The Yellow Wallpaper: A Therapist’s Reconsideration 130 Years Later
Reviewed by Patricia Steckler
The Rest Cure
The Rest Cure for women with “nervous conditions” in the 1880s yanked depressed women away from their homes, families, and friends for months of bed rest. Assuming women to be the weaker, more fragile, and hysterical sex, incapable of coping when stressed, the Rest Cure removed all socialization and stimulation. Strict rules governed each day: banning pens and writing paper, music-playing, sewing, and daily tasks of any sort. Nannies assumed all childcare.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in her 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper, chronicles the torment induced by a Rest Cure prescribed for a nameless female narrator. In this early classic of the feminist canon, the narrator falls into a depression after giving birth to her first child. Her husband, John, a doctor of good repute, takes charge of her so-called case, devises a Rest Cure, and rents a rural country home with high walls for a three-month stay.
John chooses an upstairs, barren nursery with peeling yellow wallpaper for his wife’s confinement. He presides over every aspect of her life. To her confidante, a diary kept hidden, she writes, “He hardly lets me stir without special direction. I have a schedule prescribed for each hour of the day.” “I cry at nothing and cry most of the time.”
With no socializing, no outlets for creative expression, and no tasks to mark the day’s flow, the narrator’s fragile mind consumes itself with the peeling yellow wallpaper. She finds “the color repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow…a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulfur tint in others.” Ruminating swirls of unhappy thoughts bedevil the narrator’s already depleted spirit. To her diary, she confesses unalloyed distress, dismissed by her husband. “John does not know how much I really suffer. You see, he does not believe I am sick!”
For the most part, the narrator complies with John’s dictums. However, at times, she tries to convince him to free her from her internment. He responds with patronizing, shaming, or infantilizing comments, which in turn confuse or debase her: “What is it, little girl? Why darling, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. Bless her little heart!” he says to her with a big hug, adding, “She shall be as sick as she pleases!”
The barren nursery echoes with the narrator’s missing baby and reverberates with John’s condescending treatment of her. With each refusal to liberate her from her sensory-depriving house arrest, the narrator descends further into madness. As her only companion, the wallpaper becomes a living, moving force with “strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths that shriek with derision.”
As the weeks go by, the narrator imagines a crouching, crawling woman trapped inside the wallpaper, wanting to escape. When John is away, she works to free the ensnared woman. “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern, I got up and ran to help her. I pulled, and she shook, I shook, and she pulled.”
The Invisible Wallpaper
While these 19th-century depressed women were packed away to rest, men took off for outdoor adventures, prescribed to remedy their melancholic moods. Known as the Go West Cure, wide-open spaces, lassos and horses, sunshine and activity worked to cure the poet Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, the painter, and Teddy Roosevelt.
Mental health professionals now recommend Behavioral Activation to augment psychotherapy and psychotropic medication. By boosting physical activity, socialization, and work, the opposite of the Rest Cure, depressed patients can feel better.
But, before we sigh with relief that the imprisoning, depriving Rest Cure regimen for women is relegated to the archives of medical history, let’s pause.
What about internalized sexism, internalized body-loathing, and chronic fears of sexual abuse? No longer do women with typical depressions or nervous conditions get sent off to asylums that impose torturous sensory-robbing “cures.” Now, unwittingly, women torment themselves.
Sexism in the 21st-century harms and hamstrings women in insidious, less obvious ways. Body-loathing and shaming, self-devaluation, and chronic fear of sexual victimization burden women’s psyches, just like the rancid, pulsating yellow wallpaper plastered to our narrator’s mind. For women of color, racial biases magnify all of these struggles. What greater form of confinement can there be than what’s generated inside one’s body and mind?
Second shifts, glass ceilings, disproportionately lower pay for women, and degrading jobs, also bind women in invisible depression-inducing handcuffs. As does barring women from full participation and equal access to all work opportunities.
Rates of depression in women are twice as high as in men. One in four women will require treatment for depression in her life, whereas only one in ten men will need help. Biological and hormonal factors play a part in this higher rate in women. However, subsidiary work roles, internalized misogyny, chronic fear of sexual assault or harassment, and body issues also contribute mightily to the gender gap in depression rates.
Equal rights for contemporary women by no means ensure equal treatment in healthcare. Women still fall prey to diminished and biased notions about the legitimacy of their pain. Medical practitioners and researchers both underdiagnose and understudy women. Too often, doctors hush their women patients into submission, just like John does to the narrator of the Yellow Wallpaper. Research shows that even doctors of today may dismiss seriously ill women by misjudging their symptoms to be imaginary, hypochondriacal, or histrionic in origin.
Escaping the Nursery
As a woman psychologist in practice for almost 40 years, rarely have I treated a woman patient who is free from derogating ruminations about her body and her self-worth. No matter what diagnosis she presents with, be it Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Dysthymia, Postpartum Depression or Bipolar Disorder, concerns about being fat, lumpy, ugly, misshapen, or old lurk behind.
In my view, fat-ruminations and body-loathing are metaphors for and manifestations of internalized sexism. I can recite my patients’ diets, latest eating habits and nighttime binges, their fluctuating scale numbers, how clothes feel ugly and snug stretched across their too bulging bodies, and how they hate for anyone to touch their “back fat.” Complaints about wrinkles, greying, wiry hair, and falling flesh emanate from nearly all of the over-forty set. Comments range from “I hate to look at myself in the mirror;” to “I cringe at the gym, certain that those thin women glare at me with disgust;” to “Once I turned 50, I became invisible—an old (nameless) woman is what people see.”
Add shame and fear to this emotional stew of body-loathing, especially for women who’ve been sexually assaulted or harassed. Recent studies find that 81 percent of women experience some kind of sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime. Do those numbers not translate into an understandable preoccupation with body and safety for most women?
Studies show that women move about in public spaces warily, in ways not evident in men. “Disparities between fear and actual sexual assault support a model of fear as social control over women’s use of public space,” reported a study of women on college campuses.
The fear of rape or sexual assault hovers over female-male interactions more than people realize. Our bodies carry the dread of assault within us. Why did Hillary Clinton cringe when Donald Trump prowled behind her in their presidential debate? “My skin crawled,” she said afterward, wishing she had said, “Back up, you creep.”
“Crawling” and “creeping” images, Clinton’s exact words, fill the last pages of The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman crafts a final scene, equal parts tragic and hilarious. The narrator celebrates John’s brief absence with a “Hurrah” and a plan. She takes control and locks John out of the nursery. When he comes home, “he calls out and pounds at the door. Then he’s crying for an axe.” John’s haughty posturing and pseudo-self-containment dissolve.
Mimicking John’s now evaporated control and echoing his condescension, the narrator says, “John dear! The key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf!” Victoriously, she exclaims, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you!” And suddenly, in a note of delightful irony, the narrator refers to John as nameless, “Now why should that man have fainted?” And she creeps over him, toward liberation.
Like our brave 19th century narrator, who transcended her captivity, I dream of a world where we, women, free ourselves from the jail bars of our internalized prisons. Often, I say to my women patients how wonderful it would be to liberate our ruminating minds, free our thoughts from the constraints of body-hating and the creep and crawl of fear. Imagine how joyfully we would go forward to change the world, battle abuse, create masterpieces, love wholeheartedly, and laugh with abandon.