Madwomanhood

Artwork: Maddy Watson

Is Sylvia Plath still alive?

I didn’t think so, but it’s recently become clear to me that she is as influential as ever. Often invoked as a kind of literary madwoman, Plath continuously makes her presence known in both popular culture and university literature classrooms.

Why is she still sticking around? Writer Becca Klaver comments that Plath’s long-lasting appeal “must have a lot to do with the fact that her story conflates glamour (beautiful, blonde famous poet …) with destruction (…kills herself).” There is a ‘Sylvia Plath Effect,’ coined in 2001 by psychologist James Kaufman, that attests “Female poets were found to be significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any type.” The consequences of the Plath phenomenon are far reaching— ranging from literary analysis of madwomen to contemporary illness-recovery memoirs.

Susannah Cahalan is one of Plath’s confessional descendants. Her 2012 memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is a remarkable account of her diagnosis with the auto-immune disease anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Symptoms of the disease are often psychiatric, leading to consistent misdiagnoses with bipolar disorder. It’s a gripping read. Cahalan’s work as a writer for The New York Post and racing journalistic style makes sure of that. Brain on Fire‘s narrative follows a young—and perhaps most importantly, recovered— ‘madwoman’ recounting the “hellish experience” of her illness.

Cahalan swings between thorough biological explanations of her symptoms, and lyrical gothic descriptions of her mad self. Labelled illustrations of the human brain are scattered throughout the memoir, yet all are done as if with a Victorian-era fountain pen and ink. Words like ‘frontal lobe’ written in gothic cursive and black ink splotches add to the effect.

Her gothic double is also present. The present Susannah watches herself in an old video recording. Her hospitalised self is pleading— for what, she no longer knows.

There I am, staring into the camera as if I’m looking death in the face. I have never seen myself so unhinged and unguarded before, and it frightens me. Without this electronic evidence, I could never have imagined myself capable of such madness and misery.

For all that Cahalan attempts to deglamourise illness, she still dips into allusion of Brontë’s attic-bound madwoman. Feminist literary theory often reads mental illness as a metaphorical form of feminist resistance— a technique that may be valid when studying Jane Eyre, but is not so useful in attempts to normalise and encourage positive mental health discourse. Cahalan’s attempts to explain her illness in scientific terms is contradicted by the unhelpful melodrama of equating ‘madness’ alongside literary gothic doubles and unhinged selves.

Cahalan shares more than an appearance with Sylvia Plath— and even that is uncanny enough. Brain on Fire, like the frequent casual racism in Plath’s work, utterly neglects to consider the role race plays in discourses of ‘madness’. Because the Plathian figure of the fragile, mentally ill white woman is so prominent, Cahalan’s illness was addressed immediately, by an incredibly specialised team and with little financial consequences. While she claims her miracle diagnosis was “the luck of the draw,” luck has very little to do with the white-centric medical research that has historically excluded the challenges faced by black women.

Writer Margo Jefferson considers the white privilege inherent in “freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity” in her 2015 memoir Negroland. Jefferson argues such a privilege is glorified in Plathian “literature of white female suffering and resistance” with little self-reflection. Intense pressure for a young Jefferson and her peers to be ‘responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women,” was instigated by representations of white, aesthetically compelling feminine despair. Cahalan and the Plath phenomenon have no interest in striking a balance between “white vulnerability and black invincibility,” and in a culture where black women continue to face mental health risks at twice the race of their white counterparts, this kind of apathy is nothing but complicity.

The creator of the Plath Effect has since expressed regret for the infamy his claim has accrued, admitting “my work has glamorized mental illness or associated it with being creative … I’ve made the larger problem worse.” I can’t help but rue how ironic it is that this phenomenon is guilty of recreating the very cultural ideas of womanhood and mental illness that forced its namesake to her death.