that kind of thing.

Education is the number one thing that I do in my “recovery.” Most people go to AA or NA meetings and that kind of thing. I do school and serve people. I work at the recovery center where I got sober. So, I do school and then I spend time with the guys. Anyways, I think education should be just that, education. Not some vocational training, no matter how advanced it is, not as the means to an end, but an end in itself. I am not completely unrealistic. I understand that people need to eat. When one has children to feed, they might not have the same freedom of choice as someone with less responsibility. Maybe that needs to change too—which is a larger social issue that I want to think about in my career as a philosopher.

I can hold an attitude like this because I have “failed” at family, career, and friends. So there is a freedom there, because I am not frightened by these things. For instance, people often ask me “What will you do with a philosophy degree?” I mean, hell I don’t know for real. I have already lived in homeless shelters and worked in Alabama factories in the summer; so, being a barista (what most people say will happen) is an upgrade from that. Even still, I have a plan to be a professor and I will continue down that road.

I grew up with a stepfather who was a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of guy. Somehow, I subscribed to that way of thinking and, in a sense, still do. However, I now know first-hand what Dr. King meant when he said that some people are barefoot. That is the way the world is. Some people have boots and some people don’t and the only thing that determines who will have boots and who won’t have them is the luck of birth. At the same time, I have some belief that we are still responsible for accepting our lot and doing the best we can with it. I also think that we ought to work for equality so that the barefoot can get a pair of boots.

All these things are coming together for me. Well, beginning to come together. It all sounds like platitudes at this point. How do I reconcile the belief that some people are born into situations that will likely bar them from certain things for life and the urge to hold them accountable for their decisions? Should I? I don’t necessarily mean this question in the sense of general ethics, but rather for, say, the woman who was abused by her father, then boyfriend, and is now shooting dope and has to quit. Like, how does it apply to the street? Does philosophy do that? Or is it more general?

You have indicated that you want to become a philosophy professor. How will the presence in the philosophy profession of a reviving addict who has publicly identified as such change the face of philosophy?

I got into Columbia University’s School of General Studies for Fall 2020. The guys around here couldn’t believe it. Someone told a reporter friend and they did this news special about “Local man beats heroin and heads to the Ivy League.” I mentioned in that news interview that I wanted to become a philosophy professor. I doubt that I will be able to go, but it is still really cool. I mean, it is ungodly expensive, and my credit is shot now. So, no private loans. Anyways, before that interview, all of the guys thought that I was full of it when I told them that I was going to college at the local community college. They told me to stay at the box factory because it is good money. They had an even better time with me when I told them that I was going to become a philosophy professor. Few even had the slightest notion of what philosophy is or, if they did, their notions of it involved heresy, communism, and making coffee at some hipster shop. After I began school, they could see a change in me, and they began to see the value in this thing. Our smoke deck conversations turned to discussions about knowledge and free will. Some even began to read Plato. When I got into Columbia, they became believers. They see me sober, doing well, going to school, and they are all wanting to do more; not more as in college per se, they simply see that they too can do something with their lives other than drugs and crime.

So, down here in this little part of the south, the face of philosophy has changed already. Now, as far as the profession in general, I think the best that I might hope for is getting into a decent grad school, maybe get tenure somewhere, publish an article here and there. I do want to teach undergraduates and publish. I would like to think that, somehow, I can use my past and the stories of my friends to make more relevant the work that I do. At the same time, I dream of helping universities become more people-oriented in the work that they do—on a high philosophical level of course, but in a way that people can use to live better. Right now, I do not know what that looks like or how the future will mold my thoughts and objectives. Philosophy departments have some of the brightest minds in the world. And the world needs good minds right now.

Philosophy, for me, is at its root a way to find out how one might live better. Am I interested in the mind, idealism, materialism, knowledge, experience, etc.? Absolutely! I love that stuff. I love studying it, reading arguments, forming arguments, and writing papers. That, I will never stop doing. But I am interested in a way that makes me hope that some of the knowledge that I glean can be passed down to those suffering from an obsession of the mind and a craving of the body; or that it can help turn people who hate into people who build others up. How can we help create equity by putting our philosophy into action? Is it even actionable? I think it should be. It should be relevant to the people who need it the most, not just academics. Of course, I want to be a professor, work in a Hogwarts-like environment, write papers, and teach philosophy. But how do these things MATTER to people who need, more than anything, to live better? So, the next few years will, for me, be about finding balance.

Matthew, would you like to recommend some books, videos, or other resources on any of the topics that you have discussed over the course of this interview? And is there anything else that you would like to mention?

I have been reading Hannah Pickard lately. Her article “Responsibility Without Blame For Addiction” is great. She does an excellent job defining the fine line that we walk: the need to be held accountable for our decisions yet, at the same time, loved and helped to help ourselves. Her paper lays it out quite well. I read John Russon’s “Human Experience” last semester and it is still in my head. It is a fairly basic intro to phenomenology and existentialism; but it’s done in a way that makes these traditions relevant to a person who might want to change her life. 

Matthew, thank you so much for your candid, thought-provoking, and inspiring remarks throughout this interview. I am sure that readers and listeners of this interview join me in wishing you all the best with your future studies.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Matthew Norman’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, July 15th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the sixty-fourth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

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