Teaching the Literature of Mad Women
On Gendered Notions of Mental Illness, and Who "Deserves" to Be Depressed
We narrate our lives in terms of time—how long something lasted, when something began or ended. In doing so, we downplay the importance of place and position—the spaces where things occur, the spaces we are expected to fill, the spaces we are denied. The space of my life changes when I move to the Great Plains, for though Nebraska is wide and open, the margins of my life narrow, the walls of what is considered sane pressing in on me until I see myself as bulky, clumsy, on display. I spend more time in my new home, trapped in solipsistic contemplation of each pain and ache, space becoming so tiny I forget how good using the body can feel, forget the way I used to run or sprawl out. I am too busy trying to disappear.
When you are anxious you are confined to the space illness allows. The occupation is suffocating. Anxiety is compressed, dense, and claustrophobic, a million things packed in a tight mind. And it reduced even further on the Great Plains, the looming expanse pressing down on anxiety’s frantic nature until it reverberates. The first women settlers here went mad: lured by the promise of a lush utopia, they arrived to find isolation, barren earth whipped away by merciless wind.
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath describes the space of Ester’s depression as “very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” If depression is the eye of a tornado, anxiety is where the storm tethers down, a fear funneling up and out for miles, growing wild and frenzied overhead.
Several years after I arrive in Nebraska, I teach The Bell Jar in a women’s literature class for college juniors and seniors who are surprised to hear about the history of women’s madness.
“I designed this course around the long-standing notion that women are ‘mad,’” I begin carefully on the first day, worried my students will know I’ve planned the course because I have a personal interest in the subject, have had anxiety several years by now. I continue, “Because a student last semester came to my office to talk about a paper and while doing so told me, ‘All women are a little crazy,’ and I wanted to explore that common misconception.”“Now, with a decade of teaching and anxiety under my waist-cinching belt, I recognize that I was not angry and afraid because of my madness. It was because of my gender.”
(I don’t say anything more about the student, that his fiancé had recently left him and he called her “that bitch” and “that slut” when he talked with his classmates, or that he wrote war stories with all-male casts and enough explosives to blow up whatever was haunting him from his own military experience, or that he wrote opinion pieces for the university’s newspaper about the danger of feminism and why women shouldn’t be allowed to wear leggings. I didn’t say that he stretched his legs wide in my office and said he rarely takes classes from women “because they’re all a little crazy.” Or that I chose silence, smiling because I knew what would happen if I did anything else.
Resist, talk back and face male anger, incredulity. Couch your opposition and face the same. Give an unexpected grade—a D, a C, a B, the letter doesn’t matter—and be asked to explain yourself. Hear students say, “Everything Is an Argument isn’t a book title—it’s my ex-wife” or “The girls in my group were bossy, that’s why I couldn’t help.” Overhear a student say, “She wishes I raped her.” Have male students shout at you, stand over you and point their fingers in your face, refuse to leave your office until the male professor next door intervenes. Have students write papers defending the multiple rape allegations against their fraternity house or about why the U.S. women’s soccer team shouldn’t be paid as much as the men’s because “women’s muscles, like their brains, are smaller,” or about how women wouldn’t get raped so much if they would date nice guys. Have students write, “I didn’t really care about the course material, but she’s hot” on your course evaluations. The first class you taught? The first assignment? A student wrote a paper detailing why you should date him, then crossed his arms and argued at the back of the class for the rest of the semester when you ignored him. He took a class with you the following semester.
When the student looked me in the eye and said all women were crazy, I felt angry. Then the anger turned to fear. I blamed anxiety for making me too weak to prevent this, for being too afraid to react after it occurred. Anxiety, I’d been told time and again, made me irrational and emotional. It’s all in your head. Now, with a decade of teaching and anxiety under my waist-cinching belt, I recognize that I was not angry and afraid because of my madness. It was because of my gender.)
I watch students that semester—mostly women—applaud writers like Virginia Woolf, whose “Angel in the House” they compare to their mothers and grandmothers and times long before their own. They are sympathetic to Pecola, the little black girl who descends into madness after being raped by her father and blamed by her town in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. They repeat, “Your silence will not protect you,” after Audre Lorde. They ask how they can “Dive Into Wreck” like Adrienne Rich. We read Jennifer Finney Boylan and other trans writers, and when we watch Boys Don’t Cry and they learn Brandon Teena was murdered not far from our Nebraska city, they organize a campus film night. They tackle complex texts, hold one another accountable. They are kind to themselves and other women.
But in The Bell Jar Ester Greenwood is privileged, they insist, lives a glamorous lifestyle and is therefore undeserving of the tornado around her. And Edna, the protagonist from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, is crazy. Really crazy. She’s wealthy, she’s white, she’s suffered no abuse. She may be unhappy with the gender roles available to her, but the students question Edna’s decision to commit suicide, find it an act of selfishness or cowardice, the ultimate seal of insanity. They feel sorry for the narrator from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but refer to Gilman as “crazy” all semester even though I assure them the work is fiction and Gilman never hallucinated to the extent her narrator does.
Similarly, they do not sympathize with Marya Hornbacher’s book Wasted, which details her experiences with anorexia, bulimia, and bipolar disorder. They dislike Elizabeth Wurtzel intensely when they read Prozac Nation, which chronicles her depression in high school and college with a ferocity for which many students are unprepared. They accuse her of being too angry, are frustrated that she “relapses” so many times and can’t “get it together.” They ask, “How can she be so depressed when nothing bad ever happened to her?” Writers accepted to prestigious universities, earning simultaneous A’s and asylum stays have no reason to suffer.
My students believe that Hornbacher and Wurtzel, middle-class white women who published books in their twenties, did not suffer enough to warrant illness, are too successful to be mentally ill. They champion a cause-and-effect version of mental illness wherein something terrible—trauma, physical and sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, extreme poverty, the curse of genetics—leads to madness. I wonder if this is a way to protect themselves—the majority of my students are not unlike the women they critique. They do like the 2001 movie adaptation of Prozac Nation, however, which stars the beautifully tragic Christina Ricci. Ricci is dark and artsy, her bitterness contrasted by her porcelain skin and sad eyes, and students find the film gritty, the kind of film with raw images and an indie soundtrack that leaves viewers tastefully angsty by the final credits. They don’t like Wurtzel, but they do like Hollywood, and this film, they insist, redeems the book.
Before and after class I hear female students say, “The guy on the third floor won’t leave me alone” or “We have to go dancing in a group” or “My friend was raped over the weekend.” Some bring their younger siblings to class when the elementary schools are closed, or take time off to care for ailing parents, or use their allotted absences to have the baby they’ve been hiding all semester. Some cry in my office or the hallway before class because they’ve been raped and want to apologize if they seem “out of sorts.” I read their papers about depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, but most are too afraid to voice their experiences in class.
Women’s silence is learned. Since childhood I’ve been taught that working-class women—women like my grandmothers, my mother, me—need to be tough and resilient. There is no time, no space for weakness, for emotion, for the indulgence of madness.
My father’s mother, Ginny, was only five-foot-one, but as the oldest of seven Oklahoma children, born when her mother was 15, she had to help raise her siblings, even helped to raise her mama, some said, the two more like sisters than anything. I picture her, tiny thing struggling to balance babies that aren’t even hers on her hips, watching funnels form in the panhandle.
By the time Ginny married my grandfather, six-foot-nine with an even larger temper, she was already adept at making do, and took in laundry to help with the expense of raising their four boys. If she felt any regret over her marriage, any postpartum grief after one of her twin sons died in infancy, she never showed it, set her mouth in a flat line like the horizon she’d grown up with and her gaze on the laundry as her sons tumbled around the house and her stormy husband raged. She smoothed wrinkles and made clean folds for years as they fought, swallowing down the bitterness of her life until one day she found a lump, a hard mound the size of a cantaloupe in her stomach.
Ginny never spoke of the mass. She said talking about it gave it power, made it prophecy. When she finally went to the doctor he named what she’d feared, and while diagnosis is not what killed her body, the stigma killed her spirit, made her so afraid that for once she shrunk to her size, seemed so unlike the sharp-tongued woman whose stories made her larger and stronger for much of her life, words bone-sharp and raging from a ragged jaw on a sagged porch.“Since childhood I’ve been taught that working-class women—women like my grandmothers, my mother, me—need to be tough and resilient.”
My great aunts, her sisters, are much the same: Oklahoma women patched in scraps, yellow calloused fingers dangling chained cigarettes, spirals whipping quick-time around their tornado mouths on slow afternoons. They speak of broken bikes, dirty dogs, rusted cans. They are worn down from a man, or another baby, or a small town. They grimace when they down hot beer, hips cocked, eyes squinting at the sun. They shoo away flies crowded around their sweaty faces, spit out words like clotted blood or something on fire. Like gunmetal. These are the women I come from.
My mother’s mother, Glenna, was fierce as well, though I called her Poopsie, a soft, doting name. Hers is a story of turmoil, of violence—if anyone earned madness, she did, but she shrugged away antidepressants in old age, chaotic fears and feelings routine by then. Married to an alcoholic for over fifty years, she laughed when they danced and flinched when he raised a voice or a hand. She never spoke of this to me—the grandfather I knew slipped me secret butterscotch candies—so I learned of his whiskey temper only after he died, always in whispered flashes, fragments rather than in full. Learning the truth explained why she seemed so happy after his death. As a child, I thought my grandmother was relieved not to have to care for my grandfather any longer—helping his heavy body into a wheelchair, wiping food from his mouth, cleaning up his incontinence for six years after his stroke—but now I think the reason she whistled with the radio and delighted in sweets, her once-lithe body growing plump, was because she was finally free.
Poopsie showed little hurt or fear for herself, but worried endlessly over her children and grandchildren. She warned me against the unpredictability of men when I went away to college, and scolded me when I called, asking how late I walked around campus at night, why I wanted to move to a dangerous city for graduate school. Because I did not yet know about my grandfather or what the world could do to a woman, I thought her paranoid. Anxious.
Poopsie’s death was slow and painful. She endured until she didn’t. When doctors found lung cancer, my grandmother, a smoker for over 70 years, never asked for another cigarette, her only vice besides my grandfather. The cancer disappeared with radiation and medication, and though the tissue-thin skin on her arms was marbled black from blood draws and IVs, my grandmother never admitted pain, only said her feet were cold every once in a while or complained she’d broken a nail too short. One night she pulled on her housecoat and slippers before she dialed 911 and collapsed to the floor because she refused to bother my parents, who lived a half-mile away. She died for a moment and was revived, spending a long final week in the hospital, shooing us all away with manicured fingers, her hands tied down to keep her from removing the breathing tube. Spare the children, keep it inside. She taught this to my mother, who taught it to me.
My mother rarely shows pain, despite limping when she walks, one leg shorter than the other, her six-foot-one frame tilted, her feet marked with arthritis and bone spurs, structures that make visible how she hurts. Her fingers quilt scraps into something beautiful despite being stiff with arthritis. She aches and hurts—this I know from the expression she makes when she bends to pick up a child, thinking no one sees her wince, or the way she sighs alone as she makes dinner after a 12-hour workday. Pain is not an option for my mother, nor is illness—my mother does not take sick days, even when she is feverish or throwing up. She recently put off surgery to replace a torn rotator cuff for over a year, learning to pick her daycare children up with one arm. “I don’t want to let the parents down,” she says when I plead with her to get some rest. Pain is not an option for my mother, who rarely speaks about her violent childhood or the violence that shadows the lives of her children.“This is the legacy of women I come from—a legacy tied to gender, to class, to male violence and the threat thereof, poor women with too many children and not enough food and too much hurting and hating, women too afraid to say anything of their pain or their terror.”
When I look at my mother, I see her age, her strain, and her worry written in the lines on her face. My mother does not go to the doctor for illness or prevention. Like many working-class families, we’ve never had much for health insurance. The only prescription I’ve known her to take is Celexa, which she has taken in secret each day for years. Silence, like madness, runs rampant in our family.
This is the legacy of women I come from—a legacy tied to gender, to class, to male violence and the threat thereof, poor women with too many children and not enough food and too much hurting and hating, women too afraid to say anything of their pain or their terror. Women so worried, so afraid, their bodies and minds react. Women bound by silence not to speak of the things that dart around their brains late at night, instead letting them settle in dark corners, where they lurk for a lifetime.
I think about carrying on and keeping quiet in my new home. I know I have burdened my family with my illness for over half a year. Here I will be different. Here I will burden only myself. Swallow it down. Spare the children. I think about carrying on and keeping quiet as I set up house in Nebraska and prepare to begin my new degree and new teaching job, a life so unlike those of manual labor the women I come from live. Over the last few months, Celexa has eased my shaking hands and loosened the tangle in my throat, but I still see disaster, fear apocalypse. I still carry the bottle of Xanax with me like a nervous housewife.
And I act the role: I fret over my new home. I purchase dozens of paint samples for each room, painting patches of color on the walls, moving from angle to angle as I try to decide which version of off-white makes the bedroom look most peaceful. I worry I will choose wrong. I worry I’m taking too long to decide. Then I worry about worrying. Something scurries across my sight. I swallow seawater and blood. The world vibrates painfully around me.
I must carry on. I must keep quiet. I put up curtain rods and ironed curtains. I buy new linens for the bed, for the bathrooms. I hang and rehang paintings. I buy a dozen potted plants, organize the kitchen, the bookshelves. I make pitchers of fresh sun tea each day, cook dinner each night. I work so intensely to make this space one that is bearable that I make myself sick. It is still summer, but when school begins in the fall I’ll do the same. In Nebraska I am a Celexa doll: I wind myself up. I smile.
From Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir. Used with permission of the Ohio State University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Fawn Montgomery.