Jim Flannery: Sorry It’s Not Funny – Comedy, Hip-Hop and Activism

This week on the Mad in America podcast, we are joined by activist and artist Jim Flannery.

Born and raised in suburban Weathersfield, Connecticut, Jim was committed at four mental hospitals across the United States. There he received the best care available in the modern world… torture, which included seclusion, restraints, forced drugging, coercion, and a psychiatric diagnosis.

Later, he turned to the arts to speak out publicly about his experiences with the mental health system through performing stand-up comedy under the pseudonym Flim Jannery and now through music with his new album, “Sorry, It’s Not Funny,” which will be released on Friday, October 14.

In 2020, Jim began hearing voices, which opened his eyes to what he terms a genocide against neurodiverse people. He shifted his creative efforts towards hip-hop, believing the genre was the best medium to communicate his perspective.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.

Karin Jervert: Thanks so much for being here, Jim.

Jim Flannery: Thank you for talking to me, and having me here. Appreciate it.

Jervert: I’m also a voice hearer, so I feel this will be a really interesting, wonderful conversation between two peers. I’m also an artist, so we both have used the arts in our work and in our lives, so I’m excited to talk to you about that.
To start with, I wanted to ask you about your experience as Flim Jannery, the comedian. How did that come about and what was your experience as a comedian in this space? Do you identify as a psych survivor?

Flannery: That’s the term that I’ve used. The trouble with it is I don’t think people really know what I’m talking about, and so lately I’ve been using the term “ex-mental patient,” which feels a little more appropriate. Since I’ve had this experience of becoming a voice hearer, and given my previous experiences, I sure as hell wasn’t going to go to a mental hospital to ask for help. I’ve gotten support through hearing voices groups, and that kind of thing. But the reality is, I’d be too scared to be a mental patient again. Once I open my mouth and say things then it’s trouble. I kind of prefer now “ex-mental patient,” although that doesn’t really get to the point of being a survivor of something.

Jervert: I absolutely agree. Sometimes when I use the term “psychiatric survivor,” people actually say to me, “what does that mean?”
Did using your comedy in the space of the psychiatric survivor movement—and for yourself personally—did that help you to heal from the abuse you experienced?

Flannery: I guess the first question is how did I get started? When I was a kid, I was really into stand-up comedy. I remember being really young listening to Chris Rock and feeling like I was hearing things that I wasn’t supposed to hear at that age. At the same time, I was being exposed to ideas and stories and things about the world that I wasn’t exposed to before. There was a journalistic aspect that I saw in comedy. Guys like George Carlin sharing their ideas. He, later in his career, thought of himself as a writer that performed his material instead of a comedian that wrote his own material. I learned a lot from these people, and they influenced me.

There were other comedians. I remember being a big Dane Cook fan, and David Attell. There’s something amazing about it. You’re laughing, you’re learning, you share it with friends. I hate to say it because I just put out a hip-hop album, but I still think comedy is my favorite medium of art. I just need it even if I’m not doing it.

I tried doing comedy in high school, but, by the time I got onto a stage there was all this writing, and writing, and writing and then I perform and it was like, “Oh, well, this kind of sucks.” I thought [being on stage] was supposed to be the part that everyone worked towards. I was like, “What am I doing up here? I’m 16, there are all these adults and what am I doing here?” I just stopped. It’s sort of anticlimactic to spend all that time, maybe a year or something, writing notes and putting together this five-minute thing and then just stopping.

Then I was 22 and got locked up in a mental hospital. For me, did I deserve to be? Is there something wrong with me? First off, is there anything wrong with me biologically? Is there something going on right now that I need some help with? Well, that’s not so much a biological flaw, but maybe I need some support or help.

My family took me there, they were worried something was going on. They thought I’d hit my head or was on drugs. Something is wrong with Jim. I was not pleased to be going there.

I took on a lot [at that time]. I was 22 and had started a company with a classmate of mine, we raised all this money and there’s all this pressure and I didn’t have any mentors or people to talk to. There was a lot going on and a lot of pressure. The idea that somehow, I’m biologically flawed because I couldn’t handle that pressure is partly the argument that the hospital is making for why I was locked up there—there’s something wrong with me.

Not only is there something wrong with me, but they can’t cure it. They can give me drugs for the rest of my life… just the whole experience. It’s bad. It’s the worst. You don’t even know anything about it. You have no idea that these things exist, and then all of a sudden you’re the dude who is getting surrounded by people, injected, tied down to a hospital bed and you’re like, what the hell is going on?

I thought I was going to Boston that night to meet with the people I was working with. We have this huge thing going on, and you’re telling me that I can’t leave? Even though I haven’t broken a law? What the hell are you talking about? There’s shock and like “What the hell?” Now, of course, you’re in this situation where you’re surprised, you’re shocked, you’ve almost been kidnapped from your life. Maybe at this point, you’ve been injected with [a drug], and all this is going on and you’re supposed to act calm. They’re judging you this entire time based on your reaction to what’s going on. And they’re using everything you do to build their case about how you’re mentally ill.

How is a human being supposed to react in that situation? I didn’t do anything violent. It’s like what is the point of even doing anything violent? There is no escape from this place. The doors are locked. There are staff, there are cameras, and you’re just [stuck]. I had my sister there for part of the time, but you’re there alone. Then you get injected, you get tied down, you wake up and then you’re really alone.

Jervert: You and a lot of people use the term “torture” to describe this experience. I myself use that as well, that this was a form of torture.

Flannery: Right, I use the word torture and people think I must be overreacting or using some artistic literary tool to exaggerate. What part of it do other people think is torture? You got tied down, but what did you do? You must have done something. Oh, they shot you up, what did you do? That’s the part that people focus on as being the torture, the needles, the restraints.

It is impossible to capture the experience of waking up in this hospital and being like, wait I can’t leave here? I didn’t do anything wrong. Oh, there’s something wrong with me? Then my reaction is, fuck you there’s nothing wrong with me. Or prove it. No, no, there’s something wrong with you. The fact that you don’t accept it? Well, that’s a symptom. We will write that down. One more symptom. Well, what am I supposed to do?

I was 22, and I called people. That was one of the things that seemed a crazy thing to do, right? There’s a payphone there with a phone book and I’m locked in this place. What am I going to do? I’m going to try to get out. I’m calling people from the mental hospital, which is great. That’s the best place to call people from. “Hey, I got locked up in the mental hospital, and they won’t let me out. I don’t know what the hell to do, please help me, somebody please help me.” But, there’s nobody that can help you, and now you’re just a crazy person because you’re calling everybody you know saying I’m locked in a mental hospital.

Some of those people might call other people and say, “I got this call from Jim, he’s locked up in a mental hospital.” All this is going on outside and you’re creating this storm. In your mind you’re thinking, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if as many people as possible know that I’m in here, somebody’s going to do something.

My family is friends with the probate court judge at the time in Hartford. I was in Hartford at the Institute of Living. I’m locked up there and I think I saw on a pamphlet or something that I could have a meds against the will hearing. Naturally, there was a period of time where I was like, why would I take these drugs and all that?

It’s embarrassing, and there’s a lot of shame with the fact that then eventually they did talk me into there being something wrong with me, and I did take the drugs. To be an activist or somebody speaking out about this, it feels like you’re a failure. You weren’t strong enough, you couldn’t handle being in there without ending up taking these damn drugs. Yet, you talk to people on the outside when you’re locked up in there, and the best advice that you get is you’re going to be there for 30 days. If you keep putting up a fight, they’re going to transfer you over to a state hospital because your insurance is going to run out.

Jervert: I want to ask you specifically, when you got out, and years later when you started speaking out about it, where did comedy take you? When you started engaging with comedy?

Flannery:  Your question seems to be, how did it help me? That is sort of an awkward response in that it didn’t help me really in anything. It mostly made my life worse, for me personally. There are folks that do benefit from talking about their experiences and maybe, in a way, being at a hearing voices group and saying it out loud and being able to communicate with people, that’s a very effective therapeutic thing. To say, “I can’t just have this in my head, I need to talk about this. I need to find the words to describe these experiences. Otherwise, won’t I have some mental instability if I don’t talk about this with anyone?”

But if you talk about it publicly you could ruin your life, because once you say these things publicly, you’re shutting the doors on employment opportunities, potentially romantic partners, friends, and potentially family. To say that it is therapeutic to come out like that, I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve heard people relate it to coming out for people who are homosexual.

I’ve got to believe that there are some benefits to being open and being yourself. But, comedy, in some ways, made my life much worse. The effort to speak out publicly about these experiences, because I didn’t know about any of this stuff when I got locked up. If I had known something, maybe it could have gone differently, if my family had known something. If people knew about these things, they sure as hell wouldn’t have taken me to a mental hospital.

I hate to say it, I heard voices, it started a couple of years ago. I felt I needed help. I don’t know that I needed biological help, as in psychiatric drugs, but I needed to go somewhere and talk to someone. But based on what had happened to me, I’m never going to hospital for that and I’m not taking someone else there.

Jervert: When you started doing the comedy, you did a lot of work with MindFreedom International and things like that. How do you think comedy works in the activism space?

Flannery: I really believed in comedy. I’m not saying that it’s not a good medium. But, beginning to hear voices changed my perspective about the seriousness of the subject matter I’m talking about. I’ve tried to laugh and talk about it. It’s just, how the hell do I laugh and talk about it? It’s hard to make jokes about it. Then it just got angrier. I’ve gotten a lot angrier over time. Some comedy can come from anger, but the goal here was to become the biggest comedian that exists on the damn earth, so everybody knows about these experiences and talks about this stuff. But ultimately, and I hate to say, I have a bad sense of humor, but something about comedy, or maybe it’s the way that I do it, that somehow someone’s the brunt of a joke.

I try to talk about myself and my own experiences as much as I can. But there’s something that absolutely sucks about knowing people’s feelings are being hurt by the jokes I make. I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to cancel comedy. I’m not trying to do any of that. It’s my own work, my own words, my own stuff. I guess you could say, I cancelled myself, I just didn’t want to hurt people anymore. It almost makes me think of John Taylor Gatto a little bit.

Gatto was the New York State Teacher of the Year a couple of times, and then he ended up giving a speech for being awarded it and saying “I no longer want to hurt children. I’m not going to teach anymore.” There was a part of that for me. It’s like all right, I’ll stop doing comedy, but what do I do instead?

I thought for a while about hip-hop, because there’s something about that genre that is so raw and honest and authentic. Some of it is funny, but it doesn’t need to be. I wanted to make hip-hop music, but it seemed like something that I could not do as the main thing I did, I couldn’t be a hip-hop artist. I could be a comedian that made a song but it just couldn’t be who I was.

Jervert: My next question is about the voice hearing. You came out recently in a blog post revealing that you were a voice hearer. I want to ask you how this emerging new experience was for you?

Flannery: One of my instincts is to bring up anger because after I heard voices my feelings about the mental health system were validated. There’s a part of me that just wants to believe that the goddamn world is a good place. That anything bad that happened was a mistake, it wasn’t intentional, or I just got mixed up in the system. It’s just what happens when you have these systems, you’re not really a person, you’re just treated like a number coming through. I wanted to believe that. Then there was the summer of 2020.

In the beginning, I thought I was talking to a spirit, right. I’m laughing about it because I don’t believe that now. My feelings about spirituality and religion—if you listen to the song “Punitive Damage,” you’ll hear that I have some uncomfortable feelings about religion. In particular, that song emphasizes the idea of hell. It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t believe there’s a hell and just because it’s written in a book, and people say it, I’m supposed to fear for my life all the time? I’m already scared of the damn mental health system. Now, I got to worry that I’m going to go to hell on top of that. Come on, please.

I was trying to do an experiment of sorts that involved cannabis. Previously, there were a couple of times that I thought I was hearing a voice. This particular time felt very cause and effect. I remember it was this unusual thing that I mixed together a little bit of sativa with indica.

I took a long time off of smoking weed when I was on psych drugs, and getting off them, all that time and then I tried starting again. This particular evening, I took a hit of the pipe and next thing you know, I get the first of two or three encounters with this being, a leprechaun, and it’s so stupid.

Jervert: You don’t have to qualify this to me. So many voice hearers have a diverse way of understanding their voices. It’s important that the frame we use is helpful to us. There’s no judgment here from me, don’t worry.

Flannery: All right, well, I do feel like I judge myself. As a person who believes in science, and also knows that we don’t have the answers to everything. I like to think I’m open-minded.

Jervert: You call this a feature, not a bug. Did the journey you took lead you to that?

Flannery: Oh, absolutely. It’s been two years now. That’s where all this anger and rage comes from. My first encounter was a feeling that there was someone or something else here and I’m communicating with it. I’m wondering, is something biologically different about me that’s allowing me to communicate with a spirit? Is it because I smoked this weed that I’m communicating with a spirit? Is it a combination of the weed and something about my biology, because I’ve been locked up and doctors have been saying there’s something different about me? What is it that’s allowing me to do this right now?

There’s a little bit of weirdness that there were times before that when maybe I was talking to a voice. Talking to a spirit, especially when you’re only hearing one voice and you’re like, well, this must be very important. I’m hearing one voice, is this God? Is this spiritual? Is this something? I was pretty convinced it was real.

I remember a specific day that, at least in my memory, marks when it went from spirits to “I’m hearing voices.” There was a day. The first time I interacted with these spirits is July of 2020. Somewhere in February, I woke up and I’m hearing voices all day. I didn’t do anything to summon them to talk to me. They’re just there. There’s a changing out, I talk to one and then there’s another, then another, and it’s happening so quickly.

First off, there’s no spirits here. If there are, well I’m blessed because I got a bunch of them. What do we even talk about?

I want to bring this up because it seems important. There were a few days, at least, where I was trying to figure out—is there a chip in my head? I say I was one of “those people” but if you hear voices and you think of a chip in your head, you must be psychotic, right? But I have to say, if you hear voices, and you don’t at some point think you got a chip in your head… you should at least consider it. You would say, “psychotic” because I’m thinking about that, but I am, I’m trying to figure out how that would work.

What if I go in another room? Does the volume change? Does the clarity change? Should I go to a Faraday cage? The way it was changing from voice to voice to voice, it seemed as efficient as if someone was maybe passing the microphone around or something. I had that thought and it wasn’t brief, I thought it for a while. But, then I was like, “Oh, I just hear voices.”

Jervert: There’s that time period where you’re trying to figure them out—almost doing experiments. What am I going to believe about this experience? Scientific inquiry, that is one of the ways you find a path. I definitely had experiences like that, too. Where I was just trying to sort out what this was made of and how can I find out more? How can I investigate?
When you started realizing that this was really a feature of just being human, a neurodiverse situation, where it’s a feature, not a bug, you talk about how this gave you a revelation that there was what you termed “a genocide” going on around neurodiverse people. If you want to talk about that a little bit, I’d like to hear more.

Flannery: Those first experiences happened in the summer, in July. As the fall was rolling around things in my own life got a little bit uncomfortable. I gave a testimony at the Connecticut Valley Hospital where it was over Zoom. That is when I started to get really scared. I spoke out publicly about it, and said exactly how I felt about what was going on. I thought, well, there’s going to be repercussions for this. I shouldn’t be saying these things out loud on record and challenging them. Then I started getting more nervous and scared.

Meanwhile, that’s going on in the real world, right? These are real-world things that are happening. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what is going on. Am I hearing spirits? Am I talking to the spirits? I don’t think at that point I thought, “The voice is in my head.” But this idea that there was a genocide, this must be unique to me and my biology. I’m smoking a plant and communicating with a spirit.

I’ve never heard anyone talk about doing these things before. I don’t think I’m crazy. This is very real. This is some sort of secret or something that’s being kept from people. If not everyone can do this then I start thinking that all the efforts that were put into destroying my soul through the mental health system. Now, all of a sudden there’s an intention. Now, there’s a reason.

If there are some people who biologically can talk to spirits and some people who cannot, I would think the people who cannot are either going to think those folks are crazy that they are talking to spirits, or they’re going to say, “Let’s get rid of these people, they’re a threat. If they get to talk to spirits, who are we?”

Jervert: There’s some part of me that always goes back to indigenous cultures around the world who do know about these practices and have specific roles for people like us. This diversity of hearing voices, this “feature” we have that’s different from everyone else, in indigenous cultures was recognized, and honored, and respected. People were given specific roles to do certain things, medicine people or shamans. In modern society, where are we? We’re in mental institutions. It does make sense to me to frame it as an intentional effort to eradicate people like us.

Flannery: It’s interesting that I have this feeling and almost a belief that the mental health system destroyed me in some way, with the drugs physically. But, it destroyed me. Yet, if I believe that then what am I doing right now sitting here talking to you? I can’t be that destroyed if I’m still here talking about these things and doing something.

Jervert: Honestly, making a hip-hop album is an amazing accomplishment. This journey took you to hip-hop. Tell us about that.

Flannery: There was all this feeling about my life being destroyed and ruined, and I’m not making nearly the goddamn impact that I set out to do with comedy. There was this feeling through comedy that as a comedian I can talk about anything. I can say anything. I could talk about anything and get these ideas out there. It felt like comedy was the way to talk about it.

Then I get the idea in my mind, that running for president would be a way to do this without anybody’s feelings being hurt. I don’t have to step on anyone by making a joke.

Jervert: Wasn’t the president of Ukraine originally a comedian?

Flannery: He was a comedian, which is great. At least there’s one out there, right? I start thinking this is the only way to move forward. It’s going to take more than a comedian talking about these things for something to change. I start thinking I’ll run for president and it’s like, why not? Legally, I’m just of age that I could pull that off. If I believed that the words I was going to say were going to move people in such a way that it’s going to change the world in a meaningful way then maybe that is the kind of person that can run for president. I start thinking I’m going to do that. I barely told anybody. Then the minute that I started talking to people about it, I started getting worried, and scared. I got scared and life got worse.

The person I loved left me, that was pretty devastating. Still is a bit. Then I’m stuck. Do I keep doing comedy? Do I pursue this run for the president thing? Do I do this hip-hop thing? All I want to do is be able to change this system. I say change the world, I would love to have this mental health system, all this be fixed amongst other things the wrong with the world. I’d never made a hip-hop song before so it started off with writing a lot of poetry and writing and writing and writing.

Jervert: Did you do much research around hip-hop?

Flannery: Not as much into how to write a song. I didn’t really get into that. It was more of the history of it, and all the different artists, the things they talk about. But I’m writing all these things and what is it that I want to say? What is it that I want to do? One challenge that I have is if the thing that drove all of this is the mental health system and wanting to change that, if I make an entire album talking about mental health then it’s going to be a gimmick.

If I want to be a big artist, I need to show that I can talk about other subjects. There are other things that I care about. It is a little unusual for me to express myself about other subjects. But comedy did do something like that for me because I felt the same way about comedy. I can’t go up and do an hour show where all I talk about is the mental health system like you might expect me to talk about it. Things I say might be through the perspective of somebody that’s been harmed.

Jervert: Compared to the comedy, do you feel like the album has a different role, a different way of acting in the activist space?

Flannery: One of the great things about it, as you mentioned earlier, is that I performed under a pseudonym, Flim Jannery. I would make things up, I would exaggerate, I guess, you’d say lie—it’s entertainment, it’s comedy. I want to talk about all this, but I have to edit it in that I don’t want to incriminate people or talk about people and tell these stories. Whereas with hip-hop the whole point of this is to say exactly what I want to say, I don’t need to use the name Jim Flannery for hip-hop. Most hip-hop artists are using a stage name. With comedy, most people are using their real name. I ended up using the stage name so.

Jervert: Do you feel like the genre of hip-hop actually holds more truth to it for you? Along with the anger, too?

Flannery: Yes, that is actually one nice thing about it. I have been told that sometimes I’m funny when I’m angry. I try to go back and do comedy again and I was like, this is so angry. I could turn this into something funny. This is something that really frustrates me as I feel maybe I was a better comedian, that was a better direction in the long run. Let’s say as a career I could be as good as, in time, as the greats. With hip-hop, it’s a hell of a lot harder to be as good as the greats.

There’s the whole aspect of there’s music now. It’s not just the words I say. It’s not just the way I say it. There’s the music, there’s all these other aspects, which makes it way more difficult. But for me, in that case, I was writing these words and making sure every goddamn thing in here is something that I believe and then when I do it, I can rap that way, because I’m saying stuff that I believe.

Even the title, “Sorry It’s Not Funny.” I tried to make the album not funny because if I start making it funny then first off, I’m creating a whole different art form. I’m not going to get to say things the way I want to say it. Now it’s being judged on whether it’s funny or not. The message, the words, the truth, all the stuff that I’m talking about is important and it matters, and the goddamn world needs to change. But if I’m not funny enough, or not a good enough rapper, no one’s even hearing it, and it’s not going to be good enough.

I keep thinking that I haven’t really talked about giving up or quitting, and I think about that now a little bit. It just eats at me. I worry that the album’s not good enough. I made it. I thought it would be this magnum opus of mine that maybe it would attract a record label, or people would love it, and so many people would hear it that somehow even if I know that I don’t have the musical talent, and I am an inexperienced rapper, that somehow the words in the message and the meaning and even something about my voice at least hopefully it doesn’t hurt people’s ears.

Jervert: I think you’re serving a community of people who have gone through what you’ve gone through. You’re also raising awareness by those people sharing it with others. It’s courageous what you’ve done. I would not for a second think that it’s not making an impact or it’s not good enough.
It’s making an impact the way it needs to. Like we said before, you put the art into the world and it does what it’s meant to do. I think your album is doing what it’s meant to do, which is serving those people who have been through that horrific experience of being institutionalized in mental hospitals and being tortured.
Please, see the courage you took to do that album. Art is hard, like you said, art is freaking hard. Where can people find the album? How can they listen?

Flannery: They can go to jim-flannery.com and then click on music and find it. It’s on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora, SoundCloud, and Tidal. There are a couple of college radio stations that have put my songs in rotation, so that’s something.

Jervert: My last question for you is what your hopes are for the future in two realms: in the realm of the mental health industry, how people accept neurodiversity in our culture, and in your life and work as well.

Flannery: I think you can’t have one without the other. If the mental health system is going to change, you’re going to have some amount of acceptance in the culture of neurodiversity. I wrote this book Leave School, and I remember mentioning this idea about culture and the laws, that if you want the laws to change, you have to change the culture. How do you change the culture?

My hope is that hearing voices is no longer assumed to be some sort of a biological defect; that people would see this as a feature and not a bug. That if they do that, maybe somebody will think it’s a little fucked up that you’re doing this to people who have a feature and not a bug.

The label of bipolar disorder, I wish no one would say that to anyone ever. Having doctors say that to me has been the most destructive thing in my life. I would love for that to change. If those things change, is there any reason to lock people up in mental hospitals if you don’t think that there’s anything wrong with hearing voices? Or you don’t think that people are bipolar? There are other reasons why they lock people up. One other hope is Soteria Houses, peer respites, and no forced drugging.

Jervert: How about your art? What do you think you will be going to next?

Flannery: I would really love it if I could keep doing hip-hop and rapping. I love doing it, I feel good about it when I’m doing it. Nothing in my mind says “oh shit, I might hurt someone”; I’m more concerned whether are they liking it, are people dancing, are they listening to the words. I would love to keep doing that. If the goal here is to change the damn world… I already made this album. After everything I poured into this thing, if it isn’t quite good enough, then I don’t know if I can believe I can make something that is going to surpass that on my own.

Jervert: It comes down to being able to feel comfortable in your own experience and create and share your story, as you have through your album, and do that safely without the kind of consequences that people like us face.

Flannery: I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. I wish that would happen. But I don’t feel safe.

Karin Jervert: I understand. As a person who also shared her voice hearing experience, I hear you on all those fronts. It can be very frightening and the consequences of it sometimes you don’t even know until later. A lot of solidarity to you. But, I want to commend you for the courage it took for you to create this album and even the comedy work that you did before, and the activism work you’ve done. Just you know you’ve done an amazing job.

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