Mikita Brottman has a D.Phil. in English language and literature from Oxford University and has taught at a number of universities in Europe and the United States. For the last twenty years, she has been professor of English literature in the Department of Humanistic Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is also a certified psychoanalyst and a true crime writer.
The class you’re teaching this fall is “Prince of the Perverse: The Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe,” and you have a background as a true crime author and psychoanalyst. How did you become interested in this topic, and why is it important for others to learn?
I’ve always loved Poe. I remember reading his stories and poems in my bedroom when I was very young. I was entranced by his descriptions of strange, dark states of mind. I think when we first read Poe, we’re drawn in by the spookiness of the stories—the haunted houses, black cats, premature burials, dead bodies behind the walls and under the floorboards—but if you go back to Poe when you’re older, you find the stories are very subtle. In terms of psychology, Poe was very much ahead of his time, and he clearly describes what we’d now call symptoms of various mental illnesses, notably obsessions and compulsion. If you want to understand human psychology, forget clinical textbooks—read Poe.
You teach undergraduates at MICA and have worked with the Jessup Correctional Institute Prison Scholars Program. Can you tell us a little bit about your work in those contexts? How does teaching in those contexts compare to one another or to teaching at Osher?
It’s difficult to compare Osher to anything else because, due to COVID and online teaching, I haven’t really had a chance to get to know the students except through their questions at the end of the lecture, which are always thoughtful. But I imagine the Osher students might have a lot in common with the students I taught in prison, in that they’re both interested in learning for its own sake—not for grades or points or because the courses are required. Most of the men I taught at Jessup had life sentences and no chance of ever being released. In those conditions, you’re reading and studying literature because you want to make your life right or more interesting and rewarding, not as instrumental means to an end. MICA students are visual thinkers, and they’ve made me incorporate visual elements into all my teaching. In my Poe course, we’re looking at illustrations to the stories, as well as the stories themselves.
Aside from writing and teaching, what hobbies and interests do you have?
My writing involves a lot of research, investigation and interviewing, which takes up a lot of my time. What else? I play the piano. I work at a clinic a couple of evenings a week. And we have a 10-month-old puppy who is taking up a lot of my time and energy at the moment. He’s ¾ French bulldog and ¼ Shih Tzu, so we call him a Bullshitz.
Our day to day is filled with stress, strife, uncertainty. What literary works have you turned to during this time? Have any provided insight on the issues we are currently facing?
The great thing about literature is that it reminds us that our particular circumstances are nothing new. Everything’s happened before, in one form or another, and whatever we’re going through, others have been though things that are much worse. It’s also great at taking us out of our current predicament and taking us to other times and places. Currently I’m reading the Penguin translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Each of the seven volumes has a different translator. It’s deeply absorbing.