no one likes a mad woman
the second edition of my Reading Journal examines a book of short stories all about mad women
First, a personal update because this is my newsletter. I had a draft of this ready to revise and post two weeks after my Rilke Reading Journal. But then my husband came down with the strangest flu, which I caught, and da-da-da-daaaaaaa we had our second round of covid! And I very nearly needed to be hospitalised!
Which is a darkly apt segue into the book I want to tell you about…
The Butterfly Ward, by Margaret Gibson Gilboord, is a book of short stories published by Oberon Press in Ontario, Canada in 1976, and as far as I can tell, this physical book was also printed in 1976. The pages are so, so thick. The binding is both stitched and glued. It has definitely been read, but perhaps only once or twice, by one or two people. I imagine the original owner read it once and felt so understood in a stark, naked way that she kept it with her, never reading it again, as she moved around the world. Or at least from Canada to Spain.
And then it was bought by me. In a secondhand bookshop, in Barcelona, in 2022.
I went to the bookshop with a short wish list, but The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, was the only one I could find. Who can buy only one book from an English-language secondhand bookshop though? Not me. Having no list my magpie instinct took over, and I began pulling books at random. On the back cover of this book I saw the name Sylvia Plath and I decided it was mine.
Apart from its compact robustness, another clue that this book was not published in this century is how there is nothing but the copyright, title, and text printed. No preamble, no contextualisation, no author biography. This is a collection of short stories and there isn’t even a table of contents! The photo on the cover is not mentioned anywhere, so I assume that is the author herself. While initially strange, I like the simplicity. If I were to have my work published in a book I would want something similar.
To compare, a book of short stories published in 2017 has: a positive quote from a reviewer printed on the cover, that it was shortlisted for two awards printed on the cover, the author bio on the first page followed by four pages of positive review blurbs. And only then do you arrive at the cover and copyright pages. Its… a lot. Do not mistake this for criticism of the book, this is an unflattering observation on modern publishing practices.
If any publisher is reading this newsletter, I should add that I bought this book off a recommendation on Twitter and have not read a single one of those blurbs.
Back to The Butterfly Ward! Each of its six stories is about a woman who has been, is currently, or will be in a mental health inpatient facility.
Ada is a story about both Ada and the woman narrating the story, Jenny. This one is most like Girl, Interrupted in that there’s a cast of women who befriend and antagonise each other. Ada has had a lobotomy, but Jenny remembers Ada used to recite poetry. The two used to smoke cigarettes and discuss literature. As best as I can tell, Jenny’s mental illness is that it was the 1970s, and she had seizures. Ada also used to bite people, and I am not comfortable diagnosing that, but I am comfortable assuming that a large part of it was that it was 70s.
The Phase is about a teenage girl called Catherine who knows that she has some kind of tumour or ulcer hiding among her reproductive organs. Everyone tells her, “it’s a phase.” She tries to get help from a doctor but he labels it… take a wild guess… anxiety! Eventually Catherine is put in a mental health facility, mostly against her will. Once she is out and grown up her obsession with her older sister’s high school boyfriend distorts her reality so she thinks some random dude in a car is The Guy and, obviously, he murders her.
Considering Her Condition is written from the point of view of a man, Stephen, who is incapable of living in his own reality. He sees his life, and his wife Claire, as a movie. Claire is beautiful and suicidal and pregnant. Stephen won’t let her see a psychiatrist because he is afraid the doctor will recommend terminating the pregnancy. Throughout the story Stephen fantasises about his perfect wife and perfect baby, incapable of seeing either as autonomous humans. As best as I can tell from Stephen’s editorialising, Claire is not interested in men, she did not want to get married, and does not want to be a mother. After giving birth she commits suicide and Stephen says she is, “more tangible now in death.”
A Trip To The Casbah is narrated by a father who has absconded with his daughter, taking her away from her mother, who suffers from drug addiction.
Making It is written as letters between two friends, Robin and Liza. Robin lives in L.A. and is a drag queen, but he calls himself a “female impersonator.” Liza lives in Toronto, is pregnant, and has regular visits from people who check on the state of her mental health. In her letters Liza keeps asking Robin about the Great Divider, and the reader and Robin learn that what Liza calls the Great Divider is the intangible part of society that keeps people like Robin and Liza apart from “normal people.” They decide they have conquered the Great Divider and then we learn Liza’s baby was stillborn.
The Butterfly Ward is narrated by Kira, a 21-year-old woman whose mother was obsessed with Russian literature. She is in the largest neurological ward in Toronto where she and the other patients receive a strange kind of “treatment” that I am honestly afraid to look up. The women are made to drink a quart of water by being given a shot that immobilises their gag and vomit so they fill up with liquid. They are then literally pinned to a board, actual needles going into their arms, legs, and hips to keep them in place. The water is supposed to give the torturers, sorry, doctors, a better picture of the brain. As best I can tell, Kira also suffers from seizures. And. Living in the 1970s.
My quick and dirty reviews:
Ada is my favourite story. I sometimes worry I’ll end up like Ada.
The Phase is so well-written. I love that Gilboord gave Catherine an unhinged inner monologue while her parents and doctor treated her like just another hysterical little girl.
Considering Her Condition makes me so angry I can’t see straight.
A Trip To The Casbah had me perplexed. As you could probably tell by my one-sentence description. The way the father narrator described the mother made me not trust his judgement. There were also quite a few references to being Jewish so I probably do not have the cultural literacy needed to understand this one.
Making It has one of the best men in the book. But even Robin can’t help falling into infantilising the woman in his story.
The Butterfly Ward’s description of that procedure is excellent writing that made me — someone who loves needles — squirm.
It is impossible not to compare this book to Girl, Interrupted. To The Bell Jar. To any story about women who are too sentient to live as objects, and how that induces rage in the world around them. Currently, people with epilepsy are no longer treated as psychiatric patients. But women are still told they are experiencing “anxiety” when they either refuse to or are unable to perform their role as Good Woman.
This is the Great Divider that Liza was trying to describe: the audacity of men that tells them they are superior, and society in which women will police other women’s performance of Good Woman on behalf of wholly unworthy men.
Thinking more about my imagined original reader, the woman who felt too seen by these stories, I hope this book made her feel less alone. I’d love to hear how and why she brought it to Europe with her. I’m sure she also belongs to the sisterhood of Too Much women.
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