Reading things that can keep my attention for more than two minutes is usually a challenge for me. I need to be so utterly involved, so attached, and so consumed by the words on the paper for me to stay in tune with the story. With the slightest disconnect, I will just fade away, eventually entering into my own continuum of rotating thoughts that plague my mind. It’s probably ADD or something along those lines, but I just accredit it to being wildly stimulated by all things, all of the time. So, when I try to think of one author that stands out in my mind, the impact their writing had in my life, and for the way they were able to draw me in and keep my attention for more than just two pages… I choose Charlotte Perkins Gilman, specifically, her short essay entitled, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
I would also go as far as to say that there have only been maybe a handful of stories that I can remember every detail of, as if I had experienced the story myself…this one is at the top of the list. There were moments of actual self-realization for me in this story. Moments where I suddenly saw myself in a new light, I understood myself, my thought process… my strangeness. Moments where I became terrified. Terrified because I realized that this is me, this is how I think! I thought I was entirely alone.. and the potential to be like the main character in the story was starkly possible.. I could even see my own resemblance to the main character, and the trend developing in my own life very similar to the life of the character. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t alone, a comforting thought, only to be equally matched by the terrible realization that the path I was on was so very like the one the character in the story was on… one that inevitably drove her to complete madness and psychosis.
But lucky for me, It was about 2001 when I read this story, and the likelihood of me ending up like the character in the story was pretty slim. It was set in 1892, a time when mental illness and anxiety in women was not treated with any real, cognitive type of therapy. Women in those days were just locked away in isolation, into something called a “Rest Cure.” Typically, the woman would be ordered by a physician to do nothing, to avoid any mental stimulation for as long as it took to be healed from her mental disturbances… it was thought that sitting in “rest” would eventually just dissipate her anxieties.
The author details a woman suffering from severe depression and anxiety. Confined to an upstair loft, one room, with windows barred and doors locked. She keeps a journal, which she must keep secret from her husband as writing is not allowed during her “rest cure”… the story is told through her journal entries. Each entry reveals a growing obsession with the yellow wallpaper that dresses the walls in the room she is confined to.
~ I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!~ Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” –this line made me look at everyday things with a lot more attention.
The way the author sees the expression in things, depicting the wallpaper, its intricate design, its shapes, its spiral, it likeness to living things, allows me to see the wallpaper with ease. I could nearly feel it because of her ability to write in such detail, so much detail that I am standing there inside of the room, confined there with the woman. I am the woman.
Eventually, she goes completely mad, loosing touch with reality. She merges as one with the wallpaper itself, becoming entrapped within its design, it’s endlessly, spiraling out of control, pattern of chaotic rhythms and mysterious curves, strangled by its tightly woven lines. The final scene is her husband walking in on her frantically circling the room, gone completely insane. He faints at the sight of his beloved wife as she continues to circle the room, stepping over his body with each pass, forever trapped inside of the yellow wallpaper.
Now, Im not saying that I ever have or do see myself being so close to crazy that I thought that I could end up locked in the patterns of the wallpaper on my wall… no, what I realized was that I needed to be heard, that what I was feeling, even at my most irrationally fearful moments, needed to be turned into something tangible, something somehow understood by if nobody else, then just myself. If I didn’t, if I just held it in, and did nothing with it, it would find its own way out, manifesting into something much uglier, and much more paralyzing… Obsessive anxieties that made it seem as though my reality could merge with something a little out of this realm at any given moment.
It is a bitter-sweet realization, to know that you can’t just live a breezy life of “take it as it comes”… that you will constantly have to work on yourself and your personal development to stay sane… but if things were not so, then the yellow wallpaper would just be yellow wallpaper. Nothing noticeable, good nor bad, passed by without a thought or a glimpse of the slightest potential that it harbors. Charlotte Perkins Gilman helped me realize that I needed to express these observations in some way or another. It was her influence that kept me up so many nights, thumbing through a thesaurus, carrying on a secret love affair with words and their ability to define some thing a thousand different ways. It was her who helped me reach for a pen, or a brush, or some clay every time I felt afraid of my own self, to clarify and understand what it is that makes my heart race or obsess or fear… I imitate her style every day and emulate her struggles with an abundant vocabulary and over-stimulated mind.
Because the character in the story was forced to sit in isolation, without stimulation or the ability to express herself properly, she ended up going mad….and I would have gone mad too. And even if to realize for just a moment.. the potential that you have to go mad is there, real and possible, even at a far distant reach… it is scary enough to make you work at never going there. To be as assertive and expressive and honest, and as gratefully happy as I can be when I produce things constructed from my emotion that balances my soul.
The way the story was written was what gave me the ability to see this within myself. Her descriptive writing style made it impossible for me not to have made that connection. It saved me, and so I write and so I do things artfully.
She wrote that story about herself. It was her, Charlotte Perkins Gilman that suffered from what was probably by todays definition, postpartum psychosis, a serious panic, anxiety disorder after her first child was born. She wrote it with aspirations to help other women who suffered from anxiety and to prove to the medical community that the “rest cure” did not work, and in fact had quite the opposite effect. She needed to be heard, to be understood, to be artfully expressive. Eventually, after years of writing, and expression, Charlotte healed herself from her depression. From 1892, all the way to 2001, she reached me, and my easily distracted, anxious mind. She helped me, by the detail within her writing, saturated in truth, honesty, fear, and desperation… and terrified me all at the same time, what a perfect combination.