So this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperativSo this is an amazing, wonderful, shocking, revelatory book that is well-researched, beautifully written, thoughtful and that frames a moral imperative of undeniable power. It is also among my favorite feminist texts, and whenever I open it to look something up, I inevitably find myself rereading entire sections or chapters because I can't put it down.
Nevertheless, I only gave it four stars. I have some criticisms of it, which explain the non-perfect rating, but I love it so much I feel conflicted about that non-perfect rating. I'd give it 4 1/2 or 4 3/4 if fractional ratings were allowed on this site.
The book was first written in 1972, but the edition I have is a revised one from 2005, in which she addresses how much things have changed since she first wrote it, both in terms of science and politics. Politically, the mental-health professions are not the bastions of patriarchy they were when Chesler first wrote about them: lots of women are in these professions, and lots of therapists are feminists, and incorporate feminist principles into their practice. More obviously, our understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental illness has improved, and with it our ability to treat them.
Another reviewer criticized Chesler for ignoring actually seriously ill women in favor of healthy women whose disobedience or nonconformity was called illness as a pretext for locking them up; I don't know if this person read the revised edition or not, but in the book I read she does acknowledge disabling mental illness. She goes out of her way to state that she does not wish to romanticize mental illness, nor to argue against any treatment that relieves a mentally ill person's suffering and enables that person to live a longer, fuller life.
She also discusses some famous case histories of women who suffered actual mental breakdowns, who clearly needed help, but who were not really helped by the treatment they got. These women included Zelda Fitzgerald, Bertha Pappenheim (better known as "Anna O."), Ellen West, Catharine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sylvia Plath.
Far more disturbing to me were her descriptions of real women who were not insane at all, and did not seek treatment for themselves, but who were committed to lunatic asylums by husbands and fathers who wanted them out of the way. Those women include Elizabeth Packard (whose theological opinions differed from her husband's, and whose crime was to speak these ideas in public), Adriana Brinckle (who sold some pieces of furniture she hadn't fully paid for, and was locked up for almost thirty years), and Freud's other famous patient "Dora" (whose father was basically pimping her out to some other guy, and who was quite understandably upset about that).
(She also discusses a FASCINATING study by a psychiatrist named Shirley Angrist that compared women mental patients who had been released from the asylum, women who had been re-hospitalized at least once, and normal housewives, and found that mental health had little to do with whether a woman was pronounced cured or not: rather, the determining factor seemed to be her willingness to keep house and defer to her husband. This study was done in 1961).
There is also a very long section, making up the majority of the book, that contains Phyllis Chesler's own original research, which was a series of detailed interviews with a bunch of women who had been treated for mental illnesses. She divided her subjects up into categories, though she admits there is a lot of overlap between some of them: women who had been in sexual relationships with their therapists, women who had been hospitalized for mental illness, lesbians, feminists, and "Third World women," which seems to be a confusing label for poor women of color. (I say it is confusing because some or all of the women in this group are Americans; "Third World" to me connotes foreign origin as well as dark skin, poverty and disenfranchisement.) All of these women describe experiences that did not help them; only some were ever actually mentally ill; and lots of them, especially the women of color, the women who were institutionalized long-term, and the lesbians, tell horrible tales of abuse. Almost all of the lesbians were committed just because they were lesbian.
There is a recurring Greek-mythology motif that never quite seems to belong; Chesler explores female archetypes from that canon, particularly myths that explore mother-daughter relationships, like those of Demeter and Persephone or Clytemnestra and Electra. These sections were very interesting, and poetic, and gave me new ways to see these stories I've known since I was a child, but they don't really mesh with the rest of the book. There are a few areas of thematic commonality --- one of Chesler's ideas is that women check themselves into asylum so much because we are so starved for mother-love --- but for the most part they seem more in keeping with her later books, which focus on relationships between women, than with this book.
I also really wanted to see her discuss women with developmental disabilities, as the same concerns about institutional abuse and power dynamics apply to them.
Ultimately, I want people to read this, even if it is incomplete and most of the stories it tells are old. I think the ethical questions it raises about how we treat mental illness, and the extent to which we do not treat people with mental illnesses like People Who Matter, and the extent to which the institutions we have set up for those members of our society who can't take care of themselves tend to breed abuse, neglect and authoritarianism, are very, Very, VERY important. So I recommend this to everyone --- not my usual practice when reviewing a book about such a specialized topic, especially a history book, but this one is just that necessary. It shines a critical light where most people are content not to look....more
The dust jacket calls this book a "prelude" to Morrison's earlier, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, and, having read both, I think that's a fair descriThe dust jacket calls this book a "prelude" to Morrison's earlier, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, and, having read both, I think that's a fair description.
A Mercy is about an intersection in the lives of six characters: white colonists Rebekka and Jacob Vaark, a free African blacksmith, and the Vaarks' three slaves, Lina, Florens and Sorrow. Without giving too much away, I can say that, over the course of the novel, the working relationship between the Vaarks and their slaves (each of whom the Vaarks took in as an act of mercy --- Lina is a Native girl who with two younger boys survived an outbreak of pox that obliterated her clan; Sorrow is an orphaned shipwreck survivor; and Florens was taken in payment of a bad debt owed by a dissolute Portuguese planter) unravels.
What was most eye-opening about this novel was the contrast between race-based slavery as I knew it from Beloved (and lots of other novels, history books and slave narratives) and the slavery portrayed here. Two white characters, Willard and Scully, also work for Jacob Vaark, though he does not permit them to live on his property; they are indentured servants, both bonded more or less indefinitely. At one point Vaark has to command them to take orders from the blacksmith, who as a free craftsman outranks them. Morrison mentions a fascinating bit of historical trivia, the People's War, in which black slaves, white indentured servants and certain Native groups banded together to revolt against white landowners --- apparently it was in response to this united uprising that the first laws discriminating between white and black were set down....more
**spoiler alert** I wasn't sure whether to give this book four or five stars. I liked it enough to give it five, and certainly the quality of the writ**spoiler alert** I wasn't sure whether to give this book four or five stars. I liked it enough to give it five, and certainly the quality of the writing, the depth of the characters, the emotional power of the story and the complexity of Smith's handling of broader social, cultural and political issues amazed me, but I decided to give it four because Smith kept making structural decisions that baffled me and seemed to undermine the flow and power of the story.
These decisions all had to do with what she chose to include in her narrative --- and what she chose to omit. I think she chose not to describe several key moments in the story, and these omissions were both disorienting and alienating to the reader. (Or, to this reader, anyway!)
At the very beginning, for instance, we learn from a series of terse, cryptic emails from Jerome Belsey to his father that Jerome has taken a position interning for the conservative art historian Monty Kipps in London, stayed at Kipps's house, and fallen in love with and been rejected by Kipps's daughter Victoria. When the story itself starts, all of this is in the past. I would have preferred to read about Jerome's stay at the Kipps family home as it unfolded, because there's a lot of drama there! I would have liked to see Jerome's conversion, and see him come to know this family, and also see just what did go on between him and Victoria.
Another pivotal moment Smith inexplicably chooses not to dramatize is Zora Belsey's speech to an administrative meeting at her university. It's a huge deal for Zora --- not quite the climax of her particular arc, but certainly one of a series of smaller climaxes leading up to it. It could also have been a potentially interesting glimpse of another facet of her character --- prepared, formal speech can show sides of a character that dialogue can't, because the character is allowed to go on as long as she likes.
She also chose to omit Kiki Belsey's finding out about her husband's infidelity with Victoria, her decision to separate from him. This decision actually makes some sense to me, though: we have seen Kiki discover, and react to, an earlier episode of infidelity with a family friend, and she has spent most of the book grappling with what that episode means to her marriage. Showing her react, again, to being cheated on would be redundant.
Anyway, questionable dramatic choices by the author aside, this was a very funny, involving, moving book. One review I read compared it to a Jane Austen novel, which I think is true. Smith spends much of the novel describing the prickly social relations between the Belseys and their new neighbors the Kippses, and the conflict of manners and style between the very traditional, stuffy-but-sincere Kippses and the relaxed, chaotic, sarcastic Belseys provides a lot of fodder for both comedy and dramatic tension. Kiki Belsey's developing friendship with Mrs. Kipps is particularly fun to watch --- the two women really like each other, despite being strangers with very different backgrounds and publicly feuding husbands. Another writer I found myself reminded of was Vladimir Nabokov, in Smith's witty rendering of university politics....more
A subtle and insightful glimpse into the workings of fear-based, authoritarian governments. Its detailed examination of the relation between authoritaA subtle and insightful glimpse into the workings of fear-based, authoritarian governments. Its detailed examination of the relation between authoritarian politics and the control of language and media is worth reacquainting oneself with, especially now.
I also recommend reading Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language," which may be included in some editions of 1984....more
This short novel is actually one long monologue, with the protagonist, Firdaus, telling her story to the narrator, a nameless female doctor who comesThis short novel is actually one long monologue, with the protagonist, Firdaus, telling her story to the narrator, a nameless female doctor who comes to visit her in prison a few days before she is to be hanged. Firdaus has killed a man, and is quite unrepentant about it. Indeed, she tells the narrator that if she were released, she would kill more men.
Firdaus's story, and the stark, haunting way El Saadawi tells it, grip the reader by the guts. I'm not sure any book I read before this one made me feel as intensely as this one did --- sadness and anger at all the injustice in Firdaus's life.
Firdaus is a compelling narrator, with a simple but crystal-clear worldview. A prostitute, she maintains that the only difference between her position and that of every other woman in Egyptian society is that she can name her price.
Nawal El Saadawi writes in Arabic, and every one of her books I have read has been translated into English by her husband, Sherif Hetata. The stark beauty and lyricism I encounter in her prose is a product of his artistry as well as hers....more
**spoiler alert** This short story grew out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own experience with the "rest cure" for hysteria --- the doctor who treated**spoiler alert** This short story grew out of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's own experience with the "rest cure" for hysteria --- the doctor who treated her, Silas Weir Mitchell, told her to stay in bed and avoid intellectual stimulation, and following his advice nearly drove her insane.
The woman in the story, also a writer, is confined to a room in a country house with her sister, her maid and her doctor-husband all hovering over her. Slowly, she begins to lose her mind, seeing a woman trapped behind the pattern on the wallpaper in her room. She rips all the wallpaper to pieces, trying to let the woman out, and ends up somehow merging with her, believing herself to be trapped inside the wallpaper.