“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”
At book club a few weeks ago, I admitted to wanting to be friends with Zelda Fitzgerald. The
way Therese Anne Fowler portrays her in the novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, still deeply intrigues me.
My friends at book club that night weren’t so sure they would want her in their posse, but I remain convinced that she would enjoy my company. Perhaps part of this is because by the end of the novel, my empathy for her circumstances exceeded my judgment of her sanity.
She was a talented dancer who was forbidden to dance. She was married to a husband who refused to acknowledge her artistic gifts. She was mother to a child she wasn’t really permitted to mother. All this made me think she just needed a friend.
After I closed the pages of that novel, I almost immediately opened up the The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Something told me I could connect to Zelda’s literary spirit through reading Plath. I wasn’t wrong. Esther Greenwood, much like Zelda, is smart, talented, and introspective. Oh, and did I mention they both read? Anyway, it was toward the end of Plath’s book when I realized how common the thoughts are of women who are traditionally considered mad. Forgive me if I’m not suppose to admit that.
You see, women inevitably feel like they are competing with each other. At book club a couple years back, conversation turned honest and raw the way it tends to do when discussing Dostoevsky and eating Borsch. I think I asked if the rest of the women there consider themselves introverts. It was an educated guess, but I was open to whatever these women wanted to admit.
A conversation about introversion quickly evolved into a gender discussion. One friend said she rarely hangs out with other women because she finds they can be caddy. Simply put, it’s not safe. There is no surprise there. Most women know exactly what she’s talking about.
But it was the insightful response of another friend that struck me in that moment and stays with me to this day. She said, “I used to feel the same way about women until I realized one thing: it’s not a competition.” She went on to explain that when she realized that, she stopped trying to compete with other women and chose to lift them up instead.
Now that is a huge turning point. That one little nugget of wisdom could change the world.
It’s so interesting to think about how much of our experiences as women is shared. It was apparent at book club that night a couple years ago and is the most striking part about reading novels that are traditionally assigned to the genre of Women and Madness in literature.
What is mad about these women? Aside from the suicides they attempt because they can no longer navigate their own thoughts, they are not that different from you and I. Have you ever thought about something that might happen so often you can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction? Have you ever been so jealous it alters the way you treat your loved one and makes you question your self worth? Have you ever confided your deepest and darkest thoughts to a friend who turned around and judged you? Have you ever been rejected and felt unworthy of someone’s love? Have you ever just wanted to feel like you matter to someone?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, let me ask one more: what, then, is the difference between you, me, and the women in these books? I can’t be the only one who has a hard time understanding madness. Yet I’ve always been fascinated by representations of it.
We are finally in an age that celebrates transparency and honesty over polite society. The transparency these women wrote with electrified culture. Even so, these women writing in the first half of the 20th century seem pretty tame compared to the Kardashians. With everyone admitting their faults and celebrating transparency, why are we trying to act better than anyone else? It’s very possible that the Kardashians are so popular because they make their madness so relatable.
At that same book club for Z a few weeks back, we started talking about what might have functioned as triggers for Zelda. In other words, what might have been her breaking point? Someone thought it was a combination of her giving birth to Scottie and missing out on the exciting social scene she had grown so fond of. Perhaps it was the abortion that she induced a few months after Scottie’s birth? Or a little of both? Or neither?
I can’t help but think about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, too. This short story could easily be taught as a precursor to Plath’s A Bell Jar, and the similarities to Zelda are front and center. In Gilman’s work, you read another account of a woman forced to repress talent for writing, assigned the “rest cure,” and who also has an infant child.
In Plath, you don’t have the traditional fight against domesticity, but you do see her questioning gender roles. Plath’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, does share one symptom with Zelda and Gilman’s narrator and that is the lack of sleep.
Insomnia and losing sleep because you are caring for an infant have the same psychic effects on a person. It is in this shared experience that I think I, and many other women, can identify with each of these women who are typically labeled “mad” in literature courses.
I’m studying Jung’s theories of the unconscious as I prepare to teach my course on reading beyond Murakami. What struck me today was how Jung focuses on the importance of shared experience because it is so central to how we understand ourselves. He writes, “the contents of psychic experience are real, and real not only as my own personal experiences, but as collective experiences which others also have.” He spoke more specifically of a shared intellectual history when he first conceived the idea, but it evolved into a kind of shared experience of life and culture.
When Esther Greenwood tries to understand her behavior, she searches abnormal psychology books for answers and compares her symptoms to other the case studies. Nothing in those textbooks helped her. Like so many other women, she was an anomaly. If only her psychiatrist helped her recognize she was not alone instead of trying to shock the crazy out of her. If only she found Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, she might recognize that her thoughts carry with them a deep and rich intellectual and communal history. If only she had friends to tell her she’s part of a community of women who have been in her shoes before, thought her thoughts already, and explored the darkest ideas in her head.
Please know that I do not write any of this to downplay mental illness. What I do want to challenge readers to think about is how much of the behavior that is described in books and stories that are typically assigned to the genre women and madness are actually quite common to women in general.
It is through appreciating how common these experiences are that we learn we are not alone. These characteristics of madness might stem from constantly comparing oneself to other women, bucking against traditional domestic roles and oppressive male figures, or losing sleep because of raising an infant. Whatever the case, reading their stories and understanding their motivations will help us show empathy to the women surrounding us not only in literature, but in life.
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