My little yellow pill: How women writers changed the perception of mental health issues

The ‘mad woman’ stayed locked up in the attic till writers, especially women writers, started fearlessly tackling the demons in their works

November 09, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Hello sadness: Edward Hopper’s 1952 oil, ‘Morning Sun’.

Hello sadness: Edward Hopper’s 1952 oil, ‘Morning Sun’.

Literature has always had a special place in its heart for madness, otherwise shunned as the very antithesis to reason and enlightenment, mocked at by society, ostracised by religion as demonic possession or, equally dangerous, a manifestation of the divine. Insanity flourishes in Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kafka’s Metamorphosis , to cite just a few. While the bulk of the novels dealing with mental health has been written by men, women too have been authoring them. Their voices are all the more urgent as medicine and psychiatry, especially in the formative years, were used as tools to suppress them.

In her poem, ‘The Spleen’ (1709), English poet and countess Anne Finch explores hysteria, one of the oldest ‘female’ maladies. It had many names — melancholy, vapours, or simply, the spleen. The ancient Greeks believed that hysteria or excessive emotions in women was caused by a wandering uterus — its name derives from the Greek word, ‘hysterika’, meaning uterus.

In the human rat-trap

The theory of the wandering womb was discarded as knowledge of anatomy improved, but hysteria remained boxed as primarily a woman’s affliction. Symptoms included headaches, trembling and fits. By the time Finch penned ‘The Spleen’, the focus of the cause had shifted to the brain. She writes: “In the Imperious Wife thou Vapours art/ Which from o’er-heated Passions rise/ In Clouds to the attractive Brain.” It was only in the 1880s that French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot proposed that hysteria was caused by an injury to the nervous system.

While Charcot was laying the foundation of modern psychiatry, the turn of the 19th century saw the establishment and subsequent proliferation of asylums in Europe and later in the U.S. In 1887, a young American journalist, Nellie Bly, went undercover for a newspaper to report on a government-run women’s lunatic asylum on Backwell’s Island in New York. Her reports, collated in the novel, Ten Days in a Mad-House, is a chilling record of the inhuman treatment meted out to inmates. In the “human rat-trap,” they were given ice baths, forced to eat stale food, beaten, put to work.

Bly writes: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? I would like the expert physicians... to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A.M. until 8 P.M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane.” Bly’s reports resulted in a judicial inquiry.

Stooping, creeping

One fictional woman remains a potent symbol of madness: Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s first wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), locked up in the attic by her husband as he courts a timid governess. Jane, herself labelled wicked and wayward all her life, describes her rival thus: “What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.” It was more than a century later that Caribbean writer Jean Rhys humanised Bertha Mason from an ‘it’ in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

Bertha wasn’t the only fictional character to be locked up in the attic. The unnamed female protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) is confined to a room covered in yellow wallpaper. Her husband John, a physician, believes that his wife, who recently gave birth, is suffering from nothing but a temporary nervous depression. So she is prescribed rest cure, a treatment developed in the 1870s by American physician Silas Weir Mitchell for hysteria. The wife is not allowed to work or exert herself or write. She has to rest and eat. She tries to rebel under this genteel confinement; the yellow wallpaper, a symbol of patriarchal confinement, dominates her thoughts.

She becomes obsessed with it, and discerns a woman, “stooping down and creeping”, imprisoned in the pattern. She finally tears the paper with her hands and teeth in a frenzied determination to free the trapped women. She crawls on the floor like Bertha Mason.

Waters of annihilation

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a sharp indictment of the mental health treatment prescribed at the time. Nearly half a century later, British novelist Virginia Woolf, who battled mental illness all her life, and who couldn’t bear the thought of being subjected to yet another round of rest cure, drowned herself in the River Ouse. Woolf’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, which she described as experiencing “non-being”, is inextricably linked to her fiction.

In an essay titled ‘On Being Ill’, Woolf, who suffered multiple breakdowns, uses the metaphor of “ancient and obdurate oaks” that are uprooted in the act of sickness, and speaks of how one feels the “waters of annihilation” close above one’s head.

Woolf’s critical view of doctors plays out in Mrs. Dalloway in the figure of Septimus Smith, a WWI veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, who ends his life. When Mrs. Dalloway, who does not know him, learns of his death, she “felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away”.

Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf, met a very ill Sigmund Freud in London in 1939. He had fled from Vienna during the Holocaust and was suffering from an operable cancer of the jaw. Freud had studied under Charcot and co-authored Studies on Hysteria (1895) with Josef Breuer. Here, he proposed that the symptoms of the illness were the result of deeply repressed conflicts, often sexual. By 1914, he had developed psychoanalysis, which studied the interaction of the conscious with the unconscious mind.

When WWI saw soldiers return home with symptoms of hysteria, people were reluctant to call it that because of its association with women. The soldiers were diagnosed with shell shock or war neurosis. The two World Wars marked a shift in the way mental illness was viewed culturally: for the first time, people had to recognise the reality of what we now know as PTSD.

Antiseptic tunnel

And across the Atlantic, American author F. Scott Fitzgerald gave madness a distinctive modern feel in the novel, Tender is the Night (1934), which explores the relationship between a young psychiatrist, Dick, and a patient, Nicole, whom he eventually marries. Their marriage dissolves soon, and Dick spirals into alcoholism and self-loathing. The fictional relationship mirrors Fitzgerald’s turbulent marriage to the novelist, socialite and 1920s’ icon, Zelda, who suffered from a debilitating mental illness, and was in and out of asylums. Zelda died in 1948 in a fire at a hospital, where, according to her biographer, she was locked in a room in preparation for electroshock therapy.

The post-WWII decades saw a counter-culture taking root in the U.S., as writers, musicians, artists and poets rejected the promise of the American Dream. The late 1950s gave rise to ‘confessional’ poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton who addressed mental health and emotional upheavals in verse. In ‘You, Doctor Martin’, Sexton’s narrator is locked in an asylum, where the doctor is god. It opens: “You, Doctor Martin, walk/ from breakfast to madness. Late August,/ I speed through the antiseptic tunnel/ where the moving dead still talk/ of pushing their bones against the thrust/ of cure.”

Plath’s poems bear witness to her despair and the violence of her emotions as her marriage to Ted Hughes fell apart. In 1963, she published the semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, whose protagonist Esther Greenwood is struggling under the constraints of society. The novel ends on a hopeful note, and that’s where it diverges from Plath’s reality. One month after its publication, Plath stuck her head in an oven while her children slept. She was 30.

By this time, the mental health landscape had undergone a sea change from the days of hysteria. Drugs like thorazine and valium became so popular that the Rolling Stones devoted a song to them, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’: “Mother needs something today to calm her down, And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill.”

The mad woman may no longer be confined to the attic, but the stigma associated with mental illness remains. In her debut novel, Freshwater (2018), Tamil-Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi draws from her own experiences to give voice to Ada, a young woman coping with her many fractured selves. Like a Greek chorus, the spirits in her head intone: “Think of brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed as you grew into taller, more sinful versions of yourself, but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver.”

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