“The Yellow Wallpaper” was “not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”
-Charlotte Perkins Gilman
It turns out I was reading feminist literature much earlier than I thought. Lemme ‘splain. My mom was a huge believer in reading (thanks, Mom!), so she kept my room well-stocked with books. I had a huge set of bookshelves that took up nearly an entire wall, crammed full of various tomes. Sometimes, you’d find a fat green volume with 1000 Page Book of Stories stamped on the cover. I say sometimes, because I read that thing until it was brutally battle scarred. I forgot it ever had a dust cover. It was one of my favorite books for probably the better part of a decade.
And right now, I can only remember one story in it.
I mean, I’d probably recognize the others, if I saw their titles. I read them dozens of times. I probably have appreciable parts of them memorized, just waiting for a hint to unlock. But this one never needs a hint. I never forget this story was in it, never forget its details or atmosphere.
Because it bloody terrified me.
I’d get this feeling of dread, every time I re-read the book and came to it.
Thirty years later, I remember the title, and the dread that title inspired. I remember feeling thoroughly disturbed every time I read it. If you haven’t read “The Yellow Wallpaper” yourself, go read it now. Do you see why pre-teen me, 8 and 10 and 12 year old me, would be made uncomfortable by it? Why I’d sometimes skip it, even though I didn’t really like skipping stories?
And yet, I loved it. Loved that crazy-making wallpaper as much as I despised it. I loved the narrator as much as I feared her. I loved the richness of the details. I loved that she, like me, was a writer. I didn’t like the people keeping her from her writing, though I thought they meant well.
I struggled with that story. I didn’t have the knowledge or the language to comprehend it, but I contended with it. I tried to understand it. I never really did.
I hadn’t read it in almost 30 years. Then I stumbled across this A Mighty Girl post on Facebook. And now, so much of what childhood me couldn’t comprehend is dazzingly clear. Of course that poor woman was suffering postpartum psychosis, made worse by well-meaning but condescending asses like her doctor and husband. Of course that was a feminist story. Of course taking your recovery into your own hands was a revolutionary act for a woman of that time. If you remember from our discussions of a Victorian MRA, women were basically property of the men in their lives. And men not only thought they knew best, they basically had the legal right to act however they wished.
So, I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story again, now as a feminist whose mother suffered psychotic episodes, who has endured her own own struggles against depression. I went in this time knowing how society at that time viewed women. I went in with the tools to recognize problematic and abusive behavior. And I have thoughts.
Firstly: this story is still creepy as shit. In ways, it’s even creepier now that I understand what was happening to the main character, and that there wasn’t actually a woman in the wallpaper (something I’d been convinced was the case as a child).
Secondly: her husband John is a controlling, gaslighting asshole. And yeah, maybe he loved her, but he sure as fuck didn’t respect her. This is the shit women had to put up with, because society was set up to prevent most of them from surviving without a man, and to make divorce nearly impossible.
Thirdly: her brother is also a Grade-A asshole.
Fourthly: the poor woman even gaslights herself. Most of us internalize these terrible messages society sends us about ourselves. Few of us are able to break free of them.
Fifthly, nobody in this story (and in this time period, really) was set up to deal with postpartum depression and psychosis. Nobody ever thought to listen to women, who knew that enforced idleness was often making their conditions worse, and that the fucking wallpaper was exacerbating the problem. No wonder women often came across as hysterical to those dudes. I’d be pretty unstable myself if my intellect was constantly shut down and insulted.
Sixthly, the end of this story, which used to leave me cold and a bit sick with horror, still freaks me out – but that’s tempered by the wicked satisfaction I get from thinking, “Whelp. At least John probably knows there’s a real problem now.”
I’m so glad to know that Charlotte Perkins Gilman survived her own postpartum depression, and thrived, because she told the men in her life to fuck off with their nonsense. I’m glad she took up the forbidden pen and wrote powerful stories for the rest of her days. I only wish my 1000 Page Book of Stories had introduced me to this remarkable woman.
But in a way, I’m glad I got to navigate this story without knowing its whys and wherefores. I’m glad it got a chance to seriously disturb me in inexplicable ways, and thus stay with me after all the other stories have gone.
And someday, I shall pass this story down to other girls, for the strange beauty of it, and for Charlotte, and for those of us who must still fight to break free from the pretty prisons we’re placed in.
We have always fought, I will tell them. Even when almost all power was taken from us, we still found ways to reclaim our power. We have always been far stronger than they’d like us to believe.
And isn’t that a thought to make the Johns of every age faint dead away?