This Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction.
I’m also counting this as the first entry in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I’ll review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself. I have another medical-themed one lined up for this Friday as a second ‘Being the Expert’ entry.
I never set out to read several memoirs of women’s experience of postpartum depression this year; it sort of happened by accident. I started with the graphic memoir and then chanced upon a recent pair of traditional memoirs published in the UK – in fact, I initially pitched them as a dual review to the TLS, but they’d already secured a reviewer for one of the books.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho
I was delighted to see this prediction of mine make the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Coincidentally, I was already halfway through the book on my Kindle (via NetGalley) at that point, but its nomination gave me the push to finish in a timely manner. Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. She and her husband James had gone back to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration for him at her in-laws’ home in New Jersey. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced there were cameras watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in an emergency room, followed by a mental health ward.
Cho alternates between her time on the New Bridge ward – writing in a notebook, trying to act normal whenever James visited, expressing milk from painfully swollen breasts, and interacting with her fellow patients with all their quirks – and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown. Her Kentucky childhood was marked by her mathematician father’s detachment and the sense that she and her brother were together “in the trenches,” pitted against the world. In her twenties she worked in a New York City corporate law firm and got caught up in an abusive relationship with a man she moved to Hong Kong to be with. All along she weaves in her family’s history and Korean sayings and legends that explain their values.
Twelve days. That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory – a terrifying time when she questioned her sanity and whether she was cut out for motherhood. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow,” she writes. She captures both extremes, of suffering and joy, in this vivid account.
What Have I Done? An honest memoir about surviving postnatal mental illness by Laura Dockrill
Dockrill is a British children’s author. Her style reminded me of others of her contemporaries who do a good line in light, witty, warts-and-all, here’s-what-it’s-really-like-to-be-a-woman books: Dolly Alderton, Caitlin Moran and the like. From a labor that quickly deviated from her birth plan due to an emergency Caesarean to the usual post-baby blues to full-blown psychosis, Dockrill recreates her experience with fluid dialogue and italicized passages of her paranoid imaginings. Her memoir resembles Cho’s in its broad strokes but also in certain particulars, like imagining surveillance cameras and hearing a voice in her head telling her she is a bad mum. I skimmed this one because of a library deadline and because of an overload on similar content. I had a greater affinity for Cho’s literary style compared to the more between-girlfriends, self-help bent of this memoir. With the glossary and resources at the end, though, I’d say this one would be more useful for someone going through the same thing.
Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong (2019)
Memoir as letter and as graphic novel. Wong narrates the traumatic birth of her first child and her subsequent postpartum depression in black-and-white sketches that manage to feel breezy and fun despite the heavy subject matter. “I felt lost. I had no maternal instincts and no clue how I was supposed to take care of a baby,” she writes to Scarlet. “Your first two months in the world were the hardest two months of my life.”
For Wong, a combination of antidepressants, therapy, a postnatal doula, an exercise class, her mother’s help, and her husband’s constant support got her through, and she knows she’s lucky to have had a fairly mild case and to have gotten assistance early on. I loved the “Not for the Faint of Heart” anatomical spreads and the reflections on her mother’s tough early years after arriving in Canada from China.
The drawing and storytelling style is similar to that of Sarah Laing and Debbie Tung. The writing is more striking than the art, though, so I hope that with future work the author will challenge herself to use more color and more advanced designs (from her Instagram page it looks like she is heading that way).
My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the free e-copy for review.
What I learned:
All three authors emphasize that motherhood does not always come naturally; “You might not instantly love your baby,” as Dockrill puts it. There might be a feeling of detachment –from the baby and/or from one’s new body. They all note that postpartum depression is common and that new mothers should not be ashamed of seeking help from medical professionals, baby nurses, family members and any other sources of support.
These two passages were representative for me:
Cho: “I don’t feel a rush of love or an overwhelming weight of responsibility, emotions that I’d been expecting. Instead, I felt curious, like I’d just been introduced to a stranger. He was a creature, an idea, not even human yet, just a being, a life. … I’d thought I would reclaim my body after birth, but instead, it was now a tool, something to sustain life.”
Dockrill: “If childbirth and motherhood are the most natural, universal, common things in the world, the things that women have been doing since the beginning of time, then why does nobody tell us that there’s a good chance that you might not feel like yourself after you have a baby? That you might even lose your head? That you might not ever come back?”
Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, one of my current bedside books, also deals with complicated pregnancy emotions and the chaotic early months of motherhood.
If you read just one, though… Make it Inferno by Catherine Cho.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
This intense Argentinian novella, originally published in 2012 and nominated for this year’s Republic of Consciousness and Man Booker International Prizes, is an inside look at postpartum depression as it shades into what looks like full-blown psychosis. We never learn the name of our narrator, just that she’s a foreigner living in France (like Harwicz herself) and has a husband and young son. The stream-of-consciousness chapters are each composed of a single paragraph that stretches over two or more pages. From the first page onwards, we get the sense that this character is on the edge: as she’s hanging laundry outside, she imagines a sun shaft as a knife in her hand. But for now she’s still in control. “I wasn’t going to kill them. I dropped the knife and went to hang out the washing like nothing had happened.”
Not a lot happens over the course of the book; what’s more important is to be immersed in this character’s bitter and perhaps suicidal or sadistic outlook. But there are a handful of concrete events. Her father-in-law has recently died, so she tells of his funeral and what she perceives as his sad little life. Her husband brings home a stray dog that comes to a bad end. Their son attends a children’s party and they take along a box of pastries that melt in the heat.
The only escape from this woman’s mind is a chapter from the point of view of a neighbor, a married radiologist with a disabled daughter who passes her each day on his motorcycle and desires her. With such an unreliable narrator, though, it’s hard to know whether the relationship they strike up is real. This woman is racked by sexual fantasies, but doesn’t seem to be having much sex; when she does, it’s described in disturbing terms: “He opened my legs. He poked around with his calloused hands. Desire is the last thing there is in my cries.”
The language is jolting and in-your-face, but often very imaginative as well. Harwicz has achieved the remarkable feat of showing a mind in the process of cracking up. It’s all very strange and unnerving, and I found that the reading experience required steady concentration. But if you find the passages below intriguing, you’ll want to seek out this top-class translation from new Edinburgh-based publisher Charco Press. It’s the first book in what Harwicz calls “an involuntary trilogy” and has earned her comparisons to Virginia Woolf.
“My mind is somewhere else, like I’ve been startled awake by a nightmare. I want to drive down the road and not stop when I reach the irrigation ditch.”
“I take off my sleep costume, my poisonous skin. I recover my sense of smell and my eyelashes, go back to pronouncing words and swallowing. I look at myself in the mirror and see a different person to yesterday. I’m not a mother.”
“The look I’m going for is Zelda Fitzgerald en route to Switzerland, and not for the chocolate or watches, either.”
Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.