10 Books On Ecstatically Mad Women
Jessie Chaffee Reads Deeply into Emptiness, Fear, Desire, and Elation
When I was 22, I developed an eating disorder, an experience equal parts horror and euphoria that took me outside of myself, turning me into someone I wasn’t, or perhaps revealing a part of me that had always been there. Intellectually, I recognized that I was negating, erasing, and isolating myself. But my emotional experience was not one of loneliness or loss. On the contrary, I often felt painfully clear, high, satiated, connected to something more than myself. I felt ecstatic.
By the time I sought help, I was whittled down, haunted, and searching for a way to describe those months when I had disappeared from my life. I had always identified as a writer, but anorexia stripped me of words, alienating me from the world as I previously understood it and from the language I used to give shape to that world. In its wake, I was searching for a new language, one that, as a lifelong reader, I hadn’t yet witnessed in literature.
And then a close friend handed me a copy of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Like many people, I had read Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Bertha (aka, “the madwoman in the attic”), but this novel, published decades earlier, was different. It was unlike anything I’d ever read in its depiction of a woman who is losing herself to the seduction of alcoholism, the ghosts of her past, and the increasingly self-destructive decisions she makes as she tries to survive both. What was new was not the content but the telling. Rhys collapses the distance between the reader and her protagonist. We don’t witness Sasha’s descent; we live it. We feel the too-small dirty hotel room, the jeers and stares of strangers who may or may not actually be there, the grief and weight of memory. And we feel the messy intermingling of emptiness, fear, desire, and elation as reality unravels, and language with it, along the beautiful and horrific knife-edge of addiction.
Good Morning, Midnight gave me not only a mirror for my own experience, but it altered completely the type of work I wanted to produce as a writer. I consumed the slim, used paperback in a single sitting—and consumed is the right word, as it nourished me, became a part of me, and then left me hungry for more writing like it. From Rhys, it was not a far leap to Marguerite Duras and then Elena Ferrante and Claire Messud, all women who write about women on the fringes grappling with the most foundational questions of meaning and identity. These writers deal in contradictions, in the seductive gray areas where the high lives, in the things that might destroy us but that we nevertheless pursue. Their protagonists are complicated, flawed, brilliant, extreme, and, quite often, ecstatic.
I began writing my novel out of a desire to be in conversation with those writers, and to give language, through fiction, to an experience that had left me mute. In the writing I realized that there was another group of women writers whose stories I needed to read—the Catholic mystical saints, women who claimed a direct relationship to God through their ecstatic visions, and who recorded those visions in fiery and sensual language. Their vitae read like the ancestors of Rhys and Ferrante. Their ecstasies were not always celebrated—they were also used as evidence that they were possessed, deceitful, or calculating in their ambition. But like the protagonists of their contemporary counterparts, the saints’ telling leaves no room for doubts as we live the experiences with them.
Below are my favorite works about ecstatic women brought to life by my favorite women writers. These narratives don’t grant us the safety of distance or room for judgment, but place us within the protagonists’ realities, daring us to feel what they feel, and suggesting that if ecstasy is madness, then we the readers are mad too.
Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
An engrossing depiction of addiction, alienation, and a woman’s ecstatic ascent/descent into alcoholism:
And did I mind? Not at all, not at all. If you think I minded, then you’ve never lived like that, plunged in a dream, when all the faces are masks and only the trees are alive and you can almost see the strings that are pulling the puppets.
Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, tr. Richard Seaver
The voyeuristic Lol Stein blurs the line between witness and participant, and past and present, when she reenacts an old trauma in Duras’s dizzying psychological story:
Lol dreams of another time when the same thing that is going to happen would happen differently. In another way. A thousand times. Everywhere. Elsewhere. Among others, thousands of others who, like ourselves, dream of this time, necessarily.
Ananda Devi, Eve Out of Her Ruins, tr. Jeffery Zuckerman
Eve, one of four teen narrators living on the margins in Mauritius, battles to reinhabit her body and take hold of her destiny in the wake of the trauma and abuse:
When I saw myself in the mirror, I saw that I had a lioness’s head. I had a mane of hunger. I walk, even if I’d rather run toward myself. The night quivers. The city trembles. I have gone. Nothing can stop me now.
Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, tr. Ann Goldstein
Written before the uber-popular Neopolitan novels, this slim, visceral work follows a woman’s violent struggle to make meaning in the chaos and isolation that follows the dissolution of her marriage:
I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole and whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through the fire and is not burned.
Tracy O’Neill, The Hopeful
In O’Neill’s powerful reflection on ambition and addiction, figure skating prodigy Alivopro Doyle finds transcendence on the ice and risks everything to hold on to the high:
They don’t know how I imagined windmills and flying over ice, rising and turning and falling with love, skating circles that said to life: again! Again! Again!
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
Winterson explores passion as the insatiable, expansive, and obsessive space that the infatuated Villanelle describes as existing “between fear and sex”:
With this feeling inside, with this wild love that threatens, what safe places might there be? . . . If I were a little different I might turn passion into something holy and then I would sleep again. And then my extasy would be my extasy but I would not be afraid.
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
A unflinching, interior portrait of a self-described “straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl” whose infatuation with the family of one of her students inspires both self-transformation and intense rage:
But to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive. No longer young, no longer pretty, no longer loved, or sweet, or lovable, unmasked, writhing on the ground for all to see in my utter ingloriousness, there’s no telling what I might do.
Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine
The women who populate Bomer’s fierce short story collection negotiate ecstasy and isolation in their relationships with their bodies and their desires: “What can I say? Self-control doesn’t begin to describe my power.”
Marie NDiaye, Self-Portrait in Green, tr. Jordan Stump
NDiaye constructs her multilayered, fragmented memoir from a series of intense encounters with mysterious “green women”—family, friends, strangers, ghosts—capturing the complex roots, obsessions, seductions, and revelations that form the self.
Then I said to myself: that woman in green has always been there. She’s there every morning and every afternoon, beneath that banana tree, and she watches us creep past her house, and she sees me looking at her without seeing her.
Angelina of Foligno, Angela of Foligno: Complete Works
One of the original ecstatics, the Italian saint’s accounts of her corporeal, feverish visions convey the insatiability of spiritual longing, and the complex relationship between desire and pain:
When the soul feels the heat of divine love, it cries out and moans. It is like a stone flung in the forge to melt into lime; it crackles when it is licked by the flames, but after it is baked makes not a sound.