Baltimore author Mikita Brottman 'serious as a heart attack'

MICA prof and author Mikita Brottman: "I feel compelled to explore the underside of everything."

An off-white piano sits in the living room of Mikita Brottman's apartment in the Belvedere Hotel. On a shelf is a glass jar containing a piglet pickled in formaldehyde. There's an antique metal bird cage, an old dress form and a collection of preserved beetles with jewel-colored shells.

The apartment is Victorian, but askew. It features three massive chandeliers and a life-size statue of a sitting greyhound. The study is lined with floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves whose top tiers are accessible only by giants, or by using the attached sliding ladder. The walls and ceilings are painted mustard, coral, steel blue and lime.

Visually, the apartment is a series of small skirmishes between different design elements that mutely clamor for attention.

Yet the atmosphere that these objects create is utterly devoid of pretense. The preoccupations of the apartment's inhabitants — Brottman and her longtime partner, the film critic David Sterritt — are on display for all to see. Even more than the fanciful objects, it's that quality that puts guests immediately at ease and makes the apartment a place they want to be.

Welcome to a three-dimensional representation of the mind of Mikita Brottman: author, literature professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, dog lover, certified lay (non-physician) psychoanalyst, and leader of a book club for convicted murderers and rapists.

All nine of Brottman's books, including the newest, "The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison," which was released last month, are united by that same idiosyncratic sensibility.

"If everyone else is looking at some beautiful stone, I'll turn the stone over and look at the insects and worms underneath," Brottman says. "I feel compelled to explore the underside of everything."

Some of the colorful creepy-crawlies her books examine include serial killings ("Thirteen Girls"), scavengers ("Hyena"), the cult of the automobile ("Car Crash Culture") and offensive films ("Offensive Films"). Her 2008 book, "The Solitary Vice," equates reading even great literature with that ... well, more widely practiced solitary vice.

In "The Maximum Security Book Club," Brottman introduces the inmates of the Jessup Correctional Institution to works by Shakespeare, Poe and Conrad. What makes the prison club poignant is that on some level, Brottman suspects she's doomed to fail. After all, she had already written a book questioning the lasting social value of teaching great literature.

"The idea that someone who creates something beautiful has to be morally superior, and the idea that reading makes you a better person or even that it improves your life, isn't necessarily true," Brottman says.

"But that's what reading did for me. I wanted to go to men who were in restricted circumstances and open up their minds to different types of stories."

Two inmates were released while Brottman was writing "Maximum Security Book Club." When the newly freed prisoners lose all interest in literature, the author's disillusionment is palpable.

"Vincent and Steven weren't the people I thought they were," she says. "They were more interesting to me when they were in prison. But that's my failing."

Perhaps the real surprise isn't that the men stopped reading after they were released; it's that they participated in the club so diligently for the two years they were behind bars. But then, it's not unusual for people who cross Brottman's path to suddenly find themselves acting in unexpected ways.

For instance, several years ago the literary agent Betsy Lerner received an unsolicited manuscript for "Thirteen Girls," Brottman's book about murder victims.

"The material was so dark and unforgiving," Lerner says, "I knew it would be incredibly difficult to sell."

Lerner can afford to be picky. Of the 750 queries she receives each year from would-be authors, she accepts perhaps half a dozen.

"I took Mikita on without knowing if we'd ever move pass the small presses," Lerner said. "I found her writing that compelling. Mikita is very astute, highly observant and as serious as a heart attack. She takes you down when you least expect it."

High praise, indeed.

But that's the thing about Brottman. Newcomers find themselves valuing qualities in her character that they'd normally find off-putting.

Melissa Daum met Brottman in 2003 when she signed up to take a course in myth at MICA. Now the former student and teacher are close friends who operate a joint website, Vas Hermeticum ("The Glass Vessel"), where they analyze dreams submitted by readers.

"Mikita was tall and serious and kind of awkward," says Daum, now a therapist in Manhattan specializing in eating disorders. "I was mystified by her. I couldn't figure her out at all. She wasn't very warm, but she was fascinating.

"You know how baby ducks will imprint on the first person who walks by? Well, meeting Mikita changed my life. She opened doors in my thinking. I took other classes from her, and when she went to California for two years, I followed her there and enrolled in graduate school."

When Brottman writes, she's a virtuoso: poised and sure-footed, confident and graceful, witty and relaxed. In person, not so much. When possible, she prefers to communicate through writing rather than face to face.

Those who know her say she avoids events such as literary parties or staff meetings that require participants to navigate adeptly through myriad complicated and conflicting nonverbal cues.

Perhaps that's why, though Brottman has taught at MICA since 2001, it wasn't until she moved to California's Pacifica Graduate Institute in 2008 that the Baltimore college fully appreciated what it had lost. Behind her shy and self-doubting exterior, Daum says, Brottman cares deeply about her students.

"Mikita is an unforgettable professor," said Soheila Ghaussy, chairwoman of MICA's humanistic studies department.

"She teaches in an edgier way. Some students love her. Others find her offensive. But she's the professor everyone remembers. The classes she developed and taught for us were super-popular. Our department had a long discussion after she left, and we decided that we were going to try to get her back."

Brottman returned to the Baltimore campus in 2010.

For someone who trained as a psychoanalyst (though she doesn't currently treat patients) and who by her own admission is drawn to the dark side, Brottman can exhibit blind spots regarding the consequences of human dysfunction.

Brottman writes that she'd always viewed "Lolita" as "a love story" until she discussed Vladimir Nabokov's novel with the inmates, who insisted that the middle-age Humbert Humbert was a pedophile.

"I have always adored Humbert and been so taken in by his eloquence," Brottman said. "I always bought his side of the story. But these men who were guilty of terrible crimes sympathized with 12-year-old Lolita."

But then, from her earliest days, Brottman was taught to look at the world from the point of view of misfits and rebels.

"If I empathize with people who are on the margins," she says, "it's because that's where I always felt I was myself."

She grew up in a working-class family in Sheffield, England. In her book, she describes her parents as former hippies who were more interested in challenging authority and overturning the class system than in supervising their teenage children. Both of Brottman's brothers left home and went on welfare by the time Brottman was 16. One, she writes, became addicted to heroin and spent time in jail.

After her parents divorced, her mother rented out rooms to strangers she met in the pubs to make ends meet.

"When she took on a pedophile on the run from the law," Brottman writes, "I stopped going downstairs at all and retreated to my attic bedroom … and escaped into books."

Brottman's habit of hiding out paid unexpected dividends. Though she attended a high school that later was deemed among Britian's worst and was shut down by the government, a teacher thought the bright, studious girl had the potential to get into Oxford. When young Mikita learned that the application process involved writing a three-hour essay on one topic, she started practicing.

Most days after school, she'd sit at her desk for three hours and write one essay. Occasionally, she'd devote six hours to writing two.

"I didn't have many friends or people to talk to," Brottman says, "so writing became my way of self-expression. And when I wrote, I could put on a different persona. I became much more sophisticated and confident, the Mikita I hoped I would become."

Given the enormity of that discovery, what did it matter if her parents and everyone else she knew accused of betraying her roots?

Mikita Brottman won that scholarship to Oxford. And she hasn't stopped writing since.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison," was released June 7 by HarperCollins Publishers. 272 pages, $26.99.

Mikita Brottman

Age: 49

Home: Mid-town Belvedere, Baltimore

Profession: Author of nine books; faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art.

Born: Sheffield, England

Education: Oxford University, bachelor's degree, 1989; doctorate in English language and literature, 1994. Certified in psychoanalysis in 2011 by the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.

Personal: Her partner is the film critic David Sterritt. They live with a French bulldog, Oliver, and a Devon Rex cat, Bartleby.

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