February 11, 2013
You’ll Love Her! She’s Crazy!
Posted by Sarah Manguso
I’m told that one of my grandmothers suffered from what must have been postpartum depression. She was prescribed Miltowns in the forties, and hid an opiate addiction for more than fifty years. On the same branch of my family tree is an aunt who ended her life. Everyone who would know the details of either story is dead.
Many somber words have been intoned about the taboo surrounding mental illness, recently and notably by former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy this past January, soon after the shootings in Newtown. “If we’re going to get rid of the stigma—one of the great civil-rights challenges of our time—we need more discussion in the real world, and less shame by those suffering with mental illness, or the loved ones around them,” he wrote, in an essay published by The Daily Beast.
Until recently in human history, mental illness was indeed a stigma, discussed in whispers with the vocabulary of shame. To varying degrees, however, these whispers have always been accompanied confidently by the vocabulary of pride.
In her 1978 essay “Illness As Metaphor,” Susan Sontag wrote about the received ideas that surrounded tuberculosis in the nineteenth century, and cancer in the twentieth. The tubercular character was vaunted as “sensitive, creative, a being apart.” She added, “In the twentieth century, the repellent, harrowing disease that is made the index of a superior sensitivity, the vehicle of ‘spiritual’ feelings and ‘critical’ discontent, is insanity.”
Indeed, wherever I go in the twenty-first century, people are proudly mentally ill, and conversations about mental illness invoke the idea of specialness and the stereotypical mad genius. Contemporary scripted TV advertises the benefits of disordered thought, perception, and behavior, from the associative manias of the bipolar C.I.A. officer Carrie Mathison on “Homeland” to the precise memory of the phobic, obsessive-compulsive private detective on the eponymous “Monk.” Unusual brains are shown to correlate with creative intelligence and exceptional cognitive sensitivity. Stereotypes of shameful weakness come far behind, if at all.
Most educated people can name half a dozen poets who are more famous for their messy lives and deaths than for their poems. The short lives of Shelley and Byron comprised several suicidal lovers and a half-dozen unfortunate children, all adopted or dead by age five. Deaf, miserable Beethoven; van Gogh and his severed ear; Hemingway and his shotgun; Poe in his gutter; Woolf in her heavy raincoat. The narratives endure because they align with the popular understanding of what it is to be an artist.
* * *
Sylvia Plath, who died fifty years ago today, attended my high school, Gamaliel Bradford Senior High, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She graduated in 1950, and when I graduated in 1992 she was still the most famous person ever to have gone there. Her long shadow remained, decades after her death, and the writing prize was named for her.
She’d sat in the back right-hand corner of Room 200, the room where Wilbury Crockett had taught his English courses. We all knew it. I often ate lunch by myself, in Sylvia’s seat, when the room was empty—not because it was her seat but because it was the seat furthest from the door. I never read her poems. I didn’t like the idea of poetry. I liked the idea of long books that were impossible to understand, and I read Pynchon’s novels laboriously, consulting multiple reference books as I inched down the dense pages. Plath had been dead longer than I’d been alive, but we didn’t count the years. She was ageless and occupied all history.
Mr. Crockett, a legendary teacher whose written comments on Plath’s poems allegedly first encouraged her to become a poet, retired when I was in kindergarten, but when he was seventy-eight he visited my eleventh-grade English class. Our English teacher had prepared us to receive his great wisdom. Most important of all, she reminded us that he had been the teacher of Sylvia Plath.
What never seemed strange to me until much later is that Plath’s poems weren’t taught to us in high school; only her suicide was taught to us. A lady, who had lived on Elmwood Road, across the street from my elementary school, had become a poet and become inconsolable and stuck her head in an oven. The books we were assigned to read for our English classes were tedious novels about boarding school and dated plays about the American Dream. Our frowsy English teacher who had invited Crockett to speak assigned each of us to read a different Dylan Thomas poem, and we each presented our poem to the class, and that was it for our education in poetry.
A minute into Crockett’s presentation, a straight-A student made a sound. Did he mutter something? Whatever Crockett thought he’d heard, it lit a fuse. We sat silent while the great man raged. In our shame we knew Crockett had chosen the wrong boy to castigate—he was humorless and inoffensive. That the boy would have insulted an honored visitor is unimaginable. Crockett screamed that we had rejected a great gift, and that we were worthless. Worthless! He strode out of the room. Two years later, he died, and our sparse little school library was named in his honor.
* * *
Despite having begun college determined to become a physician, I failed Chem 10 and, after a cascade of results, went to writing school instead. My first poetry collection was published modestly by a small press when I was twenty-seven. A few poems found their way into anthologies. I worked part-time as a copy editor and ate a lot of oatmeal.
After my book came out, my former college boyfriend said, “At least you can go nuts, now that you’ve become a real writer.” Like every recent college graduate I knew, bringing up the rear of Generation X, he yearned to check out and waste some serious time. Despite his classics degree he’d become a management consultant, though, and, as such, he simply couldn’t find his way into the seemingly exclusive and glamorous milieu of mental illness. Was he depressed? Perhaps, but he couldn’t conceive of it as a possibility—not because of the taboo but because he didn’t believe he’d fulfilled the prerequisites. Management consultants drank. They didn’t take antidepressants. They weren’t interesting enough to go nuts. Going nuts was a point of pride. You had to train for it.
One of my graduate-school colleagues used to boast about his antidepressant prescription. “I’m crazy!” he’d squeak at parties. A little depression? It probably was the most interesting thing about him. Fifteen years later, he publishes workmanlike best-sellers. Several of the poets with whom I went to school, clinging to modest functional abilities, are too mentally ill even to know they could be boasting about being mentally ill. You will never hear of them.
Shortly after I earned my degree, caught in a constellation of simultaneous disappointments, I found myself in a locked psychiatric ward. One of the social workers spoke excitedly about the therapist he wanted me to see after I was released: “You’ll love her! She’s crazy, just absolutely crazy!”
I remember responding to the social worker as coolly as I could while pushing down hard on a weeping rage: “I’m not sure we share the same tastes.” “What do you mean?” he asked in his best therapist’s voice, his little eyes open wide to indicate he cared. I tried to explain why standing around in a circle holding hands and talking about my feelings made me want to hang myself. Squinting, as if calling out from a high pulpit, he said, “Standing around in a circle holding hands is my favorite thing to do.”
Treating mental illness is an economic, and therefore practical, problem. But more fundamentally it is a problem of rhetoric and therefore also an abstract one. Before we can address it, we must speak about it, and the vocabulary we use is highly polarized. On one hand, the sufferer is responsible for getting over the shameful condition; on the other, the sufferer is a mad genius whose quirks and foibles demand respect. Seldom is mental illness just illness.
In order to develop workable policy serving those functionally impaired by mental illness, we need to learn to talk about it without recourse to the broad brushes of its existing metaphors. What if we could imagine a mentally ill person as neither a potentially violent simpleton nor a mad genius but simply a person with an illness that might be diagnosed, treated, even cured?
I expect that history might solve the problem all by itself, now that the very condition of illness has moved from a strictly medical milieu to a capitalist one. As far as the drug companies care, mental illnesses provide just another opportunity to sell pills to impressionable consumers. When I visit my psychiatrist, more often than not there sits a smartly suited young person with a full briefcase. Sometimes it is a man, sometimes a woman, but the suit is always navy blue. The person does not look tempted to sit upon the lap of the enormous stuffed bear I call Flat-Bear, who sits in the corner, against the wall, his lap increasingly grubby and compressed. The person enters and leaves the doctor’s office briskly, in a few minutes. On my bad days, I am sure I would buy whatever he is selling, and that psychotropic medications will become the twenty-first century’s bottled shampoo.
That the medical establishment is in league with the pharmaceutical companies seems inevitable and in fact has been widely observed. It seems dubious that the language of commerce could be a positive influence, but brisk business feels like progress beyond the language of myth.
And, even without the help of commerce, time wears away at myth and everything else. Plath’s suicide at thirty, after publishing just one volume of poems, invited the stereotype of the mad poetess, the wife betrayed; it was impossible to read the posthumous publications without considering the biography. But in the fifty years since her death the myth has dimmed; the work endures.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment.
Though the facts of her life won’t soon fade from historical memory, Plath is now, at least, more poet than suicide.
Sarah Manguso is the author of five books, most recently “The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend,” which will be published in paperback next month.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/02/youll-love-her-shes-crazy.html#ixzz2KhNvgmpu